After rejecting a 4th tentative agreement (TA) with the bosses, thousands of carpenters in Western Washington State (USA) are on strike. Art Francisco, striking carpenter, local union 30, and Marxist, talks with us about this strike that is relevant to the whole labor movement.
Why are the Seattle carpenters on strike ?
We are on strike because our wages are not keeping up with inflation. We are on strike because the respect we have both from the employers and from the trade union brass has declined. We are also in the position to be on strike because union jobs are skilled labor. The number of carpenters has gone down over the years. Younger generations are told they should go to college and not work with their hands. They are told that they should rather have white collar jobs. The scarcity of carpenters gives us leverage.
How is the strike organised ? Is it bottom up or top down ?
The strike is pretty much organised top down. The carpenters union is a dictatorship. Any sign of bottom up action is considered rebellion. We created a facebook group to organise ourselves (Peter J. Mc Guire group) and it is considered breaking the rules and a rebellion by the union. The carpenters are only allowed to picket 6 job sites while there is a hundred. The picket sites are handled by union picket captains that are hired by the president of the union. Members have no control over them. The union brass is sabotaging our strike. If you look at the tentative agreement for a contract you will see that the language of the employers and the language of the union are similar. The Peter McGuire group is bottom up. We do not allow the union brass to control the group. We ask people to identify themselves before speaking so officials cannot gang up on us. Some carpenters have walked off job sites that weren’t supposed to be on strike. At Turner Construction workers were supposed to be working but they walked off. And in a PLA [Project Labor Agreement : special contracts with government money which are illegal to strike] 12 workers walked off as well. Currently there are 11000 carpenters but the union decided only 2000 would be on strike. The union brass wants to keep the pickets from expanding the strike. The workers feel they are treated like children.
What is the current state of the strike ?
There are two possibilities : either the union will defeat the strike and force the workers to accept the contract, or workers will stand up. If the workers stand up it means breaking the law and it means taking risks. I am being sued by the union and i might get kicked out of the union.
What is the strike’s relevance for the labor movement in America ?
In the last fifty years the situation of labor has deteriorated in America. The unionization rate is only 11 % and only 7% in the private sector. In the USA there are 400 000 members of the carpenters’ union. The current strike is a major battle and it can be a turning point. It is up to the workers. They are gambling with their own lives, with their own families. Washington state is one of the strongholds of the labor movement. Construction workers have a momentum. They have to realize the magnitude of the capital that is tied to construction. There are leases. You have to build a building then fill it with things that cost money. In construction workers have an amount of autonomy.
How is the strike impacting big tech developments ?
The only big tech project that is shut down is Microsoft. It is only 60/70% effective. There are no pickets for the night shift. If you want to be effective you need 24/7 pickets. We have the potential to create big problems for capital, including Boeing one of the major companies on this planet.
Last word for our readers ?
It is important for workers to understand the role they play. People usually say : I am just a carpenter I am powerless. The union leadership has attacked the workers’ self worth. Eve Shapiro [the union president] has told the workers : you are nothing special. She attacked me as a Marxist. I am a Marxist but I don’t believe in forcing Marxism down the workers’ throat. I believe that you lead through example. Workers should be proud of themselves and the role they played in history. If our strike is successful people will talk about it for decades. Children will ask their parents : what did you do in the strike?
Currently many workers are yet undecided as to the role they want to play. Carpenters should look around the city and realize they have built all of this. Workers made history. They deserve to be proud. They have to realize it is not only about them but that it affects a lot of people. Capital makes you feel like less than you are. You have to fight alienation. Peter McGuire was the founder of the carpenters’ union, a founder of the American Federation of Labor and a Lassallian socialist. He had an influence in the struggle for the 8 hour day and for May first. There has always been lots of immigrants in carpentry. Carpenters have had a strong historical impact on things. They have always been diverse politically. To be a good leader of workers you have to explain the contradictions at play with capital. That’s how workers will get interested in Marxism.
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