For the first time in nearly two decades, hundreds of Washington carpenters walked off the job Thursday, slowing work at job sites and calling for better pay.
With a 56% to 44% vote during the weekend, members of the Northwest Carpenters Union rejected a tentative contract deal and authorized a strike. Picket lines were planned for early Thursday morning.
The strike is expected to halt carpenters’ work at hundreds of construction projects across the region, ranging from sites with a few carpenters to large projects, according to the union. The affected sites will include Microsoft office projects on the Eastside and Vulcan’s Block 38, a Seattle mixed-use office project at Westlake Avenue and Mercer Street.
However, the effects of the strike may appear muted to the general public. Most of the city’s biggest projects, such as Climate Pledge Arena and Sound Transit light rail construction, have agreements in place preventing a strike. At those sites, union carpenters will keep working and pay a portion of their wages into a strike fund to support those who walked out. About 2,000 of the union’s roughly 12,000 members work at sites where they can strike, according to the union.
Carpenters say they’re pushing for bigger pay increases in their next contract to keep up with the cost of living.
The strike also reveals divisions in the union, whose members have rejected four tentative agreements this year. In the latest vote, some rank-and-file members rallied against the proposal while others pushed for a “yes” vote. Ahead of the strike, some members questioned why the union wasn’t planning to picket more sites and union leadership warned members against engaging in unauthorized wildcat strikes and sick-outs.
“We have not been able to unite under this agreement. It is time for us to unite under a strike,” said Evelyn Shapiro, executive secretary-treasurer of the union.
The Association of General Contractors of Washington, which represents the carpenters’ employers, says it offered workers a “strong package” of pay raises. Contractors “intend to continue to operate their businesses,” the association said in a written update to employers this week.
In a statement issued Thursday after the strike began, the AGC said it was “disappointed and perplexed the union is proceeding with this strike following such a robust and competitive package offer.” High construction costs can “push developers to other markets, increase loss of Union market share, and potentially reduce carpenter hours,” the AGC said. The two sides have not yet set another bargaining date, the union said Wednesday.
The latest four-year deal rejected by union membership included a $13.25 “total package increase,” including pay and benefits.
Current wages range from $46.92 to $48.42 an hour. The last offer would have increased pay by about $9.40 per hour over the course of four years, according to the union. Pension contributions would have gradually increased from $8.60 per hour to $11.15 per hour throughout the four-year term, according to the union.
Union members who rejected the deal are calling for a $15 increase over three years and better parking pay, said Joe Sosa, a carpenter who voted against the latest contract proposal.
Contractors are “going to make millions, yet they don’t want to pass on that profit to the rank and file,” Sosa said.
“Seattle has been booming since 2010,” said John McCallum, who also voted no. “Every time the contract comes up, the same crap is spewed: ‘We did the best we could. We’ll get you better next time.’ … It’s coming to a head and we need to stand up for ourselves.”
Lee Carter, a rank-and-file member who was part of the bargaining committee and supported the latest deal, said that because of Washington’s hot real estate market, many carpenters live far from the downtown projects they help build. Other costs eat away at their wages, too, such as parking, gas and child care. Retirement costs loom.
“Some people want more money in the pension. Some want more on the check,” Carter said. “Every member is going to have a different situation.”
Members who voted no “are telling us, ‘Hey, this isn’t good enough,’” Carter said. “As a bargaining team member, I say ‘OK. It’s not good enough for my members. I’ve got to work harder.’”
AGC Executive Vice President David D’Hondt declined to comment beyond the group’s written statements online. In the update to employers this week, the group said “a paramount concern includes union market share and competitiveness.”
“It is important that every Carpenter understands the major challenges of eroding market share and increased open‐shop competition facing all Union Carpenters, their families, their Union, and their employer,” the AGC wrote.
The work stoppage won’t be the first to hit Seattle’s booming construction industry in recent years. Crane operators and other construction workers went on strike for 17 days in 2018. Concrete truck drivers walked off for about a week in 2017, and glaziers were on strike for about three weeks in 2016.
Washington’s carpenters union last went on strike in 2003, and Oregon’s in 2007, according to the union.
Although American union participation remains far below the heights of the 1940s and 1950s, Washington’s progressive politics and Seattle’s long labor history have bolstered unions here, said Jake Grumbach, an assistant professor at the University of Washington who teaches courses on local politics and labor.
Workers in both blue- and white-collar jobs have shown an uptick in interest in unions and strikes in recent years, driven by gaping economic inequality and political movements such as the rise of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Grumbach said.
Most recently, the pandemic laid bare the conditions of workers in jobs ranging from grocery stores to meatpacking plants to building trades.
“If labor really is essential to keep the economy running through a crisis like this, then workers may feel more emboldened to exercise their power,” Grumbach said.