NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A group of construction workers have walked off several downtown job sites claiming they worked long hours for poverty wages.
The workers said they are protesting unsafe working conditions and the lack of benefits on some of Nashville's largest construction projects.
Union officials believe the situation points to the need to tie certain working conditions to tax incentives.
But Metro's development agency said that would only increase the cost of projects and questioned whether using tax incentives to address labor concerns is appropriate.
Stephon Eckles is one of the workers building Nashville's booming downtown.
He is a reinforcing ironworker, also called a "rodbuster," who lives with his wife and two kids in Manchester, Tennessee.
"You're working extremely hard and making huge sacrifices -- and you're still classified as poverty," Eckles said.
He has worked on high rises, arenas and stadiums, but said his family can't afford to use them.
"We're building stadiums but can't afford to take our kids to go and see a game," Eckles said.
This summer, he and six other "rodbusters" walked off the job.
The striking workers said they see downtown developers getting tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives, but said that money is not getting to the workers.
"It makes me mad because they are getting rich and we're getting poor," said Jason Reece. "We should at least have benefits."
Reece earns $15 an hour.
Rodbusters nationwide average $26 an hour, according to labor statistics.
Eckles gets $14 an hour, and he said his family must rely on food stamps and TennCare.
"I should be able to provide for my family and not depend on government assistance," Eckles said.
The strikers work for a subcontractor located in Manchester.
"We get up in the morning at about four o'clock and head to the gas station," Eckles said.
We watched one morning as workers met before sunrise at a gas station near Manchester.
"We get into the van, fill it up with gas and head off to Nashville," Eckles said.
We followed the van on its nearly one-hour drive into downtown.
Workers we interviewed knew the trip well.
They called the van a "clunker" and said employees were "cramped" into the vehicle.
It took workers to the site of the new Westin Hotel.
That project has received $16 million in tax increment financing from the city.
The head of the Service Employees Union believes that, when developers get taxpayer money, workers should get basic protections.
"They should set minimum standards for them to go by," said Doug Collier, president of SEIU.
"If they don't want to meet accountability standards then they shouldn't be allowed to have tax increment financing."
But Metro's development agency questioned whether tying labor conditions to tax incentives is appropriate.
"Clearly, that's something that we could put into a deal, but the question is what's that going to cost," said Jim Thiltgen, deputy executive director of the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA).
Thiltgen said Metro already requires contractors to hire a certain percentage of minority businesses.
"I think using tax increment as a tool to take care of labor issues is kind of a distortion of the intent of tax increment," Thiltgen said.
But Eckles said the final straw for him was when he was injured on the job.
He pointed to the scar left after a beam fell on his head.
He said the foreman didn't take him to the hospital -- just to the van.
"I had my hardhat on. It still busted my head open," Eckles said. "We should be treated with more respect."
At a time when Nashville is thriving and taxpayers are funding part of the growth, Eckles said it is time take a stand.
He just wants his family to see the benefits of his hard work.
Sixteen council members signed a letter to the subcontractor where Eckles worked urging him to meet with the workers.
Workers say this issue is bigger than just one contractor and impacts many projects getting tax breaks.
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