New York's Community-Labor Divide

A nasty split as the Council finally bucks the mayor

In the early days of the coalition that organized to win better-paying jobs at the new armory, all of the big unions were happily onboard. Gary LaBarbera, the ex-Teamster who heads the city's Building and Construction Trades Council, signed on to the goals of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance. So did the building service workers of Local 32BJ, who are playing a steadily more influential role in city politics. But as the vote grew closer and Bloomberg refused to budge, the construction and building service unions peeled off from the coalition to cut their own deals with Related.

This is how such coalitions often bust apart. At the end of the day, unions are responsible to their own members to make sure they have jobs, and the construction trades have never met a project they didn't like. The joke goes that they would build their own gallows if you let them do it union. As long as there is work to be had, there is nothing better: wages go to $50 an hour, along with deep benefits. On the other hand, for most of the residents in the north Bronx, such union cards are just a dream. Their career paths are more likely to deposit them in one of those part-time, minimum-wage jobs at one of those big stores that Related wanted to create than one pouring the cement used to build it.

This labor-community divide—with one group of workers played off against another—is one of the oldest and saddest chapters in the city. It is made even more bitter by overlays of race. Construction trades are far more integrated than they once were, but blacks and Latinos still don't get their fair share of the work.

It was the dream of Stu Appelbaum, the tough head of the retail workers union who helped lead the fight to win better wages at the armory, that the Kingsbridge battle might become a bridge to start healing that divide. It might even have happened if this city had a union leader of enough stature and clout. What we have instead are a group of warlords vigorously patrolling their own turf. And a mayor only too happy to see them feud.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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