Category: labor

Omicron Hits Police, Library Workers Hard; Longtime City Union Rep Will Head Labor Relations Office

1. In the past month, the COVID-19 virus tore through the Seattle Police Department, placing dozens of officers in quarantine and adding a new strain to the department’s already-depleted ranks.

On January 12, SPD reported that 124 officers were isolating after testing positive for the virus: more than at any other point during the COVID-19 pandemic, easily surpassing the previous record of 80 officers in quarantine in November 2020. As of last Friday, the number of officers in quarantine had fallen to 85. Nearly 200 SPD employees have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of January, doubling the department’s total number of infections since the start of the pandemic.

The surge of COVID-19 infections, driven by the highly infectious omicron variant, intensifies a staffing shortage at SPD that has whittled away the department’s detective units and left some precincts with only a handful of officers to patrol large areas of the city. With fewer than 1,000 available officers—the lowest number in decades—SPD now routinely relies on non-patrol officers to volunteer for patrol shifts to meet minimum staffing requirements.

Another 170 officers are currently on leave, including more than two dozen unvaccinated officers who are burning through their remaining paid leave before they leave the department. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and sergeants, has not reached an agreement with the city about the vaccine mandate for city employees, which went into effect on October 18. SPOG is the only city union that has not reached an agreement with the city about the mandate, and its negotiations appear to have stalled.

In contrast, the King County Sheriff’s Office is still working with some unvaccinated officers to find accommodations that will allow them to return to work. Sergeant Tim Meyer, a sheriff’s office spokesman, told PubliCola that his office hasn’t seen enough new COVID-19 cases to pose a challenge for their patrol shifts.

2. The omicron variant is also impacting other city departments where staff interact directly with the public, including the Seattle Public Library, which last week reduced opening hours at branches across the system. For now, many branches will be open only sporadically, starting as late as noon on weekdays, and some will be open just a few partial days each week.

According to SPL spokeswoman Elisa Murray, 63 library staffers, or about 10 percent of the library’s staff, were on a leave of absence (through programs such as the Family and Medical Leave Act) for at least one day during the last two weeks of 2021; in addition, 32 employees were out due to COVID infection or exposure.

Compounding the problem, the library was already short-staffed before omicron hit; compared to 2018, the system had about 8.5 percent fewer staffers overall last year. According to Murray, “With a hiring push in the fall of 2021, we were able to restore pre-pandemic hours at most libraries by Dec. 6, just before the Omicron surge began impacting our staffing numbers once again.”

The library is trying to keep at least two branches in each of its six geographical regions open six or seven days a week so that no one has to travel too far to reach an open branch. Patrons of smaller branches, like Wallingford, Montlake, New Holly, and Northgate may have to travel to other neighborhoods to access services in person.

There is no standard pattern for closures across the city: Some branches are closed on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, for example, while others are closed on Saturday and Sunday. Murray suggests checking SPL’s website every morning to see which branches are open; the library requires a specific mix of staffers to open a branch, which means that one person calling in sick can be enough to close down a small branch for the day.

3. Shaun Van Eyk, the longtime labor representative for the city of Seattle’s largest union, PROTEC17, will soon be on the other side of the bargaining table as director of Labor Relations for the city’s human resources department. Van Eyk reportedly beat out Adrienne Thompson, former mayor Jenny Durkan’s chief labor advisor, for the position.

As a representative for PROTEC17, Van Eyk advocated for Human Services Department workers facing an uncertain future as the city’s homelessness division dissolved; argued against proposed free-speech restrictions that would limit what city employees could say online; and tangled with city leaders, including those at the Seattle Police Department, over the enforcement of Seattle’s vaccine mandate. (While police officers are represented by the Seattle Police Officers Guild, PROTEC17 represents civilian SPD employees.) In an email to union members announcing Van Eyk’s new position, PROTEC17 director Karen Estevenin credited Van Eyk with negotiating a COVID-era teleworking agreement and a recent wage increase for union members.

The labor relations division has undergone significant churn since the untimely death of its longtime director, David Bracilano, in 2017.

Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

Vaccine Mandate Applies to Incarcerated Workers; Anti-Vax Conspiracy Theorist Runs for Hospital Board

1. According to a memo issued to all Washington Department of Corrections inmates last week, the state’s vaccine mandate does apply to some incarcerated workers. The memo clears up one point of confusion in a larger and ongoing debate about whether inmates qualify as state workers.

As of October 26, the DOC will require vaccinations for positions on Department of Natural Resources (DNR) work crews, Department of Veteran’s Affairs (DVA) work crews, and for positions with Correctional Industries, the semi-autonomous business conglomerate run by the DOC, that involve working outside of the state’s 12 prisons. Any unvaccinated incarcerated workers have until December 13 to complete the vaccine regimen; for now, the DOC will not allow them to return to work.

The department is allowing incarcerated people to apply for medical or religious exemptions from the mandate. The DOC has not yet responded to PubliCola’s inquiries about the exemption process, nor have they specified how many workers are subject to the mandate.

Vaccination rates among people in DOC custody have slightly outstripped the state’s overall rate of 73 percent: more than three-quarters of all inmates are fully vaccinated. In mid-September, the vaccination rate for DOC staff was significantly lower—around 40 percent—and the department has begun the process of firing more than 300 staffers who refused to comply with the state’s mandate.

Despite the relatively high vaccination rate, COVID-19 infections remain a persistent problem in the DOC’s prisons and work release facilities. On Thursday, the department instituted a lockdown at the Cedar Creek Correctional Center near Centralia to contain an outbreak of the virus; meanwhile, the Clallam Bay Correctional Center on the Olympic Peninsula is still recovering from a dramatic surge in cases in late August and September.

Although the number of new vaccinations that will result from the mandate is still unknown, any increase in vaccinations among incarcerated people could become even more important as the DOC begins an effort to shift hundreds of inmates from prisons to work release facilities and home monitoring in the coming months. That project—a continuation of last year’s efforts to reduce prison populations in response to the pandemic—also involves adding bunks at the dozen work release centers around the state in anticipation of new arrivals; as those centers become more crowded, vaccination campaigns will become even more vital for the safety of people in custody.

2. Even if you vote faithfully in every election, you may not pay always make it to the bottom of the ballot, where the fire and rescue commissioners, sewer board members, and cemetery commissioners tend to languish. But maybe you should—especially if you live in Renton, where a anti-vax COVID denier who peddled election conspiracy theories and bragged about being in Washington, D.C. on January 6 is running for a position on the hospital board that oversees Valley Medical Center, in Washington.

Katie Bachand, a doula who graduated from the Seattle Midwifery School and Bastyr University, portrays herself in the King County  King County Voters’ Guide as a fiscally-minded reformer who wants to “return control of our Hospital District to the voters” and “stop the Trustees from taking your property taxes to fund whatever they deem to be necessary expenditures, including the salary of the CEO, without a vote from the Board of Commissioners!”

But in private social media posts, Bachand has promoted disinformation about COVID, including the “theory” that vaccinations cause the disease, promoted posts calling the pandemic itself a “psy-op,” not a pandemic”), referred to vaccine mandates as “Nazi[sm],” and promoted untested “cures” for COVID such as ivermectin, the much-mocked horse dewormer that the FDA has warned is not a treatment for COVID. In one September post, Bachand suggested that the government manufactured the COVID crisis to convince people to “accept a shot that changes our dna. This is all factual and from the Bible- no conspiracy theory ideas….”

As recently as August 21, Bachand encouraged nurses and other public employees to resist vaccine mandates in order to “win against tyranny”. Bachand also bragged about being in Washington, D.C. for former president Trump’s January 6th “Stop the Steal” rally claiming that “the truth is coming out that the F Bee Eye was behind it”—lingo meant to evade Facebook’s misinformation filters—and claimed in September that Joe Biden’s election should be decertified because “the audit showed over 57,000 fraudulent votes.”

Monique Taylor-Swan, Bachand’s opponent, is a certified home care aid and a board member of Service Employees International Union 775 with a long list of union and Democratic Party endorsements. According to the Progressive Voters Guide, Taylor-Swan wants to focus on “proper staffing and making pay more equitable between the highest-paid executives and underpaid nurses and staff” at Valley Medical.

—Paul Kiefer, Clara Coyote

Former OneAmerica Head Files Ethics Complaint Against Mayoral Candidate Bruce Harrell

By Erica C. Barnett

Rich Stolz, the former head of the immigrant rights group OneAmerica, has filed a formal complaint asking the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission to investigate mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell’s actions as a council member to “discourage [an] investigation” by the city’s Office of Labor Standards into allegations of unpaid sick leave and wage theft brought against the Royal Esquire Club, the Black men’s social club that Harrell chairs.

As we’ve reported, Harrell called the OLS investigator looking into the case to ask for information about the investigation, mentioning that “he helped construct the Office of Labor Standards and would have to look in the future if any changes in funding need to be implemented,” according to the investigator. The club settled the complaint, which involved five women, for a total of just under $11,000 in June 2019.

Four months after the agreement was finalized, Harrell proposed spending $50,000 to survey businesses investigated by OLS, whose employees Harrell called “extremely unprofessional.” In pitching the business poll, Harrell said he had heard from many minority-owned small businesses that were “devastated” or even “forced to close” by enforcement actions over what he called “good-faith disputes” with workers, not “wage theft in the traditional sense.”

In his complaint, Stolz—a González supporter—alleges that Harrell “misused his official position to influence an Office of Labor Standards (‘OLS’) investigation into serious workplace violations at the Royal Esquire Club (‘REC’) when Councilmember Harrell was the Board Chairman. Councilmember Harrell’s misuse of public office included a threat to OLS, with the implication that if OLS did not conclude its investigation in a way that Councilmember Harrell approved, its funding would be in jeopardy.”

His current opponent for mayor, Lorena González, objected back then to what she called a “hit piece on OLS” with “a predetermined outcome,” saying that if someone had conducted a survey of all the people she had sued for labor law violations over the years, “I suspect that the results of that survey would resoundingly say that they hated me, and that… my clients’ claims were frivolous.”

In his complaint, Stolz—a González supporter—alleges that Harrell “misused his official position to influence an Office of Labor Standards (‘OLS’) investigation into serious workplace violations at the Royal Esquire Club (‘REC’) when Councilmember Harrell was the Board Chairman. Councilmember Harrell’s misuse of public office included a threat to OLS, with the implication that if OLS did not conclude its investigation in a way that Councilmember Harrell approved, its funding would be in jeopardy.”

The complaint includes a memo from OLS’ file on the wage theft investigation about an apparently awkward meeting between two OLS investigators and a representative of the club who complained about the investigation and informed them that Mayor Jenny Durkan supports the club and has called herself an “Esquirette.” Continue reading “Former OneAmerica Head Files Ethics Complaint Against Mayoral Candidate Bruce Harrell”

As Vaccine Deadline Nears, Negotiator In Charge of Police Bargaining Leaves City

By Paul Kiefer

The window of opportunity for the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) to negotiate a deal with the city about the enforcement of the city’s new mandatory vaccination policy, which takes effect on October 18, is closing.

And this Friday, those negotiations will hit another snag: Ned Burke, the city negotiator responsible for bargaining with SPOG, is leaving Seattle’s labor relations unit. Jeff Clark, the interim head of the labor relations unit since the departure of former director Jana Sangy in March, has few options to replace Burke at the negotiating table, so Burke’s exit poses a challenge for the city as the deadline to reach an agreement with SPOG approaches.

Because SPOG represents public safety employees, the guild has an option that other public employee unions lack: as a last resort, the guild can bring its disagreements with the city before an arbitrator. After hearing arguments from both SPOG and the city, the arbitrator would unilaterally decide how the city will implement the vaccine requirement for police officers, including whether officers will get a grace period after October 18 to get vaccinated instead of facing immediate termination.  Burke would have been responsible for presenting the city’s argument to an arbitrator; instead, the city may need to find someone new to take on that high-stakes role.

As the sole holdout among Seattle’s public safety unions, SPOG runs the risk that an arbitrator could dismiss their demands as a tactic to stall the enforcement of the mandate, leaving their members to accept the city’s terms or lose their jobs.

With negotiations stalled, arbitration appears to be the most likely end to the standoff. And as the October 18 deadline approaches, SPOG is isolated. When the Coalition of City Unions reached an agreement with the city about the mandate last month, the Seattle Police Management Association—the union representing SPD lieutenants and captains, which initially bargained alongside SPOG—split with the guild and joined the larger coalition, foregoing its right to arbitration.

While SPOG and other public safety employee unions often prefer to take the gamble of arbitration instead of reaching a compromise with the city—in the past, arbitrators have often sided with police unions—the guild is in a challenging position this month. As the sole holdout among Seattle’s public safety unions, SPOG runs the risk that an arbitrator could dismiss their demands as a tactic to stall the enforcement of the mandate, leaving their members to accept the city’s terms or lose their jobs. Continue reading “As Vaccine Deadline Nears, Negotiator In Charge of Police Bargaining Leaves City”

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

City Reaches Agreement with Unions Over Vaccine Mandate Rules; SPOG Agreement Still to Come

By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday evening, a coalition of Seattle city employee unions reached a tentative agreement with the City of Seattle about the enforcement of the city’s new mandatory vaccination policy.  The agreement, which outlines rules for vaccination exemptions and offers paid time off for vaccinated employees, now needs the approval of both the unions’ membership and the city council. Union members will vote on the agreement this weekend.

On Friday, both Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and city labor leadership heralded the agreement as a key victory in the city’s fight to control the spread of COVID-19. Karen Estevenin, the executive director of PROTEC17, which represents employees across multiple city departments, told PubliCola the union coalition didn’t object to the vaccine mandate itself, but wanted to give city employees a hand in shaping how the mandate will play out in their workplace.

“One of the key benefits of having a union is that workers have a voice on policy changes that affect their workplaces and their livelihoods,” she said. “By negotiating the terms of the vaccine mandate, we wanted to ensure that this was a fair, transparent, and equitable policy for all City employees.”

Behind the scenes, labor organizers convinced nearly every public employee union to buy into the agreement, including the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), which represents lieutenants and captains in the Seattle Police Department. One key holdout is the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and is still negotiating its own arrangement with the city. Public safety employee unions have negotiating options that other public sector unions lack, so it is not uncommon for SPOG and other unions representing public safety employees to bargain separately from the larger coalition.

The agreement, which the mayor’s office announced publicly on Friday, will guarantee a floating vacation day in the next year for all employees who submit proof by October 5 that they are fully vaccinated or that they will be vaccinated by the October 18 deadline. Vaccinated employees will also receive another 80 hours of paid leave to deal with COVID-related emergencies, including recovering from vaccination or taking care of newly vaccinated family members.

As negotiations wound to a close this week, the coalition ran into two sticking points: whether to replenish the sick day allowance for employees who took time off work to get vaccinated earlier this year and whether the mandate would cover city contractors. The agreement reached on Thursday will allow employees to restore three days of sick leave they used to receive the vaccine before Durkan announced the mandate, and it specifies that the city will apply the vaccine mandate to any contractors and vendors who work on city construction sites or in close proximity with city staff. Continue reading “City Reaches Agreement with Unions Over Vaccine Mandate Rules; SPOG Agreement Still to Come”

Sound Transit CEO Rogoff Out Next Year, Labor Council Wades Into Sawant Fray, 43rd Democrats Divided on Dow

1. Learn to trust the Fizz: Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff will leave the agency next spring. On Thursday, Sound Transit board members voted to approve the terms of Rogoff’s departure and queuing up a national search for his replacement.

The announcement came two weeks after the board removed what had seemed to be a standard one-year renewal of Rogoff’s contract from their regular agenda, after a nearly two-hour executive session in which board members discussed his performance as director of the agency. Board members also retreated to a lengthy executive session during Thursday’s meeting before emerging with the news that Rogoff “did not foresee continuing in his role,” in the words of board chair Kent Keel.

As PubliCola reported in early September, board members have spent the last month discussing whether to renew Rogoff’s contract, raising questions about Rogoff’s leadership style as well as large cost increases—largely for property acquisition—that forced the board to adopt a “realignment” plan for the voter-approved Sound Transit 3 package earlier this year. Mayor Jenny Durkan King County Council member Claudia Balducci, and King County Executive Dow Constantine are among the board members who brought up concerns publicly and internally.

According to a report by an independent consultant, Triunity, the cost increases were worsened by the fact that various divisions of the agency didn’t communicate with each other, thanks to a “siloed” organizational structure and a culture of keeping bad news under wraps. Another issue: Sound Transit, under Rogoff’s leadership, has been slow to make decisions that could reduce costs, such as choosing a single preferred alignment for light rail expansion instead of continuing to study many different options.

Durkan, one of two board members to vote against retaining Rogoff after allegations that he acted inappropriately around female staff, did not join in the round of praise for Rogoff that followed the board vote Thursday. After a round of effusive praise for Rogoff (Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus: “We should be very grateful as a board and a region for his expertise and skills”), Balducci’s comments focused mostly on Rogoff’s early years at the agency, calling him a steady hand when the agency was struggling to get its bearings

“We were trying… to build this incredibly ambitious and future-looking transit plan, to finally meet the promise of what we have needed and wanted in this region for over 50 years,” Balducci said. “Peter stepped in in the middle of that and quickly got his bearings and helped to bring us home.”

Rogoff will receive severance worth one year’s salary, plus unused vacation time and other benefits outlined in his contract. Speaking after the vote, Rogoff said he has found the job “simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting,” sometimes leaning more toward the latter. “I will continue to be the loudest cheerleader for Sound Transit’s staff and all of their accomplishments even after I step to the sidelines next year,” he said.

2. The King County Labor Council, which represents around 150 unions in King County, tweeted on Thursday urging Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant to stop “meddling” and “interfering” in the internal business of the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Union, which is currently on strike over a contract that a majority of members rejected over issues including pay, contract length, and parking reimbursements. “Ask how you can support instead of being a nuisance,” the Labor Council said.

Sawant began inserting herself into the debate earlier this month, when she issued statements and held a rally urging union members to vote “no” on the contract. Union leaders, including the head of the anti-Sawant Building Trades Union as well as the Carpenters’ Union itself, have repeatedly asked Sawant to stay out of their negotiations. “[N]o politician should be meddling in a private sector union contract negotiation,” Washington State Building Trades vice president Chris McClaine said. “It only helps those who want to destroy worker unions and take money out of workers’ paychecks.”

This week, Sawant issued a flurry of statements supporting the strike, touting her own promise to contribute $10,000 (up from an initial pledge of $2,000) to the carpenters’ strike fund, and showcasing a letter of support from several dozen carpenters’ union members for “stepp[ing] forward in solidarity” with the strike. The $10,000 pledge will come from the Sawant Solidarity Fund, which supports various political efforts and campaigns.

Sawant also said this week that she will introduce legislation to “require construction contractors to fully pay for workers’ parking costs, strengthen enforcement and penalties for wage theft, and restore [the] right to strike” at sites with a project labor agreement (PLA)—a bargained agreement between the union and contractors that prohibits workers from walking off the job. PLA sites in Seattle include the NHL hockey arena, the downtown convention center, and Sound Transit’s ongoing light rail construction.

It’s unclear when Sawant plans to introduce the legislation or what mechanism it would contain for requiring specific parking reimbursements, which are currently included in union contracts, not dictated by legislation.

3. The 43rd Legislative District Democrats failed to reach an endorsement for King County Executive at their endorsement meeting Tuesday night, a victory of sorts for incumbent Dow Constantine after a series of landslide votes for lefty candidates in other races. Constantine received a little over 43 percent of the vote to his challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen’s, 54 percent.

That may not seem like a blowout, but compared to the district’s sweeping support for other progressive candidates—city attorney candidate Nicole Thomas Kennedy, City Council candidate Nikkita Oliver, and mayoral candidate Lorena González all received first-round votes of at least 75 percent—Nguyen’s 54 percent showing looked limp.

“We cannot wait for the status quo to solve the problems that have been impacting us for decades and they especially won’t be solved by those who helped create them,” Nguyen said before the vote. Constantine responded to this by highlighting the county’s work responding to the COVID pandemic, including the imposition of a countywide vaccine mandate for indoor and large outdoor events. “This is the kind of difficult work that real leaders do. I’ve never been much for bluster,” Constantine said.

Misogynistic Attacks, Accusations of “Interference” By Sawant, as Carpenters’ Union Strikes

Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters leader Evelyn Shapiro
Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters leader Evelyn Shapiro

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.

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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.” Continue reading “Misogynistic Attacks, Accusations of “Interference” By Sawant, as Carpenters’ Union Strikes”

Vaccination Resistance at SPD Continues Amid COVID Spike; Harrell Turns Down Police Accountability Debate

1. The highly contagious Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus is spreading quickly in Washington, including within the Seattle Police Department. In the past three weeks, 29 officers tested positive for the virus, marking the highest increase in cases within the department since the beginning of the pandemic. SPD also saw cases spike in April, when roughly 20 officers tested positive for the virus.

The new spike also spurred a sharp increase in the number of officers in quarantine. At the beginning of August, only one officer was in quarantine; on Monday, 33 officers were isolating themselves. The number of officers in quarantine reached its peak in late November of last year, when 80 officers quarantined after exposure to the virus; those figures plummeted at the beginning of the year, routinely falling into the single digits.

This month’s increase in infections among police officers comes on the heels of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to require all city employees to receive the COVID-19 before October 18, 2021 or risk termination. The city’s vaccination mandate sparked outcry from the coalition of city unions, including the two largest unions representing Seattle police officers, who argued that any decision that affects working conditions requires the city to come to the bargaining table to negotiate how the city implements the new rule.

In a letter to interim Labor Relations unit head Jeff Clark, coalition co-chair Shaun Van Eyk wrote that the October 18 timeline won’t leave enough time for the city to “bargain in good faith”; instead, his coalition demanded that the city not enforce the mandate until it completes negotiations with the unions.

Mike Solan, the president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, is among the loudest critics of the vaccination mandate. In a letter published on his union’s blog on August 9, Solan claimed that more than half of his union’s members are vaccinated, though he suggested that mandating vaccination could prompt officers who have resisted the shot to leave the department in protest.

“SPOG is concerned for the safety and wellbeing of all of our members including those with personal vaccination beliefs,” he wrote. “Can Seattle now endure more losses of police officers due to Mayor Durkan’s vaccination order?” A week later, Solan clarified on his podcast that his objection to the mandate “isn’t about whether the vaccine works. That isn’t our lane.”

So far, SPD has been unable to track its employees’ vaccination status because of privacy rules, but the city’s vaccine mandate could provide a chance for the department to start collecting this data.

Van Eyk said Monday that intransigent conservatives aren’t the only ones who aren’t getting jabbed; some employees of color are hesitant, too, because they mistrust a medical system that has historically exploited African Americans and other BIPOC individuals.

2. The state auditor’s reported Monday that the city council’s controversial contract with the nonprofit Freedom Project to oversee the Black Brilliance Research Project last year was built on questionable foundations.

While the council’s decision to award the $3 million no-bid contract to the same organizations that lobbied for the funding didn’t technically break any state rules, state auditor Pat McCarthy wrote in a press release on Monday that “the city exercised only the bare minimum of accountability and transparency” while handling the contract.

The city council initially set aside dollars to pay for research about public safety spending priorities last fall at the urging of a fledgling coalition called King County Equity Now (KCEN); according to the auditor, the council decided long before awarding the contract that KCEN would receive city dollars to lead the research. But because KCEN wasn’t technically a nonprofit at the time, the council turned to South Seattle-based restorative justice nonprofit Freedom Project to handle finances while KCEN led research teams.

The arrangement allowed the council to award the contract to Freedom Project without a bidding process; in turn, KCEN hired Freedom Project as a sub-sub-contractor. But the collaboration between Freedom Project and KCEN collapsed shortly before the contract’s end in February of this year, driven partially by disputes about late payments to researchers.

In the review, the auditor’s office criticized the council for shaping the $3 million contract to fit KCEN’s proposals before awarding the contract. McCarthy also argued that the council agreed to accept deliverables that were too broad to be meaningful, leaving room for questionable spending and a final research report that didn’t provide a clear blueprint for launching the highly anticipated participatory budgeting process. “The City did not specify how the money would be spent, including requirements on administrative costs; a method for compensating community participants; research methodology requirements; and details on how the City would use the results,” McCarthy wrote in a letter to the council and Mayor Jenny Durkan last week.

McCarthy’s letter included recommendations for avoiding a repeat of the widely criticized Black Brilliance Research Project contract, including improving how the council documents its decisions about awarding contracts.

Meanwhile, budgetary and administrative disagreements about how to move forward with participatory budgeting have delayed the project—originally intended to begin in the spring of 2021—until next year.

3. Mayoral candidate and former city council member Bruce Harrell turned down an invitation from the Community Police Commission to participate in a general election debate that was supposed to happen in September, prompting the CPC to cancel the debate. The CPC is one of the city’s three police oversight bodies; among other duties, it recommends reforms and weighs in on policy proposals related to policing and police accountability.

Jesse Franz, the spokesman for the CPC, told PubliCola Monday that the CPC had planned to focus specifically on the mayoral election this year, and had no current plans to host debates in the races for city attorney and City Council positions 8 and 9.

As we reported last month, the CPC held a spirited debate over whether to host a candidate forum at all. Some members, including the Rev. Harriett Walden, contended that elections are outside the commission’s scope, while others, such as commission co-chair LaRond Baker, argued that the CPC’s role includes informing the public about potential leaders’ positions on public safety issues.

In a statement issued after PubliCola reported on Twitter that the debate was canceled, the CPC said that although “Bruce Harrell has declined our invitation to participate,” the commission “still hopes to find the best ways to educate and facilitate a community dialogue about the critical issues Seattle’s future mayor will face regarding public safety and police accountability. We hope to share those plans with you at a future date.”

Harrell’s campaign did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Monday.

Federal Judge Doesn’t See Path Yet Toward Ending Consent Decree

By Paul Kiefer

For the first time since the pandemic began more than a year ago, representatives from the US Department of Justice, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, and other police oversight figures gathered for a status update on Seattle’s consent decree—a nearly decade-old agreement empowering the DOJ to oversee police reform in Seattle.

Though the city has spent years re-working Seattle Police Department policies and training to satisfy several of the court’s key expectations including reductions in the use of deadly force by police officers, Seattle’s progress slipped in the past three years—in part because of a widely-criticized 2018 Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) that undercut landmark improvements to the city’s police oversight system. That reversal on reforms, along with the SPD’s heavy-handed response to last Summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, raises the prospect that Seattle will remain under the consent decree for much longer than expected.

Federal District Court Judge James Robart, who has overseen the consent decree since its conception in 2012, is grappling with two key questions as he tries to determine the path forward: First, whether the city and police department has successfully re-implemented police oversight reforms that the (SPOG) contract wiped out; and second, whether SPD’s response to massive citywide protests in 2020 will set back the city’s progress towards ending the consent decree.

Tuesday’s hearing at the US District Courthouse in downtown Seattle did not provide Robart with clear answers on either front. While making a case that the city has made progress towards meeting the court’s demands, City Attorney Pete Holmes pointed to some notable accountability victories in the past three years. Unfortunately, he offered no promises that the upcoming SPOG contract negotiations won’t upend the city’s commitment to accountability. Meanwhile, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, the court-appointed consent decree monitor who acts as Robart’s eyes and ears on police oversight, told the judge that his team is still reviewing last summer’s SPD response to protests; they won’t decide whether SPD’s actions during the Black Lives Matter protests put the city out of alignment with the consent decree until the end of 2021, he said.

The hearing came at a critical point for the future of the consent decree. In its tenth year, a growing number of community activists argue that the consent decree has become an obstacle to efforts to downsize SPD and invest in alternatives to traditional policing. But an array of unknown variables—including the next contract with SPOG, which the city will likely begin negotiating in the next six months—raise the possibility that the consent decree could end up shaping Seattle’s police reform efforts for years to come. “This was supposed to be a five-year gig,” Judge Robart quipped; instead, come January, Seattle will inaugurate its fifth mayor since the consent decree began.

“My role is to tell you when you don’t get things right,” he said, “not how to do things.” —Federal District Court Judge James Robart

During Tuesday’s hearing, Robart took time to criticize the Community Police Commission (CPC), a civilian group that acts as a quasi-think tank on police accountability, for filing a request on July 27 to direct Oftelie’s monitoring team to take a more active role in SPD accountability, including in negotiations with police unions. Edgar Sargent, an attorney representing the CPC, told Robart that union negotiations are really just “a black box,” and suggested the monitoring team should be privy to union contract negotiations and provide progress updates directly to the court.

Continue reading “Federal Judge Doesn’t See Path Yet Toward Ending Consent Decree”