CITY HALL—Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams on Tuesday called on Albany to pump the brakes on a measure that would increase the number of developments subject to prevailing wage requirements, putting him at odds with many New York progressives.
“Any time you talk about affordable housing, people ask the question ‘Affordable for who.’ The question we’re asking now is … prevailing wage for who?” Adams said at a press conference outside City Hall. “Prevailing wage for the young man living in the South Bronx, living in Harlem, living in Brownsville, or is it for those who live on Long Island?”
At issue is a policy that in recent months has been considered in Albany that would expand the definition of public works to include all developments that receive public benefits, like tax breaks, subsidies or use of government-owned land. The proposed changes would mandate unionized contractors be awarded work for more publicly supported developments than is required at present. Currently, the state’s constitution requires that prevailing wage rates, which are set by the Department of Labor, be paid for public works, though the term “public works” isn’t defined in it.
The policy, backed by progressives state senators such as Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar, aims to expand the amount of projects given to unionized workers by mandating prevailing wages on projects that involve the city or state. The measure is one of the end-of-session priorities Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a close ally of the building trades, as legislative leaders are reportedly working on a compromise bill with carve outs for certain types of projects before Albany closes up shop for the year on June 19.
But Adams wants expansion of the definition of public works to include more projects to be put on ice.
Critics of the legislation like the borough president, local business groups and the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) argue it would add to the already high cost of development in New York, preventing projects from getting off the ground. Others, like the clergy members assembled Tuesday, argue the measure would block smaller, minority-owned contractors from getting work, and would favor what they say are the historically disproportionately white building trades union workers.
Though some studies suggest the unionized building crews are now about as diverse as open-shop ones and that the idea the building trades keeps people of color out is an outdated assumption, the building trades have not disclosed the demographics of their members—statistics Adams is calling to be released.
Joined by the 400 Foundation, a group of faith leaders that opposes the proposed legislation, and advocates Tuesday afternoon, Adams called for legislation expanding the prevailing definition of public works to be put on hold until the multi-union Building Trades Council shows information regarding those who are hired, which Adams and others at the press conference say are predominantly white and don’t live within the five boroughs.
“This release-the-data campaign will be a series of steps that will send a strong message to Albany that, before passing any prevailing wage legislation, we will have the building trades release the data,” Adams, likely a 2021 mayoral contender, said. “We cannot pass legislation in the dark.”
Asked what he makes of many left-wing legislators who back the prevailing wage law, Adams dismissed the notion that he wasn’t acting in keeping with progressive ideals by opposing a union-backed policy.
“When did we have the meeting to decide what the progressive agenda is?” he said.
“I’m concerned that anyone could move forward with any piece of legislation that’s going to alter how we allocate city resources without knowing who is going to benefit from it,” he continued. “If you ask anyone ‘Who is going to benefit from it,’ and they can’t give you an answer, then the next question is: why are you voting for it?”
James Cahill, president of the NYS Building & Construction Trades Council, argues that government-backed projects ought to be subject to a high standard vis-à-vis safety and wages.
“The state is handing out millions of dollars to private businesses for construction projects with virtually no strings attached in terms of labor protections,” he said, according to the State of Politics. “Economic growth driven by government funded programs and subsidies will never reach its full potential unless we start protecting the construction workers on these projects.”
For his part, Reverend Reginald Lee Bachus, president of The 400 Foundation, suggested in an interview that many on the left-wing lawmakers are supporting the prevailing wage law due to their alliance with the politically powerful building trades unions.
“We do see those who are waving the progressive flag a little bit more who are against the disclosure of data because they have to protect those who, I believe, are funding their campaigns,” he said.