Two weeks after pulling its members off job sites across Massachusetts over coronavirus safety concerns, the state’s biggest construction union said they may return to work.
The North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, which represents about 10,000 workers in Massachusetts, told members over the weekend that it’s okay to return to work if they feel it is safe. The union is asking contractors to submit COVID-19 safety plans before bringing union carpenters back, but said they believe so-called essential work — which includes health care, housing, and school projects — can move forward.
"Though there are still concerns about COVID-19 in Massachusetts, the union believes that our contractors and members are committed to creating and maintaining a safe work environment,” executive secretary-treasurer Joseph Byrne wrote in a letter to members Sunday.
The carpenters union was the largest, and loudest, labor group to walk off job sites earlier this month, as concern grew about COVID-19. On April 6, after a number of workers showed symptoms of the highly contagious disease, union leaders unilaterally pulled members off jobs statewide. Over the last few weeks workers have protested outside non-union job sites where they’ve seen what they call unsafe practices, including one project in Lynn that was eventually shut down by that city.
The union also urged Governor Charlie Baker to halt construction statewide until more consistent safety protocols could be put in place, a move Baker has resisted. The Metropolitan Building Trades Council, an umbrella group for construction labor unions, joined in that call, though many of its member unions continued working. The region’s largest painter’s union also shut down its jobs, but the union said last week it would allow contractors to make “job-specific requests to return to work.”
The shifts and reversals by unions highlight the challenges of confronting COVID-19 on construction sites. Workers often share confined spaces, and use of hand washing and safety equipment can be inconsistent. But the shutdowns have thrown thousands of construction workers out of work and largely stopped the region’s long-running development boom.
Boston, where Mayor Martin J. Walsh long led the city’s construction unions before taking office, was the first big city in the country to shut down all construction sites, and was quickly joined by Cambridge and Somerville. While those bans remain in place, Walsh last week signaled his desire to reopen work in Boston soon. Baker has allowed construction to proceed elsewhere in the state, including on suburban apartment and condo buildings that he says are essential to tackling the region’s housing crunch.
The administration has issued new safety guidelines to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and many large contractors, union and non-union, have instituted new rules of their own, including daily health assessments of workers. The growing awareness of job site safety, along with time to implement new procedures and growing availability of personal protective equipment, were all reasons the carpenters union now feels it’s OK to return to work, said spokesman Bert Durand.
But the union was clear that any member who doesn’t feel safe shouldn’t go back, and they’re requiring a promise from contractors “to not retaliate” against union carpenters who don’t return, and not to fight any unemployment claims they file.