Bertolone & Wirt Discuss the School Modernization Project

For more than a year and half, organized labor, particularly building trades unions, have worked with our state Legislature delegation to bring important dollars to the City School District. Now, under plans in the works, those funds not only will finance school buildings but also help students learn a trade, enabling them to build better lives. The Facilities Modernization bill, sponsored by Assemblyman David Gantt, D-Rochester, and passed earlier this year in Albany, brings the first installment of more than $1 billion for construction and modernization of our school buildings.

The money and improvements it will buy are only the tip of the iceberg. It is an important boost for an often overlooked construction industry that has experienced unemployment rates of more than 30 percent in recent years. However, not only does it mean hundreds of real jobs, it has been written to guarantee local jobs for local people.

And, here's where students come in. 

The Rochester Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO, has been working with members of the Rochester Board of Education and Mayor Robert Duffy on a very exciting proposal to couple the Facilities Modernization dollars with a School of Construction Arts to prepare young people for entry into an exciting career in construction. And, by pursuing a policy that requires contractors to have state-approved apprentice programs in place, the CSD will ensure that aspiring construction workers will get the training they need.

Unions that belong to the council already collectively spend millions of dollars in education and training each year. Now the apprentice requirement coupled with the School of Construction Arts initiative will mean that young people who participate in the program will get on-the-job training in the very schools they attend — all funded by the Facilities Modernization bill. This is a model that can be expanded to focus growth on the urban core. Rehabbing in the city, rather than building new housing that contributes to sprawl, makes use of existing infrastructure, builds up a weakened tax base and increases city property values.

Our state delegation, led by Assemblyman Gantt, has found that union labor is less than one-third the cost of public works projects and has certified apprenticeship programs that lead to real skills and family-sustaining wages. Good jobs, in turn, create demand for more jobs. Union construction workers have health benefits, whereas other construction workers often fall into the costly Medicaid safety net when work is seasonal.

This unique partnering of the Trades Council, Assemblyman Gantt, Mayor Robert Duffy, the City School District and other unions can play a significant part in restoring our city and in providing real jobs, education and opportunity for this city's young people.

Bertolone is president, Rochester Labor Council, AFL-CIO; Wirt is president, Rochester Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO.