By Bill Parry
Over a dozen cement mixing trucks lined up for several blocks on Jackson Avenue in Long Island City Friday morning. The drivers in each truck waited patiently for their turn to enter the construction site, where the 5Pointz graffiti mecca once stood, and deliver their cargo, as work has begun on the superstructure for a project that will deliver two luxury high-rise towers containing 1,000 apartments.
As each truck prepared to make a right hand turn onto Davis Street they rolled past a giant inflatable rat that overlooks the construction site. The rat has been on the corner every day for three weeks—put there by union representatives who are angry with developer Jerry Wolkoff, who they say went back on a promise to use union labor.
In a deal brokered by City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), Wolkoff agreed to several major givebacks in order to secure the special permit. He agreed to increase affordable units from 75 to 210 and he committed to building and staffing the building with 100 percent union workers.
“He scored variances that allowed him to build five times bigger than the zoning law allows with the promise he’d use the unions to build here,” Michael Donnelly, a council representative with the Council of Carpenters, said. “There are none, zero, union workers on this site except for the Teamsters delivering the cement. Jerry Wolkoff is not a man of his word. This is an absolute s**t show down here.”
Gary LaBarbera, the president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, agreed.
“We offered him a Project Labor Agreement and he didn’t want to sign it, he thought he could do better without an agreement,” LaBarbera said. “But we shook hands and he gave me his word. He committed that it would be a union job. Obviously his word means nothing.”
Wolkoff said he would never sign a PLA because it would increase the cost of the project by $30 million to $40 million.
“Look, I’ve got nothing against the unions, believe me, but it has to make sense. I have to be able to build at an affordable cost,” Wolkoff said. “I wouldn’t sign a PLA that would let them tell me who to hire and who to fire. In this game you’ve got a few chiefs and a lot of Indians when it comes to the unions. Say you’ve got a job for 40 workers and they’ll bring eight supervisors just to watch them. It gets silly and remember, I’ve got to build all those extra affordable units.”
LaBarbera said Wolkoff opted to use lower-waged non-union workers who have no training and work in unsafe conditions.
“He’s clearly an irresponsible developer,” LaBarbera said.
“Untrained, you think I’d use untrained workers? That’s nuts. These are good workers,” Wolkoff said, “Look, I’m not against Gary, he’s a terrific guy, but he works for those unions. What else is he going to say? Look, this is the world we live in now and they’ve got to rethink the way things are done. You can’t do things the way you did them 20 or 30 years ago.”
Van Bramer is attempting to bring Wolkoff and LaBarbera together.
“I’m proud to have been raised in a union household. My father was union. My mother was union. My stepfather was union. So it should come as no surprise that I support labor and working men and women,” Van Bramer said. “I have been made aware of issues at this site which concern me. I’ve been asked to help to try and bring all sides together in an attempt to address these issues. This is something I’m actively working on. I will continue to fight for working men and women, and jobs that offer good pay, a wide array of benefits, solid training and safe working conditions.”
The developer is going ahead with his project despite Van Bramer’s intervention.
“He’s a good guy but he’s caught in the middle here,” Wolkoff said. “He’s really gung-ho on the unions and it just gets a bit silly.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr