Video: The Voice profiles Sandhogs


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.

14 Responses to “Video: The Voice profiles Sandhogs”

  1. Walter says:

    Reading this reminded me of that wonderfully eloquent inscription above the 42nd Street entrance to Grand Central:

    “To all those who with head heart and hand toiled in the construction of this monument to the public service this is Inscribed”

  2. Larry Littlefield says:

    If New York stops improving our infrastructure, the Sandhogs are out of work and the accumulation of knowledge passed on through on the job training is gone. It isn’t enough to do maintenance; they need new work.

    ESA, the first phase of the SAS, and even the third water tunnel will be wrapping up. They’ll get some work paid for by higher water bills if the new aquaeduct tunnel upstate, made necessary by a leak in the old one, is built. ARC was supposed to be the next big job.

    But it would say something if metro New York, given the size if its economy, doesn’t invest enough in its economy to keep these folks (or at least many of them) working.

    • pete says:

      Very funny. If you work, you will loose your work, if you dont work, you work forever. The projects will never be finished in 1 mans lifetime and will always be overbudget and delayed. The water tunnel project is now 40 years old and not done. They won’t finish an existing project until a new one is funded. Thanks to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D.....3Bacon_Act they are all 6 figure earners for doing work so poorly that it would get them fired in any other country on planet earth. Building the SAS and EAS is taking longer than building the whole subway system prior to WW2. SAS is taking longer than building a dozen lines and 200 miles of track in 20 years in the Beijing Metro.

      • Bolwerk says:

        If that’s so, then it would make sense to have a hundred year expansion plan to encourage them to keep doing value-added work. There is no reason future generations couldn’t tweak the plans as needed.

      • John Connolly says:

        I find your comments about union workers completely ridiculous. I am a 30 year member of IBEW Local 3 and I’m sure you don’t have the balls or backbone to do what we do every day. Its ready to point fingers or place the blame on the most highly skilled and hardest working group of men and women in the world. We make good money after completing our apprenticeship programs and also fill our calls for manpower with organized people from the nonunion contractors that have exploited their workers. Do some research about our history and the exploitation of the jobs overseas(Dubai,China,Kuwait,etc.). Do we want to be like them? If you answer yes, our country will be on the downward spiral that you dream of. Wealthy people and a nation of illegal immigrants that will do your work bit send their umtaxed money home.

  3. Chet says:

    I could have watched another hour of that.

    At about the 3:50 mark, there’s a photo of a bunch of Sandhogs in the Hog House… just a great shot.

    I have been and always will be so impressed by this group of people. The work they do is just incredible.

  4. skunky says:

    I work in the mining industry, mostly far away from NYC, but I love to tell the grizzled guys who mine out west that NYC has four huge mining projects going on right now, 7 extension, East Side Access, the 2nd Ave Subway, and the #3 Water Tunnel.

  5. petey says:

    “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.”

    and that’s thanks to the unions. remember that, management apologists.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Yep. And if those unions didn’t sell labor padding as if it were about safety (why? Is Spanish tunneling any less safe than American tunneling?), they’d get the support of every New Yorker who’s not on the Manhattan Institute or Bloomberg’s payroll.

      • Hank says:

        as much as we bitch about rent seeking by unions (part. public employee unions), we should remember that our entire safety and workrules regime, as well as the weekend, is the result of the struggles of organized labor.

        • Bolwerk says:

          It’s not just bitching, like, “O this flea bite on my butt really herts.” The costs of the demands of public sector unions literally mean the resources that are available to operate a much necessary public transit system are mis-allocated – and almost not available at all for expansion.

          Of course, I think any member of the actual working or even middle class should be excused for hitting pols like Scott Walker in the face with a 2×4. But pretending make-work defenders John Samuelsen or Roger Toussaint are allies of the working class is pretty disingenuous. Those two don’t deserve to be associated with historical union organizers who, whatever you think of their politics, actually took on great personal risk out of a sincere desire to improve working conditions.

        • Alon Levy says:

          No argument there.

          And it’s not just the movement, but also the TWU specifically. Quill did a lot of great work, and deserves the admiration of every supporter of worker rights and civil rights. The TWU got a lot of flak in the 1930s for having black members; in a Philadelphia union election, the opposing union ran a scare campaign telling white workers that the TWU would give their jobs to black people.

          You could even argue that some union abuses come from the fact that the movement’s sticking to what it gained from the 1930s to the 60s and isn’t secure enough to move forward. I don’t think it’s true for all unions, but for some it’s just an issue of justifiably mistrust of patrician reformers.

  6. John Connolly says:

    The quality of the work on the 2nd ave subway is first class. Go take the tour offered by the MTA. It you ever do make it look for me at 96th st. I will show you my artwork of pipe bending, trigonometry is probably a subject you failed.

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