Curbing non-union labor in N.Y.

Attempts to negotiate a labor agreement under which construction unions would be paid prevailing wages will be made if the owners of Empire Merchants decide to expand their Kingston (NY) facility rather than move out of town, according to a company representative and a union official.

That declaration contradicts earlier statements by city officials and other company representatives that Empire Merchants, formerly Colony Liquor and Wine Distributors, could not expand in Kingston unless the company was exempted from an Ulster County Industrial Development Agency policy that requires prevailing wages be paid to construction workers.

Sam Fratto, assistant business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 363, showed the Freeman a letter from Harold Hoffman, a lawyer representing Empire Merchants, that says Empire is willing to enter into a "project labor agreement" if it decides to remain in Kingston and expand its warehouse on Flatbush Avenue.

Fratto said he received the letter from Hoffman after writing to Lloyd Sobel and Sal Geneva, two other partners in Empire Merchants.

"I can assure you that if we decide to expand in Kingston, we will sit down with you and other trade unions to attempt to work out a project labor agreement as described in your letter," Hoffman wrote.

Hoffman's letter also stated that he was "sorry that there has obviously been miscommunication between the unions and Empire Merchants."

Hoffman said no decision would be made by the company about the location of the warehouse until mid-January. The company initially announced plans to expand the Flatbush Avenue site and add 100 jobs to the 200 already there, but it later said it was considering moving the entire operation to Selkirk, in Albany County.

Fratto said Hoffman's letter suggests there still is ample time for Empire and construction unions to work out an agreement. But the letter also indicates the company still may wind up leaving Kingston, Hoffman said.

On Dec. 5, the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency's board of directors decided to amend its policy on requiring companies to pay prevailing wages to construction workers, essentially exempting Empire Merchants from the rule. Empire asked the IDA for the waiver but also said it needs the tax incentives provided through the agency.

Fratto, for his part, had tried to negotiate a deal with the IDA and Empire's owners that would have reduced the amount of prevailing-wage workers at the site as a way to cut costs, but that proposal was not supported.

"I am happy that this set of owners will attempt to negotiate a project labor agreement, but the problem I have now is the fact that the IDA amended a policy and they didn't have to," Fratto said. "The time constraint didn't exist, and the amendment of the labor policy is going to affect every project that comes before them for years to come."

March Gallagher, chairwoman of the IDA board, said on Friday that the board acted based on information it had that Empire needed to get a decision on the prevailing wage matter at the Dec. 5 meeting.

Gallagher said the board did what it needed to do to compete with the Selkirk proposal. Now, she said, she hopes a project labor agreement can be worked out and that Empire stays put.

Responding to Fratto's concerns, Gallagher said the amending the prevailing wage policy does not preclude the IDA from mandating it for other projects. She said the board agreed to the waiver for Empire because members wanted to keep the company in Ulster County.

Lance Matteson, president of the Ulster County Development Corp., said the Empire Merchants situation is fluid as proposal and counterproposals are made. He also said that if Fratto is successful in obtaining a project labor agreement and keeping Empire in Kingston, "my hat will be off to Sam Fratto."

"If that can be accomplished, everybody would gain," Matteson said. "I think that all this shows that this community is fighting for jobs for Ulster County in different ways. ... It shows that the community wants these jobs and will fight for them."

Neither Gallagher nor Matteson had seen Hoffman's letter to Fratto. They were told of its content by a reporter.


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