As commonly understood, an American labor dispute is a
rather simple matter: Employees demanding a change in their pay or working
conditions walk off the job and begin to publicly demonstrate against their
employer. But the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters is no longer playing
by these rules. Since last summer, the union has been organizing demonstrations
against an employer that MRCC members do not work for — supposedly on behalf of construction
workers that the union does not represent — and using demonstrators who are not employees
of the company being targeted. Indeed, the demonstrators are frequently not
MRCC members either, nor even construction workers at all.
Welcome to “bannering,” a new method being deployed by Big
Labor bosses who wish to continue exerting their influence over a marketplace
where employers, customers and workers have turned sharply against using union
The employer being targeted is Ritsema Associates, a
construction contractor headquartered in Grandville, near Grand Rapids. On July
13, MRCC sent
a letter to Ritsema Associates, wherein the union claimed that it had done
an “investigation” and concluded that the contractor was paying “substandard
wages and fringe benefits,” and that this was “undermining the fair
construction wage and benefits standards established by the Michigan Regional
Council of Carpenters.” The letter makes no mention of how the investigation
was conducted, who was spoken to or what documentation supported its claims.
It is also unclear why the union should be considered an
authority regarding what the proper compensation should be for construction
workers in the region.
The MRCC letter concludes by presenting Ritsema Associates —
whose 120 employees are not MRCC members — with two alternatives:
the union to examine Ritsema Associates’ private payroll data within seven days;
that point, Ritsema Associates will be considered by the MRCC to be paying
“substandard wages and benefits.”
Ritsema Associates declined to turn over its payroll information, and two weeks later
more than a dozen of its customers received a “Notice
of Labor Dispute” from the MRCC. The notice makes no attempt to claim that
there is any dispute between Ritsema Associates and its employees, nor that
MRCC is acting directly on behalf of any actual employees of Ritsema Associates.
Instead, customers of Ritsema Associates were informed that the company and the
MRCC are in a “dispute” because of the MRCC’s “solid commitment” to “protect and
preserve area standard wages.”
“[W]e are asking that you use your managerial discretion to
not allow these non area standard contractors to perform any work on any of
your projects unless and until they generally meet area labor standards for all
their carpentry craft work,” reads the MRCC notice.
Because the MRCC was not alleging to speak for the workers
of Ritsema Associates, this effectively means that the carpenters’ union is trying
to get customers seeking carpentry work to kick carpenters off of jobsites. And
while this was couched as a request from the MRCC, the union also informed the
customers that there would be consequences if they continued using the employees
of Ritsema Associates.
“We want you to be aware that our new and aggressive public
information campaign against this company will unfortunately impact all parties
associated with projects where they are employed,” the notice warns. The impact
is defined as “highly visible” banner displays and “distribution of handbills”
at the jobsites of Ritsema Associates’ customers.
Shortly thereafter, large banner displays manned by teams of
demonstrators did begin to appear outside of several jobsites where employees
of Ritsema Associates were working in downtown Grand Rapids, including
hospitals and Van Andel Arena. (In some locations, roving lines of
demonstrators holding picket signs have also been used.)
A banner being held outside Van Andel Arena during January said
“Shame on Van Andel” in bold red letters. The letters were each more than a
foot high. And in smaller font, the phrase “Labor Dispute” was noted on either
When asked, the banner holders denied being employed by
Ritsema Associates, or Van Andel Arena, or any of the other contractors on the
jobsite. They said they were not carpenters, and that they were not even
members of the MRCC. Despite being the public face of this “new and aggressive
public information campaign” by the MRCC, they would say only that they had
been hired by the MRCC to “hold the banner.” They would not reveal how much they
had been paid to do this, but one revealed that it was better than his previous
wage, which he said was “nothing.”
Those asking them about the nature of the so-called “labor
dispute,” were handed a flyer
from the MRCC. It depicts a rat chewing on an American flag, and is titled, “Shame on Van Andel Arena for
Desecration of the American Way of Life.” As with the correspondence leading up
to the demonstrations, the text of the flyer repeats the allegation regarding
Ritsema Associates’ alleged failure to pay “area standard wages,” and makes no
effort to assert that any actual workers of Ritsema Associates are involved.
Nonetheless, the flyer provides a phone number and
encourages the public to call Van Andel Arena and complain about Ritsema Associates
workers on the arena’s property.
“That they say they have a dispute with me is a bald-faced
lie,” said Bill Ritsema, president of Ritsema Associates, who says he has never
spoken with anyone from the MRCC.
“A labor dispute suggests that there are employees who have
a grievance against their employer,” said Chris Fisher, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan.
“There’s no such example in this. There’s not a single employee of any company
that’s involved in this quote-unquote labor dispute. The only dispute is a
refusal of companies to hand over their payroll data to an outside entity [the
ABC is a trade industry group representing Michigan’s merit
shop, or non-union contractors.
“They are hired guns,” said Fisher, referring to the
demonstrators. “They’re hired protesters and who knows if they even make a
He also notes that the whole concept of the MRCC claiming to
be the enforcer for the “area standard wage” is absurd because unionized construction
workers are such a small (albeit very vocal) portion of the construction trade.
Nationwide, unions now account for just 13.7 percent of the
construction workforce, according to a recent news release
from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fisher also references a recent report
from UnionStats.com showing that
unionized construction workers account for just 21.7 percent of Michigan’s
construction workforce. (UnionStats.com is the work of researchers Barry Hirsh
of Georgia State University and David Macpherson of Trinity University.)
“They tell them [contractors such as Ritsema] that they are
guilty until proven innocent without any basis of guilt,” says Fisher.
“Legally, there is nothing I can do except employ the same
tactics,” says Ritsema, when questioned about how he is handling the
accusations. “That would just escalate [the situation].”
Instead, he has been setting up meetings with his customers to reassure them. He believes that at least one customer has stopped
using his employees in order to make the MRCC demonstrations stop.
Ritsema Associates was founded in 1955, and its current
president says the employees have never attempted to form a union.
“We have very low turnover,” says Ritsema of his staff. “We
have a great group.”
Though the MRCC provides no documentation for their
allegations against his company, and has not demonstrated an ability to speak
for any of his employees, Ritsema believes he may have a clue as to what their
real “dispute” may be with him. Ritsema Associates now has four offices, three
in Michigan and one in Indiana. Last year, they submitted a bid on a job in
Indiana, and he believes this bid threatened to take even more work away from
the already shrinking union market share.
“They were upset because we were bidding against work that
they considered their bailiwick.”
It was after this that the letter accusing him of violating
standard wages arrived.
Fisher accuses the MRCC of “threatening good companies whose
employees are happy to be there,” and says that the specific campaign against
Ritsema Associates is “one of the most disingenuous and blatantly fabricated
campaigns we’ve ever seen.”
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