In a somewhat surprising move, the Regional Plan Association has joined with city business leaders to call for union concessions from organized construction workers. In a report released to the city yesterday and entitled “Construction Labor Costs in New York City — A Moment of Opportunity,” the RPA urged unions to accept reforms that would significantly cut costs at a time when major projects are in jeopardy over rising price tags. With the MTA’s own labor fights with transit workers looming, the RPA’s stance could have a major impact on future negotiations.
While the report isn’t yet available to the public, Charles Bagli of The Times offered up a summary. He reports that the study calls for “major concessions from the unions that dominate the construction industry.” It says that “cuts are needed to allow major projects to move forward” and calls for the reform by eliminating “obsolete work rules and featherbedding; by adopting a standard eight-hour day for all building trades; and by reducing benefit packages.”
Robert Yaro, head of the RPA, spoke out in favor of the report. “Given the wrenching changes in the real estate industry since the recession,” he said to The Times, “a growing number of builders have found that they can no longer support high labor costs…This is not about what union workers are paid. It’s about work rules and productivity. Those are things that should be changed.”
Bagli has more:
The association’s report says developers and owners, who absorbed the higher costs of union labor during the real estate boom, are now under pressure to cut costs because of lower rents and stringent financing terms. But the report also says that leading developers and contractors are attached to union construction work, in part because “the best union labor continues to surpass nonunion in skills and productivity,” and because the jobs provide “a key channel of upward mobility for millions of Americans.”
The report describes as archaic various provisions that unions have succeeded in keeping around, in contracts that were also signed by employers. These include the required presence of master mechanics and oilers for heavy equipment like cranes, which have become technologically advanced enough that the mechanics and oilers have very little work to do; and rules that say steamfitters, electricians and plumbers must always be around to monitor heat, electricity and water service, which the report likened to an apartment building having a full-time plumber rather than simply calling one when a leak occurs.
The report also called for eight-hour shifts to officially begin when a worker reaches his station, not when he arrives at the ground level, an issue in tall construction sites where many men are using a few hoists to get to the floors where they are working.
Essentially, the RPA wants to see the difference between union and non-union expenditures drop to 10 percent from the current levels, which the organization says are closer to 20-30 percent.
The report, of course, is not without controversy. Union leaders say that the two primary authors, Julia Vitullo-Martin and Hope Cohen, are former Manhattan Institute conservatives who would prefer to see unions dismantled. Citing “Wisconsin” and “the Koch Brothers,” the Building and Construction Trades Council spoke out against the report.
Yet, despite these charges, the basic contours of the RPA study ring true. We’ve long heard about archaic work rules that limit productivity and flexibility and drive up costs. In an era of fiscal instability and across-the-board belt tightening, it’s not unreasonable to ask for rules that better reflect economic reality, and as the MTA readies to negotiate with its workers over very similar concerns, this RPA report will likely serve as a template for demands.
These battles — with the construction industry, with the TWU — will only get uglier as the year progresses. Few politicians have waded into the trenches yet, but someone might need to step in to negotiate a settlement that helps ensure both parties are protected. The near-term future of our transit agency may depend upon it.