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Affordable Housing, Unlivable Wages

Started by GREGORYABUTLER, June 05, 2011, 04:36:51 pm

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By Gregory A. Butler

Currently, the New York State Legislature is debating S. 2893/A. 2472 a bill introduced by Senator Adriano Espaillat (D - Manhattan) and Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez (D - Brooklyn) that would require that some of the state's affordable housing developers pay prevailing wage on their projects.

Senator Espaillat and Assemblyman Lopez introduced the bill at the request of the New York City Building and Construction Trades Council, who have long been demanding that subsidized housing work be covered under New York State's Little Davis Bacon Act.

The Building Trades have been pushing for this for quite some time, with little effect. The reason that S. 2893/A. 2472 is so close to passage now is because of Governor Andrew Cuomo (D).

Governor Cuomo is backing the bill for the simple reason that he wouldn't have been elected without the support of the construction unions.

Cuomo has alienated the state's three largest unions, the American Federation of Teachers, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union with his calls for massive pension cutbacks for public workers.

Without the support of the construction unions, he'd have no labor base at all and no Democrat can get elected to statewide office here without labor support. This left Cuomo with no choice but to back this longstanding labor demand.

S. 2893/A. 2472 actually has a lot of loopholes in it.

It only covers developers who are receiving 421-a state tax abatements and are building apartment houses with more than 80 units, or where more than 50% of the units are actually luxury apartments.

Basically, developers who are actually using affordable housing funds to build luxury housing will now be required to pay the same prevailing wages that any other builder who uses public funds would be.

This is actually a very reasonable compromise - especially in light of the fact that affordable housing developers in this state are notorious for using some of the lowest paying contractors they can find, including contractors who pay less than minimum wage and systematically evade payroll taxes and workers compensation and unemployment insurance premiums.

Despite that, the affordable housing developer community (and their apologists in the corporate media) is hollering blue bloody murder.

The New York State Association for Affordable Housing is leading the charge, joined by the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, the Bank of New York Mellon Corp, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Capital One, numerous local not for profit developers, the low wage sweatshop contractors they hire to run their jobs, the NY Post and the NY Observer.

One of the most disgusting justifications that these users of state subsidized sweatshop labor have used is the claim that they wouldn't be able to use African American, Latino, Chinese or Indian labor if they had to pay prevailing wages!

These developers (many of whom are themselves people of color) seriously argue that only White tradesmen deserve to be paid prevailing wages - workers of color only deserve minimum wage!

The even bigger irony is, many of these government subsidized apartments, built with minimum wage minority sweatshop labor, end up being rented to affluent Whites, at rents that are in line with the rents charged by private luxury housing developers who use union labor to build their buildings.

The affordable housing developers have a good deal (as do the big money Wall Street interests who supply them with the financing they need to operate), and these folks want to keep it, at the expense of construction workers, tenants and the taxpayer.

Senator Espaillat and Assemblyman Lopez' bill threatens that gravy train, and that's why they are fighting it so hard.

The bottom line is, a whole lot of folks have gotten very rich using public funds intended to build housing for the poor to construct apartments for the upper middle class, while paying poverty level wages and no benefits to the men and women who actually build these apartment houses.

It's actually a pretty disgusting state of affairs.

Let's take a look at how this happened, and what New York City's tenants and construction workers can do about it.

We'll start by discussing the fall of Rent Control, which marked the dawn of the modern era of rent gouging, gentrification and landlord profiteering that has tormented the 80% of New Yorkers who are renters for the past 40 years.

In 1947, after 25 years of struggle by communist-led tenant organization, the City of New York was forced to pass the Rent Control Law.

This put a cap on rent increases, kept rents low enough for working class people to afford decent apartments in the city.

Alongside Rent Control, there was also the rapid expansion of the NYC Housing Authority's public housing projects and the construction of subsidized private affordable housing complexes (some of which were owned and operated by labor unions).

Between Rent Control, the projects and the subsidized housing developments, New York City's poor, working class and middle class had decent apartments at reasonable rents.

However, in the late 1960s, landlords and real estate developers began to demand the repeal of rent control and, along with the media, they began a racially charged campaign attacking public housing as "crime ridden" and "dangerous" (thinly veiled racial code words for "majority Black").

Since the communist led tenants movement basically disintegrated after the passing of the Rent Control Law and the unions had no interest in fighting for tenants rights, there was nobody out there arguing against this wave of anti tenant propaganda and the ideas of the landlords became accepted conventional wisdom.

The Community Based Organizations that had emerged in the 1960s in the African American, Latino and Chinese ghettoes of New York City could have been a base of opposition to these attacks on tenants.

However, the Democratic Party brought them into the process as junior partners and essentially made them allies and confederates of the landlords (more on that below).

The only other organization that could have resisted was a small Communist Party, USA front group called the Metropolitan Council on Housing (Met Council). Met Council was the last tiny remnant of a once vast communist-led tenants movement in New York City.

Unfortunately, by this time, all Met Council was capable of was organizing small groups of volunteer lawyers to help tenants trying to fight eviction notices in Housing Court.

That was a very valuable social service that made life more bearable for some individual tenants, but it did nothing to fight the broader problems faced by tenants as a group.

As a result, in 1971, there was absolutely no organized opposition to the decision by Mayor John Lindsay to repeal the Rent Control Law and replace it with something called Rent Stabilization.

Under Rent Stabilization, rents would be regulated by a 9 member mayorally appointed junta called the Rent Guidelines Board. Two members of the RGB were landlord representatives who were appointed by the mayor based on recommendation of newly created landlord lobbying group called the Rent Stabilization Association. Two other members were supposedly tenant representatives (although there was no tenant version of the RSA to recommend them) and the other 5 were so called "public members" who were supposed to be impartial.

 Every two years, the RGB would have a hearing and after an investigation would have the power to grant landlords the right to raise their rents if their cost increases warranted it.

[Of course, every two years from 1971 to the present the RGB has always given the landlords permission to jack up their rents]

There was one loophole. Tenants who had lived in an apartment prior to 1971 would be able to keep their low Rent Control rents. If their spouses, children or other descendants stayed in the apartment after the original tenant left, they'd be able to keep those low rents as well.

However, if the Rent Control tenant was to move out of that apartment for any reason, the low rent would be eliminated and the landlord would immediately gain the right to raise the rent.

This created an enormous financial incentive for landlords to drive out Rent Control tenants by any means necessary.

In Manhattan below 96th St and Downtown Brooklyn, landlords set to the task of driving out Rent Control tenants.

Sometimes, this was done with malign neglect.

Building superintendants and porters would be fired, buildings were no longer cleaned, boilers were allowed to fail, damage done by vandals, burglars and junkies went unrepaired and so on until tenants were forced to leave.

Sometimes, the landlords would resort to open terrorism.

Criminals would be allowed to move into the building (sometimes actually hired as supers by the landlords!) and would be allowed to prey on the other tenants until they were all forced out.

Once the building was cleared, the landlords would follow one of two paths.

Some landlords would do modest repairs (a paint job, new refrigerators, replacement windows) and then rent the apartments out under the higher Rent Stabilization rents.

Thanks to the J 51 program (another landlord subsidy program that had been inflicted on New York tenants by the City) any repair work to an apartment building, no matter how limited, was declared to be a "Major Capital Improvement" and was used to justify rent increases on top of the RGB approved rent hikes.

Other landlords would tear the buildings down and replace them with luxury hirises.

Those developments were aided by yet another government subsidy - Mayor Lindsay had taken out a $ 784 million dollar short term high interest loan from a consortium of Wall Street banks to underwrite the construction loans that landlords and developers were taking out to build these luxury hirises.

Unfortunately, Lindsay lent the money out to the landlords and developers long term, at low interest.

The consequences of the scissor effect of borrowing short term at high interest and lending that money out long term at low interest would later wreck the city - as we'll see below.

Meanwhile, the City stopped construction of public housing projects (a concession to racist Whites, who objected to having largely Black and Latino buildings put up in their communities) and the Mitchell Lama middle income housing subsidy program also ground to a halt.

The gentrification of Downtown, the East Side and the West Side was bad enough.

Even worse, landlords in areas where gentrification was not practical took even more drastic steps to clear out their low income tenants.

In areas of Upper Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn that were too heavily Black and Latino for affluent Whites to be comfortable renting luxury apartments, and Far Rockaway, Queens, which was White but had an extremely long commute (two hours to Manhattan by subway) landlords had to go another route.

They lit a match.

Landlords in those areas hired "torches" (professional arsonists) to burn down their buildings for the insurance. Sometimes the torches would slip notes under tenant's doors, warning them of the flames to come - sometimes, they just burned without warning.

The social toll of this wave of landlord terrorism by fire was enormous.

Over 200,000 apartments were destroyed, in many cases with families losing all of their belongings in the fires.

 Property wasn't the only thing lost; thousands of residents and several hundred firefighters were injured by the flames, there were many deaths and close to 1 million New Yorkers were driven from their Rent Control apartments by the flames.

Essentially, it was a low intensity terrorist war waged by New York's landlords against its poor and working class tenants and it went on for almost a decade [1971-80].

The FDNY's fire marshals arrested many torches but prosecutors rarely went beyond them to jail the landlords behind the crimes and the insurers who paid off on the policies despite the fraud.

As for the media, they blamed the pyromania of "crazy Puerto Ricans" for the fires, ignoring the mostly White landlords who paid for the flames.

Vast areas of the city were laid to waste by the terrorism of the profiteers, with pundits of the day comparing those ruined neighborhoods to the WW II bomb-ravaged German city of Dresden

It was all downhill from there.

Mayor Abe Beame inherited Lindsay's bad loans when he took office. Beame was left holding the bag in June 1975 when the loans came due, the City didn't have the money to pay and a junta of Wall Street bankers (ironically calling themselves the Municipal Assistance Corporation), led by Lazard Frères Co.'s Managing Director Felix Rohatyn, seized control of the City's finances.

The bankers inflicted 50,000 mass layoffs (25% of the municipal workforce) on city workers and massive public service cutbacks on New Yorkers. With only token resistance from the municipal workers unions and no other organized opposition at all from any other sectors, Rohatyn and the moneymen got their way.

When the Wall Street imposed budget cut weakened NYPD and FDNY were overwhelmed by the riots and arsons during the June 1977 blackout, the bankers decided that Mayor Beame had to go too. He was replaced by Congressman Ed Koch (D - Manhattan) a liberal turned neoconservative, in the 1977 elections.

One of the tasks the bankers expected the new mayor to accomplish was rebuilding the burnt out ghettoes. It was hard for them to sell New York City municipal bonds when vast areas of the city were in ruins - along with the rampant crime and general social decay, that sort of thing does not inspire investor confidence!

However, the rebuilding of those apartment houses had to be done as cheaply as possible. That was a real problem, since federal, state and city Davis Bacon prevailing wages laws required that workers be paid at rates that, in this labor market, were pegged to union scale.

The Koch Administration had a solution. Instead of the newly created New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) directly hiring the builders for these jobs, they would hand the buildings and the public funds over to Community Based Organizations and have them do those jobs.

HPD's lawyers claimed that this made those public funds into private moneys, so the CBOs and their contractors could renovate those buildings paying whatever wages they felt like, with no Davis Bacon prevailing wage requirements at all.

The CBOs had emerged during the Civil Rights Movement era and had originally been militant groups that fought for the rights of the inner city poor. However, within a few years they had been co-opted by the Democratic Party, who brought their loyalty by giving them federal anti poverty funding to administer local social programs.

By 1978 the CBOs had become the backbone of the Democratic Party machine in New York City and they could be trusted to administer these housing programs in a consistently pro business and anti labor manner.

 Speaking of labor, why didn't the unions oppose this?

On the surface, the New York City Building and Construction Trades Council seemed like the strongest local labor body in the world.

At the beginning of the decade, the 16 NYCBCTC affiliated unions represented 250,000 men and the council had enough clout with both parties that some of its leaders were in cabinet level posts in Albany and Washington.

However, that power was built on a foundation of sand - the New York construction unions had been the junior partners in a 60 year old price fixing and bid rigging cartel run by some of the top gangsters in the city in league with some of the most successful contractors. The unions provided the muscle and in return for their loyalty to the gangsters and the bosses the labor leaders were allowed to control the labor supply.

By the late 1970s, developers and major corporations in New York had gotten tired of the price fixing, the requirement that they either use union labor or pay a bribe for the privilege of going scab and the 2% "tribute" that they had to pay to the Genovese crime family for every job they did in New York City.

They leaned on city, state and federal authorities to do something about the gangsters and by 1978 the first wave of many arrests and convictions of construction racketeers shook the industry

This greatly weakened the construction unions, which despite their size had become feeble and unable to struggle on their own without direction and help from the bosses and the gangsters.

The building trades unions had also been weakened by the recession that had hit the industry hard during the great recession of 1973, which had permanently reduced the industry's labor force by 50,000 workers.

Beyond that, the NYC building trades longstanding commitment to supporting the racist hiring practices of New York contractors had made them primary targets of the Coalitions, the 60 odd radical armed Black, Latino and Chinese workers organizations that, starting in 1965, had waged an organized campaign to forcibly integrate jobsites around the city.

Between the racketeering investigations, the mass joblessness and the Coalitions, the building trades unions were not in a position to fight HPD to keep housing renovation work union.

The District Council of Carpenters, which with 40,000 members was the largest union in the BCTC and was also the dominant union in the residential construction sector, set the tone by letting its signatory contractors cut wages on renovation jobs (with the word "renovation" used so vaguely that many new construction jobs magically became renovation work).

The interior systems carpentry contractors took that and ran with it, with many of them imposing even deeper illegal pay cuts on their carpenters on top of the official wage reductions through "lumping" -  paying them below union scale wages off the books in return for steady employment

All the other construction unions followed the Carpenters lead, except for a tiny Painters Union local, Drywall Tapers local 1974. Their resistance to the givebacks came not from any militancy but from the fact that local 1974 was dominated by the Lucchese crime family rather than the Genoveses, and the Luccheses weren't getting any tribute from these pay cuts.

The carpentry contractors that the tapers worked for - and the Genovese crime family that stood behind those bosses - successfully broke the strike.

This strikebreaking could not have been done without the assistance of the District Council of Carpenters, who ordered their members to scab on the tapers. Since most of the employees of drywall contractors were carpenters, they could easily carry on operations without the tapers.

The Plasterers Union joined in the scabbing when they chartered a scab tapers local, Plasterers local 530, run by one Louis Moscatiello, Sr. He was an insurance broker by profession, a soldier in the Genovese crime family, a member of the Democratic Party's Bronx County Committee and he had never worked in any construction trade in his life.

The breaking of the tapers strike was the New York building trades' PATCO, and it gave the green light for non union contractors to openly bid for major jobs in New York.

For the first time since the 1890s, it had become possible to run a major job in New York City without using union labor, a fact the CBOs took full advantage of.

By the 1980s, most of the residential construction sector had been deunionized with about one third of the industry's overall workforce of 200,000 having to work scab. Only new construction of luxury hirises remained in the union sector, and even there many contractors used lumpers and were often union in name only.

Tragically, the deunionization of the industry coincided with the Coalition-inspired collapse of de facto racial segregation in the industry. Many of the minority workers who got in the trades due to the struggles of the Coalitions now found themselves having to work on these low paying scab residential jobs.

The CBOs that had originated in the 1960s to fight poverty in the ghettoes were now actively imposing poverty level wages on workers of color!

Many other states and the federal government followed the New York model of privatizing housing subsidies through Community Based Organizations to avoid Davis Bacon wages and unionization.

The only consolation was that the housing units those workers were renovating were being rented to poor people and they were rebuilding neighborhoods wrecked by landlord terror.

That all changed in the 1990s.

The real estate developers and the banks began to aggressively push to weaken the already limited protections that tenants had under Rent Stabilization.

They were backed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the media, the leaders of the CBOs and the Building Trades Council with only a handful of tenants groups opposing the program.

The centerpiece of the developers' program was something called "luxury decontrol". That is, if an apartment's rent reached $ 2,000/month, that apartment was permanently removed from the Rent Stabilization program and the landlord could rent it for whatever amount he/she wanted.

This gave an enormous incentive for landlords to do whatever they could to raise rents and for developers building new apartments to push the rents up as high as they could.

This is around the time when a lot of CBOs get in the luxury housing business - and a lot of private developers start adding a few supposedly affordable units to their luxury projects, to enable them to cash in on federal housing subsidies.

HPD greatly aided this by defining "affordable housing" in a really bizarre way.

Rather than pegging affordable housing rents to the poverty line or some other measure of low income, HPD used a median income formula that was so bizarre that it defined people making $ 60,000 a year as "low income". The rents set based on that formula excluded people who made less than that - the majority of New Yorkers - from even being eligible to rent most of these co called "affordable" apartments!

Under the 80/20 program, private developers only had to have 20% of their units be affordable to people that made $ 60,000 a year to get public subsidies for the entire development.

So now you had the pathetic spectacle of developers using funds intended to provide housing for the poor and workers making poverty level wages to build apartments for rich people!

A small portion of the affordable housing apartments were still available to low income workers, but for workers who made less than the poverty line, affordable housing rents were still too high for them to afford (except for the lucky few with Section 8 housing vouchers).

Many of the contractors on these jobs paid wages so low it was literally illegal. Skilled carpenters and masons commonly received $ 7/hr off the books, laborers and helpers were paid only $ 4/hr, a wage so low that some contractors actually had to buy sandwiches for their laborers because they literally couldn't afford to buy their own lunches!

No taxes were withheld, no social security, workers comp or unemployment insurance payments were made, nobody had insurance (not even the basic liability coverage that every contractor in the state is supposed to carry) and if a worker got hurt on the job the foreman would put him in a cab rather than calling 911, to avoid creating a paper trail.

HPD played dumb, put on a show of willful blindness and pretended that none of these abuses were happening even though this had become the norm on their jobsites.

Meanwhile, luxury decontrol made life much harder for the 80% of New Yorkers who live in rental housing.

Poor people faced skyrocketing rents and often had to choose between paying the rent and buying groceries.

White workers and the middle class often found themselves priced out of their neighborhoods and had to move to what had once been poor Black, Latino or Chinese neighborhoods (often into HPD's "affordable housing"), displacing the longtime residents of those communities.

Even businesspeople were affected - landlords, emboldened by luxury decontrol, began jacking up commercial rents on retailers, restaurateurs and small manufacturers.

The garment industry, already in decline for the previous 30 years, was almost totally driven out of the city by landlord profiteering. Printing, jewelry manufacturing, machine shops, electrical products manufacturing, the kosher, Chinese and Latino sectors of the food processing industry and cabinet making were also pushed out of the city by rent gouging. This put tens of thousands of workers on the unemployment line, 20,000 in the garment industry alone!

Many restaurants, bars, bodegas and retail stores managed to pay their extortionately high rents and still survive as profitable businesses by cutting their workers already meager wages, often to subminimum levels.

This was especially true in the restaurant sector, where hourly pay was already legally below the minimum wage. The $ 6/hr 12 hour day became the norm for unskilled kitchen workers and it became common for bartenders and servers to only get $ 50 a shift in cash wages, with the rest of their incomes coming from tips.

In other words, the profiteering of the landlords, both the for profit developers and property owners and the not for profit CBOs, caused profound misery among the rest of New York City's population.

What's truly astonishing is that, despite the widespread hatred of landlords by New Yorkers of all classes, there was no organized movement against them.

The labor movement refused to speak out.

This was in large part because the main unions in the real estate industry, the affiliates of the NYCBCTC on the construction side and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees and the Service Employees International Union in the building service sector, put their alliance with the real estate interests ahead of the overall needs of the working class as a whole.

The tenants movement wasn't in a position to organize a fightback either.

Tenant groups like Met Council and New York Tenants & Neighbors had long been tamed and housebroken by the Democratic Party machine and the real estate interests. Other than token protests at the Rent Guidelines Board hearings, and free legal services for individual tenants in housing court, they had largely abandoned any serious organized resistance to the landlords.

Consequently, the landlord and developer attacks on New Yorkers went unopposed.

The only mildly bright spot on the horizon was a limited attempt by the construction unions to organize residential construction workers starting in the mid 1990s.

This happened because, as a part of government efforts to clean labor racketeers out of the construction unions, the District Council of Carpenters and the Mason Tenders District Council had been forced to set up organizing departments and making at least some effort to reunionize the thousands of residential carpenters and laborers who had been deunionized in the 1980s.

These efforts, which were soon joined in by Painters District Council # 9 (which faced racketeering investigations of its own), were good for what they were but were too little too late.

Over 100,000 of the city's 200,000 construction workers had been deunionized at this point. About half of those non union workers were working off the books at very low wages with no benefits of any kind, not even social security or unemployment.

This was an industrywide crisis and the unions needed to fight it on an industrywide basis.

Unfortunately, that did not happen.

Rather than making a strategic effort to wage neighborhood wide strikes in real estate hotspots like the Meatpacking District, Chelsea, Harlem, Williamsburg and Staten Island to force all the contractors to go union at the same time, the unions did one contractor at a time campaigns.

Since any one company that went union would lose business to its scab competitors and go bankrupt, the individual contractors would fight the unions tooth and nail, with all of the legal unionbusting methods that have become common throughout American industry.

Of course, at least those unions TRIED - which is more than can be said for the rest of the construction unions which basically did nothing at all.

By the early 2000s the profiteering of New York's indigenous CBOs, landlords and developers attracted a new breed of real estate investor - the Private Equity Funds.

These capitalists were even more avaricious than the local real estate interests and didn't even have the vestigial loyalty to neighborhood and city that put a brake on the worst abuses of the local developers.

They used every pro landlord HPD and RGB regulation and housing court precedent to jack up rents and aggressively evict tenants who couldn't afford to pay. The private equity funds also used old school deliberate neglect of buildings as a tactic to force out recalcitrant tenants. They faced minimal resistance and went about their attacks on tenants largely unmolested.

In the mid 2000s some of the developers in Harlem and Williamsburg did make some limited compromises with the unions.

Scab General Contractors like Artimus began running some of their bigger jobs "double breasted", with some subcontractors union and others scab.

Usually the pattern would be that the hirise concrete sub and the electrical sub would be union, and occasionally the structural steel outfit as well. Some scab GCs would also use union operating engineers to run their cranes and backhoes. However the masonry, drywall & ceilings, woodwork, flooring, architectural metal and glass, windows and plumbing would be scab.

Using union concrete subs and steel subs meant that the job wouldn't get picketed as it was coming out of the ground, the shell of the building would be built solidly by trained workers.

They'd also do the electrical work union because many of these luxury buildings had complex electrical, cable TV, broadband, intercom, security and elevator systems which had to be installed properly the first time by highly skilled workers.

Union electrical contractors could supply that caliber of worker, the non union shops could not.

Masonry, drywall, millwork, flooring, windows, storefront work and plumbing could be and were done scab, by much lower paid non union workers. Their rock bottom wages enabled those shops to charge rock bottom prices, which helped the GCs make up for the profits lost by having to pay decent wages on the concrete, steel and electrical phases.

Some of the savvier GCs would also bill the developer as if they'd paid union rates to every sub, even the scab shops they hired later on, to claim a larger share of the profits of the job.

At the same time some contractors were trying to play the double breasted game, others kept on with the same low wage sweatshop tactics.

This led to an epidemic of construction worker deaths (averaging about 25 a year during the mid 2000s) - the bulk of which happened as a result of scaffold failures or building collapses.

These accidents generally were caused by negligent contractors pushing workers to work hard, fast and unsafe with inadequate equipment - an attitude that spilled over into the union sector and led to a couple of large scale multiple death crane failure incidents on union residential jobs.
The unions could have turned this bloodbath into a Triangle Shirtwaist Fire moment, condemning the developers and contractors for their negligence and greed, building a campaign against them and using that as a springboard to unionize the industry.

There already were unions in the field organizing in piecemeal fashion - the District Council of Carpenters, the Mason Tenders District Council, Painters District Council # 9, Ironworkers local 361 and a newly organized Indian Sikh immigrant workers center called New York Construction Workers United were all in the field trying to organize workers.

If their efforts had been combined, they might have been able to make some headway, and perhaps even motivate/embarrass the other trades into organizing nonunion workers in their craft jurisdictions.

That didn't happen.

Instead, the BCTC united behind Louis Coletti, the head of the New York Building Congress and the Building Trades Employers Association, and self proclaimed "spokesman for the industry".

Coletti was also the most aggressive advocate of massive pay cuts for union construction workers, forcing union tradespeople to give up our loyalty to the unions and pledge allegiance to the boss and he also wanted to force the unions to let union GCs operate double breasted with union and scab subcontractors working side by side.

In other words, the unions subordinated themselves to their biggest enemy.

Coletti, as spokesman for "the industry", totally ignored contractor negligence (the leading cause of construction accidents) and instead blamed dead construction workers for their own deaths!

Coletti's "solution" to the safety crisis was making construction workers take safety classes (for the non union workers this means paying $ 200 or more per class out of pocket) - and the New York City Department of Buildings agreed.

Incidentally, NYC DoB is part of HPD - the same folks who were ultimately responsible for most of the jobsites where workers were killed by contractor negligence!

The whole residential construction sector, along with the rest of the construction industry, came to a screeching halt when the recession hit in 2007. Jobs stopped, workers - union and non union alike - got laid off and the minimal unionization efforts stopped short too.

This also could have been a moment of unity and struggle.

Most New Yorkers, like most Americans, were outraged that the crass profiteering of a few hedge fund managers, mortgage bankers and Wall Street derivatives traders had wrecked the economy - and that those greedheads actually had the nerve to demand a taxpayer bailout!

Anti corporate rage was at an all time high and this would have been a perfect moment to put forth demands to make the billionaires pay.

In the case of the residential construction industry, developers and builders all over the city had abandoned jobs in mid build. Some of these buildings were actually left open to the elements (a big deal in a damp, humid city like New York, where rain and snow can ruin an unsealed building with truly astonishing speed)! Other buildings were almost ready for occupancy - left to rot just a few man hours short of completion.

This was an outrage!

In a city where so many are ill housed and where so many pay extortionately high rents to venal profiteering landlords, a city where several thousand people literally sleep on the street, landlord greed was allowed to keep apartments off the market.

What was even more outrageous was that many of these apartments had been built with public funds supplied by HPD, supposedly for the explicit purpose of providing affordable housing!

This would have been a perfect moment to demand that the city seize those buildings, hire union workers to finish them and then turn them over to the Housing Authority to be rented out as low and moderate income housing.

Unfortunately, nobody was bold enough to put that demand out there.

Met Council, New York Tenants and Neighbors and the other tenants rights groups were far too beholden to the Democratic Party machine, the CBOs and the foundations that supply the grants that fund them (many of which are financed by major corporations and/or Wall Street bigshots) to take such a bold stand against corporate power like that.

The Building and Construction Trades Council, the Service Employees International Union and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Unions lacked the direct financial ties, but they had an even stronger ideological connection.

The leaders of those unions had, for many decades, followed a policy of "class partnership" with the titans of the real estate business. It had always been a very one sided partnership, with the unions always very much the junior partners and the interests of building workers always far less important than the greed of building owners and contractors. Be that as it may, the union leaders weren't about to abandon their "partners" now, no matter what the urgent burning needs of the working class might be.

Unfortunately, that mass anger at the greedheads was directed into voting for Barack Obama for president. Obama had spent much of his professional career in the CBO world, and he was a firm believer in the ideology of "communitarianism". That is, the idea that the rich, the middle class, the working class and the poor should all unite under the leadership of talented technocrats like him and his CBO colleagues to fight for the "common good".

Who gets to define that "common good"?

Foundations funded by Corporate America and Wall Street banks do, of course!

Needless to say, Wall Street got their bailout at the taxpayer's expense

 As for New York's CBOs and developers, they were allowed to leave those half built apartment houses unfinished and vacant, held in reserve until they could get the extortionately high rents they wanted.

Today, the real estate interests continue their attacks on both their workers and on New York renters of all classes.

The real estate interests have been fighting to weaken the few remaining protections that the Rent Stabilization Law provides for tenants, and it's entirely possible they will get their way.

So far they've only faced token resistance from the tenants rights groups, who, as usual, have been ignored by the normally very pro landlord state legislature.

At the same time, the same real estate interests and the unionized General Contractors have been aggressively fighting to impose a 20% pay cut on unionized construction workers.

The GCs, led by their bellicose spokesman Louis Coletti, have explicitly said that their excuse for demanding the wage cutbacks is because of the existence of a large low paid scab segment in the industry, and have openly stated that they will start using scab contractors on union jobsites.

This attack has gone on for two years and the BCTC's response has been retreat after retreat after retreat. First they signed an agreement allowing the City to pay lower wages on school building jobs, then they signed an agreement allowing two dozen commercial jobs to pay lower wages and ignore certain work rules, and there's every reason to think that the building trades council will keep on retreating.

The affiliates have also been making giveback after giveback after giveback.

The District Council of Carpenters has been in the lead here, first conceding a 20% lower pay scale for the commercial jobs covered by the special deal and a number of other market rate housing jobs, then giving up a 40% lower pay scale on HPD affordable housing jobs.

Painters District Council # 9 has been catching up, though. They signed a contract (ironically enough on May Day) that gave up a wage freeze and massive cutbacks in the health coverage of their commercial painters, and an astonishing 67% wage and benefit cutback for union painters on HPD affordable housing jobs. The total hourly package, wage and benefits, for union painters on HPD jobs is now just $ 22/hr.

As I write this on June 5, there has been absolutely no effort to prepare union construction workers for any kind of resistance to the attacks by the GCs. To the extent that there's been resistance at all, it's been organized by workers on their own, independent of the unions.

In this climate, when construction workers are ready to fight, and tenants are angry and frustrated with their backs pushed against the wall, and the spirit of resistance we saw in Wisconsin and Egypt is still in the air, our leaders should be organizing us to resist.

As luck would have it, Governor Cuomo owes a political debt to the building trades, ironically enough because our unions betrayed their brothers and sisters in the AFT, AFSCME and the SEIU and endorsed Cuomo despite his plan to attack state workers.

That's the only reason why the Lopez-Espaillat bill is even being seriously debated in Albany.

The building trades need to be aggressively pushing for this bill, and not just by lobbying trips to Albany, but also by using it as a platform to organize non union construction workers.

The NYCBCTC also need to mend fences with the SEIU, AFSCME and the Teachers, to back them on their pensions which are under attack by Governor Cuomo, and to urge them to back our push for prevailing wages for workers on HPD jobs.

The building trades also need to mend fences with the Retail Wholesale Department Store Union, which has been the driving force behind the Living Wage Bill. The construction unions opposed it because the real estate developers didn't want to have living wage requirements imposed on the stores in their shopping malls, and that was a wrong position and it was stupid and shortsighted of the building trades to take that position.

All of these unions also need to join forces with Met Council and New York Tenants & Neighbors and make an aggressive push to save Rent Stabilization. This needs to go beyond the typical dog and pony show the tenants rights groups put on at the RGB hearings and be an aggressive push on the streets, in front of the legislature and in the apartment buildings (including militant tactics like mass rent strikes).

Also, we really need to go on the offensive. Corporate America has really been on the warpath for the last couple of years because they actually think that they can do whatever they want and we won't fight back. Wisconsin showed us that it is possible for us to draw a line in the sand and say the attacks stop here and they stop now!

First things first, it's imperative to stop the attempt by the unionized contractors of New York to force their workers to take a pay cut. Their problem is that they pay much higher wages than the scab contractors. We agree, that's a problem and the solution is to bring the scab contractors up to union wage levels.

The Lopez Espaillat bill would be a perfect opportunity to launch an organizing drive to force the scab GCs and their subcontractors to sign union contracts, and to force the developers and CBOs to only use unionized contractors on their jobs.
This could be done simply by coordinating the organizing activities of the handful of building trades unions in the city with functional organizing departments; the Mason Tenders District Council, the District Council of Carpenters, Painters District Council 9 and Ironworkers local 361.

Those four crafts cover most of the workers on a typical residential site - with their efforts combined, and going after all the contractors in an area rather than one shop at a time, they would be able to get a lot accomplished.

The only trades not covered are the masonry trades, electricians and plumbers.

With the masons, since neither Bricklayers local 1 nor Plasterers local 260 nor Cement Masons local 780 seem particularly interested in unionizing unorganized workers in their trades in this city that could be a problem.

However, a few years back there was an effort to organize a workers center among the Indian Sikh masons, New York Construction Workers United. Perhaps that group could be revived and could be a vehicle to organize non union masons, and maybe even embarrass the leaders of the Bricklayers Union and/or the Plasterers & Cement Masons Union to charter NYCWU as a local.

Electricians local 3 has shown a similar reluctance to organize non union electricians and the two major pipe trades unions, Plumbers local 1 and Steamfitters local 638, haven't organized either.

They might be motivated to start organizing if the residential sector was being unionized and there was a risk of them being left out.

This is especially true for Electricians local 3, because there are two other unions with much lower pay scales, Horseshoers local 363 and Communications Workers of America local 1101, who'd be happy to sign up large numbers of non union electricians who were pulled into the union sector by an industrywide organizing drive.

Also, links could be formed with unions organizing in related industries, for example, the efforts that Retail Wholesale Department Store Union local 116 and Teamsters local 814 have made to try and organize non union residential moving companies and SEIU local 32bj's campaigns to unionize the supers and doormen at all those apartment buildings that were built in the 2000s

In particular, there should be a demand that every CBO be required to use 100% union labor paid at full Davis Bacon prevailing wages on every one of their jobs, and that all the supers and porters in their buildings be allowed to join SEIU local 32bj and receive full union wages and benefits.

Any CBO that receives public funds intended to fight poverty should be required to pay a living wage to all of their workers and respect the right of those workers to unionize!

Some CBOs already use unionized supers and porters in housing developments they operate; they even have an industrywide union contract with SEIU local 32bj through ANHD, the Association for Neighborhood Housing Developers. We could simply demand that every CBO sign on to the ANHD 32bj contract.

That would be a good start, but we have to go beyond the roughly 400,000 workers in the real estate industry to a much larger constituency, the city's 6.6 million tenants.

We need to go on the offensive against the real estate interests - from billionaire profiteers like Donald Trump, Stephen Ross and Larry Silverstein down through the supposedly pro community CBOs like Abyssinian Community Development, the Fifth Avenue Committee and Los Sures down to the Private Equity Fund sharks and the neighborhood slumlords.

We have to demand the restoration of the 1947 Rent Control Law, a rent freeze, a rent rollback and a moratorium on evictions. Further, the Rent Control Law should be expanded to commercial rents, so restaurateurs, bodega owners, merchants and small manufacturers aren't priced out of the city by rent gouging.

The real estate interests will whine about how "they can't afford" any of this and it would drive them out of business.

Our answer to that would be simple - a buyout program!

In the event a landlord can prove that Rent Control restoration would be a hardship to them, the City would take over their property or properties. The former owner would be paid the cost of the property, with depreciation and the cost of any and all necessary repair work needed on the property to be deducted from the price. Payment would be in the form of long term low interest City bonds, to mature in 30 years time.

This is admittedly a very radical proposal - but frankly, desperate times demand desperate measures and after 40 years of landlord profiteering at the expense of the majority of New Yorkers, enough is enough!

A labor-led struggle against landlord profiteering has the potential to unite poor, working class and middle class New Yorkers against the super rich and the Wall Street interests.

Basically, the only obstacle in our way is a failure of vision on the part of our labor leaders and community activists. We need to change that, sooner rather than later.

-   commentary by GREGORY A. BUTLER, LOCAL 157 CARPENTER
               Originally published on Sunday, June 5, 2011
               © 2011 Gregory A. Butler, all rights reserved.