Matt Davis

Local unions have a new weapon in the fight against contractors who hire low-wage, non-union employees for construction jobs. That weapon: free hot dogs.

Last Thursday, September 7, about 300 people—many of them homeless, along with others showing up to support the cause—crowded around the corner of SW 11th and Clay as workers from the Pacific Northwest Region Council of Carpenters (PNWRCC) union gave out 500 hot dogs with a choice of relish, ketchup, or spicy mustard.

The curbside picnic took place across the street from the newly poured 26-story Benson Tower. The carpenters' union has been protesting since construction on the Benson started last April, specifically against Canadian contractor ITC, which has been paying out-of-state workers a wage below that of Portland's "area standard." The union timed the frankfurter-fest to coincide with a party (to celebrate the progress of the construction) thrown by ITC and one of Benson's co-owners, Joe Weston—whose provocative yellow VW Beetle, with a smiley face painted on the trunk—was parked outside.

"We heard there was a party going on in there, so we thought we'd throw one of our own," said Luis Mendoza, a representative for the PNWRCC, as the crowd earned their meal by toting "Hire Oregon First" banners and listening to union members address the crowd through megaphones.

Benson construction workers, passing through the protest to get to and from their cars, were met only with a stony silence—although Portland Police Officer Mark Friedman was on hand, hired privately by ITC after what he described as an "altercation" between the two sides earlier last week.

According to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), the prevailing wage for a carpenter in Portland is $26 per hour, but the union claims that workers were being hired at the Benson for between $12 and $18 per hour last April.

"There's no public money in these projects," says Mendoza. "So it's up to the developers to do the right thing as corporate citizens. That means hiring local contractors, and paying the area standard wage. But when the owners of the companies refuse to talk to us, we write to them confirming our position, then protest."

Just as the city is powerless to intervene between a private development firm and its employees, it is also powerless to stop the unions from giving away free food near those developers' projects if they choose—there's no city ordinance against such charity, however big the crowd.

The union gave away 518 more free hot dogs the previous Thursday, August 31, outside the 1000 SW Broadway building on 10th. The property, owned by Portland mega-developer Tom Moyer's firm, TMT, has recently played host to Metro Interiors, a renovation firm which the union has heard is paying its workers no more than $16 per hour—$10 less than the area standard wage.

Despite grilling free hot dogs and staging daily, noisy, food-free demonstrations on Broadway over the last few weeks, the union has had nothing but support from local businesses.

"We respect what they're trying to accomplish, and aside from questions over what it's regarding, it hasn't affected our staff or guests at all," says James Ritzman, front desk supervisor at the prestigious Heathman Hotel, directly opposite the site.

The union's protestors, a diverse group that includes those from Portland's homeless and recovery community as well as laborers themselves, are paid $12.50 an hour, and will continue to chant slogans including, "What's outrageous? Sweatshop wages" and "Metro, Metro—unfair pay," outside 1000 Broadway until they hear the company has moved on.

"We support all working people, because most working people are only one or two paychecks away from being homeless," says union representative Jason Sheckler. "What we're doing is not new—the unions have always given back to people in hard times."

TMT, Weston Investment Company, and ITC did not return the Mercury's phone calls by press time.

Metro Interiors Office Manager Lori Edgar responds, "I don't know where they're getting their facts from. We pay our average worker $20 per hour plus benefits for their entire family—to me, that's a livable wage, and if our workers didn't like it, they'd leave."