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How Banks and Politicians Let One Company Come Back from the Dead to Keep Abusing Workers

One sweatshop steel company endangered workers, stiffed creditors, got government contracts--and when caught, simply wiped its slate clean with bankruptcy.

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But when workers raised these issues with management, Hand says, “They didn’t care. They just said, ‘Be careful, and go back to work.’”

For Hand, the last straw came at the end of the Friday shift before Labor Day weekend in 2009. While US-born workers were allowed to go home, Hand says he watched the foreman walk up to a group refugee workers, who had clocked out and changed clothes, and scream “What the hell are you doing? Get your asses back to work. This is not a free country!” The workers complied.

With support from local clergy and the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Union, Hand and others have been working to force changes. In its resolution, Allegheny’s Council pledged not to do business with W & K – or any business contracting with them - until the company showed that the allegations were wrong, or that they’d been fixed. But Allegheny County’s move couldn’t legally bar area school districts from doing business with W & K, and its example wasn’t enough to stop some from putting tax dollars in Edward Wilhelm’s pockets. At the point W & K went bankrupt, its projects included school contructions for the Pittsburgh, Moon Township, and Pine Ridgeland districts. ).

One year later, there’s no “W&K” around to boycott, but the same family is managing many of the same workers, using the same equipment, out of the same office, and getting taxpayer funding from West Virginia – all without a public reckoning over the allegations.

Immortal Zombie Sweatshop: Meet American Erection

Three months after the Council vote, a court placed W & K into a receivership for defaulting on a $2.5 million loan from Huntington Bank. Meridian Financial Advisors was appointed as the receiver, responsible for looking out for the bank’s interests. Receivership gave the bank a lead role in determining how – and whether - W & K would go forward. But what the bank didn’t know when the receivership began was that Wilhelm’s sister Janet Stojanovic had just begun the process of reincarnating the company beyond the bank’s reach.

According to a sworn affidavit from Stojanovic, on April 28, 2011, she incorporated a new company, Trinity Steel, with herself as president and with an office “on the same premises” as W & K. Her family owns the realty company that owns that property too. In her job as W & K’s controller, Stojanovic joined Wilhelm in May in meetings with the receiver. On May 25, she resigned from W & K. The same day, she and Edward Wilhelm proposed to the receiver that Trinity would buy back Huntington Bank’s collateral on the loan, which included much of the equipment at W & K’s plant (where Trinity now conveniently had an office).. The next day, the bank rejected the offer, prompting Stojanovic to charge, in her words, that the bank was out to prevent “any future viability for the Wilhelm or Stojanovic family in the steel erection and fabrication business.”

But the family’s viability turned out just fine. After the bank refused Wilhelm and Stojanovic’s plan, Wilhelm filed for bankruptcy, effectively overriding the receivership. The bank objected, but a bankruptcy judge agreed to let Aegis, a bonding company, continuing overseeing school construction projects that were then being carried out by W & K. Aegis let Trinity – a supposedly new and distinct company - pick up the projects where W & K had left off. (Over e-mail, a Huntington spokesperson declined to discuss its dealings with W & K.) “Basically,” says Iron Workers organizer Chadwick Rink, Wilhelm’s “scam is a shell game where he just starts one entity after another,” and opts for bankruptcy after “something goes wrong…He was found to be a sweatshop by the county, and that was affecting his business.”