A front page story in The New York Times this morning detailed some severe problems with the instructor of a tower crane-safety class that cast his fitness to teach and license potential crane operators for the job into doubt. The 30-hour class, which teaches the best way to raise and lower a tower crane safely, was mandated for New York City crane operators wishing to keep their job after last year’s fatal crane collapses.
In theory, these courses should be an easy boost to the Department of Building’s credibility and a good way to avoid fatal crane accidents. In practice, problems sometimes crop up that turn these well-intentioned requirements into a mockery of themselves. This time, instead of abridged lessons and beer breaks, we have unqualified mobsters with crane licenses, car bombs and exotic dancers.
James Conway, the instructor of the tower crane safety course in question, came forth with these tawdry tales in cooperation with a 2003 investigation of his union, Local 14-14B of the International Union of Operating Engineers. That investigation ended with convictions for 45 union officials, union members and crime figures on racketeering charges. Though not charged along with his colleagues, Mr. Conway does not have a clean record. Before the 2003 investigation began Mr. Conway helped unqualified criminals get into his union and then obtain licenses in order to get jobs as operators of small cranes.
Mr. Conway also tried to recruit exotic dancers into the union as apprentices, though he claimed this was at the behest of another union employee. Mr. Conway said that he was acting out of fear for his job and his life. It does seem likely that the criminals in his union would punish him for resisting them (even his story about the veiled threat of a car bomb seems plausible). While Mr. Conway’s actions are understandable they are still inexcusable.
Allowing unqualified operators into the cabs of tower cranes puts every person who walks the streets of New York at risk. Though Mr. Conway did some good by cooperating with the investigation, it is a mystery why The Department of Buildings allow him and his union to teach such a critical safety course.
The department’s answer that “these are the people who perform this type of work” is simply not good enough in light of the recent fatal crane collapses. The Department of Buildings needs to ensure that there is some minimum standard to which it holds its crane safety instructors in order to secure the integrity of crane operators’ jobs. A union with a history as checkered as Local 14-14B’s would, I pray, be beneath such a standard.