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Union protests Kraus-Anderson subcontractor

Jim Hickey, left, a representative of the Carpenters Industrial Council, and two helpers who refused to give their names hold up a banner on Anne Street Northwest near North Country Regional Hospital Friday afternoon. The Carpenters Industrial Council objects to a Kraus-Anderson Construction Co. subcontractor working on the new housing construction near North Country Health Services Neilson Place. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

An organizer from the Carpenters Industrial Council set up a banner - "Shame on North Country" - on Anne Street in front of North Country Regional Hospital.

The protest began Wednesday, and the union organizer, Jim Hickey, said he intended to continue his activities next week.

But the protest apparently has little to do with North Country Health Services or the Catered Care and Memory Care Senior Housing under construction near Neilson Place with Kraus-Anderson Construction as general contractor.

Jeff Iisakka, Kraus-Anderson vice president and director of operations, addressed the situation in a press release.

"The CIC apparently has a dispute with a number of nonunion businesses that manufacture and supply millwork and cabinetry for construction projects, even though the fabrication of these products is done at the locations of these businesses and not on-site at the projects," Iisakka said .

The businesses include O'Keefe, Inc., of River Falls, Wis.

"We actually invited the CIC into our building last fall, and our employees voted them out," said Brian Troska, general manager for O'Keefe, in a telephone interview. "They didn't want a union."

The CIC was chartered in 2002 by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

Troska said the CIC has been protesting at jobsites that have an O'Keefe connection ever since employees rejected the union.

"I do see that as retaliation," Troska said. "Honestly, I think that's what it is. They're trying to get us to join the union or put us out of business."

He added that the average tenure of his company's employees is 5.4 years. Troska said that indicates they are satisfied with their wages and benefits.

When asked why the CIC didn't protest at the Kraus-Anderson office in downtown Bemidji, as the complaint is about a subcontractor hired by that company, Hickey repeatedly referred to a flyer he handed out.

"I was instructed to say that's our statement, and I'm sure you can read," Hickey said.

Hickey later added in a telephone call that if his supervisor, Paul Marks, in the Portland, Ore., CIC headquarters, had more to say he would be in touch. However, the receptionist at the CIC headquarters said Marks is on vacation and couldn't be reached Friday for comment.

Iisakka said the CIC's banner at North Country Regional Hospital doesn't identify the union, Kraus-Anderson or O'Keefe, just North Country, without reference to the CIC's actual dispute.

The CIC flyer names North Country Health Services as a "Bad Corporate Citizen For Desecration of the American Way of Life," as well as "a rat," that is, a contractor that does not pay all employees area standard wages.

According to the flyer, which is illustrated with a rat chewing an American flag, the CIC "objects to substandard wage employers like O'Keefe Inc."

However, Iisakka said the CIC doesn't specify what the standard wage should be. He said Kraus-Anderson has received information from O'Keefe that shows the company pays fair wages and benefits to its employees. He also said the CIC has failed, in spite of repeated requests from Kraus-Anderson, to show that O'Keefe is not paying fair compensation to employees.

"North Country Health Services and Kraus-Anderson support businesses that pay fair wages and benefits and strongly disagree with the Carpenters Industrial Council's actions in involving North Country and Kraus-Anderson in the CIC's dispute with O'Keefe, Inc.," Iisakka said in a telephone interview.

The press release stated that the CIC's allegations are not a violation by North Country Health Services or Kraus-Anderson of any labor or collective bargaining agreement.

"Since we didn't select O'Keefe, a supplier to a subcontractor, we have great difficulty in understanding why the CIC has so unfairly tied North Country Health Services to their misinformation," said President and CEO Jim Hanko.

Troska said Kraus-Anderson bids out all contracts for subcontractors competitively for both price and quality.