At-Large D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson had this message for a local construction contractor that has come under fire for alleged worker mistreatment: "If any company wants to do business in the District, they have to respect their workers, and they have to work with their workers, not fight them."
It was a statement met with wild applause from the dozens of construction workers who rallied outside a construction site in southwest Washington on Thursday morning. Many claim local contractor Southland Concrete has a record of treating workers unfairly with long hours of back-breaking and sometimes dangerous work, without paid leave. One worker made those allegations to City Paper; others at the rally Thursday had similar complaints.
Another demand from workers was that Southland allow them to unionize. There have also been claims that the company has tried to intimidate workers into silence.
The rally even gained some international coverage, as many of Southland's employees are Latino immigrants. One woman told Mexican outlet El Sendero del Peje that Southland offered to raise her salary on the condition that she refuse to join efforts to unionize workers.
While workers demanded a right to unionize, other workers at the construction site Thursday seemed to have a differing opinion. Workers in hard hats, literally on the other side of the fence from protesters, held signs bearing the Southland Concrete logo, chanting "Right to work! Right to work!" repeatedly.
The United Construction Workers union, which helped organize the rally, has been working with Southland employees to help them form a union. UCW said it has also asked the D.C. Council to pursue a full investigation of workplace abuse allegations at Southland.
Mendelson said the allegations have only recently come to the council's attention, so no action on an investigation has been made yet. But he did say the council can help more immediately by pushing the city's Office of Contracting to urge that Southland and other contractors treat workers fairly.
"Oversight pressure is what we can do," Mendelson said. "That's the way the council will be of help here."
Southland had not responded to phone calls from News4 regarding the workers' allegations on Thursday night.