February 12, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco
Despite an aggressive campaign highlighting their involvement in a notorious construction site “sweatshop” in Queens, the largest retirement fund in the country and the Obama administration insider who runs it, continue to ignore organized labor’s call for action – and union reps think they know why. (Read More and Watch Video)
“TIAA-CREF has reached out to the Carpenters Union through Ray Rogers of the Corporate Campaign, and they said they would like to put a responsible contractor in there – but nobody that’s associated with the carpenters union,” NYC District Council of Carpenters Representative Michael Donnelly told LaborPress. “In my opinion, TIAA-CREF doesn’t want to be told what to do. They’re embarrassed now – as they should be – but they don’t want to say that they were told what to do. Or that they lost, or that they were wrong.”
TIAA-CREF, in conjunction with O’Connor Capital Partners and McGowan Builders, is currently developing a controversial residential/dormitory project at 5-11 47th Avenue in Long Island City that does not extend area standards, wages and benefits to its non-unionized workforce.
On February 12, the NYC District Council of Carpenters, representing some 25,000 working men and women, demonstrated and leafletted passersby outside TIAA-CREF’s headquarters at 730 Third Avenue in Manhattan to protest the project.
“We have to stop the proliferation of these construction sweatshops where serious injury and economic injustice are commonplace,” Rogers said. “This is the construction capital of this country, if we allow companies like TIAA-CREF and these big developers like O’Connor Capital Partners to get away with this kind of behavior, it really undermines the protections that the construction unions have fought so hard for over the years.”
Astonishingly to many, TIAA-CREF’s CEO Roger Ferguson is also a member of President Barack Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board and Council On Jobs and Competitiveness. He also served as the U.S. Federal Reserve System’s Board of Governors vice-chair.
“Ferguson is a smooth guy,” Rogers said. “On the one hand, I never thought of him as a nasty son-of-gun. At he’s annual meetings, he certainly handles himself much better than most CEOs. But at the same time, TIAA-CREF, like so many of these big companies, when you look into them, a lot the goodwill that they engender is because of their advertising campaigns and slogans. But when you get up under the surface, you realize there are a lot warts.”
Neither O’Connor Capital Partners or McGowan Builders has ever agreed to sit down and talk to the union about its concerns. And now Rogers fears that the avenue of communication between TIAA-CREF and the Corporate Campaign, has petered out as well.
“In the case of TIAA-CREF, I think we thought that there was initially a chance for things to be resolved in an amicable way,” Rogers said. “But then as we talked more and more, I have a sense that maybe it has become a personal thing.”
Donnelly blasted Ferguson for living large while employees working on TIAA-CREF projects toil without basic job protections.
“Roger Ferguson makes twelve-and-a-half million dollars a year, and he pays his employees that do these construction jobs about twelve dollars and fifty cents an hour,” Donnelly said. “We think what Roger should do is start taking the same salary that he thinks his workers are worth.”
TIAA-CREF did not respond to requests for comment.
A former subcontractor on the 47th Avenue project called Degraw Construction was replaced after Rogers and union officials alerted TIAA-CREF about the company’s alleged ties to organized crime. Other subcontractors subsequently brought in have been accused of other things – like reportedly hiring still other subcontractors who pay their hirelings in un-taxable cash.
“In fact, one of the employees was injured on a McGowan job and the insurance records from McGowan providers indicates that there is no Social Security number for the individual that was injured,” Donnelly said.
New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who’s district encompasses the 47th Avenue development project, spoke out at the February 12, demonstration, saying that TIAA-CREF and its partners has an obligation to workers.
“If these dedicated men and women are willing to devote themselves to building up this city, the least these corporations can do is invest back into their workforce instead of profiting off the backs of these workers,” Councilman Van Bramer said.
In a February 7, 2013 letter written to O’Connor Capital Partners chief Bill O’Connor, the councilman requested an official meeting with the developer and denounced “irresponsible development” as a “danger to the community.”
“I am aware of O’Connor Capital Partners’ commitment to rebuilding the nation’s economy,” Councilman Van Bramer wrote. “I am positive you understand the importance of a strong, growing middle class to sustained recovery. Unfortunately, I was informed by both community and labor leaders that your company is doing the exact opposite in Queens by participating in a construction sweatshop. More specifically, the construction project at 5-11 47th Avenue, Long Island City, New York is using contractors that pay their employees far below industry standards and provides little to no benefits in the way of retirement savings or affordable healthcare. This is unacceptable considering the high cost of living in this city and the difficulty of supporting a family here.”
The union and its allies are now awaiting a response to the councilman’s letter, but vow to keep the pressure on TIAA-CREF and its partners in the meantime.
“Eventually, they’re going to have to talk to us because this is getting bigger by the day,” Donnelly said.