Jeff Crosby works downtown in the Arvest Building at 5th and Main. For weeks now, he has seen picketers outside of the Mayo Hotel.
"I don't really know any of the details regarding it, other than that they're diligently out there almost every morning, passionately chanting about whatever it is they're chanting about," he said. "They have a whole bunch of signs printed out and hand them out to everyone there."
According to Crosby, the group averages around 20 and it gathers on 5th Street between Boulder and Cheyenne Aves.
It turns out, the picketers represent local union #943 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and more have been spotted elsewhere around Tulsa.
Each group is protesting different construction projects; the Mayo Hotel renovation, the University of Tulsa stadium expansion and the Hillcrest Heart Pavilion project have all provoked the ire of the Carpenters' Union. Picketers at one location told me that a group also marches at Crowne Plaza.
The picketers at TU and Hillcrest hold large, near-identical signs alerting passersby of the labor dispute and hand out flyers blaming these establishments for the "desecration of the American way of life."
Big claims. But why?
The one thing the projects have in common is Green Country Interiors, Inc. (GCI), a Tulsa-based subcontracting company that has done business in the area since 1979.
According to the union, GCI is a rat. In other words, a non-union contractor. This definition is accurate: GCI has not unionized.
However, the flyers handed out by the union representatives paint a slightly more heinous picture of GCI. The flyers state that "a rat is a contractor that does not pay all of its employees area standard wages, including providing or making payments for family healthcare and/or pension benefits."
Furthermore, the flyer heaps shame on Hillcrest and TU "for contributing to the erosion of area standards" by not living up to the "moral obligation to allow only contractors who pay area standards to all carpenter craft workers."
It should come as no surprise that these places are feeling a little defensive.
The University of Tulsa administration respects the union's right to lawfully protest regarding labor standards in their field, according to David Hamby, Director of University Relations.
However, Hamby made sure to point out TU's clean hands.
"The company in question has not been hired by the University, but rather is a subcontractor hired by TU's general contractor for the stadium project," he said. "University officials have asked TU's general contractor for this project to look into the concerns expressed by the union."
Macy Snyder, property manager of the Mayo Hotel, doesn't seem concerned with union's grievances.
"They're just rabble-rousers," she said. "They pay people off the street or get union workers to protest."
Representatives from Hillcrest Medical Center were not prepared with comments regarding the accusations.
Green Country Interiors, which has been identified as the bad guy in the dispute, has involved an attorney.
According to Brad Bendure, who represents GCI, the battle has been ongoing.
"The Carpenters' Union has been engaged in a so-called 'area standards' campaign against GCI since April 2007," said Bendure, and "alleges that GCI pays its workers substandard wages and benefits."
In defense of GCI, Bendure cites legislation set by the U.S. Department of Labor to determine wages and benefits for all federally funded or assisted construction programs.
"GCI believes the only objective evidence of area standard wages and benefits is found in the wage and benefit rates established by the Federal Davis-Bacon Act," said Bendure. "GCI has repeatedly informed the Union that its wages and benefits compare favorably with the...specific rates for the Tulsa, Oklahoma area."
"The Union has responded that Davis Bacon Act rates are not the proper measure of 'area standards' but refuses to disclose to GCI the basis for its determination of area standard wages and benefits."
Jobs for the Homeless
To boil it down, the Carpenters' Union is protesting the hiring practices at several Tulsa-area building projects. But the union's own hiring practices are leaving some scratching their heads.
While the scenes they've staged look like strikes, they aren't--work apparently goes on undisturbed at the sites mentioned, and laborers seem to take no notice of the unfair labor standards that ail them.
Michael Patton, executive director of the Metropolitan Environmental Trust, has a coworker who volunteers at an area soup kitchen. According to her, the union has been hiring homeless people off Tulsa streets--rather than carpenters or union workers--to picket for them. This has raised some eyebrows.
"I have always supported unions, but seeing homeless people working the line, chanting songs as loud as they can during lunch for a cause they may not even know, seems odd," said Patton. "It seems so mercenary and gambles an image that I wouldn't... I question the decisions of some of the union management."
The use of homeless picketers does seem a little counterintuitive. "If they are trying to get people to pay attention to their message and put pressure on the business to use union workers next time, are workers dressed in clothes that have clearly been slept in outdoors the image the union wants to portray?" wondered Patton.
Even if the rumors of homeless picketers are untrue, the picketers don't seem to be in the know, or particularly interested in their cause.
One of the picketers at 11th and Harvard, who called herself Younge Blood, was wearing earbuds until I approached her. Though she said she'd been "with the United Brotherhood since August of last year," she didn't seem to know much about the issue. "It's their hiring practices," she said.
According to picketers outside of Hillcrest, mum's the word. "We're not supposed to talk, according to our boss," one said. "They're kind of emphatic about questions--please ask them."
I was told by both sets that I should call the number listed on the flyer.
The number belongs to Adrian Privett, who represents the Carpenters' Union and is spearheading this campaign against GCI. He was in Arkansas for a meeting and unable to be interviewed before the time of publication. He can be reached at 706-5252.
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