Robert Camarillo, the new leader of Oregon’s construction unions, is a 41-year-old first generation American with the heart of an organizer.
By Don McIntosh
Twelve years ago, Robert Camarillo was a full-time structural iron worker active in Iron Workers Local 29. This August, union delegates elected him to the top office of the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents the interests of 25,000 construction workers in 21 building trades unions.
Camarillo, 41, is its new full-time executive secretary, responsible for advancing the Council’s wide-ranging agenda — from promoting all-union project labor agreements to fostering more opportunities for women, minorities, and veterans to enter the trades, and cracking down on employer theft of wages. Camarillo can speak with authority about wage theft, because he himself experienced it as a young construction worker.
The son of immigrants from Mexico, Camarillo was born and spent his early childhood in Southern California. He moved to Oregon in the early 1990s. After becoming a father at a young age, he went to work in construction to provide for his family.
Drawn to the idea of working on bridges, he wanted to be an iron worker. In 1997, he reached out to Iron Workers Local 29 about their apprenticeship program, but became discouraged when he was told they weren’t taking applications.
Building trades unions can sometimes be like a big family; many have proud traditions of multiple generations of sons following fathers into the trade. Camarillo had none of that background.
“I didn’t have the right last name, or know the right people,” he recalls.
Wage theft on the job
Turned away by the union, he worked on the industry’s nonunion side. As a structural ironworker, his job was to lay metal decking, tie rebar, and hoist and weld the steel beams that form the skeletons of buildings. He loved the work, and was happy with the pay. But like so many nonunion workers, he didn’t realize he was being robbed of wages he was legally entitled to.
On public construction projects like schools and fire stations, contractors are required to pay a specified hourly rate known as the prevailing wage. The rule is meant to take wages out of competition so that contractors can compete on their efficiency and quality, not on who can pay workers the least. But as every building trades union representative knows, cheating by non-union contractors is rampant on prevailing wage projects.
Camarillo’s nonunion employer used those higher-than-usual-wage public construction jobs as a reward for the company’s hardest workers. Camarillo was one of them, and was thrilled to get the premium wages those jobs offered. What he didn’t know was that his boss was paying him the prevailing wage rate for laborers, not the rate for iron work — the work he was doing.
As time went on and his employer began competing against union contractors for prevailing wage work, Local 29 organizers Bob Clerihew and Jeff Carlson began dropping by construction sites to talk to its workers. Some co-workers gave them a hostile reception, but Camarillo met with them. They told him about the prevailing wage law, and showed him how he had been cheated.
The union hadn’t wanted him in 1997. Now it was 2001, and the organizers courted him for months. One night over dinner at the Tony Roma’s at Mall 205, they clinched the deal: He would join the union, and start from scratch in the union apprenticeship program.
Now, as a Local 29 member, he was able to file a wage theft complaint with the union’s help. The state agency known as BOLI (Bureau of Labor and Industries) investigated, and in the end ordered the company to pay him $7,000 in back pay for work he’d done on West Salem High School and other public projects.
Several hours into Camarillo’s first day as a union member working on a union job, Clerihew and Carlson showed up to ask if he’d help them talk to nonunion iron workers.
“I was willing to do whatever it took,” Camarillo says.
If you look at the preamble of every constitution of every craft in the building trades, they all say something about organizing all workers in our trade or our craft …. Organizing is what built our unions.” — Robert Camarillo
“When I came in,” Camarillo recalls, “there weren’t a lot of women or people of color. It was a predominantly white workforce. I had to prove myself every day, every job site.”
In 2005, after a four-year union apprenticeship, he became a journeyman iron worker at the age of 28. The following year, Local 29 brought him on staff as a full-time business rep and organizer. In the years to come he served as a union vice president, president, and a member of the Examining Board, which evaluates applicants for membership. He was appointed a delegate to the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council, which is the local council of construction unions for the Portland metro area. There, he got to know the leaders of other construction trades unions. In 2014, he became its president. In 2016, he went to work for the Iron Workers international.
His union’s full name is the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers. Ironically, Camarillo never did get to work on a bridge while his tools were spud wrenches and bull pins, but he helped as a rep to win bridge work for union contractors, and now at the state building trades council he’ll help secure funding for bridges and other infrastructure.
A big job ahead
Colleagues and co-workers describe Camarillo as dedicated, dynamic, and driven — a hard worker deeply committed to the wellbeing of working people.
He approaches his new role with the mindset of an organizer. He’ll look for new allies, and seek closer collaboration with all the unions. And he’ll try to get Oregon’s political leaders better acquainted with building trades unions, both by bringing construction workers into the halls of the State Capitol, and by inviting legislators, agency heads and policy-makers to tour job sites and union training centers.
“I want them to know what our issues are, so that they can better understand where we’re coming from and see that we’re not being unreasonable,” Camarillo said.
And he’ll appeal to lawmakers to get serious about combating wage theft. In fiscal year 2016-17, BOLI responded to hundreds of wage theft claims in the construction industry alone, and collected more than $600,000 in unpaid wages for workers. Having seen wage theft first hand, Camarillo knows far more than that go unreported.
He also hopes his example will inspire people of color and women to seek leadership positions in their unions.
Finally, he says he’d like to see affiliates ramp up their commitment to organize.
“If you look at the preamble of every constitution of every craft in the building trades, they all say something about organizing all workers in our trade or our craft,” Camarillo said. “All. It doesn’t say we will only organize some.”
“Organizing,” Camarillo says, “is what built our unions.”