It’s become a familiar sight around Knoxville over the last year or so—representatives of the Carpenters Union Local No. 50 seated in foldout chairs next to large canvas signs, bills that call “SHAME” down on the heads of local developers and contractors in big block letters.
There’s currently one such banner targeting downtown developer David Dewhirst and his renovation of the old JFG building, near the 100 block of Gay Street on the outskirts of the Old City. As is the case at other carpenters union protest sites around town, the Local No. 50 representatives hand out fliers that outline, if somewhat vaguely, the union’s grievances, the screed illustrated by a crude cartoon of a rat chewing on an American flag.
“SHAME ON DAVID DEWHIRST,” the downtown-area fliers boldly proclaim, “For Desecration of the American Way of Life.” The accompanying prose takes Dewhirst to task for “the destruction of Area Standards for Knoxville carpenters,” for practices that “destroy the lives of hard working men and women and their families... driving down wages to the point that these workers can not participate in the American dream...”
But the union’s real target isn’t Dewhirst, nor any of the other developers named on signs at other such demonstrations around Knox County, but rather the Wakefield Corporation, the drywall contractor of record at the various protest sites. “The fact that I hired Wakefield [for the JFG project] is evidently the problem,” Dewhirst says. “What I understand is they’re pressing their point by going to all the people who’ve hired Wakefield, and shaming us individually.”
Trouble is, the union won’t comment on the issue, other than through fliers and signs. Carpenters Union Director of Organizing Robert Helton claims he was misquoted by another local newspaper, and has thus decided to stop issuing statements through the press. “We’re just going to carry out what we need to carry out, and we’re not going to give out any interviews,” he says.
According to Wakefield Corporation President Jim Wakefield, the bone of contention is union membership. He says the carpenters union approached him about organizing at his company in 2006. Over the next several months, union officials held organizational presentations at Wakefield headquarters off Lovell Road, and also at union quarters in Oak Ridge. In the end, he says, his employees opted not to join.
After failed attempts to convince his employees, Wakefield says union officials asked him to sign off on the unionizing himself. “They tried to get me to make the decision personally,” he says. “I wouldn’t do it. It’s not my decision; it’s my men’s decision. And they weighed all the options and chose not to be a union shop.”
Sometime after his last meeting with union officials in the latter part of 2008, he says the signs appeared at Wakefield work sites.
This isn’t the first time the local carpenters union has targeted a contractor with this approach. In 2008, the “Shame on...” signs (as well as the fliers with rat/flag cartoons) appeared at area construction sites that employed another local drywall firm, Proffitt & Sons. Knoxville attorney Rocky McClamroch was Proffitt & Sons’ representative then; like Wakefield, he says he was troubled by some of the union’s tactics, and by its use of the phrase “area standards.”
“We’d ask them, ‘What are area standards? How are we not meeting them?’” he says. “We never got a straight answer.”
Union fliers define an Area Standard Contractor as one who “does not use subcontract labor, labor brokers or undocumented workers,” and who “pays a living wage, provides health care benefits... and participates in a bona fide Office of Apprenticeship training program.” McClamroch says Proffitt & Sons met those criteria, save for the stipulation about subcontract labor, i.e. temporary workers—who are used by most local contractors, he says, due to fluctuations in business.
“You may have four jobs this month and only one the next month,” he says. “So you have a core of employees, then you bring in more when you need them. That’s standard for all of the larger contractors in the area.”
Union organizer Helton told Metro Pulse in July 2008 that the issue of subcontract labor was among the union’s concerns about Proffitt & Sons, although McClamroch maintains that his attempts to meet with union officials to discuss the issue were met with delays and cancellations.
But the developers being picketed this year are even less sure why the signs have come out, as the union has stopped issuing public statements. “My 6-year-old daughter is just into reading age,” Dewhirst says. “She asks me ‘Daddy, why does that sign say shame on you?’ And I can only tell her that I really don’t know.”