The Chess-Playing Crane Operator Who Heads Up One of NJ’s Key Unions

Greg Lalevee isn’t just the business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers, he’s also vice chairman of the Transportation Trust Fund Authority

Greg Lalevee
Who he is: Greg Lalevee, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 825, which is based in Springfield in Union County.

Home: Lalevee grew up in Springfield but now lives in Bridgewater. He’s married and has three daughters.

Why he matters: The union Lalevee leads has 6,800 members who work on New Jersey’s roads, bridges, and buildings everyday. He is also the vice chairman of the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund Authority, the agency that handles the financing side of the fund, which spends $1.6 billion in state dollars on road, bridge, and rail-network projects each year. Last year, he also ranked 46th on Politicker NJ’s annual “Power List.”

Life on the crane: Lalevee joined his union’s office staff in 2000 and became the business manager in 2010. But he also has a lot of experience working on construction sites, including as a crane operator.

Lalevee credits some of the veteran union members for teaching him how to work the cranes, and now he sits on the state’s advisory board for licensed crane operators. Some of the projects he’s worked on include the Secaucus Junction train station and buildings in downtown Hoboken, places he sometimes passes by in his new role with the union.

“You take a real sense of pride,” Lalevee said.

As a union official, his duties involve negotiating collective-bargaining agreements and working on issues like health benefits and pensions.
“It’s the day-to-day operation of the union,” he said.

Transportation Trust Fund in ‘crisis mode’: Given the type of work his union does and his role with the state Transportation Trust Fund Authority, Lalevee is closely following the ongoing debate in Trenton over renewing the trust fund. Right now, the current, five-year financing plan for the trust fund is due to expire on June 30, and officials from the state Department of Transportation have said there’s only enough money to last until August.

Gov. Chris Christie and lawmakers have yet to strike a deal on how to replenish the fund, with the main sticking point continuing to be the state 14.5-cent gas tax, which is the fund’s primary source of revenue. Democrats who control the Legislature want to hike the gas tax to bring in more revenue. But Christie and Republicans have yet to agree with them.
The governor and others in the Christie administration have downplayed the issue as the June 30 deadline draws near, suggesting the media or those with political motivations are trying to portray the funding predicament as a crisis. Lalevee disagrees.

“We’re already into a crisis mode, from my point of view,” he said, citing the need for planning to be done well ahead when taking on big construction projects to make sure things like labor and materials are lined up.

Hope for a bipartisan solution?: Lalevee said he’s encouraged by the current conversation in Trenton, which has involved Christie calling on Democrats to consider tax cuts — what he’s termed as “tax fairness” — as they also talk about hiking the gas tax to renew the fund. Many expect a bipartisan deal to be struck that will involve the trading of a gas-tax hike for reductions of the estate tax, the state income tax on retirement income from pensions and 401(k) plans, and the establishment of a state income-tax deduction for some charitable contributions.

“I think there’s good discussions going on,” Lalevee said. “It looks like there’s at least people talking.”

But he also added much still needs to be worked out as the deadline for the current financing plan approaches.
“The devil is always in the details and we don’t know them,” he said.

And Lalevee also pushed back against those who argue New Jersey is not spending its current transportation dollars wisely, saying some state-by-state comparisons like a recent report published by the conservative Reason Foundation don’t factor in some key differences between New Jersey and other states. For example, New Jersey handles more traffic on its roadways on a daily basis and has many more intersections and traffic signals than most other states, he said.

“The Reason report is from our view completely flawed,” Lalevee said.

Another big issue: In addition to his focus on transportation infrastructure, Lalevee said another big issue for his union is pipeline projects that, though controversial, are bringing cheaper natural gas to New Jersey residents. In fact, last year he participated in a NJ Spotlight roundtable discussion on the pipeline issue that was held in Mercerville.
“We’re working on getting these projects to the finish line,” he said.

Spare time? Raising three daughters keeps him busy, Lalevee said, but he’s also an avid chess player. He keeps a chessboard in his office at work, and also frequently plays online.

“When I really want to get quiet, I go find a chessboard and play chess,” he said, adding he finds appeal in the game’s strategy.

“You have to keep your head in it,” he said. “You have to think ahead.”