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Union fights SJU for painting jobs

By Kelsey Durham

After weeks of protests and a lack of negotiations, the painters union that claims St. John’s University shut them out of dozens of summer jobs is prepared to continue the fight.

The District Council 9 union — made up of about 9,000 trade workers including painters, dry wallers, window installation professionals and other building workers — has staged a series of rallies outside the Jamaica Estates school since last month in response to what union representatives say is the school’s determination to not hire union workers to repaint student dormitories over the summer.

DC 9 contends it submitted a competitive bid for the 30 to 50 painters currently doing the work, but St. John’s chose to hire non-union workers whom the school says offered a better contract.

“St. John’s has met with union representatives past and present to explain our bidding process,” the school said in a statement. “Unionized painting companies have been included on bid lists for projects currently being contracted at St. John’s. In this instance, the university decided to accept competitive bids from non-union firms.”

Jack Kittle, spokesman and political director of DC 9, said the union has been trying to work with St. John’s for about three years now, but the university has not negotiated with them despite telling the painters each year that they will try to work out a deal with the union the following summer.

“Our attitude is that they have not been very honorable,” he said, referring to the university. “I think they figure we will just forget about it the next year, but we won’t. We pay attention.”

Kittle did not know how close the bid that the union offered St. John’s was to the one the school accepted from non-union workers since a contractor submits the bid rather than the union itself.

But he said, in his experience, he has rarely known a union to offer a non-competitive bid, and he said the job being done inside the dorms would most likely require half the workers if the school had hired experienced union painters instead.

In the weeks since the union said it was brushed off by the school, workers have staged rallies and protests outside Gate 1 of the university in order to make their voices heard, even bringing with them a giant inflatable rat and a banner that reads “Shame on St. John’s University.”

Kittle said, to his knowledge, the group plans to continue its protests each day the job is being done over the summer and has no plans to walk away from the issue.

“It’s not honorable,” Kittle said. “We’d be happier if they just told us to take a walk instead of doing this same thing every year.”

The statement released by St. John’s continued to insist that the school was willing to work with all contractors, regardless of union status.

“The university prides itself in giving fair consideration to outside companies, union and non-union, who contract with St. John’s for work-related projects at our New York campus locations,” the statement said. “We will continue our best practices and policies as an institution of higher education in helping our economy in Queens and New York and accept bids from all prospective companies that wish to do business with St. John’s University.”

Reach reporter Kelsey Durham at 718-260-4573 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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