HAYWARD, Calif. - "When I heard about NBC Contractors denying workers their rights and the pay they deserve, I thought about my father, and the struggles he went through when he emigrated from China 25 years ago and became a construction worker. He didn't work for NBC, but he faced similar struggles. Due to limited English and education, and the lack of opportunities for new immigrants, he had a hard struggle to support his family."
Fighting back tears, Connie Huang, executive director of the Asian Pacific Islander Recruitment and Retention Center at the University of California, Berkeley, continued her father's story.
"He would come home exhausted, his back aching, and he struggled physically to maintain his job - the only job he could take because of the limitations and pressures he has in this country. He has managed to keep our family financially intact, but I know the low wages he receives can never equate to the backbreaking work he endures."
Listening were more than 200 unionists and community supporters, including many building trades workers, who gathered outside the Alameda County Superior Court here Aug. 24 as Monica Ung, owner of NBC General Contractors, entered the building for a hearing. In the crowd were dozens of students from public schools and colleges where NBC has performed work.
Ung and two NBC employees were arrested in May, charged with 48 felony counts including public works wage fraud, grand theft of personal property, forgery and insurance fraud. Their actions are alleged to have resulted in an estimated $3.6 million in unpaid wages to 19 construction workers, and an estimated $1.5 million in losses to the state of California from illegally misclassifying workers. NBC has been employed on many publicly-funded projects in the Bay Area, including city halls, schools, libraries and other public buildings.
Workers - many of them Chinese immigrants who speak limited English- told investigators they had to sign two time cards before receiving their paychecks. One showed the actual hours they had worked, and the other falsely reported they had worked fewer hours for the higher "prevailing wage" required on publicly-funded projects.
Saying he is now "a proud member of Local 6, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers," Ricky Lau, a young electrician introduced as the "whistleblower" in the case, told how two years ago he applied for a job with NBC after he saw a notice in a Chinese newspaper. "I was offered a very low rate for a highly-skilled journey level position," he said, "but I took it because I needed a job to support my family."
When IBEW representatives visited the job site, Lau learned he should have been paid "prevailing wage."
Realizing he and others were being cheated, Lau told the union what was happening. "With help from the IBEW, we were able to leave NBC, and become IBEW members. Now we are fighting for justice for all workers who are still being ripped off by greedy employers."
Last year the IBEW filed a class action law suit to recover the unpaid wages and overtime. That law suit is now in abeyance pending the outcome of the criminal charges.
Standing with the workers were elected officials from cities around the Bay Area where NBC has worked on public projects. One former elected official, however, came in for sharp criticism. Several speakers asked why former San Francisco mayor and longtime California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who built a reputation as a "friend of labor," is now defending a contractor charged with egregious abuse of immigrant workers.
Emceeing the rally program was Don Campbell, executive director of the Northern California chapter, National Electrical Contractors Association. Describing the NECA as "an association of union electrical contractors who pay a fair wage to their workers," Campbell told the crowd, "An employer has a distinct power to write a paycheck ... when that power is abused to the level alleged here, there's only one solution: Monica belongs in jail!"
Reciting a long list of public projects where NBC Contractors allegedly "exploited workers, robbed taxpayers, cheated and committed perjury," IBEW Local 595 Business Manager Victor Uno told the crowd that taxpayers as well as workers were cheated when the contractor dodged payment of full insurance premiums.
"We think there are quite a few problem contractors out there," Uno said after the rally. "We think this case will help workers understand they have the power to fight abuses" and to know union members will help them fight for their rights.