By Bill Parry
For more than two months union leaders have been setting up giant inflatable rats along the perimeter of the 5Pointz Towers construction site in Long Island City, protesting developer Jerry Wolkoff’s use of non-union labor. On Tuesday, reinforcements arrived as several hundred steamfitters, plumbers, carpenters and concrete workers flooded Jackson Avenue and Davis Street for a full-throated lunchtime rally alongside another inflatable called “Greedy the Pig.”
During the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure in 2013 for a rezoning variance, Wolkoff’s G & M Realty agreed to several major community givebacks, including a commitment to build and staff the site using 100 percent union labor, so that he could construct an additional 400 units at the former home of the world famous 5Pointz graffiti mecca.
In addition to the union provision, Wolkoff agreed to increase the number of affordable apartments and add more space for artists in order to receive the special permit that allowed him to build bigger than the area zoning laws allowed.
Speaker after speaker charged Wolkoff with reneging on that deal, including Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building Trades Council of Greater New York, who offered the developer a Project Labor Agreement. Wolkoff would not sign the pact, but gave his word and shook hands on the deal, LaBarbera said.
“He gave his commitment that this job was going to be a Building Trades job and he went back on his word, he lied to everyone,” LaBarbera thundered in an expletive-filled speech. “I come from the school that when you give your word, it’s better than a signed contract. This man was in my office, shook my hand and promised this would be a union project.”
LaBarbera then read from a letter to Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), signed by Wolkoff announcing his “intention to engage contractors which employ individuals represented by labor unions” and promising 800 good-paying construction jobs and 200 full-time jobs after construction was completed. Van Bramer endorsed the issuance of the variance based on the promises in that letter from Wolkoff.
“Jerry Wolkoff lied to me, Jerry Wolkoff lied to Gary, Jerry Wolkoff lied to every single New Yorker,” Van Bramer told the roaring crowd. “I will never believe another word you ever say nor will I ever approve any future project you want to build in my district or this city.”
Wolkoff claims he never lied and that he would not sign the labor agreement LaBarbera offered because it would have cost him 25 percent to 30 percent more to build his 47- and 41-story 5Pointz towers. He also shrugged off Van Bramer’s threat to block any more of his projects in the city.
“Look, I’ve got nothing against Jimmy. He’s a good union guy, but the contract they offered me would’ve cost me $20 million more to build.” Wolkoff said. “He wouldn’t do it and I’m not doing it. I am not anti-union, but people should wake up and understand the world has changed. The unions might control the politicians, but they don’t control the world anymore. There are other people out there who are non-union. What, they don’t have a right to work?”
Council of Carpenters representative Michael Donnelly, who has been protesting at the site for 10 weeks, called on the City Council to revoke the variance and stop the project although Van Bramer said “it can’t be reversed, but we can address all of the violations here.”
LaBarbera also threatened to warn Wolkoff’s investors and insurance companies.
“We’re going to get word to his lenders that they’re dealing with a guy whose word means nothing,” he said. “Maybe they’ll think twice about lending him money.”
LaBarbera finished by thanking the 5Pointz artists for taking part in the protest. In November 2013, Wolkoff ordered workers to whitewash the estimated 350 murals of graffiti art on the warehouse complex’s exterior walls as a first step towards its demolition.
5Pointz curator Jonathan Meres Cohen and spokeswoman Marie Cecil Flaguel stood alongside a hand-painted canvas that said “5Pointz Artists Support Unions.”
“I told you so,” is all Meres would say following the rally. Cecil Flaguel explained the two had warned anyone that would listen that Wolkoff “could not be trusted,” and they were ignored during the ULURP proceedings.
“It’s good to see so many brothers and sisters come here and the union leaders have their say, but now they have to take action,” she said. “We’ve known he’s a liar for 11 years. Three years later and promises are broken on the union jobs. What will Wolkoff renege on next, the affordable housing? We’re surely not holding our breath on the art space he’s promised. We warned Councilman Van Bramer and Borough President Helen Marshall that he shouldn’t be trusted. Sometimes being right doesn’t feel so good.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr