You can see them everywhere. They're marching in the Pearl, the South Waterfront, and Downtown. They're members and supporters of the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters—and they're mad as hell.
The picket lines materialize during the wee hours of the morning, when the sky is still black and the cold wind bites their hands. At the Macy's construction site near Pioneer Square, the assembled protesters smoke cigarettes or kick their feet at the air to stay warm. Despite the cold, they're smiling. They pace back and forth in front of the gutted building with signs raised high. The MAX shambles by, lurching to a complete stop by the boutiques on SW 5th.
That's the cue. The carpenters purse their lips against candy-colored noisemakers and, for a moment, there's a crude rhapsody. To bystanders, it would sound like someone pissed off a nest of bees.
And they'd be absolutely right to think so.
The strike began on June 1, after discussion of new contract terms broke down between the carpenters' union and the Associated Wall and Ceiling Contractors of Oregon and Southwest Washington, a group that represents drywall contractors across the two regions.
The dispute, like all major spats, is about money. The carpenters union says its drywallers need a 6 percent raise—a $2.45 an hour increase—to offset increases in gas prices, insurance costs, and other expenses. The contractors association says its offer of a 4.3 percent raise ($1.75 an hour increase) was sufficient to deal with the various changes. The percentages are calculated based on the workers' pay with benefits, which is about $41 an hour (their base pay, before benefits, accounts for about $29). The two parties couldn't come to an agreement about the raises or changes to the medical plan before the previous contract expired on May 31—so the next day the carpenters brought signs instead of tools to work, slowing development of condos and other buildings in Portland. (The solidarity isn't universal; members of some labor unions are crossing the picket lines due to a conflict between the carpenters union and others over a distribution of work.)
Ed Charles, executive director of the contractors association, says the offer the association made to the union was satisfactory—55 cents better than what they offered other carpenters. He says the association hasn't scheduled any meetings to negotiate with the union yet to discuss terms for an end to the strike and doesn't plan to.
"It always causes a little disruption on the job site when you have pickets out there," he says about the possibility of a long-term strike. He says he's seen somewhere between eight to 10 strikes in his lifetime, most of which happened during the '70s and '80s.
However, that didn't stop Charles from trying to persuade protesters to see things his way on Friday morning, June 8. Clad in a blue windbreaker and a S.D. Deacon hardhat, Charles could be found around 7 am, near the 20 picketers in front of the Macy's construction site.
Carpenters union representative Ted Pinero says Charles was attempting to tell picketers to accept the deal because it was a "good offer." Charles did not return the Mercury's follow-up calls for comment as of press time.
Pinero says the contractors association told them that the 4.3 percent raise would be their last and final offer. He wasn't sure why the contractors wouldn't continue negotiations after that, although he offered some thoughts on the matter.
"If they keep wages low, whatever profit they maintain can be distributed among company executives," he says. "You produce a product for as cheap as you can and sell it for as much as you can."
Although the contractors association may not be offering to meet with union leaders, carpenters union representative Pete Savage says six other contractors not represented by the association have agreed to the union's terms and that there are talks with three more. Savage says the cost of gas really hurts drywallers because they usually use their own vehicles (usually trucks) to commute to work.
"The amount of members spending $75 or more a week in fuel is staggering," he says.
Charles, on the other hand, says his association's offer was more than sufficient to deal with the increase in gas costs.