Deal with Hudson Yards Developers Frustrates Union Members

After battling over a year against the developer's use of non-union labor, the rank-and-file feel betrayed by their leadership

Construction workers stop for lunch at a plaza across from the Vessel, the art installation at the heart of the new Hudson Yards development. (Lucas Manfield/NYCityLens)

Since late 2017, union workers have waged war against billionaire-developer Steve Ross and his Hudson Yards mega-project.

At weekly rallies, workers have protested the use of non-union labor at the $20 billion development. Calling their movement “CountMeIn,” union members have formed picket lines, staged sit-ins and marched through Times Square.

But last week, just in time for Hudson Yard’s grand opening on Friday, it was suddenly over. On March 9th, Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, the umbrella group representing 15 unions that is leading the protests, announced that he’d struck a deal with the developer and his company, Related. Two days later, the group posted a terse message to its Facebook page: “Until further notice Tuesday & Thursday rallies are canceled.”

The rank-and-file were livid.

“And just like that, this major campaign comes to a screeching halt with no explanation… Anyone feel like a pawn?” wrote Frank Artim, a member of the elevator union, in a comment shortly after the message was posted.

A March 6th press release trumpeting the “historic accord” and promising “a new model of collaboration” offered a reason for the movement’s conclusion. Snuck in the bottom: “Related and the BCTC agreed not to participate in protests… and all litigation by and between these parties will be withdrawn.”

“Sure does feel like a trick so we don’t interrupt their grand opening of the stairway to nowhere. Only thing that’s a definite from this truce is lawsuits being dropped,” read a comment from CJ Craddock, a union ironworker.

He’s onto something. The group’s social media accounts had been teasing a “3/15” event, referring to the day scheduled for Hudson Yard’s grand opening. That never happened.

Instead, eager shoppers – many of whom had waited for hours in line on the sidewalk outside – streamed into the newly opened five-story mall and ogled “Vessel,” a massive art installation at the heart of the development. Next door, construction workers laying the foundation of a nearly 1,000-foot skyscraper took a break for lunch at the plaza above the new 7 train station.

Meanwhile, Related dropped a pair of lawsuits its subsidiaries had filed against the group.

Those lawsuits, filed a few months apart in early 2018, accuse LaBarbera and the Trades Council of breaking commitments and sabotaging the Hudson Yards project.

Among the accusations: Paying a “coffee boy” $90 per hour to sell coffee to other workers, slashing the tires of non-union concrete mixers and paying a union employee for “12 hours per day, 7 days each week for an entire year.”

“In my opinion, they are a bunch of fucking liars,” LaBarbera shot back during a rally in October, according to The Real Deal, a news organization covering New York real estate.

But now, according to LaBarbera, that’s all water under the bridge. “Today is the start of a new era of collaboration between the development community and unionized construction industry,” he said in the statement announcing the deal.

There’s good reason for the sides to make nice. Hudson Yard is the largest private development in the United States and has so far employed over 20,000 construction workers, Related claims.

Bernard Callegari leading a CountMeIn rally in December. (Lucas Manfield/NYCityLens)

And for Related, the conflict with the union has delayed construction and cost the firm millions. Although organized labor is generally more expensive – up to 25 percent more according to Louis Coletti, a union advocate – for some specialized tasks there’s no other option.”There is some leverage,” said Bernard Callegari, a union organizer, in an interview in December. He said that members of multiple unions had refused to cross picket lines to work on the project.

Still, the deal leaves a bitter taste for rank-and-file workers who have made real sacrifices along the way. In August, 37 construction workers, including Callegari, were arrested for blocking traffic on Park Avenue during a sit-in to protest Ross’s naming to an NFL advisory committee.

“We didn’t come this far just to get an A for effort and a pat on the back,” wrote Pat O’Neill of Local 7, the tile, marble and terrazzo union, on Facebook.

Their efforts had even attracted notice of New York’s political power brokers. In October, 33 city council members introduced a resolution stating their support of the movement. Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, and New York Attorney General Letitia James have both spoken at CountMeIn rallies.

Bennett Kremen, a member of Pipeliners Local 798, reflected on Wednesday about the implications of the movement’s demise in another Facebook post:

“Seeing this tragic betrayal of the “Count Me In” movement now explains exactly why the great American labor movement and our struggling democracy are dying.”

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