Tappan Zee builder wins $7.3M wage dispute

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The Journal News
Khurram Saeed and Hoa Nguyen
April 8, 2015
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A federal judge has ruled in favor of the builder of the Tappan Zee Bridge, sparing it more than $7 million in labor costs.


But the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America is not ready to give up the fight over wages and has appealed the decision.


As it stands, Tappan Zee Constructors can continue to use carpenters, who make $70.11 an hour in wages and benefits, instead of dockbuilders, who make $22-an-hour more, to build the formwork and columns on top of the new bridge’s steel and concrete foundations known as pile caps.


Although dockbuilders worked on the pile caps, TZC will save $7.3 million by having carpenters do most of the 400,000 hours of assigned work.dockbuilders worked on the pile caps, TZC will save $7.3 million by having carpenters do most of the 400,000 hours of assigned work.


“It’s a lot of dollars at stake,” said Ira Schulman of the Manhattan-based Pepper and Hamilton construction law firm, who is not involved in the case but has kept tabs on it.


The Journal News in September first reported the wage dispute, which began in January 2014 with the dockbuilders balking about why the carpenters were getting the bulk of the work.dockbuilders balking about why the carpenters were getting the bulk of the work.


While the national union challenged the assignment, representatives for Dockbuilders Local 1556 and Carpenters Local 279 settled the issue themselves, agreeing the work should go to the dockbuilders.


Tappan Zee Constructors protested, calling it a “backroom deal” that sought to milk millions for union members from the $3.9 billion project. TZC is working under a $3.1 billion design-build contract with the state Thruway Authority, meaning that the lower its costs, the bigger its profits.


A recent federal court ruling allows the builder of the new Tappan Zee Bridge to use union carpenters instead of dockbuilders for formwork and column construction, saving Tappan Zee Constructors $7.3 million in labor costs. (Photo: State Thruway Authority)


In May, the case went before an arbitrator as mandated by the labor agreement covering the project.


Arbitrator J.J. Pierson initially ruled in favor of the dockbuilders, saying the prevailing practice in local industry was to assign that type of work to them. But eight days later Pierson said his initial ruling was made in error and, instead, gave the work to the carpenters as TZC wanted.


The union then took TZC to Manhattan federal court U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, asking the judge to uphold Pierson’s preliminary ruling. The bridge builder countered that the second decision should stand.


U.S. District Judge Andrew Carter last month ruled that the flip-flopping arbitrator was within his authority when he issued a “short-form preliminary” decision on May 4 before reversing course, contradicting himself and issuing a “full opinion” on May 13 siding with Tappan Zee Constructors.


“He confessed that he had overlooked a February 2013 arbitration decision, cited by TZC, in which he had previously determined that there was no established trade practice in the industry or prevailing practice in the locality with regard to such formwork,” Carter wrote in his March 25 judgment.


While the backtracking doesn’t help inspire confidence in the arbitration process, Schulman, the construction lawyer, said the decision confirms the ability of an arbitrator to correct a mistake.


“To that end, it’s a good thing,” he said. “This type of U-turn is unusual.”


Carter’s decision, which spanned 22 pages in its explanation, likely would be difficult to win on appeal, though if union lawyers believe they have valid arguments they might be able to use the appeal as a bargaining chip for negotiations, Schulman said.


TZC said it would have no comment on the ongoing dispute; the local unions did not immediately respond to requests for comment.