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Coalition asks MASD not to enter contract with 'sweatshop'

A week before the first contract is to be awarded for McKeesport Area School District projects, a West Mifflin Area middle school subcontractor is under fire for operating an alleged sweatshop.

Two members of the Three Rivers Coalition for Justice asked the McKeesport Area school board Wednesday not to hire W&K Steel of Rankin as a subcontractor.

The coalition based in North Huntingdon Township claims support of community, political and religious leaders, labor advocates, students and others.

The TRCFJ members said at the board workshop that W&K is a sweatshop that exploits refugees from Croatia, Slovakia and Burma, as well as American employees.

"You have an obligation to award the contract to the lowest responsible bidder," Joseph Zoscak of McKeesport said. He said W&K meets the Allegheny County Administrative Code's definition of a sweatshop.

"There are plenty of contractors out there whose workers are property trained and follow (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) guidelines," Bruce Webber of White Oak said.

Webber said OSHA cited W&K on three dozen serious violations and two fatalities.

"I've never heard of that steel company," school board president Wayne Washowich said after the meeting. "Those are pretty serious charges. I hope they can back them up."

Earlier Wednesday, W&K Steel CEO Ed Wilhelm disputed TRCFJ's claims.

"We are a very safe shop," Wilhelm said, inviting a reporter to tour his plant.

W&K employs some 40 people, including refugees from Burma. Wilhelm said his firm works with Catholic Charities and Jewish Family and Children Services.

"We have full benefits," the Wilhelm said. "We have English lessons for the Burmese."

Joining TRCFJ members at the workshop was Aung Oo, a Burmese refugee who has been conducting a strike against W&K for more than a year. Only one worker joined Oo on that picket line, but an Ironworkers Local 3 organizer said others back them.

"We talk to the workers daily and nearly all are in support," said Chad Rink, who is a coalition member.

Wilhelm said Local 3 is targeting W&K because it could not organize its employees. Local 3 officials said no organizing is going on there today.

Oo joined the coalition at a November 2009 meeting with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton. There, Oo said refugees were victims of low income, discrimination and inadequate assistance.

"W&K paid them such low wages that they and their families are living below the poverty level," Zoscak said.

"Wages we pay our associates are very competitive on a national and local basis," W&K's website said.

Oo did not have an interpreter Wednesday and declined to comment.

Wilhelm confirmed W&K Steel is a subcontractor on the West Mifflin Area middle school project.

"We've worked on quite a few projects in the McKeesport area," Wilhelm said. It produced 3,000 feet of steel railing for balconies at McKeesport Housing Authority's Steelview Tower and Isbir Manor.

Wilhelm said his firm is certified as a fabricator and erector by the American Institute of Steel Contractors.

The school board is likely to award a general contract next week for an elementary wing to Francis McClure Intermediate School.

MASD construction manager Gerald Tedesco of Pennsylvania Public Management said contractors will have to meet all laws and standards and provide certified payrolls for federal inspectors.

Tedesco's firm was the first construction manager for the West Mifflin Area middle school but was replaced by P.J. Dick of Pittsburgh in February before construction began.

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