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Gaming Guru

Alexandra Berzon
 

Despite downturn, unions seek to organize residential builders

4 August 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Last week a wooden plank fell on Eduardo Acevedo and badly injured his finger while he was building houses for the construction company SelectBuild.

Then, he says, his boss tried to fire him.

Two days later, on Thursday, Acevedo gathered with a few fellow SelectBuild workers outside the state's Occupational Safety and Health Administration offices in Henderson to protest what he and the Laborers Union say are unsafe conditions at SelectBuild. In a staged photo opportunity for reporters, workers held signs that said "Respect OSHA standards" and "No more injuries."

"This job is very important and they're putting us at risk," Acevedo said through an interpreter.

It has become a somewhat familiar sight in and around Las Vegas these days. Several union organizing campaigns targeting the nonunion residential construction industry are revving up just as the industry is facing its worst downturn in decades.

The union campaigns — one by the Laborers' International Union of North America and the other by a group that includes the Sheet Metal Workers and the Painters — were both conceived several years ago, when Las Vegas and other Western cities were in the midst of a housing boom.

Now the campaigns are operating in a much different environment, with thousands of workers recently laid off from their jobs building homes in the Las Vegas Valley.

That, experts say, should make a tough challenge even tougher.

"Organizing in the construction industry in general is difficult because it is pretty atomized," said Jeff Grabelsky, director of the construction industry program at Cornell University. "You have a large number of employers and a transient workforce and multiple job sites and a project-by-project dynamic so the jobs are here today and then they're done, and an industry that is fiercely competitive. All of those factors that characterize construction in general are more pronounced in residential.

"There's no question that during peak demand you find more favorable circumstances for organizing. As the industry slows down, workers have less leverage and feel more insecure, and are more difficult to organize."

Despite those challenges, the campaigns say they're going full speed ahead.

Thursday's Laborers protest was the union's fourth this summer in the Las Vegas Valley intended to shame SelectBuild, one of the largest residential construction companies in the country, into creating better conditions for workers, and ultimately into accepting union representation.

For Thursday's event, the Laborers released a report painting a picture of Building Materials Holding Co., parent of SelectBuild, as a company that doesn't provide workers proper fall protection equipment, doesn't provide sufficient training for workers, and fires workers after they are injured.

In Nevada, SelectBuild and KBI, another Building Materials company, have racked up 39 initial violations from state workplace safety regulators in the past five years, according to the Laborers. That resulted in $55,475 in initial fines, which were knocked down to $16,825 after appeals and settlement deals, the union said.

The union says SelectBuild incurred workers' compensation costs in Nevada of $272,536 for 79 injuries in the first six months of the year, including 19 injuries from falls.

Workers protesting Thursday strung bright red safety harnesses across their torsos because, they allege, the company provides just a couple of fall protection harnesses for a crew that can number hundreds of workers. Several said that after they were injured, the company transferred them to "light duty" work and then, before too long, fired them.

In an interview, SelectBuild Safety Director Ziul Bayardo said the company's safety record is "within the range" given its number of employees. In Las Vegas, he says, no worker for the company has ever lost a limb and the only fatality was an off-site car accident. Bayardo says the company leaves safety harnesses in worker vehicles so workers can use them if they want to.

"Unions are trying to organize the company, so they're trying to discredit the company and saying we don't have safety," Bayardo said. "That makes it a lot easier for the union to come in and say, 'We're here and we're going to protect employees.'?"

Nationwide, residential construction has lower death rates than the construction industry as a whole. A study from the National Association of Home Builders found that from 2003 to 2006, residential construction had a fatality rate of 8.35 per 100,000 full-time employees, compared with 11.59 deaths per 100,000 employees for all of construction.

Although the projects are generally less complicated and less deadly than other construction, fall dangers are prevalent because companies are less likely to provide and require that workers use fall protection, said Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health for the Laborers Union. Injuries from nail guns on residential sites are also gaining attention as a significant problem, Schneider said.

The Laborers have chosen to target SelectBuild with their simultaneous organizing campaigns in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Southern California because of the company's size — it builds homes for many of the best known homebuilders including Pardee, KB Home and Toll Brothers. SelectBuild has about 1,200 employees in Las Vegas, Bayardo said, down from 4,000 three years ago.

In Las Vegas, housing permits for new construction were down 61 percent for the first six months of the year.

Organizers acknowledge that the downturn makes their efforts more difficult in some ways, but they think it may also force the industry to consolidate into fewer companies that would be easier to organize.

They also say that during a downturn, union influence becomes even more necessary because companies ramp up pressure on workers.

"Production pressures for workers have not decreased at all," said Paul Price, the union's research director. "In fact, they've increased a lot. Because of the downturn, they're pushing the economic pain onto workers. They've laid off thousands of residential workers and that puts even more pressure, the workers say, to cut corners and do stuff that is going to save money."

The Laborers campaign is the latest in a string of attempts to organize the residential construction sector in Las Vegas.

According to Southern Nevada Home Builders Association spokeswoman Monica Caruso, the industry was organized here until the 1980s. That's when a homebuilding downturn killed many union companies, she said. When new companies formed, they did so without unions.

Since then, several campaigns orchestrated by trade unions and the AFL-CIO have tried to woo back residential workers in Las Vegas. The most successful of those, say organizers, was a campaign in the 1990s to organize roofers. Roofers signed collective bargaining agreements with roofing companies, but when it came time to renegotiate, the union lost its foothold in the industry.

Laborers organizers think it's a good idea to organize the employees of a company into one union, rather than dividing up workers. They plan on setting up a new union chapter for residential housing workers of various trades.

Grabelsky says that plan addresses a challenge for residential construction organizing — such jobs don't always conform to the structure of building trades unions.

But it also is likely to become politically tricky if the Laborers end up encroaching on the territory of other trade unions.

The Laborers union is not a member of the AFL-CIO, and the AFL-CIO campaign is focused on residential painters and sheet metal workers. The AFL-CIO's strategy has been to target companies that oversee homebuilding, starting with Pulte Homes, and to demonstrate to the public that shoddy conditions for workers translate into home defects. It is trying to pressure homebuilding companies to require subcontractors to improve working conditions.

"It's difficult for subcontractors to compete in this environment," said John Smirk, business manager of the local Painters Union district council. "In our dialogue with employers, we've found it can't just be one or two contractors that we organize. It's basically an industrywide situation that needs to take place, and all of the developers have a responsibility to see to it that all of the laws are being complied with."