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What would MLK think?

After the fracas over its Chinese sculptor, the folks behind the Martin Luther King Memorial have been very careful who they choose to build the Mall’s newest installation. They’ve hired 56 percent minority and women-owned firms, which a press release says has “made inclusion and a spirit of diversity on the project a top priority to honor the legacy” of the iconic civil rights leader.

But King’s legacy stretches beyond racial equality, to economic justice—by the end of his life, he was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, and supporting Memphis trash workers on strike.

Which makes the MLK Memorial team’s choice of a concrete subcontractor especially ironic. For the last several months, the United Construction Workers union has been speaking with concrete workers at sites across the metropolitan region, and says Dulles, Va.-based Southland Concrete—which is doing the concrete work for the $120 million project—has by far the most complaints from its workers. In recent weeks, UCW has run ads in local media (including City Paper) slamming Southland’s labor policies. And tomorrow, they’re planning a protest in front of another Southland project, the city’s Consolidated Forensics Laboratory at 6th and E Streets SW.

José Gilberto Lara Lemos, a Southland worker for the last two and a half years, will be among the estimated 200 workers from all of the company’s construction sites who’ll walk off their jobs to be there. Through a UCW interpreter—most Southland workers speak little English—he sat down with Housing Complex to talk about what it’s been like.

Lemos came to the United States from El Salvador in 1996, sending wages back to his wife and two children. He first worked as a dishwasher, and then cutting grass, but applied to work at Southland because his neighbors said the pay was better. At $12 an hour, it was—but also backbreaking, with long hours and no water. He’s gotten only one raise, after they were promised every year, and no paid time off or sick days.

But aside from the harsh conditions, the worst part might be the abuse and intimidation. Lemos says the supervisors, who are all white, constantly scream and swear at their teams of workers, sometimes prompting accidents. Workers are warned that if they leave, the company could find dozens more to replace them (which is probably true). By now, the company knows about the unionization effort, and organizers say they’ve been threatened while talking to workers on job sites. On May 21, about 50 workers were laid off—not an unusual thing for the construction industry, but Lemos says most of the cuts came from those who had signed cards indicating their interest in forming a union. Lemos knows that he himself may be fired for his organizing, which is a scary prospect.

“In the United States, bills don’t wait,” he says. “It’s an intensely negative feeling to be looking for work in the industry.”

Historically, the construction sector has been difficult to unionize because the work is so transient, and employees don’t have time to organize before they’re either laid off or transferred to other work sites. Ultimately, UCW wants the region’s concrete companies—which also include Clark Concrete and Miller & Long—to sign contracts with worker committees for better conditions and a standardized, transparent process for layoffs and rehiring. Organizers hope that success at Southland, which has numerous government contracts, would help raise standards throughout the industry.

Southland did not return a call for comment. The MLK Memorial foundation referred questions to James Tolbert, a marketing vice president at Turner Construction, which is the main contractor on the project. He says he hadn’t heard about UCW’s campaign, but pointed out that none of the concrete companies in the area were unionized, and promised tight oversight.

“To the best of our knowledge, Southland has one of the better safety records, and if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be on the project with us,” Tolbert said. “I don’t know Southland personally… but I can tell you this: When it comes to safety, rest assured, the design-build team is very, very stringent with its rules and regulations.”

Which may be true. But at the rest of Southland’s sites, there are no such assurances.