Saturday, July 2, 2011

Major construction strike averted

Tentative contract agreements between contractors and the unionized operating engineers were reached just before Thursday's midnight deadline, preventing a $10 billion strike.

By Daniel Massey

International Union of Operating Engineers Locals 14 and 15 reached new three-year deals late Thursday with contractor associations, averting a strike that could have brought unionized construction in the city to a standstill.

In a statement, Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers' Association said the unions "made major adjustments" in order for the sides to come together. He declined to elaborate beyond the statement. Details of the agreements were not immediately available.

The deal was announced shortly before a midnight deadline and came after months of tension leading up to the expiration of some two-dozen contracts spanning the construction industry. Union leaders had portrayed a public relations campaign by contractors as counterproductive.

“We’ve said from the start that negotiations are conducted at the bargaining table. Not anywhere else or by anyone else who is not party to collective bargaining,” said Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. “We are pleased that the pessimism of those predicting a strike has proven to be as misguided as the extreme rhetoric and demands that ultimately yielded to the real-world approach brought by organized labor to solving problems and improving competitiveness.”

Painters, steamfitters and mason tenders had already reached deals, but an agreement with concrete workers has proven elusive. Negotiators representing the Cement League and Laborers’ Locals 6a, 18a and 20 Cement and Concrete Workers of New York extended their deal past the midnight deadline. A labor source said the league had been seeking an across-the-board wage freeze over the life of a new three-year deal, which covers about 2,700 workers.

Bryan Winter, executive director of the league, would not comment on specifics of the negotiations. He said discussions are continuing.

“We’re taking it day by day,” he said. “Both sides are trying to reach an agreement.”

Unionized carpenters, who are under a federal monitor, were expected to have their current agreement extended beyond the deadline as court proceedings play out.

But most of the attention in the run-up to the deadline had been on the operating engineers, who control the heavy machinery—including cranes—that keep construction sites running. Contractors sought significant concessions from International Union of Operating Engineers Locals 14 and 15 in an effort to get rid of work rules they deem unproductive.

The labor source said Thursday that the operating engineers had put a “substantial offer” on the table in an effort to reach a settlement. Officials with Locals 14 and 15 did not respond to repeated requests for comment throughout the talks. A source close to the union said officials wanted to present the deal to their members before commenting.

Because the operating engineers are key cogs in the construction process, if they walked off their jobs, it would have idled more than 11,000 workers at private-sector projects costing nearly $10 billion, according to the Real Estate Board of New York.

A strike would likely not have affected work at the World Trade Center site, the labor source said, as the operating engineers indicated to the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey that they would not walk out at Ground Zero. With the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks coming up, a work stoppage there would have cost the union support from elected officials and the public.

The last operating engineers strike occurred in 2006, when an attempt by the General Contractors Association to win changes in work rules sparked a weeklong walkout just before the Fourth of July. Thousands of workers were sent packing, and billions of dollars in projects came to a standstill. A settlement included minor concessions and hefty raises.

Now that the Operating Engineers have signed, attention turns to the cement workers. A 10-day strike in 2008 by a union representing hundreds of cement truck drivers brought major construction projects to a halt.

Thursday night’s deal does not resolve the long-term future of the unionized construction industry. The two sides warred in the months before the deadline, fraying relationships built up over decades. With nonunion construction gaining an increasing share of the city market, the question of whether the two groups can put their differences aside in an attempt to fight the nonunion threat will be crucial.

Early signs indicate that it might be difficult to patch things up. Developers have said they need to reduce the 20% to 30% cost differential between union and nonunion work to about 10%. And in his statement, Mr. LaBarbera signaled that the unions have their own view of how those savings could be achieved.

“We must now move on to addressing the serious concerns that have been raised with respect to how management inefficiencies are inhibiting recovery, growth and good job creation in our industry,” he said.

The battle over the operating engineers may have been settled. But a broader fight may have just begun.

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