Strictly Business: Instafab standoff takes turn for worse

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor

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Gordon Oliver

It’s not been easy watching the bitter standoff between Instafab, a long-established Vancouver steel fabricator and installer, and its embittered former employees. More than one year out from a walkout by the first five workers to declare a strike against the nonunion company, the feud is only turning uglier and more personal.

Salaries, benefits, and jobs are at stake, as well as the livelihood of the man who co-founded the company decades ago. Most important, the safety of workers who take on the risky task of building our offices and homes is on the line.

And yet when many of the antagonists were in the same room for the first time since the conflict began, the gathering devolved into a new round of finger-pointing and name-calling.

The setting was a Portland Area Workers’ Rights Board hearing April 28 in Portland. The board was created by Portland Jobs with Justice, a worker advocacy nonprofit that has backed Instafab’s striking workers. The five-member board — two clerics, two Portland State University professors, and Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek — convened to hear about safety concerns at Instafab raised by the company’s striking workers.

The topic is legitimate. While some safety complaints against the company have been dismissed or deemed minor, Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries recently imposed $30,400 in fines on Instafab for 10 safety violations categorized as “serious” at the company’s fabrication plant. Company owner Bruce Perkins, while not challenging the state’s findings, continues to argue that he’s a victim of overzealous regulators.

The Workers’ Rights Board hearing was another attempt by critics to ramp up pressure on Perkins, who surprised everyone by attending the hearing. Under a format used in Portland and other cities with similar review boards, striking workers were allowed to present to the panel, while about two dozen current employees who showed up were not. The former workers said work conditions on job sites were unsafe, workers were poorly trained, and that, in the words of one, “there is a culture in the shop where guys get in trouble for speaking their mind.”

Organizers, acknowledging the rarity of having the target of criticism attend such a hearing, offered Perkins three to five minutes to speak. He quickly launched into a cross-examination of one of his former employees and accused his critics of making false claims as part of a pro-union agenda. Soon, all decorum faded as most of Perkins’ supporters loudly walked out of the hearing.

Later, given a second chance to speak by Kotek, Perkins defended his company’s safety record. But the moment for the possible beginning of a resolution had passed. The board praised the striking workers and agreed to ask contractors who hire Instafab to stop hiring the company.

For his part, Perkins remains resolute against any discussion that could lead to unionization. And so goes the war of words, a battle with much at stake that somehow seems more overwrought than necessary, never drawing any closer to resolution.