By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
[We]are demanding that this city [Memphis] respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. …Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity… it has dignity, it has worth.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
Easter Sunday, April 4, marked the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Reverend Dr. King had been in Memphis helping sanitation workers to fight for better wages and working conditions. It was King’s final cause coming just days before he preached his famous last sermon: “I’ve been to the mountain top and seen the promised land.”
King’s support of the Memphis garbage collectors’ strike for dignity and fair wages marked a shift in the civil rights movement from an emphasis mainly focused on “class-based” racial equality to worker’s rights and economic injustice.
Fifty-three years later, President Joe Biden has also championed several pro-union measures that “dramatically enhance the power of workers to organize and collectively bargain for better wages and fringe benefits.” Biden recently encouraged the House of Representatives to pass the “PRO Act,” a bill that makes it “easier for workers to unionize, strike, and bargain for better wages and working conditions,” according to People’s World online news. Biden’s stance on empowering workers represents a dramatic shift from former President Donald Trump’s administration, which favored employers and their ability to classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees. The classification, critics say, “exploits workers in order to keep costs low for the business owners.”
All of this came to a head last week in Toledo when a few dozen members of the Indiana Kentucky Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters union picketed a construction site in North Toledo’s Vistula neighborhood.
The contractor is ARK Restoration & Construction, owned by Ambrea (an African-American woman) and Kevin Mikolajczyk. The company is converting the old Wonder Bread into 33 market rental apartments in a $7.5 million renovation project.
What’s Race Got To do With It?
Much has been made about the targeting of a black female-owned business by “protesters who are mainly “middle-aged white men from the suburbs, marching around the construction site shouting ‘No Justice No Peace’.”
“Not so,” Mike Gibson, senior representative of the Indiana Kentucky Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters, says in rebutting the racial motive. “ARK Restoration subcontracted carpenter work to a contractor (KCS) that we feel is less than the area standards for that type of work, and that’s the story, and that’s the story behind the story,” he insists. “It’s not Ambrea or Kevin. It’s the contractor, KCS Contracting, that we are taking the issue with. KCS is a non-area standard contractor.”
Others went even further in their criticism of KCS, which works as a drywall subcontractor for ARK Restoration.
“He’s a bad actor,” said a credible source with experience over many development projects but whose statements we were unable to confirm. “They’re not after Ambrea. She’s using one of the most notorious wage theft, wage rip-off, human rights-suppressing contractors. [People] are having problems with KCS everywhere. He gives people a really rock-bottom price and then takes it out of his work saving wages, taxes, and benefits. I don’t know how far into the project Ambrea is. Still, this guy needs to step up, pay standard wages for the area, which he never does, pays people under the table, and uses some people that live in the shadows that he can exploit,” the source added.
Why Was the ARK Project Targeted?
Although there are at least 10 other current projects using KCS as their drywall subcontractor, the union targeted ARK Restoration for protest because the site “offered the most exposure on a main vein in and out of Toledo,” Gibson says.
Ambrea also came out hard publicly against the union’s controversial proposal to require a license for drywall installers in early 2020, appearing on the Jerry Anderson Show with the owner of KCS Construction. She likely is being perceived as “being in bed with the enemy.”
Ambrea acknowledges that she was vocal about the drywall ordinance that the Carpenters’ union had proposed because it hindered Black and Brown access to the construction field. “First of all, the training facilities are in the suburbs. I have guys who ride their bikes to work or carpool. How are they then going to get to the suburbs, train, and then take this test? It would be an opportunity to force us to use the union only and drive out others. I didn’t think it was fair,” she explained.
ARK – which is constructing the project on tight margins, also indicated that KCS has been a great partner who shows up, performs their work safely, and is respectful. “They’re my nonunion company and, also, my company is nonunion, but my other contractors are for the most part, union companies. I know they’ve been dragged through the mud, but it is not our experience,” said Mikolajczyk.
Where are the Carpenters’ Union Minority Workers?
Gilbert insists that the Carpenters union has data that shows the number of minority and female union members and apprentices. The information was requested but has not yet been provided. The union touts its minority outreach efforts and partnerships with Pathways and TPS to recruit apprentices.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Ambrea Mikolajczyk is a minority entrepreneur and an excellent developer. She has been willing to take financial risks to better her community. She is exactly what our community needs. Some feel that the Carpenters’ union has bullied her after putting her and her husband Kevin’s lives and livelihood on the line risking all to invest in the historic Vistula Neighborhood.
Others, however, feel that the situation can be best described as “a dog bringing a bone to Ambrea’s yard.” The metaphor brings to mind the old wisdom that says, “beware of the dog that brings you the bone. It will only wreck your happy home.”
The best thing to do is find a way to bring both parties together in a room to talk, a process that is agreeable to Gilbert.
However, emotions are still high for Ambrea. “It very much feels as if this is a personal attack and a stain on my reputation and everything that we’ve built, everything that we’re trying to do in the community. But I have no problem sitting down to talk with them,” she divulged.
Then, ARK Restoration and the union can find a way to put the dignity in labor together.
That is what Dr. King attempted to do 53 years ago.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, D.Min, at firstname.lastname@example.org