UNDER NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES, Pulte Homes' annual shareholders' meeting in Birmingham, Mich., on May 10 would have been uneventful: The builder declared a 4-cent quarterly dividend, and its CEO, Richard Dugas, lamented sodden market conditions.

But the meeting unexpectedly became a forum for workers and union organizers protesting unsafe working conditions at Pulte's job-sites in Arizona and Nevada. Company officials cried foul. “This is part of an ongoing harassment campaign” that began in Phoenix and Las Vegas last summer, says Pulte spokesman Mark Marymee.

About 30 workers and union reps flew into Michigan to state their grievances about safety, hourly pay, and healthcare benefits, as they hadn't made much headway exacting concessions from Pulte's subcontractors, specifically Arizona's dominant HVAC contractor Chas Roberts, as well as contractors Bean Drywall and Metro Valley Painting in Arizona, and Hutchins Drywall and Burnham Paint and Drywall in Las Vegas.

“This is not a union or nonunion issue; it's a civil rights issue,” insists Manny Gonzalez, a marketing rep for the Phoenix-based Sheet Metal Workers International Association, which accuses Chas Roberts of withholding safety equipment and denying medical attention to workers hurt on the job. Victor Diego, organizing director for Phoenix-based District Council 15 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, says his workers' “most critical” demand is for water and safety masks on the jobsite.

Marymee counters that Pulte “fully supports” safe working conditions and has been recognized by OSHA for its jobsite safety in Las Vegas. Gonzalez and Diego deny that their ulterior motive is to organize workers in two markets where neither union has penetrated the residential construction sector. Robert Masciola, deputy director for the AFL-CIO's Center for Strategic Research, adds that if Pulte and its contractors continue to resist change, the unions will take their message to the public.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Phoenix, AZ.