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5Pointz Owner Reneges on Promise to Use Union Labor, Sparking Protest

Former residents of 5Pointz, including graffiti artist Jonathan ‘Meres One’ Cohen (left) joined union members at the protest (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Long Island City yesterday to protest the almost complete absence of unionized workers at the 5Pointz redevelopment site — despite a promise by the project’s developer that he would only employ union workers for the job.

Union members from across New York City gathered to hear a speech by Queens Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who along with the City Council, approved the construction of two residential towers on the site of the former 5Pointz warehouse. Van Bramer, along with several other speakers, branded developer Jerry Wolkoff a liar, their speeches punctuated by chants of “fuck Jerry!” and “piece of shit!”

Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) addresses the crowd (click to enlarge)

“Jerry Wolkoff lied to me,” Van Bramer told the crowd. “Jerry Wolkoff lied to every single New Yorker. Jerry Wolkoff, I will never believe another word you ever say […] nor will I ever approve any project you ever want to build in my district or in this city.”

Construction is currently underway on the former site of the 5Pointz warehouse, the internationally celebrated “graffiti mecca.” The graffiti-clad structure, which was situated directly opposite MoMA PS1, was a huge draw for tourists and New Yorkers alike. Wolkoff controversially whitewashed the building overnight in November 2013, destroying hundreds of artworks by both local and international artists. The developer’s actions were widely interpreted as a means to prevent residents from landmarking the building. “I made it easier for everyone,” Wolkoff later told the LIC Post. “People get emotional. It’s my piece of property and I can do what I want with it.”

The warehouse was demolished a year later to make way for two residential towers, both of which will be over 40 stories tall. The City Council granted Wolkoff a variance to exceed the local zoning limit following a pledge by his company (G&M Realty) to hire union workers and to increase the project’s number of affordable units from 75 to 210. Once built, the two towers will comprise a total of 1,000 apartments.

In a letter allegedly sent to Van Bramer on October 1, 2013 (part of which can be read on a Facebook page dedicated to protesting the project) Wolkoff pledged to employ union workers:

… based on your guidance, we are pleased to announce that it is our intention to engage contractors which employ individuals represented by labor unions that are affiliated with the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York for construction in their respective craft jurisdictions at the project, as well as members of the 32BJ operating the building. Construction of the project will create 800 good paying construction jobs. Once completed, approximately 200 full time jobs will be created on site.

A “Scabby the Rat” inflatable erected the morning of the protest (click to enlarge)

“He signed this letter so not only does his word mean nothing, his signature means nothing,” Gary LaBarbera, the President of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, told the crowd. “This man was in my office, shook my hand and said I give you my word this will be a union contract. Where are you now, Jerry?”

Last month, the Times Ledger reported that Wolkoff had reneged on his promise to hire “100 percent union labor,” Wolkoff telling the paper that of the site’s construction crew, “some are union and some are not.” Michael Donnelly, a member of the New York City District Council of Carpenters, told the Times Ledger that the only union workers involved in the project are those delivering cement to the site. In a speech following Van Bramer’s, Donnelly called upon the City Council to rescind the variance granted to the 5Pointz redevelopment project, whilst also calling attention to a recent accident involving a cement pump on the site. An image of the incident was displayed on a banner behind the protest’s speakers. Many union members were keen to stress what they perceived as unsafe conditions on the site. “No one was injured luckily, but they’re rolling the dice on safety,” James Makin told Hyperallergic.

Rubén Colón, also a representative of the Council of Carpenters, took to the podium to directly address the construction site’s non-union Latino workers, calling on them to meet with demonstrators. “This is no longer a union vs non-union issue. It’s become a life or death issue,” Colón told Hyperallergic after the protest. “15 construction workers from non-union construction sites were killed [in NYC] last year, as opposed to two on union sites. Most of them were Latinos. A life is a life, but as a Latino, I take personal issue with that. These workers have families. Not all of them are illegal as most people think. Most, if not all of them, have family here in New York City — who I assume are voters. Local politicians need to be conscious of the fact that what happens to these workers may at some point in time come back and bite them where they don’t want to be bit.”

Protestors and press gathering shortly before the day’s speeches (click to enlarge)

Van Bramer, whose speech leaned heavily on his family’s union participation, did not address what specific action, if any, would be made by the City Council. “I want to say to the press corp — we were lied to. We were lied to every single step of the way. This man can not be allowed to get away with doing this because it is dangerous, it is wrong, and he is profiting off the backs of New Yorkers. That is something we will not ever allow him to do again. We will be back here as often as we need to be.” Instead, the calls for specific action largely came from other speakers and protestors. Former residents of 5Pointz, including its curator Jonathan Cohen (aka ‘Meres One‘), and community organizer Marie Flagul, were also present. The group brandished a large banner emblazoned with their self-styled 5Pointz logo and the words “Artists Support Unions.”

“It’s great that [Van Bramer] made those comments,” Flagul told Hyperallergic. Now I want to see action. I want the variance to be revoked. I want [Wolkoff] to be made accountable. I want the job site to be shut down. People are getting injured every other week. It’s great to come to the podium and speak in front of the press and union members — but that’s the first step. Now we need to see action. This site needs to be shut down.”

Protestors shortly after the conclusion of the day’s speeches
One of many flyers held by protestors

Non-union construction workers continued working on the 5Pointz site during the protest
The scene outside the 5Pointz site shortly before Jimmy Van Bramer’s arrival

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