Buried in the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives of the NYU Tamiment Library, lies a faded, typewritten document recounting the origin of the New York Building Congress. It’s a history that is known only in flashes even by the present day leaders of the organization as it prepares to celebrate its 90th anniversary.
Current NYBC president Richard T. Anderson says that “the folklore” has it that the idea for the organization – which organizes the various elements of the construction industry under the same tent – originated at an American Institute of Architects convention at Atlantic City.
In fact, NYBC founder Robert D. Kohn’s “History of the Inception of the ‘Congress’ Movement” reveals that the first organization of its kind was not a “Congress” but a “Parliament” that flourished briefly in Great Britain during the First World War, then fizzled and died before the American movement it inspired came into fruition.
Founded in 1916, the Building Trades Parliament “attempted to smooth out the difficulties of war-time building through a representative Council” of the employers and workers in the Building Trades of England and Scotland before it disintegrated three years later, Kohn wrote.
Shortly after the Armistice ended the First World War in 1919, a group of American construction companies, design firms and material supplies that worked in ship yards during the fighting met in Philadelphia to discuss how to secure similar cooperation after the war.
During that meeting, they agreed on a need for an organization based on the Parliament prototype, but the first formal meeting toward its founding occurred two years later. As “the folklore” correctly had it, that committee, led by architects, met in Atlantic City, where they set in motion the procedures and enthusiasm to found the New York Building Congress a year later.
What happened during the organization’s early years is subject to its own folklore, remembered in its essence but with essential details forgotten.
Lou Coletti, the NYBC’s president from 1986 to 1994, says that before he took office, the organization was more of a “social club.” Anderson added that leaders, before this change in the Congress, mostly “ran events and kept the liquor bottles filled.”
During the organization’s first 65 years, the NYBC had no paid staff, relying completely on volunteers with little ability to mount effective political campaigns. The archives from this time period have scant evidence of any Congressional testimony, City Hall speeches or lobbying efforts, which only became a focus of the organization when it hired its first full time and paid president in 1986.
When he first heard about this position opening up for a New York Times want-ad, Coletti, who was then a graduate student, applied for the job without expecting that he would be the person to be hired. He remembers walking into an office with “titans” like Jack Rudin, Chairman of Rudin Management, and Tishman Construction CEO John Tishman, for what he remembered as a “perfunctory” interview.
“This is a joke,” Coletti recalls thinking, adding that he expected they already had the job lined up for someone at City Hall. They contacted him for a second interview, however, and this time asked for writing samples. He remembered that the follow-up was held on a “dark, dreary day” in an office overlooking St. Patrick’s Cathedral, when he remembered thinking, “Oh my God, they’re going to offer me the job!”
When he told his wife that he would reject a Wall Street position to be the NYBC’s first full time staffer, he says she told him, “Are you crazy? You told me they didn’t have any money.”
“You had to be in that room,” Coletti says. “The sense of commitment oozed across... We set the table for what the Building Congress is today.”
Although it lacked the compensation of a Wall Street position, Coletti would soon be surprised by the influence that came with his new position. For example, he says he thought Jack Rudin overestimated a NYBC president’s clout when he gave Coletti the private phone number for then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch.
“Jack Rudin can make that phone call. Lou Coletti cannot make that phone call,” Coletti recalls telling Rudin.
In reply, Rudin dialed the number in front of him and introduced the mayor to Coletti, who picked up the receiver to listen to Koch’s collegial instructions on when and how to use his private number.
Shortly after, other major players taught Coletti not only how to speak to the powerful, but also how to snub them when the occasion warranted it.
When development meetings for Riverside South progressed too slowly, Ed Malloy, President of the Building and Construction Trades Council, grabbed Coletti and interrupted a private conversation between Donald Trump, his attorneys and Deputy Mayor Barbara Fife, telling them, “It’s 3:30 in the morning. We’ve been waiting… It’s our frickin’ turn!”
Then-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan also received a dressing down during Coletti’s tenure. A strong industry supporter, Moynihan was outraged that he would not be allowed to speak at the podium during a 75,000-person demonstration – organized by the Building and Construction Trade Unions and emceed by Coletti – to create jobs after the 1992 real estate crash.
“Listen, Mr. Senator, leave the kid alone!” said rally organizer Peter Brennan to Moynihan, who confronted Coletti for enforcing a rule barring politicians from using the demonstration as a platform.
Although the NYBC emerged as a political advocacy force during Coletti’s tenure, the boxes of documents from before that transition occurred contain much more than empty whiskey bottles and vintage coasters.
A pamphlet distributed for the organization’s 25th anniversary memorialized one of the organization’s early efforts, an Apprenticeship Commission formed in conjunction with the Building Trades Employers’ Association and the Board of Education to provide night-school training courses for aspiring construction professionals.
“Unfortunately, but quite naturally, this very important activity died out during the Depression,” wrote the pamphlet’s author, former NYBC President Max H. Foley.
Other initiatives and accomplishments from this period lasted, such as the creation of an arbitration court preventing delay in settling disputes, a Building Code of Ethics that the New York Times originally described as a nonbinding “attempt to cure trade evils,” and a Craftsmanship Awards program meant to recognize a wide variety of construction workers.