The picketers marching in a circle in front of a downtown Washington office building chanting about low wages do not seem fully focused on their message.
Many have arrived with large suitcases or bags holding their belongings, which they keep in sight. Several are smoking cigarettes. One works a crossword puzzle. Another bangs a tambourine, while several drum on large white buckets. Some of the men walking the line call out to passing women, "Hey, baby." A few picketers gyrate and dance while chanting: "What do we want? Fair wages. When do we want them? Now."
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."
Carpenters locals across the country are outsourcing their picket lines, hiring the homeless, students, retirees and day laborers to get their message across. Larry Hujo, a spokesman for the Indiana-Kentucky Regional Council of Carpenters, calls it a "shift in the paradigm" of picketing. ...
Supporters of the practice consider it a creative tactic in an era of declining union membership and clout. But critics say the reliance on nonunion members -- who are paid $1 above minimum wage and receive no benefits -- diminishes the impact and undercuts a principle established over decades of union struggles.
"If I was a member of the general public, and I asked someone picketing why they were there, and they said they don't work for the union and they were just hired to stand there, that wouldn't create a very positive impression on me, nor would it create a very sympathetic position," said Wayne Ranick, spokesman for the United Steelworkers of America. ...
The United Brotherhood of Carpenters is the only union that routinely hires homeless people for its picket lines, union leaders and labor scholars say. It targets locations where work such as carpentry and drywall and floor installation is done without union labor. In a June newsletter on the union's Web site, the union's president and chief executive, Bill Halbert, referred to the pickets as "area standards campaigns." ...