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Union protests outside hiring

Kristen Durbin | Thursday, November 4, 2010

When a group of local union members began picketing in September in front of her soon-to-open Kilwin’s Chocolates & Ice Cream at Eddy Street Commons, Tricia Wainscott wondered why.

“When I first saw the protesters, I felt horrible,” Wainscott, general manager of the store, said. “My initial reaction was to ask, ‘Why is this going on? What did we do?'”

The protests came in response to Kilwin’s choice to use outside workers instead of union workers from the South Bend area, which did not help stimulate the local economy, said Troy Warner, assistant business manager of Local Union 153.

Starting Sept. 23, several Local 153 members began picketing at Eddy Street twice a week in support of local workers, Warner said. The group held up signs that read,

“Honk for local workers,” in hopes of raising awareness of the issue at hand.

“We want the community and Kite Realty to know what’s going on, and we want to put pressure on Kilwin’s because another building at Eddy Street has yet to be developed,” Warner said. “We felt that this was the right time and the right place to get the message out.”

But Wainscott said the Kilwin’s franchise, based in Michigan, chose the general contractor for the project without her individual input.

“I would never not support non-union or non-local labor,” Wainscott said. “It was nothing personal, and it was all said and done before I knew anything had happened.”

Although the general contractor was not locally based, Wainscott said local workers were employed in the installation of the store’s audio, security and fire alarm systems.

The decision was also made without the influence of Kite Realty Group, which owns the Eddy Street Commons development, said Ashley Bedell, a project manager with Kite who worked on the Eddy Street project.

She said each individual retailer has options when it comes to developing the space they rent.

“We own the overall buildings, but when we do leases with individual retailers, they have the option of taking the space in a shell condition and hiring their own contractors to complete the buildout,” Bedell said. “The amount of work Kite does determines what the rental rate is, so it’s part of the business deal, and it varies from tenant to tenant.”

Bedell said Kite has the power to control whether the development’s tenants choose contractors that complete quality work, and the general contractor for the Kilwin’s space, Indianapolis-based Alt Construction, has a history of completing quality developments.

Bedell also said some union contractors were employed in the construction of the larger buildings at Eddy Street Commons.

Warner said Kilwin’s use of a non-local general contractor did not support the struggling local economy or help to improve the unemployment rate of the members of Local 153, which he said hovered around 25 percent for the past year.

“The unemployment rate in my union will probably get up to 30 or 35 percent this winter,” Warner said. “But this isn’t just a problem at Eddy Street. As the economy has tanked and construction has slowed, we’ve been seeing workers brought in from all over who are taking jobs from local workers.”

So far, Warner said the public response to the protests has improved since the pickets first began.

“The first week or so, people would just look at us as they drove by,” Warner said. “Now that we’ve been out there, they know why we’re there and they honk and wave, and some people even brought us food and coffee.

“The reception from the public has been tremendous.”

But Bedell said there have been no complaints from any of the other Eddy Street Commons retailers.

“It’s an unfortunate situation and we wish it wasn’t the case, but it doesn’t cause too much of a disturbance,” Bedell said.

Jay Murphy, manager of Kildare’s Pub, which is adjacent to Kilwin’s, has only noticed minor effects on his business because of the protests.

“The only kickback we’ve gotten is that we got a call from a few suppliers who were double-checking that the workers were not protesting Kildare’s,” Murphy said.

Warner believes the positive response from the community is important because it emphasizes the support for workers who are part of the South Bend community.

“We need to support workers who pay taxes here, go to church here, whose kids go to school here,” Warner said. “It makes sense to keep as much money in the community so it can churn back through local businesses.”