Work in Projects

Print More

Call it a tale of two summers. A year ago, Kenneth Person, a 26-year-old resident of the James Weldon Johnson Houses in East Harlem, worked nearly four months doing demolition at New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) construction sites in Brooklyn and the Bronx. When the weather grew cold, he got laid off. The contractor that hired him, 4A Construction, told him to stay in touch. “I got a lot of promises,” remembers Person, who called 4A repeatedly looking for more work. “But I never got hired again.”

After spending a winter scrounging for other jobs, Person is back on a NYCHA construction site, this time as a rookie painter for another contractor, APS Painting. As a first-year apprentice in the painters union, he takes home less pay than he did with 4A, forks over part of his wages as union dues, and is obligated to attend classes at a District Council 9 training center on his own time. But Person still believes he is better off. “I think this will have more stability,” Person says. “If you get laid off, you have somebody fighting for you.”

Person is one of more than a dozen new painters apprentices who probably owe their jobs to a two-year battle by TRADES, a coalition of unions, public housing residents and community groups that has pushed the New York City Housing Authority to enforce federal and local regulations requiring its contractors to hire public housing residents. In early May, the Housing Authority informed APS Painting that it would lose 15 NYCHA contracts worth $8 million unless it met its obligation to spend 15 percent of its labor dollars to hire workers who live in the Housing Authority projects.

“NYCHA told me I am not compliant,” says Igor Shikhris, the president of APS Painting. “No compliance, no contracts.” Shikhris says hiring practices at APS, a firm that has repainted public housing apartments as a nonunion contractor for 15 years, never faced close scrutiny until this spring.

Once Shikhris realized that hiring workers who lived in the projects was the only way to save his business, he discovered that it paid to go union. Under federal law, all public housing work is supposed to be paid the “prevailing wage” for an area–and in New York City, the prevailing wage is the union wage. Had it remained a nonunion contractor, APS would have been required to pay union scale to every worker, no matter how inexperienced. But in the painters union, like other trade unions, apprentices are paid wages that are much lower than scale. That makes it profitable for a contractor to take on less experienced workers as part of its crews.

“I can’t hire new people for $45 [an hour],” Shikhris says, referring to the approximate cost of the union wage and benefits package. “It’s too expensive. If I hire apprentices, I pay $17 an hour the first year. So I went union.”

This is precisely the reaction the TRADES campaign is counting on. The coalition, whose full name is Trade Unions and Residents for Apprenticeship Development and Economic Success, argues that if NYCHA enforces the rules on resident hiring, contractors will have an economic incentive to hire public housing residents as apprentices.

In a September proposal to NYCHA, TRADES promised that its four participating unions–the painters, plumbers, carpenters and laborers–would reserve apprenticeship slots for public housing residents. TRADES also pledged to develop and monitor a pre-apprenticeship program to help public housing residents attain the qualifications for such jobs, including a GED degree. In exchange, the group is asking the Housing Authority to enforce regulations that require bidders and their subcontractors to pay prevailing wages and provide access to state-certified apprenticeships for employees.

One of the barriers to increasing resident hiring has always been the vagueness of the federal legislation mandating it. Section 3 of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1968 requires housing authority contractors to hire residents “to the greatest extent feasible.” This has proved to be a fuzzy and largely unenforceable statute, not just in New York but across the country. Small programs administered by nonprofits have enjoyed limited success in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Newark and Philadelphia, according to Kate Rubin, a researcher at New York University’s Brennan Center. But when outside funds for training and monitoring disappear, the Section 3 jobs evaporate as well.

Since March 2001, NYCHA has also run an in-house jobs initiative known as the Resident Employment Program, which requires that 15 percent of the labor costs for every construction contract greater than $500,000 be paid to resident employees.

“Previously, the way Section 3 worked was that contractors would come to a development and hire a local person for the duration of the job,” explains Ethel Velez, president of the tenants association at the Johnson Houses. “But when the job was over, they would lay that person off, move on to the next development, and hire someone else there. The reason I’m on board with TRADES is to give residents the chance to keep a job that pays a living wage.”

As director of the New York City Public Housing Resident Alliance, Velez is a member of the TRADES negotiating committee. Within hours of learning that APS might sign with the painters union, she and resident leaders around the city responded to the union’s call for new workers. Velez encouraged Adam Mitchell, 23, to apply for one of the new jobs. He had worked nine months as a $28-per-hour Section 3 employee at Johnson Houses last year before getting laid off. Another man from the Johnson Houses, Javon Alexander, 26, made a more abrupt career change. “I used to sell drugs,” he says. “But when I looked at my future, I knew I would end up in jail or getting shot.”

_______

Unions and residents hope to sell the TRADES agenda as a win-win proposition for workers, communities, contractors and the housing authority. But at NYCHA, things continue to move slowly. Last September, TRADES submitted its proposal in the form of a memorandum of understanding to be signed by all parties. But even as it presses contractors like Shikhris to hire residents, NYCHA has usually failed to acknowledge TRADES, at least by name, in its public statements about resident hiring.

NYCHA spokeswoman Sheila Greene credits Housing Authority chair Tino Hernandez, who arrived at the agency in 2001, for making progress possible. “When the current chairman arrived, the agency was facing criticisms regarding resident hiring, prevailing wage and procurement practices,” admits Greene. “For the past year, we have been in negotiations with unions, residents and activists. Once we reach an agreement with the unions, we will determine with the unions how to formalize it.”

TRADES worries that the Housing Authority’s desire to “reach an agreement with the unions” veils a willingness to cut a deal that leaves residents and community-based organizations out in the cold. In May, as negotiations approached what might be the final stages, NYCHA invited representatives of the carpenters union to hear an offer that would unionize more jobs but exclude nonunion members of TRADES. “To their credit, the carpenters brought the offer back to TRADES the same day,” says Nicole Branca, coordinator of the coalition. “They didn’t try to cut a deal on the spot.”

It is not obvious what advantages NYCHA sees in dealing with unions and excluding other parties. “I don’t see why they don’t just settle with us,” says Judith Goldiner, a Legal Aid attorney who has advised TRADES from early on. “They know we have been doing this a long time and we are not going anywhere.” In a May 20 meeting to decide on future negotiating strategies, TRADES members vowed that representatives from unions, community groups and resident organizations would attend every meeting with NYCHA. “We are going to decide who they talk to,” said Lavon Chambers, an organizer and investigator with the Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust. “NYCHA isn’t going to decide who they negotiate with.”

If TRADES succeeds in reaching an agreement with NYCHA, it will be a historic step in cooperative action by unions, residents and community organizations. “APS Painting was a victory for us,” says Branca. “We may be on the brink of an agreement. NYCHA has tried to divide the unions, residents and community groups. But [agency officials] are moving.” Branca says strong activism helped push recent progress, but she also gives the current NYCHA leadership credit for listening. “Hernandez has been the most accessible chair in recent history,” she says. “NYCHA wouldn’t meet with us at all until 2002.”

In oral presentations at meetings, if not yet on paper, NYCHA has offered a counter-proposal that, in some details, draws from the memorandum of understanding submitted by TRADES in the fall. The Construction Manager/Build program, known as CM/Build, would allow NYCHA to outsource $600 million in construction contracts over three years to outside managers empowered to accept bids from qualified contractors. By some estimates, that amounts to between one-third and one-half of the total projected volume of construction contracts to be let by the authority.

The qualification requirements for contractors who wish to bid resemble those that TRADES proposed in the memorandum of understanding. Contractors would be required to offer access to state-certified apprenticeship programs, and to offer pre-apprenticeship programs to help workers earn GED degrees and acquire the life skills necessary to complete a training program. Assuming an annual contract volume of $200 million, the unions would offer 250 resident jobs each year–including apprentice and journeyman positions–if all the contracts went union, or 1.25 jobs per $1 million in contracts for all work that went to union contractors.

The main difference: NYCHA has not yet offered a role for resident and community leaders. “We especially want an advisory role in the pre-apprenticeship training,” Branca says. “Most pre-apprenticeship programs tend to fail because too many people drop out.” TRADES demands that whatever CM/Build agreement is reached, NYCHA must also honor the current Resident Employment Program rules that cover contracts in excess of $500,000. In addition, TRADES insists that contractors applying to bid on the CM/Build contracts demonstrate a track record of providing full benefits and worker’s comp for the past three years. “We are worried about contractors who sign up for health care and workman’s comp just so they can bid,” Branca says. “When they get the contract they cancel everything.”

NYCHA spokeswoman Sheila Greene refuses to speak about the Housing Authority’s negotiations with TRADES, acknowledging only that there are “common goals” between the coalition’s proposed memorandum of understanding and CM/Build. “At this point we are concerned about substance and content,” she says. At the same time, she points out that NYCHA is increasing its enforcement of prevailing-wage laws. As of mid-May, Greene says, NYCHA was withholding $1.6 billion in contract payments pending the outcome of ongoing prevailing-wage investigations.

Such enforcement is vital for the success of the TRADES program. Unless contractors and subcontractors are compelled to pay prevailing wages, they have no incentive to enter contracts that require apprenticeships. “We’re unskilled workers looking for a job,” says Person, the new painters apprentice at APS. “It isn’t easy to get a job if no one is going to train you.”

TRADES sees the emergence of union jobs, or at least more permanent jobs for NYCHA residents, as a historic beginning. “This is a starting point,” says Branca. “TRADES is about systematically changing the resident hiring and procurement processes of NYCHA.”

Ron Feemster is a freelance writer who lives in Harlem. Additional reporting by Annia Ciezadlo.