So what does the leader of the region's largest building trades union think about salting? It has its uses, John Ballantyne, executive secretary-treasurer of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, said in an interview.

But let's back up to the concept of union organizing. What turns a non-union workplace into a place where workers are represented by unions?

Maybe the workers themselves join together and form a union in hopes of improving their working conditions, fighting to overcome whatever Resistance their employer may put in their way. Or maybe, for any number of reasons, the employer becomes persuaded that it's better to stand aside and let the union happen.

Either way, a process known as "salting" may be part of the equation. That's when a union sends a union member to apply for a job at a non-union workplace, perhaps to influence co-workers, perhaps with some other motive in mind.

In an Inquirer story about how IBEW Local 98 uses salting, Philip Dine, author of State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence, told my colleagues that salting is a legitimate technique necessary to combat shrinking membership and aggressive employers who use "union avoidance" consultants to prevent workers from organizing.

My colleagues, Will Bender and Craig McCoy, described how area contractors accused the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, led by John Dougherty, used salting to intimidate non-union contractors into becoming union shops, a charge the union denied.

While Dougherty and Local 98 are powerful in Philadelphia, in the building trades, carpenters have clout due to their sheer numbers. Look on any job site to see which trade is doing most of the work. That's why I asked John Ballantyne, who leads Philadelphia area carpenters from the Edison, N.J. headquarters of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, how carpenters use salts.

For context, I'm repeating what was included in the executive Q&A published in the paper, but adding more so you can gain a better understanding of his philosophy.

Here's the salting portion of interview:

Von Bergen: Sources tell us that the FBI is investigating how the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, led by John Dougherty, uses salts — union workers who try to get hired in non-union places. What about the carpenters?

Ballantyne: Most of the times we've had salting programs where union carpenters have been hired and have become, because they are skilled, leaders on those sites. Over time, they help us with investigative work.

Von Bergen: Investigating what?

Ballantyne: Misclassification of employees as independent contractors, lack of payment of the appropriate taxes, violation of labor laws, violation of OSHA laws. It takes a very courageous individual to do that type of work.

And here's what's new:

Von Bergen: Because?

Ballantyne: Because they are out of the comfort zone. They don't fall under the protection of a collective bargaining agreement. They are out there working in jobs that are not sometimes always as safe as a union job. We've developed great relationships with non-union workers who feed us a lot of information on things of that nature.

Von Bergen: Have you ever been successful in organizing a group of workers or contractors?

Ballantyne: Oh yeah, absolutely.

Von Bergen: What about the tactic supposedly used by IBEW where multiple job applicants, perhaps for just one opening, apply while wearing a union hat, don't get hired and then file NLRB discrimination complaints against the company?

Ballantyne: It's not a silver bullet. It's a way to show that the employer is discriminating against a union member.

Von Bergen: Is that a good method of applying pressure?

Ballantyne: Look, when you build an organizing campaign... Is that a good method? It's one of many methods. When you build an organizing campaign, it has to be a continuous escalation of pressure. The philosophy is if you [a non-union contractor] build a project against a union signatory, or somebody who is legitimate, we'll expose you exploiting them. And as we move forward, we would hope that the costs would level out, whether we are showing that you aren't paying the proper taxes, proper wages, things of that nature.

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