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Union pickets Community Bank project to protest Watertown contractor’s wages

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Construction workers busy completing a renovation project at Community Bank, 1125 Arsenal St., have endured plenty of distractions this week from union pickets, who’ve waved protest signs and chanted on the sidewalk about 50 feet from site.

On Thursday, a group of nine men from the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters Union Local 227 loudly accused Great Northern Construction, Watertown, of not paying workers the prevailing union wage for the project. The Watertown contractor was awarded the project by Community Bank because it offered the lowest bid.

“Who’s the rat?” they chanted together. “Great Northern!”

The union, which has made several visits this week to the construction site, claims Great Northern pays carpenters below the “area standard” hourly wage of $42 received by union workers, said Francis M. Hardy, council representative from Syracuse. The group also blames Community Bank, which failed to hire unionized workers for the project.

Great Northern “thinks we’re making a stand against them, but we’re out here to elevate wages for all carpenters,” Mr. Hardy said of the regional council, which protests projects across 21 counties. “We believe all carpenters should make the standard wage.”

The union also held a protest last fall in front of AmeriCU on Arsenal Street, in which a subcontractor from Lacona, JMS Interiors, hadn’t paid construction workers the prevailing union wage. And earlier this summer, the union made headlines when it staged a protest outside Bass Pro Shops in North Utica. That time the pickets chanted against Granger Construction, East Syracuse, for employing nonunion workers.

But the boisterous union group has been a source of irritation for the eight workers from Great Northern, said Joseph W. Gerstenschlager, owner of the contracting firm. Though the business doesn’t pay the prevailing union wage, he said, it offers workers a competitive wage in keeping with other local contractors.

“They have no idea what we’re paying, and they’re only out there because it’s not a union job,” Mr. Gerstenschlager said. “We’re not paying the union rates, but our wage rate is in the range of everyone else in the area. It’s fair.”

Mr. Gerstenschlager also is worried that the union group’s distracting behavior could pose a risk by endangering workers on the roof of the building.

“I pull my guys off the roof when they’re here, because they might fall by losing their focus,” he said.

Great Northern started the project in July, he said, and work is expected to be completed in about a month. The expanded branch will include an additional 1,200 square feet to accommodate four offices and an expanded meeting room. A third drive-up lane will be added, along with a walk-up ATM.

The parking lot will be expanded, and the building will feature new signage, external siding and a pitched roof with an entrance tower.

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