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Made by union members, funded by union dollars

December 2nd, 2009  |  Matt Pavich

>In the current economic crisis, labor unions are looking for any possible way to shield their members from the worst that the downturn has to offer. In what has to be one of the more imaginative solutions to this near-universal problem, the AFL-CIO is thinking about financing the building of a skyscraper, one that its members will be hired to build.

In 2007, Chicago developers broke ground on a twisty skyscraper, the Spire, designed by the renowned architect Santiago Calatrava. At 2000 feet, it would not only be the largest building in the City of Big Shoulders, it would also be one the largest in the world. Open only for residences, the least expensive of which would cost a cool $750,000, the project was a symbol of an earlier, more economically optimistic time. However, since the groundbreaking, the global economic crisis has drained funds and there’s been no work on the site for over a year.

Where passing cars see a large hole, the AFL-CIO saw an opportunity. “We’re trying to get monies invested to get the project going, to get the spire project going,” said Thomas Villanova, head of the local Building and Construction Trades Council in a recent interview with Chicago Public Radio. According to Villanova, under the proposed deal, union members would do all the work on the Spire. How much work would that amount to? Try seven-and-a-half million work hours.

It makes sense for the union. Villanova said that some locals have up to 30 percent unemployment. Members are losing their benefits, their homes, their families, because of the prolonged slump in housing construction. That grim reality makes the reported $170 million dollar investment a potentially wise move. Villanova predicts that the Spire is going to require five years of construction, resulting in the creation of thousands of jobs.

Garrett Kelleher and his firm, Shelbourne Development Group Inc., the developer for the top-bracket residential tower met recently with union leaders as talks. He hopes to borrow $170 million from AFL-CIO pension investment trusts. While the sides failed to reach an agreement in their most recent meeting, talks will continue.

Kelleher and Spire representatives have been visiting local union halls over the past few weeks in an attempt to convince union leaders to invest in the building, according to the Chicago Tribune. (http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/chi-mon-spire-1130-nov30,0,1953419.story.)

It remains to be seen whether the developer’s financial troubles will prevent the deal, but if it goes through, it would provide a much-welcome boon to the union’s beleaguered members.