Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Labor feud sparks pullout at Atlantic Yards hearing

By Chris Bragg

A dispute between two of the city's biggest labor players has put Forest City Ratner and its massive Atlantic Yards project in the crossfire.

On Wednesday evening, Empire State Development, the state's economic development agency, is holding a court-ordered hearing to take comments on its environmental impact study for Phase 2 of the Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards development.

The New York City Building Trades Council, the building trades' umbrella labor group, was expected to offer supportive testimony for the Brooklyn project. But its president, Gary LaBarbera, wrote in an email to his council's executive board Wednesday morning that those plans were off. It was apparently because of a simmering dispute between his group, the building workers union 32BJ, and Forest City Ratner.

"There remains a labor dispute involving the New York City District Council of Carpenters and representation of employees in the trades at the Barclays Center," wrote Mr. LaBarbera in the email, which was forwarded to The Insider. "A link to an article in the Daily News that describes the issue is provided below. Under these circumstances, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York will not be testifying at this evening's public hearing on the Atlantic Yards SEIS."

The New York City Building Trades Council did not immediately return a phone call seeking further clarification about the rationale for the decision.

The beginnings of the labor dispute were laid bare in the Daily News article Tuesday evening. Currently, there are 120 part-time construction workers at Forest City Ratner's Barclays Center who convert the arena from basketball venue to a concert hall—and who are represented by 32BJ. There is unrest, however, because these workers are paid far less than their counterparts at Madison Square Garden, who are represented the New York City District Council of Carpenters. That union is part of Mr. LaBarbera's umbrella building trades group.

The internecine union battle stems from the fact that the Barclays workers reportedly planned to stop paying dues to 32BJ Wednesday in a first step toward joining the carpenters union instead. Adding further intrigue, the Daily News reported Tuesday evening that Forest City Ratner officials had "scoffed at" union requests that the company create new, better-paying positions at Barclays. That appears to also have put the company at odds with the carpenters.

"We are scratching our heads," the carpenters' political director, Stephen McInnis, told the Daily News. "We have a long history of working with them, but they've been pretty much adamant on this. They came up with an offer but it was easy to refuse. When you look at a comparable facility like the Garden, they weren't even in the ballpark."

The Atlantic Yards hearing Wednesday evening, meanwhile, stems from a 2011 New York State Supreme Court ruling that the Empire State Development Corp. study the project's impact over 25 years, rather than just 10. Phase 1 of the project included the building of the Barclays Center, while Phase 2 is primarily housing and retail space. It begins at 5 p.m. at St. Francis College in downtown Brooklyn.

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