Amish workers irk labor organizations

NORWALK The Norwalk Commons still has a long way to go. Much of the complex remains b
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

NORWALK

The Norwalk Commons still has a long way to go.

Much of the complex remains bare land. Piles of dirt sit where restaurants and a hotel are expected to be built.

But in the back part of the development, near the intersection of Stower Lane and Norwalk Commons Drive, contractors are working hard to finish Redwood Village Luxury Suites by Christmas. The 56-unit, upscale-condominium complex has a grand opening scheduled for Oct. 11.

Wayne Schlabach, construction manager of the project, said he is with X.L. Builders out of Mt. Eaton. Schlabach has a big, graying beard under his chin. It's an Amish beard.

Mt. Eaton is in Wayne County, one of three neighboring Ohio counties that are home to the world's largest Amish community.

The Amish, known for their beards and craftwork, are also known for their unbeatable construction bids, union officials said.

"If they are coming from the Amish community, they are not paying unemployment, they are not paying Worker's Compensation possibly, and they are not paying Social Security. That is a huge amount of money that's lost in the economy. It makes it unfair for the local contractors to even try and compete against that," said Harry Brady, business representative for the Ohio and Vicinity Regional Council of Carpenters.

With the economy headed south, many companies are looking to cut project costs wherever they can. Some look to Amish builders, whose prices are often nearly impossible to compete against, Brady said. Others look to out-of-town companies that often employ non-union contractors.

About half of the contractors hired by X.L. Builders are local, Schlabach said. None are union.

Many non-union contractors pay fair wages and provide admirable benefits, Brady said. Even so, he urges local developers to use local labor to keep the money flowing back into the community, and he especially supports hiring union labor.

"I'm not saying that all non-union contractors don't pay OK or decent wages. But I don't think there are any non-union contractors who match what the union has to offer -- not just the pay scale, but the benefits, the training, all those kinds of things," Brady said.

People see the picket lines and the big inflatable rat, and it sometimes shades their opinion of the union negatively, Brady said. Unions only exist to give leverage to skilled workers.

"We are looking to make sure that we can maintain good jobs in this area," he said.

Brady said he fears local labor will not be used to build the Holiday Inn Express that is going into the Norwalk Commons, a development that is primarily creating retail and low-paying jobs.

"I don't have an ax to grind with the Norwalk Commons. ... But if you can't get local, reasonably decent-paying jobs out of the construction end, what did you get out of if?" Brady said.

Pride One Development, developer of the Commons, was the recipient of Norwalk's first-ever tax-increment financing agreement. The company's chief development officer, David Conwill, told city council he would try to use local labor as much as he could.

Mayor Sue Lesch said she believes the company will stick to its promise.

"His agreement was to make reasonable attempts to do so, and I would expect him to do that," Lesch said.

Conwill said he has proven his dedication to hiring local contractors, and intends to continue to do so.

"I have already hired, over the past three years, local labor. I hired Janotta & Herner out of Monroeville, which is a very acclaimed general contracting company, to build the Batesville Casket Company."

He said he has also hired Stively Electric and many others.

Conwill said he awards contracts to the most promising bidders. He said he makes no other distinction.

"I don't discern between union and non-union labor. I discern between price, quality and service," he said.