City of Vancouver convention center protest grows louder

VANCOUVER, Wash. — Building trades unions turned up the volume on a dispute they have with City Hall and the Vancouver Downtown Redevelopment Authority over the awarding of a contract on a new taxpayer-financed convention center and hotel to an out-of-state general contractor that “reneged on its promise to sign a project labor agreement and build with an all-union labor force.” 

More than a hundred protesters — many of them out-of-work plumbers and fitters — met at the downtown project site here July 2, then marched eight blocks to City Hall, where they demanded that Mayor Royce Pollard and city councilors explain why they promised one thing — but delivered another.

“I’m getting tired of being lied to,” said Wally Mehrens, executive secretary-treasurer of the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council at the project’s

“B Gate,” where employees of non-union subcontractors come and go. There are at least a dozen non-union subs listed at the gate. “And I get tired of politicians telling me that ‘85 percent union is okay.’ Would the city like it if we paid only 85 percent of our taxes?”

Organized labor played a major role in shepherding the $73.1 million Vancouver Convention Center & Hotel deal through bureaucratic red tape at the state, county and city levels. Union members also helped sell a bond levy to voters.

The hotel will be owned by the city, but managed under contract with Hilton Hotels.

Union officials said that through all the preliminary work and bidding, contractors told labor and city officials that they would sign a project labor agreement and build the 30,000-square-foot center with union labor. But soon after Faulkner USA of Austin, Texas, was awarded the contract it began back-pedaling on the project labor agreement.

The largest piece of the work was subcontracted to non-union JRT Mechanical of Battle Ground, Wash. That award came after unionized J.H. Kelly had worked for months with Faulkner on some preliminary heating and ventilation mechanical design work — under the assumption it would be doing the work.

Tualatin-based Plumbers and Fitters Local 290 stepped in, but its arguments have fallen on deaf ears at City Hall. Local 290 coordinated the July 2 rally, which was attended by members of nearly a dozen different construction craft unions.

“This may be the start of Independence Day weekend, but it’s Solidarity Day for us,” said Bob Childers, a business representative of Cement Masons Local 555, which has a signatory contractor on the project. “These big general contractors and politicians are trying to separate us; they’re trying to pick us off one at a time. We’re not going to let that happen.”

An impromptu march to City Hall attracted a police escort along the way. At City Hall’s doorstep they chanted, “Mayor P ... you cheated me! Mayor P ... you cheated me!” Union leaders also said they wouldn’t forget come next year’s election cycle for mayor and city councilors.

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