By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — Anthony Hutchinson is a good sheet-metal man and he’ll tell you so.
“I’m the most efficient sheet metal foreman in Tennessee,” Hutchinson says.
“Every skyscraper in Nashville that’s topped out in the past two years, I ran the edge metal: 505 Church, JW Marriot SkyHouse, Aertson Midtown, Westin, Village 21, I did ‘em all,” he says proudly
Isn’t it scary working walking on the edge of a 25-story building with nothing but a safety line and harness to keep you from falling? “I trust my safety and my guy to hand me the materials and tools I need to do the job,” he says.
What started as a request for a work light escalated into a labor dispute between Hutchinson and three top executives at Maxwell Roofing & Sheet Metal, Inc. which until recently employed him.
Hutchinson and his helper were installing sheet metal on the edge of a four-story building in Huntsville last month. It had been raining on and off all day. The ladders were slick and the roof was wet. It was 2 am, pitch black, and slippery.
Another Maxwell crew was covering the roof with waterproof white sheeting that comes in rolls. They had five lights and Hutchinson had none. Working in the dark, Hutchinson’s helper slipped on some AC pipes and almost went down. Hutchinson needed a light to finish laying sheet metal around the edge of the roof so he asked the roofing foreman to loan him one of theirs.
He refused. Words were exchanged and the other foreman, Ben Wegener, called the cops on Hutchinson, claiming he was drunk and belligerent. The police came but did not arrest Hutchinson.
Nevertheless, Maxwell GM Doug Herron pulled him off the job, and Hutchinson drove 2 1/2 hours back to Maxwell’s HQ on Dickerson Pike in Nashville to take a breathalyzer test and pee in a cup at seven o’clock in the morning of September 14.
“I blew a point zero zero one and the drug scan came back negative, too,” he said.
Hutchinson says he doesn’t do drugs or drink but some of Maxwell’s roofers do. In short, he says Maxwell’s brass got it all wrong. The way he sees it, he lost 10 hours, about $280, all because Wegener wouldn’t give him a work light.
Back in Nashville, one of two sheet metal foremen on Maxwell’s payroll suffered a heart attack. GM Doug Herron called Hutchinson just days after the Huntsville fiasco, and asked him to come back to work putting metal fascia on a new commercial building in Franklin.
“They were punishing me for something I didn’t do by laying me off but then suddenly they needed me so they called me back in,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson told Herron he would do the job but he wanted the company to pay up on a $200 bonus for recruiting roofers to Maxwell months earlier. Herron told him it would be in his next check. It wasn’t.
Hutchinson has been on a one-man picket line for four weeks now and says he’s not going away until Maxwell pays him what it owes him and apologizes for making him the butt of several underhanded tactics, including the Huntsville job, a mistake on the Franklin job Hutchinson says was actually his superintendent’s fault, and for calling the cops on him after he started picketing outside Maxwell’s building on Dickerson Pike four weeks ago.
A Maxwell office worker claimed Hutchins threatened her in the parking lot but she didn’t know he had videotaped their entire encounter. He was never near his accuser, did not threaten her, and so after being called out to make an arrest, the MNPD officers looked at the video, and did not arrest Hutchinson.
“I told the cops Maxwell was using them to get rid of me,” he said. Hutchinson has been picketing every day and he’s keeping track of the time. He says he’s going to make Maxwell pay for all those hours he could have been working.
Hutchinson’s solitary fight to get what he is owed is the common plight of thousands of construction workers in the American South. While construction spending in 2015 was greater than $175 billion In Texas, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, the average wage was about $15/hr. Most construction workers cannot afford to live in the houses they build.
A 2016 study by the University of Illinois found construction workers in six Southern cities were generally underpaid, routinely cheated of wages totaling about $30 million annually, often worked at unsafe jobsites, and construction workers had four times more accidents in Nashville than employers reported to OSHA.
The Associated General Contractors of America says 90 percent of Tennessee contractors are having difficulty finding enough skilled workers. About one in five construction workers in Nashville gets hired through temp agencies which generally do not pay workman’s comp insurance. Nashville workers have the highest number of injuries in the six cities studied: ten percent annually and 24 percent at some point in their career.
The study, Build A Better South, found just 5 percent of injured workers had insurance to cover their medical expenses. Total costs in the five states for injured workers including medical expenses, lost wages, and lawsuits was estimated to be $1.47 billion annually. In the big picture, Hutchinson’s work life at Maxwell was an accident waiting to happen.
Steve Goolsby, recruits apprentices for Sheet Metal Workers Local 177’s training program. He remembers when the local supplied all of Maxwell’s manpower and trained their workforce. He said Maxwell had a five-year contract with Local 177 that spelled out pay rates, overtime and travel pay, grievance procedures, drug-testing policy, and the contract required weekly safety meetings on the job.
“If you agree on these things in a contract then you don’t have these issues,” Goolsby said. But in 2005 Maxwell walked away from the union and became an open shop. They started hiring their own people and treated them like temporary help.
“They’ve relied on staffing agencies and Latinos for their workforce instead of having a person who comes in and has a long-term career and goes into retirement as a blue-collar person. They don’t have those anymore,” Goolsby said.
Several phone calls to Maxwell were not returned.