By Iryna Shkurhan | [email protected]
Over a hundred carpenter union members rallied at City Hall on July 13 for what they say are false promises from the city to designate construction jobs at Willets Point to unionionized workers.
Willets Point, an underdeveloped and isolated area situated between Citi Field and Flushing, has long been neglected. But in November 2022, Mayor Adams announced that the area will be transformed to contain 2,500 new affordable homes, the city’s first soccer stadium, along with a hotel, retail spaces and a public school. The vision for this new community seeks to create connectivity with surrounding areas with an emphasis on sustainable design.
“During the construction phase of the Project, Purchaser shall employ contractors that pay prevailing wage, and shall hire workers from state-certified apprenticeship programs for the construction of all non-residential buildings in the project,” states an excerpt from the NYS Economic Development Corporation’s request for proposal document, which was blown up, printed and displayed widely at the rally.
The New York City Economic Development Corporation says its mission is to invest in infrastructure and area-wide redevelopment, while spurring economic growth in the process.
“Just imagine how surprised we were when we discovered that a contractor employed by the city to build Willets Point didn’t have an apprenticeship program,” said Joseph Geiger, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the New York City District Council of Carpenters at the rally. “Did the apprenticeship requirements just disappear into thin air? Who did it? Who is responsible?”
“Who’s the rat? EDC,” union members all in orange shirts shouted collectively during the afternoon rally that grew over a dozen city officials.
“The Building and Construction Trades Council, including the Carpenters Union, have been a pivotal partner in this project and we look forward to continuing these conversations. This development will create over 14,000 construction jobs, all of which will be good-paying jobs for New Yorkers,” said an EDC spokesperson in an email to the Queens Ledger, ignoring questions on whether workers will be hired from a state certified apprenticeship program like stated in the RFP.
Union representatives say that when workers who did not go through a state certified apprenticeship program are hired, the safety of workers and future residents, as well as the integrity of construction projects are put at risk.
“For two months, it was a lot of foot dragging and bureaucratic hot potato to the point that culminated in yesterday’s massive rally, with all those elected officials demanding that EDC answer our questions and enforce their own rules,” said Kevin Elkins, Director of Political Action at NYCDCC in an interview with the Queens Ledger.
Elkins says that NYCDCC heard through “the grapevine” that EDC chose to go with East Coast Drilling, a Queens based non unionized company, for the project instead. Despite the terms outlined in the RFP, it appears that EDC is straying from their initial promise, which union representatives say is a safety risk given the dangerous nature of the work.
“To have people who did not go to a four year apprenticeship program and learn how to do their job well, but also safely, is a very, very very, very irresponsible thing, especially when there’s city money at stake,” Elkins pointed out.
“When workers safety is at stake, rules must be followed. And the rules state that if a contractor has no state certified apprenticeship program, they don’t belong in Willets Point. Or any taxpayer funded job site,” Geiger reinforced at the rally. “And if we allow this to happen, it’s gonna happen to every contract with the city of New York.”
“It has been so disappointing to learn that everything that was taught to us seems to not be true,” said State Senator Jessica Ramos, who mentioned that she was briefed on this project only one day before it was announced. “I was told that there would be no problem on this project, that everything was going to be done by the letter, and that my community would be able to count on good union jobs.”
Ramos, who represents Jackson Heights, Corona, Elmhurst and a bit of Rego Park, lost representation of Willets Point during redistricting last year. But she says that her proximity to the site now, and growing up in the area, has reinforced her concerns of its outcome.
“I see how desperate my community is for good union jobs,” said Ramos, who is Chair of the Committee on Labor. “We know that the only way to do this project is with apprenticeship programs that are going to guarantee worker safety and union wages and benefits to every single worker.”
The majority of the more than dozen electeds who showed up in solidarity were from Queens, but representatives from all five boroughs were present, including Councilmember Joe Borelli from Staten Island, Councilmember Oswald Feliz from the Bronx and Councilmember Jennifer Gutierrez from Brooklyn. City Comptroller Brad Lander also made an appearance and delivered remarks in solidarity.
“I want to be very clear about this. As I said, when it comes to our parks or any other project in our city, these projects must be 100% union labor,” said Councilmember Shekar Krishnan, who represents Elmhurst and Jackson Heights.
“What happened in Willets Point can happen in any of the other five boroughs on any major development project,” said Elkins. “If it’s been discovered that rules aren’t being followed by a city funded project, and they no longer matter, that impacts every taxpayer.”