By Richard Korman
The phone call that signalled
the end to Roy Kay Inc.'s days as an enemy of building trades
unions came last June. LeRoy Kay, the contractor's owner, rang
up James Cahill, international representative of the plumbers'
Kay told him that " 'I
have an opportunity to be bought out and I'd like to talk to you
and you've always been straight with me,' " says Cahill.
" 'Regardless of what happens, my lawyer is getting rich
and your lawyer is getting rich and it can't go on.' "
Last summer, the two met regularly.
In concert with Edward Malloy, president of the Building and Construction
Trades Council of Greater New York, bargaining began over how
to untangle numerous lawsuits and investigations that the building
trades had instigated. Roy Kay, which had been using nonunion
labor on bigger and bigger projects it was winning in New York
City, was also suing the unions. The company had been the target
of a huge, sometimes violent, union demonstration on June 30,
1998, when workers clashed with police in Manhattan.
Powerful union leaders also
kept local public works agencies and politicians focused on Roy
Kay, including a state investigation of the company's apprenticeship
program, and organizers were set free to use bottom-up methods.
Union members "salted" into Roy Kay supplied information
to the New York Dept. of Labor. Organizing efforts accelerated,
aimed at depriving the contractor and other firms of their workers,
and bringing hundreds of plumbers and sheetmetal workers into
"His work force was decimated,
he couldn't hire, and every time he turned around he was in court,"
according to Tom Tighe, a special organizer with Local 9 of the
plumbers' union in Englishtown, N.J. Tighe coordinated the work
of a coalition formed to fight Roy Kay. The campaign included
theatrical elements, as well. About 300 union members performed
Christmas carols with bagpipes and base drums outside Kay's son
David's home in December 1998.
Building trades unions are
still savoring their victory. By most accounts, Roy Kay's switch
to the union side was a business decision. John Harrington, president
and business manager of Local 28 of the sheetmetal workers' union,
says his local had for years been helping subsidize union competitors
against Roy Kay. That helped push the company into general contracting,
complicating its business, he notes.
Last Oct. 28, the formal signing
of a peace pact took place outside Roy Kay's Manhattan project
site. And just like that, the firm became, in the eyes of the
unions, a welcome signatory employer. The Freehold, N.J.-based
company subsequently signed collective bargaining agreements with
key New York locals.
To the Associated Builders
and Contractors, which represents nonunion firms, the successful
drive against Roy Kay confirms what is wrong with unions. "As
long as unions are in the street, jumping on cars, punching police
horses in the nose and stopping the flow of traffic in a major
international city like New York, they are making our case that
they are out of touch with construction's free-market economy
and its principles," says Scott Brown, an ABC spokesman.
Even so, unions have signed
with a firm whose annual revenue may be approaching $100 million.
They also may have cleared the way to complete the firm's sale.
Union sources say the Kays soon will announce the sale of part
or all of the company to Keyspan Energy, a deregulated subsidiary
of a parent company that also owns Brooklyn Union gas and other
utilities. Last fall, Keyspan bought Delta Mechanical, a Rhode
Island mechanical contractor. Keyspan officials did not comment,
and the Kays, who shun publicity, did not return calls.
For Roy Kay's nonunion workers,
jitters about joining unions apparently have disappeared, says
Cahill. Experienced craft workers were given journeymen cards
and gained 50% pay increases on nonprevailing wage work, union
sources claim. They will try hard to assure that Roy Kay, the
new union contractor, is a runaway success.