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News & Columns

Labor Pains

A Salt Lake Union Looks to Latinos to Stay Alive

By Scott Lewis
Posted // June 11,2007 -

In what looked like a classroom with walls covered in chalkboards, on the upper floor of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters’ new multi-million dollar training facility, Luis Anica appeared uncomfortable and restless as he tried to relax in a folding chair.

The room was empty. The fact that it was about 11 a.m. on a Wednesday probably explained Anica’s uneasiness. It wasn’t a Sunday; he wasn’t on vacation; and although the traditional retirement age was seemingly creeping up on him faster than he could imagine, he’s not retired. Anica was uncomfortable because he knew he should have been working on a Wednesday morning at about 11 a.m.

Last April, Luis and 56 of his co-workers dropped their work at the Gateway construction project on the West Side of Downtown Salt Lake City. They weren’t planning on leaving for good, but three months later, 34 of them still hadn’t gone back. Many of them, including Anica, haven’t worked at all since then. As it did other workers, Utah Structural Coating (USC) offered him a chance to return to work. Twenty of them took the offer and returned, but Anica said he wouldn’t until they made it right for everyone. If a progressive labor union like the United Brotherhood of Carpenters were to write out a maxim that every worker would have to carry on a little card in his or her billfold, Anica’s would probably be perfect. But Anica said he really didn’t care about promoting the union.

An immigrant from Acapulco, Mexico, Anica came directly to Salt Lake City six years ago and had been working for five of those years with USC, a company that specializes in fireproofing the metal support beams that form the skeletons of big projects like the Gateway shopping complex. He was happy in the job. He earned a living wage and, unlike many that initiated the strike in April, was a skilled worker, good at what he did, he said.

But the situation at the job site started to sour this spring. Wages were cut across the board. Many of the less skilled workers around Anica complained that they weren’t receiving paychecks, or they weren’t getting overtime pay, or the wages weren’t even close to what supervisors had promised when they started working.

Through friends and family, Anica said, he and a few others had heard of a workers’ union that held informational classes in Spanish for Latino workers on construction sites. Right after they left work one day in mid-April, Anica and about 20 others went to the West Jordan headquarters of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters union and asked for help. In the weeks that followed, he said, relations with the supervisors in charge of the project grew ugly. On the advice of the union, the indignant workers decided to go on a “one-hour recognitional strike.”

“We decided we would walk off the job for about an hour so that they would pay attention to our complaints,” Anica said in Spanish as he leaned forward in his chair and pointed to his hand, trying manually to draw out what had happened. “We didn’t know it was going to last as long as it did.”

Joe Hill Lives

More than two years ago, small picket lines popped up at the emerging framework and base of the new Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah. Standard Drywall, a construction firm currently working on 37 different projects in the Salt Lake Valley, was in charge of building the walls upon which the museum’s collection of art would hang. Up to 15 men and women held signs quietly every day outside the chain-link fence bordering the project. Bruce Butler, an energetic union organizer, showed up every half-hour to refill their supplies of flyers and talk to anyone with questions. The union paid the workers to hold the “informational picket.” Some had once worked for Standard Drywall, but most were unemployed carpenters.

Five years ago, Butler had no idea he would be working for a union. After stints as a foreman and supervisor of various projects in Utah and Minnesota, Butler found himself supervising a job in Utah County where the workers complained that their employer wasn’t making contributions to their pensions. Ostensibly, he was on the management’s side, being a supervisor himself, but he agreed with the workers—something was wrong. He walked out with them when they decided enough was enough.

“It was very difficult for me to listen to their grievances and even more difficult for me to listen to their wives complain, knowing they were right,” Butler said of the workers he supervised. “I basically quit my job for them. The union saw in me the determination to stand up for my legal rights and they offered me a job as an organizer. The first thing that struck me about the job was that in no small way, I had been given the opportunity to change the world.”

Butler was just trying to figure everything out then. The burly, imposing man with a mustache like a pirate’s walked around the campus all day long for weeks talking to students, handing out flyers and annoying the U’s administrators with letters and petitions demanding that they look into the “unfair labor practices” of Standard Drywall.

He was new to the organizing gig. Having been a carpenter for most of his life, Butler knew what the construction business was like for workers, but didn’t know much about the world of bureaucracy, law and corporate meddling he was unknowingly about to face. His discussions were filled with passion but peppered with frequent struggles to find the right word or describe a situation in a way that effectively communicated that passion.

These days, however, he might as well be a lawyer. He still wears the carpenter’s working boots, jeans and T-shirt of a regular Joe Lunchbox. But now he has an office, and bookcases have replaced his toolbox. On the wall hangs a picture of Joe Hill, the famous labor advocate and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whom Utah authorities executed in 1915 for what many allege were his union-organizing activities. He still pauses to find the right words. But now, more often than not, he’s successful.

“It’s been a huge learning curve,” Butler said. “I had been trapped in the day-to-day grinds of being a one-income family. That life keeps one acutely aware of the daily struggles of basic family economics and things like retirement, medical costs and insurance and your children’s future. I always thought of myself as a well-informed citizen. But this job has brought so many more issues into my awareness—issues that I never knew existed before.”

Butler’s new job wasn’t acquired just because of his determination. Between 1970 and 1995, the nationwide membership in the United Brotherhood of Carpenters was cut in half. The union was in serious decline, Butler said, and he was one of 600 organizers it hired around the same period. A new president, Doug McCarron, “had a new vision to return to the roots of the carpenters’ success through grassroots organizing,” Butler said. Carpenters around the country have seen a huge decline in their wages and standard of living—a phenomenon that corresponds precisely with the decline in union membership, Butler said.

He remembers the racist graffiti he saw inside the portable toilets while he was a carpenter. Like other workers, he worried that the increasing presence of immigrant laborers on the job sites would cause his wages to spiral downward. Now that he is an organizer, he looks at people like Anica a little differently.

“It doesn’t take an intelligent person long to realize that the issues Latino workers face are no different from the issues all construction workers deal with,” Butler said. “But there is an added issue that they have to deal with: access to information. Without understanding the intricacies of their situations and the laws, they become exploitable.”

Educating Unity

The timing of Butler’s new job also coincided with a new push by unions across the country to start welcoming more immigrant laborers into their ranks. Since many of the stalwart union jobs were increasingly filled with workers who had immigrated from Latin America and other parts of the world., unions realized they would have to start welcoming them if they wanted to welcome workers at all.

Although some unions, like Joe Hill’s IWW, had embraced unskilled immigrant laborers around the beginning of the century and through the Great Depression of the 1930s, larger trade unions under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO have traditionally been hostile to immigrant laborers, said University of Utah historian Raul Ramos.

Even Cesar Chavez’s famous United Farm Workers union, which advocated for workers’ rights in the agricultural sector, was hostile to immigrant laborers at the beginning of its existence.

“Immigrant workers were seen as a threat—as cheap and unskilled replacements to workers here,” Ramos said. “Unions saw them as threats to any kind of power the unions had gained, and they saw them as representing an undermining force to any strikes the unions engaged in.”

In February 2000, however, the AFL-CIO officially manifested a change in course from its previously hostile stance toward immigrants. In a two-part resolution, the conglomerate of trade unions demanded a change in the way employers are lawfully allowed to handle undocumented immigrants, and it demanded that the 6 million or so undocumented immigrants currently living and working in the United States receive legal status. Legal status is essential to those workers’ ability to advocate for basic workers rights, said AFL-CIO spokesperson Lane Windhame.

“What you are finding now is, immigrant workers are calling unions and approaching the organizations in huge numbers. They see, quite clearly, that Latino union members make 52 percent more than non-union members,” Windhame said.

Realizing that Latinos and immigrant workers comprised a large portion of Standard Drywall’s work force, the ambitious new organizer of the carpenters knew that in order for the informational protests to function well, and to actually communicate the union’s message, he may have to do it in Spanish. Latino organizers have become a permanent part of the organization—like Gustavo Maldonado, who recently visited the Salt Lake operation from his home in Denver. Maldonado emigrated from Mexico 10 years ago.

“When immigrants from Mexico come here, they have to learn new laws, new rules, new and completely different ways of doing things,” Maldonado said in Spanish. “But they’re too busy learning other things. Learning construction skills and learning how to work here is difficult. The unions give them a chance not only to keep learning how to do the job, but also how to exercise their rights as workers.”

The urge to unionize immigrant workers that organizers in Salt Lake are experiencing is logical, said Jonny Suarez, executive secretary of the Mountain West Regional Council of Carpenters.

“Salt Lake is one of the many large cities to which companies have brought in a large number of immigrant workers, and they are not just Hispanics,” Suarez said. “There are many Asians, Eastern Europeans and others doing the same kind of work in other states and they are exploited in the same manner. They are a captive work force and the managers and owners of these companies know it. If we want to help workers, we logically have to begin helping them.”

So with the new directives of the union establishment in the country pushing them, and their own common sense working overtime, Butler and other organizers began classroom-like sessions in Spanish with workers from Standard Drywall. One of Luis Anica’s relatives was at one of these meetings. Eventually, Anica and the rest of the disgruntled fireproofing workers heard about the union that may want to help them—the union that spoke Spanish.

The Last Thing We Wanted To Do

Fewer than two dozen workers had originally approached the United Brotherhood of Carpenters to talk about their complaints. But when word spread that things were happening, about 60 workers decided to support the efforts. When Luis and the others decided to put down their hoses and tools early on the morning of April 30, they stood outside the gates of the project waiting for some kind of response from the company. The union says it offered the company an “unconditional return to work” proposal which the company flatly rejected.

“Walking out was the last thing we wanted to do,” said Armando Velazquez in Spanish. Velazquez said he had been working with the company for almost a year and a half. “We had heard there was a union that would help us and the situation just reached a point where we know we had to do something.”

The one-hour recognitional strike had quickly become a half-day strike by the time company representatives came out to talk with the workers. But according to the union’s “Timeline of Events” regarding the labor dispute at the Gateway project, the workers “unilaterally rejected” the company’s offers to increase some of their wages.

Three days later, the company issued a letter to all of the employees who left that day, informing them they were fired.

“All we wanted was a contract,” Anica said. “We weren’t demanding anything spectacular. I would’ve gone back; we all would’ve gone right back to work if they would have just given us a contract so that we could know that they couldn’t just fire us whenever they felt like it. Obviously, we know now that they can just fire us whenever they please. We want to go back. We were used to it and we worked hard.”

In July, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed a formal complaint against USC and its owner, Chris Utley, alleging that the company engaged in unfair labor practices by “interfering with, restraining and coercing employees in the exercise of the rights” to organize themselves in unions.

Soon thereafter, Utley hired a new lawyer for the company, Jeff Price, a specialist in labor law. When asked about the employees’ complaints, Price implied they may have forgotten to mention some of the other issues surrounding their sudden departure from the job site.

“Did they talk about the $80,000 in damage and the stolen tools they took with them during their strike? Did they or their union talk about all the work that had to be redone and the damage that has cost this company a horrific amount of money?” Price asked.

The company wasn’t worried about the NLRB complaint, Price said. What really upset him is the union and the tactics it has used to sabotage companies like USC. “When a union tries to organize like this and call a strike to organize a company in this form, it typically backfires and causes a tremendous amount of grief. This situation is no different. These workers are, and always have been, paid above the union scale.”

Although the carpenters’ challenge to USC has resulted in a formal government complaint against the company he represents, Price says the union has problems of its own. “If you look into it, you would find out that in spite of everything they say, over the last few years they have consistently lost members, their strengths continues to dwindle and they are just simply not successful despite the public relations show they put on.”

The Merit of Unity

Two months ago, the carpenters’ informational pickets against Standard Drywall ended after more than two years of ceaseless but quiet presence. Bob Caya, the operations manager at Standard Drywall, said he wasn’t surprised.

“Two and a half years they’ve been paying for those pickets,” Caya said. “After two years, it costs a lot of money to pay people just to stand around with signs in their hands. They quit because they know we are not going to listen to them. They know if they had an election, the employees would vote them down so they prefer to stand there and say horrible things about us. Our workers don’t want to join a union because it costs them too much. Unions create mediocrity when they demand that everyone get paid the same. With awards given based on merit, there’s no end to how high a worker can go. It just depends on how hard they work.”

At the time of its reorganization, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters fired almost 90 percent of its national staff and redirected the money to local organizers like Butler. In Salt Lake City, that’s translated into a new $1.9 million facility at the west end of the Salt Lake Valley. Classrooms fill the space inside. Outside, apprentice carpenters have an area to learn how to build, set concrete foundations and frame houses. After they dismantled the picket outside of the Gateway project, union organizers put Anica and his coworkers through a three-week educational program to build their carpentry and construction skills. By the time they were through, they had constructed a small house. A photo album at the main desk chronicles their achievement. In one of the pictures, a team of smiling USC strike workers stand atop the house’s naked framing.

Despite the outward and apparent success of the carpenters and the two years of antagonizing companies in Utah, membership is only growing at a rate of 5 percent a year, Butler said. Although it may look like a mark of growth and success, the construction of the carpenters’ new facility was not funded by a strong local expansion.

The carpenters’ worries aren’t just with membership, though. Recently involved in a heated dispute with AFL-CIO leaders, the carpenters and their president Doug McCarra broke away from the nationwide coalition of unions. Butler blamed it on a lack of willingness on the part of the AFL-CIO to embrace grassroots organizing strategies. Although both sides of the labor divide are trying to negotiate some kind of truce, they haven’t settled anything.

For now, it’s business as usual at the Salt Lake facility. Classes for potential apprentices in framing and other facets of the construction trade take up some of the new classroom space. But classes for English as a second language and other community-oriented forums also have found a home there. Signs and posters in both English and Spanish plaster the inside walls of the building. A bilingual attendant mans the front desk.

Every few weeks, Anica and his coworkers meet with union leaders and prepare for an Oct. 10 hearing with an administrative judge from the NLRB who could make a judgement on the culpability of USC—a ruling one of the contentious parties will most likely appeal.

The company’s lawyer, Price, said USC should come out of the process clean.

“We don’t believe Utah Structural Coating did anything in violation and it has been devastating to this company. It puts into jeopardy all the jobs we provide everywhere,” Price said. “I’m hard-pressed to see how this is a positive thing for Utah or the Latino community specifically. The union promised them they would be out of work only a couple of hours or maybe a couple of days. The union got them fired. I don’t see how that is such a good thing.”

Looking for a Contract

On that Wednesday morning in August, Anica explained the dispute with the company in simple terms. He choked up a little when he started talking about the effects unemployment has had on his life.

“It’s sad now. I don’t have the work I planned on. And it’s really difficult for me,” Anica said in Spanish. “But your family feels it the most. The most important thing now is to find work. I don’t care if it’s union or not. The owner of the company always says in the papers that he cares about us and worries about our concerns. But if he really cared about us, he would have respected our complaints and he would have come to us and asked us what was wrong. Instead, he just fired us.”

A few weeks later, Anica had found a job. It pays far less than the one he had with Utah Structural Coating but he said he was glad to bring home some money again. However, this job is with a temporary employment agency.

As the Oct. 10 appearance before the judge approaches, Anica said a USC representative had called him and offered him $1,000 to come back to work and settle the NLRB complaint. But Anica says he wouldn’t take it unless they offered the same to all those workers with whom he left the job.

Thirty-four of them still are on strike. The union hopes for the first outright victory in two years of struggling with companies like Standard Drywall and Utah Structural Coating. Anica just wants a contract.

 
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