Laborers picketing union and nonunion contractors at Ridgedale Shopping Center


Thursday, the Laborers' International Union of North America wrapped up its second day of picketing outside Ridgedale Shopping Center, calling on workers to swap tools for signs.

Organizers say for months they've been gathering evidence of safety violations on construction sites that are accessible to the public. The Minnetonka mall remains open while it's undergoing a $100 million facelift and individual tenants work on projects of their own.

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Joe Fowler, a business agent for Local 563, says that in May he showed photographs of various safety hazards throughout the mall to Chicago-based General Growth Properties with the hope that the mall's owner would put pressure on the contractors who hired the workers -- some union, some non.

"Hey, you're shopping in a place where your kid could walk on a construction site and play with an electrical box," Fowler says. "That's the way we look at it. And we're running into this again and again."

We asked David Keating, a spokesman for the mall owners, to weigh in, but he turned us down. "We are not able to accommodate an interview," he wrote in an email, "but what we want to emphasize and reiterate is that safety has always been a priority at all of our malls (and will continue to be a priority)."

Andre Stouvenel was fuming when we called him Wednesday night because the name of his drywall company, Commercial Systems, had appeared on a Laborers' sign. He's been working on the renovation of the Helzberg Diamonds store, and hired a union subcontractor to handle some of the electrical work that's now being criticized.

What the picket really comes down to, he says, is not safety but wages: The Laborers want to pressure the mall into signing a union-only work policy. "If they were really concerned about exposing a hazard to the public, they'd just call an inspector and have it shut down," Stouvenel says.

The Laborers makes no bones about wages on mall grounds. But they also take the position that, whether or not union workers are involved, and no matter what the private agreements might say, the people doing the hiring cannot absolve themselves of a dangerous environment. They point to a fire that broke out two days before Thanksgiving on the roof of a Macy's construction area.

"From our perspective, every contractor has a legal and moral responsibility over the site," says Kevin Pranis, an organizing director.

Helzberg's corporate office never returned our message, and its Ridgedale employees declined to comment on the picket. But when asked whether there had been any problems with store construction, a manager says, "All I know, the air conditioner is working."

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