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Instafab, striking workers steel themselves amid long labor dispute

Conflict at Vancouver metal fabrication company began in February 2015 shows no signs of subsiding

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor
Published: March 6, 2016, 6:07am
6 Photos
Instafab employee Bruce Alan works at the site of an apartment project under construction in Northwest Portland. About one dozen Instafab workers have walked out on strike at the non-union company in the past year. But workers have not yet voted on whether to join the Ironworkers union, and company owner Bruce Perkins is refusing to meet with his striking workers.
Instafab employee Bruce Alan works at the site of an apartment project under construction in Northwest Portland. About one dozen Instafab workers have walked out on strike at the non-union company in the past year. But workers have not yet voted on whether to join the Ironworkers union, and company owner Bruce Perkins is refusing to meet with his striking workers. (NATALIE BEHRING/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

At about 6 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015, four ironworkers and a supervisor at Instafab, a Vancouver company that fabricates and installs steel for projects large and small, walked into the company’s fabrication shop to make an announcement. As two visitors filmed the scene with cellphone cameras, the workers read a handwritten statement and then handed it to shop foreman Will Filbeck. It read:

“We the employees of Instafab hereby demand water on every job, dry shacks on every job, safety and other training, medical paid by Instafab, a retirement plan and area standard wages.”

That wasn’t all. Each had a separate typewritten signed note that declared: “I hereby notify Instafab that I am on strike until further notice.”

One year later, Bruce Perkins, 59, remembers his utter surprise upon learning of the workers’ declaration. Instafab, the company Perkins had co-founded in 1987, had never been a union shop.

“Maybe I hadn’t been paying attention,” Perkins told The Columbian, “but I had never heard of a non-union company going on strike.”

Even more surprising: Perkins said he had no idea that his workers had any interest in joining the ironworkers union. If the workers had major grievances, he said, they had not brought them to him or any manager, he said.

But some who left the company in that first walkout and others who followed in the ensuing months say that Perkins didn’t pay attention to their discontent over working conditions, salaries and benefits. At least a dozen have left the company and declared themselves as being on strike, and some have aligned with the activist group Portland Jobs with Justice in public and private attacks against Instafab. They’ve held rancorous rallies outside Instafab’s office, picketed and handed out leaflets at construction sites, and condemned the company to contractors, developers, vendors and even the Portland City Council.

“It’s a grind. It’s a beating-down process,” says Perkins during an interview at his small office. “I know my reputation is being harmed.”

Ironworkers Local 29 looms large as a supporter of the campaign against the company and union representatives assert that they simply want workers to choose whether they want to join the union. But with no vote in sight, the conflict has settled into a endless string of divisive skirmishes between the former employees, who call themselves the Instafab Company Workers, and Perkins, who aggressively defends his company and his own actions at every turn. A negotiated effort by the two sides to meet in July to discuss their differences collapsed when the workers insisted on bringing community supporters to the meeting, a condition that Perkins refused to accept.

The next battle is before the National Labor Relations Board, which in May is set to hear a set of issues related to how much the company owes in back pay to the first round of striking workers, who Perkins initially fired before realizing that their jobs were protected by their strike declaration. (One of the five was a manager ineligible to join the union.)

The NLRB could also decide, at that hearing or some other date, whether the strike is an economic strike or an unfair labor practices strike. The difference is significant in determining the voting rights of the striking workers and management’s obligations to return the striking workers to their jobs. The striking employees have called their action an unfair labor practices strike, but Instafab is likely to argue that it’s an economic strike.

Perkins is now firmly opposed to a union in his shop, but he said he’d rather see his workers vote than to have the current conflict continue. For that to happen, 30 percent of his union-eligible workers would have to sign cards favoring the vote, with a simple majority needed to join the union. So far, neither the striking workers nor the union are pushing for a worker vote. Perkins believes the campaign against his company is not really about union membership, but instead is an effort to drive him out of business.

“Organizing this company is not their goal,” he said. “We’re the biggest non-union competitor in Portland. They want us to quit competing against them.”

That charge is dismissed by Robert Camarillo, who was until recently business agent for Ironworkers Local 29. Perkins, he said, “is looking for a scapegoat.”

His message to Perkins: “These are desperate workers that value their jobs. You’ve exploited them and they are speaking up.”

• • •

Instafab operates out of an industrial building on a rutted road near the Fred Meyer Grand Central store. Perkins says the building is owned by a holding company and that he hopes to buy it when he can come up with the money. But he says he’s still digging out of debt from the dark days of the recession. Last year, Instafab grossed about $11 million and made just $100,000 in profit, Perkins said. “I’m not the highest-paid person in the company,” he said.

The company has about 75 employees and two distinct ironworker crews: the fabricators who create the iron products in the shop at 2424 E. Second St., and the field workers who install everything from residential handrails to structural steel on high-rise buildings such as the new Banfield Pet Hospital under construction in Vancouver and a 21-story apartment building at the east end of Portland’s Burnside Bridge.

“We do pretty much anything for anybody,” said Will Filbeck, the company’s general manager.

Filbeck, 51, has worked at Instafab for five years, starting as a shop manager and moving up to general manager in January 2015, just before the labor conflict erupted. He oversees about 60 workers, including two dozen who generally work at far-flung job sites. Earlier in his career, he’d been a union member. Like several other current employees who spoke to The Columbian, Filbeck says he likes working at Instafab and he calls Perkins “one of the fairest people I’ve ever worked for.”

Looking back, Filbeck said worker discontent “came on all at once.” He saw one early sign of discontent: an employee who refused to cooperate with a new checkout system for company cars, triggering a reprimand. But as for any other issues that later surfaced, “nobody came and sat down and talked to me,” said Filbeck.

Kevin Pattullo, 61, a parts manager with 25 years’ experience in structural steel, said he saw rising discontent over salaries.

“I think there were some hurt feelings on what some people felt they are worth,” said Patullo. “I think that’s where it started and kind of progressed into where they wanted to be represented by the union. It made for a toxic environment, and then you get confrontation.”

Tim Thomas, 49, a swing-shift fitter who is vested in Local 29 from his previous employment, says he accepts Perkins’ statements that he is working his way out of debt and paying what he can afford. “I believe him,” Thomas said. “I’m not sure how much money he makes. He started that company and built it from nothing. He’s earned it.”

Brian Reinke, 37, left to join the union early last year but returned after a few months and is now a foreman.

“I really felt bad leaving in the first place,” Reinke said. “Once I really got into it, I saw it wasn’t about workers and worker safety. It was more malicious” in trying to harm the reputation of Instafab and Perkins in the community.

Still, Reinke said, the company has tightened operational and safety procedures in the year since workers first walked off the job. The company now has an active safety committee, something it didn’t have a year ago. It has an attendant who makes sure tools are kept in good repair and available when needed.

“I think it was good for us,” Reinke said. “It made us better.”

The union-organizing effort had the unexpected effect of raising wages for current and new workers. “The strike kind of triggered it because I had to go out and hire replacements,” said Perkins, who said his salaries range from a low of $15 an hour for some shop jobs to $30-plus for some shop and field jobs. “We needed to bite the bullet and hire more skilled guys,” he said. “We needed to raise our game.”

• • •

Laramie Lexow, 34, walked off his shop job at Instafab last summer, saying his decision to leave was based on “general mistreatment (of workers) and lack of safety” in the shop. He said he decided to leave after watching a lead worker dress down a younger worker over an improper cut of a piece of steel, even though the younger worker was following the supervisor’s instructions. The younger worker “really did break down on the shop floor and broke into tears,” Lexow said. (Perkins said he’d never heard of the incident.)

Lexow is now a leader of the striking workers group, and says it’s part of his daily routine to contact businesses and individuals who have some association with Instafab to present their grievances about the company — developers, architects, end users of the company’s services.

“I’m spreading the facts as we know them,” said Lexow, of Vancouver. “I’m not going to back down on it.”

Diana Pei Wu, who became executive director of the workers advocacy group Portland Jobs with Justice in April, said she’s been frustrated at the lack of progress in trying to settle the conflict.

“These guys are hard workers,” she said of the Instafab strikers. “They’re not trying to run a game on anybody.”

Wu said Perkins’ steady online commentary in response to articles in the labor press and the Portland Mercury come across as personal attacks on striking workers and their supporters. She was chagrined when workers and their backers negotiated terms of a meeting with Perkins, only to have him back out of the meeting.

“It was rude and disrespectful,” she said. Her own organization listed Perkins as a finalist for 2015 “Scrooge of the Year.”

Still, Wu says she personally feels the best choice for the workers is to form a union. “If I was a worker I wouldn’t trust that this man would be a fair employer,” she said. “It makes sense that they would want the extra security (of a union).”

On safety issues, the company has faced scrutiny both from Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries and Oregon OSHA. Oregon safety inspectors examined complaints about safety at a job site in North Portland in August; they found the company in compliance on safety training and equipment. In July, Washington L&I cited Instafab for failure to have an active safety committee and a failure to ensure that damaged synthetic web slings were taken out of service. It levied no fines. Another complaint is pending in Washington involving a welding issue and a lack of drinking water for workers at the Banfield Pet Hospital construction site, L&I spokeswoman Elaine Fischer said.

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Critics frequently have claimed that the company doesn’t provide drinking water at construction sites. Camarillo, the former Local 29 business agent, said he visited sites at the request of workers and found no water on the site.

Skyler McCall, who worked for about two months on a building in Portland’s Pearl District, said water wasn’t always available and that a supervisor told him that workers should bring their own water.

Todd Steward, an Instafab site foreman, said racks of water are available at Instafab for workers to take to a job site. He said that if water isn’t available, workers just need to ask.

“I rely on guys to tell me if they need water,” he said. “I’m not a baby sitter.”

Safety harnesses are another hot-button issues among the striking workers. The company says it provides a basic harness, costing about $150, at no cost to workers. In the past if employees wanted a better harness, costing about $350, the company would deduct the difference from their paychecks. But critics latched on to those payments to say that Instafab required employees to pay for their own safety equipment. The company now provides just the lower-cost harness. Employees had been allowed to keep the harnesses if they worked more than six months. Now workers use company harnesses.

Michael James, who walked out after five months and raised concerns about safety conditions at his work site, said he decided to keep his harness because he says he’s still an Instafab worker while he’s on strike. When he went to pick up his final check, James said, Perkins called him a “jackass,” a charge Perkins doesn’t deny. Now Perkins is taking him to small claims court for reimbursement of the cost of the safety harness, and James has filed a counter-claim.

In this overheated battle, money isn’t the issue, Perkins said. “I’m absolutely trying to make a point,” he said.

• • •

Bruce Perkins says he’s not one to form a tight personal bond with his employees. His door is open and he’s placed suggestion boxes in the workplace, but he doesn’t sponsor company picnics or other activities outside work hours. He thinks employees shouldn’t have to feel obligated to spend time with their employers.

“I’ve read about owners who try to create an illusion that they’re all in a big family,” he said. “The bottom line is that it’s the employer-employee relationship that really drives things.”

But one year from the day that turned his company upside down, Perkins remains unwilling to meet with the former workers who walked out on strike. The Instafab Company Workers keep asking their former boss to meet with them, and Perkins repeatedly ignores the letters.

Lexow doesn’t press that he wants to talk about establishing a union at Instafab. His goal, he says, is for Instafab to continue to operate as a place where workers can spend a full career to support their families. “The number-one thing we’re shooting for now is to sit down and talk with Bruce. That’s where everything starts,” he said. “Everything begins with just a conversation. That’s where we need to go.”

Camarillo, the union official, argues that whether or not he wants a union, Perkins should meet with his disgruntled workers.

“He continues to focus on things that aren’t important,” said Camarillo. “He doesn’t want to give these workers the professional courtesy to meet with him. He’s not even willing to sit down with them and tell them to their face, ‘I’m not going to give you this.'”

Perkins said he did meet recently with Joe Bowers, treasurer-secretary of Local 29, but said from his viewpoint, the meeting did nothing to change his feelings about a union.

“Two years ago, I would have probably at least not had my mind made up. There might have been a conversation; but at this point, I’m not interested,” he said.

Now, he believes, he has the loyalty of his current workers. “This is the best, most enthusiastic group of workers that I’ve ever had. They work tougher and they are truly a team,” he said.

Still, Perkins remains baffled by what hit him on Feb. 27, 2015.

“To this day,” he said, “I don’t know what I would have done differently.”

Columbian Business Editor