On Monday, the City Planning Commission approved the rezoning of Astoria Cove, booting it to the city council. The development stands to set the bar for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing policy in terms of how many affordable units are created, but also whether or not the city will require union labor for the project’s construction.
The new alliances that unions have formed with affordable housing advocates will help them as they lobby for the Astoria Cove contract. This combined with a rebounding construction industry, place unions in an ideal bargaining position as the rezoning proposal reaches the city council.
Between 2008 and 2010, the city’s construction industry shed 16 percent of its workforce – more than 20,000 jobs.
But jobs numbers and city records of building permits indicate the industry is resurging with force.
A February report by the New York Buildings Congress showed that residential building permits given by the city in 2013 were up by 71 percent from the year earlier. And the construction sector added 4,100 jobs during the 12-month period that ended in August.
As recently as 2011, a Regional Plan Association report pinned union construction unemployment rate at 25 percent or higher. But one of the plan’s authors Julia Vitullo-Martin said that’s not the case anymore.
“Contractors started telling me 18 months ago that all the good crews were hired” she said. “Some developers were putting off projects to wait for the workers they wanted.”
Increased demand for skilled construction crews will give unions an important bargaining chip in the city council as they vie for Astoria Cove.
Their second clear advantage is that the age-old boundaries that placed unions and affordable housing advocates at odds are disintegrating. Under Bloomberg, virtually none of the affordable projects subsidized by the city were built with union labor.
[If] people don’t stick together, everyone is going to get the short end of the stick in the long run,” Chaz Rynkiewicz the Director of Organizing at Local 79 said. “Local 79 is working within a broad coalition, so that more than just the jobs are addressed. This is bigger.”
The union has been working with Build Up NYC to rally for both union labor and affordable housing at Astoria Cove.
Jeff Grabelsky, the Director of Cornell University’s Construction Industry Program, sees these new partnerships as an indicator that construction unions are reaching a pivotal moment in their history.
“The truly progressive path is being charted by an emerging coalition of labor and community that is committed to high road development that builds affordable housing with unionized labor,” he said. “There is a lot at stake as building trades unions work to demonstrate a level of flexibility and a willingness to work in partnership with communities.”