San Francisco Chronicle

Carpenters at Airport Protest Against Union Leadership

Workers dislike new way to OK labor contracts

Lisa Fernandez, SF Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, May 21, 1999

Angry with what they say are low wages and a lack of coffee breaks, about 250 carpenters and 1,750 allies stopped work at San Francisco International Airport yesterday, bringing a $2.4 billion construction project to a near halt.

Smaller groups of carpenters also stopped working at the San Francisco construction sites of Kaiser Permanente Medical Center and the future PacBell Park in China Basin, where carpenters plan to focus their efforts today. Although it did not affect airline service, the loss of that many workers, which included a sympathetic group of electricians, plumbers and painters, cost the airport terminal project about $1 million, airport spokesman Ron Wilson estimated.

It also added a day's delay to the project, which should be finished by late 2000 but is already more than a month behind schedule because of last winter's El Nino storms, Wilson said.

Carrying simple cardboard signs that read "More Money," the jeans- clad members of the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council protesting at the airport yesterday said they wanted $10 more an hour, coffee breaks and every other Friday off. But they are not upset with the contractors, who pay them almost $27 an hour.

Instead, they are angry with their own union officials, whom they say sold them out last Saturday by voting on a weak four-year contract. For the first time, only a delegation of representatives, rather than all the carpenters, voted on the contract. A union mandate 18 months ago ordered the change in voting.

That erosion of internal democracy is at the core of the controversy, carpenters say. "Times are booming," said Jonathan Noel of Hayward, who is helping to build a nine-story parking garage at the airport. "Electricians and plumbers are making $34 an hour, and carpenters are the lowest- paid men on the job."

Carpenters have urged their union leadership to have a new vote. They argued the delegation, which voted 127 to 107 for the contract, didn't represent the 16,000 working members. Some jeered at their union officials, pointing to their suits, leather chair s and six-figure salaries in contrast to the earnings of the rank and file.

Union officials say the carpenters' protest is an unusual situation.

In his 25 years as a union official, Regional Council President Gary Martin said, this is only the second time he knows of when union members protested against their own leadership. Union leaders said 73 percent of union members who answered a survey said they approved the contract's language.

The union's delegation signed off on the best contract it thought it could get, he said, noting that the contract gives the carpenters an extra $5 an hour over four years. The trouble is, he said, that the union is not strong enough to negotiate more than that. If the union presses for more, contractors simply will hire from the large pool of nonunion workers who earn about $20 an hour with no fringe benefits, according to Martin.

Nonunion contractors also were critical of the carpenters' protest.

Kevin Dayton, who represents a trade association of 325 Northern California nonunion contractors, says the carpenters' unsanctioned strike violates the labor agreement the unions signed with the airport in 1996. Construction unions signed a deal with the airport promising no strikes, pickets or work stoppages if the airport would hire only union employees. Because of the no-strike agreement, Wilson said, an arbitrator determined last night that the unions must inform their members that anyone who honors the strike will be subject to discharge or ordered to pay damages. If the union leadership does not tell its members, Wilson said, the leaders will be subject to similar penalties.

Dayton's group is pursuing a lawsuit, which is now before California's Supreme Court, arguing that the deal violates competitive bidding. Union president Martin said he believes the carpenters deserve more money and a chance to sip coffee a couple times a day on the job. But he was firm that there would not be a new contract vote. "That would be like taking a second bite of the apple," he said.

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