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The construction unions at a crossroads

The construction unions at a crossroads

Standing in front of thousands of construction workers in Union Square, Gary LaBarbera screamed into the microphone — his voice going hoarse from condemning Related Companies.

“In my opinion, they are a bunch of fucking liars,” the New York Building and Construction Trades Council president said. “You can sue me, you can take me to court, but I will not stand down.”

He was referring to Related’s two lawsuits against him and the Building Trades and the developer’s assertion that it’s one of the biggest proponents of union labor in the city.

The tenor of the rally, held in May, reflected the rapidly escalating feud between the developer and the Building Trades over Related’s use of both union and nonunion labor at 50 Hudson Yards. The fight, which kicked off last year with protests outside the development project, has become increasingly personal and vitriolic.

“I have been through many battles, many labor disputes and many conflicts on many different levels for 25 years,” LaBarbera told The Real Deal in a recent interview. “And I have never had an adversary conduct themselves in such a despicable manner.”

LaBarbera has painted Related’s chairman, Steve Ross, and president, Bruce Beal Jr., as union busters driven by greed, while the firm’s executives describe the union leader as a bully who is causing more harm than good to the workers he claims to defend.

“Gary LaBarbera and the Building Trades’ malicious and destructive efforts, including rallying against their own trades, have cost their own members jobs,” Related’s spokesperson, Joanna Rose, said in a statement.

To have such a drama play out at Hudson Yards, the largest private project in New York’s history, marks a key turning point in the rivalry between union and nonunion labor in the city. Nonunion construction workers have gained considerable market share in the past decade or so, with many developers and construction management firms opting to hire a mixed workforce — often referred to as open shop.

But what’s really changing, sources say, is the way developers and unions are negotiating contracts.

In the case of Hudson Yards, the New York City District Council of Carpenters — the city’s largest union, with more than 20,000 members — announced a deal with Related to work on the second half of the 28-acre project. Though LaBarbera denies that such an agreement exists, the prospect of a contract shows that the city’s unions are no longer operating as a united front.

And that deal — whether or not it’s driven by the interests of the carpenters — could be the first of many, according to sources.   

“I think you are going to see more things like that happen,” said Anthony Rinaldi, head of the construction management firm Rinaldi Group and chair of the New York branch of the Associated Builders and Contractors. “That is highly unusual, and it is definitely a landmark transition.”

Open-shop town?

Three years ago, developer Michael Stern made headlines for hiring nonunion labor at 111 West 57th Street — one of the tallest planned residential skyscrapers in the city. The project wasn’t the first Manhattan high-rise to use both union and nonunion labor, but it immediately caused a stir because of its scope.

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