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Deadline Nears for Massive Strike in N.Y

June 30, 2011
Related Topics: Workers' Compensation, Labor Relations, Compensation, Latest News
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With contracts for operating engineers and other building trades workers set to expire at midnight, talks are continuing June 30 to avert a strike that could shut down the city's unionized construction industry.

Painters, steamfitters and mason tenders have already reached deals, but three other groups—operating engineers, concrete workers and bricklayers—are still negotiating. Unionized carpenters, who are under a federal monitor, are expected to have their current agreement extended beyond the deadline as court proceedings play out.

Talks have been tense between the concrete workers and the Cement League, which is seeking a wage freeze across the three-year contract, a labor source said. The league did not respond to a request for comment. But most of the attention in the run-up to the deadline has been on the operating engineers, who control the heavy machinery—including cranes— that keep construction sites running.

Contractors have sought significant concessions from International Union of Operating Engineers Locals 14 and 15 in an effort to get rid of work rules they deem unproductive.

“I don't think anybody wants a strike,” said Richard Wood, president of both Plaza Construction and the Contractors' Association of Greater New York. "But we’re prepared to make sure we can be competitive, that people who are being paid to do work have work to do.”

The labor source said the operating engineers have put a “substantial offer” on the table in an effort to reach a settlement. “The only question is, ‘Will folks on management's side be willing to make any movement towards a compromise, or are they going to take a hard line?'” the source asked.

Officials with Locals 14 and 15 have not responded to repeated requests for comment in the run-up to the negotiations. A source close to the unions would only say that leaders are “in negotiations.”

Because the operating engineers are key cogs in the construction process, if they walk off their jobs, it could idle more than 11,000 workers at private-sector projects costing nearly $10 billion, according to the Real Estate Board of New York.

“No one wins with a prolonged strike,” the New York Building Congress said in a June 30 statement. “Workers lose paychecks. Contractors lose jobs and developable sites sit idle. Our nascent economic recovery comes to a screeching halt, and the industry is set back by years.”

A strike would likely not affect work at the World Trade Center site, the labor source said, as the operating engineers have indicated to the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey that they will not walk out at Ground Zero. With the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks coming up, a work stoppage there would cost the union support from elected officials and the public. The Port Authority did not return a call for comment.

The last operating engineers strike occurred in 2006, when an attempt by the General Contractors Association to win changes in work rules sparked a weeklong walkout just before the Fourth of July. Thousands of workers were sent packing, and billions of dollars in projects came to a standstill. A settlement included minor concessions and hefty raises.

“Everybody is working hard to improve the situation that we're in,” Mr. Wood said. “I'm optimistic that there will be positive change. Will we get everything we want? I don't think you ever get everything. Will we get everything we need in order to stay in business? There's a chance of it.”

Filed by Daniel Massey of Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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