Building trades call for boycott of Vancouver Convention Center

VANCOUVER — The Columbia-Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council is calling for a boycott of the yet-to-be-built Vancouver Convention Center & Hotel because of work that has been awarded to several non-union subcontractors.

The $73.1 million publicly-funded facility at downtown West Sixth and Columbia streets just south of Esther Short Park broke ground last December and is slated for completion in June 2005. It will consist of a 30,000- square-foot conference center and a seven-story, 225-room hotel.

The general contractor is Faulkner USA of Austin, Texas under a design and build contract with the City of Vancouver’s Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

RDA issued $66 million in bonds and will own the complex. The project is financed by a 2 percent lodging tax charged on room rates in Clark County, as well as a state sales tax rebate program implemented several years ago by the state.

Hilton Hotels Corporation has signed a 15-year agreement to manage the complex for the city. Hilton reportedly will receive a management fee of $350,000 to $400,000 per year, with the potential to earn an additional $150,000 to $300,000 per year beginning in 2009 if it is successful booking conventions.

Faulkner has collaborated with Hilton on four other projects involving public financing.

Organized labor played a big role shepherding the Convention Center deal through bureaucratic red tape at the state, county and city levels. Labor also helped the project win public support. It wasn’t an easy sell either. An association that represents hoteliers in Clark County tried to block the deal, objecting to the use of tax dollars for a hotel that would compete with private enterprise.

“The unions lobbied very hard at the city, county and in Olympia,” confirmed Gerald Baugh, manager of business development for the City of Vancouver.

Wally Mehrens, executive secretary-treasurer of the Building Trades Council, said that during the preliminary discussions, he continually was assured by city officials and principals of Faulkner that the project would be 100 percent union.

Portland-based Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 9 even secured a neutrality agreement with Hilton, meaning it will have easy access to some 150 new employees and no interference from the company in an organizing campaign.

Mehrens said that at one point, before Faulkner had been selected as the general contractor, he had a conversation with Bob Gallup of the company’s Denver division regarding picketing that was occurring on a project in the Midwest by the Carpenters Union.

“He called me twice to ‘put us at ease’ about their intentions (to use union subcontractors),” Mehrens said.

Yet, after winning the contract, Faulkner subcontracted some of the initial demolition and dirt work to two non-union companies. The controversy reached a boiling point a few weeks later when Faulkner subcontracted a $5 million chunk of the plumbing, heating and cooling work to a non-union firm.

According to Jerry Moss, a business representative of Plumbers and Fitters Local 290, Faulkner worked for months with signatory contractor J.H. Kelly designing the mechanicals for the project — under the assumption it would be performing the work.

“At the last minute they were told ‘no;’ they had been underbid by non-union JRT Mechanical (of Battle Ground, Wash.) by $500,000,” Moss said.

Baugh told the Northwest Labor Press the bid difference was about $400,000, but the discrepancy still was enough to prompt union officials to ask how the company could bid so much lower on a prevailing wage project.

Ron Murray, another Local 290 business rep, said JRT isn’t a registered apprenticeship training agent in Washington or Oregon, so it can’t use apprentices or trainees. He said Faulkner also has a technical service agreement with Hilton to develop the hotel to Hilton’s design standards, “so they can’t shortcut on materials.”

Moss also questions the plumbing contractor’s ability to get bonding for the project. “We haven’t received answers to any of our questions. They won’t return phone calls or respond to letters. We’ve offered to go to Austin to meet with them,” Moss said.

Mehrens met briefly with project manager Kirsta Scranton on May 17, and again on April 23.

“She told me Faulkner was a merit shop and she questioned who would tell me the job would be all union,” Mehrens said. “At that point I felt I had been lied to.”

Baugh, who met with Local 290 officials, said the city would like to see the convention center built all union. He reported that, to date, it is a “74 percent union job.”

According to Baugh, the Redevelopment Authority has a contract with Faulkner guaranteeing a maximum price of $73.1 million and a time-certain completion date (sometime in June 2005). Anything after that specified date will lead to penalties.

But because the project is still in its early stages (foundation work recently was completed), Moss said it wouldn’t be that difficult to remove one subcontactor in favor of another.

Baugh hopes the sides can talk, and has offered to help facilitate a meeting.

The Clark, Skamania and West Klickitat Counties Labor Council also has interceded with a letter to the Vancouver Redevelopment Authority and a call to Scranton to arrange a meeting. Diane Hibbard, secretary-treasurer of the labor council, said that Scranton told her she would have to talk to their attorney before agreeing to a meeting.

“Everyone wants to see this thing work. It’s a first-of-its-kind public-private deal that should be a win-win for everyone,” Hibbard said.

At press time, no meetings had been arranged.

Moss and Murray said boycotting the facility was the only option the union had “to get people’s attention that we are serious.”

The resolution, presented by Local 290 at the May 11 meeting of the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council, calls for a three-year boycott of the facility once it opens in June 2005.

A week prior to that action, the Washington State Labor Council Executive Board voted to hold its 2007 convention at the Vancouver Convention Center and Hotel.

FaulknerUSA specializes in public-private projects, particularly convention center and hospitality deals. It also builds housing for correctional and institutional facilities, public schools and the military. Over the past six years the company has completed 60 public-private projects and has or is in the process of completing projects valued at more than $2.2 billion.

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