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The Ratner Seven

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The Ratner Seven

A hypocritical lawsuit against the hypocritical Atlantic Yards developer November 18, 2011

Earlier this week, seven Brooklyn residents filed a federal lawsuit against Bruce Ratner, the developer of the Atlantic Yards basketball arena, accusing him of committing a grave injustice. The plaintiffs, however, aren’t opposed to injustice; in fact, they had hoped to benefit from it. For the wrongs that they’ve suffered, Bruce Ratner’s latest useful idiots have no one to blame but themselves.

Ratner has spent eight years using the power of New York City and New York State to injure people who don’t have the arbitrary power of the government backing them. Starting in 2003, Ratner garnered the support of Mayor Bloomberg, Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz, and a succession of governors to use the power of eminent domain—plus $700 million in subsidies—to label some private Brooklyn properties “blighted,” seize them, and build his stadium and (at some point) surrounding apartment towers. Ratner gained government backing only by marshaling community support: that is, he shoveled money into new “grassroots” advocacy groups like Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD). Ratner signed a “community benefits agreement” under which BUILD chief James Caldwell would train residents—many of them low-income Brooklynites—for as many as 15,000 well-paying construction jobs at Atlantic Yards.

Bloomberg vouched for the initiative, saying that job-seeking Brooklynites “have Bruce Ratner’s word.” And thanks to the promise of jobs, many poor Brooklyn residents remained silent as Ratner displaced property owners, including Daniel Goldstein, a homeowner, and Simon Liu, a businessman (and job creator). But Ratner’s promised jobs never materialized. Fewer than 800 people work at the Atlantic Yards site, and few laborers will work on the apartment towers, which will be prefabricated and largely take shape offsite.

Now, seven job-seekers are suing, alleging that Ratner and Caldwell duped them into joining a “training” class last year that consisted of reading Wikipedia printouts and then working—unpaid and unsupervised—for two months on a dangerous Staten Island home-construction site owned by a third party. During their “training,” the seven “learned very little that they did not already know,” they said, because they were “already fully capable of performing construction work.” One man had previously worked as a carpenter; another had “extensive experience” and had once supervised 100 people on a worksite; a third had worked as an electrician’s apprentice. Two others quit jobs to enroll in Ratner’s “training,” while another turned down a maintenance job. The seven plaintiffs toiled unpaid because, they say, Ratner’s surrogates promised them trade-union memberships, a pathway to good jobs building Atlantic Yards. Caldwell, whose BUILD salary was funded by Ratner, told them that they should “prepare to be millionaires,” they say. They got nothing. “None of the Plaintiffs has received an offer of employment in a construction job” at Atlantic Yards, according to their suit.

So the Ratner Seven have learned something: to get a job, you don’t depend on the power of the state to seize other people’s property. You educate yourself, you learn a trade, and you work hard, sometimes at lower wages than you’d like, to gain experience. That is, the plaintiffs should have kept doing what they were doing before Ratner came along. Indeed, since their “training” ended, two of them have gotten carpenters’-union cards with no help from BUILD, they say.

Further, to ensure that America’s economy can keep creating good jobs, you stick up for other people’s individual rights—rights over which New York has allowed Ratner to run roughshod. None of the Ratner Seven minded participating in an injustice. They minded only when it didn’t deliver.

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