Updated June 12, 2:30 p.m.
A two-story inflatable union rat appeared last week on Madison Street Monday in front of the Skrine Chops post-fire construction project along with three members of Cook County Electricians’ Union IBEW Local 134 wearing bright yellow vests protesting against the contractor, Robert Jahn Construction.
“IBEW has information that Robert Jahn Construction does not pay area standard wages and benefits for its electricians,” said a letter, sent seven times by Local 134 Business Agent Mike Nugent to Robert “Roby” Jahn.
Jahn hotly disputes the claim.
“It’s not true. Our electricians are very well paid,” said Jahn. “They are licensed by the state of Illinois, insured and bonded and most of them have been working with me for 10 years. My guys are as good or better – at this kind of work – than union electricians.”
The prevailing wage for electricians in Cook County is $40.40 per hour, $43 for foremen, according to the state of Illinois’ prevailing wage website. Jahn says he pays in “the high 30s.”
“It’s higher than almost anyone else pays if you’re not union. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone making that much money. A lot of union guys would be happy to make that much money right now,” said Jahn.
Nugent did not return several requests for an interview as of Thursday afternoon. Bill Niesman, assistant business manager of Forest ParkÐbased IBEW local No. 9, said he was not familiar with the protest, and said he would try to contact Nugent.
Jahn said he was puzzled that the union would complain about what he considers a very small job by union standards “almost like rewiring a house,” and thinks it’s unlikely any other Madison Street restaurant in the past few years has used union electricians. “I have no idea why they’re picketing on a tiny job like this,” he said.
“There’s nothing wrong with union electricians,” he added. “I just can’t afford them. They charge $200 an hour. Can you afford that? Steve Skrine can’t.”
Skrine was less diplomatic.
“I’m at the boiling point. Frustrated isn’t the word to describe it. I feel wronged,” he said. “Last time I checked, this is America and you can hire whoever you want. If they’re such good electricians, why aren’t they working? The union is not showing proper judgment sending three unemployed guys to stand in front of my place,” he said.
“I’m not a Wal-mart or a Kmart; I’m a small family business. It’s just me trying to survive with my family after I’ve been devastated by a fire.”
Skrine says his work at the restaurant is “99 percent finished” and construction, concrete, wiring and plumbing has been inspected and passed by Forest Park building inspectors. “If they have a smart business manager, why show up after the job is 99 percent complete? Why not show up at the beginning of the job if they really want union employees to be hired? The fire happened September 2nd  and on June 2nd they show up with a rat.”
Picketers told the Review the union got word that “dishwashers” were doing the construction and not being paid prevailing wage, which both Skrine and Jahn disputed.
Skrine said he had allowed some of his former kitchen staff, thrown out of work by the fire, to assist with some unskilled labor. “For example,” he said, “they would carry a bucket of sand upstairs to the professional bricklayers.”
Jahn acknowledged that some kitchen employees were on the construction site, but he said they did not participate in any skilled work. “They helped with hauling stuff to the Dumpsters since this place was really trashed. I guarantee that nobody [from the kitchen] has done anything substantial like electrical, plumbing or carpentry. They absolutely do no skilled work. I wouldn’t allow it as a general contractor. Our reputation is important, and I’ve been doing restoration work in the area for 30 years.” Jahn specializes in historic restoration and has worked on Frank Lloyd Wright homes.
Skrine said he is a skilled woodworker and has been doing much of the dcor carpentry details himself, using distressed wood from his teardown antique barn business. “I specialize in antique woods,” he said. “I don’t do anything I’m not licensed to do. All of our plumbers and electricians are licensed by the state of Illinois.”
Picketers also said that using non-union or underpaid labor to do electrical work was unsafe. “We’re here because of safety,” said one protestor, who declined to give his name.
“We have passed all the code and inspections that need to be fulfilled for a business to open in Forest Park,” said Skrine, noting that he’s had support from friends who have called since the rat arrived. “I’m just trying to get my business and my life back together. We’ll be open, hopefully, by the end of June and we can’t wait to see the people of Forest Park come back to Skrine Chops.”