By Bill Parry
The man who ordered the whitewashing of the 5Pointz graffiti mecca in 2014 is feeling the heat of organized labor. Jerry Wolkoff is using non-union workers at his Long Island City construction site despite an agreement to use 100 percent union labor and for the last three weeks an inflatable rat has stood in protest on Jackson Avenue.
“What? They only brought one rat? That’s insulting,” Wolkoff said. “The Teamsters I’m using are all union and the shop that makes the concrete is union.”
As for the construction workers down in the pit, Wolkoff was less upfront. “Some are union and some are not,” he said.
Michael Donnelly, a representative with the Council of Carpenters, watches cement mixers roll past and shakes his head.
“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,” Donnelly 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.”
Peter Corrigan, a leader with High Rise Concrete Local 212, which was chartered only last month because of the high volume of tower construction in the city, believes Wolkoff is in over his head.
“I’m concerned with people cutting corners,” Corrigan said. “Wolkoff acts like he’s building some kind of shed — not two high-rise towers. I’m concerned something terrible can happen on this construction site that is right alongside the 7 train.”
Both men called on the city to lift the variances and stop construction from going ahead. Gary LaBarbera, the president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, thought their might be a “protocol where the variance could be lifted,” but he was not sure.
City Hall said there is no recourse because there is nothing legally binding.
“Developers should honor agreements they make with Council members as part of the ULURP process,” mayoral spokesman Austin Finan said.
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 from the City Council that would allow him to build a 41-story tower and a 47-story tower, which would enable him to build an additional 400 units. He agreed to increase affordable units from 75 to 210 and he committed to building and staffing the building with 100 percent union workers.
“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.”
Corrigan’s Local 212 had made tremendous reductions in cost with its offer that would have still paid union workers full wage.
“This would have been a tremendous asset for Wolkoff and the Queens community because he would have been using Queens workers,” he said. “Instead he’s not employing workers from Queens or the other boroughs, he’s bringing them in from Long Island.”
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.”
Wolkoff claims he never made a handshake agreement and in a letter to Van Bramer on Oct.1, 2013 Wolkoff wrote of his “intention to engage contractors which employ individuals represented by labor unions.”
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.”
Meanwhile Wolkoff 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.”
LaBarbera is willing to listen but is not expecting any miracles.
“The bottom line is we’ve already tried talking,” he said. “I don’t know what options Jimmy has available to him. I’m sure he is equally disturbed and disappointed over this.”
Corrigan is not surprised by Wolkoff’s decision, but he is disappointed.
“The thing is Wolkoff is a self-made millionaire,” he said. “You would think he would offer others their path to the middle class.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr