The Rapidian

Protesters appear at farmers market: Whose labor dispute?

Another of the labor dispute protests dotting the city, this Wednesday protesters took to the street in front of Fulton Street Farmers Market. Who is behind these protests and what do they want?

/Emma Higgins

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/Emma Higgins

Wednesday morning, at least thirty protesters carrying placards took to the street outside Fulton Street Farmers Market and marched. This is not the first time they have marched. This time they were silent, with placards that read:

"Ritsema does not pay area standard wages and benefits."

Protesters declined to explain their stance, instead directing questions to a phone number provided on available literature. When called, this phone number had no answering machine message implicating any organization or specific persons, nor have they responded to messages left requesting comment.

According to FSFM development project manager Christine Helms-Maletic, the Wednesday morning protest was premature. "To date no Ritsema employees have done any work of any kind on the Fulton Street Farmers Market site; we have not gotten to that stage of the project." Helms-Maletic explained, "At this time, MNA [Midtown Neighborhood association] is still fundraising to complete Phase III of the project and so has instructed Rockford Construction to amend our contract to exclude all work for that phase, including the work of Ritsema Associates. When sufficient funds have been raised, the sub-contractors will re-bid for it. At that time, MNA will make a decision regarding all of the affected sub-contractors, including Ritsema Associates." Helms-Maletic added, "Apparently, the carpenters' union has a long-standing dispute with Ritsema Associates and has made a practice of bannering/picketing sites where they are engaged to work."

Protestors can be found standing with large banners in front of various sites around town: Van Andel Arena, Aquinas College, and many of the hospitals. These banners declare "shame on [whichever institution they are located]." The same format is used for each banner, with just the names changed. This dispute has been ongoing for some time; there are stories dating back to 2010. The disputers in the case of Grand Rapids are The Michigan Council of Carpenters (MRCC), whose literature states that the reason for protest is as follows:

"The Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters has a labor dispute with Ritsema Associates over its failure to provide area standard wages and benefits to all its workers on all projects."

A leaflet provided outside Aquinas College by banner attendants states that:

"The Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters believes that Aquinas College has an obligation to the community to see that area labor standards are met for construction work at all their projects, including any future work. They should not be allowed to insulate themselves behind independent contractors."

Bill Ritsema, head of Ritsema Associates, says that the dispute has been ongoing for at least a year and a half. He is of the opinion that these protests are an exercise that "the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners is engaged in across the county to select non-union contractors." It is Ritsema's belief that "the union has been losing membership steadily over the last several years and they think that these tactics will somehow revive their cause. Ironically the people that are being hired to picket are in fact unemployed people being paid $10 or less hour. "

This discovery that protestors are not union workers but instead hired below union wages has insighted criticism from investigators.

There have been various investigations into the legitimacy of these protests over the past two years. Ritsema cited a Mackinac Center for Public Policy article which insinuates that these protests are arbitrary. Included in the article is a link to an initial letter that MRCC sent to Ritsema to outline their reasons for future protest.

Due to the protester's lack of communication, it is difficult to determine whether these protests are an attempt by the Union to rally support for themselves, using non-union workers as a platform for debate, or whether they are waging an honest campaign founded on real concern for worker welfare. Their website states, "As well as promoting and protecting the interests of our Union and its members, we will attempt to identify and elevate the moral, intellectual and social conditions of all working men and women." The Union was not available for comment at time of this article.

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