By Nona Tepper
Jonathan Costello and a giant inflatable rat have stood outside a construction site for three weeks, picketing a development by Michigan Avenue Real Estate Group, which is owned by White Sox and Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and his longtime business partner Robert Judelson.
"As a resident, I'm worried about the lack of safety and the substandard wages and lack of benefits that the construction workers are not getting," said Costello, a Forest Park resident who is a laborer with Local Union 1.
"I have been in their shoes and, no matter who is the owner of a company, whether they have a million dollars or they're just small-time trying to start something, they basically look upon laborers as disposable, and a lot of times they seek people that aren't necessarily able to defend themselves."
The Northbrook-based firm plans to build a four-story commercial and residential building at 7652 W. Madison St., at the old Brian Boru Irish Pub site, on the lots between Dunkin Donuts and Mugsy's. The union and developer have a longstanding dispute over Michigan Avenue Real Estate Group's choice of general contractor, Vivify Construction. Vivify subcontracts out the project to firms that don't use union labor and have a history of safety issues. The village said all companies on the site hold the appropriate permits, have passed every safety milestone and that federal investigators recently found no violations on the site.
Neither Vivify or Michigan Avenue Real Estate Group responded to interview requests.
"The issue is that Vivify basically doesn't talk to us at all and, because they are the general contractor that Michigan Avenue exclusively hires, we feel that Michigan Avenue has a say in who they hire. They're sort of tied in together," said Al Barraza, a building trades organizer for Painters District Council 14.
"We just feel like, if doing union work in Guaranteed Rate Field and the United Center is OK, why isn't doing private work the same? He has the means to do it."
In April 2018, the village council voted unanimously to approve the project. At the meeting, Commissioner Tom Mannix instructed village staff to work with the developer to hire union workers.
"Because we're not a home-rule community we don't have some of the same powers that other communities have to control and mandate certain things for projects. Our hands are somewhat tied to push for some kind of prevailing wage. If there was some kind of tax share agreement, obviously, we could do that or ask them to hire union contractors," Mannix said. "But, again, I would trust that our staff would certainly work with the developer to incorporate that, especially when it comes to hiring local residents."
Former Mayor Anthony Calderone said these issues needed to be addressed earlier in the planning process.
"In this particular case, [it] went before the zoning board and plan commission, and it's on both of those occasions where residents and the business community can come in and cross-examine the developer," Calderone said at the meeting.
Paul Price, a Forest Park resident and organizer with the builder's trade union, said he wasn't surprised the then-village council unanimously approved the development, since it was "obviously very business-friendly." But he was surprised the developer wanted to build in his hometown.
Price had been watching Michigan Avenue Real Estate Group since January 2018, after the firm announced several new projects in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood. He said the developer's safety record and use of non-union labor caught his eye.
"It's not their typical spot; they generally target gentrifying neighborhoods and their whole shtick is luxury apartments. For that location in Forest Park, I think that's going to be a little tougher sell," said Price, adding that he thinks the only reason Michigan Avenue built in Forest Park is because their general contractor firm is owned by River Forest resident Viktor Jakovljevic. "He's a retired soccer player and literally just came into construction about 10 years ago after his career had stopped. I've never seen him pick up a tool on a job site. I've never seen him actually work for them. … If it were in his hometown, maybe he would do the right thing. I think it's because it's not in his hometown that he's able to take advantage of Forest Park and its residents."
Price urged the village to pass a responsible bidder ordinance, which he said forces developers to hire a portion of local residents for projects, minority business enterprises or disadvantaged business enterprises; pay workers a "livable wage"; provide health benefits; and apprenticeships. "Several municipalities have passed legislation like that and I'm hopeful that Forest Park will take something like that up too," he said.
Mayor Rory Hoskins said the council didn't lobby for union labor in this instance.
"The council and the village have the ability to influence projects and, in this one, I don't think they had the will to do that," he said. "They didn't make an issue of it; they just approved the project."
Hoskins said he has friends in the local and visited the picket about three weeks ago to show his support. He said he "generally supports" the idea of using union labor, and that "we'll probably look at the idea of home rule at some point, but I don't want to get too much into that."
He said he would like the council to "carefully look" at adopting a responsible bidder ordinance but has not spoken to his colleagues about it yet.
Costello said he originally arrived at the site because he was notified by his union that there was a picket in the area and wanted to advocate for the workers. He said he has not talked directly with any of the workers on site because there's a language barrier.
"These men are the same; they do the same kind of work as me but in a manner that puts their safety at risk and does not adhere to a prevailing wage," Costello said. "So with that said, I have concerns for their safety and I want to see them be able to provide for their families."
Costello said he noticed several safety procedures that weren't being followed, and questioned the use of village saw-horse barriers surrounding the private development.
"If somebody trips over those [saw] horses, they could potentially sue both the village as well as the contractors," Costello said. "We are in a budget deficit and one way to avoid unnecessary money that's spent is by not purposefully putting the village in a position to where they could be liable for injury."
After complaining to a nearby Forest Park police officer, Costello said Steve Glinke arrived at the site. Glinke, director of the village's department of public health and safety, reportedly handed him a business card and then walked away without taking the time to listen to his concerns about use of village property on the private site.
"I kind of felt that he was not concerned with a very legitimate issue and a risk to the public safety," Costello said. "I was hoping he would acknowledge the potential liability that using the village resources imposed."
Glinke said his office, police and fire department officials have received multiple calls and emails about the construction site and answered each quickly.
"This office takes no sides in union [versus] non-union disputes," Glinke wrote in an email. "I met with OSHA investigators who received an 'anonymous complaint' at this location. They didn't give me specifics and I didn't ask. They did, though, say the site was fine, no violations noted, and they probably wouldn't be back. Coincidentally the 'mouse' [inflated rat] and his keepers were nowhere to be seen."
Price said he hoped OSHA would return to the site since Vivify has generally had issues when constructing the second or third stories of buildings.
"It's a bummer that OSHA came out so early," he said. "I guess I don't want workers to get hurt and I'm glad that workers are safe currently. I'm just not sure that they will be in the future."
Costello said he, too, still has safety concerns.
After watching workers build a wall, he said he saw bricks fall onto the public right of way, which the construction firm failed to close off. He was also concerned about the temporary sidewalk the construction crew utilized, which he said was too narrow and those in a wheelchair could not use the wood ramp they installed.
"If people aren't paying attention to signs of construction, it's rather easy to wind up in an area that by any other professional contractor would be closed off due to hazard and danger," Costello said. "So if you're walking your dog, or you're a mother pushing a stroller, I would personally suggest taking the sidewalk on the other side of the street and avoiding the construction project at all costs."