Monday, April 18, 2011

Relationship between city's construction unions, contractors getting ugly

The happy building-boom marriage between the city's big construction unions and its major contractors is over - and the divorce is getting ugly.

In an industry hit hard by recession, contracts that affect 60,000 hardhats in 30 unions across the five boroughs are set to expire June 30. Gone are the days when jobs were so plentiful that contractors and unionists referred to themselves as "cooperating partners."

Since the boom went bust, some unionized construction trades face joblessness as high as 25% - compared with 8.9% citywide. Developers are burdened with 52% more stalled projects this year than last.

Formal contract talks don't begin for most trades until May, but contractors have taken up arms, launching subway ads and a website exhorting union workers to "face the facts." In one video, Building Trade Employers Association President Louis Coletti urges union workers to "embrace difficult changes that are needed." The group, which represents contractors in the 28 trade associations that negotiate with unions, bolsters the message with pictures of more than a dozen big construction projects that recently went to nonunion labor.

A subway ad that ended last week featured posters depicting a hardhat and his family with the words, "Today 30% of union construction workers are unemployed." The website claims union work costs 25% more than nonunion and if union workers don't want their jobs to go to "the enemy," the BTEA says, labor costs must drop.

"The economy is pushing us over a cliff," Coletti said. "Our members are willing to pay an 8%-10% premium for union labor, but they can't afford the 25%-30% premium."

Contractors are using the bad news to try to force concessions, including reducing benefits and allowing tools that cut back the number of necessary workers. "We're saying that all work rules have to be productive, all jobs have to be productive," Coletti said. "I'm not prescribing specifics - different trades have different issues - but things have got to change."

Labor leaders are fuming.

Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, an alliance of 15 unions, called the pre-negotiation tactic "a real breach of trust" and "an attempt to circumvent collective bargaining." At the same time, unions are aware that the old team spirit between management and worker evaporated when the housing market collapsed. Bobby Bonanza, business manager of the Mason Tenders District Council, said the economy "went sour and along with it the relationship with the contractors got sour."

Bonanza insists his members "have made plenty of concessions." In recent years, he said, unions agreed to work rules that reduce nonproductive downtime, including staggered starting times and standardized holidays. Outside Manhattan, he noted, most unions routinely grant so-called project labor agreements that cut costs by 20%.

There's only so much the rank and file can sacrifice, Bonanza said. "They're looking for 20%-25% reduction in hourly costs, and I don't believe that is going to happen," he said.

Story by Brian Kates / New York Daily News
Monday, April 18th 2011