December 14, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco 

Public Advocate Tish James: Build it union!
Public Advocate Tish James: Build it union!

New York, NY – No one mentioned Mayor Bill de Blasio by name at Saturday’s ceremony heralding the new $300 million partnership between the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust [HIT] and NYC houses of worship, but Hizzoner’s ears still must have been ringing. 

The administration’s opposition to incorporating a lot more union labor in its 10-year, 200,000-unit affordable housing plan, has somewhat softened over the last several months, but as evidenced by the massive City Hall rally that took place just two days prior to the Trust announcement – it hasn’t come close to satisfying those who are convinced that building affordable housing with union labor is not only possible, but is also a lot safer, and a great way to strike a solid blow against intractable income inequality in this town. 

At this weekend’s Trust announcement held inside Riverside Church in Manhattan, union advocates, including more than a couple of potential mayoral challengers, castigated the persistent notion that New York City can’t solve its affordable housing crisis using supposedly cost-prohibitive union labor. 

“From time to time you hear people say, or ask the question, ‘Can you build affordable housing with union labor?’ We’ve only built 145,000 apartments across this country, over $9 billion of our capital, with union labor — so, I guess if you’ve done over 145,000, you can do the next 100,000. I think you’ve found your way,” HIT CEO Steve Coyle said.

Since 2002, the AFL-CIO Trust has helped to create some 31,000 units of mostly housing throughout the five boroughs. Earlier this fall, the HIT joined with Comptroller Scott Stringer in announcing an overall $1 billion investment in New York City affordable housing over the next seven years.  

“This is how you put roofs over people’s heads,” Stringer said on Saturday. “This is how you reduce homelessness. This is how you create a city for everybody. When you talk about the haves and have-nots, you can’t just talk the talk — you have to walk the walk.”

“Walking the walk" and "talking the talk” was a theme that was repeatedly referenced throughout saturday's announcement. 

“Labor is doing its part to address [the affordable housing] crisis in a meaningful and real way,” Building and Construction Trades Council President Gary LaBarbera said. “When we were out at City Hall two days ago, we walked the walk. With this investment from union pension funds, we’re talking the talk. We’re putting our money where our mouths are.”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. called the partnership between clergy and the AFL-CIO Trust, a “breath of fresh air.” 

“There are some people that come, and they have a lack of ideas,” the Bronx borough president said. “There are others that have very bad ideas. This right here, I think, is the best way that we can move forward.”

Public Advocate Letitia James was the most unabashed in her support for union construction.

“We need affordable housing and we must build it with union labor,” James said. “So many of the challenges we face — housing, healthcare, wages — are all tied to responsible development. This partnership will not only create thousands of units of housing in neighborhoods where they are needed most – but it will also create over 1,400 union, middle class, family-sustaining jobs in our city.”

The first African-American woman voted to citywide office, also dismissed attempts by anti-union forces to portray the Building Trades as exclusionary. 

“New development must be built union because they provide jobs to the local community and protect workers from dangerous working conditions,” James added. “And don’t get caught up or exploited by this campaign where they seek to divide the labor movement and elected officials — this notion that they are ‘stale, pale and male.’ The reality is that they build safely.”

LaBarbera insisted that the Building Trades reflect New York City’s diversity, and are committed to providing more people with clear pathways to the middle class. 

“We believe that can be found with union construction jobs and apprenticeship programs,” LaBarbera said. “Where we can be trained to work as skilled tradespersons. Where we can be trained to work safely. Where we can go to the work in the morning and return at night to our loved ones. This commitment today is an example that I hope all in City Hall take a good look at. Words are not enough – actions are what matter.”


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