Unions call out Vikings owners for Eagan apartment contractors

Workers say the Wilf family is working with subcontractors with histories of discrimination and wage violations.

Workers say the Wilf family is working with subcontractors with histories of discrimination and wage violations. Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

Minnesota's carpenters have enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial relationship with Zygi and Mark Wilf, owners of the Minnesota Vikings.

That’s according to an open letter sent on Thursday from the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, and the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha unions. The stadium in Minneapolis and the practice facility in Eagan have provided ample work for members. (The partnership has played out pretty well for the Wilfs, too.)

Besides the work itself, many of the union members are fans, something the Vikings don't always make easy.

But the carpenters union is wary of the Wilfs' move into local housing development, specifically the Viking Lakes project, set to bring high-end apartments to Eagan, right next to the Vikings practice facility. The development plans call for 261 units in an initial round, set to open sometime in 2021, with more than 1,000 "multifamily residential units" planned eventually.  

The construction unions are calling out the Wilf family for hiring subcontractors with histories of mistreating and underpaying their workers. The letter listed two in particular: Absolute Drywall, Inc., and JL Schwieters Construction.

According to a U.S. Department of Labor investigation, between June 2014 and June 2016, Absolute Drywall cheated workers out of $126,000 in pay. The same investigation referenced Absolute's prior "child labor violations." 

Julian Soriano, who was 17 years old when he worked for Absolute, said in a statement that he’d worked there for months, earning only $7 an hour, six days a week. Legally, 17-year-olds are only allowed to work on construction sites if they’re being closely supervised through a state-registered apprenticeship program.

The Minnesota Department of Labor has also repeatedly (2016, 2018) found Absolute Drywall to be skirting state law by hiring unregistered construction contractors.

Schwieters, the other company under scrutiny, had a run-in with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016. A few years earlier, a pair of Black employees had been harassed by their white supervisor, who allegedly told them he “could shoot a [n-word] a mile away,” constructed a noose out of electrical wire, and threatened to hang them. The commission claimed the company knew about this behavior and “no action” was taken to stop it. Schwieters settled with the employees to the tune of $125,000 in 2017.

Burt Johnson, the Carpenters’ legal counsel, says it’s “very uncommon” to see language like that in a complaint, and this information has been out there for a while, if the Wilfs had been willing to look for it.

“A Google search was all the vetting that needed to be done,” he says.

The Carpenters and the Centro are hoping that by going public, they will put enough pressure on the Wilf family to reconsider – especially in light of the NFL's struggle with its image in recent years.

The league has gone from decrying player Colin Kaepernick for being political to taking a knee alongside him, hoping to come out on the right side of history as the tide turns in favor of social justice. The Vikings recently honored George Floyd at their season opener, and the Wilfs pledged $5 million toward "social justice causes."

“These companies are profiting from Black people and Black labor,” Centro board member Lexi Collins said in a statement. “How are you going to say that Black lives matter in front of the press but have no commitment to making change behind closed doors? These companies must be held accountable.”

The Vikings didn’t respond to interview requests. The Carpenters’ director of government affairs, Adam Duininck, says they’ve been having a back-and-forth with the company about changing its hiring practices. He says they were told that the Vikings simply let subcontractors bid on projects, and Schwieters and Absolute came up with the most competitive prices. It was “too expensive” to hire someone else on principle.

But those low prices, Duininck says, are only possible because these subcontractors aren’t paying their workers what they should be making, and he doesn’t expect them to shape up anytime soon.

"Self-policing has never been the answer with these issues,” Duininck says. “The kinds of practices on this job site is something we see throughout the region; people in vulnerable positions are willing to work for less, and that drives down standards for everybody.”