A group representing Long Island’s construction unions is trying to persuade the Town of Islip to require contractors on larger building projects to have a state-approved apprenticeship program.
Such a requirement would eliminate most non-union competition for constructing commercial projects of 100,000-square-feet or more and force developers to hire union contractors instead. Several Long Island municipalities, including the towns of Brookhaven, Babylon, Huntington, Oyster Bay, North Hempstead, the City of Long Beach and others have enacted similar legislation in the last decade or so.
Several members of the Building & Construction Trades Council of Nassau and Suffolk Counties have been picketing Islip Town Hall in the last few weeks in an attempt to attract attention and support for their cause.
“Islip Town is not doing the right thing for its constituents,” says Richard O’Kane, president of the 59,000-member Building Trades Council. “We have thousands of union families living in Islip and they’re all taxpayers.”
O’Kane maintains the apprenticeship requirement will ensure that local projects are built safely by highly skilled tradespeople.
“You want to have required skills, not only for the safety of the workers, but also for the public at large,” he said.
While New York State currently requires that construction workers take a 10-hour OSHA safety course, O’Kane says it’s woefully insufficient. In contrast, apprenticeship training can last from three to five years, depending on the trade and costs between $35,000 and $50,000 per person, for which the unions foot the bill.
O’Kane added the apprenticeship rule will also prevent out-of-area workers from being brought in by developers and companies on Islip projects.
“We’ve found unlicensed workers from places like Kansas, Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, even Quebec on Long Island job sites,” O’Kane said. “All of our members contribute back into the local economy. You don’t get that with out-of-area workers undermining our wages.”
The building unions are miffed that the Islip Town Board ignored recommendations from the Suffolk County Planning Commission that an apprenticeship requirement be attached to approvals for the Heartland Town Square mega project in Brentwood.
Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter declined to comment, though she was scheduled to meet with O’Kane this week.
Islip Town Attorney John DiCioccio said the town had tried to institute an apprenticeship law in 2011, but was sued by the Suffolk County Electrical Contractors Association. State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Farneti issued an injunction in Dec. 2013 which stopped the town from moving ahead with the apprenticeship requirement.
The plaintiffs in the suit, which included Palk Electric and David Kennedy of Kennedy Electrical Contracting, argued that the apprenticeship law would “virtually bankrupt” the majority of SCECA’s membership, mostly small, independent contractors that employ between one to eight electricians, putting them at a competitive disadvantage as compared to larger contractors with existing apprenticeship programs.
However O’Kane said the injunction was preliminary and was never appealed by the town.
“That case had some procedural and substantive differences from what we seek now,” he said. “Islip has rejected all of our efforts to negotiate over the procedural and substantive aspects of a local law that can withstand judicial challenge.”
Mitchell Pally, CEO of the 560-member Long Island Builders Institute, a trade group which represents homebuilders and related businesses, said the choice of contractors shouldn’t be mandated by the government.
“We disagree vehemently with municipalities that impose requirements to use union labor,” Pally said. “We don’t object to those builders who want to use unions to work on their projects. Our concern is that the developer should be able to decide who to use on their own.”
Pally added that all municipalities already have to pay prevailing wages on public projects as per state law. DiCioccio also noted that Islip has a law that requires an apprentice program for any public projects of more than $250,000.
Meanwhile, O’Kane tried to dispel the notion that union labor is more expensive. He said that union work has proven to be cost-effective, especially when there is a project labor agreement in place. As an example, he cited the rebuilding of the Long Beach boardwalk.
“We completed it eight months early and under budget,” O’Kane said.
The union leader, a Local 361 ironworker who has performed dizzying repairs on some of New York City’s towering bridges over his 43-year career, vows to keep the pressure on Islip’s government to enact an apprenticeship rule for large commercial projects.
“We’re no longer accepting false promises,” O’Kane said, adding that the picketing is likely to continue “until the Town of Islip catches up with the rest of its neighbors.”