A court verdict will save the contractor $7.2 million in wages paid for work on the new Tappan Zee Bridge project over the Hudson River.

A two-judge federal appeals court panel in New York City affirmed on October 20th a 2014 arbitrator’s decision, clearing the way to the big savings. The arbitrator ruled that formwork for pile and pier caps and main span columns over the water should be performed at a $22-per-hour lower pay rate for carpenters’ union members rather than at a dockworkers’ higher pay scale.

The dockworkers’ and carpenters’ locals, both part of the carpenters’ international union, had resolved between them that the dockworkers, who are paid $92.47 an hour in wages and benefits, would perform the work instead of the carpenters, who are paid $70.11 an hour.

The ruling, first reported by the Journal News newspaper, apparently ends more than a year of a convoluted legal dispute.

The unions involved also have a complex history. It involves the affiliation of the dockworkers’ union, whose members voted in 2012 to remain affiliated with the New York City District Council of Carpenters rather than affiliating with a competing union, the Amalgamated Carpenters & Joiners Union.

Tappan Zee Constructors had originally divided the formwork into three categories, the two-judge appeals panel wrote. The contractor assigned the dockworkers formwork up to and including the pile caps and the carpenters formwork from the top of the pile caps up to and including the pier caps as well as formwork for all columns including the main span tower forms.

The bridge dispute arrived in federal court last year, when the national union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, sued in May in federal district court in New York on behalf of dockbuilders’ Local 1556 and carpenters’ Local 279. The union sought to block Tappan Zee Constructors from abiding by an arbitrator’s decision in the dispute. The arbitrator had revised his preliminary ruling, made in May, 2014, in favor of the union’s stand to have the work performed by the dockworkers’ union.

Preliminary Decision Reversed

Nine days after issuing his preliminary ruling, the arbitrator instead ruled in favor of the contractor.

According to the contractors’ answer to the unions’ initial lawsuit, the carpenters and dockworkers “manufactured a dispute over which union was entitled to perform the work and then entered into a back-room ‘settlement agreement’ whereby the Carpenters would agree to have the work done by the Dockbuilders” at the higher cost.

Tappan Zee Constructors also alleged in its pleading that “the Carpenters would actually do the work.”

In the carpenters’ lawsuit to block enforcement of the arbitration decision in favor of Tappan Zee Constructors, the union did not cite the Project Labor Agreement (PLA) covering the project or its provisions covering preliminary and final arbitration decisions. Tappan Zee Constructors considered the omission of any mention of the PLA especially troubling, according to its lawsuit.

An attorney who worked on the case for the carpenters’ union could not be reached for comment.