State Budget Passes + The Fight For Union Labor at Hudson Yards

Local News

  • Governor Cuomo and lawmakers reached a deal on the $168 billion state budget on Friday, which as usual included a wide range of new initiatives, such as a $2.75-per trip fee on for-hire vehicles like Uber and Lyft that drive into a designated Manhattan central business district, while inexplicably leaving out other proposals that Cuomo had touted in earlier budget talks, such as early voting.  
  • Transit advocates and NYC Council Member Brad Lander accused Cuomo of pulling a bait-and-switch over congestion pricing by appearing to support and prioritize the plan, yet ending up with only a modest first step of taxing for-hire vehicles.
  • City Limits outlines the modest gains that housing advocates were able to secure in the final budget, from a very small rental voucher pilot program, to 25% of the $1 billion that they had demanded be given to NYCHA.
  • Early numbers from the new Housing and Vacancy Survey by the Census Bureau indicate that there are now 247,977 empty rental apartments in New York City – an increase of 35% since the 2014 Survey – despite a massive shortage of affordable housing in the City. Over 100,000 of the vacancies are considered “temporarily or seasonally occupied,” meaning they are used as vacation homes or pied-a-terres.
  • Despite repeated insistences by the Governor and others that the new Tappan Zee Bridge (technically now named the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge) is “on time and on budget,” a review of the Thruway Authority’s bond statements and other documents indicate that it is neither.
  • Fulfilling a campaign promise from new Speaker Corey Johnson, City Council moved to increase its own operating budget by nearly 30%, mostly to enable the hiring of more Council and committee staff. Among the main beneficiaries will be the Council’s land use division, which Johnson intends will allow Council Members to take a more proactive role in the Deblasio administration’s numerous neighborhood rezonings.
  • In a written statement, De Blasio urged the state parole board to reverse their decision to release former black panther Herman Bell, echoing the stance of the NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.

Elections

  • Since Cynthia Nixon’s announced candidacy, Gov. Cuomo has been racing to secure the early support of the black voters in New York, a constituency that has overall stayed loyal to him (Zephyr Teachout won an “abysmal” 14% of the vote in the Bronx in 2014) but that has expressed concerns about his commitment to issues like contracting for minority- and women-owned businesses.
  • NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer has endorsed two challengers trying to unseat members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC): Robert Jackson who is challenging Marisol Alcantara in Manhattan and Jessica Ramos who is challenging Jose Peralta in Queens.
  • Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro is expected to announce his candidacy for New York State Governor this week and is seen as the prohibitive favorite to secure the Republican nomination.
  • Former New York City Councilmembers Melissa Mark-Viverito and Elizabeth Crowley have launched 21 in ‘21, a campaign to elect 21 women to the City Council in the next round of elections. Currently, 11 of 51 NYC Councilmembers are women.

In-Depth: The fight for union labor at Hudson Yards

"Divestment"

Manhattan’s largest development company, The Related Cos., recently filed a lawsuit against the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York (BCTC) and its president, Gary LaBarbera. The BCTC contains 15 building trades local unions, representing over 100,000 workers. The suit claims costs were inflated by more than $100 million at the Hudson Yards megaproject over the past 6 years. Hudson Yards is currently the largest private development in the U.S., and will include over 18 million square feet of residential, mixed-use, and office space, and is being built over the rail yards.

Hanging in the balance is the next phase of the Hudson Yards project. Phase I was completed using 100% union labor for any part of the project over 100,000 square feet. Much of the work was bargained through PLAs (project labor agreements), and included concessions to wages and benefits, and an increased length in work day, in exchange for guaranteeing that the work go union.

For Phase II, Related wants to use an “open shop” or “merit shop” model, meaning they would pick and choose when and where to use union labor and nonunion labor. This model attempts to pit unions against each other, allows developers to reward work to those who give more concessions, and runs the risk of breaking solidarity between unions.

The lawsuit and #CountMeIn

In its lawsuit, Related says that the BCTC has discouraged building trades unions from signing on individually, and that LaBarbera in particular has defamed the company. Related is also claiming that during Phase I of the Hudson Yards project, “coffee boys” were overpaid, “no-show” jobs were charged, and work was done unsafely. Related is seeking $75 million in damages from the BCTC and $200,000 from LaBarbera.

What the lawsuit misses is that payroll submissions, decisions about who takes coffee orders, and safe work conditions are all controlled by the sub-contractors or developer, not the BCTC or any of its affiliate unions. Related and its construction manager, Hudson Yards Construction LLC (HYC), supervise the project. Going over budget by $100 million is a crisis in management. Over the past 6 years, Related has filed no grievances over any complaint listed in the lawsuit. If Related or Hudson Yards Construction thought they were being overcharged, the common practice would be to file a grievance against the subcontractor they believed to be overcharging.

The lawsuit was conveniently filed just as the #CountMeIn movement has grown and turned up the heat on Related. #CountMeIn is a movement that protests “open shop” and nonunion construction projects, and is led and mobilized by union building trades rank and file. Building trades workers have been meeting to protest Related’s latest development at 6am every Thursday since October. Rallies are typically militant, energetic, and can draw upwards of 1,000+ workers from all trades, on their way to work at Hudson Yards.

What grievances has Related and HYC filed? They have grieved the presence of #CountMeIn stickers, buttons, and clothing on the jobsite. They have also filed a grievance to force a concession from a local union, citing the “most favored nations clause,” which requires unions to give the same deal they gave to another company. In addition, they’ve threatened workers with job loss and retaliation for wearing any #CountMeIn material onsite, and threatened to ban unions pushing back against abuse of workers.

Why this fight matters

It is widely recognized among building trades workers that this project represents an important pinch point in the fight against nonunion work: a project of this scale, and that promises to be this profitable (Related has received tax abatements and other incentives, and penthouses are already being sold for $32 million), must go union to avoid a precedent of what can be built nonunion.

Some building trades workers are taking the lawsuit as a sign of Related’s weakness, and that the #CountMeIn movement has pressured Related to resort to a retaliatory lawsuit in an effort to turn down the heat. Related has attempted to paint the #CountMeIn solidarity among workers as coercion from the BCTC and LaBarbera.\

The question remains: will solidarity rule the day, and triumph over the open shop model?

(Illustration by Annie Zhao)

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