“Scabby the Rat,” a large inflatable balloon rodent used across the U.S. to protest unfair labor practices, crawled around Cornell earlier this week. Scabby’s owners are the Upstate New York Operating Engineers Local 158 Union, who let him loose in an attempt to engage the University about how LRS Excavating, the subcontractor conducting the excavation of the North Campus Residential Expansion, may be paying its workers substandard wages.
“Cornell, and some of the contractors they award these contracts to, undermine the area wages and standards that we’re accustomed to,” Michael P. Lyons ’05, the manager of Local 158’s Albany-based District 106, told The Sun. “That being the case, it doesn’t give contractors that do pay those wages all the time a fair shake at getting the work. We’re here to express our discontent.”
Construction on the North Campus Residential Expansion project began three weeks ago and is expected to be completed by 2022. The development will enable the University to house all freshmen and sophomores on campus.
“Just to be clear, we’re picketing LRS Excavating, we’re not picketing Cornell University,” Lyons said. “Ultimately, the University hires these construction managers, who then hire these subcontractors, that pay substandard wages and benefits.”
Union Demands Higher Wages
The standard hourly package for operating engineers in District 545, which includes Tompkins County, currently falls between $58.26 and $66.60, according to the Upstate New York Operating Engineers website. The 42 New York counties covered by Local 158 are divided into districts 106, 545 and 832, formerly independent locals which were merged into Local 158 in 2011, according to the union’s website.
The construction firm Welliver McGuire, which is conducting the NCRE construction, awarded the excavation work to the subcontractor LRS Excavating. Since LRS Excavating is a private company, and its workers are not part of IUOE, the company is able to pay its workers below area-standard wages and benefits, according to Robert Aikens, special assistant to the business manager of District 106 of Local 158 and a graduate of the Cornell’s Union Leadership Institute.
“As a private group, they can pay the operators of the job anything they want,” Aikens said.
However, Lyons and Aikens admitted that they didn’t actually know how much LRS Excavating was paying its workers. None of the excavators hired by LRS were involved in the picket.
“It’s not a union or nonunion thing, because on any prevailing rate jobs, any public work, union or nonunion makes the prevailing wage. It’s on these private jobs where they can undercut those wages and benefits to make a bigger profit,” Lyons said.
“We’re convinced, because of the private work they do, there’s really no way our employers or any other employers that are paying the prevailing wage can compete,” he continued. “So… implicitly, they can’t be paying the same wage rates because if they were, then we would be able to compete.”
Lyons added that they reached out to LRS in a letter to ask what it was paying for wages, health insurance and retirement, but didn’t hear anything back.
“Because there was no response, that triggered us to come out here and voice our discontent with the whole process,” Lyons said.
LRS Excavating has not responded to The Sun’s request for comment.
Inflatable Rat Saunters Around Cornell’s Campus
Beginning around 7 a.m. each morning this week, union members stood at the entrance to the NCRE construction site at the corner of Northcross Road and Jessup Road. In addition to Scabby, an inflatable “Fat Cat” that held a bag of money in one hand and a construction worker in the other caught the attention of many passersby. Lyons dubbed it “symbolic of corporate greed.”
A portable Scabby the Rat was also spotted driving around all over campus in a truck. Despite the pouring rain on Monday, union members still picketed outside the construction site, but didn’t drive Scabby around.
“I had seen a picture of inflatable rats in the Overheard at Cornell Facebook group but didn’t think much of it because I didn’t understand their significance,” Nisa Burns ’21 told The Sun. “That changed when I passed by the construction site next to RPCC and saw the rats alongside men from the local operating engineers union picketing the excavation company. I did some searching and found out that inflatable rats, often nicknamed ‘Scabby,’ are a sign of protesting trade unions.”
According to the Chicago Tribune, Scabby the Rat, described as “a giant inflatable balloon with sharp claws, a perpetual snarl and a menacing demeanor,” was first created by the bricklayers union in Chicago to draw attention to unfair hiring practices, and has been adopted since then by various other trade unions.
Calls Blare for University Involvement
In addition, Lyons — an alumnus of the ILR school — said that the pro-union values of the Cornell ILR school are at odds with much of the labor practices of the University as a whole, saying that “they’re kind of talking out of both sides of their mouth.”
However, Aikens said that ILR professors have generally been supportive of the union’s mission, but that they ultimately weren’t the decision makers.
Lyons also said that they currently don’t foresee a definite timeline for how long they plan to picket, but that their ultimate goal is to score a seat at the table and initiate productive discussions with the key decision makers at the University.
“We would certainly take everything down if we had an audience with the University and the people who could make decisions or at least hear us out on concerns that we have, but up to this point that hasn’t been the case,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Cornell has come under fire for its labor practices related to construction. A little over a year ago, a local construction union complained that the University did not hire enough local labor on the Maplewood Construction Project.
At that time, Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer told The Sun that the University was “fully committed to making sure the upcoming North Campus Residential Expansion … makes maximum use of our skilled and highly valued local labor community … the developer of this estimated $200 million project has been contractually required to comply with Cornell’s standing agreement with the Building & Construction Trades Council.”
Effective as of 2015, Cornell signed a Building and Trades agreement with the Tompkins-Cortland Counties Building Trades Council, Maintenance Division, which requires any contractor or developer hired by Cornell to pay employees area standard wages and benefits, according to Aikens.
Operating engineers, however, are not included in this agreement, which means that the contractors hired by the University are not required to pay operating engineers area standard compensation, Aikens said.
“The operating engineers have not been on that agreement for decades. We have been trying to make a strong push through the University to be at the table, to try to negotiate wages and benefits for our folks to work on all the construction that goes on here, and it’s been falling on deaf ears,” Lyons said. “Like they say, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
In a statement to The Sun, John Carberry, a spokesman for the University, said “The general contractor building NCRE is responsible for awarding work to subcontractors who submit bids. We worked earlier this year with local leaders from the International Union for Operating Engineers to encourage and support subcontractors who employ IUOE members to submit bids to the general contractor.”
“Unfortunately, none of those subcontractors chose to submit a bid,” Carberry continued. He also said that much of the work on the NCRE was being done by subcontractors that employ union crews.
Grant Malone, manager of District 832, said the union fights for more than just area standard wages.
“Shame on you if you don’t have a health care and retirement plan along with a good wage. Workers need protection so they don’t have to run equipment until they’re 75 years old just to make ends meet,” Malone said. “And maybe also send their kids to college here.”
Lyons added that the picket is not meant to communicate an “us versus them” attitude.
“We want to bring all of these people up to the area standard,” he said.