Peter J. McGuire carpenter addresses the multi-union crowd at a solidarity rally last Saturday
A Peter J. McGuire carpenter addresses the multi-union crowd at a solidarity rally last Saturday Hannah Krieg

After four failed attempts to bring their membership a fair contract, the Northwest Carpenters Union returned to the bargaining table today.

The Peter J. McGuire group, a group of rank-and-file carpenters, is especially sick of the union bargaining team not delivering. These carpenters want good family wages, paid parking, and a $15 raise over three years. The last failed contract offer, which the membership rejected in a 56% to 44% vote, included a 20.4% increase in wages and benefits over  four  years, stronger harassment and discrimination protections, and more parking reimbursement – some areas only being reimbursed $1.50 per hour.

A “vocal minority” of about 100 carpenters who were displeased with this offer went rogue last week and picketed over 13 unsanctioned construction sites in two days, shutting down those sites and drawing strong condemnation from union leaders. Many sites are under no-strike agreements, so those wildcat strikes could put the union in legal and thus financial trouble, union leaders warned.

Today will be the first time PJM has a representative at the table in the negotiation process. PJM’s chair, Art Francisco, who did not elect to represent the group at the bargaining table, told Jacobin that “the negotiations were not gridlocked between the union leadership and the contractors; they were gridlocked between the membership and the union leadership.”

But are the radical infiltrating Marxist extremist outsiders etc. really at the table?

Neither PJM nor the union leadership believe the independent picketers will be represented in negotiations even with both sides of the apparent rift at the table.

“The Peter J. McGuire group does not speak for the masses; we are doing what we are doing for our membership,” said Pedro Espinoza from the union’s bargaining committee. “We're not here to please them, we are actually here to bargain a good contract for all our members.”

PJM is used to being treated as an extremist faction.

“At first they were calling us racists, bigots, homophobes, Trump-supporting MAGA-types, and now they’re calling us Marxist, Antifa, Black Lives Matter communists,” said Jason Bartos, a union carpenter. “What they can do is call us working people.”

But it’s unclear whether or not the PJM representative will truly represent the PJM platform.

According to Francisco, in a letter sent earlier this month the union invited leaders of the contract opposition, including Francisco, to appoint a representative. Francisco said the group appointed Raymond Sheppard as a representative under the condition that he would report back to the group and promote its agenda.

After the appointment, Francisco stopped seeing Sheppard at rallies, which was strange given the fact that he regularly rallied with PJM. He said Sheppard appeared to go AWOL, making it difficult to hold their representative accountable.

But the day before bargaining was scheduled to take place, Sheppard posted on the PJM Facebook page – you’ll remember Publicola reporting on the sexism in that space. In the post, he told the group he has been very outspoken in favor of PJM’s platform, despite favoring $10 raises over two years to their platform’s $15 raises over three years

“We are not in a battle with our council's administration but with the AGC (at least when it comes to this contract),” his post read. “Those of you who know me, knows I wouldn't just make false claims to play cheerleader for staff so believe me when I say this bargaining committee honestly trying for the best possible outcome.”

Francisco says PJM is still trying to figure out if he represents their platforms or not.

Francisco does not expect much from the coming negotiations, except maybe for PJM to be scapegoated if the union once again fails to agree on a fair contract with the Associated General Contractors of Washington.

A union un-united

Though the union has clearly denounced its more radical members, PJM has attracted allies from elsewhere.

When the union called for its first walkout in nearly two decades on Thursday, Sept. 16, the union also ordered 10,000 of the 12,000 carpenters to scab, or to fulfill the no-strike clause in the project labor agreements (PLAs) on those sites, depending on your view of the situation. (Unions like PLAs because they ensure more union workers on more projects, but sometimes they include no-strike/no lockout clauses, which can limit worker power.)

According to Francisco, frustration mounted when the union leadership allowed members to picket only four construction sites that first day. The union says they initially organized four with hopes to grow. The next day they picketed eight. By the following Thursday, the union organized pickets at 15 sites.

Heres a cool hat! This carpenter left his site after PJM paid them a visit Thursday Sept. 23
Here's a cool hat! This carpenter left his site after PJM paid them a visit Thursday Sept. 23 Hannah Krieg

But 15 sites wasn’t enough for PJM. They believed the only way to win the strike was to shut down all construction sites, so they took matters into their own hands that Thursday. Over the next two days, the group would shut down about 13 job sites, and workers at the region’s largest construction site, the nine-figure Microsoft campus renovation in Redmond, organized themselves to shut down their project. Francisco said this could cost the bosses hundreds of thousands of dollars. I've asked AGC how much the strikes cost them and will update if I hear back.

Do they even SaWANT her help?

Last week Councilmember Kshama Sawant, members of her party, Socialist Alternative, and other union-outsiders came to bolster PJM’s numbers. In addition, Sawant pledged $10,000 of her solidarity fund – where she puts the remainder of her council salary after taking home a modest $40,000 – to PJM’s own strike fund. She also bought pizza on Thursday.

The union leadership was not happy about outsiders, and they say that 1,500 carpenters signed a petition asking them to stop interfering.

“We don’t need outsiders coming in and agitating our members in a direction that’s going to get them in trouble or put them in a bad situation,” said Evelyn Shapiro, the union’s executive secretary-treasurer.

On Saturday, Sept. 25, after two full days of shutting down construction sites, several unions gathered for a solidarity rally, including members of UAW 4121, Resident & Fellow Physician Union - Northwest, the Book Workers Union, National Writers Union, Seattle Education Association, and SEIU. The event was MC’d by Sawant’s party and an ironworker.

As Sawant spoke, a man in a bright orange hoodie heckled her from the sidewalk.

“It’s not your call, lady,” he said.

Five or six attendees swarmed him – some of whom were PJM carpenters, along with some members of Sawant’s party, and one was Sawant’s husband, who had their husky on a leash.

The man in the orange hoodie added, “Keep your nose out of my union business.”

The solidarity rally marches to AGC with red signs that credit Sawant and PJM
The solidarity rally marches to AGC with red signs that credit Sawant and PJM Hannah Krieg

While Sawant’s name was printed on the picket signs – which were in her trademark red – she spoke carefully at the rally, making suggestions rather than fully taking the reins.

She’s been accused of co-opting movements before. When she let Black Lives Matter protesters briefly occupy City Hall in the summer of 2020, one protester called Sawant out for using the movement for police accountability to push the tax on Amazon. She also pissed off the Teamsters Local 117 for "perceived meddling in a national contract negotiated by the Teamsters for UPS employees."

Even before Sawant’s involvement in the independent picketing, in a press release Shapiro accused the councilmember of “interfering” with union democracy to “grab the limelight for her own political agenda.”

An injury to one is an injury to all

But what the union leadership and its supporters called interference, the PJM group called solidarity.

Nina Wurz, a construction worker who asked for a lay-off when she was not allowed to strike at her job site, welcomed other workers.

“We've seen teachers and students and nurses and doctors and workers from all across the spectrum show up and express their solidarity with you here. And I promise you that we will show up for you,” Wurz said. “Why is our union leadership refusing this support? How does insisting we go it alone benefit anyone except the bosses?”

David Wang, a high-rise construction worker at UBC Local 70, called the cross-union solidarity uplifting.

“I’ve been picketing for a week and a half – my feet are tired, my voice is tired,” Wang said. “I’m glad to see non-carpenter, community supporters add their feet and their voices to our struggle.”

During the week of Sept. 27, the union opened up picketing to more sites – 18 on Wednesday, Sept. 29, up from the initial four. Francisco took this step as a concession from the union, and so PJM took a break from independent picketing. The union said the decision to open up more sites was about “capacity and learning,” not a concession. Francisco stood on a sanctioned picket line today.

Following their independent picketing last week and anticipating next steps from the bargaining table, Francisco said that PJM is in a state of “wait-and-see.”

“I don’t think we’ve suddenly shifted and that the council is on our side,” Francisco said. “The council has been screwing us all summer. The trust there is pretty much gone.”