Seattle Area Carpenters Union Under Guardianship Amid Mismanagement and ‘Election Fraud’ Investigation
Just weeks after a strike and a controversial contract vote, the Northwest Carpenters Union was placed under trusteeship by its international union and three senior officials resigned.
The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America said it found “evidence of electoral fraud” in a recent vote on union contracts and was investigating other alleged misconduct.
“There is a UBC team on the ground in the Kent office conducting a thorough investigation into electoral fraud, irregularities in pension and welfare investments and other areas of mismanagement. James Gleason, the new local union supervisor, wrote in a statement to members on Nov. 3.
UBC General President Doug McCarron addressed Seattle-area union members in a meeting Tuesday night.
The news of the guardianship over the past few weeks has come like a “punch,” said Lee Carter, carpenter and grassroots member of the bargaining team during recent negotiations.
“I am embarrassed, disappointed. I can’t believe this would actually happen, ”Carter said.
The Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, also known as the Northwest Carpenters Union, represents approximately 28,000 workers in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Wyoming and Alaska.
Union members in western Washington voted in September to reject the fourth tentative agreement reached between their union and employers and to authorize a strike. The strike began on September 16 and lasted almost three weeks.
The strike was controversial, with some union members alleging that union leadership was too comfortable with the contractors who employed the carpenters. The strike’s effects were mitigated as the vast majority of union members worked on sites where the union and employers had signed non-strike agreements.
After several itinerant demonstrations and wildcat strikes not sanctioned by the union leadership, union leaders temporarily suspended picketing. Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant publicly supported the carpenters campaigning against the union leadership and criticized the no-strike agreements.
On October 5, the union announced that it had reached a new tentative agreement and the carpenters returned to work. The deal was passed with a 54% to 46% vote on Oct. 11, according to the union. The final deal included a salary increase of $ 2.26 each year and modest improvements to parking benefits. In total, the offer included $ 10.02 in salary increases and benefits over three years.
The details and extent of the alleged voting problems are not yet clear.
According to UBC, “there was evidence of electoral fraud” when voting on the third tentative agreement this summer, “but it was not determined whether” the fourth and fifth agreements were affected.
Some union members are also concerned about the alleged “irregularities in investments in pensions and social protection”, although details remain scarce.
Members learned earlier this year that their pension plans suffered losses due to investments from Allianz, a German company now facing a series of billion-dollar lawsuits in investment losses at the start of the pandemic. Unions across the country having pursued.
The lack of detailed information has baffled and frustrated some union members.
“There is a lot of uncertainty as to what will happen next,” said Art Esparza, a union member who has led a group opposing the recent contract deals.
“I think nobody knows who to trust anymore,” Esparza said.
Esparza also said he was skeptical of international union leaders. “I want to see that the investigation itself is conducted with integrity and public accountability,” he said.
It is not known exactly what led to the guardianship. On October 25, the executive committee of the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters adopted a resolution granting the international union the oversight of the local union.
“We need an independent investigation into the electoral vote rigging that area council staff uncovered and other issues UBC deems necessary. And we need UBC to take corrective action to resolve the issues it finds, ”the resolution says.
The resolution was signed by 19 members of the local council’s executive committee, declaring that they “welcome and consent to the tutelage of UBC.”
However, in the same week three union leaders resigned from their leadership positions and union membership: Executive Secretary-Treasurer Evelyn Shapiro, Director of Recruitment Juan Sanchez and Director of Contract Administration Dan Hutchins.
The board of directors has been dissolved and “new elections will be held once the trusteeship ends,” according to UBC.
Local and national union representatives did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters declined to comment beyond the statements posted online.
Carter said he welcomed an investigation. “The international that comes in and tries to take the reins is the start of restoring that confidence,” he said.
In a trusteeship, a national or international union essentially temporarily takes control of a local union.
Federal law authorizes curatorships to correct mismanagement or financial malfeasance in local unions, or in situations where a union fails to administer its contractual agreements, may not maintain orderly meetings or after certain wildcat strikes.
The international union has one month to file a report with the US Department of Labor stating the reasons for the oversight and financial standing of the local union.
Trustees are “quite rare” and their results can vary, said Aaron Streepy, a Washington lawyer who has represented unions but did not speak specifically of the carpenters union.
A national union can put under trusteeship a small local with few members or activities remaining, then merge that local with another. But larger, financially stable union locals are less likely to be merged with others, Streepy said.
“Usually they will find whatever the problem is, fix it, and then start a process to transfer authority and power to the local level,” Streepy said.
This is not the first time that UBC has placed a local carpenters union in tutelage.
In 2013, UBC imposed trusteeship on the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, which represents carpenters in California, Nevada and several other states, to correct allegations of financial malfeasance. About three years later, the regional council proceeded to the election of a new leader and UBC lifted the trusteeship.
In 2019, UBC placed a local in New York in a trusteeship, which UBC lifted earlier this year after new elections for union leaders.
Other large unions have also imposed guardianship. In 2009, the International Union of Service Employees placed a Californian local in tutelage after disputes over union funds and the proposed transfer of thousands of members to another local. That same year, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees imposed a guardianship on a New York local union amid allegations union leaders mis-spent membership dues.