Labor Pains For UFPI

April 10, 2006
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PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — Unionized carpenters were out to nail Universal Forest Products Inc. last week in Rhode Island

Massachusetts-based Shawnlee Construction, 75 percent of which is owned by UFPI, was the target of ire from members of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. Members of the carpenters' union alleged that Shawnlee was using underpaid, undocumented immigrant labor on a project at a U.S. Navy housing complex, according to a report in the Newport (R.I.) Daily News. Organizers also claimed that those workers did not have appropriate safety equipment and were working in dangerous conditions.

Those are unfounded allegations, according to Lynn Afendoulis, director of corporate communication for UFPI.

"They're simply not true. These are tactics of a union desperate for membership," Afendoulis told the Business Journal in an e-mail. "Unfortunately, they hurt the very people they purport to care about: our employees."

Shawnlee was hired as a subcontractor by Texas-based Centex Construction, which was contracted by GMH Military Housing to build 22 homes for naval officers, according to the newspaper account. GMH, based in Newtown Square, Pa., operates military housing facilities nationwide by contract with the federal government. Spokespeople for the company said that they plan to investigate the situation, but they had no reason to believe that illegal or unsafe labor practices were being employed on their work sites.

"Our position is we don't want illegal workers on the job site either. We won't tolerate it either. We've not been given anything but allegations that it is going on," Robert Rulli, GMH's regional manager, told the Providence Journal. Rulli told the newspaper that his firm would reiterate this position to Centex, and that it would be up to Centex to ensure that workers are legally hired, working under safe conditions and paid the minimum $18 per hour stipulated by the federal Davis-Bacon Act for workers on government projects in that area.

Rulli believes that the dispute goes beyond pay and safety.

"It's clear the carpenters' union is targeting Shawnlee, and they are not union," he told the Providence paper. "Obviously it's an issue that is getting a lot of national debate."

Leaders of the carpenters' union admitted that they have made attempts to organize Shawnlee's non-unionized workers in the past, but bolstering membership is only one of the union's concerns.

"Our issue is workers' rights," M.T. Murphy, the organizer for the union's Rhode Island office told the Daily News. "We can't be a carpenters' union and watch this happen."

The union maintains that firms hiring lower-paid workers put the livelihood of its higher-paid members at risk. John P. Murphy Jr., a union organizer (and no relation to the aforementioned Murphy), told the Providence paper that the allegedly undocumented workers were being paid $10 per hour. He said that unionized carpenters make $32 per hour, including benefits. The union also suggested to both local newspapers that Shawnlee was paying some of its workers in cash, thus avoiding payroll taxes.

Again, Afendoulis defended UFPI's labor practices.

"We categorically deny the allegations being made. We provide full-time employees with competitive compensation and benefits. And we follow government regulations to determine to the best of our ability proper documentation of employees," she said, going on to stress UFPI's displeasure with the union's actions. "These tactics are hurtful to the hard-working, dedicated people who are important to Shawnlee, to Universal and to this community, and we think it's an unfortunate and misguided strategy."    

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