Re-hired Wednesday … on strike by Friday

Nine months after he was fired for union activity, a settlement brokered by the National Labor Relations Board returned Cliff Puckett to a job as a carpenter on the Benson Tower construction project in downtown Portland.

That was Wednesday, June 28.

Two days later, he was out again — on a one-man unfair labor practice strike against his employer, Newway Forming.

Joined by organizers and out-of-work members of the Carpenters Union, Puckett’s picket called Newway unfair, because it was clear that the company wasn’t going to let him back to work like an ordinary member of the crew — making concrete forms at the high-rise condo project.

Instead, Puckett was a marked man, segregated from co-workers, working directly with a supervisor in another part of the building.

But then Puckett, 28, wasn’t a typical employee. He’s a member of Carpenters Local 1388, and a paid organizer with the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters.

At Newway, he’s a “salt,” union jargon for someone who gets a job at a company with the intent of promoting the union to work crews.

When he applied, Puckett didn’t hide the fact that he was a union carpenter. So why did Newway hire him? Newway manager Mark Vanlanderzele declined to speak with the Labor Press, but Puckett thinks it’s not uncommon for union carpenters to work nonunion, in violation of union rules. If so, they’re undercutting their own wages, Puckett said.

Newway paid Puckett $20 an hour, with no benefits. As a union carpenter, he would have made $26 an hour with full family health insurance and pension benefits for the same work.

And that’s basically why several unions have been active at the Benson Tower — high-end projects shouldn’t be undercutting area standard wages for the skilled trades, craft union organizers say. The developer, Benson Tower LLC, hired Vancouver, Canada,-based general contractor ITC Constructors USA Inc. to manage construction of the $30 million luxury condo project located at SW 11th and Clay.

Portland landowner Joe Weston, owner of American Property Management, is a development partner in the venture.

ITC hired several nonunion subcontractors, including Newway, which brought in some workers from Canada.

For Newway to pay less than union contractors could give them an advantage, costing union members work and driving down wages in the industry.

In response, Carpenters and Laborers — two unions cut out of the Benson Tower project — launched a relentless pressure campaign.

In July 2005, Puckett was the first Carpenters salt to work for Newway. Four others hired on over the summer: Jason Sheckler, Jeremy Kidwell, Jeremy Larson and John Svob.

Union organizers began leafletting and serving lunch at the site. Puckett talked openly about the union to co-workers. He, Sheckler, and Kidwell started wearing union shirts to work.

On Sept. 9, Newway fired Puckett, saying he talked too much. Maybe they singled him out as the ringleader. In any case, a week later, the other salts went on strike to protest Puckett’s firing; their picket lines were honored by union workers from other trades, and work on the project ground to a halt.

Five days later, they offered to go back to work. Two were rehired but then laid off. Others were told their positions were no longer available. The group filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which was already investigating the charge of Puckett’s firing. It’s illegal to fire or discriminate against a worker for engaging in lawful union activity.

In mid-January, the two sides reached a settlement out of court. Without admitting guilt, Newway offered reinstatement to Puckett, and back pay to the others.

But the developer intervened. Benson Tower LLC didn’t want Puckett back on the job, and directed Newway not to rehire him. Puckett and the union filed yet another charge, which the NLRB investigated and found to have merit.

Now, the union could go after Benson Tower itself. Federal labor law has detailed restrictions about who and how construction unions can picket. When the NLRB found Benson in violation of labor law, it meant the Carpenters could picket Benson Tower LLC at any of its locations. Puckett, Sheckler, and three others began an “ambulatory picket” of project manager Andy Krebs himself. For three days during business hours they followed him with bullhorns and picket signs wherever he went. Meanwhile, union pickets, drums, and bullhorns outside the Benson Tower condo sales office were discouraging buyers.

Benson Tower LLC agreed to settle the charge — allowing Puckett to return, and posting notices about workers rights all over the site.

“Ultimately, we want all these guys working on this site to be paid and treated decently,” Puckett says.

Back on the job, Puckett was determined to press the letter of the law — equal treatment. Newway’s decision to keep him isolated was grounds for another unfair labor practice strike. When the pickets went up on Friday, June 30, Sheckler said several groups of workers — painters and structural iron workers — walked off the job.

As of press time, the strike was still under way.