MLK memorial gets union's attention

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; B01

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. At issue: 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 County 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 find out 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 - $32an hour, plus $12 an hour in benefits.

The effort 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 Craftworkersunion, 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."

But when work on the sculptures began without union masons, the local president, Garvin, sought an explanation from Johnson. Garvin said the foundation chief never called back.

Johnson did not respond to a request for an interview, and the foundation declined to make Lei available. Instead, the foundation sent a Sept. 8 statement by Johnson that reads: "While 95% of the work is being done by American workers, we strongly believe that we should not exclude anyone from working on this project simply because of their religious beliefs, social background or country of origin."

Stymied, the union asked Jacobberger to get some answers.

'National pride'

Inside the Crystal City apartment building, the investigator directed the translator to one of two apartments occupied by the Chinese workers. (The investigator allowed a Washington Post reporter to go along.)

Bassan knocked once. No answer. For several minutes, he stood perfectly still, a six-pack of Miller in one hand. (Jacobberger wanted to bring Tsingtao, a Chinese beer, but the store he went to didn't carry it.)

Bassan knocked again. Still, no answer.

After some minutes, he knocked again. This time, he heard muffled voices, and from behind the door appeared a young Asian man with tussled short hair and a gray T-shirt. Behind him, the apartment looked barren but spacious, with beige walls and beige carpet that reeked of cigarette smoke.

Bassan launched into his rehearsed spiel, asking for a friend who might still live here. The man in the T-shirt told him that person wasn't there and closed the door.

After a few minutes, Bassan knocked again. This time, he held up the six-pack and said something about needing to practice his Mandarin for an interpreting job the next day. Would the guy do it for a six-pack of beer?

He was in.

Bassan spent the next hour on a couch talking to the Chinese man, while the apartment's three other occupants lay about watching a movie on a laptop. The apartment was less a hovel than a poorly kept bachelor pad in need of a thorough wipe-down. None of the men offered their names, nor did they ask Bassan for his.

The man told Bassan that the rest of the Chinese crew lives in another apartment but that all the workers gather for breakfast and dinner, which they make themselves. They work for a sculpting company in Hunan province and have no idea what they will be paid for their work on the King memorial. They expect to be paid when they get home.

The translator asked: Why did the workers agree to not being paid until they return to China?

Because they are working for "national honor," the man said. "To bring glory to the Chinese people." He said the workers felt patriotic pride in having been chosen to work on the King project. He said they knew that there were Americans who wanted their jobs, didn't get them and were mad that the Chinese did.

The man said the workers get free room and board and lunch delivered at the job site. Their work breaks last only as long as it takes them to eat. When they had been in the United States for one month, they were treated to dinner at a restaurant. Like typical tourists, they planned to go to New York City over Thanksgiving and maybe Niagara Falls.

What difference that information will make to American stonemasons, Jacobberger is not sure. He was disturbed that the workers didn't know what they would be paid.

But he couldn't take issue with the apartment building, which has a 24-hour concierge, an Olympic-size pool and a fitness center. "At least we know their living conditions are good," he said.

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