Lefty Union May Pull Sawant Support, Durkan Budget Kills RV Outreach Program, City Blames Providers for Lack of Street Sinks

1. For weeks, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant has been involving herself with a strike by members of the Pacific Northwest Carpenters’ Union, joining a group of militant carpenters in encouraging “wildcat” strikes at work sites where legally binding agreements forbid walking off the job. The splinter group, called the Peter J. McGuire Group, maintains that union leaders aren’t asking for enough in ongoing negotiations with the Association of General Contractors.

Sawant has largely dismissed union leaders and members who have asked her to stop “interfering” in the ongoing strike, accusing “top union officials” of being the ones who are actually fomenting dissent by discouraging wildcat strikes. Now, a union that has historically supported Sawant, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, says they may not contribute materially to her upcoming recall election because of her work to disrupt the carpenters’ labor negotiations. In the past, UFCW has contributed thousands of dollars to independent expenditure campaigns that have worked to elect Sawant. 

The union has endorsed a “no” vote on the recall, which UFCW 21 secretary-treasurer Joe Mizrahi calls an “undemocratic” effort they would oppose “no matter who the candidate was.” 

“[Sawant’s] treasury doesn’t get seized. She doesn’t lose her job. So the accountability that the union has to think about doesn’t exist for her.”—UFCW 21 Treasurer-Secretary Joe Mizrahi

Mizrahi says Sawant is ignoring the ways in which “her involvement puts workers’ jobs at risk and their union money at risk. … Striking is a legal act—oftentimes, these contracts have a no-strike clause and if you violate that, the worker is not protected.”

Unions and workers can pay a stiff price if wildcat strikes disrupt a company’s ability to do business, Mizrahi says. For example, in Portland, secondary strikes by the longshoreman’s union (strikes against companies that were not party to the union’s contract) resulted in a judgment that bankrupted the union’s treasury. Such judgments send money directly from workers (whose dues make up the union treasury) to the companies that employ them. “The union treasury is employee money, so it’s transferring that worker money right back to the employer, which is the last place you want it to go,” Mizrahi said.

Mizrahi says it’s good to have union members pushing leadership for more favorable contract terms, but notes that Sawant isn’t the one who will suffer the consequences if the union is penalized because its workers violate labor law. “Her treasury doesn’t get seized. She doesn’t lose her job. So the accountability that the union has to think about doesn’t exist for her.”

2. For the second year in a row, Mayor Jenny Durkan has proposed eliminating funding for the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, a private program that works to keep people living in vehicles from losing their only source of shelter. And for the second year, Scofflaw Team founder Bill Kirlin-Hackett is trying to get the Seattle City Council to restore the team’s funding, arguing that the $80,000 the team receives is crucial because it helps people living in RVs and cars pay for repairs, parking tickets, and other expenses they incur as a result of city policies aimed at preventing people from living in their vehicles.

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Kirlin-Hackett says he has already spoken to council members about restoring funds for the program, “advocating, in large part, ‘if you cut this then you will have no one doing intentional outreach to vehicle residents when half the unsheltered population lives in vehicles.'”

Mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower notes that Durkan’s proposed budget includes a transfer of funds from the Seattle Department of Transportation to Seattle Public Utilities for trash pickup, sewage pump-outs, and property removal from RV sites, in order to “solicit voluntary compliance w[ith] removing belongings, debris from ROW.” The budget itself identifies these funds, which would pay for one new “field coordinator,” as “part of the City’s efforts to increase access to the [right-of-way].”

Hightower notes that the council paid for the scofflaw program last year with one-time funds, and says this year’s cut is in keeping with that intent. However, the city council actually first funded the program in 2019 with ongoing funds, adding it back to the budget in 2020 (and funding it with one-time dollars) after the mayor’s budget eliminated funding for the program.

3. Durkan’s budget also includes no new funding for street sinks, which the council funded in 2020 so that unsheltered people could wash their hands. Since most public restrooms in the city shut down or limited access in response to COVID, diseases like shigellosis, hepatitis A, and cryptosporidiosis have rampaged through communities of people living unsheltered, who have little access to clean water and soap.

“There is deep, deep resentment that [service providers] would be responsible for the sinks: ‘Why is the city not doing this? Why is it up to us, especially [when we’re] being overwhelmed during the pandemic?'”—Tiffani McCoy, Real Change

The mayor has consistently thrown up roadblocks to the sinks, ranging from concerns about “vandalism” to demands that SPU study alternatives to soap-and-water washing, such as a “Purell on a pole” idea that would substitute a quick squirt of hand sanitizer for a thorough cleaning with soap and water. The city finally allocated funds to two organizations, Seattle Makers and the Clean Hands Collective, with new requirements: The sinks have to drain directly into a storm drain, rather than a receptacle or planter as originally proposed, and they have to be fully ADA compliant, not just wheelchair accessible.

The city does not apply similar universal accessibility standards to its own portable toilets, many of which are inaccessible to people in wheelchairs.

As a result of all these requirements, SPU director Mami Hara said during a budget presentation last week that out of 63 street sinks that were supposed to be installed this year, just one is up and running, at El Centro de la Raza on Beacon Hill. Hara said that one major sticking point was that social service providers did not want to maintain the sinks once they were placed.

Of 110 locations the founders of the Street Sink project, Real Change, approached, nine met all the city’s requirements but five of those “have declined adopting due to staffing shortages and concerns around being able to maintain the sinks…  due to ADA and graywater concerns,” Hara said. A spokeswoman for SPU later elaborated: “Many organizations feel they do not have staff capacity for continuous sink monitoring and maintenance, including for any accessibility modifications required to protect users. One example would be a required safety ramp if a hose were to be placed in the right-of-way or on a sidewalk.”

Tiffani McCoy, the advocacy director for Real Change, said it’s unreasonable for the city to blame providers for not wanting to maintain city-funded sinks themselves, especially after the city spent more than a year adding restrictions to the program. “The city’s narrative that it’s the organizations’ fault is so wrong,” McCoy said. “There is deep, deep resentment that they would be responsible for the sinks: ‘Why is the city not doing this? Why is it up to us, especially [when we’re] being overwhelmed during the pandemic?'”

Council members, including District 2 representative Tammy Morales, have been asking similar questions. Meanwhile, the incidence of diseases that spread via fecal matter on unwashed hands, such as shigellosis and E.coli-related illness, continue to grow year over year; for example, as of August, the county had confirmed more cases of shigellosis than in all of 2018.

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