After Voting Down Four Tentative Agreements, Washington Carpenters Strike
After narrowly rejecting a contract offer, the union representing 11,600 working carpenters in Washington state is set to start a strike tomorrow.
It’s the fourth offer that members have nixed. A scrappy band of rank and filers known as the Peter J. McGuire Group organized the no vote over inadequate raises—despite pressure from union leaders, who were promoting the deal. They are also seeking reimbursements for high parking costs, increased employer contributions to health care and pension funds, and stronger sexual harassment protections.
Northwest Carpenters members voted down the latest tentative area master agreement with the Associated General Contractors (AGC) on September 11 by 56 percent (2,907 no, 2,282 yes).
The strike could be the union’s largest since 2003, when 8,000 members in Washington struck for nine days over health care benefits.
But this week the union was unclear about how many workers would actually be on strike. Union leaders revealed that most worksites employing carpenters are exempted under Project Labor Agreements with no-strike clauses.
“Hundreds” of workers will be on strike tomorrow morning, according to Northwest Carpenters spokesperson Jeanie-Marie Price. “Thousands more will be participating in solidarity by contributing parts of their paychecks to help their striking brothers and sisters,” Price wrote to Labor Notes.
The worksites to strike will be phased in, kicking off with a pre-strike rally tonight at 5 p.m. outside the union headquarters. Strike locations will rotate, with new jobsites to strike announced the day before.
Many members turned to Facebook threads to find answers and organize wildcat actions. (See box.) In response, the union leadership responded last night by circulating a “fake news alert” message on Facebook. The union warned that “following any direction provided by non-authorized person can cause you to be in danger of receiving fines, jeopardize your employment, subject you to personal liability and constitutional charges.”
Project Labor Agreements Spark Ire
Project Labor Agreements date back to the 1970s. In the aftermath of the 2007 financial crisis, they proliferated as a way to protect workers from lowballing contractors.
In return for public dollars in the form of tax abatements and state and local subsidies, these agreements require contractors to uphold local and state prevailing wage standards—and they ban strikes.
PLAs provoke heated debate among building trades workers, and even union leaders concede their limitations. “For decades, government-funded construction projects in Washington have required strike exemptions, supposedly to protect taxpayer resources,” wrote Price, the union spokesperson. “But they also protect union carpenters from lockouts…We know these PLAs undermine our power at the bargaining table and we are trying to move away from them in future PLAs.”
The Northwest Washington Carpenters has 45 PLAs in the region, including Climate Pledge Arena and Washington Convention Center. During the strike, carpenters working on these sites will provide at least two hours of their pay every day to the strike fund, according to the union.
But workers have grown frustrated with these restrictions on how they can show solidarity, arguing on social media and in meetings with union leaders that PLAs have rendered the union “toothless.”
“When you can’t strike over half the jobs that you’re working on, what use is a union?” Bartos said. “All we have is the ability to withhold our labor.”
Wurz’s own job site is on the list of non-strike locations. “They’re trying to sabotage the strike,” she said about the union leadership. “They’ve given every indication that they’re there to back the contractors and not the rank-and-file membership.”
Rank and file carpenters are talking about how to plan slowdowns and sickouts without triggering a lawsuit from the contractors, and they’re trying to coordinate pickets at second entrances with other trades on the struck sites. Labor law restricts picket lines in construction to the primary entrance of a given contractor site.
The latest revolt reflects an emerging grassroots movement of carpenters who have come together through Facebook and Discord discussion groups to oppose both their union leadership and the AGC, with the hope of forming a reform caucus.
Their name, the Peter J. McGuire Group, invokes the memory of the socialist co-founder of the Carpenters union, who fought for the eight-hour day and was the first to propose a national Labor Day holiday in 1882.
SOARING COST OF LIVING
Wages were the biggest sticking point for the “no” voters. The latest offer included $2.50-an-hour increases in years one and four of the contract and $2.20 in years two and three, totaling $9.40 in wages. With $3.85 in pension and health care benefits, the total package is $13.25. Journey workers currently earn $46.92 an hour plus benefits.
That wage is lower than it sounds when you consider Seattle’s soaring cost of living, driven by the booming tech industry. A living wage for a single adult with three children in the Seattle-Bellevue-Tacoma area is $58.29, according to the MIT Living Wage calculator. The staggering costs of childcare and housing have forced many union members to move an hour or more outside the city.
“When you factor in the three-plus hours you drive every day, the $300 a week you’re spending on gas and parking, the $46.92 gets knocked down to $23.50 an hour,” said Local 30 journey worker Jason Bartos, a father of three, who has been with the union for 14 years. “I’m barely keeping my head above water.”
A commercial and residential building boom is underway in Washington—25 construction projects totaling more than $24 billion are underway, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal, without even counting some major projects for which estimated costs were not available: Microsoft’s headquarters renovation, Amazon’s Bellevue office complex, Facebook’s Building X.
Parking is another flashpoint. Most carpenters work in downtown Seattle and must pay out-of-pocket parking costs that can run from $20 to $40 a day, workers say. The rejected contract agreement would have expanded parking reimbursement to Bellevue and another section of downtown—but wouldn’t have taken effect until the third year of the contract.
Another lighting rod for outrage was the length of the proposed agreement: four years. The other building trades unions are on three-year contracts. A four-year deal would split the Carpenters from the other unions who bargain with the same employers.
Even from people who were voting yes, “what I kept hearing was that it takes away their ability to bargain three years from now,” said Paul Galovin, a Council staffer and recording secretary for Local 70, “and it puts us off cycle with the rest of the crafts in the area.” Galovin declined to say how he voted.
“When a contract gets rejected, they need to go back to the table and say, ‘Look, our membership rejected this offer soundly, you need to make a better offer,” said Don Sorenson, a Local 70 carpenter with more than 30 years in the union.
Instead, after the second rejection, he said, “they didn’t even go back to the table, just changed the wording.”
In 2018, the union came close to a strike over wages. But the day before members were to vote on a third offer, union leaders organized a conference call to push for a yes vote. “They told us the Operators had signed their contract,” Sorenson said. “They lied.” Carpenters voted to take the deal.
After the Carpenters inked that agreement, members of Operating Engineers Local 302 walked out on a 17-day strike, bringing the frenzy of construction cranes downtown to a standstill and halting work at Amazon’s downtown Seattle headquarters.
The result was that the Carpenters functionally were out on a solidarity strike—but they missed an opportunity to wrest concessions from the contractors, said Local 30 journey worker Arthur Esparza, better known by his online nom de guerre Art Francisco.
“When they [the Operating Engineers] went on strike, they shut down a lot of the union jobs anyway, because nobody wanted to cross their picket lines,” said Francisco, who works maintenance at Amazon’s headquarters. “Carpenters were very upset about that, because they ended up going on strike anyway, without getting anything out of it.”
He had created a Facebook group in 2018 called “Western Washington Carpenters Walkout,” which rallied enough votes to reject two tentative agreements before losing the third vote. The missed opportunity has rankled working carpenters ever since.
Months after the Carpenters signed that contract, their health care costs shot up. Members voted to reallocate money that was supposed to go towards a raise to prop up the health care and pension funds. According to Francisco, 50 cents were redirected from a wage hike of $1.47. Later, the money management firm the carpenters hired defrauded them alongside other pension funds by changing its investment strategy.
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Workers who opposed the contract had seen the writing on the wall before union leaders did.
“I argued with the contract administrator face to face about it,” Sorenson said. “I said, ‘You’re not putting enough money towards the health care. He says, ‘Well, you don’t understand how hard bargaining is.’ And I said, ‘Really? In 2003, I bargained our contract, and I took us on strike just for health care and retirement.’
“I’m just a working man, I’m no actuary,” he said. “But history has a way of telling us these things. Whenever you take cuts to a plan, you never regain that. You want to at least maintain or move forward. That’s just historical—you never regain losses.”
‘BOTH SIDES OF THEIR MOUTH’
This time around, carpenters opposing the contract offers have coalesced around the Peter J. McGuire Group on Facebook. Its leaders have put out a platform with a list of unifying demands, such as no secret bargaining and making union leaders’ wages commensurate with the wage of a working carpenter. Northwest Carpenters Executive Secretary-Treasurer Evelyn Shapiro, the union’s principal officer, pulls in an annual salary of $252,846, according to Department of Labor filings. (Carpenters national president Douglas J. McCarron raked in $461,382 in 2020, plus another $57,000 in combined allowances and disbursements.)
The dissidents charge that their union leaders have a cozy relationship with general contractors and have stumped for a yes vote while neglecting to put in the work for strike readiness after multiple rejected contract proposals.
“They are speaking from both sides of their mouth—saying ‘This is the best contract you’re ever going to get,’ and then also saying, ‘We’re going to support you if you go on strike,’” Bartos said. “They’re really working with the AGC to get the lowest number they could possibly get us to agree with.”
“They had business representatives from Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, everywhere, calling members to vote yes,” says Sorensen.
Although the bargaining committee includes handpicked rank and filers, Francisco said, Shapiro and Contract Administrator Jeffrey Thorson are the ones really calling the shots.
Until this week there were no dissidents on the bargaining team. But that changed on September 13. After the strike vote, Shapiro asked the dissidents to appoint a representative. The Peter J. McGuire group nominated Raymond Shepard to promote its contract proposal of $15 wage and benefit hike over three years.
“They took a step towards us, and we had to take a step towards them,” Francisco said. “But we must remain principled to our platform calling for open bargaining”—that is, sharing with the members what’s discussed. “Is Ray going to be forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement?”
FIRST WOMAN TO HEAD A REGION
The Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters represents 28,000 members across Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. Shapiro won the principal office in 2018, becoming the first woman to head a Carpenters regional council in the U.S.
She was elected in 2018, after being appointed to the post after the previous principal officer retired early in July 2018. She won re-election in August 2020.
Shapiro has progressive bona fides: championing an inclusive politics within and outside the union, including fighting for LGBTQ and immigrant rights, and advocating for Black Lives Matter to combat racism. “If we let the results of racism, sexism or homophobia divide us and keep us from achieving working class unity, we are dying on the vine,” she wrote in the 2018 issue of the union’s magazine. She’s fluent in Spanish and has made strides in involving and informing Latino membership, with official communications always translated.
“As a woman, I want to break down the wall that is the barrier of sexism and misogyny, and not just climb as I’ve seen a lot of the women leadership do,” said Nina Wurz, a six-year journey-level carpenter in Local 30. “So that’s my goal in being part of the Peter J. McGuire group, but more importantly, it’s my goal in showing up every day at work and being visible.”
Wurz wants higher wages, transparency, and stronger contract language on sexual harassment. What’s more, she said, these contract negotiations demonstrate the need to transform the union.
I spoke to more than a dozen carpenters. Many were particularly incensed by a press conference in front of the Washington State Convention Center last Friday, where they say Shapiro conceded the contractors’ points that working carpenters make too much money and that members had a good contract to vote on.
“She cut our legs off with the first statement. On the second statement, she broke the wheels on our wheelchair,” said Sorenson. “That’s what I feel like, anyway.”
COMMON DEMANDS BRIDGE THE GAP
Organizing for the no vote has required building relationships among members who are divided politically over wedge issues like the Covid vaccine. Francisco’s approach is “speaking like a brother to workers and not in a condescending or browbeating tone.” He said members are unified behind their common economic demands.
“Workers get educated through struggle,” he said.
Cody McPike, for one, has undergone a rapid transformation over the summer. “Three or four months ago, I was really thinking that the council and our union leadership would have our backs through thick and thin,” said McPike, a 35-year-old apprentice in Local 30.
But he got fed up with tentative agreements where union leaders were pushing to get a 51 percent yes vote, rather than holding out for terms that 60 or 80 percent of members would be ready to approve. In July he joined a rally of 100 carpenters outside the AGC offices, organized by the Peter J. McGuire Group.
After the second tentative agreement was rejected, he said, union reps should have begun strike prep. Instead, they campaigned against a strike, pointing to examples of past strikes they argued were costly failures or won only minimal improvements.
“I don’t think that our council leadership ever expected to even let us strike,” McPike said.
‘EVERY CARPENTER DOES MATH’
A poll on the Peter J. McGuire Group on Facebook found that most of its participating members were holding out for a three-year contract with a total wage and benefit increase between $15 and $21, Francisco said.
“If you are supposed to negotiate a contract to benefit the workers, then these contract offers point to the opposite,” said Local 41 journey worker Alejandro Alferez Cruz, speaking in Spanish.
Alferez Cruz, a father of four who has put in more than 20 years in the union, voted against all the tentative agreements so far. He notes that the negotiated wage increase didn’t keep up with inflation, which hovered at 5.2 percent as of August 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and rises when housing and cars are factored in, chewing up earnings. But according to economist Brian Callaci, the annualized inflation rate shouldn't be read into too much because it's sector-specific resulting from temporary supply bottlenecks.
Jimmy Castillo Matta, Jr., a delegate in Local 41, often translates at union meetings for monolingual Spanish-speaking members like Cruz who are concentrated in steel framing and drywall.
Matta said the wage increase won’t support a worker raising a family. He himself is single. But “the reason I voted no is because I believe in solidarity,” he said.
“The thing is, every carpenter does math,” says Francisco. “We’re not mathematicians, but we all know how to do basic math.”
Disclosure: Jimmy Castillo Matta’s father, a former carpenter, is an owner of a minority-owned contractor business. Matta confirmed to Labor Notes that he is a foreman for his father’s contracting business.
Corrections: Wording has been adjusted to remove a mischaracterization of the change between the second and third rejected versions of the tentative agreement; the change was not the length of the agreement, but the distribution of monies. Wording has also been added to clarify that Paul Galovin is not only a local recording secretary but also on the paid staff of the Regional Council. The article has also been updated to reflect that it is labor law, not contract terms, which restrict picket lines to the primary entrance of a given contractor site. It has also been updated to give more background on Shapiro and to clarify the circumstances of her election. Wording has also been added about the defrauding of the pension funds. The article has also been updated to reflect that the numbers in the proposals from the Peter J. McGuire Group referred to an increase in the total package, not just wages.