Building Trades intend to raise ruckus about questionable contractors

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Building Trades unions plan an increasingly visible campaign targeting dubious contractor practices in commercial and residential construction in downtown Minneapolis.

As part of the campaign, community, faith and labor groups will lobby at the state Capitol Wednesday, April 26.

“This is a campaign to stop the exploitation of workers,” said Alan Kearney, of the Minnesota Building Construction Organizing Task Force. Through street demonstrations, informational banners and other tactics, unions intend to contrast good developers with those who cut corners on projects by skimping on safety, using under-the-table cash payments, or otherwise taking advantage of workers, Kearney said.

To participate in the April 26 lobby day, contact Kearney at 651-653-9776.

Mingling at the Whitney
The campaign had an unofficial kickoff March 25 when more than 100 union members and supporters milled outside the renovated Whitney Landmark Residence on the riverfront. The building – a former milling complex, then a luxury Hyatt hotel – is being converted into 48 high-end condominiums, with prices starting at $300,000 and running into the millions.

During the demolition stages of the renovation, Kearney said, Building Trades organizers documented massive violations of basic safety requirements. “We just walked inside – there was nobody stopping us – and what we found was appalling,” Kearney said. “No hard hats, no safety goggles, not even a dust mask. No work boots.”

Workers told union organizers they were being paid $6 an hour for the demolition work, in cash, with no benefits. But Ned Abdul, owner of Swervo Development, denied any knowledge of the conditions, Kearney said.

“Well, he’s the developer,” Kearney said. “The developer is accountable and responsible.… This is what this campaign is about. What does good development look like? What does the Carlyle look like? What does the Guthrie look like?

“And what does bad development look like? Ned Abdul.”

Things now seem “on the up and up” at the Whitney, Kearney said; among other things, the project is now using Diversified Construction, which Kearney called a “legitimate contractor.”

But the Whitney is not the first time unions have questioned Abdul; they’ve raised similar safety concerns with Swervo projects at the Sexton and Herschel buildings.

“It’s not about union vs. nonunion issues,” Kearney said. “It’s not an immigrant issue, either.” Though some of the workers involved have been immigrants, others have been African-American or Caucasian. The bottom line is worker abuse, he said.

Cheating the state?
Developers who cut corners do more than endanger workers, Kearney said. Cash wages can mean developers are not paying required income taxes, workers’ comp and unemployment insurance to the state. They may be illegally classifying employees as independent contractors, violating additional federal and state laws.

“So, we’re going to raise that issue – what the impact of paying workers cash has on the State of Minnesota,” Kearney said.

The full campaign will ramp up in late April. Unions have been greeted by cold shoulders at the state departments of Health and Labor and Industry, Kearney said, but have found a more concerned audience at the Minneapolis City Council.

“If this is going on, they’re appalled by it,” Kearney said. “They understand that we’re going to take street actions. And we let them know that we’re going to be causing some controlled chaos. Very peaceful controlled chaos, but we’re going to be very comprehensive about how we’re going to be educating folks. And it’s going to get wild.”

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