At 6:15 a.m. on Friday, April 20th, the back parking lot of the Staybridge Suites in Vancouver, Washington is filled with work trucks parked in between vans with Texas license plates. A three-tower silo pour for Untied Grain’s expansion project at the Port of Vancouver is nearly complete, and many of the out-of-town laborers and guest workers on visas are staying at the hotel. After three more vans pull in, dozens of hungry, tired men climb out, wearing reflector gear, hoodies and cement-stained clothes, home from a 12-hour graveyard shift.
Peter, 26 and from south Texas, says he’s only been with Younglove since March, but he makes $14 per hour pushing wheelbarrows, installing rebar and finishing cement. Last weekend, he withstood the cramped, 48-hour van ride from Texas to Vancouver to work on the slipform operation. Workers and their driver made the trip without any overnight stays, only stopping at rest areas, he said.
Worker two, who will be kept anonymous because he’s here on a work visa, has spent the last five years traveling between Nuevo Laredo, Mexico and Younglove’s silo-construction projects around the US. He estimates that for the silo pour at the Port of Vancouver, close to 150 people are staying at the hotel, and he believes approximately 30 percent of those workers are here on labor visas. He also makes a point of saying that Younglove managers treat them well, even though the four-men-to-a-room accommodations mean each worker shares his bed with the cement laborer manning the opposing shift.
Worker two adds that no one on the crew ever gets to meet the subcontractor who arranges their work. He says their checks come from Younglove, but they don’t get paid until they return home to Mexico and their checks arrive in the mail.
A third worker, 62, with a handsome weather-lined face and bright, energetic eyes — even after pouring cement for 12 hours — says he and his family live back in Monterrey, Mexico. He’s traveled and worked with Younglove performing slip pours for 20 years but still makes the same $14 per hour wages as the other workers. He says he works 52 weeks per year and hasn’t had a vacation for 15 years because he hopes to retire soon. He says Younglove pays into a retirement plan for him.
At the hotel, each worker must pay for his own discounted meal. Breakfast buffets are $3 each. “It’s nice to have a full house,” says the hotel clerk, taking cash and passing back breakfast tickets.”These guys are a lot of fun,” he adds
While hungrily eating a breakfast of eggs, fruit and pastries, worker two describes his role on the slipform pour, “I am a laborer, cement-finisher and carpenter,” he says.
“The work can be scary,” Peter says. At 100 or 200 feet, the growing towers have open edges and Peter says he sometimes feels afraid of the height, even while wearing protective gear. “We don’t have injuries, though, because we watch out for each other and we pray,” he says. “We pray at night, and we pray during the day, but right now many of us could use a massage.”
At times he worries about local workers who want his job, Peter continues. “The union wants to steal our jobs, but you know what defends us? You know why they can’t take our jobs away from us? The quality of our work. We build excellent silos.”
And while the quality of the visitors’ work may be very good, in a town where building-trade workers across the board have unemployment rates ranging from 19 to 50 percent, many local workers, union and non-union, feel that they are the ones being robbed. “Everyone is wondering how Younglove is getting away with not hiring local workers when the grain elevator is on port property,” said Roben White, Executive Board member of Southwest Washington’s Central Labor Council.
Dan Coffman President of ILWU Local 21 has been wondering the same thing. “I think there needs to be some serious oversight over companies who come into a community and bring their outside work forces in on labor visas, or bring in right-to-work state workers who lower our wages. These corporations are building facilities paid for partly with our taxpayers’ money.”
But unlike the jurisdictional dispute between ILWU and the operating engineers during the recent EGT-ILWU labor dispute, labor activists do not blame the guest workers for accepting work offered during scarce times. They blame the contractors for harming the local economy. “I know we are all workers,” Coffman added. “We all work for a living, and who knows the conditions these workers are living under? They aren’t protected like American workers because they live under constant threat of having their visas revoked if they complain about any labor practices. ”
Marco Mejia, a labor activist with Jobs for Justice in Portland, also cautions those in labor disputes to correctly name the guilty parties. “It’s better to look at the corporations,” he said. He said he can’t speak about Younglove specifically, but in general, corporations often contract with subcontractors who bring guest workers into bad conditions, he said. “They use the guest-worker system. And the system is very unjust. They bring people here and pay them very low wages and often keep them in very bad conditions.”
It’s a workers’ rights’ issue for both local and guest workers, Mejia continues. “The issue is keeping the contractors accountable for what they are doing. At the end of the day, the workers don’t matter to contractors. What matters is how to make money. When they cannot outsource jobs, they bring workers in. On the other hand, corporations outsource jobs because when they go to other places, to China or South America, they pay the employees a tenth or a twentieth of what they pay them here.”
According to Sharon Rummery, Public Affairs Officer for the United States Citizens and Immigration Service (USCIS), employers can apply for a wide variety of visas that allow guest workers to do manual labor in the US. Some visas must be applied for on a person-by-person basis but “for an H-2A visa, for example, you can petition for up to 1000 workers at once.”
Another visa given to workers doing manual labor is the H-2B visa defined by The Department of Labor on their website: “The H-2B nonimmigrant program permits employers to hire foreign workers to come temporarily to the U.S. and perform temporary nonagricultural services or labor on a one-time, seasonal, peakload or intermittent basis.”
Also according to their website, The Secretary of Homeland Security must consult with many agencies before admitting H-2B non-immigrants. The employer must first apply for temporary labor certifications attesting that “(1) there are not sufficient U.S. workers who are capable of performing the temporary services or labor at the time of filing the petition for H-2B classification and at the place where the foreign worker is to perform the work; and (2) the employment of the foreign worker will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.”
According to Rummery, after the employer receives their labor certification, they attach it to the visa application before sending it to a USCIS office. “Immigration services does adjudicate immigrant and non-immigrant work-related visas,” Rummery said, “but we adjudicate them once the Department of Labor has issued a labor certificate certifying that there are not sufficient American people in the area who are trained and available at that moment.” The Department of Labor must certify that fair wages are being paid, she said.
Tony Flagg, vice president of business development for United Grain, the corporation that owns the grain elevator, said there are not enough workers in the Vancouver-Portland area qualified to work on the type of continuous slip pours used to build grain silos. “This is a unique construction activity,” Flagg said. “You build a slipform and you build a metal framework in that and then you pour cement in it. What’s unique about it is that as that cement dries, you jack the slip up, kind of like you jack up a car, but instead of jacking it up six inches, you’re going to jack it up 100 or 200 feet.”
Michael Guntsch, President of Younglove, described the continuous slipform method from his office in Sioux City, Iowa. “The slipform process was developed 100 years ago to be an economic way of pouring silos for grain and other commodity products. The best way to do that is to continuously place concrete and reinforcing in the inserts that are required in the walls’ openings.”
He described the slipform method as a “monolithic pour.” Stop-start pours cause cold joints, he said. “A cold joint is where you stop a pour and start another pour right next to it . . . Those can be sealed up, but you prefer not to have to do that . . . It’s real attractive to have no cold joints.”
Flagg said that forms are raised an inch an hour as cement is poured into the frames. “You slowly pour this silo, and as it dries, it supports its own weight,” he said. “What’s unique about that from a labor basis is that you have to pour this on a 24-hour basis. You can’t stop or you will have integrity issues . . . When you start up your crew, they all have to be knowledgeable, and they all have to work together so that they can keep up with the pour.”
Many knowledgeable union leaders who have worked in the cement business for decades strongly disagree with Flagg’s claims. “We do all phases and skills of concrete work, so the silo is nothing new to us,” said Brett Hinsley, Business Manager for Cement Masons Local 555. “For all concrete masonry in general, you have to work in unison. Cement is a timed product. From the time that it’s batched, it’s on a timer. Because the cement is setting, you have to work in unison as a team so that you can get a good finish. . . you don’t get a do-over.”
“The work is hard. You’re on your feet,” said Roben White. “You’re running up and down scaffolding. You’re pushing wheel barrows full of concrete. You’re operating large pieces of manual equipment. You’re finishing this concrete with hand tools and power tools as it’s drying for twelve hours. It’s grueling work, but there are a lot of people right here in our community that would die for that work.”
Hinsley also disputes the claim that moving forms an inch an hour takes a specialized labor force with skills local workers don’t have. “It’s not anything out of the ordinary to move forms one or two inches every hour — concrete finishing is difficult, physical, hard, dangerous work anyway, whether it be a bridge or a high-rise building or any building or highways’ construction project — or a silo.”
Hinsley maintains that working continuous slip pours on highway construction gives workers exactly the skills they need to work on grain silos. “Concrete is a live product and it’s gonna get hard and you only have a certain amount of time to do it. You are basically shaping and molding and finishing the surface of the concrete.” He said that pouring grain silos is no different than pouring a bridge deck. “Other than it’s a different shape . . . You still have to work around heavy equipment. You still have to work around heavy traffic, you still have other hazards.”
While describing the slip-pour process used to build grain elevators, Younglove President Michael Guntsch also compared the work to highway construction. “Just like a highway,” Guntsch said. “When you create a highway, they have slipform machines that do horizontal slipping.” Some cold joints are intentionally placed in highways for expansion purposes he said, “but they don’t want to have them all the way through. So it’s a continuous slip-pour process for certain lengths of the highway road. It’s very similar to that concept. One’s horizontal and ours [grain-silo slip pour] is vertical.”
Dan Coffman said he worries about how guest workers are treated and wonders how contractors are getting away with not using local workers on property owned by tax payers. “Our local workers have been sitting on the bench for a long time without a job, and we are allowing foreigners to come in and pour cement? It doesn’t take a highly-skilled workforce to pour cement. We have a lot of people in this country that can do that. We’ve built a lot of structures in this country with American workers. The Hoover Dam, all the dams on the Columbia River, the older grain elevators that are still here right now. We built those. Our workers built those.”
Jeff Washburn, President of the Cowlitz Wahkiakum Central Labor Council, said that contractors have been getting away with bringing in their own labor forces to towns with plenty of skilled workers for far too many years. “I don’t know how they are doing it,” he said. “It doesn’t show up under any kind of a public works’ contract because it’s all privatized. These contractors can get real sneaky about who is doing certain things.” He said that contracts are written in ways that allow large corporations to lease public land but avoid paying prevailing wage on construction projects. “But they have all been made aware that everyone is watching them. We’ve sent letters to Kalama, to the port directors and the engineering companies back in Minnesota.”
“Most of the companies come into communities and ask ‘what can you do for me?’ ” Coffman said. They get tax breaks, they get concessions, and then, on top of that, they get to bring in a labor force that is basically not standard. We’re racing toward the bottom, and we’re allowing these corporations to basically do whatever they want. By using out-of-state labor from right-to-work states, and foreign workers on labor visas, they are displacing a lot of people that live in our country. They are taking away our citizens’ right to work. It’s pretty much unconscionable.”
“I really feel for the building and construction trades,” wrote ILWU Local 21 member Kyle Mackey in an email. “They consistently face attacks that my own union hasn’t had to deal with up to this point in time . . . We need to educate and make it crystal clear to all that the use of modern-day slave labor and the driving down of working conditions and wages is simply wrong. For me personally, the motto ‘An injury to one, is an injury to all’ extends beyond my own work place and into the entire working class. It’s been proven throughout history that if you don’t stand up for others, someday you could be in their shoes and nobody will be left to stand up for you.”
Coffman said he knows exactly why companies avoid hiring local workers. “What they’re after is a work force full of cheap labor. That’s what drives capitalism in this world. That’s why we are losing our manufacturing jobs to China and India and Mexico. The reason contractors bring in outside labor is pure and simple—a cheaper work force to do the labor. They can pay half the wages, and no benefits whatsoever.”
Roben White wants the Department of Labor and the USCIS to revamp their visa-granting processes to make hiring practices fairer for American workers. “We know that what these visas were originally intended for is no longer working. We know that workers are being displaced. We know that it’s bringing local area wages and benefits down.”
White also suggests that guest workers might not be properly taken care of because they lack the labor rights’ protections American workers have. “We know that with the guest-workers’ visa programs, worker protections are either non-existent or just non-effective. If these guys are on a visa and they get hurt, all the company has to do is say ‘we’re going to patch you up, and here’s a couple of thousand bucks. Now go home.’ They just evaded having to pay more on workers’ comp. They just evaded having to make sure the guest worker is whole. If the worker says anything about the injury, company managers can say ‘Well, if you say anything, we’re just going to pull your visa anyway, and you won’t have anything.’ ”
Coffman said that when cement workers weren’t getting jobs promised by EGT during the construction of Longview’s new grain terminal, he advised labor leaders about actions to take. “They needed to be proactive and stay ahead of the curve on this. Before EGT was built we had two or three labor forums in Longview, and we told the laborers exactly what they needed to go and do. They needed to go and put up pickets and stand up for their jurisdiction. It seemed like everyone sat on their hands. I got the feeling that they wanted ILWU to lead the way, but at that point, because we were listed in the lease agreement, and we were still going to negotiate a contract with these people, we didn’t feel any need to burn the bridge for the ILWU before we got to it. It’s really sad what these contractors did to our community.”
And labor activists in Vancouver learned much from the recent labor disputes in Longview. Dave Ritchey, Business Representative for Vancover Laborers Local 335 said that during Younglove’s March slip-pour operation, he threw up a picket that completely shut down the Port of Vancouver for half a day. And more recently, on Thursday, April 19th, more than 100 longshore workers refused to cross a picket line put up by Concerned Citizens. According to White, the picket earned “a 9-police-car and 2-motorcycle-cop success rating while local labor activists protested corporate abuse of the citizens of Vancouver and the State of Washington.”
Ritchey said United Grain and their contractors should have to follow federal labor laws and pay prevailing wages because they are building on public property. “If the company was to move, the Port of Vancouver would own the grain silos. It’s just like renting a house. If you build a deck, the deck stays; you don’t take it with you. You’re improving the property for the owner, and that’s basically what United Grain is doing for the Port of Vancouver.” But even if they aren’t required to pay prevailing wages, they should still hire local workers so our community can benefit from their own land, he said.