After Strike, Washington Carpenters Approve New Contract by Slim Margin
Going into the vote on a controversial fifth tentative agreement, the mood among Washington carpenters who had organized for a “no” vote was uncertain.
“It was so close last time, it’s hard to say what will happen,” said Tom Nolan hours before the vote tally was announced.
“A toss-up,” said Nina Wurz.
“It’s going to be a ‘no.’ But, unfortunately, I could be surprised. Being out of work has hurt a lot of people,” said Alejandro Lucero.
If one thing is clear about the first Northwest Carpenters strike since 2007, it’s that nothing was clear from the moment it started. That includes the number of people on strike, since many job sites were excluded under Project Labor Agreements and other similar agreements. Estimates by the union ranged from thousands to hundreds back to thousands again.
But last week, Seattle-area carpenters decided to approve an area master agreement with the Associated General Contractors (AGC) after more than three weeks on strike. The contract passed with 54 percent voting in favor (2,853-2,465).
A LIGHTNING ROD
The contract approval comes after members rejected four previous versions negotiated by the bargaining team; the last one was voted down on September 11 by 56 percent.
Angry that they’re struggling to get by despite a construction boom that represents staggering wealth—Seattle ranks among the most expensive areas in the country, and many construction workers have had to relocate to far-flung suburbs—some carpenters argued the union should hold out for more.
One proposal advocated by the Peter J. McGuire Group, a dissident group that grew out of the 2018 contract negotiations, was a $15 hike in wages and benefits over three years.
The group, named after the socialist co-founder of the Carpenters, also pushed to get reimbursement for high parking costs; carpenters working in downtown Seattle are paying hundreds of dollars a week out of pocket. The group’s platform also called for stronger protections against sexual harassment.
THREE YEARS, AFTER ALL
The ratified agreement provides a wage-and-benefit package totaling $10.02 over three years, a 15.4 percent increase. The last voted-down agreement was a total package of $13.25 over four years.
This length puts the Carpenters back on the same bargaining timeline as the area’s other trades. A four-year deal would have split them off—a major source of frustration for members in the earlier agreements.
“If we had allowed that to pass, we would have lost much of what little leverage we had at the bargaining table,” wrote Art Francisco, chair of the Peter J. McGuire Group, on the group’s Facebook page.
The first tentative agreement, reached in June, would have provided $8.64 over three years. It was rejected by 76 percent.
Foreman Hank Baker voted yes on the latest deal, after voting no on the previous four.
“We weren’t going to gain [much more] by continuing to strike, and it was going to hurt a lot of carpenters and other trades not working. I decided $1.38 or whatever it exactly was, the difference between the first and fifth tentative agreements, was as good as it was gonna get this time around,” he said.
WHAT’S IN THE DEAL
On parking, the new agreement reimburses carpenters in parts of Seattle $1.50 per hour. A new parking benefit in a wealthy Seattle suburb, Bellevue—which was slated for 2023 in the previous tentative agreement—will now start in 2022.
The bargaining team negotiated retroactive pay dated back to June 1 for any carpenter who worked 40 hours per week over the last 19 weeks.
The new contract clarifies grievance timelines and adds new protections against harassment and discrimination. Another change is providing workers with union representation during any investigation into an incident of discrimination or harassment at work.
And Martin Luther King Day will now be observed as an unpaid holiday.
Members I spoke with who voted “no” on the latest agreement were frustrated with how the strike played out.
“We were sabotaged from the beginning. We went on a half-ass strike over three weeks to get pennies more,” said Nolan, a member of Local 30.
The union ultimately struck at dozens of construction sites. But no-strike agreements prevented many of the 6,600 carpenters covered by the Washington-area master agreement from walking off the job, including at Sound Transit rail lines, Seattle public schools, and the Climate Pledge Arena. These workers were docked two hours’ pay per day that went towards a strike fund.
To get the strike endorsed by the other trades unions in Seattle’s Building Trades Council, the Carpenters agreed to limits including these: “Roving or alternating picketing on multiple sites throughout the day will not be performed,” according to a leaked email. “Pickets will not be concentrated on a single site for a long duration or for consecutive days throughout the workweek.”
Rank and filers in the dissident group argued that union leaders had spent too much time stumping for a “yes” vote and too little effort on strike preparations.
The frustrations came to a head over the select number of strike sites announced by the union leadership. Angry members responded with wildcat strikes at some officially non-struck job sites September 24. The union cancelled all pickets, before resuming them the following week.
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“You can’t really blame people too much for losing heart when they’re being forced to work through the strike,” said an apprentice who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation from the union leadership. And “the journeyman I work with said he voted ‘yes’ because he was sick of losing a hundred bucks a day to the strike assessment.”
“I believe after the way the strike was run and after seeing how many carpenters couldn’t strike, a lot of members lost hope,” said carpenter Cody McPike.
Apprentice Glen Olson voted yes on the latest deal. He had agreed with the dissidents’ push for a better contract offer, but disagreed with the wildcat strikes and the “malice” he saw hurled at union leaders.
The union threatened Francisco with expulsion, issuing a cease-and-desist letter alleging that he had been advocating wildcat strikes. The letter was publicly posted on social media with his home address visible (it was later blocked out). Francisco obtained legal representation. In response to the threats, lawyer Cathy Highet wrote to the union that it was violating Francisco’s rights under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act.
Olson felt the divisions in the union reflected a difference on strategy: the union leadership didn’t want to strike. “I don’t think it’s a secret or anything,” Olson said. “People wanted to strike, and I don’t think that they necessarily prepared for that.”
A BIG-TECH TOWN
Bargaining committee member Ryan Case, vice president of Local 30, said he had voted yes on all five contract offers.
On the last one, “I voted yes because there’s no other industry that you can work in where you don’t have a change of position but you still get a 15 or 16 percent raise in three years,” he said.
“I didn’t want to strike,” he said, citing his studies in finance and economics. But he acknowledged that his co-workers had justifiable grievances about wages in view of the exorbitant local cost of housing. “In the Seattle economy,” Case said, “we’re competing with Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft— big tech companies that are paying their guys $250,000 a year to write code, and that’s who we’re competing with to buy houses.”
A journey carpenter’s hourly wage is $46.92 plus benefits.
Steve Ross, a general foreman and bargaining committee member, also voted yes. One reason was the risk involved in continuing to strike, especially with only a vocal minority of members opposing the contract.
He said he was also concerned that the carpenters could price themselves out of the local market—though “I actually don’t like that terminology because we don’t know what that number is, and nobody does on either side,” he said.
Federal law contains strict rules on how construction unions can run strikes—for instance, defining which gates can be picketed and what conditions must be met on the day of picketing—and employers can sue unions for hefty damages if they run afoul of these rules. Union leaders argued that wildcats would put the union at serious financial risk.
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and members of her party Socialist Alternative were seen at the unauthorized strikes and drew strong criticism from the union leadership. Early on, Sawant came out in support of the strike and announced a legislative effort to require contractors to pay construction workers’ full parking costs.
Once she came under fire, around 80 carpenters signed a letter in solidarity with her; the union released its own petition with 1,500 member signatures branding her an interloper.
Northwest Carpenters principal officer Evelyn Shapiro accused Sawant of “interfering in the NW Carpenter Union’s democracy just to grab the limelight for her own political agenda.” Other Seattle labor leaders echoed a similar sentiment, and focused on sexist posts on the Peter J. McGuire Group Facebook page to challenge the dissidents’ credibility.
Francisco acknowledged there had been some sexist posts, but he told Jacobin that other members of the group had been quick to condemn them and reach out to educate the posters about why they were wrong. “It’s not like this problem is something that’s only in the Peter McGuire Group’s page or only on Facebook,” he said. “Sexism is something that’s all over society and in the construction industry.”
‘HEAVY LIFTING AHEAD’
The contract is settled, but the rank-and-file group is just getting started in its organizing. Francisco said the group is planning to run candidates as part of a reform slate and expand Peter J. McGuire groupings across the country.
“It was close, again—only 388 votes between,” said McPike. “Even though we lost, we definitely made some progress. There’s going to be a lot of heavy lifting ahead of us, but just because we didn’t end up getting what we deserve, it doesn’t mean we should quit working for our future as union carpenters.”
Update, October 20: Additional information has been added to this article since it was originally published.