As Chinese workers build the Martin Luther King memorial, a union investigates

Chinese sculpter Lei Yixin works on the granite head that will cap the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the Mall.
Chinese sculpter Lei Yixin works on the granite head that will cap the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the Mall. (Courtesy Of Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation)
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Map of Martin Luther King Memorial site
The Washington Post
By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 1:33 PM

Francis Jacobberger's plan was simple - show up with a six-pack of beer and talk his way into a Crystal City apartment. An investigator for the Washington area union that represents stonemasons, Jacobberger was working a case dear to the members: Who should build the centerpiece of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial - Americans or imported Chinese workers?

In September, the foundation building the $120 million memorial on the Mall promised in writing to use local stonemasons to assemble and install the 159 blocks of granite that will make up two massive sculptures at the center of the site, including one bearing King's likeness.

But when construction of the sculptures began three weeks ago, it appeared that the foundation had reneged. Jacobberger, a wiry 32-year-old former bricklayer from Delaplane, was asked to find the Chinese laborers who were brought in to work on the King memorial and determine whether they were being exploited.

One evening last week, Jacobberger and a Mandarin translator, Josh Bassan, sat parked beneath the Arlington high-rise where the workers live. As they waited for the men to return from the construction site, Jacobberger schooled Bassan on how to chat them up.

"This should be easy going," he said. "It's like leading a horse to water."

If all went well, Jacobberger would finally know what the workers were paid and what their living conditions were like. His suspicion was that they were not being paid anything close to the prevailing wage for an American stonemason - $32 an hour, plus $12 an hour in benefits.

Bassan's efforts might not mean more jobs for American masons, but union members had demanded that their leadership do something. The possibility that cheap imported labor was being used to build any portion of the King memorial was anathema to them. King was assassinated in 1968 while in Memphis to support a sanitation workers strike.

The use of Chinese workers at the memorial is also deeply unsettling for a union that has had a hand in building every major monument in Washington since the end of the Civil War.

"Why do they need to come over to do the work when there are so many people here who can do it?" asked Scott Garvin, president of the Washington area local of the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers union, whose membership has dropped in the past three years from 2,000 to 850 because of a decline in building projects. "It's kind of a thumb in the eye."

Years of controversy

The flap between the memorial foundation and the union is the latest in a series of disputes since Congress approved the project 14 years ago. In 2007, the foundation was criticized for choosing the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin instead of an American artist. The next year, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which reviews plans for monuments and memorials, complained that the "colossal scale and Social Realist style" of the King sculpture "recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries." The commission asked for a reworking.

In June, the meltdown of the Greek economy delayed delivery of the granite blocks that will make up the two main sculptures, the Stone of Hope and the Mountain of Despair, named for a line in King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The partially carved pieces that Lei will finish on site finally arrived in Baltimore in August, around the time the union learned that Lei intended to bring close to a dozen workers with him from China to assemble the sculptures.

Within weeks, the union began passing out handbills in front of the foundation's offices, protesting the use of foreign labor. In late September, after foundation President Harry E. Johnson Sr. met with James Boland, president of the bricklayers' parent union, the foundation posted a statement on its Web site saying that it "will employ skilled craft workers from the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (BAC) to work with Master Lei Yixin, Sculptor of Record, to complete the assembly and installation of the Mountain of Despair and Stone of Hope sculpture pieces."

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