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About Northwest labor press. (Portland , Ore.) 1987-current | View Entire Issue (July 6, 2006)
...Labor dispute at Portland’s Benson Tower continues
(From Page 1)
they’re undercutting their own wages,
Newway paid Puckett $20 an hour,
with no benefits. As a union carpenter,
Think Again •
he would have made $26 an hour with
full family health insurance and pen-
sion benefits for the same work.
And that’s basically why several
unions have been active at the Benson
Tower — high-end projects shouldn’t
be undercutting area standard wages
for the skilled trades, craft union organ-
izers say. The developer, Benson Tower
LLC, hired Vancouver, Canada,-based
general contractor ITC Constructors
USA Inc. to manage construction of
By Tim Nesbitt
Yes, we can ...
make higher education affordable again
ne thing we can say about the
12,000 students who received
degrees from Oregon’s public univer-
sities this year: More than any stu-
dents who came before them, they
earned their educations.
I don’t know if they studied any
harder than my generation did when
we were in college. But they paid
much more. They worked more, bor-
rowed more and tapped a lot more of
their families’ income and assets to
complete their educations — far more
than any generation of students who
preceded them in our lifetimes.
When I went to college 40 years
ago, I got a state grant and, after my
father’s death, a need-based scholar-
ship from the university I attended.
Also, thanks to LBJ and his Great So-
ciety, I was one of the first college stu-
dents to benefit from the expansion of
Social Security to the children of de-
ceased workers. Even so, if I hadn’t
scored well enough on the test that de-
livered that state grant or if I didn’t
qualify for those Social Security
checks, Plan B would have sufficed
— I would have worked full-time dur-
ing the summer and taken a part-time
job on campus to cover my costs.
Back then, any student with the in-
terest and ability to pursue a college
education could always fall back on
his or her own Plan B. If all else
failed, and even if your parents could-
n’t help you, you could work your
way through college.
A powerful and productive state-
federal partnership made this possi-
ble. After World War II, the federal
government launched the GI Bill, and
states expanded their colleges and
universities to provide an affordable
path to higher education for more of
their residents. A generation later, the
federal government added grants and
loans to provide matching assistance
to the baby boomers who became the
second great wave of college students
after our returning war veterans.
In the 1970s, a student with no re-
sources could work full-time at a min-
imum wage job during the summer
and maybe 10 hours a week during
the school year and pay for a year at a
top-notch public university like the
JULY 7, 2006
University of Oregon. Today, that stu-
dent would have to work about 45
hours a week, 52 weeks a year, to do
Sadly, it is no longer possible to
work one’s way through college, be-
cause both sides of that state-federal
partnership have backed off on their
commitments to an affordable higher
education for their citizens.
States are charging more for an ed-
ucation at their colleges and universi-
ties and covering less of the costs. In
the 1970s and well into the 1980s, for
every dollar that a resident student at
an Oregon state university paid in tu-
ition, the state provided three dollars
for the operation of that university.
Today, for every dollar that a student
pays in tuition, the state provides only
Compounding this problem, de-
clines in federal support have shifted
even more of the costs of college to
the student and his/her family, wors-
ening the squeeze on the middle class
and discouraging many students from
low-income families from even at-
tempting to pursue a college educa-
The default option for getting
through college has become a differ-
ent Plan B — B as in borrowing. Stu-
dents graduating from Oregon State
University this year averaged more
than $20,000 in student loan debt.
Prospective students from low-in-
come backgrounds look at that num-
ber and say, “No thanks, I’d rather
work for a living and stay out of debt.”
As a result, we’re losing thousands
of students every year whose contri-
butions to our economy will be lim-
ited and whose prospects for a middle
class life style will diminish.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Even if we can’t count on any more
help from the federal government, we
can, as a state, make a higher educa-
tion affordable again by restoring the
promise made to earlier generations
— that if all else fails, you can always
work your way through college.
As a member of the state’s Board
of Higher Education, I have co-
chaired a pioneering project that re-
searched the costs and benefits of
restoring that promise. We looked at
what a student could earn working a
minimum wage job, reduced the need
to borrow, assumed a family contribu-
tion in line with the federal financial
aid model and added in the federal
Pell Grants. We crunched those num-
bers and found that about 25 percent
of our students would still be short of
covering their costs at one of our pub-
Then we asked ourselves: What if
the state became the promise keeper
of last resort and pledged to make up
the difference if a student’s work ef-
fort, family resources and federal
grants fell short of covering the cost
of tuition, fees, books, room and
board? The answers were eye-open-
Making and keeping that promise
would cost another $75 million a bi-
ennium on top of the $78 million now
budgeted for the Oregon Opportunity
Grant program — an amount equiva-
lent to 5 percent of new revenues that
the state is expected to receive from a
recovering economy over the next
Fulfilling that promise would
make college truly affordable for
43,000 Oregon students in our col-
leges and universities, 23,000 of
whom are now struggling to get by
with no help from the state.
Most importantly, promoting that
promise — telling Oregonians that
we’re going to make a higher educa-
tion in Oregon truly affordable again
by the time next year’s eighth graders
graduate from high school — can
help stir the aspirations of future gen-
erations of students whose education
will be critical to our state’s prosperity
and their personal success.
We’re not sure whether to call this
our “Earned Opportunity Program” or
“Shared Responsibility Model.” But
with Gov. Ted Kulongoski encourag-
ing our efforts and key legislative
leaders signaling support, we’re hop-
ing to call it a success story for Ore-
Tim Nesbitt is a former president of the
NORTHWEST LABOR PRESS
the $30 million luxury condo project
located at SW 11th and Clay.
Portland landowner Joe Weston,
owner of American Property Manage-
ment, is a development partner in the
ITC hired several nonunion sub-
contractors, including Newway, which
brought in some workers from
For Newway to pay less than union
contractors could give them an advan-
tage, costing union members work and
driving down wages in the industry.
In response, Carpenters and Labor-
ers — two unions cut out of the Ben-
son Tower project — launched a re-
lentless pressure campaign.
In July 2005, Puckett was the first
Carpenters salt to work for Newway.
Four others hired on over the summer:
Jason Sheckler, Jeremy Kidwell, Je-
remy Larson and John Svob.
Union organizers began leafletting
and serving lunch at the site. Puckett
talked openly about the union to co-
workers. He, Sheckler, and Kidwell
started wearing union shirts to work.
On Sept. 9, Newway fired Puckett,
saying he talked too much. Maybe they
singled him out as the ringleader. In
any case, a week later, the other salts
went on strike to protest Puckett’s fir-
ing; their picket lines were honored by
union workers from other trades, and
work on the project ground to a halt.
Five days later, they offered to go
back to work. Two were rehired but
then laid off. Others were told their po-
sitions were no longer available. The
group filed charges with the National
Labor Relations Board, which was al-
ready investigating the charge of Puck-
ett’s firing. It’s illegal to fire or dis-
criminate against a worker for
engaging in lawful union activity.
In mid-January, the two sides
reached a settlement out of court.
Without admitting guilt, Newway of-
fered reinstatement to Puckett, and
back pay to the others.
But the developer intervened. Ben-
son Tower LLC didn’t want Puckett
back on the job, and directed Newway
not to rehire him. Puckett and the
union filed yet another charge, which
the NLRB investigated and found to
Now, the union could go after Ben-
son Tower itself. Federal labor law has
detailed restrictions about who and
how construction unions can picket.
When the NLRB found Benson in vio-
lation of labor law, it meant the Car-
penters could picket Benson Tower
LLC at any of its locations. Puckett,
Sheckler, and three others began an
“ambulatory picket” of project man-
ager Andy Krebs himself. For three
days during business hours they fol-
lowed him with bullhorns and picket
signs wherever he went. Meanwhile,
union pickets, drums, and bullhorns
outside the Benson Tower condo sales
office were discouraging buyers.
Benson Tower LLC agreed to settle
the charge — allowing Puckett to re-
turn, and posting notices about work-
ers rights all over the site.
“Ultimately, we want all these guys
working on this site to be paid and
treated decently,” Puckett says.
Back on the job, Puckett was deter-
mined to press the letter of the law —
equal treatment. Newway’s decision to
keep him isolated was grounds for an-
other unfair labor practice strike.
When the pickets went up on Friday,
June 30, Sheckler said several groups
of workers — painters and structural
iron workers — walked off the job.
As of press time, the strike was still
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