Tappan Zee project seen as lifeline for work-starved unions

Phil Jackson of Beacon, an unemployed member of Phil Jackson of Beacon, an unemployed member of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 137, has his hopes set on working on the new Tappan Zee Bridge project. He is photographed in Tarrytown overlooking the bridge and Hudson River. (Sept. 24, 2012) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascareñas

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These are desperate times for the folks who make their living in the cabs of backhoes and bulldozers and cement trucks, churning up dirt and gravel and pouring concrete to build and repair New York's roads, bridges and tunnels.

Lately, there just hasn't been enough work to go around.

Heavy-equipment operators are maxing out their unemployment benefits. Unions have been forced to tap into reserves to pay health insurance premiums -- premiums that would have been picked up by contractors if the union members were working. And members who have logged as little as 24 hours of work in the past year are facing home foreclosures.

"I've been in this industry for 49 years, and this is by far the worst it's ever been," said Al Girardi, 69, the business manager for Local 137 of the International Union of Operating Engineers in Briarcliff Manor. "It's really horrible what our people are going through. People come into my office every day, and I don't know what to say to them."

Given those challenges, it's no wonder Girardi's members see Gov. Andrew Cuomo's $5.4 billion plan to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge as a godsend. Workers have been vocal in their support for the bridge, showing up in numbers at town hall meetings on the Tappan Zee Bridge project and shouting down critics with chants of "Build the Bridge!"

The construction trades have worked closely with Cuomo to make the bridge project feasible, agreeing to major concessions on work rules and limits on overtime. According to the governor's office, those concessions will save taxpayers $450 million in costs if the new bridge is built. Unions also have agreed not to strike, eliminating a threat that could cost $1 million per day.

Those agreements were reached against the background of a broader partnership. Clearly, the unions see Cuomo as a friend. Since taking office, the governor has taken in some $742,000 in campaign contributions from unions -- about a third of that from construction unions like the steamfitters and ironworkers, according to an analysis by the New York Public Interest Research Group. From 2007 to 2010 -- before he took office as governor -- unions donated nearly $2.1 million in campaign funds to Cuomo, NYPIRG found.

Four years into an economic slowdown, with no end in sight, the construction workers are frustrated. The construction trades have lost 59,000 jobs in the state since July 2008, making it the second worst-hit middle-wage industry behind manufacturing, according to a study by the Fiscal Policy Institute in New York City.

"Construction was just about the single most devastated sector in the state," said Ruth Milkman, a sociology professor at the City University of New York. Milkman co-authored a recent study on the impact the recession has had on union jobs. "It's four years ago, and there's been very little work in that time."

Cuomo has predicted the bridge project will generate as many as 45,000 jobs. The union members see the project as a no-brainer, ridiculing the condition of the existing bridge.

"There were rust holes on that bridge you could drive a Volkswagen through," said Phil Jackson, a 59-year-old member of the Operating Engineers Union.

As a boy, Jackson drove tractors around the farm he grew up on in Chelsea. He joined the union 30 years ago and prospered, for many years, working on projects like the construction of the Beacon-Newburgh Bridge and the resurfacing of the Tappan Zee. When times are good, a heavy-equipment operator can earn as much as $45 an hour -- even more when benefits are factored in, union leaders said.

But construction is seasonal work and, at most, union members work 10 months a year. This is the third serious economic downturn Jackson has been through and by far the worst, he said. This year, he has worked just three weeks. Now he is thinking about retiring earlier than he'd planned.

"You put this pile of bills on the table and you say, 'Well, I need electricity,' " said Jackson, who lives in Beacon. "You've got the cable bill. That can wait. You've got a pile of bills and you've got $10 to spend. I realize there are bigger problems in the world than our unemployment, but to us this is big."

Milkman hopes the Tappan Zee Bridge project will become a model for other states. She talked about the New Deal policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, how Roosevelt put people to work building infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, tunnels and parks.

"We all know that our infrastructure in the United State is crumbling, and these are the sort of projects that we need more of," Milkman said. "This is the sort of thing we should be doing more of."

Girardi agreed. He wishes that, instead of funding wars in faraway places, the federal government would back public works projects in the U.S.

"We could take these young men and replace the weapons in their hands with the tools of our trade," Girardi said. "They've been over there sacrificing their lives. It would be so rewarding if they could come home and help us to rebuild here. But I just don't have the jobs."

His union's enrollment is down to 1,000 active members, 1,500 if you count retirees. At the union's high point, when it was helping to build the lower Hudson Valley's interstate highway system -- Interstate 287, Interstate 84 and Interstate 684 -- membership was nearly double that.

Girardi is a third-generation operating engineer in an extended clan of brothers, uncles and cousins who are all union folk.

It's likely he'll be the last union member in his family. His son will be graduating from Syracuse University with the hope of going into communications.

"Thank God he's not going into the construction industry," Girardi said.

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