Division of Labor

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A battle between New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) management and civil service employees over the controversial outsourcing of $445 million in reconstruction projects has thrown a spotlight on the unlikely supporters of management’s plans: the city’s carpenters, plumbers, painters and laborers unions.

The outsourcing, known as the Construction/Manager Build program, or CM/Build, will pay private companies to manage five major renovation projects–work that civil servant architects and engineers formerly did. The CM/Build firms will be paid a minimum of $9 million apiece. The first project, headed by URS Construction, is set to begin renovations this summer on the Ocean Bay Houses in Far Rockaway.

Representatives of the Housing Authority’s civil service employees assert that those dollars could be better spent directly on repairs. “As far as we are concerned, they are privatizing,” says Michelle Keller, second vice president of Local 375 of DC 37, which represents the Housing Authority’s architects, designers, site inspectors, engineers and other highly skilled technical employees. Many of them previously handled the management and oversight work the CM/Build contractors will now be performing. Union reps say that many of these professionals have now been assigned to low-tech positions.

The city agency is spending extra money for private oversight even as it suffers a serious budget shortfall: an estimated budget gap of $303 million, out of a total operating budget of $2.3 billion. To help close the gap, the Housing Authority has laid off 160 DC 37 members and eliminated an additional 490 positions. Housing Authority spokesperson Howard Marder says that the staffing cuts, outsourcing, and reorganization are part of an effort to consolidate the agency’s functions and streamline operations. “There are a lot of different reasons for doing it,” Marder says.

One reason the Housing Authority isn’t talking about: The city’s major building trade unions pushed the city agency to overhaul how it manages construction projects. The New York City District Council of Carpenters, Laborers Local 79, International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 9, and Plumbers Local Union 1 are part of a coalition of labor and community organizations, known as Trade Unions & Residents for Apprenticeship Development (TRADES), that is working with the Housing Authority to bring more construction jobs under the unions’ supervision.

In the past, according to Richard Dwyer, executive director of labor management for the carpenters, NYCHA hired contractors who used low wage, non-union workers, and paid them irregularly or not at all. Repeated complaints to NYCHA construction managers were ignored, he maintains. The unions proceeded to research and document these charges in a report, says Dwyer, and got better results. “We presented [our findings] to the chairman, Tino Hernandez, and GM [NYCHA General Manager Doug Apple], and over a period of several months we worked with them on how they could correct these problems,” says Dwyer. “The solution we came up with is the CM/Build program.” Under CM/Build, the Housing Authority has given the building trades unions the power to approve or reject contractors, and those contractors must use union-approved apprentice programs. In addition, they’ll have to set up “pre-apprenticeship” training for up to 250 public housing residents at each site, putting them on track for union jobs.

DC 37 President Lillian Roberts has reportedly given her blessing to the TRADES project, but NYCHA technical guild workers have made their unhappiness with their brother unions abundantly clear. Joshua Barnett, a Local 375 committee chair, believes the outsourcing is part of a trend nationwide to downsize public housing. “The real agenda here is to privatize public housing, to diminish the commitment to provide services to public housing,” says Barnett. “And the carpenters and TRADES are going to benefit on that process.”

But TRADES is still struggling to get NYCHA to live up to its end of the bargain. A year after the campaign and Housing Authority struck the CM/Build deal, the city has yet to issue a promised request for proposals to train the public housing residents in a pre-apprenticeship program. TRADES spokesperson Nicole Branca says contractors and workers alike are perplexed about what to do next: “The contractors have to have apprentices in the apprenticeship programs. The unions have talked to the community groups, and I have been going to tenant meetings promising these opportunities. We no longer know what to tell them.”

Ruth Ford is a contributing editor of Habitat magazine.

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