More than 200 union carpenters showed up at Lee's Summit City Hall on a recent Tuesday. Some rode Harleys. Some brought children. Almost all of them wore T-shirts protesting a deal that the City Council was about to make.
The carpenters mustered in the parking lot, giving the council members who arrived for that night's meeting a glimpse of what lay ahead. No car hoods took a beating, though. As they entered the building, Dave Wilson, an organizer at the Carpenters' District Council of Kansas City & Vicinity, assured Councilman Allan Gray that peace would prevail. "We told our guys: best behavior," Wilson said.
The carpenters had come to express their displeasure with a loan proposal, of all things.
In 2006, the Lee's Summit City Council approved tax-increment financing for a shopping center called Summit Fair, near U.S. Highway 50. Organized labor usually supports such deals because development means work for union members.
This time, though, the union didn't think the developers were hiring enough of its members. The loan protest was really a hiring protest.
The carpenters are motivated by self-interest, to be sure. But the union's fight with Summit Fair owner RED Development goes beyond labor versus capital. In a way, the union is putting TIF on trial — and some of the evidence is pretty ugly.
The carpenters union, along with the Ironworkers Local 10, became angry when Summit Fair "went vertical."
RED Development chose contractors from outside the region to build significant portions of the mall. A contractor in California put up the steel. A Georgia company is performing the framing and drywall.
The unions complain that out-of-town contractors look attractive because they bring in workers who are willing to toil for less than prevailing wages. "The local workers are being left out in the cold," Wilson says.
RED officials, in turn, say the union shops' bids were simply too high.
The dispute played out in typical fashion. Ironworkers camped outside RED's office near the Plaza with a banner criticizing the contracting decisions. This we've seen.
The Summit Fair fight escalated when RED asked the city of Lee's Summit to provide an $8.8 million loan so that the company could pay off an existing bank loan.
The carpenters, hoping to take advantage of populist outrage, took to calling the loan a "bailout." Union officials even made a 10-minute film to illustrate the effects of RED's contracting practices. In one scene, an unemployed union carpenter, Mike Helms, moves forlornly about his garage. Helms tells the interviewer that it's where he goes to get out of his wife's way.
RED officials reject the notion that the loan is a bailout. Managing partner Dan Lowe told the council that the loan was "not a gift" but an advance of funds that the council promised when it approved the TIF plan. Without the injection of cash, Lowe said, construction would have to stop.
The carpenters argue that RED is using the city's creditworthiness to obtain a loan with a below-market interest rate. And in addition to making the point that area residents had been deprived of jobs, Joe Hudson, political director of the carpenters union, suggested to the council that RED had sought to opt out of the "risk" half of the risk-reward equation.
The council chambers looked like a basketball arena on a night when the fans wear shirts of a particular color (in this instance, white). When it was time for public testimony, a carpenter who lives in Lee's Summit approached the microphone. He was holding the hands of his young daughters. "These are the ones who are affected when I don't go to work," he said.