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Unions pan De Niro for using 'open-shop' contractor to build Queens studio


He was lauded for his performance as a union delivery truck driver turned mob hitman in Martin Scorsese’s 2019 period epic, “The Irishman.” 

But Robert De Niro is getting no plaudits from union officials for his massive Wildflower Studios project in Astoria. According to union locals and some elected officials, the Queens studio is being built without union labor — despite assurances to the borough president’s office last year that the project's contractors would recruit union-affiliated laborers.

Members of Construction and General Building Laborers’ Local 79, joined by others from Steamfitters Local 638 and Sheet Metal Local 28, demonstrated during lunchtime Aug. 17th — the Greenwich Village-born actor’s 79th birthday — outside of De Niro’s Tribeca Grill restaurant in downtown Manhattan. 

They also performed a short, one-act improv piece titled “The Raging Rat,” the title riffing on “Raging Bull,” De Niro’s cinematic 1980 portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta. 

‘Promises made, but not kept’

Dozens of union members, assembled across Greenwich Street from the swank eatery, chanted “Shame on De Niro” as they rallied beside a giant inflatable rat, on which a message, referring to a Midtown general contractor, read: “You can’t say you believe in social justice while allowing workers to be exploited by Leeding Builders Group at the Wildflower Studio!”

Michael Prohaska, Local’s 79’s business manager, urged the two-time Oscar winner to “honor his promises” and hire exclusively union workers to both build and operate the studio, projected as a 775,000-square-foot, seven-story facility containing 11 sound stages. 

“Shame on Robert De Niro for the standards, or lack thereof, he’s allowing to continue at Wildflower Studios,” Prohaska said in a statement. “What should’ve been thousands of good, union jobs for Queens residents, is now another example of unchecked development in New York City where promises made are not promises kept.” 

According to the project’s website, the studio, being built on five acres in between Luyster Creek and the Steinway factory at the northern tip of Queens, “will include a publicly accessible waterfront esplanade and create well over 1,000 permanent new union jobs.” 

And in an application made last year to the Queens borough president’s office, the developer “estimated the creation of 600 construction jobs, and between 1000 to 1200 predominantly union employees per day once the building was fully operational.” 

In his July 2021 approval recommendation for a zoning authorization, Donovan Richards, the borough president, said, “The applicant has stated they will seek union labor and have already begun to work towards these goals and should continue to follow through with the agreements as they make further progress.” The recommendation also said the construction and development of the project should use at least 30 percent local labor and also minority- and women-owned businesses. 

‘A proud union actor’

De Niro’s representatives did not reply to emails seeking comment on the locals’ allegations. 

The project is now being further dogged by union allegations that a subcontractor on the project, StructureTech, last month terminated numerous laborers without notice, reason or information on how the workers could get paid. 

“Wildflower has been heralded as a union-built and operated film studio, but De Niro has instead allowed irresponsible contractors and subcontractors with histories of violating workers’ rights, union busting and safety issues to work at the site,” a statement from the unions said. 
The unions castigated the selection of Leeding Builders, a leading member of the New York City Construction Alliance, a consortium of open-shop construction organizations, as the project’s general contractor. And they also criticized the hiring of several subcontractors that they say failed to provide legally required information on wages to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. 

In a statement, State Senator Jessica Ramos, who represents the portion of Queens where the studio is being built, noted De Niro’s “career as a proud union actor whose most famous films are dear to many members of the Trades.

“As beloved as his body of work is,” Ramos continued, “we cannot excuse the irresponsible hiring and subcontracting decisions that have already harmed workers' ability to earn family-sustaining wages.”


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