Union blitzes local builder

A labor union has mounted a significant media campaign against a big local contractor, and a Clark County commissioner has entered the fray.

The Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters launched a television and Internet campaign last week against nonunion construction company Pete King Nevada Corp., running a series of 60-second network-television spots during morning news programs. The carpenters also built a Web site and created a 71/2-minute YouTube video with a comment from Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins.

The carpenters say they want to protect workers, but Pete King President Bruce King says he believes the union just wants more members.

The labor group accuses Pete King of poor safety practices, pointing to two on-the-job deaths and more than 150 actions the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has taken against the contractor in the past decade. It also argues that Pete King flouts labor law, hiring illegals to perform drywall work on the cheap and refusing to pay overtime. Its Web site tallies up a series of construction-defect cases involving Pete King.

"Construction work is dangerous, and so when a company doesn't make sure that all the safety training is applied and all the safety provisions provided, that makes it worse," Collins comments in the YouTube video.

Collins wouldn't comment on his appearance in the video. Nor did the union return calls seeking additional insight into the campaign's purpose.

But the group's ads ask people to stop doing business with Pete King until the company addresses what the union calls dangerous and unfair labor practices that jeopardize workers and give Pete King an edge over competitors.

"Until they stop cheating the system and start treating every worker fairly, don't hire Pete King," the video intones.

Bruce King sees a simpler impetus driving the campaign. He said he thinks the carpenters want to unionize his company, which has hundreds of employees and is one of Nevada's largest contractors.

King said the ads "make my blood boil," because the information they convey is false or incomplete.

The union regularly sends OSHA out to Pete King job sites to harass the company, said King, who added that the company has a full-time safety director and an "excellent" relationship with OSHA. OSHA writes up even small violations: A slightly worn power cord, for example, or a worker's radio that lacks a ground plug. What's more, King said, the union's OSHA numbers reflect companywide activity and include multiple Pete King subsidiaries, including a unionized division in Arizona. He also pointed to deaths on union projects such as CityCenter and said no contractor is immune to job-site fatalities.

As for the labor-law allegations, King said the union backed a lawsuit for nonpayment of overtime in 2008, but the group dropped legal action after Pete King produced records detailing employees' overtime pay. And construction-defect lawsuits are "unfortunately a way of life now in the residential construction industry," King said. Such lawsuits have even ensnared union-built projects on the Strip, he added.

"They're trying to shame me. But people know me," King said. "I'm very active in the community and very active politically. People know how we treat our employees. They know the kind of work we do, and they know we play by the rules. I sleep well at night."

Karen Boroff, a labor expert and dean of the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, said highly public union campaigns are more about swaying public opinion than organizing. Unions hope to line up supporters -- suppliers, the general public, politicians. The spots also carry an implicit threat to other companies: Treat workers badly, and you might be the next ad subject.

And though it's common for politicians to tacitly support unions by, say, refusing to give speeches inside ballrooms at nonunion hotels or declining to cross picket lines, Boroff said she hasn't ever heard of a politician appearing in an ad siding with a union in a specific dispute.

"I'm not sure if it moves the meter. If you don't believe in the union, a politician coming on TV isn't going to change your mind," Boroff said. "People who didn't have a position on the issue might be taken aback. It doesn't appear to be as neutral as you'd expect from a government official."

Union publicity campaigns have benefits and drawbacks. On the up side, if the claims are legitimate, the ads can call attention to potential workplace violations.

But they can force people on either side of the debate to dig in. Also, taking so public a position gives a union less room for negotiation later. Some members might also question use of their dues to pay for an expensive blitz against a specific company. Plus, if the business suffers economically, people could lose their jobs.

"You can't get into an end game where you destroy the employer, because people are going to be out of work whether they're union or not," Boroff said.

It's not the first time a union has protested Pete King.

In December 2007, the District Council 15 Painters and Allied Trades Union picketed outside Mira Villa condominiums, a Pete King job site in Summerlin.

Bruce King has resigned himself to periodic battles with unions. But he plans to fight back this time. His company is preparing a Web site to counter the union's page. He added that the AFL-CIO is running ads that support Pete King's Arizona operation.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.