Photo of carpenters at work

Construction work in the Pacific Northwest has hit a major road bump after the Northwest Carpenter Union’s existing three-year contract with the Associated General Contractors expired on September 15, 2021. 

According to reports, 2,000 Northwest Carpenter Union members walked off job sites and began picketing at 6:00 AM on September 16, 2021.

According to the organization’s website, it represents “over 28,000 craft men and women in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming” — making the potential for more strikes throughout the region significant.

The union’s members are looking for a 20.4% wage-and-benefit increase during the next four years, combined with larger employer contributions to health care, parking, and pension benefits, as well as stronger harassment and discrimination protections. The pay guaranteed by the current contract — part of what the AGC negotiates for construction workers — is $46.92 hourly for carpenters, $47.17 for piledrivers, and $48.42 for millwrights.

Northwest Carpenters’ Union executive secretary-treasurer Evelyn Shapiro noted that the cost of working in the expensive Seattle metropolitan area was becoming too significant for the union to not make moves to fix the issue.

“It’s enormously expensive for our union members to work in Bellevue and Seattle,” Shapiro said. “Our members carry heavy tools from site-to-site. We can’t just hop on mass transit.”

This round of picketing focused on the Seattle metropolitan area and projects run by major tech companies, starting with Facebook’s Building X in Redmond, expansions of Microsoft offices in Redmond and Issaquah, and Google and Amazon buildings in Bellevue. 

Though the organization is striking against the AGC rather than any individual companies, Shapiro noted that the union did this intentionally to use companies “that are making billions” to put pressure on the AGC.

Not everything will be impacted by the strike, as certain labor agreements keep carpenters from striking at projects that involve public funding, which includes current work sites such as the Climate Pledge Arena, Port of Seattle projects, and Seattle Sound Transit projects.

A report from the Seattle Times noted that for the 2,000 workers that were allowed to strike, at least 10,000 workers in the Seattle area could not.

Not all aspects of the strike have gone smoothly, as disputes with elected officials and contractors alike pile on problems

Despite the goals of the strike, unexpected issues may complicate work, bringing up more disputes and putting construction in the Seattle metropolitan area in a more tenuous situation than before.

The union had to pause picketing on September 24, 2021, after a number of workers engaged in unsanctioned “wildcat” strikes — strikes undertaken without the consent of the union. 

Shapiro stated on September 23, 2021, that “because of the actions taken today, we have been contacted by legal counsel from several employers who are taking actions against [the Northwest Carpenters Union].” 

However, she noted that picketing was set to resume after a break, which it did on September 27, 2021.

“These wildcat actions, and roaming protests, conducted in the name of union carpenters, would likely drain union resources (union members’ dues) and threaten the livelihood of our members,” Shapiro added.

The Associated General Contractors of Washington, previously said it had offered carpenters a “robust and competitive” offer, and further warned union members that a lengthy strike may increase regional construction costs, pushing future projects to other areas and ultimately leading to less long-term work for the union.

Some individual union members have bucked the directives of union leadership, engaging in the “wildcat” strikes. 

“We can’t stop picketing because once we stop picketing, all these trades are going to see that we’re weak and start crossing,” said union carpenter Joe Sosa, who was picketing the Microsoft Redmond project. “Our intention is to keep the momentum going.”

For the most part, union leaders have telegraphed their agreement with this. “We are still on strike and members who are required to withhold their labor will continue withholding labor until we have an agreement to consider,” Shapiro said.

Seattle City Council representative Kshama Sawant is also attempting to get involved in the strike and its possible results  — much to the chagrin of some union leaders.

“Carpenters are correctly opposing the idea of a four-year contract separating them from the majority of the building trades’ contract negotiations,” Sawant said in a letter posted on her website. “Workers have the most power when we stand united in the face of the bosses’ drive for increasing profits at our expense.”

On September 22, 2021, Sawant said that she planned to introduce three plans of legislation that would benefit the union’s workers, as well as construction workers across the Seattle area.

“The carpenters are not only courageously on strike for these concrete demands, they are on strike for all of us in the working class,” Sawant said. “Workers have been pressed from all sides and our conditions have been deteriorating. Meanwhile, just since the COVID crisis began, American billionaires have become nearly two trillion dollars richer. This is not new: the bosses have raked in trillions more over the last decade, while workers fell behind.”

According to Sawant’s office, the legislation would “back construction workers in their demands for fair pay, protections, and rights.” 

The first bill would be intended to “vastly strengthen the City’s ability to investigate and penalize construction contractors that engage in wage theft, and recoup stolen money for the workers,” with a second intended to “require contractors to pay 100 percent of the parking costs for all construction workers in Seattle” and a third meant to “restore the rights of workers to strike.”

However, Sawant’s support for carpenters that are acting against union leadership — such as those who broke no-strike rules recently — has resulted in a public dispute with Northwest Carpenters Union leaders. 

Recently, Shapiro accused Sawant of “interfering in the NW Carpenter Union’s democracy just to grab the limelight for her own political agenda,” adding that “Causing more division during a union strike is a very serious matter…Thousands of real carpenter families with children and rents to pay are putting their bodies and welfare on the strike line, and we must stand united. Anti-union interests are the only ones who benefit from this kind of political meddling.”

“Outside interference in the fight for fair wages for 12,000 hard-working carpenters plays right into the hands of anti-union forces,” said Shapiro. “We appreciate all elected officials who stand with us during the strike, but Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant is going too far by interfering in the NW Carpenter Union’s democracy just to grab the limelight for her own political agenda.”

“If she or other elected officials want to truly help rank and file workers, they should work with us to address extremely expensive parking rates near work sites,” she continued. “Unlike white-collar office workers, carpenters must haul heavy tools to job sites, making parking an expensive and unreimbursed expense that sucks money out of workers’ wallets.”

MLK Labor, a coalition of unions in King County, Washington, said in a tweet naming Sawant on September 23, 2021, that “Striking union carpenters need support, not meddling…Ask how you can support instead of being a nuisance.”

At the time of publishing, Councilmember Sawant could not be reached for comment regarding the situation.