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,
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
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.