On a mission to organize every sign shop


Charlie Allen might be the most obvious union “salt” in all of Portland. 

Usually underground union organizers, known as salts, keep their reason for seeking a job quiet so employers don’t squash their plans to organize the workplace before it begins. But Allen, 39, put it all out in the open in February when Harry Kim, the owner of Pop Sign in Beaverton, called to offer him a job. Allen told Kim he wouldn’t accept the job unless the business voluntarily recognized IBEW Local 48. Kim agreed, and his two-person shop became the area’s third unionized electric sign installer. 

Local 48 organizer Matt Nosack says sign installers are a new focus of organizing for the union, and Allen has played a big role in helping the local resurrect a once thriving union culture in the industry. The journeyman sign installer was part of the recent campaigns at Portland Sign Co. and Tube Art Group, too. 

‘Organize the entire industry’ 

In the mid-1940s to the early ’80s, unions represented the majority of sign installers in the Portland metro area. During a year-long strike in the early 1980s, many striking installers decided to get licenses to work as electricians in construction; they stayed in construction when the strike ended, and union membership in the sign industry fizzled out. 

During his apprenticeship in the early 2000s, Allen remembers working with two older journeymen who had watched the union dissolve. They told him that their wages hadn’t increased in almost 20 years. But when Allen asked if they could bring the union back, they told him not to talk about it.

Almost two decades later in 2018, the union bug bit him again. He was working at Tube Art Group (TAG), a sign company with shops in Milwaukie and Seattle, on the graveyard shift for a special project. The job mixed workers from both TAG locations. The unionized Seattle workers received regular breaks and premium pay for the overnight shift, he said. The non-union Portland workers — himself included — did not. 

“Once I understood, really, then I started taking a look around and was like, ‘Every sign company out here definitely needs the union.’” So Allen reached out to a Local 48 organizer to ask how to join. The campaign was helped by Scott Yankee, a senior installer whose father was a retired member of Local 48 and once chair of the Neon Tube Sign Unit. 

In a 7-1 vote Dec. 21, 2018, TAG became the first union sign installer in Portland in nearly 40 years. 

“In our initial meetings, I told (Local 48 organizers) that I was going to make it a goal of mine, my legacy, to organize the entire sign industry,” Allen said. 

‘Union contract or I’m not coming’

Allen moved to Alaska for another job before workers signed their first contract at TAG. He spent two years there, then moved back to Portland and worked for a heating company for two years. In 2023, Portland Sign Co. called him with a job offer, and he accepted.

“Before I came to work there, I told the owner ‘You should look into the union.’ I was being up front,” Allen said. “He didn’t, so we moved forward with getting all the signatures.” 

On May 23, 2023 — three months after Allen was hired — workers at Portland Sign Co. voted unanimously to join Local 48. Ten months later, they ratified a contract that sets wages about $7 an hour higher than the average pay for a sign installer in Portland. The contract also provides full family medical and dental insurance, and a $1 per hour pension contribution.

Allen says he left Portland Sign Co. shortly after the contract was ratified because the workplace wasn’t a good fit for him. In February, Kim, the Pop Sign owner, called him to offer a job. Kim told the Labor Press that he wants to expand his sign business. For most of its 23-year history, Kim has been the sole sign installer. 

“We are getting busier and busier, and I’m getting older, so I cannot have a life,” said Kim, who says he regularly works 10 to 12 hours a day. “I had to do something.”  

Finding another sign installer wasn’t easy work for Kim, because there’s not many workers who have the proper license for the work, he said. Allen knows journeymen sign installers are in high demand, and he used it to drive a hard bargain: It’s me and the union, or nothing. 

“I started to research how that would work, and I was kind of scared, because the money I was supposed to pay him, that’s larger than what I thought, you know,” Kim said. “I kind of backed away to think, ‘Should I do this?’”

But the more he talked with Allen, the more Kim was convinced going union was the right decision. Allen explained that the better wages and benefits of a union contract could entice more journeymen to the company. And, as a union signatory contractor, Pop Sign can tap into a pool of other licensed sign installers Local 48 represents, making new hires easier to find. 

Kim also saw the union as a way to build a good reputation with his customers. 

“Signs are not cheap. (Customers) throw like $3,000 to $4,000 up front, but you don’t see any results for a couple of months. Without their trust, it’s hard to bring money to my company,” Kim said. “I realized we can give them trust. … It looks better when the customers see our companies, if we have a union company.” 

Pop Sign accepted the same terms as the Portland Sign Co. contract. 

Allen says he plans to stay with the company for the near future. In his off hours he goes around with Nosack, the Local 48 organizer, to talk with non-union sign installers. Allen hopes that by the time he retires, every sign shop in the Portland metro area will be union. 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Read more