For weeks now shoppers entering the 38th Street shopping center parking lot where Tacoma’s Ross Dress for Less Store is have been confronted by a banner.
“Ross Dress for Less Hurts Our Country,” the big banner declares. “Labor Dispute.”
The workers holding up the sign distribute a flyer that declares in bold headlines, “Shame on Kevin Curry for desecration of the American way of life.” An illustration on that same leaflet depicts a rat gnawing on an American flag.
Could Ross workers be on strike? Are negotiations with the California-based clothing chain stalled? Is the discount clothier violating the terms of a union contract?
The answer to all of those questions is “no”.
Then why is the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, the union behind the demonstration, complaining about Ross, and who is Kevin Curry?
The union says the public protest is just an exercise of its free-speech rights, an attempt to tell the public that a non-union subcontractor is hanging drywall in a Ross store. That store is not the one in Tacoma, but a new store on Puyallup’s South Hill, miles distant from the site of the Tacoma protest.
The subcontractor at whom the protest is ultimately aimed claims the public display is a poorly targeted attempt to drive his struggling, family-owned drywall company out of business.
Chris Heiberg, president of Tacoma-based Heiberg Inc., said the Carpenters Union has dogged him repeatedly, though it never has tried to organize his shop.
“The only contact with them that I’ve had is when they sent me a letter asking me to tell them what the wages and benefits were for my employees,” Heiberg said.
The practice of targeting a third-party not directly involved in the construction project, Heiberg said, is becoming a common tactic called “bannering.” That practice is legal as long as the demonstrators don’t harass shoppers or block access.
Eric Franklin, spokesman for the union, claims that Heiberg pays substandard wages and doesn’t offer his workers the kinds of benefits they would receive if they were operating under a union contract.
Heiberg says his track record of low turnover among the core group of employees is evidence that they’re treated fairly.
In the present economy where construction jobs are relatively few, it’s been a struggle to keep those employees fully employed, said the company owner.
The union’s Franklin said that the buying public should be made aware that non-union workers without union-style benefits may be a burden on the public because their health care cost could ultimately be paid by the government or by charity because they their medical coverage is non-existence or inadequate.
Ross’ corporate spokeswoman didn’t return several calls seeking comment on the banner.
Kevin Curry, the manager of a Ross store in Seattle, says he’s puzzled why his name is on the union leaflet.
“I’m just a little old store manager,” he said. He doesn’t make decisions about the Tacoma or Puyallup stores, and he doesn’t decide what contractors work on Ross store construction projects.
The union distributed leaflets outside his Seattle store for several days, with no apparent effect.
Ross is layers removed from the construction hiring decisions, said Heiberg. He was hired for the Puyallup store job not by Ross but by the general contractor.
The union’s Franklin said Ross has the power to specify that only union workers be employed in building any new store it intends to lease.
“They sign the checks. They’ve got the power,” he said.
The union said the workers handling the Tacoma protest were likely out-of-work union carpenters volunteering their time to distribute the union’s message.
Those workers declined to answer questions, passed out the leaflets and referred a reporter to their boss, who referred the reporter to Franklin.
Heiberg said he’s wondering why the union is still mounting its protest. He completed the job at the Puyallup Ross more than 10 days ago.
John Gillie: @53-597-8663