Laborers on the site of the Waterview complex in Rosslyn are renewing their claims against the asbestos removal company that hired them this year as part of preparations for a multi-million dollar renovation project.
In a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board, the men claim their one-time employer, USA Remediation, paid them with bad checks and later fired seven workers for expressing support for a union protest, a violation of labor laws that guarantee workers the right to organize.
David Kelsey, corporate director of USA Remediation said in a phone interview that the controversy is the result of nothing more than an over-zealous union harassing his staff and fabricating claims of wrong-doing at the Waterview site.
“We think the complaints are motivated by the unions,” he said. Kelsey denied the union’s claim his company passed bogus checks.
“I know those checks didn’t bounce,” he said. “There are no checks outstanding on that job. We are of the belief that the union has started its own check-cashing business to obtain our checks and wrongly label them with an NSF stamp to make these claims on their own.”
“I have never dealt with a company like USA Remediation,” said Clayton Singha, researcher and advocate for the Laborers International Union of North America, the worker’s rights organization pressing the case against the company.
Controversy surrounding workers at the Waterview began in August, when two laborers at the site contacted the union about trouble with their paychecks, with checks returned for insufficient funds. The workers, many of them foreign immigrants, couldn’t get paid for their work. More claims of bounced checks soon followed.
“USA was delaying payments to their workers and they just weren’t putting enough money into their payroll to begin with,” Singha said. “This went on throughout the project.”
Following up on the claims, union organizers went to a “checks cashed” kiosk in the Shirlington neighborhood to investigate.
“And there were USA Remediation’s checks hanging on the wall with a sign above saying telling staff not to accept them,” Singha said.
Those checks, marked NSF, for “insufficient funds,” remain on the wall to this day. Union leaders seeking to represent workers on the site contacted USA Remediation in an attempt to obtain payment on the bounced checks with phone calls and letters from union delegates. The effort, Singha said, was ignored.
“In the case of the letters we sent, someone at USA’s offices shredded them and sent them back to us,” he said.
Taking their push to the next level, union leadership sought the support of local politicians including Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49) and County Board members Walter Tejada and Chris Zimmerman.
“It appears there were chronic problems,” said Zimmerman. “We took it to JBG and they indicated that they would look into it.”
USA Remediation paid the bounced checks but that didn’t end trouble on the Waterview site.
Workers continued to report problems with USA Remediation’s checks and union activists responded with a protest, erecting a 15-foot inflatable rat outside the Waterview site.
“During the protest, seven workers came to the windows and gave the people below the thumbs up as a show of support,” Singha said. “They all got fired.”
Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), enacted in 1947, states that all workers have "the right to self-organization, to form, to join, or assist labor organizations". The same act states that employers are not allowed to “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in Section 7.” Yet USA Remediation fired seven of its employees according to the union; Joselito Martinez, Hector Ayala, Juan Posada Rivas, Fredy Hernandez, Felix Funes, Wolqui Medina and Saidy Corrales. None of the men could be reached for comment, but the union filed a federal complaint on their behalf.
The claim his company fired workers for expressing support for the union is baseless, Kelsey said. He pointed to the fact that the seven men left Virginia for Florida as evidence.
“Don’t you think that if they really believed those charges had merit that they’d stay here to follow through with them?,” he asked.
USA Remediation, he added, has also been targeted by the union in other ways including the infiltration of the Waterview site by union operatives.
“The union does employ people to pose under the guise of being hard workers so they can come into the workplace to steal documents and attempt to sabotage equipment so they can then turn around and report unsafe working conditions to OSHA,” he said.
Carballo denied the claim that union leaders are falsely stamping checks to make them appear to have bounced. But he said that some union members have volunteered to work at the Waterview site in attempts to organize the workers there. But those workers did not sabotage any equipment nor did they steal anything, he said.
On Sept. 30, Ebbin joined group of union workers staging a protest outside the Waterview site.
“My first job in Virginia was in this building twenty years ago,” said Ebbin, a former chief deputy commissioner with the state’s Department of Labor and Industry. “When I was working on the ninth floor, I had no idea that this site would one day be known for incidents of unfairness and the immoral treatment of workers. It is an outrage that USA would flagrantly violate the National Labor Relations Act by illegally firing seven workers for expressing support for the fair treatment of working people.”
Shouting at the building on a bullhorn, Ebbin added, “Rehire the illegally fired workers. Stop bouncing paychecks. Pay your workers on time with checks that are good and stop these unfair labor practices.”
The federal case against USA Remediation was temporarily withdrawn in October, when the workers involved left Virginia for other jobs, working on clean-up efforts in Florida after a string of hurricanes ravaged the state. According to Hugo Carballo, business manager for Laborer’s Local 11, they have since recommenced court proceedings since returning, a right they have under federal labor regulations. This week, he said, the men have appeared in hearings to press their claims. Yet the most they can expect, he said, is the payment of backed wages and a little personal satisfaction.
Unions have pressed similar complaints against the USA Remediation, based in Warrenton, Va., in several states. The Environmental Protection Agency has also brought charges against them for ecologically dangerous practices. In 2003, an administrative court in Philadelphia found the company guilty of improperly disposing of asbestos during renovations at West Virginia University’s coliseum in Morgantown. Judge Susan L. Biro upheld the decision, slapping USA Remediation with a fine of $14,500.
In 2000, according to EPA reports, USA Remediation was the subject of another investigation at the Greater Buffalo International Airport, in Cheektowaga, New York. An old building was being torn down near the airport to make way for a parking lot. It was reportedly the largest asbestos removal job the state had ever undertaken. The structure contained an estimated 35 miles of asbestos on its pipes. The contract was worth $4.2 million.
Construction on the Waterview complex, situated at the foot of the Key Bridge, is set to commence next year after preparations for the renovation of the existing building are complete. The project by development company JBG and Trizec Properties, has already gained its first tenant, the Corporate Executive Board, which will move into the building in 2008.
The finished product, according to JBG, will be 2.16-acre high-rise designed by architectural firm Pei-Cobb Freed and Partners, the same firm that crafted models for sections of the Louvre, in Paris.
The blueprint is comprised of two 300-ft. high towers, holding 170 condominiums, 155 hotel rooms, and 620,000 square ft. of office and retail space. Requests for an interview with executives at JBG last week went unanswered, but according to union leaders, JBG launched an investigation into USA Remediation’s alleged labor indiscretions after workers’ complaints gained support from local politicians.
“But they have never seen fit to call us or ask us for information,” Singha said. “I believe their investigation consisted of asking USA, ‘Did you do it?’”
The removal of asbestos on the site is finished and the union’s efforts to organize workers on the site appear to have yielded little.
“Anytime we tried to organize them, the men always get scared into silence,” Carballo said. “It got to the point where we heard people on the site were too scared to even mention unions. These USA guys are really something. They don’t seem to respect anybody.”
The federal case between USA Remediation and the union has been a heated one. During his deposition Sept. 23 in Washington, DC, according to court transcripts, Kelsey erupted under questions from union lawyer Jonathan Rose. Kelsey had to be removed from the room after flying into a stream of anti-Semitic remarks aimed at Rose. The incident prompted a response from the activism group Jews United for Justice.
"Jews United For Justice is troubled both by USA Remediation's treatment of its workers, and by Mr. Kelsey's alleged remarks," the group said in an Oct. 6 statement. "...This kind of behavior is well beyond the pale."
Yet no matter which side is telling the has the high ground in this dispute, a resolution to the federal charges against USA Remediation could be a long time in coming.
“Unfair labor practice charges always take years,” Singha said “Companies have many ways to delay these things.”