Friday, June 27, 2008
Unions love Willets Point land grab
Thursday, June 26th 2008
(Gill for News - Central Labor Council and Queens pols speak Thursday on steps of City Hall to laud deal on Willets Point development jobs.)
Some of New York's biggest union leaders lined up on the steps of City Hall Thursday to cheer Mayor Bloomberg's new megadevelopment plan - the $3 billion Willets Point project in Queens.
One after another, they gave glowing praise to one more giveaway to real estate developers - one that had been opposed by a majority of the City Council.
The labor leaders touted the "historic" concessions on future jobs at Willets Point they claim to have secured from City Hall in return for backing the project.
When asked about the 225 private businesses and 1,300 current workers that would be forced to move out of Willets Point if the Council approves the mayor's plan, the union leaders were mum on labor solidarity.
Ed Ott, director of the Central Labor Council, began stumbling over his words and looked perplexed when a reporter asked about the small percentage of affordable housing the city was slating for Willets Point.
He did not address the matter of whether City Hall should even be using the power of eminent domain to take private land from one group of citizens only to hand it over to a more powerful private group.
Bloomberg, meanwhile, says he simply wants to transform the 61-acre maze of dirt streets, junkyards and industrial businesses - an area the city has virtually abandoned for decades - into a $3 billion wonderland of retail shops, movie theaters, office buildings, a hotel, a convention center, 6,000 units of largely market-rate housing and even a public school.
"It's just a big land grab," says Dan Feinstein, whose family has run Feinstein Ironworks in Willets Point for more than 75 years.
"How in the world does the mayor justify what he's trying to do?" Feinstein says. "He's nationalizing our property like we're in Venezuela or Russia, then determining which of his friends will get it."
City Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-Queens), who represents Willets Point, has made it clear from the start that he won't support any rezoning of the area that doesn't address things like good-paying permanent jobs, fair relocation of existing businesses and workers, and a significant amount of affordable housing.
Monserrate has lined up 28 fellow members out of 51 to publicly oppose the plan.
That explains why City Hall decided to announce an agreement with union leaders on jobs. Bloomberg's aides will ask the unions to be the mayor's foot soldiers to pressure the Council on behalf of the project.
Until now, most unions stayed away from rezoning or economic development issues, except for the construction trades, which City Hall could always count on to back giant projects that generated jobs.
A few months ago, the Central Labor Council began meeting quietly with City Hall to hammer out new agreements about the "nature of development and how it affects people in the community," said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
With Bloomberg and his aides rezoning scores of neighborhoods to create instant sources of new wealth potential for developers, the labor leaders realized it was time to demand more benefits for workers and local communities.
"This is the first time we went as a group to negotiate," Ott said Thursday.
They won some significant concessions. There's a commitment to require any developer to provide prevailing wages for construction, service workers and security guards, as well as a "living wage" of $10 an hour or more to retail workers.
Hotel workers union leader Peter Ward said he expected any hotel on the site to allow an expedited "card check" method for unionization instead of the more drawnout process of holding a union election.
"I would have preferred more," one union leader admitted to me Thursday, "but it's a start."
In order to win those concessions, though, the union leaders ignored how the city is treating existing businesses and workers at Willets Point. They ignored the plans of the city to build mostly market-rate housing in a borough where the median income is less than $50,000 a year.
They got something for their own members while they ignored other workers in need. With labor solidarity like that, it's no wonder unions are getting weaker.