April 20, 2011
By Stephanie West
Sam Zell had another tough greeting from construction workers as he arrived at a speaking engagement in Manhattan April 7. “Whose City? Our City!” called out roughly 400 union members outside the Taj Pierre Hotel. “Whose Jobs? Our Jobs!”
Recently, union workers protest whenever Zell steps up to a speakers podium in New York City. Demonstrations began after negotiations broke down last year between unions and Zell’s Equity Residential Properties Trust to build 111 luxury apartments at 500 West 23rd Street.
“We are not going away,” said Bill Hohlfeld, labor management coordinator for the Metallic Lathers Union, Local 46, which organized the protests and is carefully tracking Zell’s schedule. When Zell spoke at the Harmonie Club in Midtown Manhattan on an icy winter morning December 14, two dozens construction workers lined the sidewalks, blowing traffic whistles and chanting slogans. When Zell spoke at the New York Public Library November 4 as part of the Bloomberg Real Estate Briefing, 100 workers turned up in the rain.
At the Taj Pierre, protesters wore the jackets and hardhats of several construction unions, including Bricklayers and Allied Craft workers, the Laborers International Union of North America, and the Iron workers, including Local 46. Union members handed out leaflets describing Zell’s “shocking record of irresponsible practices,” including “Hazardous Buildings and Tenant Abuse at Equity Residential.”
Zell had come to town to sit on a panel at New York University’s 16th annual REIT Symposium. Traded on the New York Stock Exchange, real estate investment trusts like Equity Residential include many of the largest developers in the country and have become increasingly important players in New York City, buying hundreds of existing buildings and development sites. For example, 500 West 23rd Street was a stalled development begun by local developer Shaya Boymelgreen until Equity bought the site.
Zell’s development companies have used union labor in the past. For 500 West 23rd Street, unions offered a 20 percent savings on usual union labor costs, including wages, benefits, and other work rules. But Equity Residential backed away from the deal. Non union contractors are now finishing the apartment tower, which topped off in January. Zell’s company has several other construction projects planned for the City.
Local 46 has pledged to keep up pressure on the developer. Labor activists have also started a website equityresidentialwatch.info to document Equity Residentials “record of poor conduct, tenant abuses and building safety issues.” The website is full of headlines like: “Chicago Better Business Bureau Gives an F Rating to Equity Residential,” and “Tenant Survey Results… Inadequate Security.”