By Ben Jacklet
Juan Sanchez of the carpenters union leads a demonstration at a Lake Oswego building project. The union is taking an aggressive position against underground labor in the construction industry.
// Photo by Anthony Pidgeon
Juan Sanchez is dressed for work in jeans, hard hat, reflective vest and steel-toed boots. But he won’t be hanging any drywall today or pounding any nails. Instead he will be driving from one construction job site to the next throughout the Portland area, looking for cheaters.
Sanchez, a 33-year-old representative of the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, grew up in Acambaro, Mexico. He arrived in Portland 10 years ago with a green card but no English; he couldn’t even order food at a restaurant. He worked a variety of informal, cash-only construction jobs: up at 5:30 a.m. and home by 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday, paid in cash under the table. The workers were mostly Latinos like him; the bosses tended to be white. The money seemed good until he tried to live on it, and he didn’t like not having benefits or rights.
Sanchez joined a union apprenticeship program in 2005, when construction was booming in Portland, and graduated in 2007. Now he spends his workdays attacking the same underground economy that he worked in when he first came to Oregon. “For me, it’s personal,” he says as he programs job site addresses into his GPS unit. “I mean, I’m lucky. I make pretty good wages. I have medical, dental for me and my family, vacation and pension. But what about my kids? Will they have this later? I have to fight to preserve what we’ve gained. Every working person deserves a little bit of the profit.”
The problem is, there isn’t as much profit to go around in the construction industry as there used to be. Activity is picking up slightly but jobs are still relatively few, earnings are down and competition is fierce. The number of union carpenters in the Northwest has dropped from about 25,000 to below 20,000. Concurrently, the Latino presence in the trades has grown dramatically, nationally and in Oregon; a 2008 Pew Hispanic Center study found that Hispanic workers fill two of every three new jobs in the U.S. construction industry. Many of those jobs have moved underground as the federal government has shifted from workplace immigration raids to strict audits of employers suspected of hiring undocumented workers.