Inflatable rat trolls nonunion workers
It's an old tactic, but is it effective? In an age of social media, scab-shaming, analog-style, is still alive.
Portland's Operating Engineers Local 701's "Rat Tracker" — a giant inflatable rat on the back of a truck — was parked at West Burnside and Park Avenue on Nov. 15, as a protest against non-union subcontractors from Konell Construction & Demolition Corp. They were working at the site of the upcoming Amara apartment building across the street. The site at 15 N.W. Park Ave. was formerly a Firestone auto shop.
As the union said on the Rat Tracker Facebook page, "Lots of people out in the park blocks and lots of support for fighting for family-wage jobs. People want good housing and good jobs, so we are here again to let the public know that Lennar hired Konell."
The rat was back in Slabtown on Nov. 21, again protesting Konell. This time it was at a site run by R&H Construction at Northwest 21st Avenue and Quimby Street.
Scott Strickland, the special projects counsel for the Operating Engineers Local 701, told the Business Tribune that inflatable rats have "generally been a signal of labor issues, starting in Chicago in 1990 and spreading to New York, then other big cities."
He added, "As there has been a lot of hostility toward and pressure against unions, a lot of these tactics are being picked up and brushed off again, which haven't been used much in the Pacific Northwest recently."
Scabby the influencer
The best-known rat is Scabby the Rat of New York, which the National Labor Relations Board has recently argued in court is a disruptive form of illegal picketing.
So far, inflatable rats are protected speech under the First Amendment. Laws have changed, sometimes banning other forms of solicitation, such as picketing and marching. "It's pretty well known and understood what a giant inflatable rat means," said Strickland.
He confirmed that Local 701 in Oregon and Southwest Washington has had a recent push with the rat tracker.
"Wherever a contractor is trying to cheat workers or the system, we will be there to inform the public. We feel that a union job best protects workers and their families. (At 15 N.W. Park Ave.) there was a nonunion dirt and excavation company, Konell Demolition. Our intention at the Burnside project was to inform the public that Konell is non-union, not to suggest that Konell was cheating on that project. There are other times where we are there to inform the public about a cheating contractor, however."
"A lot of times a nonunion contractor gets the job, and everyone wants to keep it hush hush because the project is cutting corners on safety and wages. We use the rat to reintroduce the public to the bidding process."
Some jobs are mostly union, but if they use one nonunion engineering subcontractor, Local 701 will point that out. Sometimes they shame job sites that are majority nonunion. And sometimes they want to point out where a union company bid on the job, but the general contractor went with nonunion.
"Sometimes it's a GC (general contractor) that's up-and-coming and trying to make a name for itself by cutting a lot of corners. Our members and workers are always the first to feel those cuts."
Strickland says publicly-funded projects tend to have a higher union density and certain GCs tend to build union. Some trades have a high union density — crane operation and utility work, for example.
"Typically, the more skilled and complex, the higher the union density, because they are the ones who have the means to offer training."
Smaller industries, such as painting and tiling, don't have high union membership.
Also, "The bigger the job, the more advantage the employers can see for getting union labor."
Subcontractors tend to talk amongst each other, and the union spreads the word about non-union workers pretty quickly.
"All the research shows a project at union wage scale are as affordable as nonunion, because of the benefits from training, efficiency and safety. Nonunion contractors don't have the same reputation for safety and lack of needing change orders. Cheaper's not always better, or cheaper."
Also, for a design-build job, often a union firm will spec out the bid, but the GC will award it to a cheaper nonunion sub, while using that spec work without compensating the union firm.
As the National Labor Relations Board has become more aggressive in going after unions that go on strike, Strickland said unions have had to stick to tactics protected by the First Amendment, such as web sites and leaflets. "Picketing is considered actions, not pure expressions."
Strickland said they called shame on the general contractor, "LMC" on the banner because they made the choice. There were union bids on the project, but Lennar selected Konell instead.
It's worth getting the name right though. Michelle Fingerut, a spokesperson for LMC Construction, a differect company, told the Business Tribune, "No that isn't our site. That is Lennar LMC's jobsite."
Strickland said, "They have been using the 'LMC' name all over the country and on this project until very recently. It is my understanding that LMC Construction is in a trademark dispute with LMC Development (Lennar) over this issue. Out of respect for the risk of confusion and the uncertainty of the trademark issue we later changed the sign to 'Lennar' to clarify which 'LMC' was on site."
Andy Webber, president of Konell, called the Business Tribune back and said he knew nothing about the inflatable rat.
The rat was most recently seen in this part of town in March when it appeared outside the Modera Glisan Project at 1400 N.W. Hoyt St. That time it was protesting PeopleReady, a nonunion temp service providing elevator operators. The union said the GC should be using skilled Operating Engineers and apprentices for the work.
As the union wrote on Facebook, "People can't afford to live in many of the places they are building unless they have a union job. So, we are here again to let the public know that R&H hired Konell."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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