June 15, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
The need for strong labor media and the struggle to preserve prevailing wages for construction workers were on everyone’s mind as LaborPress honored six union leaders June 4.
The 2015 Labor Leadership Awards went to R. Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; James Cahill, president of the New York State Building and Construction Trades Council; Edwin L. Christian, business manager of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 14-14B, Danny Donohue, president of the Civil Service Employees Association; Ernest A. Logan, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators; and Steve McInnis, president of the New York City Disctrict Council of Carpenters.
Buffenbarger, a former tool-and-die maker from Ohio, has headed the Machinists since 1997. He devoted most of his acceptance speech to denouncing the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, calling it “an assault on our ability to maintain a livelihood.”
Having a strong labor media voice is crucial to counter such assaults, Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said in his opening remarks. Without one, the public’s ideas will be shaped by a “skewed” media “taking shots at organized labor.” Edwin Christian agreed, although he said he had been reluctant to deal with the press.
“I will never apologize for the wages and conditions we negotiate,” he added.
Cahill, introduced by Pat Dolan and Richard Roberts of Steamfitters Local 638, pointed out the windows of the Carpenters’ 10th-floor union hall at the Manhattan skyline. “That view would never be here if it wasn’t for organized labor,” he said. Donohue, who rose from working as an attendant at a Long Island state psychiatric hospital to head the 300,000-member CSEA, agreed, but added that the city had also been built by doctors, nurses, truckdrivers, and people who sweep streets and work in nursing homes.
The School Supervisors are a much smaller union, with 6,000 members and 9,000 retirees, “but we impact 1.1 million schoolchildren,” Ernest Logan said. “As long as we don’t fight to keep education public, we will lose.” Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he said, had told him directly that school “principals should not be unionized.”
With three building-trades leaders among the honorees, talk inevitably turned to the state’s 421-a tax subsidy for residential construction and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to require developers receiving it to include “affordable” housing—but not requiring them to pay prevailing union-scale wages to the construction workers building it. “We’re not going to accept the false premise that there’s a choice between affordable housing and middle-class jobs,” McInnis said. “This is where we draw the line.”
Union jobs are “the only true vehicle to the middle class,” LaBarbera told the audience. To keep that from being destroyed, he said, “we also have to advocate for those who aren’t in the labor movement. We have to advocate for all construction workers.”