Bait and switch? Ratner sued over ‘sham’ job-training program

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Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner set up a “sham” job-training program that ended up screwing workers out of promised union positions on his $5-billion mega-project, a bombshell lawsuit charged on Tuesday.

The workers say that they were promised union membership and jobs in exchange for taking a 15-week apprenticeship course in 2010, but were never hired on at the Prospect Heights site — which includes the Barclays Center and 16 residential towers on a 22-acre parcel of land stretching from Flatbush Avenue to Vanderbilt Avenue.

“They told us they would set aside jobs,” said Kathleen Noriega, one of the plaintiffs. “What they did was wrong and misleading.”

Noriega and six other plaintiffs are being represented by South Brooklyn Legal Services, which has long been involved in Atlantic Yards-related suits.

“The project developers … blatantly violated many federal and state statutes designed to protect individuals from exploitati­on,” said lawyer Molly Thomas-Jensen. “The project developers … also made promises, to community members and directly to the plaintiffs in this case, that they have broken.”

The federal suit claims that executives at Forest City Ratner pledged in writing to reserve some of the thousands of jobs for neighbors of the project as part of the controversial “community benefits agreement,” and again as a verbal promise at a meeting held by Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development.

Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco said that there are 779 people working on the Barclays Center right now. Roughly 22 percent of that total are workers from Brooklyn. None came from the job-training program, plaintiffs charge.

DePlasco denied that Ratner executives ever promised participants in the training program jobs or so-called “union cards.”

“Forest City Ratner did not promise union cards, nor was it ever in a position to [do so],” DePlasco said in an e-mail.

All workers on the project belong to labor unions, another Ratner promise.

The lawsuit highlights the growing tension between the developer, who relied on support from organized labor to win approval for a project that he said would create 1,500 construction jobs per year over its 10-year buildout, and Atlantic Yards opponents, who argued that Ratner’s promises were false.

“This was the biggest bait-and-switch in the history of Brooklyn,” said Councilwoman Letitia James (D–Fort Greene).

Even the job training program itself — run by Ratner’s allies at BUILD — was a lie, the suit claims.

Several plaintiffs said they quit their jobs to enroll in the course, but instead of earning union memberships, they spent most of the time doing basic demolition work — without pay — on a construction site in Staten Island.

“We wound up with nothing,” said Clarence Stewart, who left his job to take the course. “Somebody has to answer for this.”

Reach reporter Daniel Bush at dbush@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-8310. Follow him at twitter.com/dan_bush.

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