‘You talkin’ to me?’ Unions protest $600M De Niro studio project

Dive Brief:

  • New York City union chapters took a united stance against Robert De Niro’s $600 million movie studio project on the Astoria waterfront that has broken ground and will largely use nonunion labor.
  • The unions — including Sheet Metal Workers Local 28, Steamfitters Local 638 and Laborers’ Local 79 — protested the project June 17, criticizing the actor for making outspoken pro-union comments publicly, but choosing to use nonunion labor to build his Wildflower Studios building
  • Projects of the studio’s size and scope are common in the city, said Brett Thomason, political director for the Steamfitters Local. But the Wildflower Studios project’s high profile and lack of union labor demanded a response, the unions said.

Dive Insight:

Wildflower Studios did not respond to Construction Dive’s request for comment.

While accepting a Life Achievement Award at the 26th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in January, 2020, De Niro said, “I thank SAG-AFTRA for tirelessly fighting on our behalf for workplace and economic gains and respect.” 

His comment elicited widespread applause from the Hollywood A-Listers in attendance. In addition to the actor, his son, Rafael De Niro, a real estate developer, is involved with the studio project.

Located in Queens, the Wildflower Studios building will become a “vertical village for film production” when finished in 2023. The 775,042 square foot complex will include 11 sound stages, and will create over 1,000 permanent new union jobs for those in the film industry, according to its website.

Given the “Goodfellas” actor’s background, the unions originally approached the project with optimism about being chosen to help build it.  

“Well, he sounds like a good union man, maybe we can reach out to him,” said Anthony Guerrero (above, with megaphone), political director for the Sheet Metal Workers Local of the groups’ thought process.

But when it became clear the project wouldn’t use union labor, the unions decided to go public. 

Erecting an inflatable “Scabby the Rat” float, they joined State Senator Jessica Ramos (above, in pink), an Astoria native and chair of the Labor Committee to denounce the decision during a gathering at the studio site. 

Prior to the protest, Ramos posted an opinion piece, condemning De Niro for supporting unions publicly, but not hiring union workers for most of the jobs on the project.

“We ask you to call out the abuse of power by your own multi-million-dollar company who low bid its workforce and deprives New York’s workers of high-paying, union jobs,” Ramos wrote. 

Ramos has received thousands of dollars in union support for her campaign, according to FollowTheMoney.org.

The site is not completely devoid of union workers. Thomason said he knew of some ironworkers and elevator operators working on the project, in addition to some Steamfitters installing sprinkler systems. Largely, however, the unions protested the majority open-shop nature of the project.

Despite the common practice of non union projects in the city, the union groups are cautiously optimistic they could sway De Niro’s mind, even now that the project is underway.

“He’s a New Yorker, he’s a union man, I think those two things are in our favor,” Guerrero said.

Zachary Phillips
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