April 2011

IBEW Helps Shine Media Spotlight on Wage Theft
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Nearly a year of building trades and IBEW outreach to nonunion workers about wage and hour violations at the construction site of a Veterans Administration hospital complex paid off in February. As a direct result of the unions' efforts, the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division is investigating contractors on the Lake Nona site near Orlando for misclassifying workers and violating Davis-Bacon prevailing wage statutes.

Public scrutiny also focused on the contractors' use of foreign-made materials and their failure to hire veterans to work on a hospital that will serve them.

"I was blown away by how many news outlets showed up at the press conference," says Fernando Rendon, recording secretary and assistant business manager of Orlando Local 606, of a Feb. 16 press conference called by the Central Building and Construction Trades, and joined by veterans groups and community allies. Four local network television affiliates were joined by reporters from independent and university media and Spanish-speaking channel Univision.

Rendon, one of the original organizers of IBEW's membership development Florida Initiative, remembers getting some negative comments from workers when he first joined other unionists at the site last year to make workers aware of their rights under federal law. Many workers received raises after complaining to their employers, some of whom had lied to them.

"We were the big bad union guys," says Rendon. "Now the workers trust us more than their contractors because we tell the truth."

A week before the press event, federal and state authorities detained nine undocumented workers on the 65-acre, $665 million project that includes a power plant and dormitory. Six were found hiding in a ceiling. A caller to police said that a senior manager employed by the contractor, Brasfield and Gorrie, had helped hide the workers.

While the raid helped draw press attention and federal regulators to the construction project, Rendon and other leaders said that the shoddy treatment of workers was the fundamental issue of concern to the unions.

A worker reports that managers of Quinco Electric, one of the nonunion contractors on the job site are now "quaking in their boots." They have removed foreign-made couplings from conduit and are advising workers to remember their job classifications when they are questioned by investigators.

A week after the press conference, building trades members who circulated literature on the job ran out of materials because of intensified interest from the work force.

The high-profile exposure of violations at Lake Nona, says Rendon, is setting a precedent that will raise the bar for wages and working conditions in the entire region. Contracts for a large-scale Air Force base project in the jurisdiction of Daytona Local 756 were due to be let in February, but have been delayed. Speculation is that, in the wake of Lake Nona, contractors are being told to make "sure their numbers are right," says Rendon. Signatory contractors have bid on the project.

"We are extremely lucky that our building trades council, under the leadership of Ironworker Wes Kendrick, put aside our small differences and worked as a team," says Rendon. "That is the only way labor will progress."

IBEW member Gary Omey is a veteran who was denied a job on the project, a new VA center. The IBEW helped uncover numerous wage and hour violations at the site.