Saying "We need jobs, not broken promises," a group that loudly and sometimes disruptively rallied in support for Atlantic Yards is changing its tune, organizing a public protest on July 27 outside the in-progress Barclays Center site and nearby Downtown Brooklyn-area construction sites.
The rally, aimed to start at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues at 9:30 a.m., is sponsored by P.P.E.E. (People for Political and Economic Empowerment), which helps train and place hard-to-employ people, some of them ex-convicts, in construction work.
[The location may shift to the corner of Atlantic and 6th Avenue.]
P.P.E.E. is essentially interchangeable with REBUILD, an organization launched in 2004 by the late Darnell Canada, a pro-project activist who had just left BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), a signatory of the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement. BUILD also works on job training, though for a broader range of jobs beyond construction.
(P.P.E.E. and REBUILD, once located on Gold Street near Downtown Brooklyn, saw that space demolished for the luxury Avalon Fort Greene, and had to seek inexpensive quarters farther away from the Fort Greene housing projects that are part of their base.)
Charge: lack of loyalty
"We was there when you called us, to go in front of the press, and speak our minds about jobs and contracts, about why Atlantic Yards was a good project for Brooklyn," added Allen, a barrel-chested man who speaks in gruff, streetwise tones. "So don't turn your back now after you feel like you got your foot in the door, and leave us standing on the other side of the doorway."
"Darnell was with me every step of the way on that," added Allen, who not only grew up with Canada but served time in prison with him.
(Canada died in late May, at 52. I'll write separately about him shortly. Allen did not seek out this interview; I contacted him to learn more about Canada.)
In fact, according to Allen, Canada told Forest City CEO Bruce Ratner within the past year or so that a protest would occur, "because it's not being done right here." While REBUILD is essentially on the shelf, given Canada's passing, Allen said he and others aimed to revive it.
As noted in the protest notice, below, the marchers aim to visit several other sites.
PPEE Protest July 27 2011
CBA impact in Brooklyn?
It's difficult to assess exactly how well Forest City Ratner has fulfilled the CBA, as it has been self-reporting, rather than funding the Independent Compliance Monitor required by the contract. (The only people who can enforce the CBA, however, are signatories that are financially dependent on the developer.)
For example, at the meeting this month of the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet, FCR executive Sonya Covington described percentages of MWBE (Minority and Women Business Enterprises) contracts. However, it's unclear where those companies come from; City Council Member Letitia James requested statistics on LBEs: Local Business Enterprises.
At one point, Forest City Ratner consultant The Darman Group prepared a report, on behalf of the developer, to the CBA Executive Committee. (It's not clear whether such reports have stopped, or just haven't been made public.)
In that report, the developer reported more granular figures, at least. Of 47 contracts in the New York area, 17 (36%) had gone to Brooklyn firms. One of the largest, however, had gone to a woman-owned demolition firm based on Long Island.
For example, he said the developer hired two non-minority security companies, while a Brooklyn-based security firm, that includes people placed by P.P.E.E., was bypassed.
Given the lack of an Independent Compliance Monitor, it's not easy to suss out the details. For example, in 2007, Forest City announced it had hired "the minority-owned security firm Eddington & Associates.
In a report by an FCR consultant, the company was identified as being from Westchester and, at different places in the report, either an MBE or a WBE, but not both. (The state MWBE database has an Eddington Security located in the Bronx, currently certified as both a minority- and woman-owned business.)
REBUILD once optimistic
In a 4/10/08 column, then-New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis wrote about how Canada and REBUILD were eagerly awaiting an improved economy:
The first of Canada's trainees were hired at Atlantic Yards but recently got laid off as the souring economy caused the project's developer, Bruce Ratner, to delay the project.Now Forest City Ratner has been trying to cut costs, notably with announced plans to consider modular construction.
"I think that's a slap in the face, not only to the community, but to the unions," said Allen, himself a 12-year member of General Building Laborers' Local 79.
Not a CBA signatory
Canada left BUILD in March 2004, just a few months after it launched. “I am resigning out of the need to distance myself from those in the organization who see this organization as financial self gain, [rather] than for the needs of the Brooklyn community,” Canada wrote in a letter, as quoted by the Brooklyn Paper.
Allen similarly distinguished the posture of REBUILD and P.P.E.E. from CBA signatories. "We didn't get the money the other guys got, they made their deals on the side," Allen said. "Everything we did, we did it straight up."
Allen said he and Canada "wanted contracts for our people in the community," but not direct subsidies, "because if you take money, they basically own you."
While negotiating the CBA, none of the signatories was paid by Forest City Ratner, at least as has been reported. CBA signatories all later received payments from the developer, FCR has confirmed, and BUILD, for example, since August 2005 gained rent-free space from the developer.
Canada and Allen brought vanloads of their followers to be a sometimes disruptive presence at public meetings.
Canada has a couple of cameos in the documentary Battle for Brooklyn (one of them also in Brooklyn Matters), ominously warning those concerned about the environmental impact of the project that if the project didn't proceed and put the ex-cons he worked with to work, "You're the victim."
As I reported, Canada interrupted a July 2009 meeting organized by the Empire State Development Corporation to answer questions about the revised project.
FCR executive MaryAnne Gilmartin of Forest City Ratner was asked about the project, and Canada intervened.
“We need the jobs, we need to start working," he shouted. "Same old questions. Same old questions. Same old questions--when’s it going to change?”
When moderator Craig Hammerman, District Manager of Community Board 6, remonstrated with him, Canada retorted forcefully, "You’re taking time--and doing nothing--holding up the project.”
Later in that meeting, Canada joined those disrupting the meeting with chants of "Go Home" and "Jobs." (At :52 of the video below, he's smiling, standing next to Forest City Ratner executive Scott Cantone.)
Who was responsible?
No one at the time reported who organized the disruption, but Allen, in response to my query, said the men were associated with P.P.E.E., and he drove them there.
"We came really to disrupt the meeting, because we felt that what was being discussed was not in our best interest," he said, crediting Canada for the idea. Forest City Ratner officials, he said, hadn't known of those plans.
"We knew, for us to get to get jobs for our people, that any time we heard any kind of meeting was going on, about any development in Brooklyn, that we had to let our voice be heard," Allen added, not without pride. "Only the squeaky wheel gets the grease."
I told Allen that, while I respected the desire for jobs, "interrupting people who are asking questions, that's not very democratic."
"I know," Allen allowed, his voice softening. "But you gotta do what you gotta do."
It's the "by any means necessary" explanation that has been used by various Atlantic Yards supporters.
And, I wouldn't be surprised, it's been used in Forest City Ratner corporate offices itself, given the developer's successful effort in 2009 to renegotiate deals with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Empire State Development Corporation, saving tens of millions of dollars, or halting construction at the midpoint of the Beekman Tower to play hardball with construction unions.
The rise of coalitions
P.P.E.E. and REBUILD have their roots in movements, based in minority communities, that demonstrated and even threatened to get work on construction sites in an industry long dominated by white workers.
Some in the construction industry considered such coalitions inherently extortionate, while at other times, they ran afoul of the law.
As the New York Times reported 4/22/88, in 13 Named in Extortion Case On Minority Building Pacts:
Thirteen people, many leaders of community groups seeking construction jobs for minority-group workers, were accused yesterday of schemes to extort payoffs from building projects in Brooklyn and Queens by threatening demonstrations and disruptions.
…The defendants, affiliated with five groups in Brooklyn, were charged in a Federal indictment and in a separate criminal complaint with having extorted more than $112,000 from contractors since 1981. The indictment said those and other groups had ''banded together to form a Citywide Coalition of Community Construction Workers.'Four of the accused were affiliated with a group called Free at Last, a group Allen said he and Canada had been associated with, later succeeded by Power at Last.
In an 11/8/93 article, Mortar and Mayhem: How Minority-Labor Coalitions Throw a Wrench Into New York Construction, New York magazine described how the Police Department in 1978 launched a special Construction Task Force, and that a series of indictments in 1993 were seen as cleaning up the industry.
"If we don't work, nobody works!" was the chant, as described in New York magazine, and Allen confirms that's the way it was.
"At the time, we had to go on sites and fight to get work," said Allen, who was wearing a t-shirt with the slogan "No History Without Black History." "We had to go onto construction sites … we made people stop, put their tools down, and told them they had to employ someone from the community."
Among the places that occurred, he said, was Forest City Ratner's MetroTech project, where a relatively small number of people, perhaps 50 to 60, were hired.
Multiple coalitions, he said, banded together, and split up work. "We would force them, back in them days," he said, "to take men. There was no choice."
From coalition to organization
The government crackdown, said Allen, prompted a change. "So now we go at it with a different approach; we started educating our people." In partnership with the firms Homeland Safety, which advertises that applicants can draw on individual training grants, P.P.E.E. gets workers trained and equipped with multiple certificates.
Coalitions, or organizations, have been coming back. In the 2/4/07 New York Times, Louis Coletti, president and chief executive of the Building Trades Employers Association, called the coalitions "extortionists in most cases."
Union activist and blogger Gregory A. Butler wrote 5/13/11 about Return of the Coalition: Are New York City's minority construction workers organizations making a comeback?"
From 1965 to 1998, "these coalition protests were an ever present feature of the construction scene in this city," Butler wrote, thus leading to racial integration in construction. Their role dampened, but now, he suggested, "With all the mass joblessness and misery in the inner cities and the extreme decay of the unions, the coalitions have a niche to fill."
How they work
Allen, who spent three stints in prison (for armed robbery) totaling nearly 30 years, said he learned from his mistakes, and also lucked out, getting work, and a union position in 2000 just ten days after he completed his last sentence.
Those seeking work must get up before sunrise and join a van--P.P.E.E. now has three, but once had five--for at least two weeks. "If they can wake up to look for a job, if they can wake up, 4, 5 in the morning, we know they're going to be on time," he said.
Meetings at P.P.E.E. average 40 to 60 people a week, coming from all over Brooklyn, including Fort Greene, where Canada lived, and Bed-Stuy, where Allen lives. (P.P.E.E. made a presentation at the 2/16/11 of Brooklyn Community Board 4, in Bushwick, according to meeting minutes.)
On the day I met with Allen, he said he'd put dozens of people to work on a construction site in Bed-Stuy. "What we do-- we find out when the job is coming to the area, we approach the developer, he might direct us to the GC [general contractor], we put in a proposal, we say This is what we do, these are the people that are in this community we would appreciate very much, if you get any funding, state, federal, or city we'd like you to employ some of our people from the community. A lot of them will say yes."
Given how Canada, at Atlantic Yards meetings, got threatening in his rhetoric, I asked Allen exactly how far their group would go dealing with a general contractor unwilling to add new hires.
"We say, We're not here to force you... but we're asking you to give us an opportunity, maybe not on this job, maybe somewhere down the line," he said, noting that the group has a track record it can point out. "It's a different program now. You can't force nobody to take a person… but if you're getting federal and state money, and you're not taking people from the the community, we're entitled to make some noise."
Hiring from Brooklyn
"The problem that we've been having, a lot of developers, or GCs, that are coming in from in from Manhattan," Allen said, "they're trying to bring people with them across the bridge, we're saying we're not allowing it to happen."
Hence the protest tomorrow.
Beyond that, he said, the non-union workers organized by P.P.E.E. now compete with immigrant construction workers, often undocumented, willing to work for $10 an hour, when once the wage was closer to $20 an hour.
"We're no longer a coalition, we're organizations," Allen said, noting that P.P.E.E. does contracting work itself, in small teams, to pay for the eight-member office. "It's killing us, because each guy you put to work, it costs money," he said. "You've go to have insurance and worker's comp."
The path not taken
At one point, Allen said, Forest City even discussed a joint venture with Canada and Allen, as long as they brought in a "black developer." They found one, not from New York, but the developer aimed to squeeze out his local partners, and the deal never proceeded. A prefab plan would kill any chance of a joint venture reviving.
Getting past the "thug" label
"That was our trademark," Allen said. "We tried to show professionalism, because we didn't want contractors to think we was thugs when we came to these jobs."
Some, he allowed in response to my question, have histories of being thugs: "That's what we do. We work along with the hard to employ… we try to train the hard to employ how to be employable."
(In the photo by Adrian Kinloch, taken at the 5/29/09 state Senate oversight hearing held at the Pratt Institute, Canada is at left, with the earpiece.)
"A lot of guys that we deal with have either been in prison with us, or they know somebody who's been in prison, they know what we tell 'em is right," observed Allen. "We tell them: you can't keep knocking your head against the prison walls, prison is gonna outlast you."
P.P.E.E., he said, tries to give people the skills they need, so they can stop the cycle from streets to prison. "It's a terrible thing to see your son, your step-son, and you're in prison, and they're coming through the same prison doors," he reflected, "because, honestly, as a man, you felt you didn't do your job. We're trying to block that."
Before parting, I asked if there was anything he wanted to add. "It's hard when you come up in the inner city," Allen observed. "So we try to build a bridge for that big step and to help them by giving them the basic training they need, so when someone gives them that opportunity, it won't be a letdown, and it's there to encourage the next contractor" to work with P.P.E.E.