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As modular construction gains in popularity, union chief declines to comment

The Times reports today, More Units Going Up in a Snap:
A vacant lot on Broadway between Academy and 204th Streets in Inwood is littered with rubble and concrete pilings. But in a matter of weeks, this 50-foot-wide sand pit will be transformed into a seven-story apartment building, with finished bathrooms, maple cabinetry and 10 terraces. It is not a magic trick, but rather the result of modular, or prefabricated, construction.

A technique in which a building is manufactured piecemeal on a factory assembly line, trucked to the construction site and erected much the way Legos are, modular construction is gaining popularity across New York City...

The announcement late last year that Forest City Ratner would use modular construction to build its first residential tower at the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn helped to shine a spotlight on this method of construction, and New York City, in announcing the winner of its first microunit apartment building design contest, has chosen a modular design.

The trend toward modular does pose issues, particularly for New York City’s powerful construction unions. It means exporting some construction jobs to factories outside New York, and while many modular factories are unionized, the employees tend to earn less than traditional construction workers. For its part, Forest City Ratner announced that the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York had created a modular division to help build its 32-story high-rise, and it joined with Skanska USA in creating a modular company at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

“Any change in the way you do business involves some concerns and issues,” said Richard T. Anderson, the president of the New York Building Congress, a nonprofit organization that represents professionals in the construction industry. “If for New York City construction, business as usual is a challenge, you need to change some of the basic ingredients, and labor and management needs to address this.”

Gary LaBarbera, the president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, declined to comment.
Why wouldn't LaBarbera comment? Perhaps because " while many modular factories are unionized, the employees tend to earn less than traditional construction workers."

And perhaps because some specialized unions--plumbers, electricians, steamfitters--are unhappy that their expertise is needed far less in the modular process, according to testimony at a January City Council hearing.

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