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Carpenters Union Hit With Restraining Order : Labor: Judge acts on Irvine contractor's suit alleging violence and threats as tensions escalate at job sites.


In a sign of escalating tensions in the weeklong strike by non-union carpenters, an Irvine contractor has brought a lawsuit against the Carpenters Union for allegedly using violence and threats to disrupt two major apartment building projects in Orange County.

Following the suit by Regis Contractors Inc., Superior Court Judge C. Robert Jameson issued a temporary restraining order late Monday that limits the number and activities of pickets at the Newport Ridge project in Newport Beach and the Santa Clara project in Irvine. Work at both sites was continuing Tuesday.

Scores of pickets went up last week at those and other projects around Southern California as part of the Carpenters Union's campaign to lift the wages and benefits of workers who construct frames of houses and apartments. Some 3,000 to 5,000 framers work in Southern California, according to the union. Virtually all of the framing contractors in the region operate non-union.

Baldwin Keenan, an organizer for Carpenters Local 2361 in Orange, which was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said "colorful language and cuss words" have been exchanged by both sides at job sites. But Keenan denied the union had a hand in any illegal activity, including a beating of a worker. Authorities confirmed that a worker was beaten and hospitalized last Thursday, but it remains unclear who was responsible for the beating.

Keenan, whose local is spearheading the labor action, said about 500 framers picketed 32 sites on Tuesday. He said: "The game plan is to slow the industry enough where they listen to the workers and bring wages up," to an average daily pay of $150 from about $80 currently.

Tim Boggess, president of Sundance Construction, a Costa Mesa framing contractor that is working on the 520-unit Newport Ridge project, said the pickets have significantly slowed his business. But Boggess said neither his company, nor Regis, nor the developer--an affiliate of the Irvine Co.--would back down to union threats.

Boggess complained bitterly that union threats have scared many of his framers from reporting for work, though he said the restraining order quieted the pickets Tuesday. He said contractors were already hurting from the sagging demand for houses, the rainy weather this year and effects from the Orange County bankruptcy.

The Carpenters Union has been preparing its campaign since last fall. The pickets have elicited comparisons with the tumultuous non-union drywallers strike in 1992, which ended in a major victory for the largely Latino drywallers as contractors gave in and signed union contracts. Most of the framers are also Latino, and many of them would love to earn the $145 a day average pay that unionized drywallers make.

But the drywallers' strike was an independent labor movement with the union having a limited role. The framers' strike is being orchestrated by the union, which is giving striking framers $30 a day and a bag of groceries a week for their activities. Moreover, the drywallers had a big weapon in a lawsuit they filed accusing contractors of cheating workers out of overtime pay and violating other labor regulations. So far, no such lawsuit has been filed by the union against framing contractors.

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