Local unions could stand idly by while cars with North Carolina license plates dropped off laborers for construction work at the Seneca Place on the Commons project site. So they're questioning the hiring practices of Ciminelli Development Company, Inc., who maintains that it has fulfilled,if not exceeded, its commitment to union participation in the project.
"We're supportive of the project. We think it's good for downtown. We just think Ciminelli has made some bad choices," said David Marsh, business manager for Tompkins-Cortland Building and Construction Trades Council. At stake is the bigger issue of whether a project meant to benefit the local economy, including its workforce, is actually doing so.
The Trades Council claims that Ciminelli reneged on its good-faith promise to use as much as 90 percent local labor, a commitment Marsh said the company made verbally but never in writing.
Ciminelli Vice President David Chiazza agreed that his company made a commitment to use predominantly union labor - at least 90 percent for the shell and 50 for the interior. From the beginning, Ciminelli was upfront that the hotel's interior would be built with merit shop contractors. "And that's how it's turned out," Chiazza said.
Although the Trades Council accepted the hotel part of the project being awarded to Hayner Hoyt, a non-union company based in Syracuse, it balked when the company was also awarded the interior work on floors that will be used by Cornell University for office space. (Hayner Hoyt has exacerbated the situation by in turn subcontracting with an out-of-state labor source .)
The remaining office floors were bid for by John C. Lowery, Inc. a local union company, but "we couldn't justify the cost differential, it was still 10 percent too high," Chiazza said.
Even so, Seneca Place "will have been constructed utilizing over 75 percent union labor, with the percentage of union participation in the Cornell component of the project closer to 80 percent. Overall, more than $17.5 million in construction has been awarded to union shops. This figure exceeds the construction value of the office component of the building alone by 150 percent," Chiazza wrote in a letter.
Cornell is also pleased with these figures. "Cornell's pledge to the public and Ciminelli's pledge to Cornell was that construction would be mostly but not all union," Cornell's Press Office Director Simeon Moss said. "We feel Ciminelli has kept to that pledge."
But those numbers "aren't a true picture," Marsh said, because they are based on the contract cost rather than labor hours worked. Some parts of the project had relatively high materials cost and low labor hours.
Chiazza said it was standard for developers to measure by cost, rather than labor hours.
But looking at the project from the perspective of labor hours, "the picture isn't so rosy," said Marsh, who estimates that the project has employed about 60 percent union to 40 percent non-union labor. While "it's not bad, and we're grateful to have the work, it was not our expectation," he said.
A commitment to using local labor was warranted given the concessions made to Ciminelli by the Tompkins County Industrial Development Authority (IDA), Marsh said. The concessions included aggressive tax abatements for 20 years, IDA bonding, a preferred parking agreement with the City of Ithaca for the Seneca Street Parking Garage and the use of eminent domain to secure the project site.
Chiazza said the IDA concessions were made to mitigate the more expensive costs of building downtown and were unrelated to the labor issue. "They're two separate issues," he said.
But IDA support is ultimately meant to stimulate the local economy on many levels, including job creation, Marsh pointed out. "Elected officials have to insist on developing a policy of some accountability for developers who get concessions," said Marsh, who's been talking with county and city officials.
The question of accountability has to be asked down the line as well. Lamoyne Interiors, a North Carolina company supplying Hayner Hoyt with independent contractors to hang sheetrock, is under scrutiny by the Trades Council for treatment of its non-English speaking workers.
Union representatives are exploring whether the foreign labor tapped for the project is being exploited. The workers are part of a new trend of bringing in cheap, short-term labor through agencies that are often located out of state.
Brian Noteboom, Council Representative from the Empire State Regional Council of Carpenters and Joiners of America, and a Spanish-speaking interpreter talked with the approximately 17 Hispanic laborers who are working for Lamoyne while they were sharing a communal lunch of rice and beans.
"Hayner Hoyt is utilizing workers with language barriers to exploit them as 'independent contractors,'" Noteboom concluded. The workers said they were promised $10 an hour. "Our guys make $20 an hour, plus another $10 in benefits," he said. Like many foreign workers, the men did not seem aware of their rights or in a position to demand them.
Noteboom plans to go back with representatives of the Living Wage Coalition this week to see if the workers who drove up from North Carolina need anything - from information to help documenting hours to basic necessities. "Some don't have warm clothing because they weren't prepared for this kind of weather," he said.