Gary LaBarbera on 421a Negotiations and Construction Safety

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couple of days before Thanksgiving, a beam fell from a crane in the Briarwood section of Queens. It essentially crushed the head of one worker and fell directly on the crane’s operator in his cab. They both died at the scene.

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They were two of the 30 deaths that the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York counted over a 24-month period. It’s an issue that drives Gary LaBarbera, the president of the powerful union, absolutely crazy.

Last year, LaBarbera might have been public enemy No. 1 for the real estate industry for another reason. He spent a year and a half negotiating with the Real Estate Board of New York on a prevailing construction wage. The agreement was crucial to a reinstatement to the 421a tax abatement, which expired in  January 2016. Both sides made a handshake agreement at the end of last year and a bill to replace the program was introduced to the legislature last Sunday.

Most negotiations are the same, said LaBarbera, a married father of three who lives in his native Nassau County. This was different, however, because of the complexity given all of the stakeholders (more on that in a minute).

Now that the fight over 421a is set to end, the 57-year-old is turning his attention back to construction safety. This is a matter that clearly resonates with LaBarbera. When he spoke to Commercial Observer, his voice lifted and he spoke at length passionately—his voice audible in the next room.

“The safety issue is not a market share grab,” he said in the conference room of his Flatiron District office last week. The wall is lined with a hard hat for each of the 61 construction workers killed on 9/11. “The safety issue and the [pending city] legislation is intended to protect workers and ensure that these workers have the appropriate safety training so that at the end of the work day they go home to their families.”

The City Council is considering a package of bills that seeks to enforce stronger safety regulations on jobsites. The trick is not to simply have more safety supervisors, the longtime labor leader said. It’s to enforce apprenticeship programs that ensure workers—union and nonunion—are trained.

He ran us through this, 421a and the role unions play on the national political stage.

Commercial Observer: It was a year and a half of negotiations with 421a. How was it different from anything else you worked on? 

LaBarbera: The one thing that I think made this somewhat more complicated was that the principals were actually negotiating on behalf of two organizations with a constituent body—or executive boards, if you will—with affiliate members. While the process took place, we could try to come to terms on certain principles, but there was a process in which you then had to go back and speak to the respective boards. 

That’s one of the reasons why it took so long. 

Really, in any negotiations, as long as each party understands and agrees that at the end of the day an agreement has to be reached, you’re going to reach an agreement. 

Obviously, as the negotiations lingered on, it became very clear that both sides wanted to get to an agreement. The longer it took, the more pressure there was in terms of the negotiating process to really try to clear the table of some of the things that were just on the table for the purposes of negotiations, and really get to the fundamental principles. 

For us that was establishing a wage standard, but equally important was the enforcement component. If you have standards but no real mechanism for enforcement then it’s really futile from our point of view. 

There were actually two lines of negotiations here. There was a negotiation with the Building Trades on standards and enforcement and scope. But there was also a negotiation between REBNY, the state and the city regarding the actual structuring of the abatement program, its duration and how what was expected for [the percentage of] affordable [units] would be in each project. 

There was a lot of coverage of this, and there was a lot of tension to it. I think there was a great skepticism that we wouldn’t be able to even come to an agreement, which was borne out of [the fact that] the duration of the negotiations was the length it was. But, again, there was a reason why. 

Why was the prevailing wage so important to your members at that point in the development cycle? 

Fundamentally, our belief has been where there’s a public subsidy there needs to be a public responsibility. But the other reason is that there is a situation in this city in terms of construction that is very concerning to me as head of the Building Trades, to all of our unions. And it should be very concerning to the real estate industry as well. 

This is what the situation is: There are developers, which I’m going to call for the purposes of this discussion “irresponsible developers.” Now let me be categorically clear that not every developer is an “irresponsible developer.” We have some of the best developers in the world in this city. Some of the most responsible developers in this city understand the value that unionized construction trades bring to a project that they want to build; recognize the safety on these projects are second to none; and recognize that the skill and expertise is actually an economic advantage because the speed to market is extremely accelerated as opposed to a nonunion project. 

What I see is the following: Where a developer wants to build responsibly and wants to receive a benefit, which is a form of subsidy—421a—there is not an issue. But when a developer wants to build irresponsibly yet still receive a benefit, to me that’s very problematic. The subsidy should not be used to encourage irresponsible behavior. 

That is why we believe strongly that standards must be set in this scenario where there is literally a public subsidy to a developer. But we should not be subsidizing the exploitation of workers. And the exploitation of workers includes low wages, lack of benefits and, which is again abundantly clear, the lack of safety on nonunion projects. That’s why it was so important to create these standards in terms of wages on these projects. 

The goal is to encourage, now that there are these standards, responsible development.

Who would you cite as irresponsible developers?

Let me do it in a more general way. I would say that unfortunately where we see a lot of irresponsibility in terms of wage suppression and certainly public safety suppression is in the low-rise affordable housing component of the market sector. 

While NYSAFAH [New York State Association for Affordable Housing] and the Building Trades have somewhat of a tense relationship, there is good reason for it. Because this is the area in which we see—and many of these projects do receive 421a—wage suppression and the lack of safety protocols.

The Building Trades in conjunction with all the affiliates have been engaged in what we call worker outreach. In Long Island City, there is a lot of nonunion work. We have been speaking and engaging with nonunion workers. What we’ve been asking them to do is sign what’s known as “interest cards,” which means they would like to have further discussion [with the unions]. [Last] Tuesday evening, the organizers and members met with 100 nonunion workers from a few job sites. And every one of those nonunion workers signed a card of interest; they wanted to have further conversations.

Obviously [they are] conversations they don’t want to have on the job site because of fear of retaliation and retribution. But in the information gathering, we asked, “What are your wages? What are your benefits, if any? What are the conditions like?”

We got information that there are workers that are from out of state that are brought in. They are put in a hotel. They are given a very small food allowance and are getting paid between $11 and $14 an hour, which is below the New York State minimum wage. 

And this is on some of those big high-rises in Long Island City? 

Yeah. On the nonunion work. 

I’ve been in a leadership position in organized labor for almost 25 years. And while some people on the other side of the table may not like me or what I stand for, no one can honestly say that I am not a man of my word, and that I don’t mean what I say. 

Now when I publically say that workers are getting paid $15 and hour with no benefits, the opponents—most from the real estate industry—say, “That’s not true, our workers make more money than that and they have benefits.” No they don’t. In fact, there’s a good chance they don’t even know. All they know is a contractor says, “Here is my bid number. I can do it for this much.” They look at this price, and they look at that price, and they say, “Oh, okay. Well it’s 25 percent cheaper than the union price; I’m going to build it this way.”
The problem lies where the developer wants to get a subsidy, wants to get whatever he can get, but yet doesn’t want to be responsible enough to create good middle-class jobs, which actually keep the New York City economy vibrant. It goes into profits over people.

Construction deaths have been a particular hot-button issue for LaBarbera. Photo: Sasha Maslov/for Commecial Observer
Construction deaths have been a particular hot-button issue for LaBarbera. Photo: Sasha Maslov/for Commecial Observer

Almost two dozen workers have died on New York City projects in the last two years—

 It’s more than that. 

Why are so many workers dying on the job? 

This issue is probably right now the most critical issue that faces the construction industry. From Jan. 1, 2015, until Dec. 31, 2016, there were 30 deaths in the construction industry. That is an epidemic. 

The reason that there are this many fatalities is very, very fundamental. It is the lack of training. It’s not the lack of oversight. The only way that we are going to be able to save lives in this industry is by requiring training. I believe it should be apprentice training or the equivalent thereof. 

You have to think about construction activity related to construction deaths and percentages. There were 30 deaths. Three were union. Twenty-five percent [of the market share that is nonunion] had 90 percent of the fatalities.

How many more families must be devastated? How many more lives must be lost until the City of New York, the City Council and the mayor of New York stand up and do the right thing for workers in the construction industry and require that they are trained? 

If this was any other industry and you had 30 deaths, don’t you think they’d be saying, “This has to stop”? But not in the construction industry. 

Now why is that? Is it because our progressive administration doesn’t really care about these workers who are mainly Latino? Fifty percent of them are not even English speaking. Why? Construction workers’ lives aren’t equivalent to anybody else’s? 

Oh, yes, they are. I am infuriated. I will tell you that this Building Trades Council is going to push. We will not stop. 

From a national perspective, unions have traditionally been affiliated with Democrats. But we saw in this election that a lot of union workers voted for Donald Trump, who ran on the Republican ticket. What happened? 

Part of the issue is really all about the creation of good middle-class jobs.

Obviously there are a lot of social and progressive issues that the Democratic Party should and does focus on. But I think from middle-class America there was a pushback, given the sense that they have kind of gotten a raw deal. No one has really put them first. 

I think in this election, in terms of the difference between the Republican candidate and the Democratic candidate that there was really an emphasis on the Republican side about what the priority is: Bring the jobs back to America, create good middle-class jobs. That’s the whole “Make America Great Again.” 

I think it resonated, candidly, with a lot of the electorate. You certainly saw it if you looked at the electoral maps. You saw it in areas that were heavily at one time manufacturing. 

The New York City Building Trades Council has always maintained the position that we support candidates that support our values. 

That means, whether it’s at the Congressional, state or city level, we support both Democrats and Republicans. We are tied to people who share the values of the creation of good middle-class jobs and the things that are important to us.

Our values are really, especially from this industry, about job creation. Because you’ve got to remember in the construction industry, jobs are only temporary.

What are they, three years per job?

That’s a long job. In many of the issues that face the city, we happen to agree with the development community. REBNY and the Building Trades often are on the same side of issues regarding economic development.

We may have some differences of opinion about how we accomplish safety goals. We may have differences of opinion about what standards should be applied. But we want to talk about the fundamental principles of the real estate industry. We are going to talk about economic development, how we continue to build. 

How do you spend your downtime? 

I really don’t have any downtime. What I try to do in the free time that I have, I do try to spend it with my family

This type of career, if you want to call it that, is really more of a vocation or a calling. Either you’re all in or you’re not in. The vast majority of my time is focused on this industry. 

Could you put a number on how many hours a day you spend doing this? 

I left the house this morning at 5:30. I expect to get home at about 9:30 tonight. That’s about a 16-hour day. A short day is 12 hours. 

Do you have weekends? 

Actually, weekends are not as free as everyone would like to think. Generally, the downtime is on a Sunday until about maybe 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Then calls or emails come in. 

Saturdays there are always calls. Certainly emails going back and forth. Usually, Sunday mornings are quiet as are Sunday afternoons. But by the evening it begins to pick up. There’s just that much going on.