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Finding Construction Jobs in a Pandemic

By Ambar Castillo

Early one Friday morning in the time of coronavirus, David Rodriguez was swamped. He’d opened the office at 843 Dawson Street just after dawn, waited for any of the men to show up seeking work and by 8 am was fielding calls and uttering expletives at colleagues. 

Then he recalled he was supposed to be driving his wife to donate food to the Saint Joseph medical clinic. Her post-it note reminders – stuck into every visible part of their home — had taken back seat to the demands of the United Hispanic Construction Workers coalition. 

While the organization does not track how many of the roughly 300 members come in daily, attendance since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic makes every day look like a Sunday, according to Rodriguez. 

“We’re still active, ‘cause the COVID-19 is bad, but when you live in this neighborhood, you’ve got other things to worry about,” said Rodriguez, citing crime and the need to feed families.

For Rodriguez, who has led coalition members through decades of violence and financial hardship, the pandemic hasn’t slowed the pace of his efforts, which he estimates typically consume 12 hours per day. 

Rodriguez’s reportedly unpaid position at the coalition is one he says is a labor of love for other laborers and their families that he’s able to fund with earnings from his independent construction business. 

Since the pandemic hit, his quests to find work for members, while dependent on the slow reopening of construction jobs for an essential industry, haven’t decelerated as he and colleagues call up regular contacts and drive to promising locations. 

Despite Rodriguez’s business-as-usual approach to the pandemic and his wife’s recent recovery from COVID-19, he has incorporated personal protections–“When I go home, I gotta put booties on, like they use during a crime scene,” said Rodriguez. 

Rodriguez, born in Brooklyn but raised on Fox Street only a stone’s throw from his current office, has a way of speaking — thick Bronx accent, gravelly tone, and emphatic repetitions – that is immediately recognizable to people in and out of the coalition. When member Owen Mullings, 52, who has known Rodriguez for 30 years, impersonated Rodriguez’s voice to a man in Florida who knew about the coalition, the Florida man guessed the identity right away. 

Rodriguez’s wise-cracking jokes also make him the class clown in the workplace, according to Dez Williams, 57, who met the coalition leader 35 years ago. His character underlying this charisma “always tries to lead you to the right point, not the wrong,” said Williams. 

Rodriguez started working in construction at age 16 under a trifecta of Hunts Point civic activists who helped give local youth labor jobs: legendary “mob priest” Father Gigante, subcontractor William Creer, and entrepreneur Tommy Cuevas, who owned the nightclub 310 ½ on Fox Street.

Rodriguez and his friends were quickly “broken in right” by Cuevas while doing backbreaking work. They were introduced to a community coalition then run by Joe “Baby” Lopez, who died last month and whose son is still an active member. 

The 1960s and 1970s were formative for Rodriguez and fellow members, who witnessed protests by other minority labor coalitions at buildings like the Trump Towers, Taino Towers in East Harlem, and Columbia University. The fights between large unions and minority laborers who faced barriers entering the unions and thereby securing jobs, convinced them systemic employment discrimination was real.

Since then, Rodriguez, now 63, has risen to lead the coalition through periods of reported hostility from unions and run-ins with the law. He and his mostly Black and Latino co-workers have been indicted for charges of extortion, intimidation, and attempted assaults at construction sites. Except for a charge of grand larceny in 1995, Rodriguez and other members have been acquitted in these cases. He blames discrimination and interests from “people in high places” for the charges. 

“He’s like the ‘David and Goliath’ David,” said Mullings. “He’s fearless, all about helping people, and more like a father figure to a lot of us – the definition of courage and knowledge of this world of politics and putting people to work.”

Boxing practice is how Rodriguez relaxes when he leaves work. 

“You ever heard of ‘the struggle continues’? That’s all us minorities, and the best part of my work is the fact that I help these people feed their family.”