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How Real Estate Splits the Labor Movement

Ari Paul Sep 25, 2012

Last month, Bronx officials joyously endorsed a proposal to convert the Kingsbridge Armory into a complex of ice-skating rinks. According to the New York Times, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., backed the plan because the developer “voluntarily pledged that every job created by the project would pay at least $10 an hour with benefits, or $11.50 an hour without benefits, in line with wage standards set by the city’s recently passed ‘living wage’ legislation.”

The City Council not only passed this legislation but also overrode a mayoral veto; Mayor Michael Bloomberg opposes the idea of government setting wage mandates for firms operating with government subsidies (such as loans or tax breaks), referring to the idea as “Soviet.” The bill is now in legal limbo, as the mayor has filed a lawsuit, claiming that the council acted outside of its purview. Even Nicole Gelinas of the conservative Manhattan Institute raised her eyebrows at Bloomberg’s intransigence, telling The Indypendent, “The City Council has spoken pretty loudly. People should look to who they elect, and not go to the courts.”

Living-wage bills — meant to increase the standard of living of low-wage retail workers, many of whom are immigrants and people of color — have a lot of opponents, such as real estate developers who want to keep their operational costs down and politicians who are worried about getting re-elected. But a stumbling block has also been the city’s powerful construction unions, who are siding with their employers instead of the rest of the labor movement. In fact, the ice-skating project at Kingsbridge has rekindled resentment among building trades unions dating back to 2009, when the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union blocked a development project at the site because there was no promise of a living wage.

The dynamic makes practical sense. The Great Recession has impeded construction, and without construction these unions’ members don’t get paid. “The building trade unions have always been tight with their employers,” said Janice Fine, a professor at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University. “They feel that [the living wage] will cramp business, so if businesses can’t expand then [they] can’t engage in construction. That’s the dilemma.”

This interruption of labor solidarity stems from a long-standing division in the U.S. labor movement. In mainstream unionism there are two basic approaches: craft and industrial organizing. The former organizes by specific jobs and derives its strength from its ability to control who can get jobs, while the latter organizes workers in a whole industry and finds power in diversity and inclusion.

Think of it this way: Transport Workers Union Local 100, an industrial union, represents transit workers in most job categories, with 30,000 members from different ethnic backgrounds at different wage levels. Any given construction site, in contrast, has dozens of different unions organized by trade (electrician, plumber, carpenter, etc.). And because these locals turn into hamlets of power, they are used to give jobs to friends and family, thus explaining why certain occupations tend to be dominated by one ethnic group or another.

In New York, this dynamic has made for some rocky times. Building trade unions have fought alongside workers in other sectors. But there have been other political differences, including a schism in the left when these types of unions supported the Vietnam War.

“This is a current iteration of a kind of tension that over the years has surfaced and receded and resurfaced,” said Josh Freeman, professor of history at the CUNY Graduate Center and author of Working Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II. “I’m sure the Central Labor Council is trying its best to find some common ground or a way of containing this, to keep from creating rifts.”

“Organizations became bureaucratized and sort of lost their movement roots and became married to a business model and lost [their] identification with the working class,” Fine said. “The idea that a largely unorganized sector is a threat to the labor movement just went out the window.”

So how to fix this? Part of the problem, Fine believes, is the lack of labor education. There should be more forums where, say, an iron worker might attend class alongside retail and service workers, in order for workers across the spectrum to recognize each others’ interests.

“That’s the kind of solidarity that is definitely a possibility, but has to be encouraged by their organizations,” Fine said. “There has to be some sense that the fate of these low-wage workers has some impact on the lives of these construction workers.”