A few years ago, “shame on” signs started popping up at places such as the YMCA, Fresh Market and Subaru of Wichita.
The United Brotherhood Of Carpenters And Joiners Of America Local 201 has people hold the signs, which usually say there’s a “labor dispute,” when businesses have construction done through nonunion labor.
The union now has a sign most days at 1330 E. First St., which is notable in that the address is home to six other unions. That includes the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Ironworkers Local No. 24, which is the specific union that the Carpenters union is protesting.
“They can have their banners out there till the cows come home,” says Mark Roby, business agent for the Ironworkers union. “I can sleep well at night.”
Roby does, though, have several issues with the Carpenters union and its protest.
According to a flier, the Carpenters union is upset over the construction of a new 8,800-square-foot building at 3555 N. Santa Fe that will be used for Ironworkers training. The flier says that a subcontractor for the general contractor “does not meet area labor standards for all their carpenter craft workers, including fully paying for family health benefits.”
“I’m desecrating American democracy according to that,” Roby says.
Except the Ironworkers aren’t the ones building the building, he says. The separate 501(c)(3) Apprenticeship Training Trust owns the building and will lease it to the Ironworkers for more training space. Roby also is coordinator of the trust.
Initially, Carpenters representative Chad Mabin didn’t return calls for comment. Roby says he looked up what Mabin makes, which according to 2013 Department of Labor documents is $158,773.
“I just figure that a guy making 158 grand a year would have enough savvy to figure out who he’s protesting against.”
Carpenters union attorney Martin Walter says that’s disingenuous.
“It’s kind of a cop out for him to say, ‘Hey, I had nothing to do with it,’” Walter says of Roby.
Walter says the Ironworkers are “deeply involved” with the Apprenticeship Training Trust and the decisions related to building a new building.
“I felt that he was trying to dodge a bullet and say they have no responsibility in the decision,” Walter says. “They’ve got the pull there if they wanted to do it union, if they wanted to do it at area standard wages. That’s certainly something they could have achieved.”
In the past, Roby says there were several Wichita general contractors that used union labor exclusively, but he says that changed years ago. Roby says the main consideration for the new training facility is that the companies doing the work would be from Wichita.
“We made the decision we’re going to spend our money locally,” Roby says.
Michael Cathcart of Cathcart Architects was selected as the architect, and Snodgrass & Sons Construction was chosen as the general contractor.
Roby says he believes it makes more sense to develop relationships with contractors, who then may choose to work with unions. He says coercion does not get anywhere.
“I honestly don’t know whose bright idea it was,” Roby says. “Short and sweet, it doesn’t work. … It’s like the little boy who cries wolf. You see them all so often around here.”
He says it may work in other markets, “but here in Doo Dah, nah. It’s not going to do it.”
Walter says the Carpenters union has had mixed success with the banners.
“I can’t say it’s turned the work around in every case,” he says.
“It’s not a very union friendly town to begin with,” Walter says. “We have very little market share in that area. … We’ve been trying to make inroads in Wichita for several years, and it’s just been tough.”
He says the Ironworkers aren’t helping.
“We’re very disappointed the Ironworkers wouldn’t use a contractor that pays to area standards.”
Walter says the Carpenters union built its own, much-larger training center in January with all union labor.
Roby says the Carpenters union’s tactics make people mad, which he says is a concern for unions in general.
“Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies,” he says.
“The public perception in this part of the country is that we’re all Jimmy Hoffa. I don’t drive a Cadillac and wear $500 suits, as you might see.”
Not that Roby wants anyone to think he and the Ironworkers aren’t tough.
“We don’t play well with others,” he says, explaining that that’s why they need a separate building for training.
“We’re ironworkers. I’m sorry. We’re a pretty proud bunch,” Roby says. “There’s less than 150,000 of us (nationally) left to do some of the most dangerous work around. Gravity hurts.”
In Roby’s office, his desk sits below a sign that says, “What you call Hell ironworkers call a day’s work.”
“We’re fairly well-paid Kelly girls or poorly paid prostitutes because all we do is sell a skill,” he says. “The way you stay in business is being competitive. Doing it better, faster, safer. That’s it.”