June 30, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco

Queens, NY –  Mayor Bill de Blasio swept into office in January with his “Tale of Two Cities” speech and a vow to tackle NYC's growing economic inequality gap – but many now fear that hizzoner is about to blow a golden opportunity to provide thousands of workers with real careers and a ticket to the middle class. 

The de Blasio administration’s plan to build or preserve 200,000 affordable housing units over the next decade has the potential of creating tens of thousands of good union jobs with middle class wages and benefits – jobs that have a multiplier effect on the overall economy, while also guaranteeing New York City better building standards and safer worksites. 

John J. Murphy, business manager, UA Local #1, calls the mayor’s affordable housing plan the “perfect entry” into the plumbers union’s top-flight apprenticeship program. 

“We’re already preparing,” Murphy recently told LaborPress. “We know the mayor wants to build them, and we want to be partners with the mayor.”

The administration, along with Alicia Glen, deputy mayor for Housing and Economic Development, however, appear stuck on the perceived cost of paying a unionized workforce to build affordable housing in NYC.

That mindset has members of organized labor and advocates for workers’ health and safety wondering if the mayor is not diving into a less-than-progressive affordable housing plan that will actually end up aggravating the city’s economic inequality problem – rather than alleviating it. 

“Many times, they’ll say that, financially, it’s all about dollars and cents,” Murphy says. “But you’re adding to the exploitation of workers on those buildings in the hopes of just building more units.”

The city’s Building Trades have already offered to formulate a reduced 60 percent pay rate for the opportunity to be part of the mayor’s 10-year affordable housing plan. But more non-union gigs, were workers recieve substandard wages and benefits, as well as little or no training, appear in the offering. 

“They actually think that they’re going to put an ad in the newspaper, and trained people are going to show up,” says Arthur Klock, director of Trade Education at Local #1’s Long Island City Training Center. 

Training is so vital to the plumbers union, that every year it spends more than $3 million schooling apprentices and journeymen in a variety of disciplines related to the continually evolving plumbing trade. 

Plumbers apprentices busy honing their craft.
Plumbers apprentices busy honing their craft.

And Klock maintains that training is the key difference between someone having a true career that gives them a shot at the American Dream – and a one-off job that doesn’t leave workers with much to show for after it’s over. 

“It is the difference between a young person becoming a successful adult who is making a living, carrying their own load, paying taxes, and being a good citizen,” Klock says. “And somebody who is just in a lot of trouble, skating by, having a difficult life, and not really contributing to society in the way that they could.”

Local #1’s Training Center draws its applicants from an open admission process that is usually held every couple of years depending on demand. It is also partnered with Helmets to Hardhats, Nontraditional Employment for Women [NEW] and the Edward J. Malloy Initiative for Construction Skills, which together, provide veterans, women and vocational high school students with direct entry into the program. 

Murphy insists that the union has the structure, contractor base and organizing ability to help the mayor accomplish his affordable housing goals – and strike a blow against economic inequality. 

“I think the administration really wants to do the right thing,” Murphy says. “I just don’t know if everybody around the mayor has a full understanding of what they’re capable of accomplishing or what can really happen.”


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