A labor union that has generated considerable attention and backlash over the “SHAME” banners it plants throughout Santa Barbara and beyond may have crossed a legal line it regularly toes. Two men with the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters — which is headquarted in Los Angeles, has 65,000 members in six states, and aggressively pickets developers, contractors, business owners, and anyone else it feels has wrongfully hired nonunion workers — are accused of breaking into the locked dumpster of a Santa Barbara construction firm and stealing client lists and other privileged material.
Though a nearby resident witnessed the reported nighttime burglary of Frank Schipper Construction on East Cota Street and watched the men drive away in a car registered to the union, a lack of additional info — including more detailed descriptions of the suspects and questions about the actual value of what was taken — stopped the police investigation before it really began, which frustrates Schipper president Paul Wieckowski. “The union’s attitude is: ‘We’re going to do what we want to do, and you can’t stop us,’” said Wieckowski, who complained he’s dealt with union members trespassing on his job sites and hassling his employees for years. “And the police are unwilling to do anything about it,” he claimed.
Up until the alleged theft, Wieckowski said he and other contractors around town had wondered how the unionized carpenters were able to so accurately pinpoint their client rosters, then send the clients letters making claims of unfair labor practices against the bid-winning firms and their subcontractors. “I always thought there was a spy,” Wieckowski explained. Schipper — which has worked on Santa Barbara City College, the New Victoria Theatre, Music Academy of the West, as well as a number of nonprofits — hires both union and nonunion subcontractors, depending on the size and scope of the work, Wieckowski said. “Whoever does the job well and for a good price, we want them,” he stated.
Bump in the Night
At around 10:30 p.m. on September 3, the Santa Barbara Police Department’s incident report reads, a man living in a condo above the Schipper office awoke to the sound of his dog barking. He went to his balcony and looked down to see two white males in their forties — one described as heavyset and wearing a dark ball cap with a red bill, the other with light, curly hair and wearing glasses — putting paperwork from the dumpster into bags and then loading the bags into a small, white SUV. Wieckowski said the dumpster, used by Schipper for recycling mostly shredded documents, is secured by a locking bar fastened with a padlock.
The witness headed downstairs to confront the men, the report continues, but by the time he reached the ground floor they were backing down the driveway. Before they could turn out of sight, the witnesses typed the car’s license plate on his iPhone, which officers photographed when they responded the next day. “A check of the plate returned to a 2005 Ford registered to the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters in Los Angeles,” the report states. This evidence, along with photos of the dumpster and pry marks on its lid, were forwarded to detectives, but the case has since been deactivated. “If additional information on the case surfaces,” said SBPD spokesperson Sergeant Riley Harwood, “we’re always prepared to reopen it. … There are definitely suspicious circumstances present.”
Wieckowski said police detectives advised him to speak with the District Attorney’s Office, and he recently talked with a victim advocate there who put him in touch with Deputy DA Brian Cota. Without anyone to prosecute, Cota explained to Wieckowski and The Santa Barbara Independent, it’s difficult to build a case. The first step needs to be taken by the police department to identify possible suspects. Cota suggested filing a complaint in small claims court, Wieckowski said. Exasperated and out of options, Wieckowski sent a letter Thursday to a number of his fellow contractors, as well as the Santa Barbara and Ventura contractors associations, warning them of the union’s unchecked “criminal activity.”
Calls to Southwest Council local chapters — Camarillo, Arroyo Grande, Bakersfield, Long Beach — were either unreturned, directed to a Santa Barbara phone number, or forwarded to its Los Angeles headquarters. A man who identified himself as Joe answered the Santa Barbara line and declined to comment on the allegations. He also would not talk about the Southwest Council’s general presence in Santa Barbara County. Justin Weidner down in Los Angeles issued a “no comment” response before a question could be asked then hung up. Calls made to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBC), of which the Southwest Council is an affiliate, went unreturned.
This summer, the UBC put the Southwest Council under emergency supervision after charges of malpractice, intimidation, wrongful conduct, and financial irregularities surfaced within the council. In a six-page fax sent July 19 to all of the Southwest Council’s 31 local chapters throughout Southern California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado, a massive political shake-up was announced with the UBC chief, Douglas McCarron, removing his younger brother — Mike McCarron — from the head of the Southwest Council. The decision was reportedly fueled by familial bad blood and tension among union brass.
Also this summer, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) launched an investigation into reports that union members had followed supervisors with a Phoenix drywall company from the contractor’s headquarters to individual job sites, running red lights and weaving through traffic to keep pace. The NLRB would eventually find the union innocent of any wrongdoing, noting a rule of the National Labor Relations Act that a union can use such tactics as long as, “[n]o one is injured, nothing was thrown, no one was prevented from going to work or leaving, and no vehicle was harmed or excluded from the premises.” NLRB representatives were unavailable to speak on that matter or any other because of the government shutdown.
Harwood said while officers are periodically called out to Santa Barbara construction sites to kick union members off private properties — contractors say they often show up in twos or threes to recruit, hand out stickers and pencils, demand information and employee lists of site bosses, and look for union defectors — the SBPD’s interactions with the carpenters have been minimal and without much contention. When the union decides to picket locations with its “SHAME” banners, Harwood went on, representatives notify police beforehand and appear well versed on the laws governing public access and sidewalk clearance.
Wieckowski, on the other hand, described the union reps as tattooed “thugs” who sometimes aggressively refuse to leave construction zones until it’s announced police are on their way. In the last few days, he said, they’ve shown up at Schipper’s projects at the Santa Barbara Zoo and the Council of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. Wieckowski is quick to point out that other labor unions in town are much more professional in their competitive bidding tactics and that he supports the right of free speech, but he said the carpenters seem more bent on bullying the competition than facilitating fair and quality work. “They want to put these small companies out of business,” he claimed. “It’s not like they’re trying to better themselves. They’re desperate.”
It Is What It Is
Detractors like Wieckowski often note that the people stationed at the “SHAME” signs are not union members, but placeholders hired for $25 a day to wordlessly pass out fliers that feature a rat nibbling on an American flag below the screaming headline: “SHAME ON [person/company] For Desecration of the American Way of Life.” The fliers also lament what the union calls the “erosion of standards for local workers.”
While pleasant when asked for details on their mission, the sign holders appear to have little to no knowledge of the issue. The fliers and signs often make the general claim of a “labor dispute,” but NLRB records invariably show the Southwest Council doesn’t file a formal grievance with the agency when an organization or individual is targeted. Indeed, the scattershot approach the union uses when choosing who to banner and when seems to be based solely on lost contract bids rather than legitimate gripes over substandard wages, health care, or pension benefits.
The Southwest Council, which has a training center in Santa Maria, has deployed its banners since at least 2004 and have been known to stake out locations for months on end, as when it descended on Goleta Hospital Foundation trustees last year after Cottage Health System’s general contractor went nonunion for a major remodel. “[The union’s] angle is pretty despicable,” said board chair Jeffrey Bermant at the time, explaining he and the rest of the trustees weren’t involved in choosing subcontractors. “We have absolutely no say in how the hospital is built. … They seem pretty removed from reality.”
Right now, banners sit in front of the Charles Schwab office on Chapala Street and what will be the new Fresh Market location (formerly Scolari’s) on Milpas Street. Both businesses hired Thomas Drywall instead of going through the union. A sign is also in front of Alma del Pueblo’s sales office, calling out Marge Cafarelli and her Urban Developments for hiring Triton Construction to plaster the mixed-use project being built on Chapala Street. Cafarelli said while union members have stopped “busting their way” through the construction site — she had to call the police on them more than once, she said — they’ve hired sign holders to stake out a stretch of sidewalk on State Street right next to the Arlington Theatre.
Commiserating with other banner targets, Cafarelli said while she doesn’t like how the union and its members conduct themselves, she’s resigned to the Southwest Council’s presence in Santa Barbara. “There’s nothing you can do, so you really can’t get too worked up about it,” she said. “At least they spelled my name right.”