Robert Chenoweth photo
Members of Teamsters Local 673, ProBuild employees gather in front of ProBuild’s Yorkville facility. They are striking for a reasonable labor agreement with the company.
By Robert Chenoweth
As the strike entered its second week, International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 673 union workers in Yorkville received the support of many other unions and Teamster locals in the Chicagoland area, reinforcing their determination to reach a fair labor agreement with their Denver, CO-based employer, ProBuild.
At the rally on Aug. 5, representatives from the Fox Valley Building & Construction Trades Council, the DuPage County Building & Construction Trades Council and IBT Locals 179, 301, 330, 700 and 703 came out in a show of solidarity. Perhaps the most impressive and inspiring sight was Teamsters Joint Council 25’s 18-wheel tractor and trailer, with the Teamsters name, motto and logo emblazoned on both sides of the trailer and two American flags on the tractor’s front bumper. Union members holding picket signs lined both sides of the street and on Route 47 in front of the Yorkville building materials facility that was owned by F.E. Wheaton until it was purchased in late 2005 by the company known as ProBuild.
In a little over a decade, ProBuild, a construction supply company, became the nation’s largest supplier of building materials to professional contractors, builders and project-based consumers by buying successful regional lumber, drywall and building materials companies across the United States. As a wholly owned subsidiary of privately held, Boston-based Fidelity Management and Research, commonly known as Fidelity Investments—itself one of the world’s largest mutual fund companies—ProBuild certainly has the financial resources to continue growing.
According to ProBuild’s Director of Marketing, Carolyn Atkinson, of ProBuild’s 470+ locations nationwide, 30 locations, or about 6 percent of their facilities, are union shops. Despite that low percentage, the 55 striking employees and Local 673 members are undeterred. Many of them have worked at this location for up to 20 years, when it was the family-owned business, F.E. Wheaton. They were a union shop then, too.
In conversations with striking production workers and delivery drivers, all believe things like quality and working conditions changed for the worse when ProBuild bought the company.
One 10-year production employee who didn’t want to be identified for fear of reprisal remarked, “When we were F.E. Wheaton, quality—quality materials and quality workmanship—was emphasized. When ProBuild took over, everything changed. They stopped using 100 percent hardwoods and started using a lot of “MDF” —medium density fiberboard—the cheapest product available. And instead of quality, the name of the game became increased production and saving money—cutting costs. Quality doesn’t matter here anymore.”
“I’ve been with this company for five years. I’ve watched what this company’s become. [Quality] has gone downhill since ProBuild came in,” said Jason May, a delivery driver who worked for the company when it was still F.E. Wheaton. “We get on-site with a delivery and the carpenters are screaming at us about material quality and we can’t do anything about it.
“MDF is a cheaper way to go. I wouldn’t say it’s worse [than hardwood], but we end up replacing a lot of it. If a solid wood door jamb gets wet, sand it down and paint it. It’s still good. If an MDF jamb gets wet, it’s ruined.”
I noted that May had been a company employee for five years and asked him if ProBuild had given him anything in recognition of his service. “I’ve been here for five years and what did the company give me? A picket sign, that’s what!” he laughed.
Managers, salesmen and “scabs”—five union-represented workers crossed the picket line the first day—are driving trucks delivering materials to ProBuild’s customers. When asked who was doing the production work while the regular millworkers were on strike, Atkinson replied, “We have a talented staff of employees both at the Yorkville location, the Wheaton location and surrounding locations that have helped ensure our operations are proceeding as normal.”
But Matt Ankram, a delivery driver with nearly five years of service as an employee, disagrees. He’s been picketing across from where the delivery trucks depart and return, and he thinks ProBuild’s current operating efficiency is more like 10 to 15 percent. “What they’re pulling out of here in a week, we do in a day, day and a half. Management is figuring out what we do every day and there’s no way they can do it.”
As further proof, Ankram said that since the strike began, the company started renting smaller-sized trucks from U-Haul and Idealease to make deliveries instead of using the tractor-trailer rigs like he drives because ProBuild’s managers and salesmen don’t have the commercial driver’s licenses and medical cards that the state of Illinois requires tractor-trailer drivers to have.
Robert Chenoweth photo
Teamsters Joint Council 25 semi-truck sits outside of the ProBuild facility in Yorkville where Teamsters Local 673 members are on strike.
Roger Kohler, secretary-treasurer and principal officer of Teamsters Local 673, added, “I believe local managers are telling corporate that they can get [the work] done, and my guys who’ve worked here 20 years are telling me they’re not getting it done—not even close. They’re operating at maybe 20 percent right now.”
But even if ProBuild were operating at 50 percent efficiency right now, it would not compare to the efficiency they need to and could be at if their striking workers could get back to work. There’s not a man on the picket line who wouldn’t rather be working, but they say they simply cannot and will not accept the current contract being offered by ProBuild management.
“ProBuild actually said this was their last, best and final proposal,” Kohler explained. “After this was voted down overwhelmingly, we went back to the table—federal mediation over 10 hours—and they made another offer with only slight changes. My men still voted it down overwhelmingly. On July 28 when we voted that, we went out [on strike].”
ProBuild released a statement to the press that read, “ProBuild has proactively worked with the leadership of IBT Local 673 and a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in an attempt to present a mutually acceptable solution to our represented employees that reflect the challenges of our industry. Nearly two weeks ago, union employees voted down our contract offer. ProBuild remains committed to working with the IBT Local 673 leadership to come up with a resolution. In the interim, ProBuild continues to provide a full range of services to our customers and there has been no interruption to production or deliveries to the customers served by our Yorkville and Wheaton, IL locations.”
There appears to be some confusion about when the next meeting between ProBuild and Local 673 will occur. Replying to an emailed question, Atkinson stated, “ProBuild remains committed to working with the IBT Local 673 leadership to fashion an amenable resolution and have scheduled additional meetings.” Her response did not specify when the meetings were scheduled to take place.
“We have asked for a meeting date and they have yet to respond with a date. They know how to get ahold of us,” said Kohler, noting that he had sent two letters to ProBuild management requesting a meeting date. “This is the ninth day of the strike and we haven’t had a meeting. That’s not our fault. There’s a disconnect between what’s going on here and corporate. And I think the managers here don’t want to tell them how bad it is.”
Earlier last week Local 673 filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that ProBuild is not bargaining in good faith. However, since there is no set time limit on determining if a violation occurred, a ruling could take weeks or months.
As stated in last week’s article, the union believes the proposed contract removes workers’ protections and security in what they have in the way of health insurance, pay protections and working conditions. Although there are many key elements on which the two sides differ, there are four particular issues ProBuild is pressing that make no sense to Kohler.
“Strike protections, labor-management committees, approval of work rules, inspection privileges do not cost you money. But seniority [rights] costs you money. They want to cut seniority. They say they need to be competitive in the market, but none of the first four things I mentioned costs them money. Why do they want to radically change them so much in their contract? They’re trying to remove the union protections away from the members,” Kohler reasoned.
Last Friday, Aug. 6, tactics turned ugly when Local 673 Business Representative Javier Najera was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing, then released, by the Yorkville police. ProBuild alleges he was up against a fence on company property taking pictures of their facility. Najera says he was taking a break walking through a bean field listening to music through headphones.
Let’s hope both sides can get back to concentrating on the bigger business at hand before the situation gets any nastier.
Robert Chenoweth’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.