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
“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.
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.”
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.