Retail Construction Worth Fighting For
April 2003 IBEW Journal
In these lean times, a large construction project means hundreds of jobs and a chance for local residents to literally help build community and commerce at home. For construction workers, it could mean the difference between an honest day’s work and an unemployment check.
But when it comes to Wal-Mart, the company’s overarching desire to save money often means forsaking local building trades and bringing in nonunion, often out-of-state labor. One IBEW local has refused to take it lying down.
IBEW Local 1, St. Louis, members have spent the past six months pegging Wal-Mart as a hypocritical corporation whose public image as a hometown friend contradicts its use of out-of-town contractors to build its stores.
The local’s October protest against a supercenter under construction has mushroomed into a concerted handbilling blitz at up to 30 stores in its Missouri jurisdiction.
Local 1 Business Manager Stephen Schoemehl said the first day of the protest against the project drew several dozen Local 1 members and the local police, causing major traffic disruptions outside the store. "The first day was a showstopper," Schoemehl said. "We turned a lot of cars around by distributing handbills that said the job was 100 percent nonunion, with contracts going out of state or out of county. Local workers wanted the work."
The commotion has not only damaged Wal-Mart’s image, it has nipped their bottom line. Schoemehl said the store experienced a 30 percent reduction in sales since they started handbilling.
"If they believe that they can sustain the short term pain and do the building nonunion, they will," he said. "They are big enough and financially strong enough so they don’t mind."
While things settled down during the winter, Schoemehl mobilized organizers across Missouri to extend the handbilling to more Wal-Marts—projects, traditional stores and supercenters. Whether or not they have an impact, he said, at issue are fundamental values too important to ignore.
"They pay lower wages and offer fewer benefits than members of Local 1 earn," Schoemehl said. "When people have less money, the tax base goes down and schools receive less funding. We just want to make a statement."
But back East, one local’s recent experience with another national retailer offered a different story. Local 143 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania counted a 1.5 million square foot distribution warehouse for Target as one of its biggest projects last year. Employing up to 35 workers at its peak, the project represented good steady work for more than a year to Local 143 inside wiremen as well as travelers.
"It was 14 months from start to finish—that’s as long a job as they go," said Local 143 Business Manager Dennis Yinger. "It put guys to work who might otherwise be sitting on the bench." At the end of project, Local 143 donated to a local animal shelter the $1,000 it redeemed for aluminum and copper scrap collected. "Most unions do give back," Yinger said.
Missouri’s Local 1 took a preemptive approach with another big retailer hoping to build in its jurisdiction. Members rallied at the proposed site of a Lowe’s store to remind the development community that skilled union workers are up to any task. More than 150 union construction workers and local residents rallied to urge Lowe’s to spend its construction dollars locally. At press time, contracts for the store construction had not been signed.
"Wages Made by Local Tradesmen Stay in Farmington," read one sign visible at the January event. "In IBEW Local 1’s 26-county region, our electricians have helped build every Lowe’s," said Local 1 organizer Bill Walz. "We’ve been pleased that Lowe’s has recognized the quality of our work and the importance of spending its construction dollars locally."
Local 1’s efforts are important to laying the foundation for future work. Farmington is expected to be home to several large retail warehouse stores such as Home Depot and Target or Costco in the coming months.