The clamoring sounds of construction were replaced with union chants in South Lake Union on Thursday, when carpenters walked off the job at a nearly complete 12-story office building as part of a strike that could affect hundreds of construction sites across the region.
Striking members of the Northwest Carpenters Union say they are seeking better pay and more coverage for work expenses such as parking.
“I’ve heard other carpenters say they could build a house, but they can’t afford to live in one of them,” said Brandon Carmack, an apprentice who picketed in Seattle on Thursday.
Although union leadership had recommended a recent tentative contract agreement, a majority of members voted against the deal last weekend, triggering the strike.
The Association of General Contractors (AGC), which represents the carpenters’ employers, pushed back.
“The AGC of Washington is disappointed and perplexed the union is proceeding with this strike following such a robust and competitive package offer,” the group said in a statement.
Today, a journey-level carpenter in the union makes $46.92 to $48.42 an hour, according to the union. The latest offer would have incrementally increased pay by about $9.40 per hour over the course of four years, along with gradual increases to pension contributions and parking pay.
As of Thursday afternoon, the two sides had not yet set another bargaining date.
Carpenters picketed at several high-profile projects Thursday, including Microsoft’s Eastside campus and Vulcan’s Block 38, the 12-story South Lake Union office building set to be finished this year for Google.
At Block 38, other unionized tradespeople appeared to have walked off the job rather than cross the picket line. From outside, a small group of painters were the only workers visible at the site. Contractor GLY did not return a request for comment.
Hundreds of job sites are affected by the strike, according to the union. But many marquee projects, such as Sound Transit light rail lines, are covered by no-strike agreements.
The strike followed public divisions among union membership. Online, criticisms of union leadership swirled, with some members decrying what they said were cozy relationships with management or too much timidity in the planned strike. After rumors of possible wildcat strikes, union leadership warned members against taking unauthorized action.
At the picket line, strikers attempted to present a united front.
“I believe it was a good deal for us all,” said member Ernesto Perez. “It’s not about how I feel. It’s about standing united.”
“We want to close the gap between the cost of living … and wages,” Perez said.
Members who voted against the deal called for higher pay raises, better pension contributions or more coverage of parking costs. Some said a shorter contract in which raises happened sooner would make the deal more palatable.
“It just wasn’t quite good enough,” Trenton Towne said.
Contractors “get richer and we get the same,” said foreman Matt Johnson, who voted no.
“I’m a 51-year-old guy. My back hurts. I’ve had a shoulder replacement and a knee replacement. And a lot of it’s been due to this trade,” Johnson said.
Brayan Gonzales, a carpenter who supported the deal, said his rent recently went up by $250 a month. “Every year, the rent is going up,” he said.
The AGC warned carpenters about the threat of nonunion contractors.
“Our AGC bargaining team spent numerous hours throughout the past five months negotiating and evaluating this union offer, which also forced the team to carefully consider the ramifications of such a generous package,” the group said in a statement.
Increased costs “can push developers to other markets, increase loss of Union market share, and potentially reduce carpenter hours,” the AGC said. “We want to ensure every carpenter understands the latest failed tentative agreement is not immune from the issues listed above.”
Just how the strike will affect the region’s many under-construction office and apartment projects will depend on how long members stay off the job and whether workers in other trades show up to work sites.
The AGC declined to discuss the expected effects of the work stoppage.
The pandemic disrupted what had been a yearslong building boom, delaying some projects and adding new uncertainty to the office and apartment markets. Even so, the Eastside, in particular, is flush with new office projects for tech giants.
The strike is the latest in a series of trade-union walkouts that have hit Seattle’s building industry during the past decade. Crane operators, concrete truck drivers and glaziers each went on strike between 2016 and 2018. More recently, industries ranging from health care to food production have seen labor unrest, with workers emboldened by a tight labor market.
“When you’re called essential workers and everyone is clapping for you, your wages, safety at work and protections from harassment should match how essential you are to the economy,” said Jake Grumbach, a political-science professor at the University of Washington.