ITHACA, N.Y. — About 85 protesters assembled outside of the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency meeting on Thursday, urging officials to require that developers hire local laborers.
The protesters — largely members of local labor unions, but also composed of like-minded community members — stood outside with signs that bore slogans such as, “Tompkins County taxes for Tompkins County jobs,” as cars honked in support.
As the meeting was about to begin, the protesters marched up to the legislative chambers of the Gov. Daniel D. Tompkins Building on Court St. and spoke for nearly an hour about how to keep developers from exporting jobs out of the county and, at times, the state.
“These developers are coming into what I would consider a hot market,” said David Marsh, president of the Tompkins-Cortland Building and Construction Trades Council. “The IDA has leverage that they could use here to ensure that local construction workers go to work on these projects.”
The IDA is in charge of handing out tax abatements to developers, which are given to companies to encourage them to build in Ithaca.
For example, several board members at the meeting today supported a 50-year, gradually increasing tax deal proposed by John Novarr for a 73,000-square foot building in Collegetown.
Anna Kelles, a native Ithacan who works with nonprofit organizations, said she wants to see the IDA use these tax exemptions as leverage to require local labor. Kelles called the board’s ability to give tax abatements “an amazing power chip.”
Director of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, Pete Meyers, said, “Workers are coming from three hours away and they’re really not spending much money here.” He proposed that the IDA require developers to pay their workers a living wage, and that they hire people within a 25-mile radius of wherever the project is being built.
Some protesters wanted a mandate that all workers be hired locally, but others said hiring exclusively local labor was not always practical. Instead, some suggested that developers be given tax abatements based on what percentage of their workers are hired from Tompkins County.
Many workers and union leaders mentioned the weak purchasing power of money in Ithaca, where $100 buys less than it would in any other city in upstate New York.
Lindsay Mills, who is CEO of the Ithaca-based John Mills Electric, said that he employs people who work and live in the community, but other businesses are sending money out of the area. Mills said other counties “should send Tompkins County a big ‘thank you’ because it’s a great profit” for places like Seneca and Monroe counties.
Mills noted that many of the major cities in New York had passed legislation requiring local labor.
“They’ve shut us out,” he said. “We, in turn, have not shut them out.”
Of his employees, Mills said, “We use the churches, we use the stores, the local banks, the hospitals … We’re not just construction workers and contractors, we are your community, and when we don’t get those jobs staying home, you’re sending a message to the community that a certain group of the community isn’t valuable.”
According to Marcus Williamee, an organizer for the the United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters, the protest included carpenters, painters, roofers, plumbers, electricians, and members from teachers unions and Cayuga Medical Center.
After the protesters addressed the IDA for 45 minutes, the Tompkins County Legislator and IDA Board Member Nathan Shinagawa responded, “When you speak, we really do value what you have to say. It makes a big difference. I’ve been very supportive of this local labor policy since its inception.”
James Dennis, chair of the IDA, told the protesters he had no problem with their packing the legislative chambers, noting that the workers had filled the seats as well as the remaining standing room.
Dennis said that the IDA would likely have a local labor policy recommendation drafted by October. “I can promise you,” he told the protesters, “that we will have something coming forward.”
All photos are courtesy of photographer Jeff Lower. To check out his videos and photos, visit his website.