Unions say foreign workers taking stimulus jobs

(CBS News) Michigan once had the worst unemployment rate in the U.S. So when stimulus tax dollars poured into the state's electric car industry, residents had reason to celebrate. But what happened next has angered some of President Obama's most ardent supporters.

In 2010, Obama and Vice President Biden personally appeared to break ground at two Michigan plants. The plants were getting a combined $300 million under the stimulus program to build electric car batteries.

But as it turns out the companies getting all those American tax dollars are largely owned by Koreans. They bought a lot of Korean equipment and supplies. And they filled some of those sought-after jobs with Korean workers. That drew anger from local labor unions. They say pictures, taken inside the plants show Korean nationals doing hands-on work that should be done by Americans.

"I think there's a lot of anger out there, not to be confused with any sort of prejudice against anyone from another country," said Mark Mangione, who represents 1,000 labor union members in west Michigan. "This is American taxpayer dollars and there should be American jobs that are created with those American taxpayer dollars."

The companies, LG Chem and Dow Kokam, wouldn't agree to interviews. but they told CBS News the Korean workers are temporary and legal and have "unique ... expertise (with) highly sophisticated equipment."

But just how many there are remains a mystery. The companies won't tell us. Dow Kokam acknowledged 150 on site last December, but won't give a grand total.

LG Chem calls the union complaints "baseless" and says Korean nationals haven't been "used to provide labor or craft work."

The unions insist they've seen foreign workers doing the very jobs Americans could do.

"The thing that was alarming to us was that there are people actually doing the work out there, installing the machinery, doing electrical work, piping work, mill right work, installing the machines in this plant," Mangione said.

The unions wrote complaint letters to the Labor Department and the president, but got few answers. So they filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

In it, they asked for payroll records of LG Chem contractors performing construction work. The government's response named 18 companies; at least 11 of them are Asian firms.

Energy Department officials say they're confident all laws are being obeyed, but declined our interview request to talk about foreign workers on stimulus jobs. The companies pointed us to broad totals, saying stimulus money has indirectly helped create 2,000 temporary construction jobs and 300 full time jobs.

The unions say they're grateful for jobs that have come to Michigan -- they just wish all of them were filled by out of work Americans.

  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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