Shuffling in a tight, circular formation on a patch of sidewalk at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Morgan Lane near Frandor, at least a dozen protestors can be seen almost daily. They walk mostly in silence, braving the elements, and they have been doing so for months.
On its face, the dispute at the nine-story SkyVue project, on the former Story Oldsmobile site, is rooted in traditional union tactics.
“First of all, we have a labor dispute with this company because they are not a contractor that meets area standards” for labor, said Kevin Klinger, regional director for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters. “They do not pay the area standard wage and benefits, including health benefits to all their carpenters, so it’s about area standards, and we’ve had a dispute for quite some time.”
But many of the protesters aren't carpenters at all. Rather, they are marchers marshaled by the union to walk the picket line.
Also, the union isn't targeting the project's primary contractor, Wolverine Building Group of Grand Rapids. Its complaint is with Kent Companies, which is placing and pouring the foundations, elevated decks, floors and hallways.
Klinger said that the campaign has been very effective in drawing attention to the site of the project.
“Absolutely it has raised awareness, and people pay attention and want to know, and they care. The people in this community deserve to know what’s going on. We have an obligation to create a level playing field for responsible contractors,” Klinger said. “And in this case, this contractor continues to contribute to the erosion of area standards to the whole community.”
Though he is unsure of the exact date, Klinger said that the union has been in a dispute with Kent Companies for several years. In this time, the regional council has not been shy about letting the company know this.
“We’ve been approached with letters from the carpenters union saying, ‘We’ve done an investigation, you guys pay substandard wages.’ Then they attach a questionnaire saying fill out what your wages are,” Jeff VanderLaan, CEO of Kent Companies, said. “So they’re basically saying ‘We haven’t done any investigation.’ My response then to them is always if you believe we are paying substandard wages, prove it.”
The prevailing hourly wage in Ingham County for a carpenter is $24.79, with another $18.03 an hour for fringe benefits such as pension funds and annuities. These are rates set by the carpenters union, Local 1004.
As a “merit shop,” Kent Companies pays its employees at varying rates. Compensation depends on the skill and experience of the worker. Based on a sample employee compensation form provided by Kent Companies, a person who earns $22 an hour might actually receive $37.08 considering their total benefits.
VanderLaan said he isn’t bothered at all by the protests. He’s had similar experiences with the group and believes his company does an excellent job of keeping its employees happy. He called the union’s accusations are “false.”
“There’s no union member representation of our workforce because we believe that we pay our workers and provide them with industry leading benefits,” VanderLaan said. “We do full medical and dental insurance, biannual bonuses, we invest a lot in training and technology for our workforce, we do profit-sharing and 401k contributions for retirement plans for our employees.”
VanderLaan noted that in the past 24 months, the increase in employees has been threefold — from 300 to 900 — and said that that if there had been a substantial issue in employee pay and benefits, he couldn’t see such a rise happening.
“It’s no secret in the state that especially the unions in the building trades are fading. They’ve long since outlived their purpose and their usefulness in our industry,” VanderLaan said. “Our goal is to continue forward in treating our people as best as we possibly can, and if there are questions about it, we are absolutely happy to talk about it. We have nothing to hide.”
For now, the protesting will continue until Kent Companies leaves the construction site near the Frandor Shopping Center, but this could take many more weeks still.
Wolverine plans to complete the ninestory, $90 million, 667,000-square foot- SkyVue residential/retail project by summer 2017.