November 6, 2009 Volume 110 Number 21

Construction downturn has local Carpenters voting on wage freezes

Hard times in the construction industry — and last year’s stock market meltdown — took a bite out of compensation in recent contract settlements covering thousands of union Carpenters.

In mail ballots counted Sept. 18, members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters ratified an agreement with the Oregon-Columbia chapter of Associated General Contractors (AGC) that looked much like the deal they rejected at meetings in June. Under the terms of the two-year agreement signed by the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters (PNWRCC), the journeyman carpenter wage will be frozen at $32.40 an hour through June 2010.

And starting Dec. 1, 2009, that wage will be reduced by $1.10, money that will instead go to shore up the pension trust, where assets lost value in last year’s stock market tumble. Unlike the rest of the employer pension contribution, the $1.10 won’t accrue future benefits. Regional council spokesperson Eric Franklin said members’ average age is mid- to late- 40s, and shifting funds to make up for the pension shortfall prevents the trust from having to eliminate benefits such as the “80 and out” early retirement provision.

“We wanted to make sure our retirees are protected and there’s not diminishment of benefits,” Franklin said.

The new contract also raised the threshold for a lower wage on smaller privately funded jobs: Projects of $4 million or less can pay $27.54 an hour — 85 percent of the regular wage. Franklin said that wage will make union-signatory contractors more competitive with open shop contractors in bidding on small projects like strip malls and light commercial work.

“We’re partners with our contractors, and they’re really hurting,” Franklin said. “We’re just basically trying to make sure that we keep their doors open and get through this spot in the economy.”

The new AGC contract covers 5,000 to 7,000 general construction carpenters, millwrights and pile drivers, most of whom work for general contractors in Oregon and Southwest Washington. It expires June 1, 2011. Wages for the second year of the contract will be negotiated next year.

On Oct. 28, PNWRCC announced a tentative Exterior/Interior agreement with Associated Wall and Ceiling Contractors of Oregon and Southwest Washington. Mail ballots went out this week and must be postmarked by Nov. 12. Similar to the AGC deal, the agreement contains a one-year wage freeze at $33.14 an hour for journeyman drywallers, with wages in the second year of the contract to be negotiated later. The threshold for a lower 85 percent wage on smaller private projects was raised to $750,000.

In a letter to members and their families, PNWRCC leaders said the bargaining team didn’t like the agreement, but considered it the best of the bad options.

“Today our contractor base has been badly shaken by cancelled projects, lack of credit, and fewer opportunities to bid,” the letter stated. “We must remain in the game and still have a base of contractors with whom to bargain in better times.”

The agreement runs through May 31, 2011 and covers about 1,500 drywallers and lathers at Exterior and Interior Local 2154.

Bargaining on the two contracts had been under way since February and March. Both previous contracts had expired as of May 31, 2009.

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