May 9, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Organized labor groups in the city are applauding the second-largest pension fund in the world and its decision to no longer work with irresponsible contractors this week – even as the battle over the Queens construction "sweatshop" which served as the lightning rod for the ongoing controversy continues.
The mixed-use development being constructed at 5-11 47th Avenue in Long Island City, Queens became a source of embarrassment for the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund earlier this year when the New York District Council of Carpenters [NYCDCC] highlighted TIAA-CREF's role in a project that is steadfastly sidestepping area wages, standards and benefits.
After mounting pressure from organized labor, TIAA-CREF recently announced that it had sold its interest in the 47th Avenue project to the fund's development partner – O'Connor Capital Partners – and was instituting a new Responsible Contractors Policy.
"Due to the hard work of the NYCDCC and support from the laborers as well as the plumbers and tile, marble and terrazzo unions, this campaign was a partial success," NYCDCC Representative Michael Donnelly said. "The second phase which is a CUNY facility is still up in the air. The carpenters are committed to ensure it is built union and are already planning how it will be addressed."
In addition to the serious labor issues it has raised, the 12-story 181-unit complex being constructed at 5-11 47th Avenue also has a tangled history regarding its proposed use as a college dormitory.
The NYCDCC has been out front declaring that TIAA-CREF's former development partners on the Long Island City site – O'Connor Capital Partners and McGowan Builders – do not come close to meeting the definition of a responsible contractor.
Labor activist and Corporate Campaign, Inc. Director Ray Rogers has been heavily involved in helping the NYCDCC spearhead its efforts against the building site, and was directly involved in negotiations with TIAA-CREF General Counsel Jonathan Feigelson prior to the fund's announcement about its new Responsible Contractor Policy.
During those sometimes contentious talks, Feigelson reportedly raised the possibility of bringing in union carpenters to work on the Long Island City development – just not any affiliated to the NYCDCC.
In that case, Rogers said that he wasn't aware of any contractors "within the Greater New York City area that are going to meet the responsible contractor definition."
Be that as it may, Donnelly believes the chances of securing a responsible contractor to work the Long Island City site have improved.
"This should be a little bit easier as it appears that O'Connor Capital is the only problem to be addressed in that regard," Donnelly said.
Rogers welcomes TIAA-CREF's new Responsible Contractor Policy as a "major victory" – but cautions that the group's contracts must be also be changed in order for the fund's new guidelines to have any real teeth.
During his talks with TIAA-CREF, Rogers said that their general counsel often bemoaned a situation where despite all the money it had invested in the Long Island City project, the fund did not have the "unilateral power" to hire and fire subcontractors.
"The question is, have they changed the language that gives them the power over any developer or contractor in any future projects that they are involved in?" Rogers said.
Feigelson could not be reached for comment.
American Federation of Teachers [AFT] President Randi Weingarten was part of a chorus of high-profile labor voices, in addition to the NYCDCC who pressured TIAA-CREF and its CEO Roger Ferguson to rethink its role in the troubled 47th Avenue development.
The AFT chief talked about TIAA-CREF's new Responsible Contractor Policy at the New York State United Teachers delegate assembly held on April 12, describing the measure as defining responsible contractors as those parities who pay workers a fair wage on comparable projects based on local market factors and fair benefits.