Mohawk ironworkers are protesting the hiring of Mexican and Texan workers by a contractor for the Alcoa company in Massena, New York, but the giant multinational corporation says its hiring process is aimed at protecting the company’s bottom line.
A group of around 75 ironworkers from the 440 Local Iron Workers union and their supporters from other construction trades gathered at the entrance to the Alcoa Massena Operations building August 30 to demand that the giant multinational corporation hire the local Mohawk ironworkers that are world renowned for building America’s cities for more than 120 years.
“We’re protesting because this company from the south is hiring people from Mexico and Texas to put up this steel building,” Mohawk ironworker David Rourke said. “They don’t support the local economy. They take the money back to Texas and Mexico. That’s our livelihood. We Mohawk ironworkers live 12 miles down the road. This is a protest, not a strike, and we’re protesting: why are they allowed to do this? We want those jobs.”
Laurie Marr, communications and public relations manager for Alcoa’s Massena Operations, said the company aims to be “competitive,” meaning it wants to keep its costs as low as possible in order to maximize its profits. “Our goal is to keep our plant as competitive as possible and one of the ways we do that is by selecting the most qualified and cost-effective contractors through a bidding process, and that’s what we did in this situation,” Marr said.
According to Rourke, Alco hired Fluor, a multinational Fortune 500 company to oversee the project. The company’s website states, Fluor “delivers engineering, procurement, construction, maintenance (EPCM), and project management to governments and clients in diverse industries around the world.” Fluor in turn bid out the job to the CCC City Group, Inc., a San Antonio, Texas-based company, a “nationally ranked general contractor dedicated to providing a broad scope of construction, manufacturing and specialty engineering and design services to various industries throughout the U.S. and in select foreign markets,” according to its website. The CCC City Group hired the Texan and Mexican workers, Rourke said. CCC City Group Vice President Jack Hockey did not return a call seeking comment.
Alcoa’s Massena Operation was in the news earlier in August when Sen. Charles Schumer visited Massena and urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “fast track” the Superfund cleanup of the Grasse River. Alcoa polluted the river with PCBs for decades. The river has been waiting for a cleanup for more than 20 years, but according to the EPA website, the only remediation that has taken place was the removal in 1995 of approximately 8,000 pounds of PCBs from an area at the facility.
Rourke said the Alcoa project currently under protest involves repairing a building that was damaged in a fire last March. The two-story industrial building is 120 feet wide and 800 feet long. “It’s huge. Big money. Big iron. Big man-hours. That’s what this is all about,” Rourke said.
Marr said most of those already working on the site are local people. “Another point is that since the fire we’ve had over 100 contractors on site helping with various aspects of the rebuilding and the vast majority of those people have been employed from the local area and it’s been a mix of union and non-union people,” she said. Asked if Alcoa felt any obligation to hire the Mohawk ironworkers, who have worked on numerous Alcoa projects in the past, Marr said, “I just told you! We had more than 100 people working on the site and 85–90 percent of them have been local hires. That’s a lot of local hires.”
Rourke refutes that claim. “They didn’t hire the local people. We were all set to go a couple of weeks ago for them to hire 30 [Mohawk] guys to put the iron back up, but no, they hired non-union unskilled people. It’s all about safety here. These are just young kids. They don’t really know how to do the work. They’re just off the street. I’ve been in the business 36 years. My father was an ironworker; my uncles and my brothers are all ironworkers. Mohawk ironworkers are all over, some in New York, some in Canada; wherever the iron goes up, they know to hire us. But now because of this outside company, they’re going with the cheapest help they can find and it’s not helping us any.”
Rourke said the union ironworkers earn about $47 an hour, which includes health benefits and annuities. The workers net around $23 an hour after all the deductions. The imported non-union workers are paid $20 an hour without any benefits. The union leadership was talking to the Alcoa leadership, Rourke said.
He also hinted that the issue may have political implications. “I don’t think [the City of] Massena understands that the outside workers don’t help the local economy. I don’t think Massena cares for us, because they’re not getting their casino money from us,” he said, referring to an ongoing dispute between the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and the state over slot revenue-sharing payments. St. Regis stopped payments in November 2010, maintaining that the state violated the tribal-state compact by allowing gaming at another Indian community within St. Regis’s exclusivity zone.
Rourke stressed that the issue is not about racism or even workers from other places. “We’re not against Mexicans or anyone. It’s not their fault. We’re against this group of contractors from the south who bring their own crews with them. They’re a non-union group. We have up to 150 Mohawk ironworkers out of work. We’re in the North country. It’s not like the city; jobs are scarce here,” Rourke said. “We have to fight for everything.”
It’s not clear if the protest will continue.