Labor Dispute. Workers assemble a home made from modules produced by Blu Homes, the California-based manufacturer that has run afoul of Carpenters Union Local 180, which accused the company of unfair labor practices.

Photos: John Swain/Blu Homes

Labor Dispute. Workers assemble a home made from modules produced by Blu Homes, the California-based manufacturer that has run afoul of Carpenters Union Local 180, which accused the company of unfair labor practices.

The contentiousness between the modular manufacturer Blu Homes and Carpenters Union Local180 spilled onto the sidewalks outside the Moscone Center in San Francisco on Thursday, where 100 people affiliated with the union protested Blu, which was exhibiting inside at the Pacific Coast Builders Conference.

That afternoon, Builder confirmed that the National Labor Relations Board had dismissed "the majority" of the charges of unfair labor practices the union had filed against the home module supplier. The case remains open, however, as NLRB is still looking into a "couple" of charges, says Tim Peck, assistant to the director of the board’s regional office in San Francisco. He wouldn’t disclose which ones, but said NLRB would post its determinations within the next few days.

Builder was unable to reach Jay Bradshaw, an attorney representing the local union, whose headquarters is about a mile from Blu Homes’ factory in Vallejo, Calif. In a phone interview, Blu’s cofounder Maura McCarthy asserted that few if any of her company’s 150 employees now want union representation, and suggested that the union had filed numerous complaints as a delaying tactic "because it knows it wouldn’t win a vote."

A few weeks ago, the union had requested that the NLRB postpone an election about representation—which would include a secret ballot and NLRB monitoring—because the union didn’t think the vote could be conducted fairly at Blu’s factory, says Peck.

Renovation Ruckus

As this standoff comes to some kind of head, two questions linger. How did Blu Homes’ liberal-leaning officers end up drawing organized labor’s ire? And does Local 180 actually represent the wishes of Blu Homes’ workforce?

For answers, start with the Port-a-Johns.

Last Fall Blu Homes relocated from Massachusetts, where it was founded in 2008, because its owners saw greater opportunity for its energy-efficient modules out west. With new private equity backing, the company acquired a 250,000-square-foot submarine plant on the former Mare Island Naval Base in Vallejo, Calif., and initiated an extensive rehab of the building. However, it had trouble getting permits to redo the factory’s bathrooms, which forced employees and management to use portable facilities for several months after the plant opened in December.

This market welcomed Blu Homes, which received more than 1,000 applications for its first 50 job openings. But the bathroom inconvenience may have sown seeds of discontent among Blu Homes’ workers, admitted McCarthy. So when Local 180 came knocking last winter, it probably wasn’t surprising that 38 of 45 employees signed a petition saying they favored union representation.

McCarthy insisted that she and co-founder Bill Haney don’t oppose unions. In fact, before starting Blu Homes Haney had gained a reputation as a progressive environmentalist and unionist supporter. A documentary film he made, titled "The Price of Sugar," shows Haney waxing rhapsodic about the unionization of Haitian sugar workers in the Dominican Republic. Haney can also be seen in another documentary, "The Last Mountain," castigating the energy company Massey Ferguson for "destroying" the miners’ union.

But something happened between his progressive past and the petition his company received from the carpenter’s union in April. A few days after receiving the petition, Blu Homes hired Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, a Pittsburgh-based law firm notorious for defending anti-union clients. (You can download a power point presentation entitled "Union Avoidance Plans" from the firm's website.) McCarthy claimed that Blu Homes hired Ogletree solely because the wife of one of Blu’s employees had worked for that firm. She denied that Blu Homes chose Ogletree because of its expertise in defending clients against union activities, but also said that Blue Homes didn't consider other firms.

Local 180 eventually filed at least 21 unfair labor complaints against Blu, according to NLRB’s Peck, the most serious of which being that the manufacturer had intimidated and fired employees because they supported union representation. Those charges triggered a Category 3 investigation by the NLRB, the level at which the board can allocate money for its inquiries.

The local union also set up a website, The Price of Blu Homes, which parodies the title of Haney’s documentary and which provides a list of its charges. The site claims that a second petition on April 11 "reaffirm[s] the desire [of Blu’s workers] to be represented by the carpenters union. From that day forward, workers at the Blu Homes plant have been subject to harassment, verbal threats, and firings."

McCarthy denied that her company engaged in any harassment or intimidation. She said Blu Homes’ management spent "several weeks" talking to employees and the plant’s management to gauge any discontent.

The bathrooms are now completely remodeled, she said. And except for "one or two" employees who had complaints about how they were being treated, she said the employees did not corroborate the union’s allegations. "We started to feel that this hyped-up petition wasn’t driven by our workers." However, during her interview with Builder, McCarthy referred several times to Rob Kranenberg, the company’s vice president of operations, on whom she and Haney appear to have relied heavily to assess the situation.

Looking to Grow

McCarthy said that Blu Homes’ management is "open minded" about unionization, and would accept a "legitimate" vote by its employees. But it remains to be seen if that vote will ever take place, especially if Blu Homes can resolve any residual issues with NLRB.

In response to one union complaint—that Blu Homes doesn’t offer its workers a retirement plan—McCarthy and company spokesman Madeleine Mcguire said that none of the company’s employees or managers has a retirement plan. Depending on its profitability, Blu Homes is considering offering stock options and a 401(k) plan, which could happen within the next 18 months. Blu is adding a second production line and wants to increase its workforce to 200 people by the end of the year. It expects to build modules for about 100 homes in 2012.

John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA.