1909 marked the founding of the General Contractors Association of New York (GCA), headquartered in New York City. As a trade association, the GCA represents the city and state’s unionized heavy construction and public works contractors involved with the construction of rail and mass transit systems, roads, bridges, building foundations and water and wastewater treatment plants. In other words, the essential infrastructure that those living in large cities often take for granted.
Advocating for continued investment in such infrastructure remains one of the priorities for the GCA. From the association’s perspective, continuous investment is critical not only to New York’s growth and prosperity but the entire country.
For over three hundred member companies, a number of which are certified as minority or women-owned enterprises (MWBE), the GCA (known as GCANY in other parts of the country), provides two levels of membership: union contractors involved in heavy civil construction and associate members. Associate members are engineering consulting firms, equipment suppliers, insurance brokers and attorneys, for example. These members work not only in New York City but also throughout the state and elsewhere in the country.
The GCA has secured partnerships throughout its long history to help represent its members and stakeholders. Some of these partnerships include those with contractor organizations, labor unions, government agencies such as the Department of Transport (DOT) and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and Associated General Contractors (AGC).
Denise Richardson, GCA’s executive director, acknowledges the importance of these partnerships. She has been involved with heavy civil capital construction at several government infrastructure agencies in New York throughout her career.
“There are certain issues that are important to us as heavy civil contractors. On the broader public policy issues of infrastructure funding and legislative issues, I think having the very strong working relationships among the different stakeholders has made for a very strong and unified voice on some very important issues,” she says.
Proactive is a term that best epitomizes the driving force behind all GCA’s activities. For example, to highlight the importance of and need for federal funding for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, a critical driver of the United States economy, the GCA joined the Coalition for the Northeast Corridor (CNEC) in 2017. “We were one of the early members because we also recognized that without reliable Amtrak service, both the air and road traffic conditions in this region would simply become untenable,” says Denise. “Our members have a strong presence throughout the Northeast.”
Other members of this coalition include Johns Hopkins University, the New Jersey State League of Municipalities and the Regional Plan Association (RPA), an advocacy association established in 1922. The RPA’s mandate is to improve the quality of life for the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut tri-state area through sustainability planning and a focus on efficient infrastructure.
“The Northeast is over twenty percent of the nation’s GDP,” says Denise. “The Northeast is the only money-making line within Amtrak. The Northeast Corridor needs substantial investment well beyond just the funding for the Gateway Tunnel.” The nearly thirteen billion dollar Gateway Tunnel Project would see a train tunnel built under the Hudson River connecting New Jersey to Pennsylvania Station in New York’s downtown.
The 2017 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Report Card indicated that the United States remains at a D+ infrastructure grade, a grade that has remained consistent since 2013. There has been some improvement in seven of the sixteen infrastructure categories assessed, mostly attributed to ‘strong leadership, thoughtful policymaking and investments that garnered measurable results,’ according to the society website.
When asked about this dismal rating and what it means on both a national and statewide scale, Denise states that one of the biggest public policy issues the GCA addresses is, “funding for the MTA’s capital programs.” She relates that New York became the center of the national economy because of its, “very early and historical infrastructure investment.”
Aside from the highway systems, the rate of investment dwindled after World War II followed by a period in which there was no investment in system extensions, revitalization, maintenance or capital rehabilitation. By the 1980s and 1990s, there was a significant deterioration in infrastructure and, “in many ways that deterioration was hastened by the poor maintenance of the MTA network.”
In 2015, Denise addressed the Joint Legislative Budget Committee Hearing on Transportation, to speak about the capital plans of the MTA and DOT and how these agencies’ construction projects support businesses, generate jobs and lead to much-needed improvements to all forms of transportation infrastructure. This ultimately translates into increases in the all-important quality of life.
GCA’s advocacy and testimony at this hearing resulted in the much sought-after outcome. “We got the money that we needed for both the MTA and the state DOT capital program,” says Denise. “I would say that our funding advocacy coalition was extremely effective.”
First enacted in 1885, Section 240 of New York’s Labor Law (Scaffold Law) is unique as no similar statute exists in other states. This law subjects contractors to strict liability for any and all injuries resulting from an employee’s fall, even if it was a result of negligence on the employee’s part. This means that insuring construction projects in the New York can be substantially more expensive than in other states.
“We have very great concerns about the law,” says Denise. “It has had a significant impact on our members’ costs. It has also created a very difficult cost structure for MWBE firms seeking to get a foothold in the market and seeking to grow their businesses.”
Because GCA’s members work in other parts of the country, the association can verify that the insurance costs in New York are double and triple. “And yet, that does not translate into safer work environments for the workforce.”
Many of those advocating for retaining the Scaffold Law, “advocate on behalf of workers that are not covered by union agreements, that are not working for employers that make safety a priority – which all of our members do,” she notes. “Those are many of the bad industry actors that don’t have insurance to begin with.”
In the 1880s, “The Scaffold Law definitely had a place,” she says. At that time, injured construction workers did not have a ‘safety net’ such as workers compensation laws or disability programs. “The Scaffold Law has become really a very outmoded and outdated way of addressing workplace and worker safety and really bears no relationship to the safe work practices that a contractor may or may not enact on their worksite.”
Denise affirms that GCA members, “have a safety record that is below not only the national average for heavy civil construction industry workplace incidents but also the overall record in New York state and New York City.”
With its strong and very active safety committee comprised of safety directors from member companies, the GCA provides a broad range of safety training that is, “also supplemented by the safety training that’s offered by our signatory unions.” The GCA has collective bargaining agreements with thirteen unions. “We serve as joint trustees on all of the unions’ safety and training programs where we help guide the curriculum and manage the offering of the union training classes as well as offering our own.”
These training classes are provided to members, project managers, superintendents and company executives. Class training related to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) specifically, focuses on New York’s special laws and regulations and specialty training for such things as rigging, scaffolding and crane safety.
A national internship program, established in 2009, is geared toward those individuals who have completed their junior year in engineering with a discipline, “predominantly civil, but it’s open to all engineering disciplines,” says Denise. There is a paid summer internship and the GCA’s John F. Donohoe Scholarship Fund is offered toward senior year expenses.
“We are very proud to say that ninety-eight percent of our interns and scholarship awardees have later gotten jobs in the industry and stayed in heavy civil,” says Denise, adding that about fifty-five percent of participants are minorities and women.
GCA remains actively engaged providing available resources to its members but, “The role of the GCA has really changed over time,” she says. Twenty-five or thirty years ago, the GCA was essentially a labor relations organization and still has, “a very strong focus on labor relations,” especially now concerning issues related to regulatory and legislative compliance. Today, the association has taken, “a larger role in how the contractors manage their businesses.”
Denise reflects that the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre site was a project that was a challenge for members. “That was a very difficult period of time in New York City’s history. Our members were among the first responders.” These members were working on other projects in the metropolitan area at the time and owned the much-needed heavy equipment. “So we were able to quickly mobilize.”
GCA members worked as volunteers on the rescue and recovery operations and later as contractors for the cleanup, a grueling task with which none were prepared to cope. “That was a very, very hard time for all of us,” says Denise. “The World Trade Centre site basically got built by us in many forms as we cleared the site, constructed the temporary stations, the new station and did all the building foundations.” These members also had to carry out the construction project in a confined site during a time that, “we needed to keep the city moving and keep lower Manhattan functioning.”
This specific project had the “logistical challenge of construction, the very real technical challenges engineering-wise that we faced at the site, as well as the emotional aspect of it that will never go away for anybody who works down there.”
Other notable projects were the on-time opening of the first phase of the Second Avenue subway in January 2017. The long-awaited project helps reduce commute times and overcrowding. Also, the city’s third water tunnel was completed; the first was constructed in 1917 and the second in 1937. Denise adds that GCA’s members have worked on, “a number of other very complex and challenging construction projects.”
Denise hopes her members are seen as, “a thoughtful voice in the infrastructure public policy debate. I think that is the future role for the association.”