ITHACA, NY – Rain or shine, mid-summer heat or sub-zero temperatures, you might’ve seen them along the stretch of big-box stores on Elmira Road, a giant, well-worn “Shame on Benderson Development” banner their constant companion.

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In a town known for its protests, it might be easy to miss the simple, quiet demonstration.

Yet they’ve been there, on and off, for the past five years, according to one of the men I spoke to last week, Jim Zahorian. Not necessarily Zahorian or his partner for that day, Matt Blaker, but four or five days a week, for a few hours a day, someone from the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters Local 277  is standing on the corner near Chipotle restaurant, trying to get their message out.

So what is that message? What is Benderson Development and why should they be shamed?

Zahorian explained that Benderson is the development company responsible for a lot of the big box developments along that stretch of Elmira Road. Lowe’s, Walmart, the smaller buildings in the plazas in that area are all owned by Benderson, he says.

Benderson’s offenses, according to Zahorian, are primarily that they do not pay scale wage for the area, or pay proper benefits of pensions for its employees. They also reportedly bring in out-of-town workers rather than employ local labor.

“What Benderson’s doing isn’t illegal, technically,” Zahorian said, “but it is immoral.”

Despite the long-going feud, there hasn’t been much progress. According to Zahorian, Benderson would sometimes throw local carpenters a smaller job to keep them happy, but then use their usual tactics of importing workers for bigger jobs.

Zahorian says that the carpenters have been keeping relatively busy, however, working on downtown projects – which sometimes are mandated to use local labor in order to secure tax abatements.

Representatives from Benderson didn’t return calls for comment.

“Part of the landscape”

Now that the dispute has been going on for so long, it seems some of the initial fervor has been lost. “Five years ago we had a lot more union members out here, one time we brought a great big blow-up rat out here… we had a lot going on years ago,” said Zahorian.

The reason behind the blow-up rat? The flyer the men handed out sheds some light: it features a picture of a rat chewing on an American flag and expands the rallying cry to “Shame on Benderson Development for desecration of the American Way of Life.”

Zahorian says that with all the focus on development downtown, this issue has fallen by the wayside. “It been falling through the cracks lately. Like anything, if you’re out here long enough, you start to become part of the landscape,” he said.

However, Zahorian says the union still wants to maintain a presence and keep the issue in people’s minds.

“You get your usual supporters, truck-drivers and other union folks that’ll wave and honk and bring you the occasional cup of coffee.” As if on a cue, Zahorian turns to wave as a passing a truck driver honks.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.