October 1, 2013
By Steven Wishnia
“We are a one-trick pony. We only care about one thing, and that’s jobs,” says Jack Kittle, political director of District Council 9 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. “We don’t care about your guns, if dudes can marry dudes, medical marijuana. It’s not our issue.”
That pro-development agenda often leads the union to ally with people who wouldn’t be expected to be on the same side as labor, such as the Real Estate Board of New York. “To most New Yorkers, REBNY is the bad guy. To us, they are our customers,” he says. “The relationship between the unions and the contractors is not as adversarial as people think it is. We both want more work. If the contractors are not making money, they don’t hire us.”
In this year’s elections, DC 9 joined with contractors to back Bill Thompson for mayor in the Democratic primary, but did not join REBNY’s Jobs for New York PAC. In the City Council district covering Coney Island and Gravesend, where Local 3 electrician Todd Dobrin lost to REBNY-backed Mark Treyger, there was no way DC 9 was not going to support a fellow building-trades union member, Kittle says.
The union picks one or two Council districts where volunteers knock on other members’ doors, but that’s more an excuse to talk about the union, he says. “We constantly drill this culture into the next generation, that you gotta be involved.”
The delegates from DC 9’s 16 locals make the final decision on endorsements in citywide races, but the members make recommendations. The union backed Thompson because of “overwhelming” support from the members, Kittle says. At a late-September meeting, when he lays out the respective cases for supporting Bill de Blasio or Joseph Lhota for mayor—Republicans are often more pro-development, but the anti-union Koch brothers are financing ads for Lhota—he’s interrupted by one man calling de Blasio a “commie,” and two others arguing that the Democrat is much better on prevailing wage.
“If you’re against prevailing wage, we’re against you. Period. That’s our deal-breaker,” says Kittle.
That’s the issue in the union’s campaign against Alpine Painting, a Paterson, New Jersey painting and sandblasting company that in February was ordered to pay $93,000 in back pay and penalties by the New York State Department of Labor. DC 9 regularly pickets the company’s job sites on Long Island, and one member developed a Web site called AlpineGreed.com.
Another problem area is publicly supported construction of affordable housing. “The dirty little secret is that somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters, depending on who you believe, of the workers who build it or rehab it, are paid in cash,” says Kittle. “We want somebody to say ‘that’s enough of that.’”
DC 9’s legislative priorities include funding maintenance of infrastructure and protecting New York State’s “scaffold law” against annual insurance-lobby efforts to make it harder for injured workers to sue. It also unsuccessfully pushed for a law to require that a police car sit in highway lanes that are closed for roadwork.