#CountMeIn: The NYC Building Trades Campaign Puts It All on the Line

An unusual but increasingly common sight on the streets of New York City, hundreds, some- times thousands of union construction workers in fluorescent green shirts with the #CountMeIn logo emblazoned across them are protesting weekly in front of the massive Hudson Yards project on the West Side of Manhattan, through all types of weather. At 27 percent,[1] New York City’s construction industry is one of the most highly unionized in the country, and the construction unions have been a long-standing force in the city’s labor movement. Protesting construction workers are not something new in New York City. An inflatable rat outside a construction site, an informational picket line, a citywide rally meant to get the attention of local politicians and media are regular occurrences. But at the weekly 6 a.m. #CountMeIn rallies, a new energy and outlook seems to be emerging among the city’s Building Trades rank and file and their leaders. Perhaps reflecting a little New York City bravado, it can be summed up by the comments of Mike Hellstrom, assistant business manager of the Mason Tenders District Council at an August 22 #CountMeIn rally where thirty-seven Building Trades members were arrested for civil disobedience: “This is the beginning of a solidarity revolution in this country.”[2]

…[A] new energy and outlook seems to be emerging among the city’s Building Trades rank and file and their leaders.

The target of the Building Trades #CountMeIn campaign is the Related Companies and its chairman and founder Steve Ross. On top of the existing Amtrak train yards, stretching across tenth, eleventh, and twelfth avenues between thirty-fourth and thirty-second streets, at $25 billion, it is the biggest private real-estate development in U.S. history. A Project Labor Agreement (PLA) for Phase I of the project, between tenth and eleventh avenues, which is due to be completed by 2019, was signed between Related and the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York (BCTC), ensuring the employment of union workers, in return for wage and other con- cessions. In 2016, after lauding the work of union labor and the Phase I PLA, Ross pledged to go “open shop,” hiring partially or exclusively nonunion contractors, for the upcoming Phase II, located between eleventh and twelfth avenues. It should be noted that this is also where much of the residential and green space, along with that of a public school, was agreed to with New York City as part of the overall development deal.

That a project of this size and scope could be completed using the “open shop” model could have long-term implications for New York’s already struggling working families. As BCTC president Gary LaBarbera noted in a Commercial Observer op-ed on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus ruling: “Union membership is indisputably one of America’s best-proven pathways to middle-class status. Whether you’re a construction worker or a government worker, anything that weakens your union representation stands as an obstacle to your hard-earned economic and social mobility.”[3]

Contractors Play Hardball

The political climate nationally of the last thirty-plus years has favored the open shop. The establishment in the early 1970s of the Construction Users Anti-Inflation Business Roundtable, known simply as the Business Roundtable, would, according to labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, unite corporate interests into a “vanguard formation” that “encouraged the dramatic growth of the new, militantly anti- union Associated Builders and Contractors” to take on the Building Trades unions. Along with the National Right to Work Committee they would successfully defeat the Common Situs Picketing Act in 1977 that would have significantly strengthened construction unions’ jobsite power and so cleared the way for the dramatic growth of the open-shop model nationally.[4] Related’s open-shop challenge in NYC is the offspring of the union-busting campaigns by the Business Roundtable from the 1970s and 1980s.

While the open shop is not new to New York City, it has risen to a new level. In the spring of 2016, in a move to flex their political muscle, New York City open-shop contractors formed the New York Construction Alliance (NYCA) with the mission to “debunk the claims that nonunion workers pose more safety risks and aren’t compensated or treated fairly.”[5] It was a bold challenge to the city’s traditionally unionized construction industry and underscores a new reality for the New York City Building Trades. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, New York City’s union or closed shop construction has been governed by an agreement between the Building Trades and the Building Trades Employers Association (BTEA) informally known as the “New York Plan.” The Plan was both an agreement on the part of signatory employers to use union construction labor and also provided a framework for the resolution of jurisdictional disputes between the various trades. The current rise of the open shop in the city put pressure on the historic agreement, and in 2011, the BTEA, “saying it put their members at a competitive disadvantage,” allowed the almost century-old New York Plan to expire at the end of that year.[6]

While the open shop is not new to New York City, it has risen to a new level.

Not renewing the New York Plan reflects a new political and economic reality in the city’s construction market—a fraying of the traditional relationships that have underpinned it as a union stronghold. As Laborers’ Eastern Region Organizing Fund Director of Research Oona Adams explains, “As in most market sectors, power has been aggregating in the hands of fewer and fewer people.[7] Important long-time BTEA members like Tishman Construction are now a wholly owned subsidiary of AECOM, [8] a U.S.-based global engineering firm ranked

156th on the Forbes 500 list. AECOM also owns Leeding Builders Group, a leading open-shop NYCA member. These are just a few examples. Today, rather than confronting privately owned and New York–based construction firms, as in the past, NYC Building Trades are facing multinational corporate and financial interests—the same forces that reshaped U.S. manufacturing and the global economy over the last fifty years with little interest in preserving the city construction market’s labor-friendly traditions.

A Race to the Bottom—With Taxpayers’ Money

In the development of its Hudson Yards project, Related benefited from a number of government-sponsored programs that generated the needed financing for the project, including the Federal EB-5 program, which grants foreign investors U.S. residency; the Hudson Yards project is the program’s biggest beneficiary, raising $600 million in 2014 alone.[9] In addition, the retail, commercial, and residential space being built by Related would have been inconceivable without the extension of the number 7 subway line into the area, an approximately $1.5 billion expense for the taxpayer. The city created the Hudson Yards Infrastructure Corporation (HYIC), which as early as 2012 had made almost $3 billion in bond offerings to finance development in the Hudson Yards area.[10] A 2013 Daily News investigation found the Bloomberg administration “secretly funneled more than $9 million in city property taxes to the Hudson Yards project…without informing the City Council.”[11] And a recent New School study uncovered an additional $1.1 billion in subsidies, raising the total to date to $5.6 billion.[12] All of this serves to underline the point made by the #CountMeIn campaign that after benefiting from generous taxpayer-shouldered policies, Related’s refusal to sign a Project Labor Agreement for Phase II is just a move to squeeze more money out of hard-working New Yorkers.

Related’s legal actions have been accompanied by attempts to squash on-the-jobsite expressions of #CountMeIn support…

While to date, the fight between the NYC Building Trades and Related remains unresolved, it seems to have rattled Related and its backers who have pushed back by suing the Building and Construction Trades Council and its president Gary LaBarbera personally—not once, but twice, charging “thuggish tactics” and “numerous supervision and payroll errors.” The Trades are quick to point out that it is Related and its construction manager Hudson Yards Construction LLC (HYC) that are responsible for the project’s supervision. A BCTC statement read, “This complaint asks us to believe that for six years, HYC did nothing to curtail practices they believed to be corrupt …If the bizarre allegations are to be believed at all, this also means that Related and HYC sat idly by while contractors were allegedly overbilling them. Yet, there is no complaint against those contractors.”[13]

Related’s legal actions have been accompanied by attempts to squash on-the-jobsite expressions of #CountMeIn support, as the BCTC statement goes on to outline, “The only use that Related or its affiliate has ever made of the grievance procedure in the parties’ agreement was an attempt to (1) suppress both wages and free speech and expressive activity—HYC grieved the presence of #CountMeIn material on the job, but not alleged ‘no-show jobs’—and (2) force concessions from a local union on residential work,” but never grieving “the alleged ‘overpay- ment’ of wages.” Working at the Hudson Yards jobsite for over three years myself, my opinion is that construction workers are not so easily intim- idated. Most freely wear #CountMeIn stickers and t-shirts on the jobsite and, on one occasion, when a Related safety representative tried to give a talk, the assembled workers broke out into chants of “Count Me In!” He left after a few minutes without finishing his speech. Threats of firing are often met with blank stares or smart- ass comments.

#CountMeIn—Growing Diversity in the Building Trades

The central message of the #CountMeIn campaign is solidarity. This is not a new slogan, but coming from today’s Building Trades, it is one infused with new meaning. While begun as a response to Related’s Hudson Yards project, the #CountMeIn campaign has begun to connect the dots for construction workers with the broader problem of union-busting, income inequality, and human dignity. #CountMeIn is bringing forward trends already transforming the construction unions that will be crucial in winning the battle against the open shop. One of the main charges leveled against the Trades by open-shop advocates was their tradition of racial exclusivity. It is a fact that in their early days and well into the 1970s, the Trades were by and large “whites only.” A glance at the city’s Trades membership today shows other- wise. As documented by a 2017 Economic Policy Institute report,[14] today blacks and Hispanics make up 21.2 and 30.5 percent of the city’s unionized construction workforce, respectively, and minorities overall comprise 55.1 percent. Minorities accounted for 61.8 per- cent of all New York City residents’ union apprenticeships in 2014, far higher than the 36.3 percent share in 1994. Black apprentice participation roughly doubled, rising from 18.3 percent in 1994 to 35.1 percent twenty years later in 2014. Nonwhite unionized construction workers earn significantly more than their counterparts in the nonunion sector. The growing diversity of the city’s construction unions over the last twenty years, as well as the economic benefits of union membership to communities of color, make the exclusivity argument against using union construction labor weaker and weaker.

…[T]oday, blacks and Hispanics make up 21.2 and 30.5 percent of the city’s unionized construction workforce, respectively, and minorities overall comprise 55.1 percent.

The growing diversity is reflected in the #CountMeIn campaign. In an op-ed, BCTC member Bobby Bonanza wrote, “Construction workers are saying ‘count me in’ as part of the fight against corporate greed. We are demanding fair wages, benefits, and working conditions from those who develop the luxury apartments where we could never afford to live…” He went on to say, “CountMeIn wants every worker treated with dignity and respect regard- less of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, or sexual preference. It means, ‘I am here. I will not be silent, so recognize me as a human being because I will be counted.”[15] In a show of solidarity with football players protesting police brutality touched off by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016, at an August 22 rally in front of the NFL headquarters in mid- town Manhattan, Trades members pointed out the hypocrisy of Related Chairman Steve Ross, who is also owner of the Miami Dolphins, sit- ting on the NFL’s Social and Racial Justice committee. “He’s a racist, sexist union- buster,”[16] Bernard Callegari of Laborers Local 79 declared, an unusual step for the usually socially conservative Trades.


Still unresolved, the battle at Hudson Yards could prove to be an important turning point for the NYC Building Trades and the Building and Construction Trades Council. The unity of the various trades could be the decisive factor in the outcome of the Hudson Yards battles as Related is actively attempting to work around the BCTC, seeking to make deals with individual trades and locals. Most recently, a deal with the District Council of Carpenters, rumored for months, was confirmed by both parties.[17] Individual trades making deals is not unusual, but in the context of a growing open-shop environment, and efforts to maintain unity, it is certainly problematic. In fact, the #CountMeIn slogan is a challenge to the Building Trades leaders and rank-and-file members themselves to get involved and stick together. It reflects the recognition that business as usual will not be enough to turn the tide against the open shop in New York City, no matter what agreement or deals are made.

Maintaining market share among the large commercial and residential developments, once thought safe, will require pitched battles involving the coordinated strength of all the trades— as shown by the fight with open-shop contractor Gilbane at the $1.5 billion renovation at One Wall Street and the current battle with Related.

…[T]he #CountMeIn slogan is a challenge to the Building Trades leaders and rank-and-file members themselves to get involved and stick together.

Won or lost though, the #CountMeIn campaign has made clear that turning back the open-shop challenge in New York City will mean coming to terms with an industry and a political climate that has changed significantly over the decades. In the construction industry, recovery of market share requires organizing not only workers but also employers. As economist David Weil points out, “Sustainable shifts in market share require…policies by unions and employers that link tools of market recovery (e.g., developing new contractors to bid in markets long abandoned by the union sector) with organizing and other core activities such as apprenticeship development.” But that is only possible, at best, on a level playing field. A significant contributor to politicians of both parties, the real-estate industry, grouped in the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) has had a vice-like grip on New York politics for decades and uses its political influence and money to actively support policies that would make it harder to monitor wage theft, undermine prevailing wage rules, and other protections for construction workers. Whether the recent Democratic flip of the Republican-held New York State Senate, giving them control over all branches of the state government, will loosen that grip remains to be seen. However, Governor Andrew Cuomo has now come out with a number of progressive proposals, including legislation that would make the Hudson Yards project a prevailing wage jobsite. If enacted, this would be a significant victory for the #CountMeIn campaign—and the city’s construction workers.

…[T]he real-estate industry, grouped in the Real Estate Board of New York…has had a vice-like grip on New York politics for decades…

The perception that the Trades are an exclusive club catering only to its membership has only aided the open-shop advocates in these political battles. Articulating and championing a vision of development and a construction industry centered around the needs of all New Yorkers, not just the rich and well connected, will go far to change this view. Such a vision must put afford- ability and accessibility at the forefront, not simply as an add-on. It will also require organizing the city’s growing nonunion construction market, a task Gary LaBarbera described as “a top priority.” That means repositioning the Trades as advocates for all construction workers, rallying its members, nonunion construction workers, and a broad cross section of New Yorkers to their side—both of which the #CountMeIn campaign is putting front and center.

Author Bios

David Mirtz is a union ironworker in New York City and a graduate of the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.


[1] Ruth Milkman and Stephanie Luce, State of the Unions 2018: A Profile of Organized Labor in New York City, New York State and the United States (New York, NY: CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, 2018).
[2] Steve Wishnia, “37 Arrested at #CountMeIn Sit-in on Park Avenue,” LaborPress, August 23, 2018, available at http://laborpress. org/37-arrested-at-countmein-sit-in-on-park-avenue.
[3] The Commercial Observer, July 6, 2018.
[4] Philip Shabecoff, “House Rejects Bill on Picketing Sites by Building Unions,” New York Times, March 24, 1977, https://www.nytimes.com/1976/01/03/archives/bill-widening-picket- rights-is-vetoed.html?_r=0.
[5] Liam La Guerre, “Construction Firms Form Group to Bust Myth of Nonunion Workers,” The Commercial Observer, June 6, 2016, available at https://commercialobserver.com/2016/06/ construction-firms-form-group-to-bust-myths- of-nonunion-workers/.
[6] Katherine Clarke,“State of the Unions,” The Real Deal, December 29, 2011, available at https://therealdeal.com/issues_articles/state-of-the-unions/.
[7] Oona Adams, interview with author, February 15, 2017.
[8] See http://www.leedingbuildersgroup.com/profile.php.
[9] E.  B.  Solomont,  “Inside  the  Hudson  Yards Financing Playbook,” The Real Deal, August 24,  2016,  https://therealdeal.com/2016/08/24/inside-the-hudson-yards-financing-playbook/.
[10] NYC Independent Budget Office, “City’s Spending on Hudson Yards Project Has Exceeded Initial Estimates,” April 2013, available at http://www.ibo.nyc.ny.us/iboreports/ hudsonyards2013.pdf.
[11] Juan Gonzalez, “Bloomberg Secretly Funneled $9 Million in City Property Taxes to Hudson Yards Project,” Daily News, March 7, 2013, https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/gonzalez-bloomberg-secretly-funneled-9-million-hudson-yards-article-1.1281568.
[12] Neil DeMause, “New School Study Uncovers Another $1 Billion in Hudson Yards Subsidies,” Gothamist, November 5, 2018, available at http://gothamist.com/2018/11/05/hudson_ yards_subsidies.php.
[13] “Statement in Response to the Lawsuit against the Building & Construction Trades Council by Hudson Yards Construction LLC, an Affiliate of the Related Companies,” April 2018, available at http://www.nycbuildingtrades.org.
[14] Lawrence Mishel, “Diversity in the New York City Union and Nonunion Construction Sector,” Economic Policy Institute, March 2, 2017, available at https://www.epi.org/publica- tion/diversity-in-the-nyc-construction-union- and-nonunion-sectors/.
[15] “CityViews: New Yorkers Should Support #CountMeIn’s Fight against Corporate Greed,” CityLimits.org, April 25, 2018, available at https://citylimits.org/2018/04/25/cityviews-new-yorkers-should-support-countmeins-fight-against-corporate-greed/.
[16] Wishnia, “37 Arrested at #CountMeIn Sit-in on Park Avenue.”
[17] Kathryn Brenzel, “Carpenters Finalize Controversial Deal with Related for 50 Hudson Yards,” The Real Deal, October 23, 2018. See also Kathryn Brenzel, “The Construction Unions at a Crossroads,” The Real Deal, September 1, 2018, https://therealdeal. com/2018/10/23/carpenters-finalize-con- troversial-deal-with-related-for-50-hudson- yards/ https://therealdeal.com/issues_articles/nyc-construction-unions-at-a-crossroads/

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