Letter to a New Jersey Newspaper

Two of My Brothers Died Yesterday

by John Kirkland (Carpenters Local 1462)

The author is a member of Local 1462 of the Carpenters union. His letter was written on July 21, 2004.

John Kirkland’s letter is followed, for the information of our readers, by articles from Newsday and the New York Times giving more details about the deaths of the two union carpenters, and a link to remind readers of another trade unionist killed on a picket line less than two years ago.

By an irony of history, these two workers were killed on a picket line on July 20, the same date on which, seventy years before, two picketing workers were killed by police in the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes. (Click on “Remembering 1934—When Minneapolis Became a Union Town” on the Labor Standard web site, for more information about the 1934 strikes and this year’s commemoration.)

Andy Pollack, a member of the Labor Standard Editorial Board, had the following appropriate comments, written before the police reported that the deaths were caused by a drug-crazed driver who allegedly has no connection with the company being picketed:

Earlier today I got a message on the commemoration of the 1934 Minneapolis strikes and in particular the anniversary today (7/20) of the murder in cold blood by bosses' agents of two strikers.

Just now I see on Newsday that two pickets on Long Island have been killed—this time by a van that barreled head-on into them.

I remember during the Greyhound strike in 1983 being in the local union hall when a striker came in to tell us that a leading striker, who we all knew, had been purposely run over by a scab driving a bus.

Rest assured, the workers will get their revenge for such deaths. But not individual vengeance of the kind preached by the bosses and their psychotic minions—we will instead put an end to their sick system, based on greed, and build a better one that meets human needs.

I would hope the carpenters and their supporters mobilize enough people to shut down this construction site. And I would hope NY unions put up picket lines immediately at every P.C. Richard’s store.

The carpenters web site announces a memorial meeting at the location where the workers were killed. Hopefully that will turn into the kind of mass ongoing picket I described. But I think their confidence in the police is misplaced. See: http://www.empirestatecarpenters.org/mainb.htm

“Our hearts go out, and our thoughts are with the families of our two brothers killed and our six union brothers injured as they walked a picket line in an effort to protect and improve conditions for the Long Island worker.”—John J. Fuchs, Executive Secretary/Treasurer Empire State Regional Council of Carpenters

And now to John Kirkland’s letter:

Two of my brothers died yesterday: run down by a truck while they walked a picket line in Long Island. When I first heard the news, I assumed they had been run down by a scab. It’s happened before in other places. I still remember a close call I had when a nonunion carpenter swerved toward me while we picketed a country club job in Pennsylvania.

This time, it turns out the driver wasn’t a scab, just some zoned-out loser with a drug problem.

Is the driver the only one to blame though? What responsibility belongs to the store chain (P.C. Richard) that chose to cut costs by using nonunion labor? What responsibility falls on the contractor who chose to use nonunion workers, instead of better paid union members? If these companies had chosen to offer a better standard of living to workers in the community, my brothers would not have been out on that street with signs. They would have been in the building doing what we do every day.

What’s a worker’s life worth? We choose a life with uncertain employment, sometimes with bad working conditions, and with no guarantee that we’ll make it to retirement. We do this because we want to feed our families, but also because we like to build things. When we’re done at the end of the day there’s something standing to show for our efforts. In return, all we ask is decent wages and a safe place to work.

We don’t always get that. Construction is a cutthroat business. A carpenter is expected to produce a minimum amount of work every day. It’s not really in writing, but it’s understood. For example, in the Philadelphia area, the rule of thumb for a carpenter hanging drywall is 35–40 sheets installed a day. (A 4′ × 10′ × ⅝″ sheet of drywall weighs about 100 pounds.) The “unproductive” don’t last long and are relegated to the status of temporary workers hired on a job-by-job, day-by-day basis.

If you’re fortunate, you make it through the day without a major injury. Sure you have cuts and bruises, but you work through them. Sometimes you use duct tape to wrap up cuts and keep going. When your luck runs out and you get hurt badly enough to need medical attention the companies treat you like a thief. Did you really get hurt on the job? Does your knee, shoulder, back really hurt? For this we work every day to make someone else rich.

But still we do this thing we do. All we want is a living wage, respect, and a pension at the end of the game. Is that too much to ask?

[The following report is from Newsday July 20]

Two Carpenters Killed on Picket Line, Six Injured
by Theresa Vargas and Denise Bonilla, Newsday Staff Writers

Two men were killed and six others injured when a black pickup truck barreled into them this morning as they protested outside a P.C. Richard’s construction site in Bay Shore.

The men, members of Carpenters union Local 7, were protesting the hiring of non-union members when the truck sped down Sunrise Highway’s access road about 75 m.p.h. toward them, witnesses said. 

“He went over the curb, over the shoulder and plowed into them,” said witness Joe Casino, a steel worker who was working at the P.C Richard site at the time.

A metal fence blocked any chance for the men to escape.

“They were just there like sitting ducks,” Casino said. “They had nowhere to run.”

As the truck drove off erratically, Casino and his fellow steel workers called 911 and ran to the scene. Two men died at the scene and the others suffered a slew of injuries.

The men were taken to Good Samaritan and Southside Hospital. Police were investigating.

[The following report is from the New York Times July 21.]

2 Killed as Truck Hits Pickets From L.I. Union

by Patrick Healy

BAY SHORE, N.Y., July 20—Two union carpenters picketing a Long Island construction site were killed Tuesday morning when a speeding truck that the police said was driven by a man high on drugs plunged into a crowd of 15 union demonstrators.

The black pickup tossed the men into the air, scattering them across the sidewalk, and then sped away, the Suffolk County police and witnesses said. Six other workers were injured as they were thrown onto the truck’s hood, onto a fence, and into the street. Union officials said they worried that the crash was an act of anti-union violence, but Lt. Matthew Sullivan of the Suffolk County police said Tuesday night that there was no evidence to suggest that. Lieutenant Sullivan said the driver, Anthony Person, 35, of Brentwood, north of Bay Shore, had been high on drugs at the time of the crash.

Mr. Person, driving a borrowed 2002 Chevrolet pickup, was speeding west on the Sunrise Highway service road just east of Fifth Avenue about 8:45 a.m. when he veered onto the sidewalk, where 15 carpenters held banners objecting to the use of non-union labor at the construction site, Lieutenant Sullivan said.

With the busy service road on one side of the men and a metal perimeter fence on the other, the 15 workers picketing the site could not dive out of the path of the oncoming truck, said Tim Noonan, 38, who suffered minor injuries when he was thrown against the fence.

“There was no way out for us,” Mr. Noonan said Tuesday afternoon at the accident scene. “I heard screaming. I turned around and saw three people on the hood of his car. We were trapped.”

Mr. Noonan said he did not see the pickup swerve or brake to avoid hitting the carpenters.

The police said two workers from nearby communities, David Kresofsky, 41, of Farmingdale, and Gerald Geist, 60, of Copiague, were killed at the scene, where a P. C. Richard & Son appliance store is being built. Another worker was seriously injured, and five others were treated for minor injuries.

Immediately after the crash, the police said, Mr. Person rear-ended a van and drove to the Bay Shore Inn, where he and a friend had stayed the night before. Mr. Person was alone in the pickup, the police said.

Lieutenant Sullivan said Mr. Person’s friend and a witness who followed Mr. Person’s car to the motel each called the police. Mr. Person was arrested at 9:20 a.m. “He was not about to turn himself in,” Lieutenant Sullivan said.

Mr. Person was charged with driving under the influence of drugs, leaving the scene of an accident and driving without a license. The police said more charges could come later. Mr. Person’s friend, who owns the black pickup, does not face any charges, the police said.

Richard Valdez, who works at a nearby Honda dealership, said he ran to the scene when he heard screeching and thuds. Some of the workers tried to resuscitate the two dead men while others called for help, Mr. Valdez said.

“Everybody was just devastated,” Mr. Valdez said. “The guys who were doing construction were jumping off the scaffolding to help.”

Mr. Kresofsky, Mr. Geist and the other members of the Empire State Carpenters Local 7 have spent two weeks picketing the construction site, union workers said.

They sometimes brought a dozen signs or a large inflatable rat, but on Tuesday, they arrived at 7:30 a.m. and unfurled just one banner upbraiding the company for not hiring union laborers.

“We believe in this,” said Arthur Katt, a member of the union. “This is how we get work.”

Jack Kennedy, president of the Nassau-Suffolk Building Trades Council, said the accident was particularly chilling because dozens of union workers picket different businesses each day.

“It’s very frightening,” Mr. Kennedy said. “All they want to do is earn a living. They were doing what they were entitled to do, which is picket. They were trying to convince them to work union.”

P. C. Richard & Son owns the property overlooking Sunrise Highway, and received a building permit from the Town of Islip in late April, a town spokeswoman said. There have not been any problems between the company and the picketing workers, said Donna Darling, a lawyer for the union.

Officials with the Long Island-based P. C. Richard & Son would not comment on the crash or the picket line. “We had nothing to do with it,” said Thomas Pohmer, the company’s chief financial officer.

On Tuesday evening, union carpenters stood outside the union’s Hauppauge office several miles away, and families gathered at their homes in Copiague and Farmingdale to talk about the two men who were killed.

Ann Manovsky, a neighbor of Mr. Kresofsky, said he had been a carpenter for 20 years and more than anything loved spending time with his 14-year-old son, Kevin, and his 11-year-old daughter, Ashley. The family had just bought a small motorboat and was preparing to take a cruise, Ms. Manovsky said.

Fellow carpenters said Mr. Geist was a longtime carpenter who often went out on union picket lines. Mr. Geist’s first wife and son had died, friends said, but Mr. Geist held on to his sense of humor and passion for his work.

“He taught me a lot,” said Michael Decker, a union member and friend of Mr. Geist. “He was a giver. That’s what he did.”

Michelle O’Donnell in Garden City, N.Y., and Faiza Akhtar in Bay Shore contributed reporting for this article.

[The following is from Newsday July 22.]

Memorial for Union Workers

by Denise M. Bonilla, Newsday Staff Writer

Gretchen Penn waited until the crowd dispersed. Then she quietly walked up to the cross made of welded construction beams and placed two bouquets of red roses at its base, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“I didn’t know my two brothers,” Penn, a union member, said. “But I had to come down and pay my respects. This is just a tragedy.”

Penn was one of hundreds of union workers and their supporters who showed up at a memorial service in Bay Shore yesterday for David Kresofsky, 41, of Farmingdale, and Gerald Geist, 60, of Copiague, two carpenters who died after being hit by a pickup truck outside a construction site on Tuesday.

“They gave the ultimate sacrifice toward the cause of a better life for their brother and sister carpenters,” Long Island Carpenters Local 7 president William Weitzman told the crowd.

The two men were taking part in a union protest against labor conditions for construction workers building a new P.C. Richard & Son. They were hit by a pickup truck driven by Anthony Person, 34, of Brentwood, who has been charged with driving without a license, being under the influence of drugs and leaving the scene of an accident.

Six others were injured in the accident: Randall Haynal, 36, of Riverhead, Timothy Noonan, 38, of Selden, William Miller, 44, of Huntington, Ray Messina, 60, of Brentwood, Robert Baird, 54, of Massapequa, and John Cundari, 37, of Bayport.

The service, which was held where the two men died on a Sunrise Highway service road, was organized by the Empire State Council of Carpenters, and drew building trades workers, union officials, and County Executives Steve Levy of Suffolk and Thomas Suozzi of Nassau. After Weitzman’s statement, a moment of silence was held for the men. Bagpipes played “Amazing Grace” as union workers from different trades hugged and comforted each other.

“It’s a deep hurt,” said Mike Burke of Commack, who was friends with Geist and who protested in the same spot three weeks ago. “There’s a lot of us, but we’re a tight-knit group, we’re a brotherhood.”

The gathering also served as a chance for union members to sound off on P.C. Richard, which union officials said had agreed to a contract earlier this month and later reneged on it. The company declined to comment publicly about the incident but Weitzman said yesterday afternoon that officials had contacted him to offer condolences and to say that labor talks would resume.

Geist and Kresofsky were described by friends and co-workers as hard-working family men and accomplished craftsmen who took great pride in their work. Kresofsky was a carpenter for more than 20 years for Nastasi & Associates in Garden City Park, a “rare breed” who produced “perfect” work, said project manger Don Cornell. His spare time was spent with family or boating.

Geist worked for more than 20 years for Waldner’s Office Showcase in Farmingdale and Total Office Planning Services in Brooklyn and developed a reputation as a patient teacher and mentor to young craftsmen. “He was just a real good teacher,” said Peter Costanzo, project manager at Waldner’s. “It’s hard to put a value on that.”

[Finally, a reminder about a similar incident less than two years ago, when a young woman on an electrical workers’ union picket line was killed by a careless driver. The union was on strike to protest the company’s plan to shift increased health care costs onto the workers. Why should walking a union picket line be a deadly occupational hazard?]

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