By Andrew Firestone
Somerville residents and union activists appealed to aldermen Thursday to put pressure on condominium developers KSS Realty to use union workers at their construction site.
KSS is building 184 condominium units at the old MaxPak paper factory site. On Thursday, citizens went before the Legislative Matters committee and explained their grievances in the coming conflict.
“I find it offensive that KSS would hire out-of-state employees instead of people who live literally right around the corner from MaxPak and would be proud to be a part of the project. It would cost KSS nothing,” said Matthew McLaughlin of Save our Somerville.
In a gesture of solidarity, the Board of Aldermen Legislative Matters Committee said they would request an explanation from KSS Executive Ted Tobin personally at a March 8 meeting, with Ward 1 Alderman Bill Roche going so far as to threaten holding up permits, and auditing the original contract for possible breaches of contract.
“I think that what they’re doing is illegal, and if it’s not illegal, it’s certainly unethical,” said Roche
The public hearing was attended by a diverse cross-section of Somerville who said they believed KSS Realty had dubious motives and was actively working to subvert the spirit behind the original agreement they made with the city.
“You’re seeing a coalition come together between organized labor, the immigrant community, residents of Somerville, union activists, who are insisting on economic development in this community, benefit this community. It’s a movement,” said union official Rand Wilson.
Much of the debate stems from the conduct of KSS Realty when gaining the right to develop 184 condominium units at the abandoned MaxPak site. KSS and Gatehouse Realty were aided with a $490,000 grant by the state this summer to bridge a shortfall in infrastructure funds.
Somerville, unlike many other neighboring cities such as Cambridge and Boston does not have an ordinance that requires any developer who receives public funds to hire local workers. The Board of Aldermen included a covenant in the original contract that used strong language to urge them to hire locally, but stopped short of legally requiring it.
Alderman-at-Large Bruce Desmond proposed such an ordinance, but it has yet to be passed.
“We’re here because Somerville people are struggling,” said McLaughlin. “My friends and neighbors are trying to figure out how to survive in the city we all love, and KSS refuses to even acknowledge our concerns.”
“They think they can circumvent our movement by offering people scraps. We’re not here for scraps; we’re here for meals. It’s not a good idea to keep us hungry,” he said.
The protester’s concerns were unanimously supported by the committee in the conflict. Ward 2 Alderman Maryann Heuston called it a “pivotal point for our community.” The Board called for an agenda that would send a clear message to future developers that bargains should be honored.
“We’ve got someone who is trying to cut corners,” said Wilson. “You see what’s happening in Egypt, you see what’s happening in Wisconsin. You see what’s happening right here in Somerville. We’re going to use our people power to demand union jobs, to demand, fair and good working conditions, and to demand that local people get a shot at working at MaxPak and at any other development that occurs in this city.”