Instafab strike article sparks Internet flame war

ON STRIKE AT INSTAFAB. Five of the 14 strikers, from Left: Al Stabenow, William Russell, Laramie Lexow, Matt Momb, and Brandon Nelson.
ON STRIKE AT INSTAFAB. Five of the 14 strikers: (from left) Al Stabenow, William Russell, Laramie Lexow, Matt Momb, and Brandon Nelson.

By Don McIntosh, Associate Editor

Instafab owner Bruce Perkins is ready to meet with his striking employees. I have it in writing.

Nonunion Instafab, based in Vancouver, Washington, makes and installs structural and architectural steel for construction companies like Andersen and Skanska.

On Feb. 27, five Instafab installers went on strike after Perkins refused to consider a list of grievances regarding working conditions. By mid-May, other installers and four workers from the fabrication shop had joined the strike, bringing the total to 14. Most of the strikers are young—in their 20s to mid-30s. Two are veterans, with service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When we first wrote about the strike May 14, comments started pouring in online. At nwlaborpress.org, comments are moderated in accord with our comment policy. Commenters don’t have to use their real names, but name-calling and personal attacks are out of bounds. And while commenters are free to disagree with unions, it’s not a space for anti-union “trolls” who just want to trash organized labor—there’s plenty of space for that elsewhere.

I don’t see the company ever going union though. I don’t think it would be a good fit for the owner.” — commenter writing under the alias “Truth be told”

After the first Instafab article appeared, strikers and their supporters posted comments critical of the company, and others posted comments defending it, or criticizing the strikers.

“This is America. If you don’t like your job, find a new one!” wrote “Kray.”

Someone using the moniker “Thinks this is Silly” said, “If this was a terrible company to work for, you can bet your … heiny that I would pull up my drawers and act like a big kid and find another job.”

A third comment was rejected for name-calling. “Truth for IFC” wanted to call a pro-union commenter an “idiot,” adding, “How’s that cardboard box you’re living in?”

The least rude of the four anti-strike commenters chose the name “Truth be told.”

 

Comments critical of strikers had something in common

But there was a funny thing: Though listing separate email addresses, all four anti-union commenters had the same IP address. An IP address is a numerical “address” assigned to a computer when it connects to the Internet; it tells other computers where to find it. When commenters share an IP address, it means they’re either the same person, or they’re using the same computer, or possibly they’re sharing the same network at an office. And these commenters seemed very familiar with the inner workings of Instafab, especially the most prolific commenter, “Truth be told.”

Submitting a dozen comments in a little over a week, “Truth be told” debated strikers and responded point by point to criticisms of the company.

“I contacted someone at Instafab to get some more details,” he wrote June 10. “The person I talked to said they would be happy to give the NW Labor Press some time to get the other side of the story.”

“I don’t see the company ever going union though,” he wrote June 17. “I don’t think it would be a good fit for the owner.”

“Can you please explain to me what exactly the high road is that you expect Bruce to take?” he wrote June 19.

 

Top commenter’s identity revealed

Figured out yet who “Truth be told” is? He didn’t do much to cover up his true identity. Our online comment form requires an email address. It’s visible to the web administrator, but not to the reading public. And “Truth be told” listed the email address of … company owner Bruce Perkins.

Using an online identity to speak about yourself while pretending to be another person is known as “sock-puppeting.” The most famous example is Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who was exposed in 2007 after he used an alias to post more than 1,100 entries on a Yahoo Finance bulletin board—praising Whole Foods for its brilliant management, and trashing his company’s competition.

Still, I couldn’t be 100 percent sure our sockpuppeteer was Bruce Perkins himself; it could have been someone close to him, or even an imposter listing his address.

Then Bruce Perkins emailed me from the same address to complain that one of his comments hadn’t been approved.

It put the Labor Press in an awkward position. As a newspaper, we can’t collaborate in the deception of our readers. It was time to end the deception.

We the employees of Instafab hereby demand: Water on every job, dry shacks on every job, safety and other training, medical paid by Instafab, a retirement plan, and area standard wages.” — employees’ letter to management

When I reached Perkins by phone Friday, June 19, he confessed to the sockpuppeting, and was apologetic. I suggested he could continue the online conversation—using his real name. We made plans for me to interview him the following week to hear his side of the story.

Then on Monday I got an email from him saying that on the advice of his attorney, he wouldn’t be talking to the Labor Press after all.

The strikers were not so hesitant. Later Monday I met with five of them at a Southeast Portland cafe. Tall, proud, lean, tattooed, and tanned from the outdoor work, they seemed like seriously hard workers, the kind of guys you’d be proud to call your co-workers or employees. And each had stories that would make you think twice about working at Instafab. Yet to a man, they said they’re not out to destroy the business that treated them poorly. All they’re asking for is a decent living, and a more respectful work environment.

You have been terminated from employment as of Feb. 27 due to no-show.” — management’s letter to employees

Actually, you don’t need me to tell you what they want, because they wrote it up themselves and presented it in person to Instafab general manager Will Filbeck on Feb. 27: “We the employees of Instafab hereby demand: Water on every job, dry shacks on every job, safety and other training, medical paid by Instafab, a retirement plan, and area standard wages.” [Dry shacks are temporary structures on construction sites that allow workers to get out of the elements for a few minutes while they take their breaks.]

It’s gotta take some guts to walk into a boss’s office with a list of demands. But these men did have some backup walking in with them: Robert Camarillo, who’s not just a business rep at Iron Workers Local 29, but the president of the 20,000-strong Columbia-Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council.

Instafab didn’t respond to the demands. That’s when they—a group of nonunion workers—went on strike. They took up picket signs and went outside and picketed, at the office and at job sites.

And for that they were fired. Here’s how one termination letter, written March 6 on Instafab letterhead, put it: “Instafab concludes that you have quit based on your no-show to work after Feb. 27, 2015. You have been terminated from employment as of Feb. 27 due to no-show.”

Legally, that could be a problem for Instafab. A federal law known as the National Labor Relations Act declares it to be the policy of the United States to encourage the “practice and procedure of collective bargaining,” and makes it a civil offense for an employer to discharge a worker simply for exercising their right to strike.

The fired Instafab strikers filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, and the federal agency is considering seeking a federal court injunction ordering their reinstatement.

As “Truth be told,” Perkins wanted to talk to the strikers. He reiterated that offer when he took me up on my suggestion to comment under his own name. And in an email to me, he said he’s ready to meet with the strikers. Strikers say they’re happy to meet with him. They can be reached, care of Iron Workers Local 29, at 503-774-0777.

15 Comments on Instafab strike article sparks Internet flame war

  1. I will sit down with the strikers and hear what they have to say. The folks at the meeting should not include attorneys, or any representation from local 29 or any other union or worker’s rights organizations. I would like them to save their aggendas for a different day. It’s just going to be a few guys catching up. I would also expect the meeting to be “protester free”. To have it any other way would just not make sense. I see enough of that already.

    I appreciate the access that Don McIntosh from the NW Labor Press has given me. He has allowed me to say things that I’m sure he doesn’t necessarily agree with. He could have pushed the button any time.

    There are still some nagging questions that I have about how the striker’s complaints were described and presented, and why is it that the strikers have to do nothing but wait for me to reach out? You lied to the world about reaching out to me, but since I reached out to you, everything’s now okay? Not in my book.

    This meeting needs to be about accountability. I will be held accountable for the things that I’ve done (or failed to do), and you should do the same. You have attacked my character, you have insulted and attacked Instafab’s customers and suppliers, and harmed Instafab’s reputation in the industry. Then, when I (respectfully) challenge you to back up your claims with facts, I hear nothing.

    We can talk about a lot of things at our meeting, but I am also bringing my list of questions. I know them well, bucause I have had to answer them-

    “You don’t give your guys rest breaks or lunch breaks?”

    “You don’t pay overtime? ”

    The guys pay their own health insurance and it has a $20,000 deductable?”

    Yes, we did give you a letter with your last paycheck trying to clarify and define your employment status, but that was our attempt to make sense of the health care insurance premiums that we were expected to pay for. Why don’t you also show folks the certified letters you received shortly after explaining how the mistake was made, and that you were, in no uncertain terms, NOT FIRED?

    I would like these issues to be addressed. I have a few more also. I don’t think that is asking too much.

  2. “A couple of guys catching up” is not how this works. You’re a bit past that point. I clearly don’t have all the facts, so I’m not judging you or the company. But representation is appropriate – on both sides – because this sounds a great deal like a negotiation.

  3. Bruce, as the poster above me said, you are well past that type of meeting. That should have been done when the workers presented their demands.

    You speak of accountability, it’s a nice buzz word that management likes to use when there is no real accountability for them. how exactly will you be held accountable? Will you resign and leave the company?

    As far as the letter goes, you can send one claiming that it was a mistake and they were not fired, the fact remains that you did send them a termination letter. That will be the one that matters. As evidenced by the second letter, you can’t do that.

    Now on to appearances, it would appear from the second letter that you realized you couldn’t fire these people, and tried to correct your mistake. That is how it appears from the outside. You say these men dragged your name and your company through the Mudd. From the outside looking in, it seems you did that yourself. This is how it appears as of right now to the public. None of what these people are asking for is unreasonable. That is followed by a a rejection of their reasonable requests, and terminating the employees for a “no-show” when they go on strike. That us followed by you trying (and failing) to spin things against the employees on a message board. Once caught, you admit to it, but still continue come across as unreasonable in a further post on this article. You can’t blame them for the bad public perception of you and your company that you are creating yourself. You ask that these people be held accountable (not sure what for) I suppose for missing work? Maybe for asking for better working conditions? Again,how will you be held accountable?

    • Aaron-

      Thank you for your reply. I have been an open shop for almost 30 years. This is the first time we have had to deal with a strike or strikers. The union side of business has it’s own set of rules. I honestly was not aware that a non union company could have workers go on strike. Even as I say that, it sounds strange.

      If Instafab was violating the rules as far as health, safety, wage and hour, or something of that nature, there are protections in place to protect the workers. What seems odd to me is that we may have unintentionally broken a rule that is part of a system that we previously had no experience with. There were union companies and non-union companies- and we are non-union. Apparently union rules can apply to non union companies. Why is that? How do you, and why would you prepare for that? It’s with the NLRB now, and they will decide if they think that we sent the notice with some kind of malicious intent, or if it was an honest mistake made by people that didn’t know any better. And yes, we corrected the mistake as soon as we found out that we made it.

      The accountability I’m referring to is making up false claims soley for the purpose of making the company look bad, having Instafab lose work because of claims of wrongdoing, and filing false reports with agencies whose job it is to protect workers. I want the strikers to quit lying, and ideally correct some of the false claims that they have made.

      The accountability on the side of Instafab is very much the same. If there are things that we are supposed to be doing for the workers and haven’t been, publicly admit it, correct the situation, and make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Follow the laws and rules, maintain transparency.

      So, no- accountability is not just a buzz word.

      Keep in mind that some of the demands that the strikers have made are based on a comparison to similar companies that are members of unions. These are things that unions offer their workers voluntarily, not things that are required by law. That difference should always be allowed to exist without penalty.

      Since we have not yet met with the strikers, I am not sure how we could be “well past that type of meeting”. Aaron, maybe you can explain to me why I had to reach out to the strikers to get them to meet? They kept telling anyone who would listen that I wouldn’t meet with them, wouldn’t talk to them, wouldn’t listen. None of that is true. Can you explain that to me? So far no one has tried. Maybe you will be the first.

      By the way, the 5 original strikers walked into our shop at 6:00 in the morning with union reps in tow, cell phone cameras running- no warning, no previous complaints- not a word. They read a list of demands and left. They never said a word to me. Is that when you think some kind of negotiations should have occurred?

  4. Aaron-

    I was traveling when I first saw your post, and I didn’t take the time to fully understand all of the points that you were trying to make. You alluded to me “spinning things on a message board and getting caught”- yes, I did not use my real name. I never said that I was someone else, I just didn’t say who I was. I don’t see any comparison with the kind of thing that the Whole Foods CEO did, but if you want to make a big deal about it, feel free. I thought that point was to have a discussion, no matter who you are. You are much more interested in what I did or didn’t do now that you know who I am. By the way, does anyone use their real name? Is there really someone in this world named “DIY Guy”? Does it matter that “Concerned Citizen” is very likely a union rep with an active role in this conflict? If you knew the identities of every poster, would that then allow you to decide, based on who they are, if they’re telling the truth or not, or if you agree with them or not? I could care less if your name is Aaron- it shouldn’t and doesn’t matter. I could have easily posted in a way the would have prevented anyone from knowing who I was. I’m not that stupid. Would you have felt any differently about what I had to say? And what exactly was that “spin” that you were referring to? My story has not changed. I have yet to hear anyone, including you, demonstrate, prove, verify, or provide information that would show me to not have been telling the truth. Instead of talking about what did or didn’t happen, you make this about me. Maybe the anonymity is more valuable than I thought. Maybe folks with attitudes like yours make anonymity necessary.

    Then you go on to say that none of the strikers demands are unreasonable. That sounds as ridiculous as if I had said “all of the strikers demands are unreasonable”. Obviously neither is true, and we are willing to look at the changes that need to be made. That doesn’t change the fact that many of their claims are not true. Do you know if they had water on job sites? Do you know if they were paid overtime? Do you know if our medical insurance plan has a $20,000 deductible? Do you know if they were being paid fairly? (and what the heck is an ‘area standard wage’ anyway?) Do you know if they took regular meal and rest breaks? Do you know if they have a lunchroom? Do you know if the restroom is clean? Do you know if they received safety training? Or do the facts even matter to you? You seem to be willing to take what the strikers say at face value, no questions asked. Who would benefit by having Instafab admit to wrongdoings that never happened? In your world, are companies guilty until proven otherwise?

    You also have a real issue with the “termination letter” and how we handled the strike when it first happened. I’m the first to admit, we blew it. But I also know that there is a lot more to it. Is this that “spin” that you seem to be so worried about?

    The strikers say that they brought me a list of demands, and I said “NO” and fired them. That’s right off of one of their fliers. Sounds really bad, but that’s not how it happened. Does it matter to you if that’s true or made up? Or are false claims OK if you’re trying to make a point? Do you in any way question any of the claims that the strikers have made, or does that matter to you?

    Hopefully, the NLRB will understand that Instafab has never intentionally or knowingly done anything to restrict, prohibit, prevent, punish, or in any way interfere with a worker’s right to engage in concerted or protected activities. The unions have their place and their way of doing things. While I don’t always agree with how they do things, I completely support their right to exist. I’m not sure that they feel the same way about me. Hopefully choice still fits in there somewhere. There are lots and lots of allegations out there, and they are being closely examined. Aaron, would you be willing to consider the possibility that the strikers (and others) could have other reasons for filing this mound of complaints? Do you really think that the letter that the strikers received was some type of retaliation or punishment? When a company makes that kind of mistake, is it impossible to change- is it one and done with you? In your world, that letter=guilty, regardless of what we were trying to accomplish? I hope everyone involved isn’t as narrow minded as you seem to be.

    • Jamie-

      I’m sorry that I gave you that snarky response. Yes, you are correct, I am much more comfortable writing down what I want to say, vs being in a confrontational situation. That does not mean that I don’t truly believe everything that I’ve written, and I see no reason why someone cannot reply with a thoughtful response.

      Is it possible for you or someone in your group to do that? Yes, I “drone on”, asking the same questions over and over. The strikers and jwj continue to pretend like you didn’t hear them. Jamie, the truth is not going to go away. Apparently you don’t feel the need to bother with the details. For you, it’s about businesses like mine doing things your way.

      When do you want to have an honest discussion about the union?

  5. To Don McIntosh and interested readers-

    It took me until yesterday to fully understand that the “sockpuppet” reference by Don McIntosh in the article above implied that I was posting as multiple people. This is not the case. I apologized to Don for referring to myself in the 3rd person, but that’s all I did. I was either “Truth be Told”, or I was myself- never anyone else.

    The other commenters are who they are, they think what they think, and can say what they want. I have never encouraged or discouraged anyone from commenting. I believe that most folks that work here are afraid that one of their comments could be used by the strikers and end up as another “unfair labor practice” complaint in front of the NLRB. I think that’s a valid concern.

    I do know that, comments or not, the people I work with are angry about how the company is being portrayed by the strikers, the union, and JwJ. These people ARE the company. They feel betrayed by the strikers, knowing full well what the striker’s real motivations are. They know that we try to do the right thing. They believe in this company. They know that the accusations being made by the strikers are mostly false, and that there is an agenda behind all of this that is being masked by the workers rights complaints. I think that we all feel somewhat helpless when faced with organizations and people whose chosen profession is attacking companies like ours with a “say what you need to say- win at all cost” philosophy. They do this while hiding behind the NLRB’s “protected and concerted activity” language. Seems really one sided to me, and is very frustrating for all of us.

    • Hi Bruce. Just to clear up any confusion: When I used the term sockpuppet, I defined it as, “using an online identity to speak about yourself while pretending to be another person.” Posting as “Truth be told,” you pretended to be someone other than yourself once you began referring to “the owner” and “Bruce” in the third person.

      The fact that three other commenters posted from your same IP address is a separate issue. Like I wrote, it meant they’re “either the same person, or they’re using the same computer, or possibly they’re sharing the same network at an office.” I have no reason to doubt that the comments are from different people who share your modem via a network.

  6. Instafab now has a Facebook page. We were frustrated by the fact that we were depending on other people’s sites and blogs to talk about our perspective on the workers strike.

    Thank you,

    Bruce

  7. Instafab is a horrible place. Ron and Will are horrible bosses. They use people for their gains and throw ya to the curb when they dont need you anymore. How is that fair? I had a couple friends go work for them and tou would think that at the interveiw they would mention if it was short term or not. My friend robert bennett quit his job to go work there and they terminated him today cause they finished the bridge job. I see bruce posting all this fair/unfair shit online and they are the ones being unfair. If ya dont beleive me hell bruce was using an alias here on this thread…goes to show you what kind of people you deal with…i wish the worst for that place and hope they get closed down for bad business practices

  8. Hi Jeremy-

    The work at Instafab is not short term for the right people. Apparently yourself and Mr. Bennett did not have the qualities that we are looking for. We don’t keep workers around that don’t carry their share of the work load- that would not be fair to the workers that do. Your friend was not terminated because we finished some job and didn’t need him- he was replaced with a worker that did the work that we asked him to do, the way we asked him to do it.

    As far as your “alias” comment, please take note that virtually no one in that particular conversation was using a real name. Go back and look. I wanted to have a conversation about the subject at hand, not about me. I stand behind everything I said, regardless.

    I doubt if we will be “closed down for bad business practices”, because we don’t commit bad business practices. If anything does us in, it will be the fact that this is a tough business. Fab shops come and go. The risk is huge. Local 29’s campaign against Instafab certainly doesn’t help matters, but it’s all part of being in business.

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