Union Outsources Picket Lines to the Homeless A carpenters' union in Washington, D.C., recruits homeless people from shelters and pays them $8 an hour to protest a construction firm. But some say renting pickets sends a bad message: that union members don't have the time or spirit to protect their jobs.
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Union Outsources Picket Lines to the Homeless

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Union Outsources Picket Lines to the Homeless

Union Outsources Picket Lines to the Homeless

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IN Washington, D.C., the carpenter's union have been staging protests at construction sites around town, and they're getting some help. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, the carpenters have been outsourcing their picketing to homeless people for $8 an hour.

(Soundbite of protesters chanting)

FRANK LANGFITT: About 30 people are marching in front of a bank in downtown Washington. But there's something wrong with this picture. The protesters don't look like burly carpenters. Their shoulders are slump. They shuffle about in circles wearing hooded sweatshirts and dirty jeans. Coats are draped over parking meters, and their belongings sit in plastic grocery bags on the sidewalk. I asked a man named Mike Hodge why he's there.

Mr. MIKE HODGE (Protester): We're protesting, we're protesting - I don't know.


Mr. HODGE: Yeah.

LANGFITT: Hodge isn't the only protester who seems unfocused. Another man, who just gives his first name, William, is reading a newspaper as he walks. I asked him about the story.

WILLIAM (Protester): Oh, I don't know. Maybe. I'll probably be here overnight.

LANGFITT: Now, do you read often while you're walking the line?

WILLIAM: No. I'm just bored right now.

LANGFITT: William is on what's called an informational picket. The Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters has hired him to protest a local construction firm. The company's renovating the bank. The carpenters say the firm is using nonunion workers and paying them below the prevailing wage. Raul Castro is the union representative.

Mr. RAUL CASTRO (Representative, Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters): The carpenters are not getting what they're supposed to be getting paid.

LANGFITT: What are they paying inside the bank?

Mr. CASTRO: About $15, $16 an hour.

LANGFITT: What are the area standards?

Mr. CASTRO: It's $24 plus $6 on the benefits.

LANGFITT: But that's about as informational as this picket gets. When I asked about using homeless people, Castro clams up. So do his marchers.

Unidentified Female #1: Can you speak with my supervisor? They asked me not to speak.

Unidentified Female #2: (Unintelligible) that's work. Do not talk to him.

Unidentified Male: (Unintelligible) don't ever do that.

LANGFITT: Don't ever do what?

Unidentified Male: They do no interview.

LANGFITT: So I called George Eisner. He's the lead organizer of the Regional Carpenters Union. But he won't talk about hiring homeless people either.

Mr. GEORGE EISNER (Lead organizer, Regional Carpenters Union): Mm-hmm. Well, I'm not going to go through this because it's always twisted around and used in a wrong context.

LANGFITT: It's easy to see why the carpenters outsource their picket lines. The union pays $8-an-hour homeless people to picket so $24-an-hour carpenters don't have to. That's smart business. But there's also something peculiar about using people who aren't union members on informational pickets and then ordering them to keep their mouth shut. People who follow the labor movement say the carpenters union is the only one they know of in the country that uses the homeless. And some think renting marchers is just embarrassing.

Gary Chaison teaches industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Professor GARY CHAISON (Industrial Relations, Clark University): It's essentially saying that our own members don't have the time or the inclination or the spirit to walk picket lines and protect their jobs.

LANGFITT: And if actual carpenters don't care enough about companies paying lower wages, Chaison says, why should anyone else?

Prof. CHAISON: I'm trying to imagine what the civil rights movement would have been like if, in fact, they had hired demonstrators or people to walk down south. How much credibility would the writers strike right now have if, in fact, they hired people to pretend that they were writers?

LANGFITT: Away from their minders, some of the marchers explain how they came here. They say the union began recruiting them from homeless shelters, in soup kitchens two years ago. They work up to 20 hours a week. The homeless say the money helps pay for things like aspirin and laundry. A marcher who only gave her name as Mildred says she needs to make more money. Another named John says his picket money supplements what he makes from a job at a night club.

JOHN: This part time job is pretty good.

LANGFITT: How's the money? Okay?

JOHN: Money's okay and you don't have a problem.

MILDRED: We need more.

LANGFITT: You need more? What do you mean you need more?

JOHN: You know, we could get more money…

MILDRED: We need more.

LANGFITT: Better pay?

MILDRED: Better pay.

LANGFITT: Have you ever thought of unionizing?

MILDRED: Yes. Definitely.

LANGFITT: Most people who pass the picket line don't look closely at the people. Diego Castaneda is a doctoral student from California in town for a conference. He snaps a picture of a protester and gives her a thumbs up.

Mr. DIEGO CASTANEDA (Student): I just like seeing people demonstrating and, you know, standing up for their rights.

LANGFITT: Then, I tell him who the protesters really are.

Mr. CASTANEDA: Are you serious?


Mr. CASTANEDA: It's pretty disingenuous of the union to hire people who aren't carpenters.

LANGFITT: 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 economic sense. After all, that's the genius of outsourcing.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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