Home Transit Labor With report, RPA wades into looming labor fights

With report, RPA wades into looming labor fights

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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tacony palmyra April 26, 2011 - 9:01 am

There are a lot of ridiculous archaic union work rules that need to be abolished, but it’s a shame that the RPA got these Manhattan Institute hacks to author this study. Telling people that they ought to be paid less for their hard work is insulting, and never a way to win labor on to your side. The right wing stereotype of “lazy union workers” is only true if we make it true– that is, if we slash workers’ wages, benefits, and work conditions until we can’t recruit motivated candidates. I’d rather have well-paid workers who a really good at their jobs.

Andrew D. Smith April 26, 2011 - 9:33 am

You’re going to need to present a lot of numbers about the relative productivity of construction workers around the country and around the world to convince most casual observers that NYC’s construction workers are not lazy do nothings. Projects here take forever and every time you look at the “workers” on the job, 4 out of 5 of them are standing around chatting.

Before unions took charge here, buildings flew up. The Empire State Building’s 2.8 million square feet took just 14 months of construction and the International Building at Rockefeller Center’s 1.2 million square feet took less than six months. And this was at a time when it took four men to install a rivet and there was no software to manage workflow.

Is it possible that smaller workforces and more complex building codes explain a lot of that? I suppose, though I’d love to see anyone not affiliated with the construction workers argue that worker productivity hasn’t plummeted in the past 80 years. And even if such an argument exists, you’re not going to convince average people that construction workers work hard until we start passing construction sites and seeing them, you know, working hard.

Alon Levy April 27, 2011 - 10:02 am

The ESB also had five people die during construction.

Donald April 26, 2011 - 10:21 am

Companies want concessions from construction unions so that they can use illegal immigrant construction workers like they do in the rest of the country. That’s the goal.

Red April 27, 2011 - 9:28 am

RPA argues that that work rule reform is needed so that projects keep union labor instead of switching to non-union shops. Their argument is that if you can get union labor to be only 10% more expensive than non-union labor, you can stop the move towards non-unionized shops.

John-2 April 26, 2011 - 10:25 am

You really can’t do much with the union situation at the private sector level, at least compared to what Cuomo is trying to do with the packages public sector unions get. For a union like those in the building trades, as long as there remains some sort of private sector market for their services in the New York area at the current wage and benefit scales, it’s hard to make any reforms on the public second projects, even if it would save taxpayers in general and the MTA in particular some money (and you know that while Cuomo may be willing to bump heads with the unions a little, he’s not about to change Empire State labor rules to be the same as, say, Texas’ right-to-work laws, so any reforms in the wage and benefit scales in NYS will have to come due to economic hardship on the part of the union’s employees).

Bolwerk April 26, 2011 - 4:49 pm

Well, it would hardly make sense to be like Texas, which tries to promote third world living standards.

I don’t think wages and to a lesser extent benefits are even that big a concern. It’s largely the work rules, and it sounds to me like they’re probably trying to preserve those and the jobs they necessitate over the benefits packages and wages.

Donald April 26, 2011 - 10:30 am

The ultimate goal of companies is to BUST unions, not just get concessions:

Trade Unions in City Confront A Rise in Nonunion Projects


Don’t buy into any of this “Oh no, employers don’t want to destroy unions, they just want concessions because times are rough right now” stuff. Because that is how unions disappear.

petey April 26, 2011 - 11:25 am

spot-on donald.

Boris April 26, 2011 - 11:40 am

It’s not about unions; it’s about everybody else. With lower- and middle-income people under attack from the rich, of course it is insulting that some groups, such as unions, are shielded from this attack. The rich obviously want to remove the shield and make everybody poor; but what do the rest of us want to do?

What the unions are saying, basically, $5 (for example) for a subway fare is OK because that is the price level they work at. But many people can’t afford that fare. So either we redistribute income until $5 is something anybody can pay, or we fight the unions to get lower prices for their services. The rich has made their choice. What are the rest of us doing? Nothing. We keep voting for center or right-wing candidates.

Eric F. April 26, 2011 - 1:02 pm

“Telling people that they ought to be paid less for their hard work is insulting, and never a way to win labor on to your side.”

This was about work rules, not pay rates.

“The right wing stereotype of “lazy union workers” is only true if we make it true– that is, if we slash workers’ wages, benefits, and work conditions until we can’t recruit motivated candidates.”

People tend to respond to incentives. People will generally act as lazily as will be tolerated. Union workers aren’t bred by some special being to be genetically lazy. Working construction is tough work, dangerous work and unsteady work and it should be paid properly, but properly is a two-way street that should not include featherbedding.

Donald April 26, 2011 - 1:11 pm

“This was about work rules, not pay rates.”

It’s the same thing. Work rules usually affect pay.

Lloyd B. April 26, 2011 - 8:53 pm

Right or wrong, this report means RPA will have a harder time pulling together the big coalition needed to raise money for the MTA capital plan. Gary LaBarbara put himself in a tough place when he endorsed Cuomo. His public sector brethren weren’t real happy. What’s he get for his sacrifice to Cuomo II? It’s still secret. Old Gary needs to show his people that he’s still a labor leader and can deliver. That’s a tough one given the state of the building industry and defunding of the MTA. Expect the rhetoric to get harsher and harsher as Gary tries squeezing water from the stone and gets more frustrated and panicked.

Alon Levy April 27, 2011 - 10:13 am

The MTA admits that various work rules force a factor-of-two overstaffing, and that its construction costs are 3-6 times out of whack with the rest of the first world (in reality 3-15, counting only infill), including countries where unions are far more militant than in New York and have gotten far more concessions. In France, an eight-hour workday is what the conservatives support, since the current standard is seven hours, with six weeks of paid vacation.

At least they manage to argue for reducing spending by 10-20%. (Extra spending coming from lower quality work requiring change orders not included in the total.) By Manhattan Institute standards, it’s amazing.

Gregory A. Butler June 19, 2011 - 8:35 am

The real issue here is not about a handful of crane mechanics on standby, that’s just propaganda designed to inflame non union white collar folks who resent union workers because we make decent money and have a pension plan.

The real issue is union construction workers make middle income wages and have a benefit package, while our non union counterparts toil off the books for minimum wage.

Let’s look at carpenters, the trade I’ve worked in for 18 years and the largest single craft on any jobsite.

Union carpenters make $ 46/hr in wages. We also have Blue Cross, a defined benefit pension, an annuity plan (kind of like a union version of a 401K) and an apprenticeship program, all paid for by the contractors.

Non union carpenters make $ 8/hr, usually paid off the books with no taxes deducted, with no health coverage or pension or any other kind of benefits.

The RPA wants to reduce us to the wage level of our non union counterparts, to enrich the billionaires who own the buildings we build.

Finally, I have to laugh when you talk about “across the board belt tightening”!

Mr Trump isn’t tightening his belt – nor is Mr Silverstein, Mr Zuckerman, Mr Green, Mr Ross or any of the other billionaires who enrich themselves off the buildings me and my brothers and sisters construct for them.

They are still living high off the hog, along with the hedge fund managers and the partners in Goldman Sachs.

Those are the guys who wrecked the economy – not us!

So there is no way in hell we should give back even one penny, or give up one work rule!

We built this city – don’t cut our pay!


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