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Washington Carpenter: “It’s Up to the Membership to Win This Strike”

Art Francisco

Two thousand carpenters went on strike in Washington on Thursday after rejecting a fourth tentative contract agreement. Jacobin spoke with one of the workers about the strike, and why it’s pitting rank-and-file carpenters against their union leaders.

Union carpenters picket in Washington State last week. (Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters / Facebook)

Interview by
Ben Beckett

Last Thursday, more than two thousand carpenters in the Seattle area and western Washington started a strike, after members of the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters voted down a fourth tentative agreement between the union’s bargaining team and the employers’ association, the Association of General Contractors (AGC).

Many of those carpenters voting no have expressed anger at their union’s leadership team, which they allege has neither bargained for sufficient wage and benefit improvements nor organized to make the strike a success. Others have charged that union leaders are choosing empty or nearly finished construction sites to picket rather than major jobs, ensuring that contractors feel minimal pain from the strike.

Jacobin spoke with carpenter Art Francisco about the strike and the lead-up to it. Francisco is the chair of the Peter J. McGuire Group, an organization of rank-and-file carpenters that grew out of the 2018 contract negotiations.


BB

This year, Washington State carpenters have voted down four tentative agreements with Associated General Contractors (AGC), the employers’ association. Why have carpenters rejected the deals?

AF

We’ve rejected those deals because in the Seattle area and western Washington the cost of living has risen astronomically in the last ten years, and carpenters’ wages have not kept up with the other mechanical trades. Most carpenters do not live in Seattle anymore. We’ve been priced out of the city. They have to commute from farther and farther away, and many of them can no longer afford to buy houses anymore at all.

Not only have our raises not kept up over the years, even though we’ve had the biggest construction boom in the history of the region, but health care costs continue to rise, and our pension system has not met members’ expectations. It has been underfunded for years, and last year we actually lost $200 million out of our pension funds. The pension system has been taking hits for at least five or six years.

It has just been kind of a downward spiral. Wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of everything: the cost of parking, the cost of housing, the cost of health care. We just feel like enough is enough. These are some of the most skilled carpenters in the country. Many of my friends and I have worked on mansions for millionaires and billionaires, and these are places we’ll never get to afford to live anywhere near.

BB

After four rejected proposals, what has led to a strike now?

AF

I think the union leadership is in a bit of a bind. The negotiations were not gridlocked between the union leadership and the contractors; they were gridlocked between the membership and the union leadership. The membership has not wanted to approve these tentative agreements. I’m not totally certain what made the leadership decide to give us a strike, but I believe the thinking was, “Okay, you can have your strike, but it’s going to fail.” Because the entire strike, so far, the leadership has set us up to fail. They’ve done what they can to ensure that it’s not going to work.

BB

Can you give some examples?

AF

The strike was going to begin Thursday [September 16], and so on Wednesday they had a rally down in Kent, Washington, at the [union] council’s offices. They gave us only four job sites that we were allowed to picket, and the Microsoft campus was not among them. The Microsoft job is the biggest job on the West Coast, one of the biggest jobs in the country. It’s a huge job, and everybody in the entire state knows it’s the biggest job. The fact that they weren’t going to let us picket that job made members furious, especially those members who are working on that job, because they understand how significant it is. One of the members on the AGC bargaining team — that’s his job. I think he’s a general superintendent on that job. So, it would have been a way to actually go after one of the members of our opponents’ bargaining team.

At the rally, there was this crazy screaming match between mainly the Microsoft guys and the leadership. The rally started off kind of like a pep rally. But when it came down to it, a brother from the Microsoft job began pushing for the leadership to allow us to picket the Microsoft job. Other brothers joined in and got behind him to push for the Microsoft job, which became kind of a shouting match. And it looked like it was going to get ugly. I think something was thrown. The argument ended with [Carpenters Council head] Evelyn Shapiro conceding that the Microsoft job would be added as a fifth job to the picket list. But it was only after the members really demanded it and it looked like there was almost a physical fight.

The council leadership has been really trying to keep us from fighting the significant jobs. One of the sites selected was a lay down yard, one was a hole in the ground. Empty buildings were selected.

There have been threats on the union’s Facebook page warning us not to picket sites they have not selected for us. A construction strike really hinges on stopping production on big job sites, especially ones with things like concrete pourers, where major activities are going on. The leadership is preventing that from happening. The official excuse is that they don’t want to be sued. But I think that the unofficial reason is to give the contractors a break and keep them from losing any money.

What the effect of this is going to be is it’s going to break our strike. It’s going to demoralize the membership and bleed us out, so that when we do go back to the bargaining table, we’re going to basically accept whatever they put in front of us.

BB

What is necessary to win the strike?

AF

It’s going to be up to the membership to win this strike. I don’t think the leadership is going to do it. Everything that they’ve shown so far shows that they have zero interest in winning this strike, so it’s going to be up to the membership to take the lead.

I think the handful of selected sites are not going to be enough. All the sites have to be picketed.

BB

What do you see as the union leadership’s motivation for this strategy?

AF

The union leadership has taken on this market-share philosophy over the years, and it has basically come to see itself as a labor broker, not as a union. A labor broker is a company that takes labor and sells it. Our union has become a sophisticated version of that, taking in carpenters and selling them off to the contractors. Because its perspective on what a union is has changed, because it’s selling us to the contractors, it doesn’t want to sell us for too high of a rate. It has begun to see itself as a partner of the contractors, instead of having opposing interests.

The union has fought for years to keep our wages rising at a very meager rate instead of really fighting. It has also tried this whole summer to dampen the militancy of the membership.

BB

Can you give some examples of how it has done that?

AF

Business agents were sent out to job sites all over Seattle and western Washington, and they brought in business agents from outside of the state, from Montana, Idaho, to help to sell this contract, to get us to vote yes. They’ve gone to job sites, and at union meetings the leadership has basically said that if we do not accept this contract and if we ask for too much, we will price ourselves out of the market just like New York, and you’ll lose your jobs like New York, and the nonunion sector will take over. They’ve tried to do this over and over again.

And even through the strike, not only have they only proposed four job sites, but there’s been no attempt to train more members on how to become picket captains to expand the sites, even though members want to get the training to be able to expand the number of sites.

As far as the strike goes, the union leadership did not want to strike. When Evelyn Shapiro went around to the different locals, at three of those locals members asked her, “What percentage of carpenters do you need to reject the contract before you allow us to vote on a strike?” She continually refused to answer that because we already had the majority vote.

Members have been threatened with legal repercussions and with getting kicked out of the union. I myself have been smeared by union leaders. I’ve had my personal information released multiple times already. Most recently, I’ve had my address and phone number released on all the official union Facebook pages, with thousands of people potentially seeing that. The media has seen it as well.

BB

It sounds like there is a lot of mistrust between union leadership and at least a portion of the members. But it also sounds like leadership has begun to respond to pressure from members. Do you think that is the case?

AF

It has definitely had an effect. I have been calling for contract rallies for years, even during the 2018 contract negotiations [for the previous contract]. The Peter J. McGuire Group has called for a half dozen rallies all throughout August. That led to the union leadership having a strike kickoff rally. But even then, they didn’t announce it until I said I was going to organize a strike rally. Then, after that, they came out last minute. It was the first time the union leadership has had a rally for the membership since 2007.

BB

Carpenters almost went on strike in 2018, but ultimately didn’t. What do you think has changed in the three years since then?

AF

In 2018, our executive secretary-treasurer was someone named Doug Tweedy. He got on this telephone town hall, and he and his contract administrator lied to thousands of carpenters that the operating engineers had already settled on their contract.

Shortly after that, the operating engineers went on strike, because, in fact, they had not settled. It was a lie. So when they went on strike, the carpenters essentially went on strike with them, because we didn’t cross their picket lines. So we went on strike for nothing.

Carpenters were bitter after that blatant betrayal by the union leadership. That, plus we worked throughout the entire pandemic and didn’t get any hazard pay or anything like that. Watching the other trades continue to get better contracts than us, all of that played a big role in how carpenters feel this year. And we’re still in a major, major building boom. They all said the boom wouldn’t last and that we were due in for a recession, but now it looks like even more work is on the way. There is supposed to be a trillion dollars’ worth of work coming to this region. Inflation has also gone up significantly this year.

BB

In terms of carpenters who’ve voted consistently to reject these deals, what terms do you think they would be satisfied with in order to vote yes?

AF

Carpenters were polled and said that they would probably settle at a $15 over three years total package, a $5 increase per year, somewhere around $4 in wages and $1 in benefits per year. The fourth tentative agreement [that was rejected] was $3.30 per year over four years.

BB

What is the Peter J. McGuire Group? Did it grow specifically out of a No campaign against the tentative agreements? Where do you see the group going from here?

AF

It grew out of the 2018 contract negotiations. It grew out of a Facebook group called “Western Washington Carpenters Walkout, the Time is Now,” which I started. I took the name loosely based on the Facebook group that the teachers were using, because it was shortly after the big teachers’ strike wave. We had a number of members getting kicked off of the official Facebook pages of the union. I got fed up and said I’m going to start my own group. I started a group, and I was the only person in it. By the time I was off work that day, it had seven hundred members. By the end of the weekend, it had eighteen hundred members.

Things quieted down between contract seasons, and then this contract season it picked up again. Shortly after the second tentative agreement, when we were voting on the third, I called an emergency rally. We had a rally with a hundred carpenters out there. Several carpenters asked me to be the leader. I said, “The leader of what? You have to help build an organization, a concrete organization that’s real.” There were over a hundred people there and they agreed unanimously. We decided to call our organization the Peter J. McGuire Group, which was named after one of the founders of the carpenters’ union as well as of the American Federation of Labor. He was also in the Second International.

BB

Where do you see the Peter J. McGuire Group going from here?

AF

Right now, I see the group’s main concern as trying to win this strike. That’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing. We’ve drafted a strong platform, I think, which is the core of our group. We’ve also made ourselves independent of the union leadership. Union leaders have zero control over our group, and they’ll never have control over it for as long as I’m around.

I think our group is going to formalize its own leadership and flesh out the skeleton that we’ve built. We’re eventually going to end up having to really challenge the union leadership for power, which I think we’re already starting to do. We just haven’t run candidates yet. But I think that will have to happen, as offices open.

I’ve definitely put my money where my mouth is. I could have been working this summer and making money all summer. Instead I’ve been organizing this. And our members have put their money where their mouth is, because the people helping me to organize have been doing that as well. It’s our necks on the line. Our union has a very long history of blacklisting and basically kicking people out of the union that it doesn’t like, and even threatening to sue.

The people who’ve been organizing this are regular carpenters. We’re people that work in the field. We’re not union leaders. We’re not business agents. We don’t hold any offices. We’re the people who are actually out in the field, that have been running this resistance. These are all regular carpenters.

BB

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AF

I’d like to quickly address the PubliCola article by Erica Barnett. The union leadership has accused us of being sexists and misogynists, and Barnett has attributed a number of Facebook posts to our group. Not all of those are accurate; some of those were actually in other Facebook groups. But there have been a handful of sexist or misogynistic posts in our group. Those are totally out of line and inexcusable. Corrective action was taken against those posts immediately; I moderated those posts. Not only that, but the members of the Peter J. McGuire Group have condemned those posts, and they’ve also talked with the members who made those posts to educate them on why they were wrong. It was women in our group who said we have to educate the people who have these backward ideas, the brothers that are making sexist posts — we can’t just ban them, we have to actually talk to them and get them to understand why it’s wrong. I want to put that out there.

It’s not like this problem is something that’s only in the Peter McGuire Group’s page or only on Facebook. Sexism is something that’s all over society and in the construction industry. The union leadership has had ample time to deal with sexual harassment and sexual assault in construction. They could have provided training; they could have provided education. They haven’t. They haven’t taken corrective action on their end. Women have been critical of that in our union, and it has been our group’s platform that we completely oppose any kind of harassment or discrimination based on sex, gender, race, or sexual orientation. We take corrective action against that as soon as we see it.

The other thing I wanted to say is that this strike has been hamstrung by these no-strike agreements. We had no idea there were this many agreements, how bad it was, until we went on strike. These strike agreements are killing our strike. But this strike is significant because it has been a big push against the union leadership by rank-and-file carpenters from all kinds of political persuasions. But we’re united around our interests as workers. It’s in the interests of not only carpenters to win this strike but all workers. The American labor movement itself, for a generation, has been deteriorating. It has taken a lot of hits. And we need to reverse the course.