News: Low-balling Low-wage Workers?

Some say Western & Southern should let its janitors vote on whether to unionize

Jun 4, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Natalie Hager

City Councilman David Crowley believes The Enquirer is siding with its Big Business allies at the expense of low-wage workers.

Some Cincinnati officials are asking that one of the city's largest companies allow its janitors to vote on whether they want to join a union before city council doles out almost $58 million in public subsidies for an office tower that the company wants to build downtown.

Executives from Western & Southern Financial Group are upset about the city's demand, claiming that council members are trying to pressure the company by threatening to delay construction of its Queen City Square project, a $322 million, 40-story structure that would become Cincinnati's tallest building upon completion.

They're so upset, in fact, that a Western & Southern executive called Cincinnati Enquirer Publisher Margaret Buchanan to complain. Buchanan got personally involved and had a news reporter and a member of The Enquirer's editorial board each contact Vice Mayor David Crowley about the matter on May 28.

Two days later, on May 30, the newspaper ran an article in its business section about the impasse, along with an editorial that criticized Crowley and other council members for making the demand in the first place.

The article and the editorial's slant of "just give the money to Western & Southern and shut up" got some of the basic facts incorrect, Crowley says, and is an example of a newspaper trying to improperly sway public opinion to help its Big Business allies at the expense of low-wage workers.

Buchanan and John Barrett, Western & Southern's CEO, both sit on the board of directors for the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC), a private organization whose mission is to redevelop downtown and Over-the-Rhine.

Although Crowley and other city officials had met with Barrett to discuss the matter a few times beginning at least six weeks earlier, a Western & Southern lawyer told The Enquirer that the company was "blindsided" by the demand when it appeared May 19 before city council's Finance Committee to begin a land transfer connected to the deal.

"That's just not true," Crowley says.

"Either someone is lying or there's a big breakdown in communication between the CEO and his general counsel. He's either been not informed or misinformed by his boss."

Regardless, Crowley believes Buchanan's intercession on the company's behalf raises serious ethical questions including whether its coverage was even-handed.

"I don't remember that ever happening before," the vice mayor says. "It seems to me to be totally unfair and inappropriate. It appears to me to be one person trying to control public opinion on a project involving public money to aid a friend."

It's not the first time that Buchanan's affiliations have come under fire. She also is a member of the University of Cincinnati's board of trustees, and some critics have alleged it's affected The Enquirer's coverage of the school, particularly when UC President Nancy Zimpher fired basketball coach Bob Huggins.

Some readers and others have questioned whether a newspaper publisher should be affiliated with community organizations that often are the subjects of coverage.

Buchanan didn't return a message that CityBeat left with her personal secretary.

Western & Southern is seeking $3.75 million in direct subsidies and another $54 million in indirect subsidies for Queen City Square. Under the proposed deal, the direct subsidies would be used for sidewalks, streetscape work and relocation of utilities around the site, located at Third Street and Broadway.

The indirect subsidies would come from Tax Increment Financing (TIF) money, or city taxes that will be generated by the project once it's completed. Instead of those taxes going into the city's coffers, they would be used to repay bonds — debt that will be used to partially finance construction — similar to paying off a credit card.

Western & Southern wants city council to vote on the deal by June 25, the group's last meeting before a summer break, because it wants to begin construction in September.

Donald Wuebbling, a Western & Southern vice president who's also its chief lawyer, defends his comments to The Enquirer.

"(The union vote) had never been connected with the approval for a completely unrelated project," Wuebbling says. "It was never brought up in context of getting the approvals for Queen City Square. We were surprised and disappointed."

Crowley replies that's simply inaccurate. He and others met with Barrett on April 7 and May 5, where council's intention was made clear.

Wuebbling declined further comment, noting the matter is still being negotiated.

Western & Southern is the last major downtown office-building owner to use a non-union janitorial contractor, EMS, to provide cleaning services.

Last summer a union representing Greater Cincinnati's janitors won their first-ever citywide labor contract, giving them higher wages, more work hours and health insurance. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) got increased pay and better access to health care for its workers. Although Greater Cincinnati is home to numerous Fortune 500 companies with combined estimated annual revenue of $177 billion, many janitors were paid less than $28 a day with no health care or other benefits. The union's local chapter represents about 1,200 workers.

SEIU is a frequent contributor to several Democratic members of Cincinnati City Council, including Crowley and Mayor Mark Mallory.

Although the janitorial contractor used by Western & Southern does pay better than some other firms, it only offers benefits like health care insurance and sick leave to full-time workers. It avoids having to provide the benefits by allowing most employees to work only 31 1/2 hours each week.

"As far as benefits go, they just bounce you along," says James Pence, who's worked for EMS for one year and supports unionization. "You never really know what's going on."

A coalition of 20 area unions — including Teamsters, schoolteachers, grocery store workers, carpenters and others — recently sent a letter to Cincinnati City Council supporting the effort to make Western & Southern force EMS to hold a unionization vote or switch to another provider.

The letter states, "Taxpayers should not be asked to bankroll the creation of low-wage jobs or to encourage the continued undermining of important progress made by low-wage workers in our city." ©