The old Lowry Hotel, for years a boarded-up and vacant structure in downtown St. Paul, now is at the center of a labor controversy just as it's being fitted out for new Ramsey County offices.

On Thursday, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 110 displayed a "Shame On" banner in front of the building at the corner of 4th and Wabasha Streets, taking owner Jim Crockarell to task for hiring Reliance Electric, a non-union business, to work on the project.

And on Tuesday, a Local 110 business agent sent a stern e-mail to county commissioners and other county leaders saying that he had found "dangerous job conditions" on a visit to the work site last week.

He said they included stairwells with no guardrails, exposed wiring in electrical panels, unsafe lighting and tripping hazards.

"The workers at this jobsite are in grave danger for even working at this site. ... Please take all steps necessary to ensure that these conditions get fixed so the workers can go home after a day's work," Brian Winkelaar wrote.

Crockarell, who heads a real estate firm that bought the Lowry for $4.7 million in June after former owner John Rupp put it into bankruptcy, said an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) official is working with the project.

"It's our intention to provide a very safe work site for all workers," he said.

Crockarell said that 75 percent of the people working on the two floors to be leased this spring by the Ramsey County attorney's office are union members and that all workers are being paid the prevailing wage, whether or not they're union.

"I have nothing against unions, but I do have something against going bankrupt," he said.

He added that there's no record that Winkelaar visited the work site last week, and he said that photos the union rep shared with county leaders showing apparent work hazards looked like they were taken before construction. Winkelaar reiterated that they were taken last week.

Ramsey County Board Chair Rafael Ortega said he had asked Bruce Thompson, the county's property manager, to check into Winkelaar's charges of work site hazards and report back. The county's policy is to use union labor, he said, but the Lowry isn't a county project and it's hard to enforce policies beyond the lease.

The Ramsey County attorney's office plans to relocate offices from the old West Publishing complex on Kellogg Boulevard to the first and second floors of the Lowry, which is directly across 4th Street from the City Hall/County Courthouse building.

Crockarell said that 155 apartment units also are being constructed in the Lowry, with plans for a restaurant next summer and rooftop dining in 2014.

Laborers working in those areas of the Lowry outside of the future county offices are being paid less than the prevailing wage, Winkelaar said. "My disagreement is not with the county, it's with Jim Crockarell," he said.

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035