February 13, 2001

C.U. Challenged Downtown

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Plans to form a community-wide coalition that supports the use of union labor in the construction of a new office building on the Commons moved forward last Wednesday when a lawyer hired by the Building Trades’ Council (BTC) met with groups to discuss strategy for the coalition.

President Hunter R. Rawlings III and Ithaca Mayor Alan Cohen ’81 announced plans for the multi-story office building at a press conference in September. The $17 million construction agreement between Cornell and the City of Ithaca was meant to forge a bond between the two. The structure will house about 300 Cornell employees.

The coalition could be made up of campus groups such as the Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA) and the Cornell Democrats, labor unions including the Teamsters and Service Employees’ International Union and community associations such as the Citizens’ Planning Alliance, an organization concerned with environmental issues related to planning — groups that the BTC believes might also be concerned about the construction.

The coalition would attempt to put pressure on the University to see that the office building is constructed in a “community-friendly way,” said Jennifer Bloom M.A. ’00.

“We inquired about the building and found out that it was going to be built on an open shot basis,” said Edmund Ritchie, president of the BTC. He defined “open shot” as the building developer’s choice to use some union workers and some non-union workers.

“Some of our sisters and brothers would be left out if it wasn’t 100 percent union,” he said.

There was “a unanimous feeling that a major high profile project sponsored by the University and the city should include local craftspeople,” Ritchie said. That was the reason for hiring Buffalo-based labor lawyer Richard Furlong to represent the BTC.

The University has said that it has no control over the type of workers who construct and maintain the building.

“I tried to attend the meeting on Wednesday and was uninvited, told I was not allowed to attend,” said John Majeroni, the University’s director of real estate.

Besides pushing for local union workers, goals of the coalition would include hiring underrepresented minorities and women to work on the construction, a thorough public environmental review of the project and a project labor agreement signed by a developer.

The University maintains that it has no power in choosing whether union labor is used in construction because that decision is made by the developer.

“We’re not going to be building the building, a developer is,” said Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations.

“It’s somebody else’s building. We’re not putting any money upfront into the building of it,” Majeroni said. “We’re not in a position to tell the developer what to do.”

Furlong disagreed with the claim that the University does not control the type of labor used in the building and maintenance of the Commons office building.

“Since Cornell picks the developer, that defense does not wash,” Furlong said. “They’re basically washing their hands of it.”

Bloom expressed a similar sentiment.

“Because it’s a joint venture between the city, the developer and Cornell … it’s going to be passing the buck,” she said. “Cornell’s the largest employer in town … if it chooses [to hire union workers] then that says to [other Ithaca employers] … that being community-friendly is important,” she said.

According to Majeroni, the University has narrowed the field of developers down to three. Their building proposals are due March 1, and one will be chosen later that month.

“Labor issues are one of the issues we have talked about [with prospective developers],” he said.

The candidates for developer had estimated that between 50 to 80 percent of the laborers would be union. Majeroni said that although there will be “significant union involvement,” there is “very little chance that it will be all union labor.”

Furlong disagreed with the claim that the University does not control the type of labor used in the building and maintenance of the Commons office building.

There will be another meeting between state, city and Cornell officials in Albany tomorrow to discuss the issue. Members of the New York State Assembly, the head of the state American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations and Edward J. Lawler, dean of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations will be among those attending.

Furlong cited “activism on campus” as a way in which students will participate in the coalition.

“After [we hear] the results of the meeting, we’ll begin a p.r. [public relations] and campus campaign,” said Joe McNearny ’03, treasurer of COLA.

“The Building Trades’ has already made it clear that they will shut this project down with picket lines if non-union workers are put on this project,” Furlong said.

Archived article by Maggie Frank