By COLIN STAUB
When e-commerce giant Amazon promised that its massive Woodburn distribution center would create local jobs, it must have meant, “except in the building phase.” For months, local building trade unions have been picketing the construction site to protest the use of out-of-state contractors paying below area standard wages. They worry Amazon will do the same at other local projects in the future.
Amazon began developing the facility off Interstate 5 in Woodburn last year, after purchasing a handful of properties for a combined $27.5 million last spring, county property records show. The project has a $200 million budget, according to industry research firm Dodge Construction Network, and is expected to be complete in 2023. Once in operation, the enormous project—five stories high and 3.85 million square feet—will be unmissable to motorists passing on I-5. It will also create significant additional traffic.
Last September, an Amazon official told the Woodburn Planning Commission the company wants to support the local economy.
“Not only are we committed to bringing 1,800 new jobs to Woodburn, but we’re also committed to making sure that as many of those jobs as possible are local Woodburn residents,” said Stephen Maduli-Williams, economic development manager for Amazon.
So for the union construction workers picketing outside the site, the loss of construction jobs for local residents feels like a betrayal. The project is being built largely by out-of-state contractors.
“We’re going to let you know, ‘Yeah, you got this one, but the next time you come into town we’re hoping you’re going to make a different decision,’” says Jason Fussell, business manager for Iron Workers Local 29.
Amazon is also planning a sorting center in Canby, and local unions expect the company will continue expanding.
Unions not given a chance
Local building trade unions learned about the Woodburn project alongside the general public when it was announced at the end of June 2021. Robert Camarillo, executive secretary of the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council, contacted Amazon in late July, and was referred to the company’s chosen general contractor, Layton Construction. Layton has completed similar massive fulfillment centers for Amazon in Salt Lake City and North Las Vegas. The company has no footprint in Oregon or Washington. Its closest offices are in Boise, Idaho, and Sacramento, California.
Camarillo talked with Layton representatives Aug. 3 and had a follow-up meeting Aug. 16 alongside other building trades representatives, including Fussell of Iron Workers 29. Both meetings were polite and courteous, Camarillo recalls. But they weren’t productive in ensuring local labor would be used on the project. By then, it seemed that door had closed.
“We have those type of surface meetings all the time,” Camarillo said, “so we know what’s going to be productive and what’s not.”
Fussell said Local 29 has never before lost a job on the scale of the Woodburn project. No contractors signatory with Local 29 were hired for the Amazon job. Instead, Layton brought in out-of-state subcontractors, including Utah-based Building Zone Industries (BZI) and Texas-based Linden Steel.
“To drive by and know we’re not doing it, that somebody brought in people from out of our area, it’s soul crushing,” he said.
Working with union contractors would have meant paying workers a living wage and benefits, and training the next generation of apprentices, Camarillo said. Losing out on that project to out-of-state companies represents a huge loss for the local workforce, and for local companies that treat their workers right, he said.
Camarillo says he understands Amazon’s interest in moving quickly to meet deadlines. But he says with more outreach to local building trades councils, local workers could be building the massive facility and meeting the company’s timeline.
“It’s a tragedy to see such a huge development go to out-of-state workers,” Camarillo said.
Union reps say the bidding process felt stacked against union shops. They say union firms were given unrealistically short time frames to submit bids, or were told contracts would contain liquidated damage clauses (under which a contractor must pay significant penalties if conditions aren’t met).
Layton Construction didn’t respond to emails and phone calls from the Labor Press.
The Labor Press presented the unions’ concerns to Amazon representatives. This was the response emailed by Amazon spokesperson Alisa Carroll: “We look forward to our continued partnership with the city and community at large and are excited to bring thousands of good-paying jobs with great benefits to Woodburn.”
Pickets pick up steam
When building trades unions picket a site, it’s usually to educate union workers in other segments of the job about a contractor’s practices. That’s not the case at the Amazon project, because there are so few union workers on site. [The Labor Press learned of one union firm that got work on the site, Cherry City Electric, which will install alarm systems. Another Oregon company, non-union K&E Excavating, handled early-stage site work.]
“The only thing we’re doing now is trying to let the public know, ‘Hey, this was wrong,’” Fussell said.
On Feb. 12, 50 to 60 picketers set up outside all three entrances to the job site, including members of Iron Workers Local 29, Operating Engineers Local 701, IBEW Locals 48 and 280, Cement Masons Local 555, Painters Local 10 and Glaziers Local 740. Passing motorists honked support, and some stopped to ask about the picket. Meanwhile, vehicles with out-of-state plates drove in and out of the job site. Picketers say the bulk of plates are from Texas, Utah, Arizona, California, Wyoming.
McMinnville resident Joe Schirle, a journeyman wireman with IBEW Local 280, said the job would have meant working closer to home instead of traveling.
The Amazon project is also a missed opportunity for younger union workers to get experience.
“If this job was unionized, it would be available for the massive influx of apprentices we’re seeing in all sorts of trades,” said Iron Workers Local 29 member Alex Hawkins, who came into the trade in 2020 after leaving the software sector.
Hawkins said the project’s use of non-union contractors spreads the wrong message to new construction workers. They’ll get the idea that low wages and few benefits are the norm.
The ongoing pickets, which have featured the Operating Engineers’ well-known inflatable rat, have generated discussion in online community forums for Woodburn residents.
Woodburn’s mayor and city council members did not respond to Labor Press requests for their comments on the project using out-of-state contractors.
Tax subsidy for Amazon?
Amazon’s Woodburn project is located in an area the state designates as an Enterprise Zone, where companies can apply for property tax abatements on new construction. But the City of Woodburn says the project isn’t seeking Enterprise Zone tax breaks on the project.
However, unions say costs assigned to Amazon during the planning stage have shifted to taxpayers. In September 2021, the City of Woodburn said Amazon would “pay for all streets and other infrastructure costs in full, including the adjoining improvements on [Highway 219] and Butteville Road.” Yet in December, the City applied for $500,000 in state road improvement funds, and noted the Oregon Department of Transportation is also kicking in $1 million. Asked about the discrepancy, Woodburn Economic Development Director Jamie Johnk said Amazon is only required to pay for improvements proportionate to the impact of its development. She said it’s appropriate for the City to seek state funding since the changes will improve currently dangerous conditions regardless of the Amazon development.