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Editorial: Green shame on the carpenters union?

April 7, 2010

By Frank Schier
Editor & Publisher

Let me make my bias clear here. This paper supports YouthBuild, and its Executive Director Kerry Knodle is a friend of several people in the office, including myself. We have brought Drs. Bob and Sonia Vogl, president and vice president of the Illinois renewable Energy Association and our columnists, to YouthBuild; and they have contributed their expertise on many green issues at no cost to YouthBuild. This paper contributes around $9,000 worth of display and classified ads to YouthBuild each year, just as we contribute to other not-for-profits with lower rates or outright complemintary ads, as are YouthBuild’s ads. More than 20 YouthBuild students came to help us paint the front room of our office recently, and while we had a blast, they were very professional. I was proud of them. They were proud of themselves. I smile every time I think of that day, and look at that newly-painted room. Yes, I’m a big fan of YouthBuild; it works, just ask the kids.

A teacher of difficult kids, especially me, my mother was a union leader, as was my brother and sister. I have never thought I’d see the day when the one union I really respected from what I have learned about them through newspapering, the carpenters’ union, would make me question the basic tenets of the union movement.

They say you become what you hate. Unions fought the dominance and intimidation tactics of corporations’ ruling class, and now I can’t see much difference between the two. The carpenters want to rule absolutely.

 Carpenters Local 792 has filed a complaint with the City of Loves Park, and Loves Park backed out of the contract with YouthBuild to “deconstruct” the old Patterson Lumber Building. That backing out is not surprising. As this paper has noted many times as a potential conflict of interest, the Nicolosi & Associates law firm represents Loves Park, and they’re also real estate developers with an arm called The Buckley Companies. They have to deal with unions; go figure.

 Carpenters Local 792 has filed a complaint against YouthBuild with the Illinois Department of Labor about wages paid.

 Carpenters Local 792 has filed a federal lawsuit against YouthBuild in the Northern District’s Eastern Division in Chicago, rather than the Western Division in Rockford. That’s an old tactic—“make ’em travel; cost ’em time and money,” seeking a $48,000+ award against this not-for-profit organization, YouthBuild.

 Now, Carpenters Local 792 has filed Freedom of Information requests with the City of Rockford on a Green “LEED Certified” house Comprehensive Community Solutions is building at Rockton Avenue and Whitman Street. Looks like another complaint or lawsuit.

It seems like the carpenters are really gunning for YouthBuild, a not-for-profit organization that is trying to bring Green practices to this area and educate our disadvantaged youth that Green saves the planet and money for all people. 

Now, those kids are learning the lesson of the real green and justice. That translates into “Gr$$n” for “just us,” and the minority kids and the environment are apparently opponents to the carpenters. This really surprises me.

I know some of the fellows who are in the carpenters union and in their leadership who used to work for YouthBuild, and I consider them my buddies and friends of the efforts YouthBuild makes to recover the lives of minority kids and bring them back into mainstream society. I hope there are no old axes being ground there.

Knowing them, I’m shocked. I’m shocked about the questions raised by the juggernaut of legal actions against a not-for-profit trying to make the area around its offices on South Main Street better. YouthBuild has reclaimed a building at Morgan and South Main that probably would have been torn down. It has preserved the adjacent old Mott Brothers facilities for its reuse center. Both of those buildings would probably be torn down or look like many others in the tattered rail yards up the street. YouthBuild saves kids, buildings and neighborhoods. They build.

Here are some questions. Could the brand-new homes and even a subdivision YouthBuild has built on the west side be considered competition by the carpenters? Could the rehabbing of empty shells of houses and commercial buildings be considered competition by the carpenters? Could those buildings, as living centers for real people rather than empty lots, be considered competition by the carpenters? Does the indisputable fact that all those buildings are not overflowing our landfill come to be considered competition by the carpenters? Could the indisputable fact that deconstruction saves and reuses quality materials come to be considered competition by the carpenters—or their friends?

Are the carpenters acting as point men for the other BIG unions and BIG companies that make BIG dollars with BIG diesel-guzzling and fume-spewing cranes and BIG trucks that rip a BIG hole in neighborhoods’ architectural history and dump it in a BIG money-makin’ landfill?

Dang. I don’t think those fellers wanna see this Green-reuse-deconstruction thang bein’ done by punk kids gettin’ outer hand. That’s ignorant.

That ignorance also brings out the question of race and minority participation for the carpenters. On the other hand, I’ve always said one of Knodle’s major problems in this community is that he is not an African-American. If he were, he’d get more support from the African-American community he strives so hard to help. I wonder if they’ll finally come out and help him?

That ignorance also brings out the question of anti-environmentalism and construction jobs at any costs, even if it extremely damages, intimidates, and pushes back advances made in the Green movement.

Sprawl first for our jobs and the future last because we have ruined the future quality of life for those who are children now. Shortsighted. Shortsighted.

The maxim, “Measure twice; cut once,” means not wasting materials and ultimately time to do the job twice. It means craftsmanship and pride in your work. Is the membership proud of what their leadership is crafting as their reputation in the minority community, the green community, the not-for-profit community—the community that believes in what’s fair? Are all of these BIG people proud of picking on LITTLE YouthBuild?

In our schools, we are supposedly against bullies. What about in real life? The YouthBuild kids who couldn’t make it in schools are finding through the efforts of the carpenters that they probably won’t make it in real life, either.

This massive litigation by the carpenters UNION will come close to destroying YouthBuild. The BIG IRONY is that it will cost jobs. Not union jobs, mind you, so that’s OK.

When the Loves Park deconstruction was shut down, three young African-Americans lost their jobs, as did their one fellow Caucasian worker. Their supervisor will be laid off this week. Since the loss of the $20,000 contract with Loves Park represents a $60,000 to $80,000 loss (estimated on sale of the reuse, reclaimed materials and reflective grants) to YouthBuild, even more folks will lose their jobs.

Let’s talk structure, so you can understand the bottom line here. The overall organization is Comprehensive Community Solutions,  founded in 1995; that’s 15 years of service to the community. AmeriCorps/YouthBuild has always been a program of that overall organization. AmeriCorps/YouthBuild is part of a national jobs-for-disadvantaged-youth program started by President Bill Clinton, a BIG union supporter. Comprehensive Community Solutions acted as a not-for-profit developer for approximately 110 units of housing in Rockford in 15 years, garnering grants and contracts from the City of Rockford and Winnebago County. They’re quite legitimate.

For the last 10 years, CCS Construction, LLC was the for-profit subsidiary of Comprehensive Community Solutions. Knodle said that the stupidest thing he did was use the same initials from the not-for-profit for it’s for-profit subsidiary, as shown by the carpenters trying to prove they are the same organization.

You see, CCS Construction, LLC actually employed union carpenters, apprentices and contributed to their pension fund for 10 years. They built the majority of those 110 housing units.

CCS Construction, LLC recently filed bankruptcy because of the economy’s overall slow-down in construction, generally, both in the residential and commercial market. Not to mention banks pulling lines of credit, everywhere. So all those jobs and pension contributions are now gone.

In the past 15 years, Comprehensive Community Solutions’ program AmeriCorps/YouthBuild enrolled 655 students and graduated 430 students. That’s much better than the 50+ percent dropout rate of our public schools that couldn’t handle these kids in the first place. Of the majority of units of housing built by the for-profit subsidiary, 43 were built primarily by YouthBuild students.

So the carpenters, apprentices (many were YouthBuild kids) and pension payments are gone. The carpenters want to make sure kids don’t do their jobs. That’s the payback for 10 years of work, instead of sitting down and saying, “How is this going to work in the future? Will the for-profit side come back? Can we work out a deal with the not-for profit side about what people are paid?

 Knodle admits clarification will be made by the Labor Board of Relations ruling on past wages paid. But as he told our reporter, “The federal lawsuit is nothing but punishment. That has nothing to do with how, or how much, the workers get paid. That is trying to extract, essentially, a $50,000 fine out of a not-for-profit corporation. So, there’s nothing clarifying about a federal lawsuit. That is pure retribution.”

Adding injury to injury, then there’s the threat to the Green house in another poor neighborhood. Then, let’s not forget the big blowup over four jobs and a $20,000 contract to take apart an old lumber yard and use it constructively again.

This is a chilling blow to any Green deconstruction, not only in Rockford, but its effects will be felt across the entire state, particularly by the extensive Green efforts in Chicago. Will unions stop the Green movement? The challenge to the Green house on Rockton Avenue could also have the same effect.

More layoffs will be coming at YouthBuild, and they are all affecting Green efforts on a very basic level in poor neighborhoods.

We need to elevate the discussion. Little people are getting run over by a big machine that’s destroying Green. That’s very bad for any union’s image and for all the “Green job creation” connected to new federal money and the future. All in all, if the carpenters union continues to be a bully, more jobs will be lost, not gained, non-union and union. Rockford will continue to move backward in green time, losing for our youth, our unions, our environment, and our future.

All unions are truly concerned with all of the above. I’d love to hear they called Knodle and his staff and said, “Let’s get out of court and sit down at the table.” I’d like to give my respect back to people I know deserve it, but they stumble from shortsightedness. They need to measure twice again.

 From the April 7-13, 2010 issue

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