IRVINE — A small group of framing carpenters has started to picket selected home construction sites in Orange and Riverside counties, calling on workers to strike in an effort to win a union contract.
The group, estimated at no more than 200 of the approximately 1,750 framing carpenters actively working in the two counties, is being supported by Carpenters Union Local 2361 in Orange.
Picketing began a week ago in Rancho Santa Margarita and has slowed work at several sites in the weeklong effort, union and framing company sources said.
Framers are the carpenters who do all of the initial wood assembly in a house--building walls, roof systems and staircases. Once in a highly organized trade, residential carpenters--like most others in the home building trades--largely abandoned labor unions during the building industry recession of 1980-81.
Michael Olds, business representative for the Carpenters Union local, said the principal issue in the organizing drive is to establish a minimum daily wage of $144 for the framers--who work on a piecemeal system with different rates for almost every one of the dozens of types of framing work done in a house.
"Its a food-on-the-table issue," Olds said. Framers "work 10-hour days and six-day weeks, and when you add it all up some of them are barely making minimum (hourly) wages."
Tom Brooks, owner of the BCI & Associates framing company in Orange, was the first framing contractor hit by the pickets, but said he sympathizes with the framers' plight.
"They are frustrated about the uncertainty of their wages. The rates change from job to job" and earnings have fallen by 50% since the building boom of the 1980s, Brooks said.
But as in a 1992 organizing drive by drywall workers--who prevailed and won a master union contract with large drywall contractors after a bitter five-month strike--framing contractors say they are at the mercy of the market too. They say they pay less for labor these days because the home builders who hire them pay less.
A framing carpenter could make $800 to $1,200 a week during the boom, but now is lucky to gross $400 to $600 for the same amount of work, he said. Framers work for dozens of contractors during the year, jumping from job to job as pay and demand allows. Most can't work during rainy weather, so few work a standard 50-week year.
Olds said that his local has several organizers in the field working with the nearly 200 pickets, who are showing up at seven to 12 sites a day.
Brooks, however, said that while there may have been a couple hundred workers involved when the action began last week, the numbers have since dwindled. "I'd be surprised if there are 60 actively striking now."
He said that he lost most of a 65-member framing crew the first day of the strike but that all of the framers--including half a dozen who joined the pickets on the second day--were back at work by Friday.
"Right now, and I knock on wood when I say this, I don't have any strike problem," Brooks said.