'Rat' campaign targets projects: Union-hired protesters picket non-union contractors

May 23, 2005

Union supporters have no plans to exterminate the giant rats that have become a common sight downtown, as they continue to pressure certain contractors to pay what they consider fair wages.

That is the message from the Indiana/Kentucky Regional Council of Carpenters, the labor organization that has adopted the rodent as its mascot for a campaign targeting various downtown construction projects.

Organizers said the effort is twofold: to create public awareness that union contractors are losing work, and to better compete for the jobs by creating a level pay scale.

The labor group hires demonstrators-including many homeless and unemployed people who have little or no connection to the construction trades-to picket various projects, carrying giant fake rats on sticks or even wearing rat costumes.

The carpenters' council chose the rat as its symbol because "the definition of rat is so specific to what these contractors are doing," said Raymond Gilbrech, senior organizer for the council.

Wage and benefit packages for journeyman union carpenters total $33.39 an hour, the council said-at least $10 more than what merit-shop workers earn.

While union contractors are being undercut as much as 7 percent on bids, they say, merit-shop owners are paying less while pocketing more of the profit.

"If you're the building owner, and you're letting this happen, we think it's your fault," Gilbrech said. "Owners of buildings don't want us out front [of their property]. It's somewhat uncomfortable."

The picketers began marching in front of downtown buildings in November and should continue to do so the rest of the year, Gilbrech said. The campaign is supported by a $250,000 grant-that could be extended next year-from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

Demonstrators have congregated in front of such buildings as One Indiana Square, Market Tower, National City Center and the Guaranty Building on the Circle, in addition to the Hilton Hotel.

The carpenters have had some success, Gilbrech said, noting their picketing led to the replacement of a contractor performing work at Ossip Optometry on the Circle. Doug Martin, Ossip's director in charge of construction, declined to comment when contacted by IBJ. Back and forth

The council's crusade is the latest in a long-running feud between labor supporters and merit-shop proponents. The Associated Builders and Contractors of Indiana launched a radio campaign last year in an ongoing attempt to convince the public that project labor agreements are unfair.

ABC, a statewide trade organization representing 500 merit-shop members, ran advertisements using a child's voice to bolster its message that non-union contractors are shut out from bidding on city public works projects.

Because PLAs require bidders to be signatory to the unions, merit-shop contractors say they can't afford to participate in many large-scale projects. The agreements are in place for the $102 million Central Library expansion and the $93 million Conrad Hotel, and on part of the $50 million headquarters for Simon Property Group Inc.

J.R. Gaylor, executive director of ABC, dismissed the council's actions as another attempt by labor to intimidate member contractors.

"The unions have tried to claim downtown as their turf," he said. "The reality is, the marketplace keeps going to merit-shop construction. The reason why they continue to lose market share is that many people think their prices are inflated."

Duke Realty Corp. is the developer for the new Simon Property Group Inc. headquarters on West Washington Street. Representatives of the carpenters' council demonstrated outside Duke's annual shareholders' meeting in late April, pressing them to hire contractors that pay wages and benefits they deem fair.

Duke spokesman Tom Wiser said contracts have not yet been awarded for interior work on the headquarters. But the corporation agreed to pay a union-standard wage when it pursued the project, and will abide by that, he said.

No illegal activity

The council is distributing fliers on street corners detailing its cause. The blue leaflet, featuring the rat caricature, names Mansur Construction Services LLC for its affiliation with three contractors that do not pay what the council says is a standard wage.

Parent Mansur Real Estate Services is the developer for the Conrad Hotel project. Mansur President Chuck Cagann said the council has targeted his company for employing non-union contractors on projects at the Guaranty and First Indiana Bank buildings. But Cagann said the insinuation that his company uses only nonunion help is unfair.

"A fair number of people who are on these jobs-electricians and mechanical folks-are union trades-people," he said. "We do not have a predisposition to use a non-union or union contractor."

The council's flier chides Marksmen LLC, Sissom Interior Contractors Inc. and Charles Ferguson for not paying workers what it considers a standard wage. The council said carpenters contracted by the three companies do not receive overtime for working more than eight hours a day, nor for weekend work.

Representatives from Marksmen and Sissom did not return calls to IBJ seeking comment. Ferguson could not be located.

Jeff Mallamad, chairman of Bingham McHale LLP's labor practice, said while the council might not agree with the contractors' overtime policies, they are not illegal. Indiana law requires employers to pay overtime after a worker has exceeded a 40-hour work week, not an eight-hour day. Moreover, no statute exists requiring companies to pay a certain wage on nonpublic-works projects, he said.

Off the street

The carpenters' council, meanwhile, is in no danger of running out of demonstrators. Gilbrech said he has a pipeline of up to 180 candidates to march outside buildings from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. five days a week. The organization turns away at least 20 more potential picketers a week, he said.

Union members can participate if they choose. But most of the protestors have been plucked from the unemployment rolls and homeless shelters, such as Wheeler Mission. They're paid $8 an hour.

Gilbrech said he is proud to be lending them a hand.

"There have been several of them who have joined our apprenticeship program," he said. "We've taken people off the street and have helped them obtain room and board. We're helping society."

Gaylor at ABC said the unions have the right to demonstrate, but views the action as a sign of desperation. And Cagann at Mansur said he thinks the picketers have disrupted the tenants of the buildings more than the contractors working there.

Based in Muncie, the carpenters' council is part of the Central Indiana Building and Construction Trades Council. Executive Director John Griffin said members of the trades council are free to make their own decisions regarding how best to represent their constituency.
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