Labor Strife in Brooklyn: Pratt University Center of Attention

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With rising unemployment and amidst a failing economy there is fierce competition for the jobs that do exist, and an example of that dynamic can be found at 534 Myrtle Avenue, home to a new $50 million dollar administration building being built for Pratt University with objections from union labor, but with a work force that includes workers from the surrounding community.
The union argument is put forward by Anthony Williamson, an organizer for Local 79 of the Construction and General Building Laborers union.  With over 9,500 members, it is the largest construction local in the United States and second largest in North America.
Williamson says, “The new construction is not paying a living wage with benefits.  Pratt’s budget is over $160 million dollars.  It is unacceptable for them not to hire contractors that pay workers a living wage with decent benefits.”  Williamson says that as an organizer, he sees that  situation as exploiting the workers.  “How can you pay guys $10-12 dollars an hour and expect them to raise their families,” he asks.  “We have people from the building trades who live in the surrounding community who can benefit from jobs like that.”
On the question of diversity of membership, he says, “Our union is considered one of the most diverse and progressive.  I’m part of the executive board.   We have a Latino business manager and a membership of African-Americans, Latinos and Caucasians.  In that community we have a number of members who want to be a part of the project.”
Nolan Herrera is on the executive board of the Steelworkers Union and said “We have a collective bargaining agreement throughout the city where we are paid proper wages for the work we do.  These contractors bring in people and pay them well under the standard for the work they are doing. There are unsafe conditions and some of the people don’t speak English, they’re illegal, and they pay them what they want. They have nothing to say because they have no backing.  They’re being exploited.”
One man’s exploitation is another man’s well-paying job.  Activist Darnell Canada of Rebuild says he has been able to successfully place men on the Pratt site and at other sites around Brooklyn.  Mr. Canada says it better that someone be making $25/hour and be able to support a family, than waiting to join unions that had all but closed their books. “We have 70% unemployment in the Farragut Houses, in a surrounding area with 50% unemployment.  We need jobs.” Asked about the influx of immigrant labor to the area, we havr seen Hispanic women doing laborer’s work in Bedford Stuyvesant, Canada said he had been on some job sites where “if I had pulled out a badge, everyone would have run.  We’re being squeezed between the unions on one side and immigrant labor on the other.”
Speaking of Pratt, Mr. Canada described the University as a good partner, both in employing local labor and in their contributions to the surrounding community.  Speaking of the Myrtle Avenue site, Canada said, “We had 10 men working on the foundation and one man training in steel on a five-man crew.   These are relationships we’ve built up with contractors over the years.  We just don’t give them anybody.   We do training and deal with job retention.  We constantly work with our people.  A lot of them have not been in the world of work for many years.”
Councilwoman Letitia James said that she has worked closely with, and fully-supported Mr. Canada in his employment efforts.  Since the beginning of this year, Canada says his group has placed approximately 60-70 people in jobs.  “For a group that gets no money, we do a better job of getting jobs than organizations getting” tens of millions of dollars a year.  Those organizations train and get people ‘work ready’, we get them jobs.”
Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, (D) said “I remain hopeful that Pratt will find it economically feasible to use some union labor as part of completing the building.”  The Assemblyman said he had spoken to members of the administration and urged them to come to some agreement with organized labor as it relates to the project and I’m hopeful they’ll be in dialogue to reach a mutually acceptable resolution.”
Asked about the relationship between union labor and “community labor” Jeffries said he had also urged Pratt to “insure that to the extent they are unable to use union labor, that a significant percentage of the people employed on the project come from the community.”
The Assemblyman added that “It’s also important that Pratt hire local businesses, as part of the construction process.”  He said he “made that position clear” to President Thomas Schutte as well as to other senior officials.  “They have indicated to me that they are going to take all steps possible to incorporate both community members and businesses into the process and I take them at their word.”