Workers protest wages at Square 54

by Jeff Richards
Hatchet Reporter

"Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Low wages have got to go! Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Abuse has got to go!" These were the chants of two dozen people gathered across from the Square 54 construction site last Wednesday.

Made up of former employees of a group contracted to work on Square 54 and representatives from D.C. labor groups, protesters raised awareness of their strike against Wings Enterprises, Inc. and called for GW and its contractors to help set up a meeting with Wings to address grievances.

Wings Enterprises was subcontracted by Clark Construction to do the ironwork on the Square 54 site owned by GW and leased to Boston Properties. Clark Construction is a subcontractor of Boston Properties.

Demonstrators protested the alleged mistreatment of Wings employees, like verbal abuse, lack of safety and low wages.

"Wings didn't provide health care insurance, compensation for injuries, safety equipment, or safety training," said Ruth Castel-Branco, an organizer with D.C. Jobs for Justice.

"The prevailing wage for ironworkers is $38.50 per hour including benefits," Castel-Branco said. "Many of the workers [at Square 54] were paid around $12 an hour."

Among the community groups who showed up in support of the strike was GW's Progressive Student Union.

"Workers who are building our GW community deserve to be respected, and when their rights are violated, we feel morally compelled to speak out and find a solution as quickly as possible," said Isaiah Toney, a sophomore and PSU member.

Castel-Branco also had criticism for the University.

"Many institutions, including GW, have turned a blind eye to the situation and have not been proactive in finding a solution to this problem," Castel-Branco said.

At an Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A meeting Feb. 17, Castel-Branco and a former Wings worker appealed for the ANC's support.

ANC commissioners said they would write a letter to GW asking them to organize a discussion between Wings and the strikers.

In a statement last week, the University said it was informed of the strike.

"It is our understanding that the workers have filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board regarding this matter," the statement said. "The University believes that the NLRB processes are the appropriate avenues to investigate and adjudicate these allegations. Once those processes have been completed, the University will review that finding and determine if any action by GW is appropriate."

Louise Pulizzi, a spokesperson for Clark Construction, gave The Hatchet the company's only statement on the matter Feb. 23: "Clark Construction officials are closely monitoring the situation and are encouraging the parties involved to resolve the issue."

Boston Properties did not return request for comment.

One of the demonstrators, Juan Carlos Soto, was a "rodman" for Wings and said he was part of a group of 20 workers who were fired from the Square 54 construction site Nov. 25.

"We're here because we want people to know the reality of the mistreatment and exploitation we experienced in that site," Soto said with the help of a Spanish translator.

Castel-Branco said that one group of workers went on strike Oct. 24 to protest their work conditions, and then on Nov. 25, "Wings fired about 30 workers on the basis that they were supporting the strikers and talking to the strikers," she said.

The president of Wings Enterprises, Jean T. Wanner, said Feb. 22 that the firm respects the protesters' right to demonstrate but does not feel their accusations have merit.

"Wings has been unfairly targeted by outside organizations. These organizations, and the handful of workers whom they claim to represent, have made false and defamatory statements about Wings," Wanner said in an e-mail.

She said the protesters do not represent the views of a majority or a significant minority of the firm's more than 100 employees.

"We appreciate the hard work of our productive employees, and compensate them well, at rates which match or exceed those of our similar sized competitors in the industry. Wings operates in good faith compliance with all applicable employment and safety laws."

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