In an effort to jump start building projects in New York City and put idle union construction workers back on the job, the leaders of more than 40 different building trades and union employer groups announced on May 29 what they termed a “historic compact” to cut wages of both labor and management and end expensive work rules. Proponents claim the citywide project-labor agreement will cut costs by as much as 21% on the first 12 high-rise and other commercial projects that it covers, representing $2 billion of construction and 10,000 jobs. But some are less enthusiastic about the cost savings, some unions are declining to participate and some developers may have to rethink profit margins in a changed city economy.
The agreement was reached between the Building and Construction Trades Council (BCTC) of Greater New York, which represents 100,000 union workers and the Building Trades Employers’ Association (BTEA), which includes 28 contractor groups and 1,700 union firms. The groups have been negotiating since last October, said Louis J. Coletti, BTEA president. “Contractors would have liked more, unions less, but we’re trying to save jobs in New York City,” he says.
Building trades agreed to no strikes or work stoppages on projects included under the pact, as well as standard workdays and other work rule changes and enforcement. Contractors agreed to cut wages and benefits for management employees, reduce profit margins and strive for “improved project management and efficiency,” among other changes.
Several unions, which were not specified, have also agreed to one-year wage freezes and benefit cuts, according to BTEA. The pact is set to generate project cost reductions averaging 16% to 21%, based on a study conducted for BTEA by Hill International Inc., a Marlton, N.J., project and risk management firm. That figure does not include union wage-freeze cost savings, says the group.
“We have two problems in New York: the financial crisis and creeping nonunionism. This will help both,” said John A. Cavanagh, a former building contractor executive and chairman emeritus of the Contractors’ Association of Greater New York, a BTEA member group. He credited BCTC President Gary LaBarbera, a former teamsters’ union official. “Everyone had to do what they didn’t want to do, especially on the union side.”
The pact won praise from New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R). “Labor and management are not content merely to wait for a national rebound,” he said on May 29.“Their agreement is an important step to get stalled projects going again.”
But Stephen Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said, “It doesn’t go far enough.” He also says savings may be only between 3% and 8%, according to published reports. “We will be talking to our partners to bring costs down further,” he said.
But the pact press release coincided with the May 29 announcement by New York City-based Forest City Ratner Cos. that it plans to resume work on Beekman Tower, a planned 76-story mixed use project halted two months ago at the 37th floor. Reportedly set to be capped at 40 floors, the structure now will be built to its full planned height, says the developer, noting the new labor pact and cost reductions in materials and finishes. Kreisler Borg Florman is project contractor. Others among the first 12 projects that could restart include those being built by Bovis Lend Lease, Turner Construction, Tishman Construction, F.J. Sciame Co. and Plaza Construction. But Coletti acknowledged that not all may restart.
Even so, Coletti thinks the labor agreement is “more the end of the beginning,” noting that trades and employers are still discussing pact details and inclusion of new projects. The AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Dept. is set to review an additional 12 to 15 projects and the local labor-management committee will review up to nine more in the next week, he said.