Palmer Picket Persists

IBEW workers picket the Palmer Auditorium building site, charging MW Builders with unfair labor practices.
IBEW workers picket the Palmer Auditorium building site, charging MW Builders with "unfair labor practices." (Photo By John Anderson)

"It's about as close to a state of war between labor and management as you can get without an actual declaration," said Matt Holder, attorney for the electricians union (Local 520 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers). The workers are currently picketing the Palmer Auditorium/Community Events Center building site on Barton Springs Road, charging general contractor MW Builders with "unfair labor practices."

The job action began Nov. 9, when electrical sub-contractor Guy's Electric of Marble Falls went bankrupt and left MW Builders on the spot for the union contract -- or not, depending whom you ask. Holder and the union say MW Builders, as the general contractor and the "successor company" to Guy's Electric under federal labor law, is required to negotiate with the union and to maintain the wages and working conditions previously in force with the sub-contractor. The contractor's attorney, Michael Fox, responds that federal law in fact makes clear MW Builders is not a successor company, and the union's dispute is with its former employer.

According to Local 520 organizer Michael Murphy, the union organized Guy's Electric earlier this year and the sub-contractor voluntarily agreed to accept the union "when he realized the support we had, and the quality of the union workers." In order to accommodate Guy's on the Palmer project, Murphy says the local agreed to work for less than standard union wages and benefits. "Guy's had won the sub-contract by what turned out to be an unreasonably low bid," said Murphy. "We understand it was close to $800,000 lower than it should have been. But we agreed to adjust our standard wage/benefit package to try to help the company survive, with the understanding that any future jobs would be bid at union rate. But it wasn't enough -- Guy's ran out of money before they ran out of job."

It took a letter of credit on the part of MW Builders to get the workers finally paid up, said Rick Zerr, a Palmer electrician and the IBEW's job rep on the project. (At press time, Guy Fourier, owner of Guy's Electric, had not responded to a request for comment.) Trying to hire another sub-contractor will end up costing more for the company, Zerr added, because they will not be able to complete the job for the original bid. A spokeswoman for MW Builders says the contractor is expecting new bids on the job by November 26 and plans to make a decision on a new sub-contractor in early December.

Fox says the company is still evaluating the status of the electrical work, and will decide on how to continue the job -- whether directly or through a new sub-contractor -- when it completes that task. The union contends that when MW Builders hired a handful of supervisors and electricians previously employed by Guy's Electric, it had effectively become Guy's successor. "They've taken on the work," said Matt Holder, "and they've taken on all the encumbrances associated with that work -- including the union contract."

On Nov. 13, the union filed formal charges of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that MW Builders had "unilaterally" violated the terms of the existing union contract, fired Local 520 employees to avoid bargaining in good faith, and have taken other actions to intimidate union members. Fox had not yet seen the union charges and had no direct comment, but he said the contractor reserves the right to file countercharges. "The picketing hasn't yet risen to the level of disruption of the project," said Fox, "but we're keeping an eye on it and will take whatever actions are necessary." While he "wouldn't rule out" the possibility that his client will eventually decide to negotiate with the union, he expected it would take some time before the company decides what to do.

"It's kind of a fluid situation right now," said organizer Murphy. "Our members are having to find work elsewhere while we continue the job action, and so we may have picketers out there only part of the time. The NLRB process [which can last several months] will probably take longer than it will take to complete that job, but we are putting the contractor on notice that we will aggressively organize any new employers. We'll be the first guys in line."

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