Claiming they were duped, seven Brooklyn construction workers are sueing the developer of the Atlantic Yards Project and a local community organization for failing to deliver union cards and construction jobs they said were promised at the end of what they call a “sham” job-training program.
“I was robbed,” said Maurice Griffin of Crown Heights at a news conference today in the shadow of the rising Barclays Center. Griffin, like many of the plaintiffs, quit a job to join the program.
”I would never have joined this pre-apprenticeship program if it wasn’t agreed (guaranteed) to me that I would have a union card upon completion,” he said.
Councilwoman Letitia James, who organized the press conference, called both the pre-apprenticeship program and the Atlantic Yards Project “the greatest bait-and-switch in the history of Brooklyn.”
In December of 2003, Forest City Ratner, the project’s developer worked with the newly formed community organization Build, Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, to create a “pre-apprenticeship training program” to train area residents for construction jobs at Atlantic Yards.
The workers were given about a month of classroom training, and then were sent to work on construction at a Staten Island home, doing heavy labor. They didn’t receive any training or supervision on the site, and ended up dividing the work among themselves so that each person did the work he or she already knew and learned little, according to the complaint.
“I believed the promises made that this project would bring a lot of construction jobs for me and for the residents of the community. They told us they had set aside union books for us,” said Kathleen Noreiga, an electrician from Crown Heights.
Build President James Caldwell, who was named individually in the complaint, called the lawsuit “bogus,” saying that of the 36 people who have gone through the program, about 24 got jobs.
“I don’t think that’s such a bad record,” he said. “We did not promise anybody any jobs, because we don’t own no construction company, we’re not a union … the only promise we made is that we would work diligently with them to help them find employment and that’s what we did.”
As for not being paid, he said the job was an internship and that every participant signed an agreement not to be paid.
“They knew that going in,” he said. “They knew that. And Councilmember James knew that also, but she just likes to run after the cameras.”
Asked about the signed agreement at today’s news conference, Molly Thomas-Jensen, an attorney for the non-profit South Brooklyn Legal Services, which is representing the group, said that it is illegal to work without pay and that unpaid internships are illegal—unless they are purely educational with absolutely no work done by the participants.
The suit, which was filed in Brooklyn Federal Court today alleges that Forest City Ratner, Build and others violated state contract law claims and Federal and state labor law and also engaged in deceptive practices in violation of the NYS consumer protection act.
“It’s about broken promises and exploitation,” said Nicole Salk, another attoney for the group.
“All of these workers were experienced. They entered into the program because they wanted to get union cards. Not only did they not get the jobs they were promised, they had to engage in hard labor for two months for no pay,” she added.
This is not a class-action lawsuit, it is only on behalf of the seven plaintiffs. Attorneys declined to specify how much in damages they are asking for.
Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe De Plasco said that of the 799 workers on the site at the end of last week, 410 of them are New York City residents and 174 of those are from Brooklyn. At least 67 of those are from Community Boards 2, 3, 6 and 8, which include Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, Boreum Hill, Park Slope, Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy and other neighborhoods near Atlantic Yards.
He added that 51 percent of all contracts—and 23 percent of all contract funds—have been awarded to minority or woman-owned firms.
Asked why more of the workers weren’t from Brooklyn, De Plasco said “Forest City Ratner is a union contractor so they only work with union labor, so you can’t specify where they come from if they’re in the union.”
He added that FCR set up a “Community Labor Exchange” program through the community boards to try to find local union members and that 10 percent local union labor was pretty good.
“These are very high numbers and might be the highest in the city,” he said.
But none of that matters to Clarence Stewart, of Prospect Heights. Who said that for two months he worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Staten Island construction site, and then spent three hours every night at a required GED class.
“We was told we were going to work on the project and we wind up with nothing, nothing to show for that at all,” he said.
“They promised us a union card,” he added. “That was what kept us going, every day.”