The battle over the proposed Industry City rezoning in Brooklyn has reached another tension point — between current employees and their union.
The union, 32BJ SEIU, which represents 80,000 service workers throughout the city and region, supports the rezoning, advanced by developers who promise as many as 20,000 jobs.
The union has been organizing with maintenance and custodial workers at the sprawling Sunset Park manufacturing and shopping complex since April 2019, but they still have not reached a contract agreement with management. The workers seek increased wages, a pension plan and other benefits.
Now, nearly a year and a half after talks began, some have grown restless. Six Industry City employees, all 32BJ members, testified against the proposed expansion plan at a 12-hour-long City Council hearing Tuesday.
The workers, citing their own collective bargaining agreement woes, say they have no faith their employer’s proposed project will generate thousands of “fair jobs,” they testified.
“If they say they’re going to create 20,000 jobs and hotels and build buildings and all that, but then they also claim they don’t have money to pay us a fair wage, then how are they going to pay for all of those other things?” one worker told THE CITY Wednesday. The 32BJ member, who spoke in Spanish, asked to remain anonymous.
“So they claim they have no money to give a raise to their own existing employees,” added the employee. “Why can’t they give us a reasonable raise? That’s why I can’t support the rezoning.”
Workers Split on Project
During Tuesday’s hearing, Humberto Rodríguez, an Industry City worker for three years and 32BJ member, testified in favor of the rezoning.
In a written statement read by a union representative, Rodríguez noted that the union had helped him and his coworkers secure health care benefits and safe working conditions that primed them for the city’s shutdown.
“But for us to improve our jobs for the long term, we need the conditions the rezoning will enable, especially now,” his statement read.
But other workers disagreed. Six spoke out against the rezoning — and three of them urged the union to expedite negotiations.
“I earn $19 and 77 cents an hour, and I’ve been working here for 32 years,” Willie Báez said in Spanish at the hearing. “My current salary isn’t enough for me to survive and sustain my family. We want 32BJ to get us a better contract, like they promised.”
In a phone call with THE CITY on Thursday, Denis Johnston, a 32BJ vice president, said the pandemic had delayed talks since March.
Thursday afternoon marked the first time all parties were able to hold a negotiation session since early March — in person, with management tuned in remotely.
“I can understand that the workers may be apprehensive with all this heated public discussion around the rezoning,” said Johnston. “But whether there’s a rezoning or not, we’re going to continue fighting to win the best contract we can for our members.”
“My number one priority is to win a fair contract for these workers despite the adverse circumstances we’re in,” he added, referring to the pandemic.
Negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement began last spring, when Industry City’s laborers voted to join 32BJ.
The talks were going along smoothly, workers and organizers told THE CITY: Industry City had agreed to provide health insurance and boost wages.
Then came the coronavirus. After the lockdown, Industry City laid off at least eight workers, some of whom had been with the company for over a decade. The union ensured they got a severance package.
“[The layoff] was a surprise to me,” one of those workers, Danny González, said in Spanish at Tuesday’s hearing. “For almost 10 years, I was never late, never missed as much as five minutes of work.”
The Council is set to vote on the rezoning application in November, before the project goes to Mayor Bill de Blasio.
If approved, the rezoning would allow for a $1 billion renovation of the 35-acre complex over 12 years, adding retail and academic space and an estimated $100 million in additional tax revenue, the developers say.
The project’s foes include City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn), who has invoked the longstanding Council tradition of deferring to the local representative on land use decisions.
Menchaca and local opponents say the Industry City expansion could lead to displacement of nearby residents. But supporters — among them, some other Council members — contend the project will bring desperately needed jobs and tax revenue as the city grapples with the pandemic-spurred economic crisis.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan), who’s eyeing a run for mayor, hasn’t taken a position. The union, meanwhile, remains steadfast in its commitment to the expansion plan.
“I think the fundamental question is, will the revitalization of Industry City be a motor to create more good jobs?” Johnston said on Thursday. “And I think our members have a better chance of winning a strong contract with the revitalization of Industry City.”