Heidi Glenn, NPR
A woman pickets on behalf of the carpenters' union in Washington, D.C.
A woman pickets on behalf of the carpenters' union in Washington, D.C. Heidi Glenn, NPR
Heidi Glenn, NPR
Picketers march in a circle in front of a bank. The carpenters' union says a construction firm paying workers to renovate the bank is paying below the prevailing wage.
Picketers march in a circle in front of a bank. The carpenters' union says a construction firm paying workers to renovate the bank is paying below the prevailing wage. Heidi Glenn, NPR
About 30 people picket in front of a bank in downtown Washington, D.C., wearing big yellow signs that read: "Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters."
They shuffle about in circles, many wearing hooded sweatshirts and jeans. Their coats are draped over parking meters; their belongings sit in plastic grocery bags on the sidewalk. I ask a protester named Mike Hodge why he's there.
"We're protesting, we're protesting..." Then the energy leaves his voice and he concedes, "I don't know."
Hodge isn't a carpenter; he's a rent-a-picket.
Solidarity at $8 an Hour
The regional carpenters' union has hired Hodge for $8 an hour, essentially outsourcing protest work that union members traditionally do themselves. And many of the demonstrators are homeless people, according to people familiar with the union and its practices.
Rick Hatcher, who works as a monitor in a homeless shelter and was once an apprentice carpenter, says the union often recruits from shelters.
"Most of these people are very much unemployed," said Hatcher, as he watched the marchers in front of the bank. "They're homeless. Trust me. A majority of these people come from the shelters."
One of the marchers, Roger Washington, who lives in a shelter, recalled the carpenters descending on a meal for the homeless and hiring 140 people in one fell swoop.
The union hires them to work on what's called an "informational" picket.
The assignment: Protest a construction firm that the union says is paying below the prevailing wage to workers renovating the bank.
On this day, the protesters chant in a sluggish tone that sounds as if they recently woke up: "Low pay! No way! Fair pay! American way!"
In the past couple of years, the carpenters' union has hired the homeless to picket in Washington and other cities, according to news reports. The logic is economic. The union pays homeless people $8 an hour to picket so real carpenters can continue to make $24 an hour doing their jobs.
People who follow the labor movement say the carpenters' union is the only one they know of in the country that uses the homeless to picket. Some in organized labor say they find the practice embarrassing, even if they are loath to criticize a fellow union in public.
Gary Chaison, who teaches industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said renting pickets sends a bad message.
"It's essentially saying that our own members don't have the time, the inclination — or the spirit — to walk picket lines and protect their jobs," Chaison said.
And if actual carpenters don't care enough about companies paying lower wages, Chaison said, why should anyone else?
"I'm trying to imagine what the civil rights movement would have been like if, in fact, they had hired demonstrators to walk down South," Chaison said.
'It's Pretty Good'
Getting the carpenters to talk about using the homeless is tough. George Eisner, the lead organizer for the mid-Atlantic regional office of the union, won't discuss it.
"It's always twisted around and used in the wrong context," Eisner said in a telephone interview.
And it's not much easier getting the homeless protesters to talk about it. Union organizers have ordered them not to talk to reporters. Away from their minders, though, a few explain how they came to be rent-a-pickets.
They say the union began recruiting them from homeless shelters and soup kitchens two years ago. They work up to 20 hours a week and use their wages to pay for things such as aspirin and laundry.
"As a part-time job, it's pretty good," said a man who only gives his first name, John.
Most people who pass the picket line don't look closely at the protesters. Diego Castaneda, a doctoral student from California, snaps a picture of a marcher and gives her a thumbs up.
"I just like seeing people demonstrating and standing up for their rights," Castaneda said.
But when I tell him the protesters are actually homeless people, his face falls.
"Are you serious?" he says in disbelief. "It's pretty disingenuous of the union to hire people who aren't carpenters."
But that doesn't mean it's likely to change. As long as the union can hire low-wage workers to do the job for its members, it makes good business sense. After all, that's the genius of outsourcing.