By: Mary-Ellen Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Photo by Brendan Felch
Last spring, Towson saw protesters come to campus, spreading anti-semetic and homophobic rhetoric. This semester, a different type of protestors are attempting to protect the workers contracted to help build the new science building.
Keystone + Mountain + Lakes Regional Council of Carpenters, a union, has had a small group of local representatives posted on campus since late June, protesting the local contracting company, Commercial Interiors.
Union representative John Barber said that Commercial Interiors is being sued for wage theft and the use of labor brokers. The lawsuits stem from the company’s work on the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C. Commercial is being accused of misclassifying workers as independent contractors. This can lead to cheaper wages being paid to those workers.
The Towerlight reached out to Commercial Group, the company that oversees Commercial Interiors, and Whiting-Turner Contracting Company of Towson, the general contractor of the science building. Neither company responded by The Towerlight’s print deadline.
“Our union bases its public outreach off the motto of our founder PJ McGuire, ‘Organize, Agitate, Educate,’” Barber said. “The public should know that Commercial Interiors has utilized labor brokers who misclassify their workers which lets the contractor get away with not making payments towards workers compensation, unemployment insurance, and more.”
With a banner reading “Crime Scene” across the top and bottom as a backdrop, union members can be seen throughout the week talking to passers by and handing out flyers explaining their protest.
“Commercial Interiors, Inc., is being sued for wage theft,” the flyers say. “They subcontracted drywall work to a series of labor brokers who often short changed workers. Commercial Interiors along with their business partners are bad for our communities and workers in the construction industry. Does Towson University, Care??”
TU’s Director of Media Relations and News Matt Palmer said, “it’s an issue [the protestors] hold with the contractor that the contractor is addressing.”
Towson, Barber said, was a spot of choice for the protest because college students could be part of the solution not just in the future.
“When educating the public we look for many audiences and know that college students are not just our future leaders, but also active and important members to our community right now,” Barber said. “We need this generation to understand the importance of unions and what they do for the community. Our country needs a strong middle class to survive.”
Towson senior Athena Visillias says she often sees the protestors as she drives by campus to go to her internship, but she hasn’t had the opportunity to interact with them.
“If it is a problem and people aren’t okay with it, and there’s a group that’s not okay with it, then something should be said in more detail,” Visillias said.
Visillias also said that she feels that without the protestors, people wouldn’t know about the suit against Commercial Interiors, and that wouldn’t find the issue important without the protestors.
“Local and highly skilled members of our union are always the best choice when it comes to safety on the jobsite, as well as getting jobs done on time and within budget,” Barber said. “The fair wages that the union negotiates makes sure that local working families can provide for their families and invest in the local community helping create more revenue for small businesses and local treasuries.”
Junior Victoria Delgado has also passed the protesters on her way to school, and feels that the wage theft suit demonstrates a larger issue.She added that she feels the protesters should continue to protest if it helps their cause.
“It’s America — you should be allowed to protest if you don’t like something an institution is doing,” Delgado said. “It’s one way to get attention about this.”
Barber knows that this issue isn’t going to go away immediately, and hopes local institutions will come to understand that the projects contractor has used self-serving and harmful tactics in the past.
“Defending the rights of local workers will not be fixed overnight,” Barber said. “We will be educating the public indefinitely.”