You first saw it while driving west down Dodge Street and wailing along to the Stones or Springsteen or Swift.
Then you glanced right. You did a double-take. You quit singing.
It is a giant sign, a banner really. In blood-red block letters, the banner says:
“Shame on Archdiocese of Omaha.”
That first time, you whizzed by and you stared back at the sign through your passenger side mirror.
“What the …?” you thought.
That question is exactly why I'm at a Village Inn in South Omaha.
I am not here to eat pie.
I'm here to meet the man behind those “Shame On” signs that have sprouted all over the city in recent years.
I'm here to meet the man behind those signs that scold yogurt stores and pediatric clinics, Catholic leaders and chicken-finger providers, without really explaining why.
I'm here to meet Shame Guy.
“Hello,” says Richard Marshall, shaking my hand and smiling warmly. “Nice to meet you.”
Marshall is the local business rep for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters.
The regional carpenters union represents two smallish unions in Omaha and one in Wahoo. Even taken together, these unions aren't particularly big: roughly 900 members in eastern Nebraska.
The union fights for things that unions fight for: higher wages and better benefits for its members, and regulations meant to make the workplace safer for union and nonunion carpenters.
And this particular union also fights for something it calls the “area standards campaign.”
In the construction industry, a company building at a new location or doing a remodel often hires a general contractor who hires subcontractors who, in turn, hire various kinds of carpenters.
In most instances, this happens in a manner completely acceptable to the Shame Guy.
When it does not, when Richard Marshall and other union leaders believe carpenters are being treated unfairly, out come the big signs.
“This is brought on by owners cutting corners and wanting to do construction projects as cheaply as possible,” Richard says after we order coffee from our friendly, nonunionized Village Inn waitress. “What's the easiest way to have a cheap job site? Not pay workers a fair wage. Not give them benefits. Pay them under the table. Pay them in cash.”
Of course, there is another side to this story, one that is told in court cases and by business owners: The union is simply trying to force contractors to hire its union's employees, they argue. Nothing more or less.
Either way, you can read the end result in giant, blood-red block letters.
Shame on Raisin' Canes. Shame on SAC Federal Credit Union.
Shame on Cherry Berry.
Shame on a total of eight businesses sprinkled throughout Omaha.
“We're educating the public about what's going on,” Richard says.
Well, kind of.
I got out of my car and skulked around a couple of the “Shame On” signs recently, and it's actually pretty hard for a member of the public to figure out what's going on.
Firstly, the signs themselves express only shame and, in much smaller type, announce the general phrase, “Labor Dispute.”
The two or three workers positioned behind the sign wouldn't talk to me much beyond a general exchanging of pleasantries and a look that said, “Why is this strange redheaded man bothering us?”
There's a reason for this: The union instructs the sign holders not to speak to passers-by even when they ask about the sign.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Why? Because the sign holders aren't themselves members of the union. They are actually part-time employees — part-time employees who are paid hourly and don't receive benefits.
I quizzed Richard about the sign-holders' compensation, seemingly at odds with the reason behind the signs.
“We pay higher wages than the guys holding up the signs for Liberty Tax,” he says. “We set the standard for banner carriers.”
The mute banner carriers will — but only if prompted — hand you a pamphlet that describes, in a bit more detail, the rationale behind the “Shame On” signs.
The attention grabber is the illustration at the top: It's a giant rat. A giant rat chewing on the American flag.
At the bottom, you can find the phone number of the business being shamed.
So I did the obvious thing: I called the number listed for the Archdiocese of Omaha.
Deacon Timothy McNeil, chancellor of the archdiocese, says he and the other church officials were mostly confused the first day the “Shame on Archdiocese of Omaha” sign went up in front of their headquarters at 62nd and Dodge.
McNeil and a priest walked out to speak to the people holding up the sign and ask them what was going on. The sign holders wouldn't answer, instead handing them the flier that features the rat chewing on the American flag.
The flier made church officials a little mad: The construction project that the “Shame On” sign is protesting is actually being done by a subcontractor hired during a St. Pius X renovation project at 69th and Blondo Streets. The archdiocese headquarters has virtually no say in that renovation, McNeil said.
“They are standing on the wrong street corner, but maybe that's the purpose,” he said. “It's a high-traffic, high-volume street corner. I don't know if the accuracy of the protest is the goal.”
A funny thing happened as the “Shame On” sign and its minders continued to show up in front of the archdiocese every day at 9 a.m. The weeks stretched to months. The seasons changed.
And the “Shame On” sign started to seem a little like the trees and the bushes planted outside. Oh so weirdly, it has become part of the landscape.
“It's been here over a year now,” McNeil says, and I can practically hear him shrug over the phone. “We haven't had one phone call.”
Now when you drive west down Dodge Street, you don't stop singing to the Stones or Springsteen or Swift. You don't even look over.
The sign has lost its ability to shock, to spark debate, to do what Richard Marshall and his regional carpenters union intend.
For better or for worse, the shame is just … gone.