Sunday, June 16, 2024

A labor protest in Somerville’s Union Square seen March 30. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Master developer US2 continues to miss hiring targets for the Union Square Revitalization Project, but the Somerville City Council lacks relevant workforce data, leaving the all-volunteer Union Square Neighborhood Council to hold developers accountable.

When labor organizer Alex Colonna visited construction site D2 in the Union Square Revitalization Project, she learned the painters working there were from Rhode Island. Since then, members of her Painters and Allied Trades Union District Council 35 have held an informational picket encouraging residents to contact Union Square Station Associates, or US2, to demand more local jobs in accordance with a community benefits agreement emerging from the Union Square Covenant of 2017.

But Colonna’s discovery at the job site in January was not news to everyone. The Union Square Neighborhood Council was meeting quarterly with US2 to discuss progress on the hiring targets, which call for “best efforts” to hire 20 percent Somerville residents, 20 percent minorities and 8 percent women.

The developer wasn’t doing very well.

“At every single one of those meetings, US2 contractors [Gilbane and Cranshaw] failed to reach the targets in any of those categories,” said Bill Cavellini, a founding member of the Union Square Neighborhood Council.

In the early stages, the council voiced dissatisfaction with the results but did not go public because the trades on-site at the time “tend to be the least inclusive of women and minorities,” Cavellini said. As work progressed through 2022, “we didn’t see numbers dramatically increase except in the minority category,” Cavellini said.

“A pretty pathetic effort”

In a letter to Mayor Katjana Ballantyne on Jan. 24, Shawn Shelley, the senior project executive at development firm Gilbane, acknowledged the informational picket’s relevance to subcontractors Color Concepts, the painting company Colonna saw onsite in January, and ASAP Drywall. At the time, Color Concepts had hired 53 percent minority workers and ASAP Drywall had hired 100 percent minority workers – but together the companies provided only four to six workers out of the 90 or more on site every day, and the painters and drywallers had logged about 1 percent of the total “man-hours.” Color Concepts claimed it had posted ads in Boston media and was working closely with Somerville Patch to find more local workers. Shelley did not respond to requests for comment.

“Posting on job boards, interviewing prospects identified by the Somerville Community Corp.,” said Rand Wilson, an activist with Somerville Stands Together. “A pretty pathetic effort. US2 can and should do far more than that.” Wilson recommended the subcontractor work with Somerville High School, the Somerville Job Creation and Retention Trust Fund, the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences and unions to recruit local workers.

US2’s public relations agency, Novus, did not respond to requests for comment.

Rhode Island rates

A Somerville painter would have to go to Rhode Island-based Color Concepts to apply for a job in Somerville, then paid Rhode Island wages that are typically lower than Boston-area wages.

“Somebody with 20 years of experience is going to get paid $25 an hour with no benefits. It’s an outrage, because in order to live in Somerville, you’ve got to be making at least $37 to pay for food, rent and be able to live,” said Jorge Rivera, director of organizing and business representative for DC35.

A project labor agreement that would have required the developers to use union labor fell through in early negotiations with US2. Now DC35 is talking with Gilbane to supply workers for the remaining painting work. “We begged them to keep us involved on the next project,” Rivera said, noting his union is deeply ingrained in Somerville’s workforce pipeline as well as wage-theft prevention and worker-protection efforts. “US2 had all the intentions of making that commitment to be able to give back to the community. I don’t know if an enforcement mechanism was actually there. Gilbane learned the hard way.”

Council involvement

Cavellini said his council’s Community Benefits Agreement Oversight Committee seeks board approval to issue a noncompliance notice to US2 for failing to make a good-faith hiring effort, but “we have so much development on our plate, it might not happen … other agenda items could be more important in terms of timelines.” If Somerville’s City Council were involved, the processes could move faster, Cavellini said.

But the council is just catching up. “I don’t have the hard facts,” councilor Matthew McLaughlin said by email March 30. “My goal is to get data on all local hiring efforts that would fall under the Union Square covenant agreement in the hopes that the local hiring goals are met. If they are not, then we need to find ways to enhance local hiring.”

The council does not get monthly hiring reports from US2. Instead, council president Ben Ewen-Campen said, he and councilor J.T. Scott get briefings after every meeting detailing “how they went.”

“We need improvement; we need reporting,” councilor Beatriz Gomez Mouakad said in an interview March 31. Ewen-Campen echoed that Wednesday: “The City Council is not involved on any level – I find that frustrating.”

Better access to data

Boston might have the solution on increasing council access to workforce participation data. The Boston Employment Commission can fine developers $300 for every day violating a Boston Residents Job Policy requiring developers to report hiring target progress and weekly payroll data.

Making data accessible to councilors might help prevent wage theft. The lack enables subcontractors to hire off-book workers, often paying undocumented immigrants – who fear losing work or deportation – to work for cash without benefits or proper tax documentation. A widely cited statistic shows that wage theft costs workers in Massachusetts almost $700 million annually. Advocates are working to pass bill for enforcement and employer accountability.

“There is something dirty about going to Rhode Island to get cheaper workers, and maybe there’s some cash payment and wage theft going on here. Cranshaw, on Assembly Row, had a contractor for the painters that engaged in wage theft and that was taken to the state level,” Cavellini said.

Mouakad agreed. “Based on the fact they’re going to RI, you can assume” a problem, she said.

version of this story appeared originally on Somerville Wire.