Saturday, July 9, 2011

The plot thickens: Concrete workers could strike next week

The plot thickens as cement and concrete workers greet a wage cut with stone faces. Other unionized construction workers have already nailed down agreements with contractors.

More than 2,700 concrete workers could walk off their jobs next week, stalling construction at sites including the World Trade Center memorial, a concrete union official said.

The workers, who earn about $40 an hour, are still without a new contract, a week after negotiations with an industry association were extended past a deadline.

Wages are the sticking point between the Cement League and Laborers' Locals 6a, 18a and 20 of the Cement and Concrete Workers of New York, according to the union official, who has knowledge of the negotiations. The league is offering a wage package that would, in effect, result in a 25-cents-an-hour decrease over a three-year contract, the official said.

The unions will not accept that, especially given that the Cement League agreed to 3% annual increases in a deal reached last week with two operating engineers unions, the official said. They also gave up a raise two years ago to help kickstart construction in the face of the downturn, the official added. “That was their last, best and final offer,” the official said. “Cement and concrete workers will be on strike effective Wednesday morning. They [the league] can avert a strike by changing their offer. They have until late Tuesday night.”

A source close to the building trades was less definitive, saying, “There is the potential for a [work] stoppage if they can't reach an agreement by some point in the middle of next week.”

Bryan Winter, executive director of the Cement League, would only say that negotiations are continuing. Officials at two of the three unions and at the Cement and Concrete Workers District Council did not respond to requests for comment.

A strike could shut down work at 34 construction sites across the city. It's not clear if work at the World Trade Center memorial would be affected, as Navillus Contracting, the concrete contractor there, is not a member of the league, but the union official said a stoppage could shut down work on that project, regardless of any public backlash.

The building trades source said the unions offered to continue working if Navillus agrees to sign any deal that is eventually reached with the league. But Navillus has yet to respond to the so-called “me-too” offer. Navillus did not respond to requests for comment, and the union official denied the offer was on the table.

Work on developer Larry Silverstein's World Trade Center Tower 4 would not be affected because of no-strike pledges included in a labor agreement on the project.

In the run-up to the June 30 expiration of some two dozen contracts between contractors and construction unions across the building trades world, much of the attention was focused on the operating engineers. The operating engineers reportedly gave in on some work rules affecting manning of cranes and double time for operating of large cranes in exchange for the raises. It's unclear how rank and file operating engineers will vote when the contract comes up for ratification Thursday.

But a week after the deadline, the focus for now has shifted to the concrete workers, who are, surprisingly, the lone holdout.

The last cement-related strike in the city occurred in 2008 when a walkout by a union representing hundreds of cement truck drivers brought major construction projects to a halt.

By Daniel Massey
July 8, 2011