As students began returning to campus on Friday, members of a local construction union group gathered in eight locations around campus wearing bright red T-shirts that said “Does Cornell Care” in response to the University’s decision to move away from hiring local workers in student housing construction projects.
The main objective of the self-described “informational programming” was to get people to sign an online petition, which calls upon the University to require that local skilled trade workers, companies and vendors complete the construction on any future student housing project.
Over 360 people had signed the petition as of Friday afternoon, David Marsh, secretary- treasurer of the Tompkins-Cortland Building & Construction Trades Council, told The Sun.
The Tompkins-Cortland Building & Construction Trades Council is a group of construction trades unions working and living in Central New York that is affiliated with the AFL-CIO and is the group behind “Does Cornell Care” project, according to its website.
In particular, the union members are trying to draw the public’s attention to multiple issues that occured recently in the construction of Maplewood, a graduate student housing complex, by EdR, a Tennessee-based collegiate housing development firm.
Construction issues have delayed the opening of Maplewood, which was scheduled for August 20, by four to six weeks, inconveniencing over 100 students, The Sun previously reported.
“We’ve had a lot of success, the local skilled construction unions and their contractors have for years built buildings, complex buildings, on Cornell’s campus on time and on budget,” Robert Boreanaz, who is on the Tompkins Cortland Building Council, told The Sun, as he stood with a group assembled outside of CTB.
“There have been a lot of problems on the project that could’ve been avoided had Cornell require EdR, this Tennessee firm, to utilize local union skilled construction workers and companies,” he said.
Safety and quality issues in the Maplewood construction are some of the problems that the union is concerned about. These include OSHA safety fines, multiple inspection failures and New York State Department of Labor investigations, according to the online petition.
“[Maplewood] is not a quality product that we would’ve delivered through our contractors,” Marsh said.
Furthermore, the group emphasized the importance of hiring local workers to strengthen the Ithaca community.
“We really would wish [the University] would place more emphasis on making sure that when they spend millions of dollars that those millions of dollars are spent on local people so that the money stays here in Ithaca and gets re-invested into the community,” Boreanaz said. “We’d like Ithaca to be more focused on a sustainable community and not let so many millions of dollars leave the state and leave the area.”
Jerry Morley, a business agent for the United Association Plumbers and Steamfitters, said that about 90 of his 240 members were unemployed over the winter and about 50 were unemployed over the summer.
“If we had had that work [at Maplewood], we would’ve been fully employed. That’s a lot of members missing benefits and so forth,” he said. “Normally, summertime you’re busy, and they were not.”
Boreanaz speculated that the reason the University chose to turn to an outside firm was to save some cost and financing on the project.
The Tompkins-Cortland Building & Construction Trades Council has a collective bargaining agreement with the University about construction, and so Marsh said that the group was concerned from the beginning about the University’s decision to lease the property to EdR.
According to Marsh, EdR did solicit bids from local contractors, but those bids were rejected because EdR claimed the overall total of those bids put the project over budget.
“The bids were actually realistic because our local contractor knew the schedule required major overtime,” Marsh said. “One large contractor tried to convince EdR to extend the schedule, and when EdR refused, they pulled their effort to bid the project and cautioned EdR that they were never going to meet the schedule.”
Marsh estimated that, overall, the Maplewood project only had about 10 percent local labor. In an email to The Sun, Craig Wack, EdR’s public relations coordinator, said the majority of contractors were local.
“We make every effort possible to hire local labor at all of our communities throughout the United States,” Wack said. “In this instance, two-thirds are local contractors and all but one of the remaining third are located in New York state.”
According to Wack, EdR partnered with LeChase construction, a Rochester-based company. As the general contractor, LeChase was in charge of all efforts in regards to local labor and subcontractors and handled the process of selecting bids.
While Marsh said that he thought the University “circumvented” their contracts, the group’s attorney looked and it technically was legal.
If Cornell had built the property itself, it would’ve been legally required to use local labor, but by leasing the property to EdR, the University in effect “circumvented” this and the local contractors had to deal directly with the private company, Marsh explained.
However, he said that Cornell could have, but did not, stipulate in its contract with EdR that it use local labor. Thus, the petition calls for Cornell to guarantee the use of local labor even when it leases out the land.
According to the Ithaca Planning Board’s meeting minutes from March 2016, Cornell “decided that the local building trades are not going to be a part of this partnership” with EdR because the Maplewood project was considered “low-end construction.”
Marsh described Maplewood as just an example of what could happen if the University continues this trend to lease with outside firms in the future.
“We think this type of a model is dangerous for local employees and Cornell has told us, Mary Opperman, that they intend to continue these types of projects, that Cornell has made a conscious decision that they don’t want to increase their debt load to build student housing,” Marsh said.
“A lot of the community does not have any idea of what has happened at Maplewood and that it could be repeated again, and it’s just such a loss of revenue for the area,” he continued. “We want pressure on Cornell to make them rethink this process.”
In a statement to The Sun, Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer, said that “Cornell University has a long history of working closely with the Tompkins-Cortland Building & Construction Trades Council to ensure that on-campus projects make the fullest possible use of local union labor, and we certainly can understand their frustration with EdR and its execution of the Maplewood Apartments project.”
Moving forward, she said that the North Campus Residential Expansion project, an estimated $200 million project that aims to expand housing on campus by 2,000 beds, will “make maximum use of our skilled and highly valued local labor community,” as per the University’s standing agreement with the Building & Construction Trades Council.
Marsh confirmed that the University told them yesterday that they will honor the collective bargaining agreements for the North Campus housing project.
“As educators, we believe there is no question unworthy of a direct and thoughtful response,” Opperman wrote. “As our more than 9,000 local employees and their families know, and the companies that benefit from our more than $190 million in annual local purchasing and construction spending understand, the answer to ‘does Cornell care’ is an unequivocal ‘Yes!’”