City Beat

Carpenters union points finger at downtown businesses

Nicholas Wray, a Sacramento photographer, stages a counter-protest on Thursday to carpenters union demonstrators upset that a building that will house a new Insight Coffee is being constructed with non-union carpenters.
Nicholas Wray, a Sacramento photographer, stages a counter-protest on Thursday to carpenters union demonstrators upset that a building that will house a new Insight Coffee is being constructed with non-union carpenters. RYAN LILLIS/rlillis@sacbee.com

First he came for the organic kale at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op. Now the Grim Reaper wants your espresso and smoked trout sandwiches.

Local 46, a carpenters union, uses a 15-foot Grim Reaper doll to protest companies that don’t use union carpenters. You’ve probably seen this prop, his bony finger pointing into traffic outside small businesses and downtown skyscrapers. His sign always warns that his target hurts families, workers and communities.

The Angel of Death showed up at the Co-Op last spring. The carpenters were feuding with the grocer over its decision to use nonunion carpenters in the construction of a new store in midtown. But the protest failed.

In recent days, the carpenters turned their attention to Insight Coffee and Magpie Café. The popular businesses are planning to move into 16 Powerhouse, a modern apartment building at the corner of 16th and P streets nearing completion.

Magpie and Insight aren’t building their new digs; they’ll simply be tenants. Bay Miry, the developer building 16 Powerhouse, said the project didn’t receive big public subsidies and therefore wasn’t required to use union labor. But he said his workers are getting “standard market-rate wages” and are being treated fairly.

The union isn’t buying it. In a lengthy written statement, Scott Littlehale, a Local 46 spokesman, said Insight and Magpie haven’t demanded that carpenters building the new shops get paid wages and benefits meeting area standards. “The people who construct the buildings that are the bones of our community won’t sit idly and watch the middle-class American dream slip away,” he wrote.

Workers’ rights are a big issue in Sacramento. City leaders are contemplating raising the minimum wage, and unions with varying agendas protest outside the Capitol all the time.

Chris Ryan, co-owner of Insight, said he’s received messages from customers who are refusing to go to his shop. “A few have told me they don’t cross picket lines, they support unions,” he said. “But it’s grossly misleading. What do (union officials) want me to do? Who are we hurting?”

This campaign received a lot of attention on social media and from Ryan’s customers. It’s moved one guy to stage his own counter-protest.

Nicholas Wray is a photographer with a studio across 10th Street from Insight’s downtown shop. He spent much of last week standing in front of union protesters while holding a sign with a line through the word, “Bullies.”

He was there Thursday, waving to passing drivers as two union demonstrators stood with their backs to him. “This isn’t fair,” he said. “The owners (of Insight) have nothing to do with what they’re protesting.”

Insight is the target today. By next week, the Grim Reaper will probably have found someone new.

Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at sacbee.com/citybeat.

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