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Lola Lafia / Columbia Daily Spectator

Until last week, Valerie Adams had never been back inside a building she had built. “I’ve always driven by,” she says, as we stand outside the glossy glass doors of the Lenfest Center for the Arts. Completed in 2017 as the second building at Columbia’s new Manhattanville campus, the building today houses an art gallery and performance spaces. It would be easy to walk in and see it for its intended purpose and nothing more: a space for the arts, culture, and academia.

I get the feeling while we talk, however, that Adams is seeing it in an entirely different light than your average visitor. “I literally had something to do with this doorway,” she says, pointing at the glass and steel next to us. Warm and effervescent, she smiles easily and cracks jokes, clearly proud of her work. She sometimes even bounces a little with excitement while telling me about the construction process: the hoists, the safety equipment, the process of protecting the workspace from winter weather. “It's not like, alright, who put this up here?” She knows who did.

Lola Lafia

The Manhattanville campus also has a relationship to Adams that is more complicated than it might seem. She’s a resident of Upper Manhattan—residing about 20 blocks north of the campus—and therefore her work on this project makes up part of an important set of statistics for the University. The hours she spent working over the three years that she was employed at the campus are counted toward a specific commitment made in the Community Benefits Agreement: a document signed in 2009, designed to provide a framework for the University’s relationship with the surrounding community and ameliorate the impact of its expansion into Manhattanville.

The CBA dictates that Columbia’s Manhattanville construction manager will negotiate and sign a Project Labor Agreement—a separate contract that outlines the labor practices and conditions that will be in place at the new construction site. This PLA, according to Section IV.D of the CBA, is required to provide for a construction period in which at least 40 percent of hours worked will be completed by “Minority, Women, or Local” workers, and at least 35 percent of construction spending will be paid to M/W/L subcontractors. “In particular,” the CBA explains, “[We] recognize that the hiring of qualified Local Residents is of the utmost priority in connection with the Project.” The hiring, in other words, of workers like Adams.

The current statistics on the University’s Manhattanville construction worker demographics and spending actually surpass the targets set forth in the CBA: As of the third quarter of 2018, 42 percent of construction spending has gone to M/W/L subcontractors, and 50 percent of work hours have been completed by M/W/L workers since August 1, 2008. But the work hours are not distributed evenly among the three subgroups. Local subcontractors have received about 21 percent of total spending on the project, but local workers have only completed about 8 percent of total work hours.

Columbia’s commitment to hire local construction workers is far more complicated than those percentages imply, and the situation is further muddled by the University’s simultaneous commitment to hire unionized construction workers for the Manhattanville project—especially because the demographics that make up the majority of local residents have historically been underrepresented in New York City construction unions. Columbia’s attempts to engage the local workforce, coupled with the community’s sometimes critical response to those attempts, have culminated in an unprecedented decision this autumn to branch out and hire nonunion M/W/L construction firms for up to $25 million worth of contracts on the construction of the business school—a move that has proven to be no less controversial than the University’s previous hiring practices.

Xixi Wang

Over the past decade, and particularly in light of the nonunion hiring announcement, these targets have turned out to be a sticking point in the complicated relationship between Columbia and local leaders. In particular, Community Board 9, the committee appointed by the borough president’s office to advocate for local residents in Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and Hamilton Heights, has expressed concern that the number of local workers appeared to be insubstantial, even though the M/W/L targets were being met. In other words, CB9 members feared that while the University ticked the legally required boxes, its commitment to prioritize local residents was left unchecked.

A 2006 essay in the New York Times Magazine, titled “The Manhattanville Project,” asked the question at the heart of these concerns: “If a development creates thousands of worthwhile new jobs, mostly for outsiders, while eliminating hundreds of local jobs, has it served the public good?”

Without context, the fact that only 8 percent of hours worked on Columbia’s Manhattanville site have been completed by local workers doesn’t tell the full story about who is and isn’t being hired. According to the American Community Survey, which took place between 2012 and 2016, the neighborhoods that roughly constitute the CBA’s definition of “local” for construction hiring have a work-eligible civilian population that makes up about 8.9 percent of the total New York City labor force. Specifically in the industries of “natural resources, construction, and maintenance,” the labor force in these neighborhoods is about 6.4 percent of the total New York City labor force in those sectors.

In other words, the proportion of hours completed by local workers on the Manhattanville campus construction is slightly larger than the proportion of local workers who have the skills to do this kind of work. But does this demonstrate that the hiring of local workers has been of the “utmost priority,” or simply that local workers happen to have been hired?

Under the structure blueprinted in the CBA, there isn’t one specific person or entity who shoulders the responsibility for ensuring that local workers are given jobs. Columbia is responsible for hiring a construction manager. That construction manager is responsible for both fielding workers’ job applications in general, and also hiring subcontractors, who themselves hire or already have their own workers. (If you’re looking to apply for a construction job, the Columbia HR website provides a form to request a referral to their construction manager, not an application.) All of these chains of hiring—as well as the M/W/L hiring targets themselves—exist within the bounds of the PLA between the construction manager and the Building and Construction Trade Council, an organization that represents a coalition of New York City construction unions. In other words, the business of hiring local is complicated because Columbia isn’t the only institutional player involved in the hiring process.

Now that the PLA has been renegotiated, Columbia’s construction manager, Turner Construction Company, will begin to hire M/W/L non-union construction firms for up to $25 million worth of contracts for work on the business school. Hiring outside of union-regulated practices may make construction jobs more attainable for local residents in particular, as nonunion firms can operate outside of the complex and often lengthy application and apprenticeship process necessary for each individual worker to join a union. In statements to The Eye, Columbia and the BCTC have framed both this accessibility and the inclusion of more M/W/L construction firms in the project as the driving factors behind the renegotiation, and ultimately as a good thing for the local community.

Maria Figueroa, the director of labor and policy research at Cornell’s Manhattan-based ILR School (formerly the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations), sees how this logic could work: There’s a large number of immigrants in CD9, and some may not meet the documentation requirements to join a union. But Figueroa and other labor experts have serious doubts about the extent to which hiring nonunion workers, no matter where they come from, will actually contribute to the public good.

Erik Antokal is the workforce development director at Nontraditional Employment for Women, a nonprofit that seeks to connect New York City women with union jobs in the construction industry. When I tell him over the phone about the nonunion PLA renegotiation, his response is fairly straightforward: “Oh no,” he says. “That’s not good.”

Mishel believes that “there’s no reason” Columbia should be compelled to carry out nonunion hiring in order to involve local workers in the project. Figueroa and her ILR School colleague Jeff Grabelsky concur: Unions provide workers with safer, more reliable, and better-paid jobs (though, it should be noted, Columbia and their construction manager have emphasized that worker safety, union or not, is of the utmost importance on the jobsite, and that safety performance is considered in contractor selection). In addition, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York runs a number of outreach programs that seek to hire underrepresented demographics. NEW, which specifically places women in unionized construction jobs through the BCTC, is one of many. Incidentally, it’s also the program through which Adams joined the union construction workforce.

In 2013, Figueroa and Grabelsky co-authored a paper published in the Labor Studies Journal on Community Workforce Agreements: a type of PLA that includes provisions which “aim to advance employment and career models” for historically underrepresented demographics in the construction industry like the Columbia PLA does. The study examined 185 CWAs across the country, including in New York City, and found that the hiring of local workers was a provision in over a third of them—Columbia’s PLA is not unique in this regard.

Over the phone, Figueroa is friendly, voluble, and it’s clear that she cares strongly about her work. If you’re trying to get provisions like these to be effective, she explains, there’s a lot of steps in the process where your efforts could be waylaid. Designing them, for one, is complicated.

After all, central to the discussion of whether, why, and how Columbia should go out of its way to hire local workers is the matter of what “local” actually means. This definition isn’t as clear-cut as it might sound; the CBA offers four distinct geographic delineations for the term local. In the context of “M/W/L” and the construction hiring/spending targets, “local” does not specify residents of Manhattanville, or even (more broadly) residents of CD9. Instead, it refers (much more broadly) to residents of a group of 17 ZIP codes listed in the CBA—13 of which are in Manhattan (roughly—everything north of 96th Street on the island), and four of which are in the south Bronx. All of this to say, for those 92 percent of hours worked by non-“local” workers, those workers aren’t just coming from outside of West Harlem; they’re commuting to Manhattanville from outside those ZIP codes.

“Local” in the CBA is malleable and relative. While it’s not unusual for PLAs to codify an effort to hire local residents in the form of a list of ZIP codes, says Figueroa, it’s not necessarily the most accurate approach. ZIP codes are pragmatic approaches to geography, but don’t take into account how local residents themselves define their community. Especially in New York City, where neighborhoods have such strong and distinct identities, a ZIP code can feel like a restrictive approximation of what it really means to live in a place.


Racial minorities make up the majority of the population in the areas Columbia defines as “local.” According to Lawrence Mishel, former president of the Economic Policy Institute and author of a 2017 report on diversity within union and nonunion construction workers, women and racial minorities have historically been excluded from construction unions and therefore from union jobs. These days, as Mishel’s report finds, that is no longer the case for people of color, who now make up over half of the New York City construction industry—though women still hold less than 8% of construction jobs in the city.

In the ZIP codes that count as local, about 35 percent of the population is foreign-born, and about three-quarters of that foreign-born population is from Latin America. About half the total population is Hispanic. According to Mishel’s work, the nonunion sector of the city’s construction industry has a much higher proportion of Hispanic workers than the union sector (49 percent to 31 percent), and having been born outside the United States significantly raises the chances that a Hispanic worker will end up in the nonunion industry. Mishel notes that there are other related factors involved as well: The more recent the immigration, the younger the worker, and the lower their level of education, the more likely they’ll go nonunion.

These statistics present one argument in favor of hiring nonunion.

In New York City, however, according to Mishel’s work, unionized construction workers tend to earn about 42 percent more than their nonunion peers per hour, and this gap jumps to a 53 percent union advantage among Hispanic demographics. PLAs require that all workers, union and nonunion, get paid the union rate, but only for the scope of the given project. In other words, while hiring nonunion may bring more locals into the workforce, that nonunion workforce isn’t paid as well in the long term. Unionization, meanwhile, provides access to union jobs and union wages in the future.

This may be the difference between Columbia providing a job and paving the road to a career for local residents. The University could be opening a pathway for workers in the area to gain this “wage advantage,” as Mishel calls it, by providing targeted pathways to unionization. To Victor Edwards, the CB9 2nd Vice-Chair and chair of the Strategic Planning Committee, a CB9 committee founded to monitor the CBA, this is the clearest way forward. If Columbia seeks to best benefit the local community, he says, they should implement a pathway program for local residents.

The CBA is meant to ensure that, despite the predicted harm caused by the Manhattanville expansion, Columbia ultimately does provide for the public good. However, the CBA doesn’t cover all contingencies and nuances of the relationship Columbia has with the community—for instance, whether or not Columbia should hire nonunion construction workers. Columbia is fulfilling the terms of the CBA, but what Columbia is required to do by the CBA isn’t necessarily definitive of what Columbia should do. Edwards feels that sponsoring construction unionization pre-apprenticeship outreach to local workers, programs which themselves provide stable careers, is in the interest of the local public good—Antokal, Mishel, Figueroa, and Grabelsky all agree. While private sponsorship of such a program is, as far as I can tell, unprecedented in the New York construction union sector, according to Antokal, Columbia certainly has the money and time to do so: They’ve offered programs for M/W/L businesses in a similar vein.

In the words of the office of Government and Community affairs, the CBA seeks to respond to the “community desire to not simply focus on cash benefits, but to develop a more substantial relationship” with Columbia. The hours-worked target for M/W/L workers is a rather unusual pledge for the CBA; it represents a commitment more sustainable than many of its provisions. The numbers behind the hiring targets are human—providing a career in construction is different from putting on a one-off event like a resume workshop or health check-up. A career is a person’s daily bread and butter. Those hours-worked statistics represent boards cut and holes drilled and dirt dug; early morning subway rides; which stoop those boots arrive at at the end of the day.

After all, as Adams mentions, construction has the potential to better the lives of disadvantaged groups. For her, it’s served as an avenue for personal empowerment. “It’s okay to get dirty,” she tells me. “Cause look at the end results.”

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