Video: The Voice profiles SandhogsBy
As construction proceeds underneath Second Avenue, we tend to think of progress on a grand scale. We celebrate when the tunnel boring machine reaches its end. We bemoan air quality and noise. We await muck houses and dump trucks. We often overlook the people who are underground everyday building this subway.
This week, The Village Voice takes a journey into the Second Ave. Subway, but it’s not your typical journey. While we may marvel at scope and size of the project, the Voice is more interested in the human side of what’s happening. This week, Sean Manning >profiles the Sandhogs, the members of Local 147 who are digging the tunnels that will one day play host to the Second Ave. Subway.
Manning’s piece traces the lives and times of these workers. Many are former military men looking to make a living back home. Take a gander at this excerpt and sneak a peek at the video above. There’s a photo slideshow as well:
That’s another parallel between soldier and sandhog life, one that particularly appeals to Buzzell: the hierarchy. Just as in the military, the sandhogs follow a strict chain of command. At the bottom is the gang, typically composed of six men. Each gang is led by a foreman, who reports to a walking boss, who in turn reports to a superintendent. Unlike the military, though, sandhog rank can change from project to project. Depending on recent performance as well as on what men and positions are available, a walking boss on one job might be a gang member on another and vice versa. Also, there is no pay grade: Except for the project superintendent, all sandhogs take home the same $45 an hour. Counting the money directed into union-benefit funds, the rate is closer to $100 an hour. In a busy year, a sandhog can make more than $100,000. (Financial compensation is one thing the sandhogs and the military most assuredly do not have in common. In 2012, basic pay for an Army private first class with less than two years of experience is $21,089.)
While the sandhogs are among the highest-earning laborers in the country, they give the lie to any public perception of union sloth, of work being needlessly, greedily dragged out. “The faster we get the job done,” says 51-year-old, 30-year-veteran Scott Chesman, “the more work the city is likely to give us.” Plus, on a job like pouring concrete, speed is imperative.
For the Second Avenue tunnels, the concrete was trucked in from Queens and delivered underground through a six-inch diameter pipe called a slick line. The slick line is screwed together in 10-foot segments, each costing $400. On this project, the slick line stretched as long as 1,500 feet. If the concrete is not applied to the tunnel quickly enough, or if the balance of retarder and accelerator in the mix isn’t precise, or if one of the trucks gets stuck in traffic, the concrete in the slick line begins to set up. When this happens, with $60,000 worth of slick line at stake, the trucks have to stop pumping, and the slick line has to be flushed, what’s called “shooting the rabbit.” That’s as much as a quarter-mile of concrete expelled into a pile that must be shoveled into muck bags—roughly 40 pounds per bag once hardened—and then wheelbarrowed and heaved by hand, bag by bag, into a dumpster. Lunch and urination are infrequent. (Even when working fast, the work is slow-going. Because of the six hours it takes the concrete to fully set and the time necessary to break down and move and reassemble the multi-ton steel arch form, progress is limited to at most 120 feet per day.)
It’s easy to lose site of the individuality of the construction work. The unions are often nameless and faceless entities that insist on work rules too onerous for our times. They are a politically powerful force but are also one of the reasons why construction work in New York City is so expensive. The city relies upon them for progress but may also be hindered by their demands as well.
The tragic accident last week at the site of the 7 line extension served as a reminder of the human element involved in that project and other tunnel work. Back in the early 20th Century, many New Yorkers lost their lives digging out the first subway, and our society today does not take the time to remember those workers. Today, safety is paramount, and accidents are few and far between. Yet, people are in there everyday, wading through dank tunnels working to extend our transit system. This is but a small snapshot of who they are and what they’re doing.