Forty would-be investors who attended a luncheon seminar at the Westin South Coast Plaza Wednesday found themselves in the middle of a new union campaign to keep nonunion labor out of commercial construction.
At the front door of the hotel, they were handed burgundy-hued pamphlets with the name Birtcher printed at the top, very similar to the slick, informational brochures distributed by that Laguna Niguel-based commercial development and investment company.
But those who opened the pamphlets, expecting to learn more about the company that is co-sponsoring a $46-million real estate investment fund with Damson Properties Inc., did a doubletake when they instead read a message from the Building and Construction Trades Council of Orange County.
The message said that Birtcher, a firm that "year after year relied on the experience of skilled union craftsmen to build a quality product . . . (now) is throwing tradition to the wind by using subcontractors who do not use skilled union craftsmen, do not pay prevailing wage rates and do not pay into established trust funds which provide not only medical benefits but the training programs for present and future generations."
"It is a good ploy," said Tom Stroble, 31, of Tustin as he leafed through the pamphlet. "You think you are receiving something from the Birtcher organization and you are not."
Similar pamphlets have been distributed since Nov. 9 at eight other Damson/Birtcher Realty Income Fund seminars aimed at would-be investors, according to Robert L. Balgenorth, executive secretary of the Building and Construction Trades Council. The council has pamphleted other seminars in Torrance, Los Angeles, Laguna Hills and Irvine, as well as in Santa Barbara, Boise, Portland, and Salt Lake City. Balgenorth said the pamphlets are part of the council's "new strategy" to find alternatives to picketing construction sites.
Not only does construction-site picketing cause a hardship on union workers who forfeit their paychecks, Balgenorth said, but it has less impact today on persuading builders because lower interest rates on construction loans make it easier for them to wait out a strike.
Balgenorth, who was distributing the pamphlets in Costa Mesa Wednesday, said the building unions, which just a few years ago lost their grasp on residential development to nonunion contractors, are concerned that nonunion contractors also are beginning to make inroads into the construction of office buildings.
Birtcher has been singled out by the unions, Balgenorth said, because it is a major builder that has switched to an open shop in its office and industrial developments, including an $80-million redevelopment project on 41 acres in La Palma.
Balgenorth said that in addition to pamphleting the investment seminars in the hope of discouraging investors, the labor council has launched a campaign to send postcards to Birtcher officers and has asked the building trades department of the AFL-CIO to urge members to refrain from investing in Damson/Birtcher funds until the dispute is resolved.
Birtcher officials said they were surprised by the building trades council's attack on their company, especially because it is aimed at the investment rather than the construction arm.
Ron Birtcher, the Birtcher partner in charge of construction, said that about a year and a half ago, the company decided not to renew its contract with the unions. He said Birtcher made that decision partly because it no longer directly hires workers but leaves that up to its subcontractors. Also, he said the company wanted the opportunity to choose the most qualified subcontractor with the lowest bid, whether or not it employs all union workers.
Although the company now puts double gates on its projects--one for union workers and one for nonunion workers to enter--Birtcher said that still "92% to 94% of all the work we do is with union personnel."
He said Birtcher will not be forced by the pamphleting and other tactics to again sign a union contract, which would oblige the firm to police all its subcontractors to make sure they hire union labor.
Art Birtcher, who oversees the company's investment branch, said meanwhile that the pamphleting has not slowed down the fund raising by Damson, which he said is holding seminars around the country to attract investors for the Damson/Birtcher Fund II. He said the fund expects to reach its $46-million goal by year's end, which it will use to purchase 25 buildings in six states.
Moreover, Birtcher said there are two union pension funds he would not identify that are "looking to invest between $3 million and $4 million in Damson/Birtcher programs, and they are aware of what is going on." He said that the unions' financial advisers are "looking at it strictly from an investment standpoint."
The pamphlets didn't seem to be winning much sympathy for the unions at Wednesday's seminar. A group of retirees poring over the union message said they thought unions were getting too pushy, as demonstrated, they said, by the current Teamsters and meat-cutters' strike and the grocery chains' lockout.
"Unions have gone too darn far," said Roger Jensen of Anaheim. "They are trying to run business, and they don't know what they are doing."