MERRIMACK — Two weeks before the new outlets are set to open in town, members of New Hampshire carpenter unions demonstrated outside the entrance to the 100-store mall on Thursday.
Outraged that New Hampshire tradesmen, painters, carpenters and bricklayers were not hired for work on the massive shopping center, a group of about 22 union workers protested silently along Industrial Drive near the new Premium Outlets Boulevard.
Posting signs that read, “Simon Malls Built on Lies,” the demonstrators said that Simon officials promised to employ local unions for various trade work while constructing the site.
“When Simon Property Group started construction in 2010, they broke their promises to the community. Instead of hiring local, responsible contractors, they hired out-of-state workers, a number of whom are illegally misclassified as independent contractors, aren't covered by workers' comp and are being exploited with bottom-feeding wages,” said a flier being distributed by the demonstrators.
According to Liz Skidmore of Local 118 Carpenters in Manchester, construction workers from about 30 states have been helping to create the new shopping center, including tradesmen from as far away as Arizona, California, Mexico, Nevada, Texas and Wisconsin.
Her union has been trying to work with Simon Property Group to ensure that more New Hampshire workers have job opportunities at the site, especially because there is a second phase of construction that will eventually begin.
“It is really clear that they are ignoring every commitment they have made,” said Skidmore. “It shouldn't be this way.”
In a statement issued by Merrimack Premium Outlets on Thursday, management said that unions have had the opportunity to bid on all work at the construction site.
“We have cooperated with the unions from the beginning of the project. The project was always planned as a publicly bid open shop,” says the statement. “ … The process resulted in about 50 percent of the labor being union.”
John Jackson of Local 118 said New Hampshire workers deserve to get a fair shot at some of these jobs. Union reps argue that the construction manager is from Florida, concrete work was conducted by a Massachusetts company, drywall was put up by Texas workers and painters are from Georgia.
“We would like to get a commitment from Simon that any future work on-site will be done with at least responsible contractors that have workers' comp coverage, are paid a decent wage and are registered in New Hampshire,” said Jackson.
Some of the workers hired for specific skills aren't even clear how much money they are making, said Bill Legrend of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 35 in Brentwood, maintaining it could be $11 an hour or $14 an hour.
“This economy is pretty dire. If they had just kept to their word, we would have local people working here,” he added.
The unions say they plan to demonstrate on Friday as well, and if there is no resolution to the problem, they will also be present on opening day. A four-day grand opening celebration for the outlets is planned for June 14-17.
Merrimack Premium Outlets, developed by Simon Property Group's Premium Outlets division, is located off the F.E. Everett Turnpike at Exit 10.
The high-end outlet center will be completed about nine years after word first spread about the proposed $100 million project that is projected to generate about $140 million annually in retail sales.
“We are pleased that Merrimack Premium Outlets has already brought many new jobs to the area, and we look forward to our opening which will employ hundreds of area residents in new retail jobs,” said the statement from MPO management.