Working in the sky
Every Sunday, like four generations of iron-workers before him, Kaniehtakeron “Geggs” Martin says goodbye to his wife and two children, and commutes from the reservation just south of Montreal, Canada, to New York City. If he leaves at 11 p.m., he arrives just in time for work on Monday. Martin is a 35-year-old Mohawk ironworker. The Mohawks have worked on every iconic New York City skyscraper and bridge, from the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Martin holds one of the most prized jobs at any construction site. “I’m a connector in the raising gang. It’s my job to climb the steel and erect the iron,” Martin says. “I put the building up, basically. Only thing mechanized about it is the crane.”
Straddling a piece of steel on what will someday be the 27th floor of an office building in midtown, Martin, who has 15 years of experience, steers a massive steel beam toward a corner column. The steel has six bolt holes, and he jams his bolt pin in one, aligning the holes on the column and beam. He reaches into one of his two leather bolt bags on his belt and slides one in another hole. He secures the end with a nut, and moves on to the next piece, dashing across the steel flank. In less than three hours Martin and his five-person crew have put up 68 pieces of steel.
Tradition of ironwork
At Kahnawake, the reservation where Martin was raised and still lives, there are two 30-feet steel beams sticking out of the ground. They were used for sports competitions; young men and sometimes women, would climb to the top, attach pieces of steel, and slide back down again. Like many children growing up there, Martin wanted to be an ironworker. Instead, after high school, he took a job in forestry, which allowed him to live near his home. But two years later he realized there were no long-term benefits or a steady future in the field, so he apprenticed as an ironworker in New York City.
Currently, there are about 200 Mohawk ironworkers in the New York City area, out of 2,000 structural ironworkers. After three years of training, including 612 classroom hours and 7,000 hours on site, Martin became a journeyman. The first year consisted of administrative and union training two days a week. In addition he worked all day at various job sites doing renovations, like beefing up floors and working night shifts closing elevator shafts. Eventually, he became a full-time connector.
No fear of heights
Now, Martin is a mentor for younger ironworkers and commands respect. His advice to new ironworkers: “No unnecessary moves.” And: “Be afraid to fall. If you fall, you’re going to die. There were guys who fell six feet and died,” he tells them. Mohawk ironworkers developed a reputation, mostly false, that they had no fear of heights. Although Martin says he isn’t afraid, he’s also smart and has managed to stay injury free for most of his career. He likes watching young guys ascend through the ranks, and he says it’s always gratifying to see the result of his work. “When you show up on a job site, there’s nothing there but a hole in the ground. At the end there’s a 50-story building. That’s when you can pause to reflect, and that’s nice.”
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This article was first published in summer 2012.