Thursday, May 26, 2011

Buildings Department Braces For 'Sabotage' In Labor Standoff

By Jon Lentz

The city Buildings Department is bracing for turmoil at construction sites when dozens of collective bargaining agreements expire at the end of next month, Commissioner Robert LiMandri told a City Hall breakfast yesterday.

He said his department will be on high alert as the June 30 deadline nears, and is planning how to navigate picket lines and deal with deliberate destruction by disgruntled workers.

“That’s certainly planning for the worst, and if that happens we’ll have to do that,” said LiMandri, who noted his department has a strong relationship with the city’s district attorneys. “Sabotage is certainly, I’m sure, at the top of every construction manager’s mind, but make no mistake about it: this city is not going to tolerate that kind of behavior.” '

The commissioner’s candid assessment came at a discussion hosted by Baruch College’s Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute and sponsored by the law firm Greenberg Traurig, during which he talked about the department’s challenges and successes since he took over in 2008.

Tensions between the city’s builders, contractors and unions have grown since last year. Developers say they need to cut costs 20 percent to restart the industry, and are asking for wage and benefit concessions as well as work-rule changes.

Construction workers say they have already sacrificed with temporary givebacks through project labor agreements, but have balked at making them permanent in new contracts.

Paul Fernandes, chief of staff at the Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 100,000 workers, said LiMandri’s remark about potential sabotage was “unfortunate.” He declined to comment on the ongoing talks.

Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers’ Association, which represents 1,200 union contractors in New York City, said it makes sense for the Buildings Department to take precautions to protect the public and be ready for the worst.

“I’m not going to speculate, and would certainly hope that it does not reach those proportions,” Coletti added.

The two sides are at odds over 29 construction contracts covering 60,000 carpenters, sheet metal workers and other laborers. In a sign of the intensity of the clash, hundreds of rowdy protesters rallied outside a swanky BTEA dinner at Cipriani Wall Street this week.

Coletti said that tensions between contractors and workers were higher than he had ever seen in his 25-year career, which he attributed to the severe building slump and construction unemployment levels as high as 30 percent. '

LiMandri said the Buildings Department is seeing early indicators the market may be turning around, however. He said the city set a new milestone in the first quarter of this year, when it issued 15,000 permits for smaller construction jobs such as moving walls or reconfiguring commercial office space. The previous high of 14,000 permits came during the boom year of 2005.

He also said demolition permits are up and stalled construction sites are starting to reopen, with 520 projects restarted and 140 already finished.

“These are all signs that things are starting to change,” LiMandri said. “I don’t know the details of the sovereign debt crisis and the credit markets. All I can tell you is what I’m seeing.”

LiMandri said his own department is trying to perform its dual missions of promoting construction and protecting the public better, pointing to a 56 percent drop in accidents on construction sites.

He sported an orange wristband that says “Experience Is Not Enough,” part of a campaign to emphasize safety to seasoned construction workers who sometimes ignore safety precautions—and suffer a high proportion of construction accidents.

Several industry workers grilled LiMandri about what they called widespread problems with unqualified and bureaucratic plan examiners, who are responsible for reviewing and approving construction plans.

“The problem is it’s too damn complicated,” LiMandri quipped, eliciting laughter from the audience, before revealing the department has started evaluating examiners’ performance by tallying their approvals and disapprovals.

“There will be consequences if we find that someone needs retraining, or isn’t doing the right thing,” LiMandri said. “I agree that we make mistakes sometimes when we work with you. With this collaboration coming together … I guarantee you we will change the way we do business.”


  1. Anymember NYC District CouncilMay 27, 2011 at 4:57 AM

    Thats what the Bloomberg administration thinks about labor.Why would we help politicians get elected,when they think so little of us. LABOR CONQUERS ALL!!!


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