Union slams Costco's construction process
The Ironworkers Union says Costco did not give local firms the chance to bid on work in Kapolei
Costco Wholesale Corp. has built a reputation for itself as the prototypical worker-friendly company -- the touchy-feely version of its main competitor, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
But a dispute brewing on Oahu threatens to tarnish Costco's image, particularly in Kapolei, where the company is planning to develop a new retail location.
The problem, ironically enough, involves workers.
Leaders of the Ironworkers Union Local 625 are up in arms about what they say is Costco's plan to bring in a mainland firm and mainland workers to build structural steel columns and beams for its warehouse store. Local firms were not even given a chance to bid on the project, said Joseph O'Donnell, business manager of the local union.
"Costco wants us to spend our money buying products in their store, yet they won't share the construction work with us," O'Donnell said.
Costco could not be reached for comment yesterday. The company's chief financial officer and media spokesman, Richard Galanti, was out of the office. And the person to whom Galanti's office referred queries, Therese Wontorek, did not return calls. Michael Chu, a local Costco consultant, declined to comment.
Still, the matter has gotten the attention of the Makakilo/Kapolei/Honokai Hale Neighborhood Board, which was planning to hear an update from Costco last night. The company has a contract with the Estate of James Campbell to acquire a parcel on Kapolei Parkway but has not closed on the deal, said Theresia McMurdo, a spokeswoman for the estate.
Before the meeting, the board's chair, Maeda Timson, said she had spoken to Costco representatives, who told her local workers were not shut out but could sign up to work on the project with the out-of-town contractor. Timson said she would seek clarification at the board meeting, which took place after press time.
Timson said she shared the concerns of other board members, who, while not ardent union supporters, nonetheless supported local workers and businesses.
Timson echoed O'Donnell, saying, "If you want them to shop there, you certainly should give back."
Enmity from organized labor would seem unusual for Costco, which has a reputation as an especially good place to work. In a report last year, socialfunds.com, a Web site for socially conscious investors, reported how Costco had won accolades from labor advocates for "wage and benefit packages that are amongst the best in the retail industry."
But the roughly 2,000 members of the local ironworkers union are not so pleased with Costco, O'Donnell said.
Despite a boom in construction, and the general impression that all construction workers have more work than they can handle, O'Donnell said the iron workers still have gaps between projects. That's in part because the work is highly specialized, limited largely to building iron frames, metal staircases and steel reinforcement systems that bolster concrete for high rises.
O'Donnell said that local companies had not even been give the chance to bid on the Costco contract, which he estimated could be worth as much as $1 million.
"We're not saying, 'Hey, you must use a local contractor to do this work.' We understand this is a free country," O'Donnell said. "But when they don't allow you the opportunity to go in there and give it a shot ... then I think that's wrong. And we haven't even had a chance."