Tappan Zee project to boost unions' political action funds

An artist's rendition of the design for the An artist's rendition of the design for the new Tappan Zee Bridge that was selected by a panel of experts as the best value among the three proposals submitted. The winning design must be approved by the State Thruway Authority. (Dec. 5, 2012) Photo Credit: NYnewbridge.com

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Laborers operating jackhammers on the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project can expect to earn $33.15 an hour, enjoy a 10-minute coffee break between 9 and 11 a.m. and ply their trade under conditions governed by an agreement reached last year by the New York Thruway Authority and labor organizations.

If the laborers choose, they can also transfer 5 cents out of their paycheck for every hour they work to the New York State Laborer's Political Action Committee. Judging by the description of the PAC on the laborers union website, they'll help themselves by doing so.

"The Laborers' PAC has become one of the most powerful union political action committees in New York," the website says. "The PAC also provides support to the Laborers' Political League in Washington, D.C., for contributions to national candidates. The PAC's track record of passing important legislation and putting a stop to harmful, anti-labor bills is truly impressive."

A critic viewed the laborers' PAC less favorably.

"It's just a giant slush fund," said Ben Brubeck, director of labor and federal procurement at the Associated Builders and Contractors, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group that advocates for nonunion construction firms.

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo first announced the project labor agreement for the new Tappan Zee in June 2012, he hailed it as a framework that would provide thousands of jobs for unionized Hudson Valley workers while extracting a promise from union leaders that work stoppages and other labor-management disputes wouldn't bog down construction of the new $3.9 billion bridge. The agreement could save as much as $450 million, he claimed.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

A review of the 1,000-page project labor agreement illustrates why the unions might have agreed to the deal.

Most of the unions' collective bargaining contracts contained in the agreement detail how a few cents from workers' paychecks can be deposited to political action committees. The contracts also often contain special revenue streams -- usually around 35 cents per hour worked -- for "industry advancement" funds that pay for union programs and help unions lobby for work on public contracts.

Ross Pepe, president of Construction Industry Council of Westchester & Hudson Valley -- which helped negotiate the project labor agreement and receives money from industry advancement funds -- said the political contributions were standard in union contracts.

@Newsday

"Every worker has a right and a voice in the political action and activities of his or her local union," said Pepe in a statement. "Each union with such language is required to get written permission from the individual laborer before making the deduction."

Brubeck admitted that political contributions and other perks for unions were common in project labor agreements. But he decried them as a symbol of the unhealthy relationship between politicians who approve public projects and their donors in big labor who then work on the jobs.

"Just imagine how many hours these unionized workers work," he said. "Even if they give a nickel every hour, it starts to add up. Those funds are used by unions to target Republicans or help their friends."

An estimated 3,400 workers in traditionally unionized occupations are forecast to work on the new Tappan Zee Bridge, according to a May study by Empire State Development and the New York State Department of Labor.

The number of workers on the bridge project is expected to rise and fall at different times depending on construction needs. But according to Newsday calculations, if every estimated unionized worker on the bridge contributed 5 cents an hour to a PAC while working 40 hours a week for the entire five-year duration of the project, they'd generate almost $1.77 million.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

In January, the laborers' PAC had about $52,000, according to its most recent filing with the state Board of Elections. Since the 2010 statewide election, however, the PAC has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to political candidates, mostly to Democrats though occasionally to Republicans as well.

An analysis by the New York Public Interest Research Group found that from 2007 to 2010, when Cuomo, a Democrat, launched his successful bid for governor and took office, unions donated nearly $2.1 million to his campaign.

A spokesman for the Thruway Authority, Dan Weiller, noted that the state officials didn't draft the contracts containing the political donations and other contributions. Instead, they negotiated the project labor agreement with groups like Pepe's and incorporated the standard unions' contracts into the deal.

"The Thruway Authority played no role whatsoever in the negotiation of those individual contracts," said Weiller.

E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Empire Center for New York State Policy in Albany, disputed Weiller's claims.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Around 21 percent of construction workers in New York were unionized as of last year, according to www.unionstats.com, a website maintained by Georgia State University and Trinity University.

The governor could have fought for changes in the labor contracts within the project labor agreement. But he wouldn't want to alienate that powerful constituency, said McMahon.

"All of this reflects a strong commitment to basically make the Tappan Zee an enormous gift to organized labor," said McMahon. "His strategy is to pull off big infrastructure projects, which as a general goal a lot of people share. He's also using it to further strengthen his ties to organized labor."

You also may be interested in: