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Unions ready to mix it up to help manage costs

During the Sky High Costs in Building Boom: the Future of Construction in NYC panel at last week’s ULI conference, Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York stressed that maintaining a union-driven workforce benefitted both developers and workers.

“We support our unionized contractors, subcontractors, and tradesmen,” LaBarbera told the crowd  while discussing the balancing act between hiring union workers and keeping costs manageable for those hiring them.

“It’s a very, very unique relationship because we understand that if we aren’t competitive, our subcontractors, our CMs, will not be able to create the work opportunities for our members.”

LaBarbera noted that there “will always be disputes” between the laborers and management but his organization believes that they have found a way to both keep union workers employed and to keep project’s on a reasonable budget.

LaBarbera told Real Estate Weekly during a phone call after the conference, “The one area in the industry where we have suffered a loss of market share is residential construction.”

LaBarbera said that these projects tend to be simpler than commercial counterparts and referenced “not complicated” structures that are common in the outer boroughs and tend to run about 20 floors.

“That’s where the non-union has made a presence,ˮ said LaBarbara. “Many of them are coming up with what they’re calling residential agreements. The idea is to create different classifications at lower rates of pay. Normally, you have a journeyman or you have an apprentice and there’s a ratio between the two.ˮ

LaBarbara said that integrating a similar strategy on union jobs would allow developers to manage costs while also keeping the labor union approved.

By allowing a different mix of lesser ranked, but still highly skilled union workers on less challenging sites, both quality and cost can be achieved for both sides.

“The other issue, obviously, is the quality and safety of the building trades,” said LaBarbera who labeld the goal of shaking up crews as “bringing down the aggregate cost per hour while not necessarily taking anything away from journeymen or journeywomen.”

The strategy is more than just a promising concept in theory. LaBarbera said many developers are already on board.

“I’m talking to a lot of developers who are very open to it and want to figure out ways to work with the building tradesmen, primarily because they know the quality of work is better and they know the safety record is far superior.”

LaBarbera also said that union workers are known for getting a quality finished product delivered in an efficient manner and both he and many developers still expect that result from modified crews.

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