Brother Can You Spare a Sign?

From the “you can’t make this stuff up” files, comes a story of those great champions of the American working man, unions. It can be tough to ask union workers to take time out of their busy days to picket businesses who hire non-union workers, but not to be deterred some unions have followed their arch nemeses in the business world into the realm of outsourcing: hiring non-union low-wage workers to do the protesting union members won’t do.

Billy Raye, a 51-year-old unemployed bike courier, is looking for work.

Fortunately for him, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters is seeking paid demonstrators to march and chant in its current picket line outside the McPherson Building, an office complex here where the council says work is being done with nonunion labor.

“For a lot of our members, it’s really difficult to have them come out, either because of parking or something else,” explains Vincente Garcia, a union representative who is supervising the picketing.

So instead, the union hires unemployed people at the minimum wage—$8.25 an hour—to walk picket lines. Mr. Raye says he’s grateful for the work, even though he’s not sure why he’s doing it. “I could care less,” he says. “I am being paid to march around and sound off.”

As it turns out, unions are just the most ironic example of a wider trend — long term joblessness allows well-funded political action groups to stage visible protests by hiring picketers where the enthusiasm of their supporters doesn’t extend to spending time holding signs.

Protest organizers and advocacy groups are reaping an unexpected benefit from continued high joblessness. With the national unemployment rate currently at 9.5%, an “endless supply” of the out-of-work, as well as retirees seeking extra income, are lining up to be paid demonstrators, says George Eisner, the union’s director of organization. Extra feet help the union staff about 150 picket lines in the District of Columbia and Baltimore each day.

Online postings recruit paid activists for everything from stopping offshore drilling to defending the Constitution.

The union’s rationalization for taking part in this trend is fascinating:

While many big unions, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, frown on using nonmembers in picket lines, “we’re not at all ashamed,” says Jimmy Gibbs, director of special projects for the Southeastern Council. “We’re helping people who are in a difficult situation.”

“Low Pay! Go away!” and “That Rat Gotta Go!” the union stand-ins chanted as other workers banged cow-bells and beat on a trio of empty plastic buckets. Eric Williams, a 70-year-old retiree who said he needs extra cash to buy groceries, wore a sign saying that Can-Am Contractors, a nonunion Maryland drywall and ceiling concern, “does not pay area standard wages & benefits.”

The target of the campaign is the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, which is opening new classrooms on the second floor of the McPherson Building, and is having renovations done, including dry-walling by Can-Am.

“It is bizarre,” says Lynne Baker, a school spokeswoman, about the union’s hiring of nonunion picketers.

The union’s Mr. Garcia sees no conflict in a union that insists on union labor hiring nonunion people to protest the hiring of nonunion labor.

He says the pickets are not only about “union issues” but also about fair wages and benefits for American workers. By hiring the unemployed, “we are also giving back to the community a bit,” he says.

Which, of course, is exactly what his protest’s targets are doing when they hire non-union labor.

8 Responses to Brother Can You Spare a Sign?

  • Was this from the WSJ or the Onion!!!?

  • I might’ve shared this anecdote here before, but back when I was a consultant we had a large labor union as a client. One of their ongoing problems? The intransigence of the labor union they used for their clerical work.

  • Classic. In a perfect world, these minimum wage “picketers” would unionize against the union to demand higher wages and better benefits.

  • Wagner Act unionism – an idea whose time has gone.

  • Reminds me of a news story I quoted on my blog a few years back; ACORN had filed a lawsuit seeking to exempt itself from minimum wage and overtime laws:

    “‘The more that ACORN must pay each individual outreach worker – either because of minimum wage or overtime requirements – the fewer outreach workers it will be able to hire,’ ACORN said in its court brief.

    “ACORN’s arguments also failed to persuade the First Appellate Court in California.

    “‘Leaving aside the latter argument’s absurdity (minimum-wage workers are ipso facto low-income workers) as well as irony (an advocate for the poor seeking to justify starvation wages), we find ACORN to be laboring under a fundamental misconception of the constitutional law,’ wrote Judge P.J. Peterson for the majority.”

  • Unions have been using rent a mobs for years. I hope many more unemployed are put to such use and that this tactic gets wide exposure in the age of the internet.

  • I’d love to go ask the hired protesters if they would rather have a job protesting for the union or working for the union’s target company. I’d lay odds they would choose the later. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the target company offers medical insurance and a considerably higher wage than the union does.

  • A UNION IS A COMPANY! A UNION IS A COMPANY! I’ve been shouting this from the rooftops for years, and each time I feel like my voice gets completely drowned out, especially when the people whose roof I am on call the fire department.

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