The Closing: Gary LaBarbera

The hardhat's hardhat on leading through crises, learning from his father and finding common cause with Steve Ross

Gary LaBarbara (Photos by Axel Dupeux)
Gary LaBarbara (Photos by Axel Dupeux)

Gary LaBarbera can rattle off two specific dates: His first rendezvous with his future wife and the day he became a card-carrying union member.

On February 2, 1981, he joined Teamsters Local 282, a natural move for a Long Island kid whose father was a union man himself. That day kicked off a decades-long career fighting for organized labor in the city, a path that has pitted him against some of New York’s most powerful developers and has seen him shape some of the city’s marquee projects.

Since 2009, LaBarbera has led the city’s Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, an umbrella organization for construction unions that represent more than 100,000 workers. Late last year, LaBarbera also took the reins of the group’s state chapter in a moment of crisis: Its president was accused of accepting bribes and having ties to organized crime. In his new role, LaBarbera leads the development of the group’s policy priorities and has already secured a victory with the passage of a state bill to combat construction wage theft.

The labor leader is an imposing figure at 6-foot-3, a presence matched by a booming voice that goes hoarse when commanding a crowd of hardhats. Even on a Zoom call, he seems on the verge of a holler, ready to rally the troops. LaBarbera and his organization have repeatedly clashed with the real estate industry, largely over mounting competition from nonunion labor. A fight with Related Companies at Hudson Yards turned particularly ugly and, at times, personal between LaBarbera and Related Chair Stephen Ross before they called a truce in March 2019.

Born: November 10, 1959
Lives: Wantagh, New York
Hometown: Wantagh, New York
Family: Married, 3 children

How did you find common ground with Stephen Ross?

Prior to our disagreement, we had a very good relationship. We built the entire Eastern Rail Yards, which was an enormous project. After over a year of this contentious environment, I think both parties came to the realization that this just wasn’t good for the industry. We began with very small meetings with myself, Steve Ross, Bruce Beal and Jeff Blau on neutral ground. Because there was a preexisting professional relationship, there was a foundation. It took us about 10 weeks. The message was that there were no winners or losers, that our union would have the opportunity to work for them. Today, [the] vast majority of unions are doing their work. We still have a couple of things that we want to resolve, and I believe we will. And look, they have the Western Rail Yards to build, and God willing, that will all come together.

How do you go from being someone’s adversary one minute to working together toward a common goal?

My mindset is that it should never really become embedded in a personal dispute. I put the interests of the membership first. I think what Related did was put the interests of their organization first. When you have the ability to transcend your own personal views and put your organization’s interests first, if you’re really committed to doing that, you can make that transition. You have to say, “Well, what is best? Not for me, but what is best for the hundred thousand union members in New York City?”

In this case, ensuring that your members had a shot at potentially getting work on the Western Yards.

That is absolutely exactly the point, knowing what’s coming, that’s what I’ve been focused on.

That deal with Related led to another with REBNY, with the two groups pledging to join forces when their policy interests align.

When [REBNY President] Jimmy Whelan and myself started talking about all this, we said, “Rather than focusing on the 10 percent that we don’t agree on, why don’t we focus on the 90 percent we do agree on? And on that 10 percent, let’s just give each other the mutual respect to agree to disagree.” And if there’s something that they’re doing, or they want, that we think is detrimental, we’ll talk about it. It’s a hostile environment right now in the city toward development, right? And I’ve said to many elected officials, “Look, you have to put your ideological principles on the side. What’s best for the city? What’s best for constituents?” Some of them have disdain for the development community, and they want to stop every development. But I say to them, “In doing so, you’re crushing opportunity, you’re crushing jobs, you’re crushing careers.”

What are you looking for in the next mayor of New York?

We want a mayor that understands the importance of economic development, that understands how the real estate industry really contributes to the economic health of the city. There were so many major projects that are being talked about, certainly the Empire Station Complex and 10 high-rises [planned for the area around Penn Station]. Not to diminish the personal loss and the crisis that so many families, including myself — I lost my brother in January — that the pandemic has caused. But it also has created an economic crisis in the city. We really need a mayor to focus on creating good middle-class careers. Construction is the right place to do it. 

The Building Trades had endorsed Scott Stringer. A number of groups and individuals revoked their endorsement following allegations of sexual harassment against the comptroller. Did you rethink your endorsement?

We endorsed Scott Stringer largely because of the long relationship that we had with him. As comptroller, he did a number of significant things for the Building Trades’ unions in the city. We believe very firmly in the principles that are held within our Constitution, and that is the right to due process. This does not diminish, in any way, any of the allegations from the women. But there has to be a process in which all of the facts are heard. And so we did not have a knee-jerk reaction just to say, “Well, there’s an allegation, and therefore we are no longer going to support this individual.” I know many people did, but when you do that, then there’s an immediate assumption of guilt. And that’s not our system.

Gov. Cuomo has long been an ally of the Building Trades. What was your reaction to the multiple allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct that have been made against him? Has your relationship with the governor changed at all since these allegations came to light?

It has not changed my relationship at all with the governor, nor the Building Trades. Let me go back to what I was talking about when we were talking about the allegations with Scott [Stringer]. We don’t diminish these allegations, but we fully believe in the process.

The governor has been, in my opinion, probably the best governor for the building trades unions and for the state of New York in terms of building public infrastructure. We’re working closely with the second floor on issues that are good for the state and good for construction and good for development. Nothing has changed.

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Do you think you would reassess in the event that he is impeached?

These are all hypothetical questions. We would never make a decision until we had all the facts. But as of now, we support Gov. Cuomo, no question about it, we’re with him.

What was your reaction to the arrest of James Cahill, the president of the state Building Trades?

The allegations are very disappointing. Immediately, I started convening meetings to re-establish, number one, that there were no issues at the state council itself. And number two, that we are going to survive, and we’re going to function as normal and we are also not going to be knocked off our legislative agenda. I had countless conversations within the industry, with real estate developers, with contractors’ associations, with elected officials. I was very concerned about re-establishing trust, not only within the affiliates of the state council but within the industry, and within the legislature.

This isn’t the first time you have had to take the helm of an organization in crisis. You have been credited with turning around Local 282 after a series of indictments and allegations of funneling money to the Gambino crime family in the 1990s. Were there lessons you took from that experience?

The takeaway from that was, there’s nothing that replaces hard work. Those were days in the office at 7 a.m., and we didn’t leave the office till 8, 9 o’clock. There were so many things that were so complicated that were going on, trying to maintain some semblance of order at the local union and trying to keep things as operating as normally as possible.

Construction is historically not a diverse industry. What steps have you taken to address this when it comes to individual union leadership?

It’s starting to happen. We see in the Ironworkers, there’s an African American business manager now, which is wonderful to see. We see many organizers. We have local unions that have women organizers and business agents. So again, it’s an evolution, right? Leadership in unions evolves from and rises up from the membership. As the demographics of the membership changes, you’re going to see more and more diversity. And then ultimately, you’ll start to see that diversity emerge into leadership, and it’s beginning to happen now. It’s a process, to be honest with you.

Your father was a big influence in your life.

He passed away in 2015, but he made it to almost 99 years old. My father was a man of probably the highest integrity I’ve ever met. He taught me very fundamental things about life and work. He always said, “There were a few things to being successful, right? It’s number one, work hard. Number two, always be honest. Number three, always keep your word.” My father, post-World War II, joined the Teamsters Union, and I carry his card with me, his original union card in 1947.

What lesson do you hope your children take from you?

Both my parents lived through the Depression. On my father’s side, my grandmother had a dress factory in the Fashion District. And believe it or not, my grandfather had a spaghetti factory. They lost everything. I think that experience and World War II, and all the challenges that my parents went through, it shaped that generation. And that’s the way I was raised. I know all of my children have the same ethic. When my son was maybe 12 or 13, I asked him, “What do you think you want to do?” And this was before he decided to serve his country. And he said, “I’m not sure, Dad, but I want to be successful like you.” And I remember saying to him, “Just always remember that success is not measured by the clothes you wear, or how much money you make. Success is measured by how you conduct yourself throughout life.”

You started out as a forklift operator. What drew you to construction?

My lovely wife and I met in high school. We were married at 21 years old. We had our first child at 22 years old. Back then, that’s what you did. You met a high school sweetheart and you thought about getting married, working and raising a family. We had all three of our kids before we were 29. The mentality was either get a job for the city, you become a cop, a fireman, sanitation worker, or you get into one of the union construction trades. You have benefits, you have a steady paycheck and you have a retirement plan.

Do you remember how you met your wife?

A friend of mine wanted to ask a girl out to go to the movies, but the girl’s mother said she could only go out if there was a double date. She just didn’t want her going out alone with this kid. So my friend, who was a neighbor of my wife’s, said to me, “Would you be willing to ask Carolyn to go out to the movies? Because I can’t take Lauren out.” So I said, “Yeah, I know who she is.”

I called her and I asked her out and we went to see “Jaws” on July 6, 1976. As it turned out, I might add, she had been on a previous date and had already seen the movie, but she didn’t tell me till afterwards. But I got her.

So, in the process of doing your friend a favor, he did you a favor?

Yes, he certainly did me a favor.