Non-Union Laborers Constructing Newark High School for Trades

In addition, the union alleges the developer has also failed to follow public contracting law, because the project was not competitively bid, nor is it following public works contractor registration law, because certain contractors were not registered. 

The complaint was filed with the New Jersey Division of Wage and Hour Compliance by a union representative at Laborers Eastern Region Organizing Fund, or LEROF, the organizing arm of Laborers’ International Union of North America that was founded by labor leader Ray Pocino. 

In addition to the union filing, TAPintoNewark talked to three workers at the site who said proper safety protocols were not taken on site and they were paid in cash for work at rates well below the legally mandated prevailing wage,

New Jersey law is unambiguous about what type of projects are subject to prevailing wage. While the law typically applies to work on buildings that are owned by a public entity, such as a school board or a municipal government, it also applies when 55% of a privately owned building is leased to a public body and the space is larger than 20,000 square feet, according to Q&A from the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The district is leasing the entire former hospital building, which is about 179,000 square feet.

In June, after TAPintoNewark began making inquiries with the state DOL, the Murphy Administration sent a letter reminding local governments and school boards they have a responsibility to ensure payment of prevailing wage, as well as contractor registration, at any construction job involving a public agency.

Union Raises Concerns About Work at Job Site

Earlier this year, according to emails obtained by TAPintoNewark, the union sought to press the issue of prevailing wages with Albert Nigri, who is listed on the lease as the representative of the landlord, 155 Jefferson Street Urban Renewal LLC.  

 In one email sent to Superintendent Roger Leon and Valerie Wilson on Feb. 1, 2022, Stephanie Atkins, a researcher with the union, expressed concern about work that had started at the site.

Another researcher for the union “has documentation and reports that the contractor performing work is unregistered and that most of the workers are not being paid the correct wage,” Atkins wrote. “He spoke to the owner of the property on several occasions a few months back but recent attempts to remedy the issues have gone unanswered. We are hoping that you will reach out to whomever is responsible for the project and share this information with them and perhaps provide us with a more responsive point of contact to address the alleged violations.”

In her email, Atkins wrote a summary of her contact with Nigri.

“On August 8, 2021, I spoke to owner Albert Nigri who said he didn’t need any workers at the moment. He insisted that the project was not subject to prevailing wage and that union rates are too high,” she wrote.

In another email sent to Leon and Wilson on Feb. 28, Atkins wrote that during a meeting in February, Nigri told her that he “was not aware of any competitive contracting or wage requirements and was confident in his assertion that the project was considered private development.”

“We are hoping that someone from the district can provide us with clarification and confirmation as to whether or not the project is subject to public bidding requirements and the payment of prevailing wage,” she wrote.

After not making any progress, the union began picketing outside the building, placing a giant blow-up rat that unions often use to embarrass a non-union contractor at a jobsite.

“We knew it was a prevailing wage job because it would be converted to a school,” said Jamie Machado, an organizer for LEROF.

He said there are also concerns about the safety of the building, workers and the surrounding community and future students.

“We got questions about the job,” Machado said. “We know it’s an old building, so who removed the asbestos? Who removed the lead block from the X-ray rooms because we know hospitals put lead block around the X-ray rooms? And no one can answer it.” 

Private Groundbreaking for Public School

In May, Machado said the district promised to arrange a meeting between the union and Summit, but on one condition: the district wanted the union to stop its protests. The union agreed and several days later, the district held a ceremonial groundbreaking at the site, Machado said. No media was invited to the event — a highly unusual move given that groundbreakings are typically held specifically to attract media attention.

Photos and a video of the event were published on social media. Mayor Ras Baraka, several members of the state legislature, as well as a handful of Newark Public School board members donned hard hats and posed for pictures with shovels going into the ground. 

Machado said the meeting with Summit never yielded a satisfactory result.

Leon, Wilson and Nigri did not return repeated phone calls or respond to emails from TAPintoNewark. The mayor’s office declined to comment, as did school board members contacted by TAPintoNewark.

Is Summit Assets the Developer or Not?

Summit Assets looked to have it both ways.

The New York-based commercial real-estate development enterprise took credit for being the developer of the high school during the groundbreaking. Yet when the union sought to hold it accountable for following the prevailing wage law, the company denied that it was the developer.

The company lists the 155 Jefferson property on its website as a current project. Summit’s CEO is listed as Albert Nigri. Its address on its website is the same as 155 Jefferson St. Urban Renewal LLC’s address in the lease. The broker for the sale of the property, Colliers, also listed the owner of 155 Jefferson St. Urban Renewal LLC as Albert Nigri, Avi Penamu and Jack Hazen.

In May, at the groundbreaking, a Summit Assets vice president described her company as the developer. 

“Developing an architectural high school in the city of Newark has always been a dream of our development team,” said Melanie Campbell, a vice president at Summit, who also sang the national anthem at the event. 

“What an amazing feeling to develop a high school where students in Newark will have an architectural background, then move on to change the world and Newark,” Campbell said.

That same month, Summit Assets denied it was the developer.

On May 13, Raymond Heineman, a lawyer for the union, sent a letter to Nigri explaining that the prevailing wage law applies to the project.

“Under the New Jersey Prevailing Wage Law, Summit's project fits within the definition of a public works project and is subject to the payment of prevailing wages,” Heineman wrote. 

“Accordingly, as the Newark Schools have agreed to lease the St. James Hospital Site, upon the completion of development, the State prevailing rate would apply to the construction work of Summit and its contractors on the site,” Heineman wrote.

Six days later, Nigri responded with a three sentence letter.

“This letter is in response to your letter dated May 13, 2022. Please note that Summit Assets is not the Developer for this location. Thank you.”

The Prevailing Wage Law

Todd Vachon, the director of the Labor Education Action Research Network (LEARN) at Rutgers University, said prevailing wage laws are designed to take the cost of labor out of the bidding process  and ensure that contractors are treating workers fairly. He said they also equalize the playing field so that the contractors are not cutting corners on safety or are not training workers.

"Prevailing wage laws benefit not only workers, they also benefit local communities,” Vachon said. “You often  have out-of-state contractors who pay their workers significantly less, and then none of that money benefits the local economy where the construction is actually happening. By equalizing the playing field regarding labor costs via prevailing wage laws, the local contractors in the state have a fairer shot at getting the bids."

Vachon said there are shared interests between the workers, the construction unions and the local contractors who are facing competition from low-wage contractors.

"The contractors have to treat their workers fairly and not exploit immigrant workers who are fearful or who don't have rights to stand up for themselves,” Vachon said. "If a union contractor gets the job, then you know the prevailing wage law is being followed through a collective bargaining agreement in place. If it's a non-union contractor that comes in, it's questionable whether they are following it, unless there is a strong enforcement mechanism."

In the absence of enforcement, union officials say their job is to inform the public about the alleged violations of state law.

“We are here to let people know about the unsafe work that's going on and to stop stealing from your workers,” Machado said. “Some of these guys are Newark residents.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-08-15 02:56:05 -0700