Shipyard workers in an uproar over paint damage to cars


WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE? As shown the day after the overspray incident, 40 foot sheeting isn’t really containment if the ship being painted is 100 feet tall; Metal Trades rep Ben Heurung says that’s likely what allowed wind-blown industrial paint primer to damage employee vehicles. | Photo courtesy of Ben Heurung

Cruise ship painting operations in April and October at Vigor Industrial’s Swan Island shipyard damaged more than 400 vehicles — some twice — when improperly contained paint particles floated almost a half-mile and settled in a nearby parking lot. The Metal Trades Council of Portland and Vicinity, which represents workers at the shipyard, has filed two grievances demanding Vigor pay the repair bills.

Per-car damage estimates range from $1,800 to $37,000; the higher estimates include the cost to replace parts like headlights, tail lights, molding, trim, and glass where paint could not be buffed out.

“The material they sprayed etched into it, meaning it bonded to the parts in a way that would leave pitting once removed,” said Portland Metal Trades Council President Ben Heurung.

Vigor Industrial repairs and builds ships for government and commercial customers. It operates six shipyards in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, including the Portland Swan Island facility. The Portland Metal Trades Council is a coalition of nine unions that represents workers at the Portland shipyard and in facilities in Clackamas and Vancouver. It includes Machinists Local Lodge 63, Electricians Local 48, Boilermakers Local 104, Operating Engineers Local 701, Laborers Local 737, Painters Local 10, Sheet Metal Local 16, Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 290, and Teamsters Local 162. 

The first incident happened on April 22 while Vigor painted a cruise ship on its dry dock at the Swan Island shipyard. The “mid-coat” paint is lightweight, so it’s easily carried long distances by the wind, Heurung said. In this instance, it drifted into the shipyard’s southeast parking lot and speckled at least 126 cars parked there.

Laborers Local 737 steward Sarah Heinemann said her 2023 Buick Envision was one of the cars that was damaged.

“I had this car for four days. It had like 30 miles on it,” Heinemann told the Labor Press. “(The repair shop) charged my insurance $8,300 and I paid $500 out of pocket. … Now my brand new car has a totaled mark on the CarFax because I had to take it in to get a total repair.”

Heinemann was working on the dock as Vigor painted the ship. She said she noticed the wind pick up about halfway into the operation and saw some paint fly over the curtain meant to contain overspray. Some of the paint also was blown into the Willamette River, and Vigor in September received a $15,300 fine from the state Department of Environmental Quality for overspray-related water pollution.

Heinemann worries about workers who might have been exposed to chemicals in the paint without knowing it.

“When we are down on the dock spraying this type of paint, it’s closed to all personnel other than people that need to be there, and we have to have full-face respirators and breathing apparatus,” she said. “Everybody that’s on the other side of the curtain all day that day was breathing all of this in.”

Vigor put up signs in the parking lot, but they were about the size of a standard piece of paper, and most of them were placed on the ground, Heurung said. The company notified workers of the paint spraying operations only after most of them started their shifts. That means the workers had no chance to cover their cars before going to work.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous for a company to expect a working person to agree that if they drive a vehicle to work to make a living wage, they have to accept that faulty business practices and environmental containment is their responsibility. It’s ludicrous to expect them to accept 20-inch signs or emails going out after they are already at work as appropriate notice,” Heurung said.

At least 386 more vehicles were damaged on Oct. 6 in a near-identical incident, Heurung said. Heinemann said she purchased a $40 car cover after the first incident, so her car was safe. But she knows of several workers whose cars were damaged in the first overspray incident that were paint speckled again. 

In October, Vigor notified workers with a company email address that ship painting would occur sometime during the week. Vigor did not specify the date, and not all workers have company emails, Heurung said.

He and several other council reps were at the shipyard that morning. They were parked on the opposite side of the shipyard but could smell the paint. They left around 11:30 a.m. to prepare for a digital grievance meeting with Vigor about the first overspray incident, and calls from workers whose cars were paint speckled started pouring in.

“We continued with our grievance meeting, and the company was very well aware that there was quite the potential of another grievance coming their way,” Heurung said.

Heurung said Vigor has put the burden of figuring out who was affected and how much damage was caused on the Metal Trades Council. At one point in grievance meetings, one of the company’s executives suggested paying every union member $150 to $250 to get their cars fixed and resolve the grievance. Heurung scoffed at the offer.

“I’ve informed the company that I want members made whole,” he said. “By made whole, I mean I want their vehicles restored to pre-damage conditions, and that includes any depreciated value owed to the members and the coverage of any lost time.”

Heurung also wants Vigor to cover any rental car costs workers have while their vehicles are repaired.

The Labor Press emailed Vigor spokesperson Benton Strong asking for comment, with a list of specific questions. Strong did not address the questions but replied with a statement.

“Vigor was notified by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality on May 8, 2023, of an anonymous complaint concerning paint overspray on vehicles at the shipyard. In response to the complaint, Vigor provided refresher training to all painters on proper application techniques and implemented additional controls aimed at preventing a recurrence, as well as improved signage,” Strong wrote. “We have been working with our labor partners to resolve issues related to the incident through the grievance process and are committed to continuing that process in good faith.”

Boilermakers Local 104 steward Roger Hayes took hundreds of pictures documenting paint speckles that coated hoods, windows and bumpers. | Photo courtesy of Roger Hayes


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