Thursday, July 30, 2009

Carpenters Turn Up the Volume Atlantic Yards

The public hearing Wednesday afternoon on the proposed revisions to the Atlantic Yards project plan was prefaced with a protest staged by Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn outside the Klitgord Auditorium at New York City College of Technology on Jay Street. It turned into a pep rally filled with boos and cheers inside once the hearing began.

The gathering was noteworthy for the number of politicians and political hopefuls who turned out to speak against Atlantic Yards. The anti-AY bandwagon seems to be getting more crowded.

“I think the safe political position in these neighborhoods is to be opposed to it,” said DDDB’s Daniel Goldstein, who was later removed by security for heckling pro-Yards Assemblyman Alan Maisel. “It’s a mix of people who are trying to get that crowd, and people who are from that crowd,” he said, but no candidates running in the surrounding districts support the project.

About 75 people attended the hearing at the New York City College of Technology on Jay Street, the second of two days of hearings held by the Empire State Development Commission, which is to vote in September on proposed changes to the original plan.

“I’m not sure exactly what the project will bring, but I am hoping that it will bring jobs to the community for people like me,” said Shiler Gelin, 41, a resident of Canarsie who has been unemployed for two years.

Proposed modifications to the 22-acre, $4.9 billion project include dividing it into phases and extending the time line for construction and for developer Forest City Ratner to pay for the land. The project, if completed as planned, would bring an 18,000-seat sports arena and more than 6,000 units of housing to Brooklyn.

Several union carpenters spoke, including Derrick Taylor, 41, of Carpenters Local 926, who compared the debate over the plans to crabs in a bucket.

“If you have 20 crabs in a bucket, none of them will ever get out because they will naturally pull each other down. This is the crab with buckets, and Ratner is a crab — let him out.” Mr. Taylor said that Ratner is offering the community an opportunity to flourish.

Though outnumbered, those against the Atlantic Yards project also stated their case.

“I think that the plans are filled with delusions of grandeur,” said Bleu Liverpool, 26, a resident of Fort Greene who went on to say that she doesn’t think it will help the community as much as people think.

Here are some highlights from the hearing, held under the auspices of the Empire State Development Corporation, Atlantic Yards’ state sponsor. The hearings continue on Thursday.

In The Opposition Corner

Mayoral Candidates Tony Avella and Rev. Billy Talen; City Council candidates Brad Lander (39th), Evan Thies (33rd), David Pechefsky(39th), Ken Diamondstone (33rd), Ken Baer (33rd), Bob Zuckerman (39th), Josh Skaller (39th) and Doug Biviano (33rd); Norman Siegel, running for Public Advocate; SEIU local 371; Municipal Arts Society; Councilwoman Letitia James; Assemblyman Jim Brennan; State Senator Velmanette Montgomery; activist and sometime-candidate Kevin Powell.

* Assemblyman Brennan testified that the city and state would “never get the money back” that they put into this, citing the arena’s 40-year tax break and up to $300 million in bonded funds for infrastructure costs. “It’s not even a credible proposal,” he said. “The arena isn’t even an economic proposal — it’s a financial loss for the city and the state,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.” The project could be complete by now, he said, “if the state had agreed to undertake a rational project.”

* Councilwoman James declared the near-death of the project. “It’s time to put Atlantic Yards out of its misery,” she said. “The end is near.” She predicted that the ultimate fate of the project would be “the arena, and the arena only, and it will be a fraction of the affordable housing — that’s what [Bruce Ratner] will get away with.”

* Michael Rogers, a writer and journalist from Fort Greene, likened the battle to a terrible “scene” in a dark comedy about the abuse of public money. (He noted he would have set it in China or the Soviet Union.) “We’ve been told fantasy after fantasy,” he said, adding that Forest City Ratner needs, “to describe what’s really going to be built — no fantasies.”

* Rev. Billy Talen (mayoral candidate), called the development “anti-neighborhood” and decried any large development that removed public spaces where people congregate, like “On the stoop. At the bodega. Walking down the street.” He capped his speech with “Changelujah, we will win!”

* Activist and writer Kevin Powell noted the affordability promises were for higher-than-average families, not families headed by single moms, like the one he grew up in. “If you’re making less than $150,000, this is not affordable housing,” he said.

In the Pro-Yards Corner

Assemblyman Alan Maisel; State Senator Marty Golden; Borough Presdient Marty Markowitz; Congressman Edolphus Townes; City Council hopeful Anthony Herbert (41st); Ironworkers Local 580; Carpenters Local 79; Junior’s Restaurant; Downtown Brooklyn Alliance; BUILD; ACORN; New York Building Trades Council; Long Island University; Brooklyn Academy of Music.

* Long Island University’s Annette Fuentes said the arena would be valuable to LIU’s students and, specifically, the school’s sports management program. Echoing a point made by BAM, she said, “The presence of the Atlantic Yards will increase the visiblity of Downtown Brooklyn, which will clearly benefit LIU and the other academic institutions.”

* Junior’s Restaurant’s third-generation owner Alan Rosen noted that his longtime eatery may benefit from the surge of interest in the downtown area. “It will re-establish Downtown Brooklyn as a hub for economic activity large and small.”

* Sal Zarzana of Carpenter’s Local 79 noted that it would provide a good portion of his membership, of which he estimated 2,500 live in Brooklyn, with local construction jobs.

* New York State Assemblyman Alan Maisel called the project “vital for our future” and said those who spoke against it were a small group. “Most of the people that do the complaining are people who are not doing any developing.” Update | 5:58 a.m. DDDB leader Daniel Goldstein took issue with Mr. Maisel’s contention that the opposition was small, calling out that it was the supporters who were in the minority. For this, he was escorted from the premises.

* State Senator Marty Golden thanked Bertha Lewis of ACORN for her advocacy, and said the project promised economic development in what he called an otherwise fallow area. He added that Brooklyn needed the sports team.

* City Council hopeful Tony Herbert advocated for the project to proceed so it could keep local business thriving. He called the arena, “Brooklyn’s very own Madison Square Garden” and urged Brooklynites to “keep our money in Brooklyn and not go spend it in Manhattan. Let’s do it here, let’s keep it here, let’s move it forward.”

* Brownsville high school junior Troynel Andrews, 16, said she looked forward to using the space in the arena for community recreational activities and wanted to see her unemployed family members get work there. “They couldn’t pay me to talk about the arena,” she stated in her testimony, in which she detailed the plight of her aunt on welfare. Later she told The Local she is presently working a paid summer internship for BUILD, the community group leading the hiring efforts with Ratner. She hopes to work for them full time when she’s finished with school.

The hearing continued with an evening session. There will be two more sessions today, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Klitgord Auditorium, 285 Jay Street.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Union Pensions in the Red

Labor chiefs are doing better than the workers.

We’ve all read about underfunded corporate pensions, but here’s an unreported story: Union pensions are even more in the red, and it’s one reason union chiefs are so eager to rig organizing rules to gain more dues-paying members.

Only last week, the country’s largest union local re-opened the contract for its 145,000 members two years early and gave up raises and reduced retirement benefits for future hires. The SEIU’s United Healthcare Workers East struck this unusual deal so employers could instead plug a gaping pension hole.

In April, the SEIU National Industry Pension Fund—which covers some 101,000 rank-and-file members—announced that its pension has been put into what the feds call “critical status,” or “red zone.” In other words, it lacks the cash to pay promised benefits and may have to cut them. As of 2007, the last year for which it reported results to the government, the fund had 74.4% of the assets needed to pay its benefits.

Thirteen of the bigger plans operated for the Teamsters have, together, a mere 59.3% of reserves necessary to cover obligations. Or consider that 26 pension funds at the food workers union, the UFCW, are at 58.7%. Seven locals at the United Brotherhood of Carpenters fare better at 67%. As a rule of thumb the government considers a fund to be “endangered” at below 80%, and in “critical” status at below 65%, and requires them to come up with a plan to get off probation within a decade.

You don’t hear labor leaders touting this kind of performance in their organizing riffs, and not many workers are patient enough to review the Form 5500 filings submitted to the IRS and Department of Labor that track these retirement savings. But the data show a steady decline in recent years that can’t be explained merely by the stock market.

For example, Unite HERE’s National Retirement Fund stood at 115% in 1998 and dropped to 83.4% by 2007, well before the crash. The SEIU fund that was put into a “red zone” in April was at 103.4% as recently as 1998. On average, the asset to liability ration at so-called multi-employer plans, which union funds make up the bulk of, stood at 66% in 2006, according to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. By contrast, single employer plans, basically most company-provided pensions, were funded at 96%.

Poor management probably deserves a lot of the blame for the union decline, but the exact causes are a mystery. An even bigger mystery is that the unions do a far better job with funds created for their officers and employees than for mere workers. The SEIU Affiliates, Officers and Employees Pension Plan—which covers the staff and bosses at its locals—was funded as of 2007 at 102.2%. The plan for the folks at SEIU international headquarters was funded at 84.8%.

Union officer benefits are also far more generous than anything dues-paying workers enjoy. Consider again the SEIU, probably the country’s most powerful union. Their officers and employees get a yearly 3% cost of living increase, but SEIU members get none; officers qualify for an early pension at 50 or after more than 30 years of service, but workers can’t retire early with a pension; officers qualify for disability retirement after a year’s service, but workers need 10 years. In the land of union retirement, some workers are more equal than others.

We suspect most current union members would be surprised to learn how their leaders are handling their hard-earned retirement money. The 93% of the private workforce that doesn’t belong to a union, but that might have little choice if Big Labor’s agenda becomes law, would be even more interested.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

N.Y. Labor Leaders May Drop Support of Paterson


Leaders of some of New York’s most influential unions are discussing abandoning Gov. David A. Paterson as he prepares to run for a full term next year, a sweeping defection that could prove lethal to his hopes of winning his party’s nomination.

The leaders, who represent a broad cross section of labor groups, expressed concern, in a series of interviews, about whether Mr. Paterson, who has been troubled by low job-approval ratings and a loss of confidence in his ability to tackle the state’s financial problems, can rebound in time for next year’s election.

That such conversations are taking place among a constituency that plays such a crucial role in New York Democratic politics signals the tenuous position that Mr. Paterson finds himself in, particularly as Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo considers the possibility of challenging him in a Democratic primary next year.

Some labor leaders made it clear that time was running out for Mr. Paterson. Without a dramatic improvement in Mr. Paterson’s standing, they said, many labor groups would rally behind another candidate, possibly Mr. Cuomo.

“Time is his enemy,” said Stephen McInnis, the political director for the New York City District Council of Carpenters, who nonetheless reiterated that his 21,000-member organization still worked very closely with the governor. “He and his guys are going to have to pull this together.”

Arlea J. Igoe, the secretary-treasurer of the Public Employees Federation, a 59,000-member organization whose endorsement is up for grabs, expressed a similar view. “Is he going to be a viable candidate in the future?” Ms. Igoe asked. “The sense right now is that he has a long way to go to come back up.”

Tracy Sefl, a spokeswoman for the Paterson campaign, dismissed the idea that labor leaders would desert the governor next year. “The governor has enjoyed strong labor support in every election he has been in,” she said, referring to his years as a state senator. “And he looks forward to working with labor in the 2010 campaign.”

While labor has long been a critical part of the Democratic coalition, some unions have supported Republicans in the past and may do so again under the right circumstances.

But many labor leaders said in interviews that they were committed to keeping the governorship in Democratic hands and were feeling pressure to act much sooner than normal, and to try diplomatically to get Mr. Paterson out of the way before endorsing someone else.

Many contend that taking overt steps to elevate a strong Democratic candidate for governor as early as this fall might discourage a big-name Republican, like former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, from entering the race. Based on recent surveys, Mr. Paterson would lose badly to Mr. Giuliani, while Mr. Cuomo beats the former mayor.

And underscoring Mr. Paterson’s weakened status, nearly 7 out of 10 voters approved of the job Mr. Cuomo was doing as the state’s top law enforcement official, while only 3 out of 10 approved of Mr. Paterson’s performance, according to a poll in late May and early June by The New York Times, Cornell University and New York 1 News.

The possible abandonment of Mr. Paterson by some labor leaders reflects a larger anxiety among Democrats, not just over their chances of maintaining control of the governor’s mansion, but also over the prospect that his problems will hurt other Democratic candidates on the ballot in 2010.

One powerful labor official said he felt it was a matter of time before leaders in the party asked Mr. Paterson directly to step aside for the sake of the party.

“There will be pressures from many quarters, not just labor,” said the official, who did not want to be identified for fear of antagonizing the governor. “Nobody wants a failed Democratic Party in New York — or a Republican governor.”

The power that labor unions have in city and state politics stems from the resources that they can bring on behalf of a candidate or party. The groups can crank out mass mailings, deploy legions of campaign volunteers, set up phone banks and organize rallies — all without any direct cost to the candidates they back.

Labor has also shown itself to be pragmatic. Although former Gov. George E. Pataki was a Republican, many unions either remained neutral or supported him in his 1998 and 2002 re-election efforts, calculating that it was pointless to declare war on a popular incumbent who was favored to win both elections.

This time around, even union officials who defended Mr. Paterson did so in surprisingly measured language.

“I think it’s much too early to write off David Paterson,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who recently announced that she is stepping down as president of its New York City local, the United Federation of Teachers, and is perhaps the governor’s best union ally.

Asked directly if Mr. Paterson should step aside in order to potentially pave the way for Mr. Cuomo, Denis M. Hughes, the president of the 2.5 million-member New York State A.F.L.-C.I.O., responded simply, “I don’t know.”

Since taking office in March 2008, Mr. Paterson has spent much of his time in heated battles with union leaders, most recently over his efforts to reduce pension benefits for public employees. The bitterness is a stark reversal from Mr. Paterson’s days as a senator, when he and labor enjoyed a warm relationship.

Relations with the governor have become so damaged, in fact, that Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, said the 600,000-member union’s endorsement was still up in the air. “There’s no question that the governor needs to re-establish a record that shows a commitment to labor,” he said.

Any chance for Mr. Paterson to turn things around was severely hampered, labor officials said, by the power struggle in the Senate, which dragged on for more than a month and re-enforced the perception that the governor is too weak to take control of the agenda in Albany.

Mr. Paterson sought to take control of the Senate impasse by appointing Richard Ravitch, a former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, to the vacant lieutenant governor’s position, which could allow him to cast the tie-breaking vote.

But the deadlock in the Senate ended when Pedro Espada Jr., who had allied himself with the Republicans, returned to the Democrats, giving them a 32-to-30 majority.

Now Mr. Ravitch’s role is unclear, after a State Supreme Court issued a preliminary injunction on Tuesday blocking him from carrying out the duties of the office.

Ms. Igoe, of the Public Employees Federation, said the “debacle in the Senate is not helping him at all.”