City, construction unions strike deal to hire low-income workers

Some red flags, but mayor says agreement could yield 26,000 jobs

TRD New York /
Aug.August 13, 2020 05:40 PM
Gary LaBarbera and Bill de Blasio (Getty)

Gary LaBarbera and Bill de Blasio (Getty)

The city and a construction union group have reached an agreement on hiring people from poor communities to work on city-owned projects.

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday announced a project labor agreement with the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York that guarantees unions will “prioritize referral” of workers who live in areas where 15 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty level or are residents of public housing.

According to the city’s announcement, the “goal” is to ensure that such workers log at least 30 percent of the hours worked on certain renovation projects. The mayor said the deal could bring as many as 26,000 construction jobs to high-poverty communities.

“For a long time, you’ve heard of an assumption that there couldn’t be common ground between construction unions and communities of color,” the mayor said during a press conference Thursday. “In many, many ways, an outdated and inaccurate assumption, but grounded in a truth we need to look at and a hard truth that communities of color had not gotten enough opportunity from government, from the private sector, from the union movement, from any part of our society.”

De Blasio was referring to complaints from minority groups that unionized construction workers are still predominantly white and often from the suburbs, and that gaining union membership is difficult for minorities. The unions insist that their apprentice programs provide entrée for people of color.

BCTC President Gary LaBarbera said the agreement should “serve as a model for the nation” and commended the city for committing a pipeline of work to the deal.

The agreement will apply to renovation work on city-owned properties, while a second PLA for new construction applies to “selected future projects.” The deal also creates goals for the number of apprentices and pre-apprentices from disadvantaged communities including public housing.

“These agreements show that city dollars can do more than get work done,” Deputy Mayor Phillip Thompson said. “City dollars can help uplift people out of poverty.”

But there are red flags, including that the de Blasio administration did not say whether contractors or the union umbrella group will be penalized for failing to meet the goals. A representative for the city said unions will be required to provide information annually on its recruiting and apprenticeship programs.

Neither the city nor the BCTC would immediately provide a copy of the PLA. And project labor agreements have been criticized for often not delivering on their promises.

Kenneth Thomas, co-founder of the Minority & Women Contractors & Developers Association, said these and other details of the PLA — such as how these goals will interact with other minority- and women-owned business targets on publicly-funded projects — will be critical to assessing its success.

“I’m skeptical, but I’m hopeful that there is some substance behind this initiative,” he said.

On Thursday, de Blasio also called on the state to pass legislation that would enable the city to require contractors to hire low-income New Yorkers on all city-funded projects.

Write to Kathryn Brenzel at [email protected]


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