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Union construction workers Thursday challenged members of the Merit Construction Alliance, an industry group, to publicly support their non-union lobbying campaign.

The gauntlet was thrown down at a rally of between 200 and 300 union members afternoon in Lafayette Square.

"We demand to know who Merit is and who is bankrolling their $200,000 campaign," said Daniel Boody, president of the Buffalo Building and Construction Trades Council, a coalition of 16 construction unions.

Most members of the construction industry group keep a low profile, communicating through a paid representative. Merit launched an ad campaign this past spring, using billboards, radio and newspaper ads to promote its "non-union gets the job done" message.

At stake in the war of words is public support that could help win lucrative public building contracts. The Merit Alliance opposes agreements on public projects that steer work toward union construction firms.

The rally highlighted the building trades' ability to mobilize workers, contrasting with Merit's owner-supported campaign. The trades council has 13,000 members, but about 80 percent of Western New York construction jobs are at non-union companies.

The event also marked a change in tactics for the trades council, which is dropping its picketing outside the homes of Kulback's Construction executives. The campaign will concentrate on organizing the non-union firm's workers, Boody said. The trades council had started the residential picketing May 1.

Speakers at the rally characterized Merit as a small group of wealthy business owners who are afraid to stand behind their convictions.

"It's time to come out from behind your billboards," said Joan Malone, director of the Coalition for Economic Justice. "We don't have to be secret -- we know who we are."

Thomas M. Fricano, district director of the United Auto Workers, said that by fighting against lower wages, unions are guarding decent jobs that support the community.

"There are a lot of workers out there who want to make a decent wage and get the benefits union workers are getting," he said.

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