Union carpenters strike over contract dispute with KC area construction firm

Turner construction carpenters on strike over contract

About 50 carpenters have left Turner Construction or are on strike because their union and the company couldn't come to a contract agreement.
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About 50 carpenters have left Turner Construction or are on strike because their union and the company couldn't come to a contract agreement.

About 50 Kansas City area carpenters were left without a contract — some without work — when negotiations between their union and Turner Construction fell apart last month. Now, several are out on the picket line at Turner's Olathe warehouse.

"We are currently on strike against Turner Construction," said Dave Wilson, director of organizing for the western region of the St. Louis Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council.

The council represents the approximately 50 carpenters who worked for Turner before their union contract expired April 30. Since then, some carpenters have gone without work, taken nonunion offers to return to Turner, gone to another company or gone to work for a Turner subcontractor to stay on their job sites.

"Currently we no longer employ union carpenters," said Mark Iammarino, Turner's vice president and general manager in Kansas City. "They have either left the firm or have found work with other union carpentry firms."

Wilson said some carpenters had worked numerous hours lately because it's a busy time for construction, so they're taking time off amid the strife.

The carpenters' union and Turner began negotiations on a new contract ahead of the April 30 expiration, but those talks fell apart.

The company objects to a "restrictive" clause in the current contract that dictates Turner only use union labor when they subcontract work. The union maintains it was the "ridiculous" concessions Turner asked carpenters to make on pay, pension and health insurance that torpedoed talks.

"Our opinion is that they were not serious about negotiating at the time," Wilson said.

Last year, Turner was involved in one of the bids to rebuild Kansas City International Airport. The New York-based company was also a contractor on projects at Bartle Hall, Kansas Speedway, Arrowhead Stadium, Children's Mercy Park and the Lenexa City Center Library, which is currently under construction.

Turner also operates the "Turner School of Construction Management" in Kansas City and has graduated more than 700 small, disadvantaged, minority and women-owned firms since 1997.

Wilson said Turner wanted to slash hourly pay by $15 for carpenters who make around $38 per hour, do away with pensions and put less money into carpenters' health care plans.

Iammarino said the company and the union hadn't yet talked about pay rates, which Wilson called a "lie."

"It's not the quality of the workers. It's not the workers themselves," Iammarino said. "It's all about the union rules on subcontracting clause."

The subcontracting clause Turner objects to requires that the company use union carpenters in any subcontracting work it solicits. Iammarino said the clause was in the expired contract and the new proposed contract. He said it doesn't allow Turner enough choice to hire the workforce it needs. The company subcontracts most of its work.

"We really need to rely on the quality and resources of the local subcontracting community," Iammarino said. "Right now we’re being restricted and cannot talk to certain subcontracting firms that have capacity and can add value to our projects. We cannot use them, and we're trying to be open and inclusive so we can."

Iammarino said the carpenters' union has agreed to the subcontracting clause in other parts of the country.

Without the clause, Wilson said, Turner could "undercut" its agreement with the union by outsourcing its carpentry work to nonunion workers.

"We don't want to see contractors who have an agreement with us circumvent that agreement by hiring nonunion labor to work on their projects," Wilson said.

The day after the old contract expired, Turner sent out a letter warning employees would be permanently replaced if they weren't at work for the beginning of their shift on Tuesday, May 8. The letter offers them a chance at a similar job at Turner if they come back after being replaced.

"This is a letter we sent out on May 1 to our employees saying that if they want to continue working with us, they can join Turner and have a workforce benefit package very similar to the union’s but work directly with us, and some of the younger carpenters have elected to do this."

Iammarino said he believed about six union carpenters were taking that offer. Turner has also offered supervisory roles to some former union carpenters.

"The work conditions are very favorable for finding new work, and I'm almost certain all of them have found new work by now or have already been picked up by other union contracting firms," Iammarino said. "If not, we agreed to hire them on a supervisory basis."

Turner's Kansas City office covers projects in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. Wilson said he believed Kansas City carpenters working in Omaha had mostly decided to leave Turner. Carpenters working on a project in Des Moines have moved to another union subcontractor to keep working, and carpenters at Turner's Olathe warehouse were picketing.

Carpenters will also vote this month on whether they want the union to continue representing them. The carpenters' council petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold the election shortly before the union contract expired.

If carpenters vote to retain their union, Turner and the council would negotiate on a new contract.

Wilson and Iammarino said the union and Turner have previously had a good relationship, but in the midst of the strife, the union purchased a billboard and put up a website calling Turner a "greedy corporation" and accusing the company of "dumping the very workers who made them a successful contractor in the Kansas City area."

The website links to real estate news articles about an alleged kick-back scheme at Turner's New York office and a lawsuit alleging Turner made flaws designing a sea wall in New York. According to The New York Times, New York State police officers and Manhattan district attorney's office investigators are investigating whether employees at Turner and Bloomberg L.P. took bribes from subcontractors in exchange for construction work on Bloomberg offices.

Iammarino said the "publicity campaign" against Turner was "very unfortunate."