Sawant wants the boss to pay for parking. Union leadership blames the council for making parking expensive.
Sawant wants the boss to pay for parking. Union leadership blames the council for making parking expensive. HK

The ambient rumble of construction work is back in full force in downtown Seattle after 54% of the The Northwest Carpenters Union membership voted on Monday to accept the fifth attempt at a reasonable contract with Associated General Contractors of Washington. The contract did not promise free parking — a key demand for many union members — but an ordinance from Councilmember Kshama Sawant now asks the city immediately to mandate construction employers pay for the parking of construction employees.

And Sawant means now, even as the council starts the important work of writing the city budget.

“It's the duty of the City Council, in my view, as the highest legislative body, to address the needs of working people, as and when they come to the fore,” Sawant said. “It would have been unconscionable for me as a union member myself and as somebody who has for nearly eight years represented the interest of working people, to not have highlighted this.”

The council is in the process of flagging issues with the mayor’s proposed budget. Policies that are not budget items usually get pushed to the back-burner at this time. For example, last week Councilmember Andrew Lewis nailed down the council’s support for the decriminalization of psychedelics in a non-budget item resolution. Lewis did this intentionally before the council shifted its full focus to planning city spending.

“If you care about working people, you should be completely capable of multitasking,” said Sawant, who has not been able to secure any co-sponsors for this legislation as of Wednesday afternoon.

It’s not impossible to implement new policies during budget season, but it is a little weird.

On the issue of timing, Sawant said she first brought up this legislation last month, but it took some time to write the actual language and to send it through the law department for review. Sawant said they got the “okay” from the City Attorney Tuesday, and the legislation was unveiled the next morning. Now, Council President Lorena Gonzáles will need to decide if she wants to put the proposal on the introduction and referral calendar.

According to a few local experts in labor law, Sawant’s effort to swiftly supersede the union’s recently negotiated parking policy looks legal. The general rule is that the government can set minimum employment standards — such as requiring paid sick leave and health insurance coverage — even if those standards require employers to go beyond the terms drawn up in a collective bargaining agreement.

According to a Wednesday morning press release, Sawant’s office said she consulted the rank-and-file to draft this legislation.

“I want to be clear, this is in solidarity with the carpenters strike – I do not believe in any way that there is any substitute for worker-led action,” Sawant said. “The strike action was indispensable.”

Matt Swanson, political director for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, called her office’s process irresponsible for not including the union.

“It's not a good or bad idea, just a little disappointed that it feels like it's not being done in collaboration with folks that work in the industry,” Swanson said.

Sawant has not made any friends with the leadership of the Northwest Carpenters Union recently. She has faced criticism for empowering the Peter J. McGuire Group, a faction of about 100 rank-and-file carpenters who went rogue after union leadership repeatedly disappointed them. In a petition that they say garnered the support of over 1,500 carpenters, union leadership urged outsiders such as Sawant to stop interfering.

Armed with picket signs splashed with Socialist Alternative’s signature red, PJM held independent pickets at 13 sites because their union initially ordered 10,000 of 12,000 workers to scab — or, depending on your view, adhere to contracts prohibiting strikes and lockouts at certain work sites. PJM issued clear demands: good family wages, paid parking, and a $15 raise over three years.

The approved contract misses the mark for PJM. Art Francisco, chair of PJM, called the contract “trash.”

“After 3 and a half weeks of being on strike, and having our strike sabotaged by our own leadership, the bargaining committee has shamefully capitulated to the contractors in agreeing to a cheap 5th [tentative agreement] that should not be to the satisfaction of any carpenter who has sacrificed on the picket lines,” Francisco said in a text message.

The three-year contract (a win in itself – the last proposed contract was four years), does not offer a $15 raise but rather a 15% raise, which amounts to just over $10. The contract expands the existing parking zone in Seattle to include First Hill, and it also establishes a parking zone in Bellevue starting next summer. For sites that do not cover parking for workers, the contract raised reimbursement from $1 to $1.50 per hour.

Downtown parking can cost carpenters up to $40 a day. You might expect Sawant, a supporter of Seattle’s Green New Deal, to point to public transit as a solution to that problem. But because construction work is usually BYO-tools, and because many construction workers commute from out-of-town, Sawant finds free parking a more “realistic” solution.

Swanson would like to see an approach that focuses more on how parking became so expensive in the first place.

Seattle lowered its parking minimum requirements in 2012 in alignment with the goals of its comprehensive plan to connect denser areas with more public transit. In a 51-page reform package, the council reduced minimum parking requirements in multifamily and commercial zones by 50% for buildings located within a quarter mile of frequent transit service. The measure also allows more developers to calculate parking stalls based on market demand.

Swanson also points to the commercial parking tax, which adds a fee of 12.5% for drivers parking in Seattle's commercial parking lots, including free and discounted parking from employer to employee.

“I think their office would probably acknowledge that some of the policies – whether it's the commercial parking tax, being limitations on parking – some of the other issues have actually driven up the cost,” Swanson said.

He added: “They've created a costly item and then are just mandating that [the industry] pay for it, and maybe that's part of the solution, but I would like to see a bigger-picture look at it.”

Sawant said her office has not passed policies that drive up the cost of parking: the commercial parking tax passed in 2006.