The Real Deal New York

A labor organizer visited a site developed by his boss’s brother. Then, he was fired

Michael Donnelly inspected an open-shop project developed by Charlie McInnis, brother of union prez Steve McInnis
By Will Parker | June 22, 2017 07:00AM

From left: Steve McInnis, Michael Donnelly, Joe Geiger and site at 176-180 Beach 127 Street in Queens (credit: YouTube and Google Maps)

A well-known labor organizer at the carpenters union was fired last month after he filed a safety complaint at a development site belonging to the brother of the union group’s current president, according to accounts of several union members.

As part of a field visit in late April to a number of construction sites in the area, Michael Donnelly, a labor organizer with the New York City District Council of Carpenters, visited a four-unit condo project in Queens’ Belle Harbor neighborhood. The project is being developed by Kennelly Development Company, whose vice president, Charles McInnis, is the brother of Steve McInnis, current president of the New York City District Council of Carpenters.

After inspecting the site at 176-180 Beach 127th Street and finding what he deemed unsafe labor conditions, Donnelly, a drywall and framing worker who since 2011 has served as a business representative for the union, is said to have filed a complaint with the Department of Buildings. DOB records show that such a complaint was indeed filed on April 27.

“Site is unsafe, 2nd Flr Terrace has no railing, exterior stair from 1st Fl to 3rd Fl does not have handrails,” the complaint reads. (The violations have since been resolved, according to DOB records.)

Members of Carpenters, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Donnelly spoke with a partner at Kennelly Development. In the conversation, Donnelly brought up the possibility of bringing union labor to the site, they said.

For decades, New York City unions have been losing ground to construction firms opting for cheaper nonunion labor. In the 1970s, 90 percent of city construction workers were union members, but today some estimate that number is closer to 50 percent. Residential real estate has seen perhaps the biggest shift to nonunion, prompting some unions to adjust their own practices to stay competitive.

​On May 9, two weeks after the Belle Harbor visit, Donnelly was fired from Carpenters. Several union members who spoke to The Real Deal believe the decision was tied to Donnelly’s activity on the Kennelly site — and his calling attention to Charles’ firm’s use of at least some nonunion labor.

“He was fired for doing his job,” one drywall worker said.

Liz McKenna, a spokesperson for Carpenters, said in a statement that Donnelly “was terminated from his position as organizer in May 2017 solely based on his inability to meet job standards. It is unfortunate that false allegations of uninvolved members and their families are being spread.”

In response to follow-up questions regarding Donnelly’s conduct, McKenna wrote that the union “had no knowledge of Michael Donnelly’s alleged interactions with the mentioned companies prior to his termination. Mr. Donnelly was chronically insubordinate and failed to uphold provisions outlined in employee policies and code of conduct.”

Though some may question why Donnelly bothered to stop by a tiny project all the way out in the Rockaways, union members said the area has become a focal point for organizers since the Superstorm Sandy recovery effort led to a spike in home construction there. A TRD analysis of building permits data shows that in the last three years, close to 50 new residential projects in Belle Harbor and Rockaway Beach have kicked off construction.

The Carpenters union, the regional organizing body for unions within the national Union Brotherhood of Carpenters, has been under federal government monitor for more than two decades, following scandals in the 1980s and 1990s that highlighted the extortion and corruption then rampant within its ranks. In 2011, Dennis Walsh, who at the time was the court-appointed review officer for the Carpenters, reported that the union remained under the influence of the mob. It’s regarded in the real estate industry as having considerable negotiating power, given the specialized skills its members have.

The current monitor for the Carpenters is Glen McGorty, a white-collar and regulatory enforcement attorney at the law firm Crowell Moring. McGorty, a former federal prosecutor, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. He filed his most recent public report on the Carpenters in federal court in mid-April, before Donnelly’s dismissal.

When reached by phone, Donnelly declined to discuss his dismissal from the Carpenters. Charles and Kennelly did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Rank-and-file union members who know Donnelly said he is focused on getting his job back and does not want to compromise the work of the federal monitor in any potential investigation into his firing. TRD was unable to confirm if McGorty had opened any kind of investigation.

Ray Rogers, the founder of labor advocacy group Corporate Campaign, Inc. who collaborated with Donnelly at a TIAA-owned development in Queens, described him as “one of the most committed, hardworking organizers I ever worked with.”

“He lived and breathed what he was doing,” Rogers added.

Kennelly Development, led by ex-firefighter James Kennelly, made headlines in 2008 when a crane collapsed and killed seven people at a development site it owned at 303 East 51st Street. The crane rigger hired to work the site, William Rapetti, was eventually cleared of manslaughter charges. In 2011, Kennelly sued two law firms for $100 million, claiming they had given the developers bad zoning advice.

Charles’ brother, Steve, is the Carpenters’ current president, second-in-command after the organization’s executive secretary-treasurer, Joe Geiger. Steve also served as a temporary executive secretary-treasurer after Michael Bilello was removed by a previous federal monitor in 2013, after an investigation found Biello improperly diverted worker compensation to the union’s welfare fund.