Construction lures Mohawks back to New York

Indian ironworkers from Canada return to city's labor scene

April 26, 2001|By Charlie LeDuff | Charlie LeDuff,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - The paychecks come on Thursday. When the walking boss calls quitting time, the ironworkers stuff their tool belts into empty bolt buckets and stash them near the columns.

They cram themselves into the freight elevator, descend to the dressing shacks and change into their street clothes. Some go to the banks and cash their checks and put the money in their pockets. Others go directly to the saloon and see the bartender, who takes 5 percent.

Friday at quitting time, the Mohawks will pile into their Buicks and Fords and drive 400 miles to Canada to visit their wives and children on the Kahnawake reservation, 8 miles from Montreal on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River.

Boom in New York

There is a construction boom going on in New York City, and all over town there are the sounds of pneumatic guns and hammers tolling against steel girders.

Three skyscrapers have gone up in Times Square in the last two years, and there is enough work scheduled to last three more.

Local 40, representing 1,200 city ironworkers, is at full employment. Non-local men like the Mohawks have boomed out - chased the work - and landed in town, earning $33.45 an hour plus benefits.

They are the grandsons and great-grandsons of Mohawk ironworkers who helped build the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, the Waldorf-Astoria, the RCA Building, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the World Trade Center and any other major project in New York that involved heavy steel construction.

Bust from 1985 to 1995

The Indians of past generations had a bustling neighborhood of their own in Brooklyn, supported by the construction dollars. But then came the building bust from 1985 to 1995.

While local workers were kept employed with bridge repair work, there were no jobs for ironworkers like the Mohawks, whose union ties were on the Canadian side of the border. So they boomed out to places like Kentucky and Detroit where power plants and bridges were going up.

They went wherever there was money to be had. Some went home and retired. When there was absolutely no work anywhere, some trafficked in cigarettes from the United States.

Now they are back. There are about 250 Mohawks from Kahnawake (pronounced ga-nuh-WAH-gay) working in the city. They are working on the Brooklyn courthouse, the Ernst & Young building in Times Square, the 155th Street overpass in the Bronx, Kennedy International Airport - wherever new steel is being laid.

And soon, work should begin in earnest on the massive AOL-Time Warner building in Columbus Circle. It will be a monument to this generation of ironworkers, just as Rockefeller Center is to their grandfathers.

At 3:30 Friday afternoon, the Phillips cousins - J.R., 31, and Jeffrey, 40 - and Joe Horn walked briskly from the Ernst & Young job site to a nearby parking lot. They climbed into an old Bonneville and rolled out for Kahnawake. The trip would take seven hours, slowed by the snow and a burning jeep that stopped traffic for 2 miles.

They rolled past the Canadian Pacific railroad bridge silhouetted in the moonlight. It is a double-humped cantilever bridge built in 1886 that spans the St. Lawrence Seaway and runs through part of the reservation. It is the bridge that gave the Mohawks their start in ironwork. In exchange for running a railroad through Indian territory, the company hired the Mohawks as laborers, allowing them to tote pails but not to work on the bridge. But when the foremen were not looking, the Indians began climbing all over the span as if they had been born to it. Soon they were working the iron.

Tragedy in 1907

They drove past the iron cross on the western edge of the reservation, erected in honor of the 35 Mohawk men who died in the 1907 Quebec Bridge collapse.

"It nearly wiped out the village," said J.R.'s father, Stuart Phillips, a white-haired elder, former ironworker and tribal historian. "But instead of scaring the men away from the work, it attracted them to it."

Ironwork became the stuff that Mohawk men were made of, offering a little excitement and big money. More than 1,000 men from Kahnawake are ironworkers or are drawing pensions from that work.

More than 700 Indians once lived near the Local 361 union hall in Boerum Hill, a Brooklyn neighborhood. They brought their wives and children. During the summers, after a season of saving money, they made the 12-hour trip back home to the reservation.

Then they were gone. Extinct it seemed. The Indians just packed up and moved away.

There was the building bust. But before that, the neighborhood went bad with drugs and crime. And in 1967, the last 172 miles of the New York State Thruway to the Canadian border were completed. The men no longer needed to tear their families away from home. They began to make what was now a six-hour commute on the weekends.

Instead of brownstones, the Indians nowadays take rooms in boarding houses or cram themselves into apartments or shabby motels. They are scattered across the metropolitan region.

And on Friday night, as the Phillips cousins pulled into the reservation, the lamps burned in the living rooms of the square white homes. The man of the house had arrived and he had a fistful of American money for the wife and toys in his bag for the children.

These men will tell the children later, maybe over breakfast, the stories from the city and then tell them that they must work hard in school.

But the older boys do not pay attention. It doesn't make sense. They know where they are going.

Up on the steel.

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