It is a spectacle that has become less frequent as private-sector union labor has declined over the past three decades, but there it was in Valley Stream last week: a 12-foot-tall rodent standing in front of Village Hall, beady red eyes and all.
The inflatable rat — long used as a sign of protest among construction unions — indicates that a contract has been handed out to a non-union labor firm in the area, using workers, referred to as “scabs” in union parlance, who may be working for less than the state-mandated prevailing wage for such jobs.
The practice of posting the rat in a public space serves to remind people that by employing such labor, businesses and municipalities are undercutting union contracts that may be more expensive, but provide their workers with livable wages and benefits.
In Valley Stream, the rat and an accompanying flier criticized the village for hiring the Melville-based firm Racanelli Construction Co. Inc., and in particular, subcontractors Dynamic Demolition and Bella Masonry, for its long-planned, $5.5 million construction of a new waste-transfer station at the village’s Arlington Avenue sanitation facility. The previous station had fallen into disrepair and out of compliance with state Department of Environmental Conservation regulations.
The flier said that Racanelli was among the “worst” non-union construction companies, and that Bella and Dynamic were “destroying industry standards.”
In a phone interview, Salvatore Espeziale, a representative of Laborers 66, the union that brought the rat, said that Racanelli was hiring out-of-state bricklayers, and had a reputation for hiring subcontractors that don’t pay their workers the prevailing wage.
“I can’t say they haven’t paid the prevailing wage,” he said of the Arlington project, “but we consider Racanelli a substandard contractor.”
Espeziale said he was unsure what percentage of the workers hired by Racanelli were being appropriately paid for the job, but acknowledged that at least some of the subcontractors, such as the East Meadow-based concrete firm A.M. Marca, did employ union labor. Still, he said, it would be preferable for all of the companies hired for the transfer station to do so.
“If they were really paying the prevailing wage, why not just hire union companies?” Espeziale said. “It [costs] the same rate, you get a better quality of work, and you save on payroll taxes. Instead you’re just trusting that the contractors are paying the prevailing wage.”
A representative for Racanelli did not respond to requests for comment.
Racanelli has compiled a vast portfolio, according to its website, doing construction for everything from multinational corporations to universities, hospitals, sports teams and governments, with the projects located primarily in New York and New Jersey. It was for this reason that after soliciting bids for contractors, Valley Stream Mayor Ed Fare said that the village had chosen the firm for the job.
“They are a highly decorated and recommended contractor,” he said of Racanelli, which he said had made the lowest responsible bid price for the project. “When I went on their website, I was impressed.”
“The village is very pro-union,” Fare said, adding that he was pleased with the work that has been completed so far. “[The village] has done everything adhering to New York state regulations,” he said.
The site had previously housed a garbage incinerator and, after it was decommissioned in 1979, a trash compactor machine. The building and its 110-foot smokestack were demolished in 2013.
The 30-year-old compactor, however, had since fallen out of compliance with state DEC regulations, which require such equipment to be housed in an enclosed space. In 2016, Jamaica Ash — the waste-management firm that the village currently has a contract with — agreed to purchase a new compactor for $1.5 million, and the machine will bail and compact the trash delivered to the station into 2-by-4-by-6-foot wire-bound cubes, to be disposed of by Jamaica Ash at $72 per ton.
Neighboring residents had complained of a smell from the facility in previous years, particularly during the warmer months. Fare said the new transfer station should eliminate the odor entirely, and in the meantime, village workers have been delivering their garbage to a transfer station in Inwood.
The construction project is currently on schedule and under budget, Fare added. It is slated for completion later in 2019.