The Real Deal New York

Construction group criticizes award to union with troubled past

People for Political and Economic Empowerment has been vocal opponent of safety bill
By Kathryn Brenzel | September 26, 2017 07:00AM

Gary LaBarbera

A construction advocacy group on Monday chided the Building and Construction Trades Council for honoring a trade group with a history of alleged discriminatory practices.

A group affiliated with the council plans to present an award on Thursday to Kevin Connors, president of the Sheet Metal Workers Local 28, as part of a ceremony honoring the “unionized construction industry’s commitment to opportunity and diversity in New York City,” a flier for the event states. The problem, according to Martin Allen, president of People for Political and Economic Empowerment, is that the union hasn’t yet shown any such commitment.

“You are awarding an offensive participation trophy to the head of an organization that was required by law to end its discriminatory practices,” Allen wrote in a letter to BCTC president Gary LaBarbera.

In 2015, Local 28 agreed to pay $12.7 million in back pay to minority workers as a partial settlement of claims that the union denied work to black and hispanic members between 1991 and 2006. The settlement grew out of litigation that the U.S. Justice Department initiated in 1971, alleging that the union refused to admit minority workers. The union is still making payments on the settlement, court documents show.

Allen told The Real Deal that he’s not saying Connors, who became president of the union in 2012, did anything wrong, but that “it’s too soon” to hand the union an award. Connors didn’t return calls seeking comment.

LaBarbera noted that Allen has aligned with the opposition against the construction safety bill that will be voted on this week by the City Council, which will require construction workers to undergo a minimum of 40 hours of construction safety training. He said invitations for the award ceremony — which is being hosted by the Edward J. Malloy Initiative for Construction Skills — went out several weeks ago, and it’s not a coincidence that Allen raised issues about the award three days before the council is set to vote on the measure.

“The timing here is extremely dubious, and it’s clear to me and others that this is a distraction,” he said. “Everyone understands that you can’t undo history, but Mr. Connors is a change agent. That’s why he’s being recognized.”

LaBarbera pointed out that 50 percent of Local 28’s members are minorities and that the group increased the number of women participating in its apprenticeship programs while Connors served as chair of the joint apprenticeship committee. He said 74 percent of the workers participating in the union’s apprenticeship program are minorities.

Opponents of the construction safety bill, including the Real Estate Board of New York, have argued that the legislation will disproportionately impact minority workers. Unions have dismissed this claim, pointing to the diversity of their members. According to a March study by the Economic Policy Institute, 75.3 percent of the nonunion construction workforce in the city is made up of minorities. Of the union workforce, 55 percent are minorities, according to the report.