For three weeks in late September and early October, rank and file union carpenters in Seattle were at the sharpest point of class struggle in the American labor movement. After rejecting four tentative agreements where their leadership pushed hard for a “yes” vote, an embattled membership took bold, independent initiative. While the demands of carpenters for $15 per hour increase over a 3 year contract, paid parking, and fully funded benefits went largely unaddressed, through militant rank and file organization and action, carpenters won increases that will add up to over $100,000 dollars over the course of their careers.
There are many important lessons from this struggle that apply not only to an increasingly dissatisfied construction workforce, but to millions of workers and youth looking to organized labor and the workplace as an important battleground to fight back against low pay, long hours, and terrible conditions.
Over this past summer, most building trades unions in Seattle had their contracts expire and were in negotiations with their respective employers. Notably, this leverage wasn’t seized upon by union leadership in any way whatsoever. There is clearly a growing mood to fight among the working class more broadly as we roll through “Striketober,” and the building trades are included in this. Seattle has seen a nearly decade-long boom in new construction, topping the nation for the number of tower cranes three years in a row. Even accounting for pandemic delays and economic crisis, union hiring halls are empty and standing calls on the boards go unfilled.
There are extremely favorable conditions to fight back against the bosses in the context of the overall “labor shortage” and a real specific shortage of skilled trades workers, along with $24 billion in construction projects in the Seattle metro area. However, this confidence and desire to fight for more among rank and file carpenters was seen by their union leadership as a liability, instead of the principal driving force for winning real gains on their contract.
Distrust and Anger
This has created a combination of distrust and anger over repeated sellout contracts that have seen construction workers falling behind while the cost of living skyrockets. This is alongside a seemingly endless amount of work and overtime that puts strain on workers while giving them an increased confidence because of the high demand for their labor.
Carpenters voted down four Tentative Agreements (TAs) that their leadership pushed for a “yes” vote on, over the course of several months. These TAs showed barely any improvement from one to the next, sometimes including concessions snuck in, which the members took rightly as an insult. After the second TA was voted down, members began organizing “We Vote NO” rallies outside the AGC headquarters near a district that’s been transformed by new construction, South Lake Union. What indicated a shift was that members were taking up printing flyers and distributing them to job sites to build the NO vote and rally attendance. At their high point, there were rallies with 100-200 rank and file members, and through this the number of NO votes actually increased from 52% to 60% from TA2 to TA3.
The growing momentum against these TAs in August led to a NO vote on the fourth TA, which authorized a strike. Similar to the Seattle operating engineers strike three years ago, the leadership had no intention of striking and had done absolutely nothing to prepare for this outcome. Washington carpenters had not been on strike since 2003. The difference between the carpenters and the operators three years ago, was that many carpenters were entering these uncharted waters in a mutinous state, suspicious and hostile to their leadership after the coercion that accompanied their drive for “yes” votes.
Socialist Alternative councilmember Kshama Sawant issued two statements in solidarity with the fighting rank and file, supporting their specific key demands and pledging $10k to their strike fund from Kshama’s Solidarity Fund. Kshama Sawant, as a workers’ representative on city council only accepts the average worker’s wage and the excess goes to the Solidarity Fund. In a further indication that the leadership was resisting anything resembling an effective strike, they never set up a strike fund that others could donate to despite pledges from Kshama, Seattle DSA, and other unions. They chose instead to garnish two hours wages from the carpenters who found themselves working on jobs with “no strike” clauses.
There were a number of “surprises” revealed when the date to strike was set. Only 17% of working carpenters were on strikeable job sites. 83% of the members were working under Project Labor Agreements, Community Workforce Agreements, or sweetheart deals that robbed them of their right to strike. Sweetheart deals are when a company says they’ll agree to whatever the other contractors sign, as long as they’re exempted from the strike. This shows just how much the bosses can afford, that they’ll write a blank check like that! However it also shows their confidence in the union leadership to keep a lid on the members and to ultimately push through a contract they see as reasonable. In this way the leadership in many unions acts as a kind of bureaucracy where they increasingly see the union’s full time staff’s interests as the key consideration and the members’ power as an obstacle.
Another surprise came at the first rally the leadership organized during the contract dispute, which was held the evening before the strike. Coming on the heels of hearing the majority of carpenters would be forced to essentially scab on their own strike, union leadership announced at the rally that they would be actively picketing a total of only four job sites across Western Washington. Missing from this list of four sanctioned jobs to picket, a list that fits on a post-it note, was the enormous Microsoft expansion with thousands of workers on it. This is the largest project on the West Coast and it was part of the 17% of strikeable jobs. Members were outraged and spent half an hour screaming and arguing with their leadership to picket the site before forcing the concession.
That the leadership could include it on the spot, without consulting lawyers, contracts, or other union leaders exposed their intentions: It showed that they had been dragged kicking and screaming into this and wanted it over as quickly as possible. It would be more expedient to sabotage the strike than to mount a successful one, since their overriding priority is their “partnership” with the contractors.
This trend continued, with the strategy of the leadership being broadly understood as a losing one. Pickets would only hit a specific site for a couple days at a time, with a “break” in between. Close to half of the already low number of picket locations would be under excavation, still holes in the ground, or storage yards for equipment and materials.
The first weekend of the strike, Kshama Sawant’s council office had a rally for rent control which carpenters were invited to speak at. Carpenter Nina Wurz was effective in linking the demands of the rank and file and the broader struggles of the working class, pointing towards the need for organized workplace action as key in addressing our grievances.
Rank and File Takes Action
Illustrating the lack of confidence in the leadership, it only took four days before some members took matters into their own hands. One outspoken carpenter put forward a call to meet the next morning outside a jobsite still running due to a separate agreement, with the intent to shut it down. This was a significant escalation and a gamble. Grumblings about “wildcats,” or unsanctioned pickets and strikes, had been making the rounds among workers at various times over the previous month. Carpenter leadership responded with fear mongering about breaching contract and lawsuits that would bankrupt the union and so on, while other building trades union leaders had been warning their members to make sure any picket in front of them was sanctioned, and to not honor unsanctioned pickets.
As the unsanctioned strike grew, the energy of the wildcats was palpable. The hundreds of workers who downed their tools in the middle of shift and walked off the job were not just telling their boss, “NO,” they were directly opposing a united labor misleadership that had been telling them to cross the unsanctioned pickets. Furthermore, they were coming down from highrises and leaving the job they were already on. One drywaller out of a crew that came down, when asked what he thought it would take to win yelled, “This shit right here!” While there was a minority of workers who groused that it wasn’t being done the right way or that pickets should have shown up earlier, the mood of the majority was one of elated defiance. At some jobs, workers were milling around by the gates waiting for pickets to show up so they could walk. Carpenter organizers were getting texts from other workers with the address of their jobsite saying, “Come shut down my job!”
This surge of militant, independent action with its hearty support from and transmission to other trades set off alarm bells across the union leadership, which quickly united in opposition to the rank and file and the socialists. A flurry of articles, official union statements, and social media posts from union leaders went out, smearing working carpenters as racists and misogynists that were being led by “Marxist extremists,” and calling socialist trade unionists who stood in solidarity with the workers “outside agitators” as the leadership struggled for control of the narrative.
Rank and file carpenters were threatened with legal action and expulsion, a gang of building trades business agents and the head of the building trades council ambushed a morning rally with a mix of redbaiting, threats, intimidation, and skillfully raising the vaccine mandate in an attempt to divide the progressive from conservative union members. This was the only cross trade solidarity shown by building trades officials – solidarity of the bureaucrats in attacking the rank and file. Fortunately this attempt was unsuccessful and the militants went on to shut down seven jobs that day.
The response from the union tops was to temporarily shut down all sanctioned pickets. They were willing to further sabotage the strike in response to rank and file escalation, which they continued to demonstrate even when they resumed official picketing by shutting down individual sanctioned pickets if anyone associated with the rank and file militants showed up and tried to join or talk to members.
This process of union member demands coming into conflict with the sellout approach of the leadership is taking place all over the country and isn’t limited to Seattle carpenters, although some of the features were more sharply expressed here. The dynamic of the union leadership clearly acting as a brake on workers in their attempt to use their organizations as a vehicle to advance their interests has also been seen in the UAW strike at John Deere and the contract fight of IATSE. However, it should be stressed that not all unions are the same. There are some, like National Nurses United, whose leaders have been prepared to take a fighting stand on behalf of their members and working people generally.
“No Strike” Clauses
The current union leadership in most unions, however, has almost no memory of the workplace battles that built the unions and believes strikes to be a thing of the past. Unions are seen by them not as democratic combat organizations of the working class in their struggle against exploitation, but as lobbying entities and suppliers of labor in a partnership with unionized employers. We see this approach summed up in the term “business unionism,” where the union provides employers with a trained workforce as needed and in return asks for slightly better conditions. Expectations of workers that exceed what management is willing to offer, as well as any disruption to this labor supply, is seen as interfering with this relationship, which is a comfortable arrangement for the sellouts. The leadership is removed from the reality on the job site and the life experiences of the working class in part by paying themselves lavish salaries. This makes demands for better contracts from the rank and file and any slowdowns, strikes, or work stoppages unacceptable to them.
Despite the incredible amount of work in construction, union leadership pushing this business union model of competing with the non-union workforce over “market share” has led to a race to the bottom for workers in the entire industry and contributed to the loss of union density.
It follows the logic of this business unionist labor brokerage to attempt to legislate and lawyer whatever crumbs can be maneuvered instead of fighting the bosses for real improvements. One way of doing this is signing separate contracts that supersede the standard contract through Project Labor Agreements, (PLAs) which are frequently used on large and publicly funded projects.
The protections of union work and wages through the PLAs, in addition to the diversity and community workforce hiring attached, are all shortcuts to addressing problems that a democratic, fighting labor movement should be taking up on its own initiative using the collective power of the working class. Instead these protections are attached to “no-strike” clauses that deny workers their only weapon and defense, to withhold our labor and cut off the profits of the contractors. The employer takes their pound of flesh and conditions on job sites deteriorate while wages fail to keep up with the cost of living, healthcare premiums continue to rise, and our pensions are alarmingly often in the red when they’re not being scrapped outright.
Bitter workers are correct to call out the corruption of leadership, which happened time and again during the carpenters’ strike in Seattle, but the most prevalent and insidious corruption isn’t stealing union funds or kickbacks from the bosses. Rather, it’s ideological – a corruption of trade union principles. Without any confidence in the organized working class to struggle and win, without being politically equipped to reject the “rights” of the bosses to private property and profit, the union officials accept the terms of the employers and their job then is to strongarm bad contracts and police dissident workers. To better facilitate this process requires dismantling the democratic functions and processes of our unions, undermining the independent voice of the working class in our own organizations.
The crisis facing the labor movement is first and foremost a crisis of leadership. This is doubly complicated by the general lack of a real organized opposition in the unions, not only of socialists, but even of a layer of militant, organized, rank and file workers. Our unions have been so demobilized that we’ve lost our traditions of organized class struggle. However as we see in this strike and others, the lessons of our history and what it takes to win can be relearned quickly when the rubber meets the road.
The formation of rank and file caucuses within our unions is a critical first step in taking up the multiplying grievances of workers and organizing a fightback. But conditions aren’t worsening by accident; the bosses face little resistance from the often conservative or timid leadership. These caucuses will provide an important outlet for independent initiative, a space for discussion and debate among union members on how to rebuild a fighting labor movement.
In the case of the Washington carpenters, this is developing in the Peter J. McGuire Group, a rank and file carpenter caucus that has won the confidence of hundreds of angry workers. Taking up the tasks of not only fighting the bosses, but overcoming the obstacle of the bureaucratic leadership, this group of militants has periodically been able to take the initiative, but will need to consolidate and grow to be able to engage a broader layer of members.
This beginning of working class organization started, like the West Virginia teachers and others, with a Facebook page. This has been common in the internet era, and while it has its utility particularly early on, growing beyond that to more concrete democratic structures and sustained participation is a crucial next step.
The political composition of this group is incredibly varied, from independent socialists to conservative combat veterans and two time Trump voters. The only consistent point of agreement is fighting for better wages, conditions, and a democratic union. In this process of struggle against the Association of General Contractors (AGC), however, it’s been illuminating to a layer of members to see that the most decisive political force in genuine solidarity with the rank and file is the socialist council office of Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative.
Socialist Alternative organized a labor solidarity rally following the wildcat actions, which drew together a wider section of community supporters and trade union activists, along with some of the more progressive labor leaders in the city in support of the carpenter rank and file. While it was a good event, the weekend was a tipping point in the strike, where the carpenter leadership was coming to grips with the situation and the militant opposition was elated, but exhausted.
A combination of carrot and stick was used, where the leadership made concessions by expanding the number of sanctioned pickets and picketing the enormous Microsoft expansion daily without breaks for the contractors. Primarily through legal threats they also succeeded in pressuring some key leaders of the opposition to step away from the movement.
This strategy proved effective enough, members took a wait and see approach to see what would happen in the wake of concessions, and the dissidents were somewhat deflated and on the back foot. Further, the bargaining team was meeting and given the lack of experience in class struggle, the members weren’t sure if enough pressure had been applied to make steps forward on the contract.
Momentum was not regained, and the strike stumbled forward with the union leadership re-taking the wheel of the strike. In the last week of the strike, morale was low and many members were bitter as they participated in the sanctioned pickets so they could collect strike pay.
The bargaining team came forward with a fifth agreement, TA5, that was only a sliver better than the previous proposals, although it did bring the contract back to three years and in step with the other trades, after they had come up with a four year contract for TA4 hoping to boost the overall dollar amount in a classic shell game maneuver.
Leadership ended picketing and ordered members back to work without a contract while the TA was being brought to the members and voted on. This was said to be part of “good faith bargaining” but workers only saw this consideration given to the AGC. The improvements to the wage and benefit package over FIVE agreements and as many months was one dollar and thirty eight cents for a total of ten dollars an hour over three years.
This was $5 less than the demand of the majority of members despite such a clear and energetic mandate for a fighting approach for more. This also failed to keep up with inflation and the rapid increases in the area’s cost of living, with Seattle rents increasing over 25% in 2021 and King County home prices up by 7.5%. Renting a single family home in the Seattle metro area averages $3,000 a month, well over a third of a union carpenter’s gross income.
Even with this total demobilization of pickets and push for ratification of the contract, despite the battle weariness of members who for three weeks stepped up to fight the boss and found their own leadership guarding the gate, TA5 narrowly passed with just over 53% voting in favor. While the gains made on the check by carpenters were minimal, the lessons to be learned are invaluable.
Workers Must Organize and Fight
Unfortunately, this is hardly the first time a sellout status quo contract has been pushed through despite favorable conditions and a working class ready to fight. Just last month, BCTGM workers at Nabisco had a similar outcome from being pressured to accept a contract much less than what could have been won and what working families need.
Workers increasingly see the need to organize and fight to improve our conditions. In the absence of large-scale class struggle over several decades, we’ve seen nothing but labor’s retreat and a systematic dismantling of our quality of life. Today’s generation is the first that will be worse off than the one prior, household debt is ballooning, youth are hamstrung by crippling student loans, and this previous boom is the only one in history to see zero gains made by the working class. Union membership has plummeted in the past decades under a leadership that will do anything to avoid conflict with the bosses.
To combat this assault on workers by big business, we will need to rebuild a fighting labor movement. The militant rank and file union members of today will need to challenge the capitulating sellouts and lead our unions in the struggles tomorrow. They will need leaders who take the average worker’s wage and be both supported and held accountable by an active and organized membership. Organized labor will need to be armed with an unambiguous class struggle program and a movement-building approach, with a political voice independent of the two parties of big business by breaking from their abusive relationship with the Democratic Party.
There is still a desire to fight among some building trades workers despite the strike being over. In solidarity and coordination with rank and file construction workers, Councilmember Kshama Sawant has introduced legislation that would require all construction contractors to fully pay for parking for all construction workers in Seattle. By petitioning outside job sites and organizing with union members, over 1,000 people have signed in support and hundreds of construction workers have emailed the City Council demanding the bill be taken up and passed.
Shamefully, despite several of these Democrats having shown up at rallies and sanctioned pickets for photos and vague promises of support, not a single one would second Sawant’s motion to have the Council even discuss it. Even worse, they were emboldened in this selling out by local building trades union leaders who went so far as to publicly thank these politicians for allowing contractors to continue to steal hundreds of dollars a month out of construction workers’ pockets!
The political establishment is further emboldened to betray working people given the right wing recall campaign against the only elected Marxist in the country, Kshama Sawant. Having an effective, bold fighter for the working class able to successfully challenge the bosses, their politicians, and the labor fakers is absolutely unacceptable to the ruling class, and they have no compunction about overturning an election to strip workers of having even one political representative. Their fingers are crossed that through collaboration with billionaire Trump supporters and right wing media they can stifle the strongest voice of the working class in office.
Lessons of the Carpenters Strike
Capitalism faces escalating crises, and fully intends to place the burden on the shoulders of the working class; families who have already carried the austerity and cuts of neoliberalism for the past several decades. We can see from the carpenters’ struggle to “Striketober” that workers are willing and eager to fight back to improve our conditions, and that a broader combative mood exists particularly among young workers.
The labor movement was not built through lobbying: democratic unions were forged in fire by an active, fighting working class. As our traditions of collective struggle have diminished, so have our working conditions and democratic rights deteriorated.
The carpenters understood that this strike was serious business. The strike was not going to be won by half-measures. To win the best possible contract every job needed to be shut down. The entire working class needed to be mobilized, starting with all trades workers, our friends and families, and the wider working class community. An effective, hard hitting strike is the best way to convince the bosses that they need to pay up. This is the first lesson most workers will already have grasped.
The next step is taking back our unions. Many serious carpenters in the coming months will be looking for a way forward to take back their Locals. This is not uncomplicated. A strong rank and file caucus is on the way to being built in the Washington carpenters union, but it must arm itself with a clear program of demands for the period ahead: including contract demands as well as demands for the rebuilding of real democratic structures. The success of a rank and file caucus will also depend on its ability to understand the ideas and approach of the current union leaders so as to beat them. The union will now use all its resources to win over the best activists to become Business Agents. When the leadership is so committed to business unionism, once a member becomes an appointed staffer they can no longer represent the interests of the membership and become part of the problem.
From the strike in Seattle it’s clear what role that socialists in the labor movement and elected office have an obligation to fulfill. Not vague “support” of unions in the abstract, but principled assistance and solidarity with the rank and file ready to take on the boss and finding themselves needing to confront union leaders hostile to an effective class struggle approach.