“If you go to that union meeting, you’re fired.” That’s what several painters say their manager told them when he learned of a meeting to discuss unionizing Edwards Painting.
Edwards Painting is a nonunion painting contractor based in Oregon City with about 20 employees. It does a fair amount of commercial work for general contractor Walsh Construction. But workers say they earn up to $6 an hour less than their union counterparts in Painters Local 10, and have no benefits. When some workers started wearing union T-shirts, things got tense with manager Grant Edwards, son of company owner Gene Edwards.
Sean Carter, 33, says he was fired the Friday before Labor Day after coming out in favor of the union effort. But when he went in to collect his final check, he was joined by several pro-union co-workers. They confronted the company, and the termination was rescinded. Still, his experience led other workers to get cold feet about having their names on a union petition.
Painters District Council 5 — the Seattle-headquartered regional body that Local 10 is a part of — filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Under U.S. labor law, workers have the right to unionize if they choose, and it’s illegal for an employer to threaten or retaliate against workers for supporting a union.
On Oct. 10, Carter and two pro-union co-workers took the dispute public, showing up outside the Portland Art Museum with a “Shame on Walsh Construction” banner. The museum was the site of a $125-a-plate fundraiser for Lifeworks Northwest, a non-profit organization that works to prevent child abuse and treat addiction. To construct a new treatment center in Northeast Portland, Lifeworks hired Walsh, and Walsh picked Edwards Painting as a subcontractor.
District Council 5 wants to see Edwards Painting unionize — both to bring up standards for workers there, and to prevent existing members from losing work to lower-wage competition. The District Council offers a rigorous four-year apprenticeship training program, turning out journeyman painters. Under the union contract, journeyman painters earn $19.81 an hour and have employer-paid full-family health coverage and a defined-benefit pension. But it’s hard to maintain those standards when lower-wage nonunion contractors have up to 40 percent market share in commercial painting.
Edwards Painting did not return a call from the Labor Press.