Union Workers at Local 261 Struggle

En Español

Although the pelting rain made construction jobs unlikely, about two dozen union members came to Local 261 at the corner of Shotwell and 18th one morning earlier this month to wait for their names to be called.

As they clustered outside under the building’s awning, many said the situation is no better, and in some cases worse, than last year, when the federal stimulus plan went into effect.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in San Francisco has fallen slightly in recent months, to 9.4 percent in December from 10.2 percent last August. But progress has yet to reach the building trades industry here, where unemployment was reported at over 20 percent last summer, according to San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council President Mike Theriault.

“There isn’t any work,” said Carlos Hernandez, who comes from San Pablo in the East Bay. Hernandez, a general construction worker in his early 40s, has been a union member for six years but has not received any work through the union in the last two.  The base pay for union workers is $27 an hour and more depending on experience.

The word “slow” repeatedly came up in interviews, and most workers said they had not received any jobs from the union in at least a month. Some have been waiting as long as two years.

Typical was Dante Burch, who came from San Leandro, with his four-year-old son in tow. Burch has not received any union work in seven months. He survives through unemployment compensation and odd jobs, “whatever I can get my hands on.”

As a rule, the people who gather outside the union local do not need to be physically present to be assigned a job, nor does it increase their chances of being selected. Members are called to work through the use of a numbered list, meant to ensure that jobs are offered fairly. When there is work, the union dispatcher calls workers by form Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.

The first Thursday of each month is the only day members need to be physically present for a roll-call. Those who fail to show up will have their names moved to the bottom of the work list. The list during the roll-call this month was 407 names long, and the office was packed, a sharp contrast from the rainy morning just two days earlier.

Most of the time, however, people come to talk, pass the time—to get out of the house. The workers, mostly Latino and ranging in age from 20 to 50, hang out in small groups, drinking coffee, joking in Spanish, stepping outside for a cigarette, and even organizing small raffles for cash prices.

“They are here because they want to,” said Ramón Hernández, a field representative at the work dispatch window at Local 261. “But being here does not give them an advantage.”

Hernández said they “really haven’t seen that much” job creation, and that part of the problem is that employers “have troubles with banks, who won’t lend them money to work.” He noted that they do have employers, however, and that they are “working with the stimulus package through Jobs Now.” Jobs Now is a city program which assigns federal stimulus funds to help employers hire local residents.

Hector Rodriguez said he thinks “things are getting better,” despite the fact that he has not received work through the union since January of 2009. Rodriguez, who lives in Hayward, has been a member since 1986 and had been working non-stop for the same company for nine years.

But Rodriguez’s opinion is distinctly a minority view. Felipe Campos from San Pablo, who hasn’t worked since November, said that he too used to think “things weren’t that slow.”  Then it slowed for him. In his four years with the union, he said, this period is the longest he has gone without work.

“There is no prosperity for anyone,” said Candelario Muñoz, a worker who lives in San Francisco and who has not worked in about a year. He went on worker’s compensation for ten months after an accident in March 2009, and when that ran out in January he went on unemployment. Even before his accident, he said, he was without work for six months. “Everything is going downwards.”

About half of the members interviewed said they do feel a sense of competition with non-union workers, who can charge much less if they choose.

“We don’t work because many companies won’t hire [union workers],” said Rigoberto Paredes from Richmond.  He has not had union work for two years except for one week last December, when he worked for 25 hours. “There is jealousy.”

Not everyone sees it that way. Agustin Romo, who is from San Francisco and has been without work for six months, said of those who work non-union jobs,  “Each one searches for their own future.”

Cheryl Ruff, the only woman in the crowd on a recent roll-call day, lives in San Francisco. She has been with the union since 2002, but has not received any work since mid-November 2008 and is currently on her third unemployment extension. “Sometimes I get upset, but everyone has to do what they have to do,” she said about the competition from non-union workers.


Filed under: Business, Front Page

3 Comments

  1. David Denholm

    It is a truism of economics that the more something costs the less people buy. It is so easy to see this with things like the price of gas. Why can’t we see it with the price of labor? What we need is some sort of system for wage flexibility so that when there is a lot of work the price of labor goes up and when there isn’t as much work the price of labor goes down. Labor unions with their rigid ideas about wages aren’t helping.

  2. john

    You think prevailing wages issues are pretty little econ problem that can be fixed with a sliding scale?

    Non-union contractors don’t pay their employees based on a formula that takes into account the current prevailing wage and then adjusts it downward according to recent fluctuations in supply and demand.

    Non-union contractors bid as high as they possibly can, barely under what union contractors bid. Of course, union contractors bid high because they pay their employees $27-$30 an hour, plus benefits, and contribute a little per hour to federally-approved apprenticeship training programs and a few other things that benefit their trade as a whole.

    A non-union contactor provides no benefits and pays (undocumented) workers $10-12 per hour or less and then personally pockets the difference.

    Only repubs and “intellectuals” think that union efforts to provide skilled craftsmen and women a living wage is somehow unfair and that the best solution is to pit their neighbors against untrained, unqualified, illegal day-laborers in a frantic race to the bottom so one guy can get rich by illegally exploiting hundreds of other people – and get away with it.

  3. Mike

    Well said John. And coming up is “Rebuilding Together” – in late April. This is a weekend where local labor unions volunteer their services to those in need. Last year there were something like 20 -25 jobsites with manty of them in the Mission.

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