By Erica C. Barnett
[Content note: Misogynistic slurs]
As members of the Northwest Carpenters Union began an indefinite strike at work sites across the Puget Sound region on Thursday, union leaders raised questions about potential interference in contract negotiations—and the strike itself—by city council member Kshama Sawant and her political organization, Socialist Alternative.
Sawant and SA, they charged, encouraged people to vote against the union’s proposed contract with the Associated General Contractors and have subsequently encouraged wildcat strikes—pickets and walkouts that occur without union authorization, often on sites where project labor agreements prohibit workers from walking off the job.
“We’ve had at least one elected official who’s been a proponent of [wildcat strikes] and encouraging that, and we don’t appreciate that kind of input from politicians,” the union’s executive secretary-treasurer, Evelyn Shapiro, said Thursday.
“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.” Unions have strict rules dictating how they can strike and where, Shapiro said; picketing at a site where the union has agreed not to strike because the union and contractor have signed a project labor agreement, for example, can lead to lawsuits and internal charges against union members.
Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who previously worked as a lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council, told PubliCola, “Our job as elected officials is to support union members, period, not to influence how they vote or to try to whip votes in a certain direction. … We’re there to show solidarity when they vote and to make it possible for the wages and benefits that people are negotiating to go even further.”
“We’ve had at least one elected official who’s been a proponent of [wildcat strikes] and encouraging that, and we don’t appreciate that kind of input from politicians. 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.”—Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters leader Evelyn Shapiro
Much of the agitation against the contract, and in favor of wildcat strikes, has come from a group of union members who are active on Facebook, including some self-identified Marxists who believe the contract doesn’t go nearly far enough to protect workers’ wages, health care, and pensions. Nicole Grant, executive secretary-treasurer of the King County Labor Council, said she’s “never seen anything quite this serious in the course of my career, where a small faction of Marxist extremists, with the backing of an elected official, have been able to not just wreak this much havoc inside of a union but been this undermining.”
The contract, which union members rejected last week, included a 20 percent raise over four years and an increase in parking reimbursement to $1.50 an hour, among other conditions. Key points of contention included the size of the wage increase, the length of the contract, and the parking reimbursement, particularly for carpenters who work in Bellevue and downtown Seattle, where people are being “taxed to go to work,” Shapiro said.
Arthur Esparza, a union member (and a Marxist who is unaffiliated with Socialist Alternative) who runs a public Facebook group opposing the contract, confirmed that Sawant’s office did send “liaisons” to support his group but added, “They have no control over our rallies and we’re very independent from Socialist Alternative.” Sawant’s longtime staffer, Jonathan Rosenblum, said her only involvement in the negotiations was a Labor Day “solidarity letter” decrying the carpenters’ working conditions and the “millionaires and billionaires” who profit from union members’ labor. “I am committed to fight alongside you for a good union contract for all carpenters,” the letter said.
However, Sawant also promoted a rally held by contract opponents the week before the final vote, calling the proposed contract terms “substandard” and “insulting.” Rosenblum also opposed the contract publicly on Twitter, calling the terms “lousy” and praising the carpenters’ union for rejecting it after four successive votes.
Rosenblum told PubliCola that Sawant, her staff, and Rosenblum personally played no part in organizing or rallying against the contract. “Now that the union members have democratically voted to strike, we will of course be supporting them,” he added.
Commenters on Esparza’s Peter J. McGuire Facebook page—named after the founder of the carpenters’ union— have spent days debating whether to engage in wildcat strikes (for which Esparza received a cease and desist demand from an attorney for the union yesterday). At times, the discussion has devolved into misogynistic personal attacks against Shapiro—the first woman to lead a United Brotherhood of Carpenters regional council in US history.
Men posting on Esparza’s page have called Shapiro, a carpenter who came up through the union apprenticeship program, a “dumb bitch out there trying to take credit for our work,” a “fucking cunt,” and other slurs. One man posted that Shapiro had “agreed to blow the first 100 carpenters to picket Microsoft Monday morning,” following up with, “If I regretted the b.j. post I would delete it. But I want Evelyn to see it. … I hope it tortures and haunts her.”
Another man, posting on the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters’ page, wrote, “FUCK YOU SHAPIRO YOU IGNORANT CUNT!!! HOW ABOUT YOU DO THE FUCK WHAT WE WANT OR GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY?”
Monty Anderson, executive secretary for the Seattle Construction and Building Trades Council, told PubliCola that “in 30 years I have never seen this kind of division and sexism until Facebook gave a place for a few on the fringe to be seen and heard. They do not represent labor,” he added; “some just want to watch the world burn.”
One man posted that Shapiro had “agreed to blow the first 100 carpenters to picket Microsoft Monday morning,” following up with, “If I regretted the b.j. post I would delete it. But I want Evelyn to see it. … I hope it tortures and haunts her.”
But Grant, from the King County Labor Council, said she has experienced similar treatment as a female union leader. “I feel it strongly when I see a union member calling somebody from their union, one of their union sisters, a cunt, especially when it’s a member of standing who’s serving the union in elected leadership,” Grant said. “It’s heartbreaking and scary—the hate crimes on job sites are absolutely real and more frequent than probably anybody would believe. So when I see somebody just being like, ‘she’s a cocksucker, she’s a cunt’, I feel it myself because I’ve had really similar experiences.”
Esparza, who says he removes hate speech from the site as soon as he sees it, condemned the comments, saying there was no room for misogyny, racism, homophobia, or transphobia in discussions about labor rights. (The written rules for the Peter J. McGuire Facebook group condemn harassment and assault.) “Women only make up 1 to 3 percent of construction workers, so I think that the lack of integration of the industry has helped to fuel a lot of sexism and misogyny,” Esparza said.
But Esparza said Shapiro herself bears at least some of the blame when people attack at her personally, because she’s a leader in a union that hasn’t historically condemned misogyny and racism enough. “These issues have to be addressed, but the reason we still deal with them in my opinion is because of poor leadership” by people like Shapiro and United Brotherhood of Carpenters General President, Doug McCarron, who met with then-President Donald Trump in 2017, he said. “When Donald Trump, who’s a well-known sexist and misogynist, was elected, Douglas McCarron couldn’t wait [to meet with him] and Evelyn has never been critical of that.”
Esparza also accuses those who’ve focused on the misogynistic online attacks of attempting a “to deflect attention away from the real grievances that working carpenters have with both the leadership and the contractors.”
Grant, from the Labor Council, said the misogyny and hate speech she’s seen during this contract negotiation have been “totally unique” in her experience as a labor leader, and deserve to be called out. “The foundation of our culture is kinship, support mutual aid, acceptance, kindness—you know, that’s, like, normal labor culture. We’re always trying to get better about gender and sexism and racism, but to have a group that’s active, that’s affecting people’s contract and their paycheck, and their bottom line is ‘fuck you, cunt, viva la resistance’— that’s not normal, and it’s bad, and it needs to stop.”