Carpenters union protests Whitworth construction

by Lucas Thayer

“Shame On Beck A. Taylor,” the banner says. For several hours a day, representatives of a local carpenters union protest on the corner of Division Street and Hawthorne Road.

They urge Vandervert Construction, the general contractor which oversees the construction of the new recreational center, to only work with subcontractors that pay an area appropriate wage. Whitworth resists efforts to be drawn into the dispute.

A joint statement issued by the Business and Communications offices said that the dispute is between Steel Stud Structures, Inc., (SSS) and the Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters (NWRCC), and that Whitworth would not become involved. The statement was issued after the union asked Whitworth cease working with Vandervert until the general contractor agrees to work with organizations that pay “area appropriate wages.”

The NWRCC is engaged in an ongoing labor dispute with SSS, a Spokane drywalling contractor.

Ben Basom, a representative for the NWRCC, said that SSS does not provide their workers with a livable wage, full family health care or a pension. SSS was unavailable for comment. Their website currently displays the statement, “Please know the union’s allegations are simply and unequivocally false.”

“We feel it’s the obligation of the university and Beck Taylor, as a decision maker, to ensure that area labor standards are met on all their construction projects,” Basom said.

Steve Thompson, director of capital projects at Whitworth University, said construction will continue uninterrupted. The new recreational center is set for completion in June, and will be fully operational by the 2013 fall semester.

“We’re satisfied that the quality of work is equal to any other framing contractor, union or non-union,” Thompson said. “We have a responsibility to our students to spend resources conscientiously. It’s both them and their parents who are footing the bill.”

SSS does not provide medical coverage for workers directly, although 75 percent of employee medical insurance premiums are paid by the company according to an internal memo. Average hourly pay for SSS workers hovers around $20. The NWRCC believes $37 per hour is a more appropriate wage.

“Our issue isn’t a union/non-union labor issue. It’s strictly over Steel Stud Structure’s failure to meet area labor standards on all of their construction projects,” Basom said. “We will continue to be in the midst of this ongoing labor dispute until Steel Stud Structures chooses to meet area labor standards.”

Since many of the union carpenters are occupied with work, in many cases the protesters are not union members. These non-union protesters are paid by the NWRCC to advocate on the union’s behalf.

Basom said if union carpenters are unavailable, they will hire family members of union carpenters for demonstrations. Basom said he was unsure if any of the protesters outside of Whitworth were non-union members.

Vandervert Construction was one of eight contractors to bid on the construction contract for the new recreational center, according to the statement issued by Whitworth. The statement also said that the bidding was competitive and the university “continues to resist efforts to become part of a dispute that [it] cannot resolve.”

Last month, the NWRCC protested outside of Gonzaga University over a similar labor dispute involving Steel Stud Structures, Inc. and Drywall Specialties, Inc. Gonzaga University settled the dispute with the NWRCC, agreeing to contract with only union approved subcontractors that pay “area appropriate wages,” according to the Gonzaga Bulletin.

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