December 3, 2008
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
When it comes to union clout and political muscle, it's hard to beat the Carpenters.
But Mike Prate may have done exactly that -- to the tune of $10 million.
Ruling of Arbitrator James P. Martin
Prate, who spent his childhood in an orphanage and foster homes, learned early to be tough. At 20, he was shingling roofs. By 1972, he opened a roofing company, Prate Installations, in Wauconda. By 2002, he had $30 million in annual revenue.
But then came the war with the Carpenters Union.
"I'm not anti-union," Prate said Tuesday, "I work with four unions every day."
Before 1998, the Carpenters allowed roofing work to be done by "the piece," that is by the job rather than by the hour. But in contract negotiations of 1998-2001, the then-head of the union, Earl Oliver, fought with Prate and others to make all companies pay hourly rates.
So Prate began paying hourly but quickly learned that Oliver and union leaders were letting some companies still pay the cheaper piecework price.
Prate raised hell. Oliver shot back that he'd put Prate -- and three other companies that protested -- out of business. It turns out that Oliver, who died not long ago, was true to his word. The three other companies were driven out of business by union pickets and other stop-work actions.
But Prate fought back. And gathered evidence. And went to court. And ultimately into binding arbitration.
If you want to read the decision of arbitrator James P. Martin, it's a great read. Martin, who is 82 and has 44 years of experience arbitrating more than 3,000 cases without ever being reversed, wrote the following:
"Mr. Prate would be a very unlikely candidate for work as an adviser to a charm school. . . . However, his record in this matter is truly impressive: years of fighting the union, at great cost and with little success, and an indomitable determination not to be walked upon." Martin found "Mr. Prate to be true and honest," with a mound of evidence to back him up. The union leadership, he determined, "vindictively makes Prate unequal" to other companies.
After 18 days of testimony, Martin awarded Prate an unheard of $10 million in damages and gave permission for it to, once again, pay piecework.
Why? Because the Carpenters Union didn't police its own contract, played favorites with Prate competitors, and in the end shafted its own members who not only got less pay but, as a consequence, less money was socked away in their trust fund.
This notion of leaders failing their members infuriates Frank Libby, president of the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters, who -- when we met last week -- said it untrue and "a vendetta on Mike's part."
As readers of this column know, I've had questions about the Carpenters' leadership ever since I reported the tale of young Andy Ryan in 2004. Ryan was a 19-year-old kid who miraculously got a $50,000 job in the Daley administration as a building inspector. Nevermind that the union vouched for credentials the kid didn't have. Nevermind that his dad, Tommy Ryan, was a union honcho. Nevermind that three unqualified others, thanks to the Carpenters' clout, had gotten jobs with the city that should have gone to journeymen carpenters instead.
It was a scandal. It was the subject of testimony at the federal corruption trial of Mayor Daley's patronage chief, Robert Sorich.
But in the end, none of the leaders of the Carpenters Union, including Tommy Ryan, was ever fired or disciplined.
When I raised the Ryan case, Libby told me, "We didn't come here to talk about that."
The union is appealing the arbitrators' ruling. Their chances of winning, experts say, are slim to none.
But the real losers?
Rank-and-file carpenters whose leadership played games, not just with Prate, but with their contract.
This could be the stuff of class actions.