By Mark Scheer
NIAGARA FALLS —
More than 300 union members and local trades workers gathered near a Niagara Falls manufacturing site on Saturday to voice concerns about the hiring practices of a Canadian firm that is receiving state incentives to build a new plant off Packard Road.
The pro-union rally, organized by leaders of the Niagara County Building Trades, took aim at the owners of Norampac, a Quebec-based company that is building a new $430 million linerboard manufacturing facility as part of a partnership with two other companies.
Local labor leaders have complained for several months about what they describe as Norampac’s lack of commitment to hiring local electricians, iron workers and other skilled trades members for the project, which is being subsidized with more than $100 million in tax credits, low-cost power and grants from the state and its partners.
During Saturday’s rally, union leaders said the standard of living of Niagara County skilled trades workers is being undermined not only by the company’s decision to hire construction help from outside the region, but also policies tied to incentive packages offered to big business by the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency and the state.
“Behind me is the Greenpac Mill project, one of the largest industrial projects in the state, valued at over $400 million,” Iron Workers Local No. 9 business manager Thomas Pryce told the crowd gathered outside the union’s hall on 39th Street, within walking distance of the Norampac site. “We were so glad to hear that this project was coming. We’d rather be out here celebrating this development and this tremendous shot in the arm for the local economy, but we can’t do that because most of the construction crew and the support staff from over there is from elsewhere, outside of Western New York.”
Norampac, a division of the Canadian firm, Cascades, Inc., announced last year plans to begin construction of a new plant in Niagara Falls under a partnership with Jamestown Container and the Montreal-based bank, Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec. The partners formed a separate company, Greenpac Mill, LLC, to carry out the construction of the facility which would feature one of the largest containerboard production machines of its kind in North America. In June, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state economic development officials agreed to provide Greenpac with a multi-million dollar incentive package that includes $60 million in brownfield tax credits, 10 megawatts of hydropower from the New York Power Authority and other tax credits and grants.
Norampac officials could not be reached for comment on Saturday. They have consistently said that they have been attentive to the concerns of local labor leaders, maintaining that construction workers are being hired from New York, including many from Niagara County. Company spokesperson Geneviève Boyer has said that of the $150 million in contracts awarded for the project to date, roughly $135 million has been given to in-state firms. The company also has touted the benefits of the project itself, noting that the plant will create a minimum of 1,008 new permanent jobs when operations begin in the summer of 2013.
On Saturday, union leaders accused Greenpac of hiring the majority of its construction workers from other parts of the state, Canada and, in at least one instance, Louisiana. Pryce conceded some workers from the Niagara Falls area have secured jobs on the site but said the number is nowhere near what it should be given the size of the public incentives involved.
“Greenpac will operate this facility for decades, presumably at a profit,” Pryce said. “The construction workers of Niagara County have this one opportunity in 2012 to benefit from this development. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. We get one bite at the apple and it’s now.”
Russ Quarantello, business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 237, singled out the company for hiring electricians from Louisiana to do work he believes members of his union could do just as well at a fair price. Norampac officials have estimated that 40 percent of the work to be done by the Louisiana firm would be given to local electricians. They also have suggested that the electric work in question — amounting to a contract worth about $12 million — represents a relatively small portion of the overall project.
“We have a company coming from Louisiana to do our electrical work,” Quarantello said. “They say they need a specialized work force. We’re not specialized enough, I guess. But, everybody here knows that we are. We did Yahoo! What’s more technical than that? Who did it? IBEW. We don’t need somebody from Louisiana to come in here and do our work.”
Pryce said the building trades remain open to negotiating with Norampac officials and have offered to take a 20 percent wage cut in order to get more jobs for local members. So far, Pryce said, the company has not shown a willingness to meet local union leaders “halfway.”
“We’ve been talking and that’s all that has come of it,” he said.
Labor leaders said Saturday they would have appreciated more of a commitment to local trades workers earlier in the process. Pryce noted that with other large-scale construction projects, including Niagara Falls High School on Porter Road, the Main Street Public Safety Complex and the culinary arts projects currently being built downtown by Niagara County Community College, Project Labor Agreements were in place before any work got started. He said a PLA, which allows local unions to help set the terms and conditions of employment before projects begin, should have been required as part of the Greenpac project by the county’s IDA and the state. He called on the NCIDA to adopt what he described as “meaningful local labor policies” that would require companies to pay area wage standards and hire workers from the region as part of any agreed upon incentive program in the future. Trades members also want the state to begin imposing prevailing wage rates as part of various tax break deals and low-cost power allocations.
“Here we have our IDA shifting the tax burden from large corporations to us — the hard-pressed taxpayers of Niagara County,” Pryce said. “We can’t allow that to continue.”
After airing their concerns, union leaders took the crowd — which included laborers, iron workers, electricians, other trades workers and representatives from local teachers’ unions — on a march down Packard Road to the front of the Norampac property. They vowed to hold similar rallies at other locations in the future.
“The erosion of our benefits and our jobs and the stealing of our ability to grow and provide jobs for our kids in this county stops today,” said James Briggs, president of the Niagara-Orleans AFL-CIO Council. “We need local jobs legislation, not local job lip service from our elected officials.”