A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Protesters outside Ritsema Construction sites.
Protesters outside Ritsema Construction sites.

Dégagé Ministries provides a “safe, Christian alternative to the streets” for many hard-luck cases living in the Heartside neighborhood of downtown Grand Rapids. With an $850,000 annual budget, it helps provide blankets, meals, shelter and more for those who can’t provide these necessities for themselves. Dégagé is currently funded entirely by private donations and not government help, according to executive director Marge Palmerlee.

One of those private donors is Ritsema Associates, a construction contractor headquartered in nearby Grandville.

“Your company has supported us both financially and with numerous in-kind donations for which we are very grateful” wrote Palmerlee in a recent letter to Bill Ritsema, president of Ritsema Associates. She felt moved to write the letter because some Dégagé patrons are being hired by Big Labor bosses as part of an “aggressive public information campaign” aimed at trashing the reputation of Ritsema Associates.

Though hired by the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters to hold up signs and pass out fliers denouncing Ritsema all over the city, few of those doing the demonstrating have ever been carpenters at all and don’t appear to have any clue that the company they are protesting has generously supported a local ministry that often provides a safety net for them specifically or people like them.

Starting this summer, the MRCC began to hold daily demonstrations outside of the businesses, hospitals and schools that hire Ritsema to do construction work. None of Ritsema’s employees are MRCC members, and the union does not claim to represent the employees of his customers. Yet, the MRCC says the demonstrations are part of a “labor dispute” directed at Ritsema because of the MRCC’s assertion that the company does not pay “area standard wages.”

The union does not provide any factual evidence to support this charge. And, given that they do not appear to represent anyone involved the business transactions that they are attempting to interfere with, they have also provided no explanation for why they should be considered an authority on what the pay scales should be. As noted in a previous MichCapCon.com story on this matter (see “Fake Dispute: on page 17 of this issue), nearly 80 percent of Michigan’s construction workers are non-union, making it unlikely that the MRCC is an accurate source of data regarding what a “standard” wage for the work should be.

Ritsema is aware of no labor dispute with any of his employees, whom he calls a “great group of guys,” and says that since his father founded the company in 1955, no effort has ever been made to unionize its workforce. He suspects that the “standard wages” accusation by the MRCC isn’t really the issue, noting that the MRCC started making trouble for him shortly after he successfully outbid unionized contractors for a job in Indiana.

“This is one of the most bizarre, one of the most disingenuous campaigns that we have seen anywhere in the country,” said Chris Fisher, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan. “It is based on zero facts, and it is really shameful to see the lengths to which these union bosses are willing to go in our state.”

ABC-Michigan is a subsidiary of a national trade industry group for merit shop (non-union) construction contractors.

Palmerlee agrees with Fisher.

“It’s sad that they can come in and spread lies about a company that has been around for years and years and is reputable,” she said. “They care about the community. Ritsema has been a wonderful partner with us.”

An MRCC member managing one of the crews of demonstrators confirmed that demonstrators against Ritsema are paid hourly wages by the union.

“That’s so ironic,” says Palmerlee. “Nobody who is picketing is an actual carpenter, and they’re paying them a flat rate per hour to walk the picket line. Where are the actual carpenters?”

Palmerlee says the ministry does allow local employers to come into the facility and recruit day laborers, but that such recruiting is limited to work that is clearly “helping” and not “hurting” the community. She says that this ability to be choosy is one of the best things about being a private institution. So when the union asked to recruit in their building so as to “picket a local company,” Dégagé drew the line and refused.

In her 13 years of working with and helping Dégagé patrons, Palmerlee says she has never seen anything like this happen before.

“It really baffled me. I still find it appalling that the union would come in and do that.”

Undeterred, the MRCC appears to have approached and recruited Dégagé’s patrons while they were outside of its building. Palmerlee is very clear that her patrons have a legal right to take the jobs and that it is not her role to discourage them from making money if the union is offering it.

However, when asked about the role of the carpenters union and what it is paying her patrons to do to one of her ministry’s very good friends, she has another take:

“It’s legal,” she says. “But it’s despicable.”
(See related story "Michigan Carpenters’ Union Constructing a Fake Dispute.")

The original version of this story was posted online on Feb. 16, 2011.

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