Monday, June 7, 2010

Unions Drown Out the Rat

Remember "The Rat," that giant, inglorious inflatable rodent who appeared at construction sites throughout the city to taunt and humiliate companies that were using nonunion labor? Well, the rat is deflated, deceased. Gone. Finished. Kaput. At least as far as Local 2870 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America is concerned.

"Our rats are tucked away in storage," reported William Peters, an organizer with the local. "We probably have four or five on hand." He said the rat was a turnoff from the point of view of the general public. "As soon as they saw the rat, they'd throw their hands up. They don't want to know what the problem is."

So the men (they're all men on Local 2870's picket line) have resorted to an even more attention-getting—and some might argue obnoxious—tactic to draw attention to their targets' infamy: They show up at job sites and blow whistles for two hours straight.

I first encountered them a couple of weeks ago in front of a building on Park Avenue in the 80s, where they claimed a dentist moving into a ground-floor office was using a contractor who was paying below area standards. "Gotta love the First Amendment," Mr. Peters shouted over the deafening decibels of his workers' whistles, audible blocks away.

According to the union organizer, the tactic was first employed by their brethren in the Southwest, and only made it to the New York metropolitan area a few months ago. He said it's already showing success. "So far we've turned 23 jobs in the short time we've been doing it," Mr. Peters boasted.
I asked him whether he had any concern about his workers' hearing. I'd been at the rally only five minutes and was starting to lose mine. "We give earplugs to all our members," he explained. "Carpenters are very safety-conscious."

City residents, who haven't been supplied with earplugs, may not be instantly charmed. But, Mr. Peters said, those who take the time to ask what the commotion's about learn the Carpenters' cause is righteous. "If it's going to get attention and make a person listen and stop for a second, why not?" said Sharon Barr, who was waiting for a bus on Friday morning steps away from the protest in front of an Urban Outfitters under construction on Third Avenue between 85th and 86th streets. Local 2870 contends the clothing chain is using a subcontractor that is paying below union wages and no health benefits.

Indeed, the super at that Park Avenue address said that he sympathized with the protesters, being a union man himself. "You guys have to do what you have to do," he told them diplomatically. But he also told me, "I don't understand their protesting in front of the building. The dentist is around the corner."

He said he tried calling 311 to lodge a noise complaint, but that they told him not to hold his breath that they'd be able to make it over before the rally dispersed. "They said they have an eight-hour window of opportunity for a noise complaint," the super said.

Those who support the union cause will be pleased to know that such events don't take time away from the picketers' day jobs, from putting food on the table. Blowing whistles and such is their day job. "The organizing department strictly deals with rallies," Mr. Peters said. "We go to these various locations, learn there's subcontractors, speak to the workers and try to identify whether they're paying area standards."

He said their cacophonous approach bore fruit at the Park Avenue building where we first met: "The building manager contacted us to find out what they have to do to not have another rally at his building."

Mr. Peters claims other unions such as the steamfitters, concrete workers and electricians are starting to second-guess their own rats, which may shortly be available for parties. "They see the success we're having and are starting to change over," he said.

But the rat isn't completely forgotten. In what sounded like an homage to their inflatable former mascot, and taking a brief recess from blowing their whistles, the workers in front of the future Urban Outfitters location started to chant, "Rats in the building, rats go home."

You almost wished the hairy rodent would turn the corner and take a final bow.

1 comment:

I would ask that if you would like to leave a comment that you think of Local 157 Blogspot as your online meeting hall and that you wouldn’t say anything on this site that you wouldn’t, say at a union meeting. Constructive criticism is welcome, as we all benefit from such advice. Obnoxious comments are not welcome.