Hardhats and the Microskirt

Elke Sommer, the German actress who played opposite Paul Newman, Peter Sellers, and James Garner in popular 1960s films, donned a microskirt and a hardhat in August, 1970, to tour the South Mall construction site.  As the “Teutonic temptress” made her way among the 2,000 ironworkers, operating engineers, cement pourers, and other construction workers, she greeted their admiring stares, signed autographs, one on the bald head of an oiler. “I won’t wash my head no more,” Albert Odorisio told a reporter.

Starring in a local production of Irma LaDouce, Elke Sommer visited the South Mall construction site, August 21, 1970. Photo by Joseph Paeglow.
Starring in a local production of Irma LaDouce, Elke Sommer visited the South Mall construction site, August 21, 1970. Photo by Joseph Paeglow.

According to the Knickerbocker News, “This was one of the most unique work stoppages in the history of Albany’s South Mall,” which had been plagued repeatedly by slowdowns, shutdowns, pickets, and no-show workers. Sommer’s visit touched a nerve with the managers charged with retaining workers and keeping them on the job.  South Mall Project Manager Cliff Dodge was infuriated, commenting, “we have considerable trouble in obtaining a day’s work from the mechanics on the South Mall Project without allowing visits to the South Mall by persons of this type.” The former Playboy pinup was “inappropriately dressed,” according to Dodge, and the disruption caused by her appearance was “unfair to the Contractors on the site who are paying their money and losing hundreds of man hours while such exhibitions go on.”

Lost man hours due to pickets, slowdowns, and shutdowns were frequent at the South Mall site, helping to swell costs and dragging out the calendar for its completion. At the start of construction, Bill Wanamaker, Mall Project Coordinator in the Office of General Services [OGS], privately doubted that it could be completed in 5½ years as planned, a concern he mentioned in notes he made subsequent to a meeting with labor leaders. Peter Brennan, head of the State’s Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO, shared Wanamaker’s doubts. Indeed, he hopefully predicted that construction would take ten years or more. His wish was granted, and then some.

Picket by Teamsters local 294, March 1971. Photograph by Bob Richey. Used by permission of Times Union.
Picket by Teamsters local 294, March 1971. Photograph by Bob Richey. Used by permission of Times Union.

The Sheet Metal Workers’ strike of 1970 illustrates the difficulties that accompanied labor disputes. According to an OGS report, the 14-week strike “affected nearly every building project on the South Mall site,” while “numerous operations are coming to a halt.” Contractors could not gain access to their sites, as picketers periodically prevented workers and deliveries from getting into the site. When the Sheet Metal Workers finally returned to work, thousands of workers had been laid off, and morale was dismal. Sommer’s visit may have been a celebration for some. For others, it highlighted the glacial pace of progress.

New York’s construction trades unions gained tremendous power in the late 1960s, due to the construction and planning of massive public and quasi-public projects, such as the World Trade Center, Harlem’s State Office Building, SUNY campuses at Purchase and Buffalo, Co-op City in the Bronx, and locally, public housing in north Albany and the State University of New York campus. All of these projects competed for a limited number of tradesmen. Some contractors were hesitant to bid on South Mall contracts because of manpower shortages. Architect Wallace K. Harrison later conceded in an interview that none of the architects or engineers “realized the difficulties that we would have with labor in a small town like Albany….[T]here weren’t enough men to build anything as big.” The Mall seemed to “swallow up whatever craftsmen, electricians, construction workers, and carpenters that lived in or near Albany.”

Albany’s labor shortage in the trades ranked #7 in a national survey of construction manpower in 70 cities. For Bill Wanamaker and Cliff Dodge, it was a constant battle to find the means by which to attract and keep workers. When work slowed, in-demand craftsmen found other jobs locally or regionally. When projects needed to speed up, contractors balked at the increased labor requirements. Where would they get the tradesmen? Wanamaker beseeched Pete Brennan to help bring them from other areas of the state, to cross jurisdictional lines and come to Albany.  But there were constant incentives for workers to go elsewhere, and according to a member of the Contractors’ Association, tradesmen were “not anxious or willing” to go to Albany. OGS staff knew that South Mall tradesmen could easily walk away for better wages and conditions, and they were powerless to get them to stay.

4 1970
Construction on the Corning Tower, ca. 1970. Photograph by Jack Pinto. Used by permission of Times Union.

Overcrowding was also a problem. During the summer of 1969, the labor force exceeded 4,000. The Managing Director for the Eastern New York Construction Employers Association explained, “Sometimes there’d be so many that if a guy stooped over to pick up his tools, he’d bump somebody.” In short, there were “too many tenants on too little real estate,” according to Project Director Cliff Dodge. It was a delicate task to schedule the work so that it proceeded efficiently, sequentially, and in accord with seasonal considerations. Dodge complained that the project timeline was “completely unrealistic” and “poorly coordinated…. requiring that all the Contractors be on the job at the same time.” Many contractors were unable to begin work due to lack of space.

The crowded site fed the frequent jurisdictional disputes among labor unions.  Teamsters tried to take the jobs from the Operating Engineers, who hauled steel from storage facilities. Albany Bricklayers crossed the Troy Bricklayer’s pickets. Teamsters and Iron Workers competed for the right to unload structural steel for Agency Building # 3, idling the steel erection crew. Teamsters also fought with Operating Engineers about who would handle the fuel hose nozzles. During the 1970-71 fiscal year, for example, 20 disputes led to 25 to 30 work stoppages. In 1971, OGS Commissioner C.V.R. Schuyler lamented, “The Mall seems to generate more than a normal proportion of labor disputes and seldom are we entirely free of potentially difficult labor situations.” Labor shortages and union disputes would only begin to abate when the volume and congestion of work subsided after 1973.

Nelson Rockefeller shakes the hand of Peter J. Brennan at the annual convention of the New York State Building and Construction Trades Council in Rochester, August 6, 1970. By permission of the Rockefeller Archives Center.
Nelson Rockefeller shakes the hand of Peter J. Brennan at the annual convention of the New York State Building and Construction Trades Council in Rochester, August 6, 1970. By permission of the Rockefeller Archives Center.

Politically, South Mall construction was fortuitous for Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Running for his fourth term in 1970, he received Pete Brennan’s endorsement as well as that of the State Council of Carpenters.  The endorsement evidenced a deepening split among trade unions, as Democrat Arthur Goldberg, former Counsel to the AFL-CIO, received the endorsement of the state’s more progressive industrial unions. The governor’s steady statewide construction agenda helped bring the Building Trades unions into the Republican camp to stay. Yet the governor’s “edifice complex” (and the concomitant rise in State indebtedness) also proved to be a political liability for the man who hoped to become president.

The 98 Acres in Albany project seeks to interview individuals who worked on South Mall construction projects, as managers, tradesmen, laborers, or contractors. If you or someone you know helped build the South Mall, please contact Stacy Sewell at ssewell@stac.edu.

Note: The photograph at the beginning of this post was taken by Arthur Hewig and is used by permission of the Times Union.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Historians after my own heart: history is often pretty funny. Terrific piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. William Hoiuting says:

    Worked there as a timekeeper from 1/1972-10/1972, Then as an Electrician (On several occasions) from 1973 through the 1980’s I am proud to have worked on such a massive project, but my heart goes out to the displaced families and businesses! It would (In my opinion) have been better served along the Hudson Riverfront!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great to hear from you, William. I think a lot of people who helped build the Empire State Plaza share your pride as well as your ambivalence.

      Like

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