Housing Complex

Should a Union-Busting Company Build the MLK Memorial?

What would MLK think?

What would MLK think?

After the fracas over its Chinese sculptor, the folks behind the Martin Luther King Memorial have been very careful who they choose to build the Mall's newest installation. They've hired 56 percent minority and women-owned firms, which a press release says has “made inclusion and a spirit of diversity on the project a top priority to honor the legacy” of the iconic civil rights leader.

But King's legacy stretches beyond racial equality, to economic justice–by the end of his life, he was organizing the Poor People's Campaign, and supporting Memphis trash workers on strike.

Which makes the MLK Memorial team's choice of a concrete subcontractor especially ironic. For the last several months, the United Construction Workers union has been speaking with concrete workers at sites across the metropolitan region, and says Dulles, Va.-based Southland Concrete—which is doing the concrete work for the $120 million project—has by far the most complaints from its workers. In recent weeks, UCW has run ads in local media (including City Paper) slamming Southland’s labor policies. And tomorrow, they’re planning a protest in front of another Southland project, the city’s Consolidated Forensics Laboratory at 6th and E Streets SW.

José Gilberto Lara Lemos, a Southland worker for the last two and a half years, will be among the estimated 200 workers from all of the company’s construction sites who’ll walk off their jobs to be there. Through a UCW interpreter—most Southland workers speak little English—he sat down with Housing Complex to talk about what it’s been like.

Lemos came to the United States from El Salvador in 1996, sending wages back to his wife and two children. He first worked as a dishwasher, and then cutting grass, but applied to work at Southland because his neighbors said the pay was better. At $12 an hour, it was—but also backbreaking, with long hours and no water. He’s gotten only one raise, after they were promised every year, and no paid time off or sick days.

But aside from the harsh conditions, the worst part might be the abuse and intimidation. Lemos says the supervisors, who are all white, constantly scream and swear at their teams of workers, sometimes prompting accidents. Workers are warned that if they leave, the company could find dozens more to replace them (which is probably true). By now, the company knows about the unionization effort, and organizers say they’ve been threatened while talking to workers on job sites. On May 21, about 50 workers were laid off—not an unusual thing for the construction industry, but Lemos says most of the cuts came from those who had signed cards indicating their interest in forming a union. Lemos knows that he himself may be fired for his organizing, which is a scary prospect.

“In the United States, bills don’t wait,” he says. “It’s an intensely negative feeling to be looking for work in the industry.”

Historically, the construction sector has been difficult to unionize because the work is so transient, and employees don’t have time to organize before they’re either laid off or transferred to other work sites. Ultimately, UCW wants the region’s concrete companies—which also include Clark Concrete and Miller & Long—to sign contracts with worker committees for better conditions and a standardized, transparent process for layoffs and rehiring. Organizers hope that success at Southland, which has numerous government contracts, would help raise standards throughout the industry.

Southland did not return a call for comment. The MLK Memorial foundation referred questions to James Tolbert, a marketing vice president at Turner Construction, which is the main contractor on the project. He says he hadn’t heard about UCW’s campaign, but pointed out that none of the concrete companies in the area were unionized, and promised tight oversight.

"To the best of our knowledge, Southland has one of the better safety records, and if they didn't, they wouldn't be on the project with us,” Tolbert said. “I don’t know Southland personally… but I can tell you this: When it comes to safety, rest assured, the design-build team is very, very stringent with its rules and regulations.”

Which may be true. But at the rest of Southland’s sites, there are no such assurances.

  • Rick Mangus

    You can't build a dam think in this town without someone or some group getting their underwear in a twist about something!

  • Native JD

    STFU you loudmouth POS. Honor King the right way. By opposing the Beck marchers this weekend, and by supporting union labor building his memorial.

  • Steve

    Ah, nothing says tolerance like "STFU you loudmouth POS"

  • Sally

    That monument is already jinxed because it was made in China.

  • Native JD

    I'm intolerant of intolerance, what about it?

  • Rick Mangus

    'Native JD' your intolerant because you uneducated and STUPID!

  • John

    Rick- The irony. The irony.

  • Beverly Segers


  • Beverly Segers

    Union busting is wrong and un-american.

  • Lisa Mante

    ah Rick, you're a joke.

  • Cynthia Sayers

    I am in agreement with Ms.Segers. Only UNIONIZED companies should be working on the MKL monument. Dr. King and others have made the ultimate sacrifice for Americans to be gainfully employed. Historically, unions have built and maintained the United States economy. Our self sustaning started failing when companies started union busting and outsourcing. Love live the unions in the United States of America!

  • Cynthia Sayers

    ...And LONG LIVE the unions in the United States of America!!!

  • f*** the union

    this is a free country right ..... as long as u dont endulge slave labor and american citizen has the freedon and right to work. the unions just turned into a joke thinking they can monopolize on all work go f*** yourself u are one of the main reasons why the economy turn to S***

  • http://yahoo shawn p

    I don't necessarily agree that ONLY Union workers should have been used. Having lived in Memphis and grown up I believe that Dr. King would have approached each person working and preached to each. To Deny Union workers is a little slanderous to what he was trying to do. I am not a union supporter....unless that is what you want to do, I just don't want to support a group that has so much corruption usually associated with it and when you need them, good luck.

  • http://yahoo shawn p

    I do think that the statue is a magnificent representation of a man emerging from a mountain, which is where he stood when he saw the promised land. Look at the big picture before the comments become so personal.

  • southland is a joke

    southland is a joke ,my dad worked for that company for 15 yrs ,they lie cheat and steal any way they can to get over on their workers ,they cheat on test for crane operators because their superintendents only have a seventh grade education (bo riggleman)they are all racist and i know that for a fact (royce c.

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