Labor Day message credits union belt-tightening for putting city’s construction industry back on track

Labor Day message credits union belt-tightening for putting city’s construction industry back on track  

Be Our Guest Richard Roberts, of Steamfitters Local 638, says cooperation jumpstarted building projects, kept union members employed

By Richard Roberts / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Published: Monday, August 27, 2012, 4:00 AM
Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012, 4:00 AM

Steamfitters official Richard Roberts says collaboration between union and management has resulted in benefits for both.

Steamfitters official Richard Roberts says collaboration between union and management has resulted in benefits for both.

For many working Americans, Labor Day is viewed as an opportunity to visit family and have a day at the beach. But what many don’t realize is that the first Monday in September wasn‘t always a vacation day.

The labor movement has fought for more than a century to ensure that workers have safe working conditions, holidays, sick days and family healthcare protections when needed. The 40-hour work week that most American workers take for granted is the result of years of sacrifice by industrialized workers who came before us.

Now, in 2012, the labor movement is faced with new challenges, especially in light of the lingering economic slowdown. Many argue that the need for unions is past and its workforce costs our economy too much to maintain. I couldn‘t disagree more.

As steamfitters we are often asked, “What exactly do you do?” In short, we build and maintain what is essentially the hearts, lungs and arteries of New York skyscrapers. This includes high efficiency heating, air conditioning, ventilation, sprinkler systems and more that run office buildings, high-rise residential towers and major landmarks like Madison Square Garden and the World Trade Center site. We build and maintain the powerhouses that keep lights on in New York City and Long Island. Union steamfitters are trained to create the critical mechanical systems hidden behind the sheetrock, paint and wallpaper in most any building.

After the economy tanked in 2008, many people in the construction trades and organized labor were faced with a crisis. The credit markets dried up and real estate owners were unable to finance new construction or modernization projects. Banks stopped lending and hopelessly stalled construction projects dotted the city, while unemployment among skilled laborers in numerous cases exceeded 50%. It created an economically devastating situation for the real estate industry and working class in our city.

Across the nation, job sites ground to a halt. In order to keep our trade and the city’s construction economy alive we took aggressive action that stimulated building activity across our region.

Working together with New York’s most significant Mechanical Contracting firms, labor and management joined together to bring down New York City construction costs and get construction projects moving again. The results created streamlined jobsite work rules, reduced overtime costs for developers and their investors and brought down costs in a way that jumpstarted projects and their once-frozen financing.

When banks said no to funding important development projects, labor joined with contractors and developers to create economic solutions that worked.

These belt-tightening decisions were ratified by our membership because they were the right moves for the New York real estate industry at the time. As a result, the union steamfitters in New York City have achieved something remarkable, especially in this economy — full employment.

It’s meant companies in our sector are busy. Workers have stayed employed and big projects in the Big Apple like Madison Square Garden, Tower 111 on Sixth Ave., 157 W. 57th St., Queens West and others moved forward because we reduced costs to build without compromising safety or quality of workmanship. Beekman Tower — now known as New York by Gehry — was stuck on 39 floors until labor came together with Forest City to proudly bring the building above 70 stories.

Building owners know the old adage: you get what you pay for. Some flirted with cutting corners and going with fly-by-night contractors to save a buck, but major real estate players know that quality workmanship hidden behind the walls means something. According to some estimates, the difference now between using union and non-union is 8%.

Steamfitters Local 638 employs a rigorous five-year apprentice program that costs the union some $100,000 per enrollee. We are known around the nation for having one of the most thorough apprentice programs in the construction industry.

The builders and contractors of New York committed to the highest quality workmanship could have taken short-cuts figuratively and literally. Rather than seek to import low-wage, minimally trained nonunion labor from out of state, they prioritized quality first. That is significant.

It also underscored that they stand with America’s working class tradesmen in the belief that workers are entitled to a fair wage, medical protections for their family, holidays, and pension coverage at the end of their physically arduous careers.

On this Labor Day, such a positive collaboration needs to be recognized for the benefits it has wrought for our economy, business and our working middle class.

Read more:

Richard Roberts is the Business Agent at Large, Enterprise Association of Steamfitters Local 638, Executive Board Member of the New York City Building Trades Council and Nassau/Suffolk Building Trades Council.

Author: AFGE Local 704

Representing over 900 bargaining unit employees working at the U.S. EPA Region 5 Offices in Chicago, Ann Arbor, MI and Westlake, OH.

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