Steel fabrication firm targeted by coalition, union

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A union-backed effort to expose a local steel fabrication firm has state Sen. Jim Ferlo considering tighter standards for publicly backed contracts.

Since September, the Three Rivers Coalition for Justice and Ironworkers Local 3 have been leafletting the plant and job sites of Rankin-based W&K Steel LLC, and they say they have sought meetings with Urban Redevelopment Authority officials and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. They allege a poor safety record, financial troubles and disparate treatment of refugees -- charges the company's owners vehemently deny.

Mr. Ferlo, D-Highland Park, is a member of the URA board, which backs local building projects, including some that use W&K's steel. Though he has not done independent research on the company's performance, he said the concerns of the coalition and union have illuminated a problem in URA-backed contracting.

"I think we want to not only achieve the moral high ground, but we also don't want people victimized" while doing publicly backed work, he said Friday. "It's not in the public's interest to have [subcontractors] or prime [contractors] consistently involved in victimizing workers."

He said he intends to work with the coalition and the union over the summer to examine the language the URA uses to ensure the responsibility of contractors on its projects, with the intent of crafting objective standards that would extend to subcontractors.

The URA could compel the developers and prime contractors it works with to rule out subcontractors who are "in flagrant violation of the [federal] Fair Labor Standards Act" or Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, or who have tax problems, he said.

The idea got a measured reception from URA Executive Director Rob Stephany, who said the agency already talks with prime contractors about the ability of their proposed subcontractors to do jobs. He said deeper involvement in ruling in or ruling out subcontractors could confer liability on the URA.

Driving the discussion is the coalition, and its campaign against W&K.

Two W&K fabricators, Aung Oo and Timothy Hand, went on strike last year, though they are not represented by a union. They've turned their strike into a public relations effort.

Mr. Oo, a Burmese refugee, was part of a federal Department of Labor roundtable discussion on Wednesday on Asian-American and Pacific Islander labor problems. Mr. Hand has taken the case to Pittsburgh City Council.

Mr. Hand, 49, of North Huntingdon, said in an interview that he started working at W&K in 2002, and found it "pretty dirty" with "a lot of confusion," but wasn't too bothered by the situation until 2006. That's when the company started bringing in refugees from Burma, after years of bringing in Eastern European and African refugees.

"I just saw [the Burmese refugees] being exploited," he said. "They were getting screamed at every day. They are hard workers. They show up every day.

"Doing the same work, I was almost making double" what the refugees got, he said.

W&K executives said they employ refugees as part of enduring relationships with Jewish Family and Children's Services and Catholic Charities Diocese of Pittsburgh, which resettles them.

"We pay for what skill sets and what talents people bring to the table," said Edward Wilhelm, president of W&K. "I don't care what nationality or creed you are. We pay by performance."

His wife, Celeste Wilhelm, who also is an executive with the company, said the firm provides English classes, pays the entire cost of employee health insurance, and grants paid vacation after six months on the job. "We value the people who work with us."

The coalition points to 26 OSHA violations since 2002, and the 2008 death of an affiliate's employee, Daniel Seighman, as evidence of unsafe conditions.

The Wilhelms counter that they are in the process of getting their safety program certified through the state. The death, said Mr. Wilhelm, was the result of a worker's failure to tie off while working at a height. Online OSHA records show a $2,000 fine apparently driven by the death.

Company affiliates have had financial challenges, including a 2007 state tax lien for failure to pay $35,650 in corporate levies. One of its top managers pleaded guilty in 2007 to failure to carry workers' compensation insurance at HBC Barge LLC, of Brownsville, a related firm.

Predecessor firm Wilhelm & Kruse, which went bankrupt, was a defendant in 2001 federal lawsuits alleging that it pressured a women-owned business to act as a "pass-through" contractor on the Heinz Field and PNC Park construction sites. In pass-throughs, a women- or minority-owned business pretends to take on a portion of a job to satisfy a public agency's goals for involving disadvantaged businesses, but really just gets a small payment for little or no work. The lawsuits were dismissed.

A coalition spokesman said W&K is providing steel for the Otto Milk Building in the Strip District and the Glass Lofts in Friendship.

The URA has loaned $790,000 of the $16 million price tag of the Otto Milk condos. Its $2.1 million in loans represent around one-third of the Glass Lofts project's financing.

"It's amazing that the city uses a company like this," said Chad Rink, the coalition's director, who said he's involving faith-based, union and student groups in the effort. "Between exploiting workers and all of that, there's a lot of moral issues that should be looked at."

"It's [Ironworkers] Local 3 behind the coalition, and it speaks for itself," said Mr. Wilhelm.

Mark Thomas, business manager for Local 3, said his union is trying to help the coalition "to make working people middle class. And we support anybody that's trying to do that."

Mr. Wilhelm would not say whether he thought the union was trying to use political pressure to organize his shop, but said the campaign hasn't hurt his business.

Mr. Ferlo said he's not targeting any specific firm.

"I don't know that we'd want anybody working on a publicly subsidized project who has been in consistent violation of safety rules or had people killed," he said. "I think [such firms] should be disqualified. But we have no way to do that."


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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