Ranks rebel in Western Washington carpenters’ strike

A picket line. The sign in the foreground reads: ON STRIKE FOR FAIR WAGES AGAINST GLY CONSTRUCTION..
Sept. 21, 2021. Union carpenters picket a job site in downtown Seattle during a three-week strike. PHOTO: Joel Vancil
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In the dark hours of a mid-September morning, union carpenters began to picket construction sites across western Washington state, including one of the largest operations in the country at the Microsoft campus in Redmond. These skilled craft people were joining an epic upsurge of strike activity that continues to sweep across the United States.

This battle would last three weeks. The strikers did not win as much as they hoped for, but along the way the rank-and-file members organized and pushed back against the tight control and strict limitations imposed by their own union leadership.

A righteous rebellion. The energy on the picket lines revealed the deep frustration of working carpenters over their pay and benefits, which had taken serious hits during previous negotiations with the Associated General Contractors (AGC). Their wages and benefits were significantly behind those of other skilled trades. Carpenters were not compensated for expenses like parking, which can cost hundreds of dollars a month. Most could not afford to live in the cities they were building.

Before the strike began, union members had already voted down four contract offers from the AGC. Each time the Northwest Carpenters Union (NWCU) leadership had pressured a “yes” vote. However, a scrappy group of union activists had raised members’ expectations and educated about why they should, and could, hold out for better. These militants organized through a Facebook group that they dubbed the Peter J. McGuire Group, named after the socialist co-founder of their union.

It’s not like AGC couldn’t afford to pay more. They were already doing so with other trades. And they were building for corporations with deep pockets like Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Google.

Trying to keep the lid on. Right out of the gate the Northwest Carpenters Union leadership was pulling back hard on the reins. It was clear that they did not want a strike. And they did not want this strike that they were forced into to get out of control.

Going into this work stoppage NWCU had already signed Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) and other agreements with ACG that legally prohibited strikes at 83% of construction projects.

Initially, the union only picketed a few sites a day. Only about a quarter of the “legally strikable” spots were targeted. And a deal was struck with the Seattle Building Trades Council to only set up picket lines three days a week, allowing other trades people to keep working. Clearly the carpenter leadership had no plan to shut down the projects and force concessions from the contractors.

On the line the chants were loud and the members motivated. However, the picket captains had their marching orders. When labor and other supporters, including members of the Freedom Socialist Party, arrived to walk the line in solidarity, there were limitations imposed. Annaliza Torres, a unionized public employee and a member of Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity, described her experience. “Carpenters appreciated the support, but those in charge were dead set against anyone except for union carpenters joining the picket line.”

Chafing at the bit. It did not take long for many union activists to cast off the straitjacket imposed by their leadership. Carpenters at the Microsoft site disregarded the leadership and organized daily pickets themselves. Union staff took away the official printed picket signs and declared the action unsanctioned. The members showed up with their own hand-drawn signs and kept the line going.

Joe Sosa, a libertarian and former job steward on the Microsoft Redmond job, explained why he and others organized these actions. “The Council [NWCU] was curtailing the strike and demoralizing the rank and file in general. It was in the best interest of the rank and file to continue picketing.” Such irrepressible action by members forced the leadership to picket the Redmond site five days a week and double the number of other job sites targeted each day.

In the meantime, members were pulling the official levers available to them to pressure the union to get serious. A year earlier they had formed a Contract Ready Committee that was sanctioned by Carpenters Local 30. Patrick Burns, a retired carpenter and Freedom Socialist Party member, explains the goals of the committee. “In contract negotiations the members are often the least prepared. The purpose of the committee was to reverse this circumstance. Our goal is for the Northwest Carpenters Union to be member driven!”

Burns organized with striking members to turn up the heat on the NWCU and force them to wage a much more effective strike. Strategies supported by Burns and the McGuire Group, and endorsed by the Contract Ready Committee, included: picket all legally strikable sites, welcome and build public support, and set up a hardship fund to assist strikers and workers from other trades who honored their picket lines.

Meanwhile, the McGuire Group organized rallies at PLA sites with no-strike agreements, shutting down work at some. They were right about how those no-strike deals severely weakened the union, but they did not have enough of the membership behind this tactic. And it opened the door to retaliation against militants. The union leadership engaged in fierce red baiting and accused the McGuire Group of bringing legal action down on the NWCU.

Not the end of it. The walkout concluded with the membership narrowly approving an agreement that was only slightly better than the four earlier offers.

Already there is vigorous discussion about what happened during the work stoppage. And the ranks will be looking to make sure such a debacle does not happen again. As Sosa says, “There has to be a cleaning of the house.”

Meanwhile, the general president of the international carpenters’ union has come to town. He fired three principle leaders of NWCU and put it into trusteeship. This move threatens to impose top-down control of the local union by the international. Most often trusteeship undermines members’ control over their organization. It will take time to see what happens with NWCU.

But the rebellious ranks got a real taste of the power they can wield. The lessons they learned from this battle will serve them well as they struggle for a fighting, democratic, member-driven union.

Contact Hoffman, a WFSE Local 304 shop steward, at stevhoff@earthlink.net.

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