Already the subject of much controversy regarding its relationship with the Harlem community, Columbia’s Manhattanville campus is once again facing scrutiny, this time from New York City’s Carpenters Union for working with a non-union contractors to build a new dormitory.
Construction on a new housing facility on West 125th St. is set to begin this year. While Columbia used union labor to build other Manhattanville buildings, for this upcoming project, the university opted to work with Trident. Trident is an open-shop contractor that uses a combination of union and non-union labor. According to Columbia’s spokespeople, this model is not uncommon in multi-family residential construction in New York City. Non-union workers are generally paid less than union workers, may enjoy less job security, and are not guaranteed benefits nor health insurance.
In 2019, Trident was sued for alleged racial discrimination against African American employees. The plaintiffs alleged repeated use of racial slurs on the worksite and claimed they were fired in retaliation for their complaints. This case ended in a settlement.
Trident’s past lawsuit and usage of non-union labor are of concern to the New York City and Vicinity District Council of Carpenters, a local union. On Friday September 18th, they held a press conference in front of Columbia’s Broadway gates. Several city and state politicians and union affiliates attended and spoke.
The press conference served as an official start to the Carpenters Union’s public information campaign against Trident. In a statement released on Wednesday, the union’s Executive Secretary-Treasurer, Joseph Geiger, explained their alarm saying, “When non-union contractors are hired by large organizations, the whole city suffers. You see it in the work that’s produced and with the subsequent lawsuits that arise from poor working conditions.”
Many of the speakers at the press conference addressed their remarks directly to President Bollinger. State Senator Brad Hoylman called out, “Mr. Bollinger, get out of your ivory tower….Come down here with the workers….It is disgraceful that NYC has given up so much to Columbia in upzoning, yet Columbia refuses to come to the table and…hires a company…that is incompetent, that is discriminatory, and that is breaking the law.”
New York City Councilmember Ben Kallos shared similar remarks at Friday’s press conference, and noted the particular importance of “hir[ing] a reputable firm that does not discriminate against their workers and takes care of their workers, pays them a prevailing wage, pays them benefits, and for god’s sake, gives them the health insurance that they need during a pandemic.”
Some union affiliates have been handing out flyers around the Morningside campus to raise awareness among students. Others are banging on cowbells and using megaphones to call out to President Bollinger from the streets. The union placed several inflatable rats in front of Columbia’s Morningside campus to symbolize and protest the university’s decision to work with non-union labor. Their goal is for Columbia to stop working with Trident and hire a contractor that will pay area standard wages and give employee benefits.
When asked to comment, university representatives clarified that “Columbia University has long acknowledged the value of union labor in construction and is a substantial provider of jobs to union members.” However, “the University also has a strong commitment to minority, women and locally-owned firms which are often small, non-union firms. Consistent with Columbia’s commitment to support small disadvantaged minority, women, and locally owned businesses, a small percentage of Columbia’s capital is directed to non-union firms.” To date, Columbia representatives say the university has awarded $1.7 billion in contracts for the Manhattanville campus to unions.
Columbia expects all vendors it works with to “share our commitment to the highest ethical, sustainable, and safety standards while upholding the highest commitment to diversity and anti-discriminatory practices” and “will not hesitate to stop working with a vendor that is unable to prove their ability to meet these minimal expectations.”
Though Columbia has clearly stated their commitment to a baseline level of labor conditions, union members and students have yet to see if Trident will meet these expectations and if Columbia will follow through on its commitments with action.
New York City and Vicinity District Council of Carpenters’ Executive Secretary-Treasurer, Joseph Geiger’s, Full Statement:
“When non-union contractors are hired by large organizations, the whole city suffers. You see it in the work that’s produced and with the subsequent lawsuits that arise from poor working conditions. Columbia University is a world-renowned learning institution, and we are calling on them to do the right thing by the people of New York City and hire highly-trained union workers. Trident General Contracting is a dangerous company that puts hardworking New Yorkers’ paychecks and benefits in jeopardy. The New York City & Vicinity District Council of Carpenters fights for the rights of all workers and we hope Columbia University will join us.”
Columbia University’s Full Statement:
Columbia University has long acknowledged the value of union labor in construction and is a substantial provider of jobs to union members. The University’s commitment to union labor is clearly evident through the Project Labor Agreement between our construction manager and the building trades in effect at Manhattanville since 2008 and the $1.7 billion of contracts awarded to union firms for construction at Manhattanville to date.
“The University also has a strong commitment to minority, women and locally-owned firms which are often small, non-union firms. Consistent with Columbia’s commitment to support small disadvantaged minority, women, and locally owned businesses, a small percentage of Columbia’s capital is directed to non-union firms.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article mentioned and misidentified the nature of Columbia’s current working relationship with Mamais Construction. According to Columbia representatives, Mamais is not working on the 125th St. residential project, and their work on the Business School is in line with the renewed Project Labor Agreement to which that the Building and Construction Trades Council agreed.
Union Protest via Leora Schloss
Union Rat via Leora Schloss