Joel Abrams, the longtime head of the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center near Savin Hill, thought he had struck gold when his agency received a $7 million federal grant for an expansion he had dreamed of for years.
The money would allow the center to expand both its medical examination area and office space, and create an urgent care center. In addition it could replace its cramped pharmacy and laboratory with significant upgrades. The 23,000-square-foot addition needed a few city approvals, including a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeal. But given its strong community support, he assumed getting those would be routine.
He learned differently in the summer of 2010 as he sat in the zoning board’s hearing room in City Hall. A functionary from the Menino administration pulled Abrams and his attorney aside and urged them to pull his request off that day’s agenda, rather than risk seeing it shot down.
Abrams had — he discovered to his great surprise — a “community problem,” he recalls the woman from Menino’s office saying. He was even more surprised to learn from her that the opposition to his project was coming from the zoning board members who represented labor.
Abrams knew that if the board voted down the project, under its rules it could not be resubmitted for a year, barring a special board vote for reconsideration. Such a delay could have placed the entire project at risk, because the federal grant required completion of the project within two years. There was no time for a yearlong delay.
The influence of organized labor is said to be a focus of a federal investigation currently underway. At least one developer, Michael Rauseo of Suffolk Co., has alleged that union officials threatened to use their leverage with the Zoning Board of Appeal against him if he refused to make concessions they sought.
But Abrams did not see himself as having any problem with labor. He had stressed to his contractor that he wanted to use as much organized labor as possible, and also wanted to include women- and minority-owned businesses whenever possible. But Abrams said the contractor wanted to keep the project within budget by using some less-expensive non-union subcontractors for about a third of the work.
The only acceptable level of union labor, Abrams would later learn when he met with the unions, was 100 percent. Abrams’s concern was that the labor representatives on the board could block approval of his project until that threshold was agreed to. No matter that it was a health center, serving a needy population.
“I don’t think they really could have killed the project,” Abrams said recently. “But I couldn’t afford any delays. I had a federal grant that required that the project be done within two years, and I couldn't risk damaging our relationship with the feds.”
With the expansion at risk, he turned to familiar allies for help: state Representative Martin J. Walsh and City Councilor Maureen Feeney. Both had deep ties to labor — especially Walsh, who was then a labor official as well as a legislator. Walsh was also a lifelong Savin Hill resident, making him practically a neighbor of Dorchester House, a respected community institution.
Walsh and Feeney quickly arranged a meeting at Dorchester’s Local 103 IBEW Hall with labor leaders to negotiate a path forward.
It was at the meeting, said Abrams, a legend in the health center movement, that he discovered how union negotiations sometimes work.
“It was clear to me pretty quickly that we were in a weak negotiating position,” he recalled. “We basically had to agree to what they wanted.” By the time the session was over, his non-union subcontractors were off the project, to be replaced by much more expensive union members, he said.
In those negotations, Walsh and Feeney were basically neutral facilitators, Abrams recalls; they did not take sides.
Walsh — now, of course, the mayor of Boston — recalls the negotiations in a somewhat different light than Abrams. “I always 100 percent supported the project,” Walsh said in a telephone interview. “They were in my neighborhood. I love Dorchester House.”
Because the $11 million budget for the expansion could not grow — Dorchester House simply didn’t have any more money to put into it — the project was adjusted to meet the available funds. The announced 23,000-square-foot expansion ended up being somewhat smaller, and some technological upgrades to the existing facilities were less elaborate than originally planned.
Walsh said the unions did nothing untoward. “The unions asked for work,” Walsh said. “There’s nothing wrong with that.” Several locals eventually contributed some money to the project — essentially subsidizing most of the added expense of hiring union workers, he said.
Regardless, Abrams said he felt blindsided at the zoning board meeting, and steamrolled by organized labor. After all, he was already doing most of what they wanted. But most wasn’t good enough.
“I was angry, but I tried to keep my focus on getting the project done,” Abrams said.
His painful brush with union politics is behind him, and Abrams says he has not heard from federal officials who are looking into strong-arm union tactics much like he experienced.
Not long after the project was completed, Abrams retired from Dorchester House. He has recently come out of retirement to run the South End Community Health Center with his old friend Bill Walczak, another health center pioneer.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.