Union Square Neighborhood Council may issue non-compliance notice as City Council seeks more data
(Somerville Wire) – As master developer US2 continues to miss hiring targets for the Union Square Revitalization Project, the Somerville City Council lacks relevant workforce data, leaving the all-volunteer Union Square Neighborhood Council to hold developers accountable.
When Alex Colonna, an organizer with the Painters and Allied Trades Union District Council 35, visited construction site D2 in the Union Square Revitalization Project, she learned the painters working there were from Rhode Island. Since then, members of DC35 have held an informational picket encouraging residents to contact Union Square Station Associates, or US2, the City’s master developer to demand more local jobs in accordance with the Community Benefits Agreement provided for by the Union Square Covenant of 2017.
But Colonna’s discovery at the job site in January was not news to everyone. Behind the scenes, the Union Square Neighborhood Council was meeting quarterly with US2 to discuss the master developer’s progress on the hiring targets set forth by the CBA, which holds that US2 will exercise “best efforts” to hire 20 percent Somerville residents, 20 percent minorities, and 8 percent women. The developer wasn’t doing very well.
“At every single one of those meetings, US2 contractors [Gilbane and Cranshaw] failed to reach the targets in any of those categories,” said Bill Cavellini, a founding member of the Union Square Neighborhood Council. According to its website, the community activist group “was created to help shape the future of Union Square as an increasingly inclusive and vibrant neighborhood and commercial center built around the aspirations of the people who live and work here. Membership is open to all residents, property owners, business owners, workers, and volunteers in the Union Square neighborhood, though all are welcome to attend and participate in meetings.”
In the early stages, the council voiced their dissatisfaction with the results, but did not go public because the trades on-site at the time “tend to be the least inclusive of women and minorities,” Cavellini said. As work progressed through 2022, “we didn’t see numbers dramatically increase except in the minority category,” Cavellini said.
In a letter to Mayor Kajana Ballantyne on January 24, Shawn Shelley, the senior project executive at development firm Gilbane, acknowledged DC35’s informational picket as referencing two subcontractors, Color Concepts, the painting company Colonna saw onsite in January, and ASAP Drywall. At the time, Color Concepts had hired 53% minority workers and ASAP Drywall had hired 100% minority workers, but together the companies provided only 4-6 workers (out of the 90 or more on site every day) and the painters and drywallers had logged about one percent of the total “man-hours.” Color Concepts claimed it had posted advertisements in the Boston media market and was working closely with Somerville Patch to find more local workers. Shelley did not respond to requests for comment by the Somerville Wire.
“Posting on job boards, interviewing prospects identified by the Somerville Community Corporation—is a pretty pathetic effort. US2 can and should do far more than that,” said Rand Wilson, a local activist with Somerville Stands Together. US2’s PR agency Novus Group did not respond to requests for comment by the Somerville Wire.
Wilson recommended the subcontractor work with Somerville High School, the Somerville Job Creation and Retention Trust Fund, the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences, and unions to recruit local workers.
But Color Concepts, headquartered in Rhode Island, is where a Somerville painter would have to go to apply for a job—then be paid Rhode Island wages. Which are typically lower than Boston-area wages.
“Somebody with 20 years of experience is going to get paid $25 an hour with no benefits. It’s an outrage because in order to live in Somerville, you’ve got to be making at least $37 to pay for food, rent, and be able to live,” said Jorge Rivera, director of organizing and business representative for DC35.
A Project Labor Agreement that would have required the developers to use union labor fell through in early negotiations with US2. Now DC35 is talking with Gilbane to supply workers for the remaining painting work. “We begged them to keep us involved on the next project going forward,” Rivera said, noting his union is deeply ingrained in the City’s workforce pipeline as well as wage theft prevention and worker protection efforts. “US2 had all the intentions of making that commitment to be able to give back to the community. I don’t know if an enforcement mechanism was actually there. Gilbane learned the hard way.”
Cavellini said the Union Square Neighborhood Council’s Community Benefits Agreement Oversight Committee hopes to get approval in two weeks from its board of directors to issue a non-compliance notice as specified in the CBA to US2 because the master developer has failed to make a good-faith effort at meeting hiring targets. “We have so much development on our plate, it might not happen as other agenda items could be more important in terms of timelines.” Cavellini noted that if the Somerville City Council were involved, processes like these could move faster.
But the Council is just catching up. “I don’t have the hard facts,” Somerville City Councilor Matthew McLaughlin said over email March 30. “My goal is to get data on all local hiring efforts that would fall under the Union Square covenant agreement in the hopes that the local hiring goals are met. If they are not, then we need to find ways to enhance local hiring.”
At the moment, the city council does not receive the monthly reports on hiring targets provided by US2. Instead, Council President Ben Ewen-Campen explained, he and Councilor JT Scott receive briefings after every meeting detailing “how they went,” but no reports are shared.
“We need improvement; we need reporting,” said Somerville City Councilor Beatriz Gomez Mouakad in an interview Friday. “The city council is not involved on any level—I find that frustrating,” Ewen-Campen echoed, Wednesday morning.
Boston might have the solution—not to enhance local hiring, but to increase the Council’s access to data on workforce participation. The Boston Employment Commission can fine any developer $300 for every day it operates in violation of the Boston Residents Job Policy, which requires developers to report hiring target progress and weekly payroll data.
Making data on workforce participation and payrolls accessible to the Somerville City Council might help prevent wage theft. The absence of reporting enables subcontractors to hire workers off the books, often paying undocumented immigrants to work for cash payments without benefits or providing proper tax documents. Immigrant workers rarely come forward in fear of losing their jobs or facing deportation. A widely cited statistic shows that wage theft costs workers in Massachusetts almost $700 million annually. Advocates are currently working to pass a wage theft bill which would enhance public enforcement and employer accountability.
“There is something dirty about going to Rhode Island to get cheaper workers, and maybe there’s some cash payment and wage theft going on here. Cranshaw, on Assembly Row, had a contractor for the painters that engaged in wage theft and that was taken to the state level,” Cavellini said. Councilor Gomez Mouakad echoed, saying “based on the fact they’re going to RI, you can assume.”
This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service—a project of the IRS 501(c)(3) tax-deductible nonprofit Somerville Media Fund.
All Somerville Wire articles may be republished by community news outlets free of charge with permission and by larger commercial news outlets for a fee. Republication requests and all other inquiries should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
SUBSCRIBE TO THE SOMERVILLE WIRE EMAIL NEWSLETTER: http://eepurl.com/hX3alr
Check out all our social media here: https://linktr.ee/SomervilleWire.
Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire