Steamfitters 638 Member Describes How His Union Teamed Up With Management to Achieve “Full Employment” for His Local
Richard Roberts of Steamfitters Local 638 recently took to the New York Daily News as a guest commentator to talk about the challenges facing the labor movement in 2012. He also took time to reflect on the hardships felt throughout his industry following the economic downturn of 2008.
In this pre-Labor Day address, Roberts credits NY labor and management for their respective approaches to getting people back to work in the wake of the Great Recession. They did this, he says, by teaming up in order to ensure financing on projects that had been halted throughout New York City.
Working together with New York’s most significant Mechanical Contracting firms, labor and management joined together to bring down New York City construction costs and get construction projects moving again. The results created streamlined job site work rules, reduced overtime costs for developers and their investors and brought down costs in a way that jumpstarted projects and their once-frozen financing.
When banks said no to funding important development projects, labor joined with contractors and developers to create economic solutions that worked.
Reflections on the labor movement often revolve around times of strife and hardship. However, Roberts looks to the future through the lens of “belt-tightening” — a favorite frame of the GOP — to ensure that people get back on the job site.
These belt-tightening decisions were ratified by our membership because they were the right moves for the New York real estate industry at the time. As a result, the union steamfitters in New York City have achieved something remarkable, especially in this economy — full employment.
It’s meant companies in our sector are busy. Workers have stayed employed and big projects in the Big Apple like Madison Square Garden, Tower 111 on Sixth Ave., 157 W. 57th St., Queens West and others moved forward because we reduced costs to build without compromising safety or quality of workmanship. Beekman Tower — now known as New York by Gehry — was stuck on 39 floors until labor came together with Forest City to proudly bring the building above 70 stories.
Maintaining apprenticeship was an important outcome as well. These key opportunities to build the workforce and help individuals work toward a rewarding middle class career is central to Roberts’ message:
Steamfitters Local 638 employs a rigorous five-year apprentice program that costs the union some $100,000 per enrollee. We are known around the nation for having one of the most thorough apprentice programs in the construction industry.
The builders and contractors of New York committed to the highest quality workmanship could have taken short-cuts figuratively and literally. Rather than seek to import low-wage, minimally trained nonunion labor from out of state, they prioritized quality first. That is significant.
Yesterday, families gathered in backyards and around barbecues to reflect on the past and to harness the history and power of the labor movement. It is important to remember the movement’s roots, but it is equally important to acknowledge current triumphs and the possibilities moving forward, as Roberts has done here.