September 7, 2010 -- An American bricklayer's union is calling on the Obama administration to deny visas to a group of Chinese workers selected to travel to Washington this fall to assemble a sculpture on the National Mall in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This morning members of the Local 1 Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers union leafleted the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation offices in downtown Washington, telling commuters that outsourcing the project to China and denying U.S. workers the opportunity to contribute to the monument during a time of high unemployment is "wrong, wrong, wrong."
Scott Garvin, president of Local 1, questioned why the government would pass over the same group of workers that have worked on virtually every other project on the National Mall.
"With the record of China on human rights, and the fact that we have such high unemployment in the United States, we're wondering why?" Garvin asked. "We want to the let the public to be aware of the problems with this particular memorial and hopefully we can get some of our United States citizens working on this project."
Although the Chinese sculpting delegation is not large -- about eight to 12 workers -- the union contends that with the vast pool of unemployed Americans, skilled jobs like those selected for the project should be prioritized for American workers. The union has appealed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to deny visas for the Chinese workers on the project. The State Department on Monday defered questions about the visas to the King Memorial Foundation.
Critics say the controversy is somewhat ironic given the fact that the objective of King's March on Washington in 1963 was about enlisting American jobs, in addition to drawing attention to the civil rights movement.
"There's so many people that believe in what Dr. King spent his life working on, and unions are organizations that share those visions as well," Garvin said. "Workers' rights, the dignity of coming out there day-in and day-out and just trying to provide for your family. Giving everybody a fair opportunity to voice their opinion, and for people to stand together for a democratic process."
Workers Appeal to Obama: Protect Jobs
Harry E. Johnson, President and CEO at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, says that only the centerpiece of the memorial, the Stone of Hope, will be completed by Chinese artisans, and the overwhelming majority of the four-acre project is being finished by American workers.
"We are proud of the fact that we have been inclusive of workers from all walks of life-- as Dr. King would have wanted in espousing his message of not judging a person by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," Johnson said in a statement to ABC News. "While 95 percent of the work is being done by American workers, we strongly believe that we should not exclude anyone from working on this project simply because of their religious beliefs, social background or country of origin."
Construction on the $120 million monument is scheduled to begin this fall and should take about 20 months to complete. The foundation has set up a construction webcam so people can follow the progress of the project online.
Barbara Moore, an unemployed bricklayer and member of Local 1, says she has been out of work for nearly one year, and called on the president to bring down the unemployment rate and show leadership on the economy.
"I would like to see the Obama administration do more to put American workers back on the job. There are a lot of things with our infrastructure and even monuments in DC that we could be working on and [President Obama] should put us back to work," Moore said. "Everybody is looking at President Obama. The labor movement put a lot of support behind him when he was elected and he has the power to come up with solutions."
ABC News first reported on the controversy when it began in 2007, after a Chinese sculptor was chosen over American applicants to create the massive statue of Dr. King. At 28 feet, the King memorial would tower over the 19-foot statue of Thomas Jefferson inside the Jefferson Memorial.
Project Troubled From the Start
The King statue project has been plagued by controversy. It had to be reworked in 2008 when the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts - which has jurisdiction over monuments on the Mall, criticized it as "confrontational" and reminiscent of totalitarian political art. This past spring, a Greek shipping firm reneged on its promise to transport the weighty blocks of granite stone from China to the United States free of charge, blaming the struggling Greek economy.
Thomas McQuaid, a 54-year member of the bricklayer's union, says his primary gripe is that the monument should be built by American people in order to honor the legacy of Dr. King, who McQuaid says "would be rolling in his grave if he knew" the Chinese were working on the memorial.
"We have a serious unemployment situation in the Washington metropolitan area, like all the rest of the country and we have very good, qualified stone masons that could erect this memorial, who have erected all the rest of the memorials in Washington," McQuaid said. "It's a shame that we are not building this one for Martin Luther King."
"We need to get this economy rolling and by giving the jobs to China is not helping our economy roll in any way," he added.
ABC News' Dee Carden contributed to this report