Hearing on Instafab safety record erupts in shouting match

Instafab company owner Bruce Perkins
Instafab company owner Bruce Perkins

An April 28 forum for striking ironworkers turned into a shouting match between pro- and anti-union workers after the company owner showed up with about 15 employees to rebut stories about his company that supporters of Ironworkers Local 29 have been telling.

At Vancouver-based Instafab, a nonunion steel fabricator and installer, five employees went out on strike Feb. 27, 2015, after the company general manager rejected a list of demands they presented — water and dry shacks on every job, safety and other training, company-paid health coverage, a retirement plan, and area standard wages. Most of Instafab’s approximately 75 employees remained on the job, but strikers say their number has grown to 19, though several have also gone back to Instafab. Strikers have called on Instafab customers to stop doing business with the company, and have even taken their complaints about Instafab to Portland City Council.

The April 28 event, held at a meeting room at the downtown Portland offices of Mercy Corps, was to be a hearing on worker safety at Instafab, put on by Portland Jobs With Justice as part of its Worker Rights Board project. The way the Workers Rights Board works, a panel of prominent citizens — typically labor-friendly elected officials, academics and faith leaders — hears from workers about an issue, and then deliberates and issues a written statement. It’s not a trial but a public forum for workers to air grievances, and for members of the community to help resolve their dispute.

I think meeting with them and giving them a second chance is something you need to consider.”  —Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek

Targets of the testimony haven’t shown up in the past. But Instafab owner Bruce Perkins has actively debated strikers in the media and even in the online comment section of the Northwest Labor Press — all while refusing to meet them in person to discuss their grievances. Ironically, Perkins backed out of a private meeting with strikers last July because Portland Jobs with Justice executive director Diana Pei Wu was going to be in attendance — only to meet her and strikers April 28 in front of a panel that included Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek.

“For the last 14 months I’ve put up with gross misrepresentation of what my company is,” Instafab owner Bruce Perkins said, addressing Kotek and the strikers. “We’ve been maligned. We’ve been insulted.… You guys have an agenda that doesn’t include my company.”

Wu and other organizers of the event thanked Perkins for attending, but also said he would need to limit his time at the mike.

At that point, Instafab general manager Will Filbeck started yelling “this is a joke,” and led a group of workers to walk out of the packed hall.

Moderator Zev Nicholson, an organizer with the Urban League of Portland, explained that the hearing was a chance for strikers to tell their stories.

Instafab strikers testify at an April 28 hearing of Portland Jobs With Justice' Workers Rights Board.
Instafab strikers testify at an April 28 hearing of Portland Jobs With Justice’ Workers Rights Board.

And they had plenty of stories. As many as a dozen former workers spoke up, telling of dangerously inadequate safety training, falsified drug test cards, and long work hours leading to sleep deprivation that affected safety on the job. Striker Mike James said he came close to being injured when a forklift driven by a coworker ripped steel off a building and just missed his hand. He also said Instafab never checked his certifications when they hired him, and that he was shown a safety video from Australia that spoke in terms of kilograms and other unfamiliar measurements.

Most of the testimony was about safety, but workers also described flagrantly disrespectful treatment by management — like being called “dumbass” on a regular basis. Striker Laramie Lexow said the breaking point for him personally was when he witnessed a manager verbally abuse a coworker in front of others, causing the worker to break down in tears on the shop floor.

After the strikers, Perkins was given another chance to speak. He said Instafab is a growing company with a good reputation, a clean safety record, and a by-the-book safety program.

“I see a lot of people testify in my line of work,” Kotek replied, addressing Perkins. “What I’m hearing is some really authentic testimony about trying to make a workplace safer. And I hear what you’re saying, but there’s a real disconnect. I think meeting with them and giving them a second chance is something you need to consider.”

Instafab Workers Rights Board panelists

  • Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek
  • PSU urban planning professor Lisa Bates
  • PSU sociology professor Jose Padin
  • Rev. Cecil Prescod, Ainsworth United Church of Christ
  • Father Dave Zegar, St. Andrews Catholic Church

Kotek referred to a news story about safety violations at Instafab. On March 18, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries cited the company for 17 safety violations at its Vancouver fabrication plant and fined the company $30,400 for the 10 most serious violations, including lack of effective training on hazardous chemicals, lack of eyewash facilities, and unsafe practices around flammable vapors.

“Those are some pretty serious allegations,” Kotek said. “I don’t think those seem made up.”

In the end, the panel returned with a statement recommending that Instafab management sit down with striking workers and communicate. It will also send letters to Instafab customers including Anderson Construction and Skanska — asking them to stop working with Instafab because of inadequate safety conditions.

NEXT: The National Labor Relations Board is pursuing charges that Instafab broke federal labor law when it fired the first batch of strikers. The agency is seeking $33,000 in back pay. A hearing before a federal judge is scheduled for Aug. 30.

More photos of the event here.

15 Comments on Hearing on Instafab safety record erupts in shouting match

  1. You speak about communication and justice but will only allow one man to speak on the otherside of the story for five minutes. My name is Joseph Kushner and I am a Insta Fab field welder. I went to the hearing to support my company and speak my opinion on the safe environment I work in everything day. I wanted to bring to light any doubts about my company’s safety, yet my coworkers and myself were not allowed to speak. How can anything be settled without all pieces on the table

    • Instafab did not get to speak. We never had a chance to defend the alledged allegations. I have worked at Instafab for 4+ years as a Welder Fitter. They care about their employees and their safety. Both sides should be able to talk. Not just one. Steve Schuchman

  2. There was no shouting match, these guys deserved a chance to defend themselves. Jobs with Justice is taking anything they can and making it worse. Instafab workers care about their company and work hard.

  3. This meeting was unfair in so many ways. I would like to apologize to the Instafab workers that took time out of their day to show up and talk about what it is like to work at Instafab. Instead, they had to sit and listen to a union striker that worked at Instafab for 2 months tell the employees how bad the company is, how unsafe we are, how the workers are treated so poorly, and how dishonest we are. If the politicians and Jobs with Justice really wanted the truth, they would ask the workers that know the truth, not some strikers that are following the union script in exchange for a union job. Shameful and sad! THANKS AGAIN INSTAFAB EMPLOYEES AND SUPPORTERS! I AM SORRY THAT YOUR VOICES WERE STIFLED AND IGNORED BY DIANA PEI WU AND JOBS WITH JUSTICE. They never cared about what you had to say, because it would contradict their untruths. By the way, when you have a minute go on line and google ‘Jobs with Justice’ and see where their funding comes from- they are supported by no less than 13 unions, including Ironworkers local 29. It is no wonder JwJ didn’t want to hear what you have to say, and they really didn’t want to hear that you DON’T WANT THEIR UNION. The union should do what they spend so much time talking about- LISTEN TO THE WORKERS! There are a LOT more of you than there are strikers. In their union world, we do not matter or exist. Shame on JwJ and the union!

  4. great comment, we have all been union good and bad, we choose where we are now because of the loyalty of the company and our employers.

  5. I would like to say first hand, I’ve seen both sides of the fence. I did strike against IFC am now back working for Bruce Perkins.
    IFC, is not a bad company to work for. We have safety training, water, and dry places to eat.
    I’ve never seen anyone crying because of unfavorable conditions. It is construction, you’re gonna get dirty, wet, and maybe some feelings hurt from time to time.
    Attacking a small business owner based on what, exactly?
    For some big tough Iron workers….seems like a lot of wining.

    On the other hand, the union isn’t all bad either. Great training program, great benefits…..but bad tactics!

    I have personally apologized to Bruce myself for being part of this strike.
    I made a bad decision, by not knowing the facts.

    I am proud to work for IFC. I have good benefits, and am able to support my family. I go to work for an honest days pay, for an honest days work. That’s what I thought we all wanted.

    Those that don’t, well…..from what I’ve seen, would make wonderful Walmart door greeters!!

  6. I don’t work for this company, I wasn’t there when the striking started. What it seems like is the need for better communication between owner Bruce Perkins and his employees. If that many people are going on strike, and that many people are upset (regardless if it s great place to work or not) some things are falling between the cracks here, and there is a real opportunity to better the business, by taking in what workers are communicating (good or bad). The point is, that your workers are your backbone, their safety and well-being should be a top priority at all times. It is easy to get caught up in the weeds in a case like this. I believe as a small business it is hard to provide everything that your employees want or need, but listening to them and communicating what you can and can’t provide gives them the opportunity to decide if it is worth it for them to stay or not. It also offers the company an opportunity to stretch their comfort zone, and establish lasting relationships with their workers.

    • I agree with you in a general sense, but I believe that the motives of the union and the access the organizers have to our workers puts a whole new spin on things. I don’t know of too many small businesses that can withstand a 14 month (and counting) campaign by a well-funded and well-connected Local 29 against our business. They are not just attacking me, they are attacking ALL of our workers. We are being harassed and intimidated constantly. Nobody at Instafab (or any business for that matter) deserves this kind of treatment- all because the union wants to protect “their” turf. We hear our workers saying that they do not want a union. We are listening. Maybe others should listen also.

  7. Your talking about a very small group of employees (x) that don’t work there. Every small business has problems but Instafab tried to listen to no avail. They don’t want to be a union. They knew that when they got hired.

  8. Instafab is a great company. If anyone thinks they should beable to have a say and defend the alledged allegations talk to Tina Kotek. She was at the meeting with Jobs with Justice and seems to think that Instafab should have a say. Great place to start. She sounds like she actually cares.

  9. I noticed that the Jobs with Justice crowd went before the Portland City Council on Wednesday the 4th to report the findings of their “investigation” from the meeting on April 28th. No surprises here- guilty as charged. It would be great if they would use real data instead of anecdotal ramblings by the strikers before they pass judgment on people. For the “hearing” we had with us our safety training information, our safety records for 5 of our largest current jobs showing over 25,000 hours worked with no lost time and sign-up sheets and copies of cert cards for the workers we trained. We also brought letters of reference from our customers attesting to our commitment to safety and teamwork. But it never was about safety, was it?

    The strikers make claims about having to pay for their own safety gear. That is illegal and we don’t do it. Please provide a shred of evidence if you can. That should be really easy to prove. Please show some evidence or quit making that claim.

    The strikers claim no water on job sites, and I have reports from L+I (the strikers called them) and from the General Contractor’s daily reports that completely contradicts the strikers claims. Someone is not telling the truth. Is L+I lying?

    I also have a question for the strikers-
    If we settle the strike tomorrow and Instafab moves forward as an open shop, will you quit your Local 29 jobs and come back to work? Just curious.

    One more quick question- If the shop was so unsafe, why didn’t any of the shop strikers ever volunteer to serve on the safety committee? Again, just curious.

    The strikers may have started this thing originally, but it’s been all about what the union wants for the last 14 months. Folks say that we should listen to our workers, and we do. Our workers say “go away local 29, and take the strikers and JwJ with you!” Don’t take my word for it- ask them yourselves.

    Have a nice day!

  10. Is this about local 29 or will the strikers come back to Instafab. Your problems seem minimal and things the company will take care of.

    • We had another one walk this morning. Seems this worker was in the union before and had some serious problems and the union booted him out. After he came to work at Instafab, the union decided that they loved him and wanted him back. Touching! The union is incredibly generous to Instafab workers. I have a whole list of guys that the union wanted nothing to do with until they came to work at Instafab. Then there’s the guys that work here for a 2 or 3 years and go to the union as a Journeyman iron worker. For a company that doesn’t train or practice safety, Instafab’s workers seem to really well on union job sites.

      By the way, Instafab’s safety record is better than the union’s safety record. Just an interesting tidbit.

  11. It seems like Local 29 wants the non union members back after they work at a company this is strong and treats their employees and their family good. Hope these employees stay strong and appreciate the company they work for. Instafab Strong

  12. If they re Instafab has such a clean safety record why are they charged by osha with these serious infractions and these people complaining about unions why no Names are yous ashamed

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