At roughly noon yesterday, under sunny skies and temps in the low 90s, workers were busy on the corner of Chippewa and California. The sounds of a construction site were evident, wheelbarrows were being pushed this way and that, and the street suggested a pickup-truck-only parking decree. At a casual glance, the scene would’ve indicated a positive step for an edge of the city that’s offered developmental promise in recent years.
But at the edge of the scene, about a half-block west of that intersection, there’s a small (and literal) sign that controversy’s coming along with the construction.
There, Mike O’Neill sat in his own pickup, alongside a colleague who’d been stationed just outside it, under a large umbrella. O’Neill’s the Organizer of the BAC Administrative District Council of Eastern Missouri, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, also known as Bricklayers’ Local 1. His cohort was “bannering” the site, a difference from “picketing,” in that the former (at essence) indicates a public monitoring of a worksite, while the latter calls for tradesmen to pick up their tools and leave the site. At the beginning of the process, all parties agree, there was some confusion on whether the site was being bannered or picketed, and some carpenters did leave the job for a time, returning when that situation was sorted.
Asked about the base factors of this situation, O’Neill points to the ongoing presence of Harambee LLC, which, according to its website: “Started on a foundation laid by Harambee Youth Training Corporation, a ministry partner with New City Fellowship church. Their commitment to giving at-risk youth the opportunity to experience the dignity of being made in the image of God through work is something we strive to implement and continue through the work we perform.”
To O’Neill, the situation’s worth monitoring as his bricklayer’s union is “concerned about Harambee paying, not even union wages, but prevailing wages.”
The quality of the work, well, he’s not convinced there, either.
“The work you can see for yourself,” he suggests, nodding towards the roofless structure. “It’s a little bit rough.”
As for any other concerns, he gives a concise, but not impolite, “that’s pretty much it.”
Stephen Acree, the President of Rise STL, is the co-developer of the site. As such, he’s well-aware of the ongoing bannering on the block.
He writes that “the building is part of the Chippewa Park development, which includes the historic rehab of 16 buildings to create 46 high-quality affordable apartments and 8,500 square feet of commercial space. It is a joint venture between Rise and Lutheran Development Group. The 2800 Chippewa building will include a restaurant incubator to provide local entrepreneurship and hiring opportunities and additional space for resident services. Our general contractor, E.M. Harris, has reported that Harambee has actually been trying to work with the union to join, but it’s an ongoing process.”
Called at another worksite, Aaron Henning, an owner of Harambee LLC is quick to point out that the situation may be awkward, but not insurmountable.
With the sounds of nearby hammering punctuating his words, Henning says over the phone that “we’ve been talking to the local for probably about a year, talking to them about what our program is and what we’re about, which is heavy on job training, apprenticeship, mentorship and employment programming. Growing from our youth programs, our business model carries that same commitment as the training program, the non-profit side of what we do. When we started the for-profit company, we went right back to them, as word got to the union quickly. We agreed to talk about the barriers that we saw in joining. For us, it’s the size of what they qualify as commercial development, which is anything over two stories or two residences. Our niche is working with three-story, residential rehabs, ranging from two units to 16. It’s what we’ve been doing for years. We know the market and we can’t charge union scale for all of those.”
He adds that “all of our cash was pulled together to get started. We asked the union to give us a year, see where we’re at. We can’t sign a contract that’ll put us out of business within six months. We’re pro-union, pro-labor force. We offer benefits after workers are here with us for 90 days, like health insurance. And they can do an IRA, if they want. We’re 100% behind the standard of the guys working. But we can’t see, right now, how we could negotiate the cost of being in the union for every job that we do. It’s just that tight of a margin. They seem to be okay leaving us alone, but we’re still keeping the dialogue going.”
Henning says that he’s been on-site when union organizers have talked to his crew members; a handful have signed on, while others haven’t. He says that he hasn’t objected to the conversations taking place. The banners offer something of a visual challenge, but here, too, he says it’s not enough of an inducement to pause work.
“They’re doing their thing,” Henning figures. “They’re very friendly with everybody. I’ve been there several times when Mike and the BAC’s been down there. As for the bannering, well, everybody assumed it was a picket when they started and other trades pulled off the job. We kinda proceeded with the idea of how we’d set up, if we needed two gates, how to talk to the property owner. We pushed back a little bit with the labor board and were informed that they weren’t picketing but bannering. ‘Oh, okay.’ Not sure what that’s going to do, overall, but in terms of whatever the appearance is of it, we’ll just have to figure that out.”
Henning says that the ultimate point of his company, non-profit and mission is based in a “brother’s keeper” philosophy, noting that “we’re fired and rehired men and women multiple times,” in effect keeping them in the employment mix even during challenging periods.
“Several have gone into the union,” Henning says. “We tell them that ‘if it works out better for you there, go do it.’ We’re not trying to say it’s bad or evil. Stay with us if it’s a good experience and if you want to be a part of what we’re doing in the city. We want to invest in workers. It’s not just about the job and the pay, but it’s very much about the impact they’re having on the community.”
And the work? Relayed O’Neill’s comment about it being “rough,” Henning pauses a second, before running through a wide variety of factors on why the unfinished building looks as it does at this second. He then notes, “the work will speak for itself. If the work we did was substandard, we wouldn’t get the business.”
A day later, the business (and bannering) continues.