Friday, July 1, 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.

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.

By Daniel Massey / Crain's New York Business
June 30, 2011 [Updated 12:42 P.M.]

Local 3 member confirmed as new President of the Central Labor Council

Vincent Alvarez receives a unanimous vote to run the organization, just a year after resigning as chief of staff over objections to the preceding leader.

Vincent Alvarez, who resigned last year as chief of staff of the Central Labor Council after raising questions about the ethics of its president, was unanimously elected Thursday night as the next leader of the organization.

A 21-year member of Local 3 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a native of Staten Island, Mr. Alvarez won the esteem of union leaders over two decades of volunteer work with the Council. And his move to stand up to former Central Labor Council President Jack Ahern—and ultimately resign over Mr. Ahern's use of a limousine and other questionable leadership decisions—helped cement his reputation within labor circles. I pledge to you that working together as one movement—public sector, private sector and building trades—we will redouble our efforts to find effective solutions to complex problems affecting working people," Mr. Alvarez said in an address to the 318 delegates who elected him.

Before electing Mr. Alvarez, the delegates voted to approve a constitutional amendment allowing the umbrella organization representing the city's unions to have a full-time president. Previous presidents also held leadership positions with other unions, and two—Brian McLaughlin and Mr. Ahern—ended up embroiling the organization in scandal.

Mr. McLaughlin was sentenced in 2009 to 10 years in prison for racketeering, and Mr. Ahern resigned his position in March under pressure after concerns emerged about his leadership, including a report from his own international union that questioned his expenses, which topped $200,000 a year. Delegates also elected Janella Hinds, a member of the United Federation of Teachers, to the newly created position of secretary treasurer. Ms. Hinds has been a labor activist for 15 years and served on numerous negotiating committees with the federation.

Mr. Alvarez, 42, is the first Hispanic president of the Council since it merged with the AFL-CIO in 1959. His father emigrated from Cuba, and his mother is Irish-American.

For years, he volunteered to coordinate the annual Labor Day parade. Central Labor Council insiders often joked that his salary, which was $0, should be doubled because of all his work. About four years ago, he was finally hired by the Council to serve as its chief of staff, a position he resigned in November. He remains a dues-paying member of Local 3 and had been working at the state AFL-CIO since he quit the labor council. “He is the most honest and decent guy you'll ever meet,” said Ed Ott, a former executive director of the Council who is now a distinguished lecturer in labor studies at the City University of New York's Murphy Institute. “This is what the Council needs. It will reassure the members that the place is now in good hands.”

Other Central Labor Council staffers followed him out the door, putting in motion a process that prompted state AFL-CIO President Denis Hughes to temporarily take the reins of the organization. For several months, Mr. Hughes had been working to put a process into place that would help the Council regain its footing and ensure problems that plagued it in the past are not repeated.

Mr. Alvarez, whose four-year term starts immediately, becomes president at a time when the city's unions are facing stiff battles over pensions, layoffs and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s attempt to open stores here, among other contentious issues. He was elected the same night some two dozen construction union contracts expired following a contentious run-up to the deadline. “Our city, state and country are continuing to struggle through one of the most difficult economic periods in the last 80 years,” Mr. Alvarez said. "It's time the New York City labor movement raises its collective voice and says 'enough is enough' to policies that adversely affect working people.”