Pickets for Hire Raise Homeless Activists’ Ire

Today’s Washington Post reports on a phenomenon that, while not new, strikes some as counterintuitive — pickets for hire used by activist groups and labor unions.

Although their placards identify the picketers as being with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters, they are not union members.

They’re hired feet, or, as the union calls them, temporary workers, paid $8 an hour to picket. Many were recruited from homeless shelters or transitional houses. Several have recently been released from prison. Others are between jobs.

“It’s about the cash,” said Tina Shaw, 44, who lives in a House of Ruth women’s shelter and has walked the line at various sites. “We’re against low wages, but I’m here for the cash.”

This may strike some as exploitative, but in fact the union is offering a job to somebody who needs one and the latter accepts it. So far so good. The problem — the wisdom of picketing aside — is that the same unions doing this would not tolerate similar hiring practices by other employers, mainly profit-making companies.

John Boardman, executive secretary treasurer of UNITE HERE local 25 in Washington, said the issue of who the picketers are is less important than why they’re there. “Let’s focus on the message — that there are people in this building that are working for substandard wages and benefits,” he said.

“Substandard” as defined by whom — and compared to what, $8 an hour with no benefits? Imagine Boardman’s outrage if an employer said, “Let’s focus on the product and services we’re providing” — yet that’s no different from his statement to focus on “the message,” the delivery of which is the service the paid picketers are providing.

Union officials’ hypocrisy here is bad enough, but even worse is the condescending attitude of “homeless advocates.”

Some activists for the homeless are unhappy with the practice of paid picketing. They say it amounts to using people down on their luck rather than giving them a hand up. Ingrid Reed, who coordinates job placement and housing at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter, said the money the unions pay picketers would be better spent on training or apprentice programs that teach skills.

“These jobs won’t pay the rent,” Reed said. “If they’re out there every day Monday through Friday, when are they looking for a job?”

But what do the picketers themselves say?

Several picketers said they see the time spent on the line as one of the few legal ways they are able to earn money.

William R. Strange, 41, said he started working as a for-hire picket two years ago when he lived in a homeless shelter on New York Avenue. He is now paid $12 an hour because he plays the buckets during the demonstrations.

A few months ago, after a day’s picketing across from the National Geographic Society at 17th and M streets NW, Strange went inside and filled out a job application. He now loads trucks for National Geographic’s warehouse at night. He still pickets during the day.

This is not an endorsement of picketing — or pickets for hire — but this story does raise two important questions for both union officials and self-styled homeless advocates:

1) If the deal that the Carpenters union (the only one to use pickets routinely) offers to paid picketers, is that same deal good enough for other employers?

2) If homeless advocates really want to get the homeless back on their feet, should they be dissuaded from taking what work they can, or does someone else know what’s in their best interest better than they do?

(Thanks to Neil Hrab for the Washington Post link.)