Some have parked their tents along the sidewalk since early Tuesday, enduring the brutal cold of this New York City winter for six days and five nights.
Ray only got here this afternoon, but he's no more than 20 spots behind the front of the line. A stocky guy in his late 30s, Ray's bundled in a thick, hooded parka; he's holding a plastic blanket around his legs. Why, I ask him, did someone show up five days in advance?
"He's hungry," Ray tells me, his admiration obvious. "Ya can't knock that. That's hustle. But he's gotta live 'round here to take a shower, or he's gonna need some fuckin' Old Spice. He's been sittin' out here since Tuesday."
Ray arrived Sunday afternoon, "around 11 o'clock," but he'd been driving past the entrance all week, checking to make sure early arrivals wouldn't force him to line up earlier.
These are not welfare queens, "moochers" or "takers." These are hardworking, blue-collar New Yorkers, camping on the street by the hundred for a shot at one of 30 union jobs being offered by Laborer's Local 731. The union announced recruitment starting Monday, March 3, scheduled to continue through the 14th, but they could staff every position -- four times over -- just from the men standing on the street tonight. And while Ray's got a pretty good shot -- he's near the front of the line, easily within the first 30 through the door -- there's still an air of uncertainty in his voice when I ask him about his chances.
"It's a gamble," Ray explains.
And when they tell me the hourly rate they'll earn if they manage to get hired, I start to wonder if maybe I should go home and grab a tent of my own -- these jobs start at $30-$40/hour (with union benefits and perks, of course). According to one applicant, a union like this one only brings in new members once every five years.
Indeed, it's such a good job that most of the men in line already have jobs. But in the plutocratic mecca of New York, even $16/hour -- as Ray earns working as a warehouse supervisor -- doesn't add up to a living wage. So he stands in the cold, waiting for the chance to get a shot at a job. (That is, assuming he passes a physical test that includes pulling a 75-pound weight 12 feet in the air.)
It's a brisk Sunday night, and it's already getting late. The guys at the front of the line have zipped up their tents and gone to bed, and tomorrow morning, the union office will open for business. Thirty New Yorkers will be given the real chance to enter the middle class. (By way of comparison, Laborer's Local 731 will create half as many jobs as existed at WhatsApp when it was purchased by Facebook for a cool $19 billion two weeks ago.)
The entire time I chat with the men in line, a steady stream of New Yorkers continue to arrive, gathering on the sidewalk, prepared to stand till morning for the small chance at one of a handful of good jobs that will be offered.
Ray doesn't have a car, and having "a dependable source of transportation" is listed as a requirement. "Does that include the subway?" he asks. "The subway's dependable."
The other guys aren't so sure.
"Eh, I'll tell 'em I gotta car," Ray decides. "I'll fuckin' lie."
Standing further back, Joe's not sure that there will still be any jobs by the time he gets inside the union office. A youthful-looking man in his early 50s, Joe sports a wool scally cap, and a shock of white hair peaks out from underneath. Your classic Northeastern Irish-American, his puffy green coat practically screams, "Celtic Pride." Lately, times have been tough for Joe, and he's had to rely on welfare and the Back to Work Program just to pay for basic essentials like public transit. Joe lives in Staten Island, obtains work training in the Bronx, and is standing in line talking with me in my own neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. There are also fees for tests and applications associated with getting construction work that Joe could never afford without this assistance. I asked Joe if he thought that this was fair, but he demurred.
"That's the way it is."
These men aren't naive about their long odds, but they're still determined, even a touch optimistic. I suppose the kind of person willing to stand on line overnight in freezing temperatures just for the chance of a good job is optimistic by default.
The men in line are old and young; black, white and Hispanic; thin and heavy-set. There's a 19-year-old kid currently working in restaurants, who hopes a union job might offer stability, benefits and raises. For young Americans, these have largely become the hallmarks of a "middle-class" life.
"If I get this job," a fast-talking hustler named Andrew tells me with a laugh, "I'd be a Republican."
In his mid-30s, Andrew is a classic, consummate New Yorker, a central casting extra pulled straight from the set of one of the classic Scorsese or Coppola films that have defined this city for a generation. Andrew's been working a number of odd jobs lately, most recently in plumbing and car dealerships ("BMW, Maserati," he rattles off to me, clearly trying to impress), but Andrew hopes for something more stable -- and more profitable. Like everyone else I talked to, Andrew's sole concern is getting the job, "winning the lottery," not the politics that have led him to stand in the cold for the "opportunity" to work as a laborer. Andrew doesn't have time for politics.
"I care, you know, but I don't follow it."
It was the same story all night: these are hard-nosed, pragmatic, blue-collar guys, too busy looking for work that pays a living wage to worry about changing the conditions that led them to sit out in the cold in the first place.
But they didn't need to be political (or even liberal) to understand the value of a good job -- and that a union is the best way to get one. In that regard, liberals should be optimistic about the future of American labor.
And when I called the union office on Monday afternoon? All the spots had already been filled.