DON'T LIFT too much weight around the job site, Laramie Lexow was told by the foreman at his new job at Instafab in 2013. "You're a grinder."
Grinders—iron-working tools used for cutting and shaping—go down all the time. If one breaks, you throw it away and go get a new one: No big deal. To Lexow, a 33-year-old husband and father, this comment from his new supervisor struck him as ominous.
"It's hard to have pride in your work when you're treated like an animal," he said on a hot weekday morning earlier this month. "This is 2015. The way they operate is just not the way things should be done."
Lexow and 13 other employees of Vancouver-based Instafab are on strike. These days, they can be seen picketing with their supporters outside Instafab's 12 active Portland-area job sites—a new high-rise at the east end of the Burnside Bridge, a large mixed-use project on N Williams, the Landing Drive apartment project in Johns Landing, and others.
Their efforts reveal a hidden cost of the condos and apartments shooting up around the city—including at least one tied in with the City of Portland.
Placards and leaflets brandished by Instafab's striking workers allege a litany of abuses calling to mind Upton Sinclair: no water at job sites or shaded places to rest, 16-hour workdays followed immediately by forced days off. Employees seen talking with union members or striking workers are said to face termination on the spot.
Since the first wave of strikers walked off the job five months ago, they've filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, met with lawmakers, and given interviews to the press. They thank their families for supporting them financially. And they call out the man they hold responsible: their old boss Bruce Perkins, Instafab's owner.
The strike began at the start of the workday February 27, when five Instafab employees brought Perkins' top foreman a list of demands, including benefits like health insurance and retirement plans, and more basic items like safety harnesses and water at job sites. They were told they'd be fired if they left work, which they promptly did.
Among their demands was union representation. The union Ironworkers Local 29 got them in touch with a number of sympathetic building trade organizations, and Portland's Jobs With Justice, an umbrella group of faith and labor organizations. Its director, Diana Pei Wu, said she was shocked by what she heard.
"Everyone was like, 'This is a no-brainer,'" she says. "We felt that, as a city, we owe it to these guys."
On July 1, Wu, backed by eight of the workers, appealed to the Portland City Council to honor its commitment to labor and cease doing business with contractors who use Instafab as a subcontractor.
“These are egregious violations of federal, state, and local policy,” she told the council.
Only one of Instafab's 12 active projects is touched by the Portland Development Commission (PDC) and its aggressive workforce equity policy. But PDC spokesman John Jackley says the policy doesn't apply here because the commission sold the land for the project—that fast-moving high-rise on the Burnside Bridge's east end—at a fair market price ($1.54 million in 2013).
"If you sold your house to someone at a fair market price, and the new owner hired a prime contractor who in turn hired Instafab as a subcontractor, would that make it [your] project? Of course not—and that's why it's not a PDC project either," Jackley wrote to me via email.
Perkins founded Instafab in Portland in 1987, and moved it to Vancouver, Washington, in 2000. As a primary subcontractor for Andersen Construction and Skanska, the company today supplies steel components—everything from handrails to roof frames to stairwells—and installs them around the metro area. It employs between 30 and 60 people at any given time, with about a quarter assigned to installation crews in the field. Perkins is proud to say he's always run an open (that is, nonunion) shop.
"It doesn't feel like a very free country when someone can come along and tell you, this is how you're going to run your company," Perkins says.
For his part, Instafab's owner says this flare-up of bad feeling is only the latest ginned up by a jealous ironworkers union—who he says is behind the strike entirely, and against whom his business regularly, and easily, wins bids. Perkins says Instafab's ability to fabricate as well as install is attractive to large general contractors looking for more control over scheduling. Using fewer subcontractors also limits instances of back-charging, where costs grow as work orders are revised.
"We've developed a nice niche doing what we do," he says. "People think we're doing a good job.
“This whole thing is a farce,” Perkins continues. “If my workers were unionized, the union’s biggest competitor in this area, Instafab, would cease to exist, and the union would get all of that business."
Instafab's workforce represents only a fraction of the area's ironworkers. More than 1,200 belong to Local 29, which represents around 90 percent of Portland's ironworkers, according to union official Robert Camarillo. He's been an officer with the 110-year-old local since 2006. He disagrees with Perkins' self-assessment.
"He's by far one of the most unscrupulous contractors in the area," Camarillo says.
Instafab has been written up numerous times by regulatory agencies, including the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In 2009, Oregon OSHA found multiple safety violations by Instafab at the site of a Gresham Fred Meyer, including exposing several employees to potentially dangerous falls.
That same report included the company's injury log from the previous year, describing 16 incidents ranging from heat exhaustion to second-degree burns to metal particles in the eye. On July 14, in response to alleged violations of Oregon's wage and hour laws and Portland's sick time code, BOLI issued seven separate warning letters to Instafab.
Though his business model wins bids, Perkins admits the union has the advantage in attracting employees. It hurts, he says, to watch workers "robbed away" by the union after years with him. What Perkins says doesn't hurt is all the abuse he receives from the strikers. He recalled attending one protest of Instafab where he was depicted as a giant inflatable rat. That is, until the rodent's generator failed and it collapsed to the ground. "We were just sitting back, laughing," he said.
The striking workers say sitting back is often Perkins' tack. They say he stood them up for a July 8 meeting to discuss the strike, after weeks of wrangling. (Perkins says he was worried he'd be "ambushed" by union representatives and activists. The parties have yet to meet.) And following an article on the strike in the Northwest Labor Press last May, Perkins tangled with his opponents in the comment section, under the moniker "Truth Be Told."
"Hi! I'm back, and I had a few questions about the issues presented here, so I contacted someone at Instafab to get some more details. This is what I found out," began one of the posts by "Truth Be Told."
Camarillo with Ironworkers Local 29 said he expects decisions from the National Labor Relations Board to come down before the end of the month. He's heard from current employees that in response to the strike, Perkins has given out promotions and a companywide pay raise—though it's not all good news he's been hearing.
"I'm talking to [Perkins'] workers, and it still hasn't changed. He's reaching at straws trying to justify what he's been doing to his workers for years," Camarillo says. "There's still no water at the job sites. Today I got a call from a worker—they didn't take a break all day.
"It's inhuman the way he treats his workers. It's sad."