They've sat since March 11, through cold and rain and, now, oppressive heat, every weekday from 9 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon. Angela Murphy says they've seen it all—she and one other member of the Carpenters Union Local No. 50—from passing motorists who honk horns and lift middle fingers to local residents who shout encouragement.
"We've had people throw sticky stuff at us—I think it must have been a Coke," Murphy says. "We had one gentleman throw pennies. I guess he thought we needed money. But I think the people in the community are glad we're here."
The community is Hardin Valley; Murphy and fellow union member Shane Monroe are stationed on Hardin Valley Road a short distance from the Pellissippi Parkway interchange in front of The Village, an in-progress mixed-use residential/commercial development that will be anchored by a major grocery chain. Murphy and Monroe are seated in fold-out chairs on either end of a 5 foot by 15 foot banner that says, in big red block letters, "Shame on Jake Pinkston." Pinkston is head of Pinkston Construction, the Village contractor.
Murphy says the union is protesting Pinkston's use of drywall contractors Proffitt & Sons, for not meeting "area labor standards." The union's hope is that passers-by will call Pinkston Construction and protest their employment of the subcontractor.
According to Carpenters Union Director of Organizing Robert Helton, the union isn't seeking an agreement with Proffitt & Sons, but merely to see the contractor improve pay and benefits packages for workers.
"They're lowering standards for all carpenters in the Knoxville area," he says. "We'd like to see them change their practices."
Helton charges that Proffitt & Sons doesn't pay what the union considers a fair wage, doesn't pay benefits to many of its workers, and is engaged in using an inordinate number of 1099 independent contractors, rather than using full-time employees who are entitled to worker's compensation and unemployment benefits.
"By law, you can't use that many independent contractors on your site," he says. "Somebody has to be an employee."
Helton says the union's efforts have been ongoing since January; in addition to the Pinkston site, he says they have picketed five other sites in the area, including one for the University of Tennessee (the sign for which says "Shame on John Petersen") and for Blount Memorial Hospital in Blount County.
Pinkston Construction didn't return calls for comment. But Proffitt & Sons attorney Rocky McClamroch offers a version of events wholly different from that of the union.
"We never had any idea what any of this was about," McClamroch says. "Our people went to work one day, and the union was picketing. What are ‘area standards?' I don't know what that term means."
McClamroch says his efforts to arrange a meeting with union officials—by phone and letter—were repeatedly ignored by the union. "We finally got a call from a lawyer in Memphis, who insisted on a meeting in Memphis," he says. "We said ‘fine.' And then they changed their minds again. I believe they're trying to avoid us on purpose."
McClamroch says the union wouldn't tell him what they believe constitutes a fair wage. Helton says that he considered roughly $15 an hour with benefits to be fair, and that he thought the Village employees were mostly receiving between $12 and $14, without benefits.
Having been given Helton's figures, McClamroch responds that, "I can tell you for a fact that that's wrong; for one thing, they do have [health] benefits."
He didn't have actual wage figures on hand. As to the use of temporary workers, he says "Everyone in the business uses these folks in about the same amount. No one has ever had a problem with it before. We comply with all legal requirements.
"They never presented us with demands; we have begged them and begged them, but they will not say," he says.
In the meantime, Murphy and other union members continue to sit with their signs at job sites around the area. "We've been here faithfully; we don't leave when it snows or rains," she says. "We'll be here until something happens, or the funds run out."