Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ready To Walk Out

Builders fear widespread shutdown if construction unions strike

By Adam Lisberg

The question is no longer whether New York City construction workers will go on strike next week, say people involved in the talks—it’s how long they’ll stay out.

Among the union, real estate, construction and government officials monitoring the negotiations, almost everyone expects at least some of the 16 construction unions will walk off the job after their contracts expire June 30.

Most likely to strike, they say, are Operating Engineers locals 14 and 15, which are in developers’ sights because of their extraordinarily lucrative contracts. Builders say the old labor pacts require dozens of engineers on complex sites, each guaranteed six-figure salaries and overtime for crane jobs that require literally no work.

The engineer locals, which have a history of Mafia involvement, did not return calls for comment. It remains unclear, however, whether other unions will also join them on the picket lines or cut last-minute agreements.

“Most of them will go right down to the wire,” said Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers’ Association, which has been pushing since last year to reduce costs in the next round of contracts. “We really felt that this was and is a real threshold moment.”

The Bloomberg administration has said it will not intervene in a private labor dispute, but several agencies are preparing for the worst. The Buildings Department, the Office of Emergency Management and the NYPD have all joined planning meetings to make sure complicated construction sites remain safe in the face of picket lines, walkouts or deliberate sabotage.

Officials in other unions hope a walkout would be quick: long enough for workers to vent their frustration but short enough that it would simply extend the three-day July 4 weekend a little longer.

Across the table, though, developers fear a walkout would turn into a costly stalemate, as rhetoric hardens on both sides.

“What this strike is going to be about is the unwillingness of the unions to give up what everyone agrees are quarter-million-dollar no-work jobs,” said one frustrated real estate official. “Because they won’t give up those jobs, a $60,000-a-year carpenter is going to have a prolonged summer of unemployment.”

Major developers and their highly skilled union workforce have long had a productive relationship in New York, where real estate families have been willing to pay for broad benefit packages and put up with aggravating work rules in exchange for labor peace and top-flight quality.

That relationship was tested after the 2008 market crash, when financing dried up and construction stalled. Hard hats suddenly faced double-digit unemployment, while developers said they needed to cut labor costs 20 percent—and threatened to start using nonunion crews on tall buildings in Manhattan.

Many unions are already operating under project labor agreements, which offered temporary concessions in exchange for getting particular construction projects working after the economy stalled. Some of them involved pay and benefits, but others covered what builders called inefficient work rules, such as staggered start times for different trades and time wasted getting to upper-story work sites.

Unions balked at permanently locking those benefit and work-rule givebacks into new contracts, and were irked when contractors launched a subway ad campaign to sell the idea to workers—bypassing union leaders.

Those agreements require unions to keep coming to work even without a contract, but nobody knows whether strong-willed hard hats will do so on every job site—or whether there will be anything to do without engineers to operate the cranes.

“No one knows the answer,” Coletti said. “There really hasn’t been a major strike in this industry in forty, fifty years.”

Some contractors have begun stockpiling supplies on job sites, hoping that trades that stay on the job will be able to keep working even if operating engineers leave their tower cranes unoccupied.

Developers, meanwhile, have pushed for a more brash solution. New York City uses a city-specific exam to license crane operators, instead of a national licensing standard, which forces builders to hire the high-priced operating engineers.

The Buildings Department has scheduled a meeting June 23 to discuss switching to a national standard some time in the future—but developers believe if it happens on an emergency basis by June 30, they could work around an engineer strike by hiring replacements from outside the city.

Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, in charge of the city’s response, threw cold water on that idea.

“I don’t think it’s good for the city to address this issue artificially quickly in order to influence the labor negotiations,” he said. “We view it as a very complicated issue involving private parties.”

One of the city’s largest construction sites, ironically, will likely be unaffected by a labor stoppage, Goldsmith said.

Unions working at the World Trade Center site are under a project labor agreement with a no-strike pledge, and though the operating engineers did not sign any agreements, people privy to the talks expect they will stay on the job there so they won’t be seen as blocking America’s recovery from the 9/11 attacks.

“It’s just unimaginable that folks would not show up for work at such a critical and symbolic site,” Goldsmith said.

The Real Estate Board of New York has used the towers, transportation hub and memorial under construction there as an example of the operating engineers’ largesse, saying members of those two locals will reap almost $100 million in no-work jobs over the next three years.

“There’s no way the unions strike the World Trade Center,” said someone involved in the process. “Somebody’s got to soften up the rhetoric so they can gracefully accede to some changes in work rules.”


  1. How soon after the mergers we're elections held? Out here in the Pacific Northwest,,there is NO discussion about when elections will be conducted! Lastly,what happened to John Graeny after his conviction? Congrats to all who elected a "pro workers slate!msettles,lu 30,renton,wa.

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