Union Too Busy to Walk the Line

Even unions are outsourcing now—but instead of going overseas, they are looking down the street and hiring homeless people.

By: Garrett M. Graff, Lucia Graves

You’ve probably heard the panhandler refrain “Will work for food.” How about “Will picket for food”?

Even unions are outsourcing now—but instead of going overseas, they are looking down the street and hiring homeless people.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, which broke from the AFL-CIO four years ago, is hiring homeless people to march and chant at nonunion construction sites.

Outside DC’s National Press Building, protesters with bright yellow sandwich boards marched in a circle, chanting.

“Capitol Drywall pays low, they gotta go!” The rally, repeated daily for weeks, targeted Capitol Drywall, a non­union company hired to build a broadcast studio for the National Press Club, the building’s largest tenant.

For the work, the unions are paying men like Armando Franklin just above minimum wage—and no health benefits—but it is welcome work nonetheless.

“When we get out of the shelter, most people just sit around in the park. The recruiters know where the shelters are, and they come to sign us up,” he says.

A demonstrator near MCI Center, Nicey Howards, says the temporary protesters earn $8 an hour for up to a union-instituted maximum of 20 hours a week, bringing “home” $160.

“You can make more if you stand in the middle of the circle and lead the chants,” Howards says but adds, “Your voice gets real tired.”

Why turn to the homeless to picket? The actual union members are busy elsewhere in the booming area construction market.

“Work is good, and our members are working,” says George Eisner, head of the union’s regional council in Baltimore. “This is just the best thing for us to do at this point.”