I have been working at the Wilshire Grand Center construction project for a year and a half as a filmmaker trying to capture the daily effort and skill that goes into building our city’s tallest structure. I have approached this three-year project with respect – like one who surfs big waves or climbs our highest mountains – aware of the dangers and humbled by the power and vastness of the environment. I’ve seen many construction workers make the sign of the cross as they arrive in the morning – a gesture of faith and an appeal for safety and guidance. At safety meetings every morning, they are reminded that the main goal is to go home to their families and friends at the end of the day.
Yesterday, one of those workers – an electrician – fell to his death from the 53rd floor. The state’s occupational safety agency,
Ron Miller, the head of the Los Angeles Building Trades Council, says that it is a “ritual” for trades workers to drive around Los Angeles surveying the jobs they have worked on.
Virtually every person I’ve talked to who is currently building the Wilshire Grand Center tower in downtown Los Angeles plans to bring their friends and family members to the building once it is finished. Electrician Anthony Sotelo wants to book his mother into the Wilshire Grand’s hotel for at least one night so he can switch on the lights that he wired to make sure they turn on.
“You take pride in your work by showing your family what you have built,” he says.
One of the delights of completion is the possibility of taking material and psychological pleasure in what you have created, the ability to tell a full story that reveals the daily successes as well as the discords of a difficult project.
And wisdom is a butterfly
And not a gloomy bird of prey.
— W.B. Yeats
Artist Eric Drooker’s drawing of an iron worker sitting astride a steel girder looking solemnly at a butterfly is a cool image. (The drawing appeared as a 2009 New Yorker cover.) Judging from the shadows on the buildings, the sun is low in the sky. There is no sweat dripping from a grimy brow. Unlike the socialist-realist paintings of noble workers striding forward or the purposeful energy depicted in WPA murals of the 1930s, the iron worker here is alone and contemplative – sad, even.
Where are his fellow workers who might provide a release from strenuous labor with a moment of conviviality? The city itself appears quiet. The strutting, tempestuous, scandalous streets of New York do not even attract a glance. This iron worker reminds me of one of Edward Hopper’s lonely figures,
In 2012 California’s construction industry took in a respectable $152 billion, employed nearly a million workers and is now projected to grow 26 percent by 2020. But according to a recently released report, a pall is threatening to settle over this otherwise bright horizon. Sinking Underground: The Growing Informal Economy in California Construction identifies an ever-expanding segment of workers in the industry who are not reported by their employers or are misclassified as independent contractors—characteristics of the “informal economy,” or what is more commonly referred to as an underground economy.
The study’s disturbing research suggests that informal construction, which benefits the state’s unscrupulous labor brokers and contractors, and the real estate developers who hire them, is partly responsible for the hollowing out of California’s middle class.
Sinking Underground was conducted by the Economic Roundtable and tracked labor statistics from 1972 to 2012.