The excavators and dump trucks are finally rumbling across a vacant spot behind the bustling shops and restaurants at Assembly Row, preparing the site for a 20-story apartment complex.
It’s the latest in a series of buildings to crop up in the Somerville complex, but construction follows a year of turmoil as the parcel became a high-profile battleground for local trade unions’ war against open-shop contractors.
In the past year-and-a-half, developers ushered in 325,000 square feet of retail space, including a popular movie theater and restaurants, a new MBTA Orange Line station, and 448 apartments developed by AvalonBay. A new tower for Partners HealthCare is underway.
Amid the bustle, a site designated for a 447-unit apartment development remained in limbo as labor representatives worked hard to persuade Assembly Row’s developer, Federal Realty Investment Trust, to hire an all-union company to manage the job. Union supporters waged a public campaign and lobbied in closed-door meetings. In the end, a union-backed proposal was significantly underbid by a company that uses nonunion crews.
Bridgewater-based Callahan Inc. won the contract, but that doesn’t mean the issue went away. As a result of the pressure they applied, the Somerville Board of Aldermen voted last month to ask Mayor Joseph Curtatone to collect data about workers’ wages, hours, and residencies at the site.
The fight, trade unions say, is about decent wages and the preservation of the area’s middle class. But they concede that they see Somerville’s economic renaissance and want to make sure their workers are a part of it.
While not agreeing to use exclusively union labor, Callahan is open to employing union crews at the site. The first construction subcontractor to arrive a few weeks ago, J. Derenzo of Brockton, is unionized. And the Iron Workers Local 7 of South Boston has an agreement to put up the apartment building’s steel frames. The complex also includes 40,000 square feet of retail space and a parking garage.
“Historically, the union shops are more expensive,” said Dave Morrow, project executive at Callahan. “Pricing does come into it, but it’s not the only thing we look at. . . . We’re not going to take a low contract if safety is an issue, or scheduling is an issue.”
By most accounts, the redevelopment of the old Assembly Square has been a big victory in the revival of 60 acres overlooking the Mystic River, on the eastern edge of the city. Assembly Row has been built with a mix of nonunion and union crews; the Partners office tower will go up with all-union labor.
Representatives of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters and the Boston Metropolitan District Building Trades Council negotiated with Federal Realty throughout the second half of 2014 to land the apartment job. But the contractor they initially backed, Boston-based Suffolk Construction, couldn’t make the numbers work for Federal Realty. A gap equaling tens of millions of dollars remained between what it would take for an all-union contractor such as Suffolk to complete the job, and the roughly $120 million-plus price that Federal Realty sought.
“We negotiated in good faith and expected the same from them, and we were disappointed,” Brian Doherty, general agent at the local building trades council, said of Federal Realty.
But Don Briggs, president of Federal Realty’s Boston-area operations, said his firm participated in an honest effort to negotiate with the unions for the contract to build the apartment complex, where rents are expected to be comparable to those for the nearby AvalonBay units. (One-bedrooms start at nearly $3,000 a month.)
Curtatone said he’s sympathetic to the unions’ cause. But he said it’s not within his responsibilities as mayor to dictate which company Federal Realty should use.
“I’ll continue to monitor [the project to ensure] they’ll provide a healthy environment for those workers,” Curtatone said.
The construction unions have tangled with Callahan before, and they could end up doing so again in Somerville, with so much work up for grabs. There are many other jobs on the horizon: a condo/hotel project that’s next on Federal Realty’s to-do list for Assembly Row, a proposed office building next door, and a massive redevelopment of Union Square, two miles away.
Mark Erlich, head of the carpenters council, said Callahan is known in the industry for hiring some subcontractors that pay below-average wages, don’t provide full benefits, or skirt labor laws.
But Morrow, the Callahan executive, disputes that characterization. The competition for qualified workers can be fierce, he said, and subcontractors that skimp on pay risk losing their best people to rivals.
“There’s not this huge disparity between the way people are compensated between nonunion shops and union shops,” Morrow said. “It couldn’t possibly be, or people wouldn’t work for the open-shop guys.”
Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.