In January 2020, accepting a lifetime award from the Screen Actors Guild labor union, star actor Robert De Niro thanked the union for “tirelessly fighting on our behalf for workplace and economic gains, and respect.”
“That especially bears remembering these days, when there is so much hostility towards unions,” De Niro said.
Two years later, construction workers say that De Niro, a native New Yorker, isn’t practicing what he preaches in his hometown. De Niro and his son Rafael De Niro, a real estate developer, are two of the driving forces behind Wildflower Studios, a $600 million moviemaking haven currently under construction in Astoria. The project is being built mostly by non-unionized construction workers, according to several union leaders who have tried to get their members employed at the site.
Only about thirty percent of New York’s construction workers are unionized, so employing non-union labor is hardly unusual.
But in the case of Wildflower Studios, labor leaders are claiming that the developers pulled a bait-and-switch. As they sought approval for the project, the developers pledged to seek union labor during construction.
This promise helped them win the support of Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, who noted that this promise was one of the conditions that led him to recommend the project for approval.
But union leaders say that the developers haven’t followed through.
“We’re basically being blocked out in the process of even trying to bid on the work,” said Brett Thomason, political director of the construction union Steamfitters Local 638.
The general contractor on the project, Leeding Builders Group, has publicly advertised its non-union bona fides in the past. In 2016, it became a founding member of the New York Construction Alliance, a group of construction management companies formed with the purpose of promoting the use of non-union labor. It has publicly billed itself in the past as an “open-shop” firm, the term used to refer to companies that employ non-union labor, Patch reported last week.
Neither Leeding Builders nor Wildflower LTD responded to questions for this article.
Timothy Wilton, Queens business agent of Local 28, a sheet metal workers union, told New York Focus that his attempts to secure work for his members on the project had been unsuccessful. “I spoke directly with the mechanical contractor and the conversation didn’t go anywhere,” Wilton said. “He’s non-union. He didn’t want to talk to me.”
Cliff Johnsen, the Queens business agent of Local 638, said that he’s been able to secure work for “three or four” of his members on the project, but at much lower compensation level than the union standard.
“In order to get our members on that job, we had to reduce our wages and benefits by around forty percent,” he said.
And the number of union members working on the job are far fewer than the work that could be performed by Local 638 members, he said. “We probably would have had 40 to 50 men and women, for probably a year and a half, two years,” Johnsen said.
A 2021 report based on thousands of government inspections of construction sites found that unionized sites had fewer safety violations, and that increased unionization was correlated with decreased fatalities on the job.
Plans for Wildflower Studio have been in the works at least since 2019, when De Niro purchased the site along with his son, the developer Wildflower LTD, and film producer Jane Rosenthal, with the plan of building a film studio there. The project received final approval from the New York City government this February, and Wildflower has promised the facility will employ over a thousand unionized workers once it is up and running next year.
Asked for comment on the use of non-union labor in the construction project, a spokesperson for Richards said that he “stands by and reaffirms his recommendation for the Wildflower Studios project as it relates to union labor, local hiring, minority and women owned business participation, proper reporting procedures, opportunities for Queens youth and more.”
The spokesperson did not address a question on whether Richards has taken action to encourage Wildflower to use union labor.
Other local politicians are also speaking out against the use of non-union labor. State Senator Jessica Ramos, who chairs the Senate’s labor committee and whose district includes the Wildflower site, called on the developers to hire union workers at a rally held last week at the site.
“Black and brown construction workers are being exploited at this site, not receiving living wages and not receiving the union training they need to build this well,” Ramos said at the rally.
Given De Niro’s role in spearheading the project, Wilton said he was surprised that non-union labor is playing such a substantial role.
“I’m a big fan of Robert De Niro,” Wilton said. “I was surprised to find out that a large portion of this project is going non-union after all the praise he gives to the unions out there.”