Gotham Was, Is and Always Will Be a Union Town
Commercial Observer has it all wrong in its recent article, “Organized Labor Doesn’t Have the Grip They Once Did Thanks to ‘Open Shop’ ” (June 14). The truth is that New York City will always be a union town despite some of the noise being made by a small group of developers and contractors.
Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) President John Banks was quoted in the article saying nonunion construction has increased because unions “have refused to take steps to become more competitive.” Banks is not only wrong but also out of touch with the reality of the construction industry today.
In fact, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York—which is a union-only organization—has not only worked to reduce wages and cut construction costs, but unions have also made historic changes to collective bargaining agreements including work rule changes.
The Building Trades groups are stronger and more competitive than ever. We’ve worked with the city of New York over recent years to create strong Project Labor Agreements (PLA) covering over $8 billion of construction projects and saving the City and taxpayers over $347 million. We’ve established PLA’s with the Cuomo administration for projects such as LaGuardia Airport, Penn Station-Farley Complex, Javits Center and the Kosciuszko Bridge, saving over half a billion dollars. In addition to these efforts with the public sector, the Building Trades helped bring approximately $25 billion of private work under PLA’s in New York City, saving developers millions of dollars and creating thousands of union construction jobs in the process.
This falsehood from REBNY leadership should be distressing to all New Yorkers. Legendary leaders, such as Lew and Jack Rudin, Larry Silverstein, Burt Resnick, John Zuccotti, Bruce Ratner and Steve Spinola, worked alongside organized labor to build a better, stronger New York City. We had differences over the years, but they all understood the vital importance of unionized construction to our city’s middle class.
Today, the Building Trades maintain strong relationships with many prolific developers, such as Silverstein Properties, Brookfield Properties and Forest City Ratner, to name a few. These developers, and many others, have PLA’s with the Building Trades because they know using skilled union labor ensures the project will be built more efficiently, under safer conditions and get to market quicker.
Unfortunately, under REBNY’s current leadership, the organization has become a voice for a select few developers and contractors with track records of worker exploitation and unsafe worksite conditions.
The New York Construction Alliance (NYCA), which CO terms the “first open-shop construction organization,” is in actuality a front for developers and contractors who put profits over people. With only seven members, including L+M Builders, Lettire Construction and T.G. Nickel & Associates, NYCA represents the irresponsible developers and contractors who’ve been fighting against a comprehensive construction safety bill, known as Intro 1447, currently before the New York City Council.
Ironically, NYCA members also have some of the poorest construction safety records. More than 30 workers have been killed over the past 30 months, and 90 percent of those fatalities were on nonunion sites. And sadly, REBNY has been alongside NYCA, frantically lobbying City Council members to vote against the safety bill which calls simply for training. It’s unfortunate that some of our colleagues are not only silent on the issue of safety in the construction industry but are also actively fighting means to improve its standards.
Another “front” organization quoted in the article, the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), indicates that it represents some 130,000 nonunionized workers, which is simply not possible when you consider that the Building Trades represents over 100,000 union members. According to recent data by the New York Building Congress, there are approximately 143,000 construction workers in New York City. The math simply doesn’t add up. Furthermore, ABC ultimately stands for the defense of the status quo, which has directly led to the epidemic of fatalities and accidents on construction sites across the city since the beginning of 2015.
In reality, NYCA and ABC represent the narrow, misguided interests of seven contractors and unfortunately a few thousand exploited construction workers. And REBNY is now helping to push their agenda.
At a recent Crain’s New York Business real estate event, Councilmember David Greenfield, the powerful chair of the Land Use Committee, said, “You can’t build big without union construction.” Earlier that day, Marc Holliday, the chief executive officer of SL Green Realty Corp., said he was a proud supporter of union labor, especially when it comes to building complicated projects, such as One Vanderbilt. That’s because we have the best-trained workers and provide high-quality jobs with strong benefits and wages.
Some real estate interests believe using nonunion labor will save money and reduce overall project costs. Those same interests find data from conservative think tanks, such as the Empire Centre for Public Policy, to confirm their biases. They should be surprised at how wrong they are.
Extensive research, most recently from a O’Donoghue & O’Donoghue white paper, showed prevailing wage laws have no statistically significant impact on construction costs. Research from Smart Cities Prevail found weakening or repealing prevailing wages increases poverty and decreases economic activity. The absence of prevailing wages was among other things found to disempower hardworking construction workers and increase the likelihood of needing public assistance.
In a time of escalating economic inequality, construction unions are helping ensure that a pathway to the middle class is possible and staples of the American Dream, such as good paying jobs with benefits, are achievable.
I know the Commercial Observer’s audience is the real estate industry, but the facts should always outweigh what some of your readers want to read.
Gary LaBarbera is the president of the Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York.