On August 27th, Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 19 held a protest outside of the Biology, Engineering, and Psychology building construction site. A statement the union posted on their Facebook page cites Swarthmore’s decision to hire Quality Heating and Air Conditioning, a non-union sheet metal company, as the reason for their protest. “Local 19 is picketing at Swarthmore College in Delaware County against Quality Heating and Air for breaking down the area wages and standards of Sheet Metal Workers within our region.” The protest included a large inflatable rat that was blown up directly across from the construction site, as well as a sign that equated Quality Heating and Air Conditioning with a rat. According to The Washington Post, the inflatable rat is a widespread protest symbol which has been used by labor unions for at least 28 years.
Quality Heating and Air was contracted by Skanska, an international firm that serves as the construction manager for the B.E.P. project. Greg Brown, V.P. of finance and administration described the relationship between the College and Skanska.
“They’re coordinating everything with the project, but obviously we’re the owner,” Brown said, “Skanska’s under contract with us to deliver us a contract on time and on budget in accordance with the restrictions that we placed on both their bidding process and on their construction standards.”
The college has an open shop policy in regard to contracted labor, meaning that they do not require all workers to be in unions. On this project, Skanska is contracting both unionized and non-unionized firms.
Brown said, “There’s a considerable number of union contractors who are working on this job. The sheet metal workers are not among them, and I think that they wanted to be part of it, but based on our assessment of qualifications as well as pricing, we went without a union shop for that.”
Luke Gordon, speaking on behalf of the union, said of Quality Heating and Air, “They pay their workers considerably less money, not even a living wage. We as a union fight for everybody to get paid a liveable wage for today, these guys are barely making ten dollars per hour in a shop in Delaware.”
The college hires the contractors and not individual employees but, according to Brown, reserves the right to audit wages if there are specific concerns.
Brown also explained that the college has policies in order to ensure that the workers at the site are from diverse backgrounds.
“I think the other piece of this that is an important part of our direction to Skanska is that we have asked them to set aside a certain amount of dollars within the contracts to hire women-owned firms, minority-owned firms, veteran-owned firms, and we have asked them to in particular look to workforce development programs with an emphasis toward Chester.” Brown continued, “So there’s a set-aside within the budget to actually pay more for those things, because from our values perspective, that’s really what we think is the most important option.”
Regarding the relationship between the college and local unions, Brown said, “The trade unions here and in Delaware County will occasionally show up and protest, and they have every right to do that. Over the years, Stu [Hain, former V.P. of Facilities] and I have met with leadership of the union.” Brown continued, “They have every right to do what they’re doing.”
Quality Air and Heating did not reply to a request for comment.
Featured image courtesy of Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 19