Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Carpenters Union Organization Campaign Relies on Intimidation, Goes Light on Facts

As union membership numbers continue to tumble, the Carpenters Union has decided to go with a tried-and-true method to increase its work: intimidation.

A “FactFinder 12” special report by Kansas station KWCH-TV reveals how the union has flyered and protested its way into getting more work, but with no explanation to back up their claims. The station says that at the request of viewers, it set out to find out who was behind the signs that were popping up all over Wichita accusing non-union contractors of paying sub-standard wages and benefits to its employees.

After finding out that Carpenters Local 201 was responsible, no one at the union wanted to explain how it obtained the salary information. According to the report:

Despite repeated attempts for an interview with the union, FactFinder 12 was unable to get information from union leaders to back up claims made.

“I don’t talk to the media because you’ll just twist my words,” said union representative Chad Mabin in a phone call to FactFinder 12.  The call ended with “no comment.”

FactFinder 12 also tried several times to reach leaders of the regional St. Louis based carpenters union, but calls were not returned.

One letter sent to a contractor by Local 1445, as provided by FactFinder12, says that the union did an investigation — with no details on how that was accomplished — and determined that the contractor was short-changing workers. (A protester who wouldn’t give his name told the reporter that they “verify in the field with the workers.”)  But what makes it all the more suspicious is that the letter also explains that the contractors can, within seven days, send back a detailed form to the union and provide specific information on employee compensation to disprove its claims, adding “In the event that you do not provide the requested information within that time, we will assume that our information is current and that you are, in fact, paying substandard wages and benefits.” Clearly, “innocent until proven guilty” isn’t something the union believes in.

In the meantime, Local 201 has protested at a number of sites in Wichita, with signs saying “Labor Dispute” and “Shame on” the company that has hired the non-union shop. That includes the YMCA, a local church, and Wichita State University. They have also flyered against the church.

Both locals are in deep trouble when it comes to membership–a peek at the LM-3 forms shows that Local 201 has a mere 178 members, down from 408 in 2001, while Local 1445 has seen its numbers drop from 505 in 2002 to 293 today. Combined, the two chapters have lost roughly 50 percent of their members.

These tactics are useful for the unions in intimidating businesses into accepting their work, and also in obtaining information for future organization. One drywall contractors says that he lost out on a job because of the potential client’s fear of pickets.

And if a contractor were to abide by the “request” by the local Carpenters, the unions would then hold significant information on individuals and on pay scales that they could not otherwise obtain. This would be essential for a future organizing campaign against the company.

But the Carpenters Union might not be able to rely on this practice for long. A panel in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision against the Southeastern Carpenter’s Regional Council for similar tactics. The union was ordered to pay a drywall contractor $1.7 million in damages for lost business.

Unfortunately, it seems that intimidation campaigns are all that the Carpenters in Kansas can do, as they say themselves:

[Reporter] Michael Schwanke: “Do you think it’s working?”

Protester: “It’s about area standard wages man.”

Michael Schwanke: “Do you think these tactics are working?”

Protester: “This isn’t really a tactic. This is just what you do.”

Labor needs to find something else to do besides protesting and intimidating others if it ever wants to get back on its feet.

Categories: Center for Union FactsLegal