Albany Agenda

Crickets from Building Trades Council on New York’s housing deal

The construction unions were absent from an event with Gov. Kathy Hochul celebrating labor wins in the state budget.

Gov. Kathy Hochul celebrated with hotel and building service workers, but no builders.

Gov. Kathy Hochul celebrated with hotel and building service workers, but no builders. Susan Watts/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Update: Several hours after this story was published, Building Trades Council President Gary LaBarbera released a statement praising the budget deal and the labor standards included in the housing package. “As for 485-X, this budget introduces significant changes from its predecessor, most notably with the addition of set wages, which deservedly increases pay rates, as compared to the previous site averaged structure. This measure makes possible a true enforcement of wage standards upon developers, supports workforce development necessary to adequately address housing needs, and opens more pathways for construction workers to pursue the middle class, support their families, and reinvest in their communities.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday celebrated a final housing deal in the state budget with union members – but members of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York were notably absent due to scheduling conflicts. And the organization still has not put out any statement regarding the final housing package despite playing a large role in negotiating the labor standards that it ultimately included. 

Hochul hosted her event at the headquarters of 32BJ, the building service workers union that won a victory in the budget. As part of the new 485-x developer tax incentive program to spur affordable housing growth in New York City, all building service workers in the developments will receive prevailing wage for the duration of the tax benefit period. Also present was the Hotel and Gaming Trades Council, which is not one of the unions directly involved with or benefited from the labor negotiations within the housing package.

According to Hochul, the head of the Building Trades Council Gary LaBarbera couldn’t make the event because he was attending a national building trades labor conference in Washington D.C. “Anybody here from the building trades?” Hochul asked after receiving chants from both 32BJ and HTC members present after calling out the unions. She was met with silence. “If you’re not, well you should be,” Hochul added with a laugh when no one offered a response. 

Wage standards for construction workers were one of the main sticking points in negotiations for the new developer incentive, and Hochul left that up to the Building Trades Council and the Real Estate Board of New York to hash out. Up until the budget passed, those talks didn’t seem to be going well, particularly when LaBarbera rejected what REBNY called its final compromise offer. 

“Gary was instrumental in being right there with us to make sure that we can have jobs, good paying jobs for union members, and that's what it's all about,” Hochul said. “So, thank you, Gary LaBarbera.”

A spokesperson for LaBarbera confirmed that he was invited to the gubernatorial event, but could not make it due to the conference in D.C. However, when asked for a statement on the final budget, the spokesperson declined to give one. Had he attended the event with Hochul, LaBarbera would have provided his first public statement since a wage deal for construction workers was struck. But neither he nor the council more generally have weighed in on the deal that Hochul was celebrating as a major labor victory on Tuesday.

The Building Trades Council, an umbrella group that represents a variety of different construction unions in the city, was fighting for a wage standard of at least 75% of the prevailing wage workers received on other subsidized projects. In the end, construction workers won $72.40 an hour, or 65% of the prevailing wage for a particular trade at projects of 150 units or more in certain parts of the city, whichever is lower. For projects of 150 units or more in other parts of the city, that wage would be $63 an hour, or 60% of the prevailing wage for a trade, whichever is lower. And for any project of 100 units or more, developers need to pay a minimum wage of at least $40 an hour.

The $40 minimum wage standard was a victory for the laborers unions, which had negotiated the deal with REBNY prior to the budget and separate from a broader deal with the Building Trades Council. The budget codified the agreement. “This $40 minimum wage will transform the lives of construction workers, especially those who are formerly incarcerated individuals, immigrants, and day laborers,” said Mike Hellstrom, vice president and eastern regional manager of the Laborers' International Union of North America. A source familiar with the laborers unions, which includes the Mason Tenders District Council, said that leaders were invited to attend Hochul’s event, but could not attend due to the national conference in D.C.

But many other construction unions, which have higher wage standards than laborers, did not consider the $40 minimum wage high enough for their members. And at least one union that has been a vocal public proponent for strong labor standards offered only lukewarm support for the wage standards adopted in the budget. Joseph Geiger, executive secretary-treasurer of the New York City District Council, called the deal “a step in the right direction” and celebrated the advocacy of his members in eliminating the old average wage standard that applied to the previous 421-a program. “Unfortunately, the wage standard does not apply to enough of the city and excludes key areas that are primed for development, like the Bronx,” Geiger said.

A spokesperson for Hochul did not return a request for comment about the absence of construction unions.