The shame game
Union pickets Insight Coffee Roasters and Magpie. Loyal customers fight back.
Starting in late December and continuing this past week, a 15-foot-tall Grim Reaper has been visiting Sacramento businesses. Death is bringing his friends, who in turn bring a banner shaming businesses for hurting workers and families. Two men typically pass out fliers while Death stoically looks on.
In recent weeks, Grim has appeared in front of the offices of D&S Development and Tricorp Hearn Construction. But he’s gotten a lot more attention for showing up outside businesses that will be moving into a new Midtown mixed-use apartment project: Magpie Café on R Street and at Insight Coffee Roasters’ multiple central-city locations.
This robed reaper is theatrical, but his message is very serious: The picketers argue that Magpie and Insight are hurting labor workers and the Sacramento community. A banner drives the message home in red caps, “Shame on them.”
But is it all true? Customers see the reaper standing out front of Insight on Eighth Street, pointing a bony finger. If Death likes his coffee black, he’s probably not getting it here, so why are these union workers targeting local businesses?
“We’re not protesting. We’re passing out information,” one picketer told SN&R. “It’s all on the flier.”
The flier claims that the general contractor building the new Insight location at 16 Powerhouse, a mixed-use apartment building near P and 16th streets, “isn’t paying Carpenter Area Standard wages and benefits on all jobs, all the time.”
The personal mobile-phone number of Chris Ryan, president of Insight, was included on one of the picketing fliers. He was happy to talk about the protest.
Ryan says Insight intends to lease a space in 16 Powerhouse, but that his business has “no control whatsoever over the construction of the building.”
“We are a small local business with strong community support that is not a primary party to the issue,” he explained.
Tony Moayed, CEO of Tricorp, which is overseeing the construction of 16 Powerhouse, says the demonstrations began the day after Local 46 arrived at his office claiming employees weren’t getting paid.
An email from the state Department of Industrial Relations explains that Pacific Wallboard, which Moayed said was one of about 40 other subcontractors on the Powerhouse site, had failed to pay its employees. Tricorp then terminated its contract with Pacific Wallboard and assumed responsibility to compensate the wages, even though Tricorp had already paid the subcontractor in full, Moayed claims.
But the Local 46 carpenters union representatives who came to Tricorp wanted $57,000 for the workers, Moayed added. Tricorp opted to settle through the state DIR and ultimately paid $43,437.16 in unpaid wages from September 15 to October 7, 2014, according to DIR records.
“Throughout this process, Tricorp has been extremely cooperative,” DIR spokesman Peter Melton wrote in an email.
So, if the issue was settled in early January, why is the carpenters union continuing to demonstrate in front of Magpie and Insight?
Local 46 spokesperson Scott Littlehale said the bigger issue is that his union wants “businesses to be sure that the buildings they occupy are built by contractors that meet area wage and benefit standards, and employ highly trained craft-persons on all their jobs, all the time.”
Tricorp hasn’t employed unionized subcontractors for the 16 Powerhouse project, but Moayed insisted his company offers “the same benefits as any union contractor.”
“We pay according to the market and experience [and] if I don’t pay people enough, they’ll leave and work for somebody else,” he said.
Bay Miry, partner of 16 Powerhouse Investors LLC, pointed out that the state had “determined our project was not subject to prevailing wage or union wages, and that basically it was a market-rate project.”
Regardless of the wage debate, Magpie and Insight “have absolutely nothing to do with the case,” Miry argued. “This really has nothing to do with our tenants, and we and our contractor have been proactive in resolving this from the first day we even heard about this.”
Local 46 wouldn’t elaborate on why it is zeroing in on tenants in the 16 Powerhouse building, though Littlehale widened the issue. “It’s common knowledge that the American middle class is embattled and has been eroded,” he wrote in a statement. “A healthy middle class is key to a healthy community.” With that in mind, Littlehale insisted that local businesses “have a moral and economic responsibility to require [area wage and benefit standards].”
It is questionable whether or not the Local 46 demonstrations effectively communicate the wider issue, let alone the issue at hand, which involves 16 Powerhouse. When Local 46 claims that businesses like Insight and Magpie are morally and economically responsible for contractors to provide standard area wages, it raises the question: What are the degrees of separation between a business and its responsibility for standard area wages?
Because Magpie and Insight are popular locally owned businesses, images of the Grim Reaper picketing their storefronts began showing up on Facebook and Twitter last week. “There is a court of public opinion, and we believe that 98 percent of people are in our camp,” Ryan said of the conversation on social media.
Employees at Magpie also took to counter-protesting the carpenters union last Friday.
When picketers showed up that morning with a sign shaming the restaurant, nine of its workers stepped in front of Local 46 protester’s sign. They held a banner, which read “Magpie is not a crime,” and gave the union picketers a thumbs-down sign.
A few blocks away on Tenth Street, local photographer and downtown Insight regular Nicholas Wray stood out front with union protesters for hours last week, holding a sign that read “I [heart] Insight.”
Insight’s Ryan says he remains confused by the protests. “How is Insight hurting workers or the community?”
Many other Sacramentans are asking the same thing.