Active with the Activists: Unions Accuse Contractor of Wage Theft In Manchester

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Phil Leary of the Painters and Allied Trades Union is pictured protesting the Avatar construction company in Manchester.

Union protest near the Avatar Construction site in Manchester. ARNIE ALPERT photo

By Arnie Alpert, Active with the Activists

Arnie Alpert spent decades as a community organizer/educator in NH movements for social justice and peace.  Officially retired since 2020, he keeps his hands (and feet) in the activist world while writing about past and present social movements. 

MANCHESTER—The giant inflatable pig at the corner of Elm and Central Streets in downtown Manchester is not a remnant of a Thanksgiving parade.  It was set up by the Painters Union at 7 a.m. on November 28 to show their opinion of Avatar Construction, which is building an eight-story luxury apartment building about a hundred feet away.   

Avatar is under fire in Massachusetts, where the Attorney General filed a complaint in March charging the company with underpaying workers at five job sites.

The Painters Union thinks Avatar is a bad actor, and they want the residents and taxpayers of Manchester to know it, especially since the company’s Grand Central Suites project has been awarded three years of tax breaks from the City.  Union members plan to stand on the corner with their banners and their pig every weekday for a month, perhaps longer.

“We’re just out here to inform the public that the taxpayers’ money is important, and that we don’t need these kinds of bad, unscrupulous contractors doing work in the city,” said Phil Leary, an organizer with Painters and Allied Trades Council 35. 

According to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, the department’s Fair Labor Division received a complaint in 2021 alleging that an Avatar subcontractor was out of compliance with the state’s prevailing wage law, which sets minimum standards for compensation on public sector projects. “The Division conducted an investigation,” they said in a March 21 news release, “concluding that Avatar and its subcontractor, Gonza Construction, Inc., submitted false payroll records on public projects in Cambridge, Lawrence, Stoughton and Watertown, underpaying workers by at least $171,095.”

The complaint also says Avatar and its owner, Mazar Vincent, omitted material information concerning Vincent’s prior criminal conviction and bankruptcy when it submitted bids on the projects.  

Avatar has denied the allegations.  According to Vincent, Gonza gave Avatar documents showing they had paid prevailing wages.  Now Gonza is out of business and “Avatar is holding the bag.”

Vincent called the Commonwealth’s lawsuit “a shakedown by the State.”  He and his lawyers have had settlement talks with the Attorney General, but he refused to pay the penalty proposed by the state on top of the wages owed.   “I want my day in court,” he said.  

Kevin Pombriant, an Avatar Senior Project Manager who was observing the union demonstration from the Central Street construction site, said he had never even heard of the Massachusetts lawsuit.

The Painters and members of other building trades unions say the company is guilty of wage theft.

Leary said he’s been following the project’s development for three years, hoping it would be built with responsible contractors hiring and paying decent wages to local workers.  The wage theft accusations came up after the Board of Alderman had already approved 3 years of Community Revitalization Tax Credits, he said.  

Leary doesn’t pin any blame on City officials.  “They didn’t know about the wage theft before the project was approved,” he said. 

Avatar began demolition of the buildings at 21-31 Central Street in June, meriting a “highlight” in the newsletter of Manchester’s Economic Development Office.  When the project is completed, Avatar says Grand Central Suites will offer “affordable luxury living in the heart of Manchester.”

“Each unit features high ceilings and ‘smart’ technology that connects residents to a variety of amenities, including housekeeping services, dry cleaning, room service, and even local vendor deals. And with onsite parking and retail space on the first floor, Grand Central Suites is the perfect downtown living option for those looking for convenience and style,” according to the company’s promotional website.

“I’m serving the community by taking the risk,” Vincent said.  He wants credit for building housing in the downtown area, not being protested with a plastic pig.  

On its opening day, the Painters’ demonstration included several supporters holding a banner next to the giant pig, with another half dozen union members holding an identical banner on the other side of Elm Street.  Mayor Joyce Craig stopped by to show her support, as did representatives of the NH AFL-CIO and other community groups.  Leary said the mayor-elect, Jay Ruais, drove by but did not stop.  

“We’re for building things,” Leary said, “as long as you’re doing it with responsible contractors, and you’re paying a fair living wage, and you’re paying benefits, and you’re not stealing from the workers.”

The union is backing a “Responsible Contractor” ordinance, which is under consideration by the Board of Mayor and Alderman.  According to the current draft, contractors bidding on municipal contracts can be disqualified if they have a record of noncompliance with employment discrimination laws or labor laws.

Pedestrian traffic was slow during the 90 minutes I was there, but union members had leaflets for anyone who walked by.  “Wage theft is not welcome in New Hampshire,” the flyer said, with a request for people to call Avatar “and let them know our Community will not stand for these ‘RACE TO THE BOTTOM’ contracting standards.”

Rodrigo Badaro, another Painters Union organizer, said the union is conducting a similar informational picket in Everett, Massachusetts, outside a project being built by Greystar, a giant real estate and construction firm based in South Carolina.  Greystar is being sued for gross negligence by the family of a man who was killed by falling construction debris at a construction site in Austin, Texas last March. The company has already been ordered to pay $860 million in damages following an incident in which a woman was killed by a collapsing construction crane in Dallas.  Standing on Elm Street behind a banner that says, “Avatar Construction: Bad for Community,” Badaro said, “We’re just informing the community.” 

“If we keep letting these contractors come in here and do this, and they have these wage theft violations and unscrupulous activities going on, on their job site, it’s only the beginning,” Leary said.  “It’s only the beginning. They’re going to keep coming in, they’re going to come in droves. And then it’s going to be harder to stop them. You got to nip it in the bud right from the beginning.”

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