The Workers of UW

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The Workers
SEIU Local 925
WFSE Local 1488
UAW Local 4121
SEIU Local 1199
GCC/IBT Local 767M


Building Trades Workers at the University of Washington: A History


By Tyson Burchak
(June 2002)


             I began my project in April 2002 and learned quickly that the skilled trades workers at UW were in the midst of a tense struggle. After years of representation by the Seattle King County Building and Construction Trades Council, some members had petitioned for a decertification election to end the relationship with SKCBCTC. This paper was written in May. The election was held a few weeks later. By a narrow margin, the union was decertified. What follows is a history the University of Washington’s Building Trades written prior to the union’s surprisingly defeat. Though I doubt the workers will stay unorganized for long—it is in their blood.

* * *

The University of Washington Building and Construction Trades Council represents a miniscule part of a rich and storied history in building trades unionization. For nearly two hundred years, skilled workers have been organizing with various amounts of success in the United States. To a spectator it is a lot like watching an ocean as the years pass—ebbs of highs and lows. The U.W. union is actually the last trades-only union on a university campus in Washington State. The carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters, and other skilled workers at other state campuses, like Washington State University, are members of one all encompassing union. General unions consist of secretaries, librarians, carpenters, food staff, janitors, etc.—all union staff on campus bargain together. The different employees have to work together as an unified whole. At the University of Washington the skilled workers are a bargaining unit unto themselves and are able to focus specifically on their own issues. Resembling its larger history, the U.W skilled workers have fought both internally and externally, but all the while have kept together in hopes of improving their work and lives.

The men and women of the University of Washington Building and Construction Trades Council are a highly skilled group of employees vital to the maintenance and improvement of the university. The union is broken up into sixteen specialized classifications ranging from carpenters, painters, and electricians, all the way to such initially puzzling titles like control technician, facilities operation specialist, and refrigeration mechanic with another ten sandwiched in-between. As of May 30, 2002 the union had 326 member at the University of Washington. Ninety-five percent of the workforce is male, which is not an enormous surprise considering the type of work, but is something the union says it would like to improve. Seventy percent of the skilled workers are white. The remainder are African Americans, Asian, Native Americans, and Latinos.[i] During the nineties the union had made a concerted effort to diversify its ranks—partly out of fairness—and partly to ensure the union’s longevity. Only by increasing the ever-growing number of minority employees can the union compete with the non-union sector. Though the skilled workers at the University of Washington can expect to make about thirty percent less then private sector workers they still do quite well. A carpenter and painter can expect to make about $41,000 a year—a facilities operation specialist makes in the neighborhood of $49,000—a refrigeration mechanic $46,900.[ii] Workers at the University admit they could make more money in the private sector, but say they trade the fiscal perks for job security. If the construction economy in the Puget Sound hits hard times, they won’t have to leave town to find work. While other workers travel around the country looking for a job, U.W. employees can stay put with their families.

The carpenters, electricians, and painters at the University of Washington can be seen where one might expect, repairing a building, risking a shock at an outlet, or covering up an anti-frat doodle in a restroom stall. Most of the workers are highly trained specialists. The painters seen walking around campus would be considered chemists by some, having to know what the combinations of a multitude of paints and chemicals will or will not do. At least that is what a painter I talked with would have one believe. His expertise benefits everyone. Nothing could be worse then a bathroom full of students simultaneously passing out from an invisible toxic cloud. Our health is literally in their hands. Control technicians take care of the instruments controlling the building environments around the campus. If one ever sees someone working on a thermostat in a classroom, he or she is looking at a control technician, or an extremely bored student. A facilities operations specialist is supposed to keep the school in one piece when the campus sleeps. A refrigeration specialist keeps all the freezers operating, including the ones holding various fluids at the hospital. Each of the sixteen classifications is trained at least as rigorously as a painter, but according to their job specification. The preparation is accomplished through a five-year program of intense on and off the job apprenticeship training.  These men and women may avoid the notice of self-interested students, but they indelibly impact our campus experience.

A Long History

Current members of the University of Washington Building and Construction Trades Council are part of a relatively lengthy and extremely complicated history. From the early 1800’s, skilled trades’ workers throughout the United States were organizing themselves into unions—each with its own interesting story. Historian Michael Kazin writes about the early history of the skilled trades in San Francisco. The San Francisco Building and Trades Council, run by P.H. McCarthy in the late 1880’s through the early 1900’s, serves as a good representation of where the skilled workers at the University of Washington came from. People in the early twentieth century were witnesses to the Building Trades at the height of their power. McCarthy wanted to secure higher wages, better benefits, a shorter workday, and a safer workplace to all members of the trades, using a variety of methods to obtain these goals. Keeping a closed shop—employers only used union employees—was one method. If a man was not a union member he would only have a certain amount of time to join the union, or else lose his job. One way to ensure employers adhered to the BTC’s demands was to withhold skilled labor from troublesome employers’ jobs, stopping the work. [iii]

Most of the time the threat of a strike was enough to keep employers from using non-union workers. If an employer insisted on using non-union labor, as was the case during the 1908 building of the First National Bank in San Francisco, the union would call to arms. The contractors hired some non-union workers to finish the bank’s ceiling. When the Building Trades heard about this they had the other skilled workers walk off the job in solidarity. Only if the contractor hired union workers to finish the ceiling would the carpenters, electricians, and others come back to finish the job. The threat of having no skilled workers convinced the contractor to give in to the union’s terms. By withholding labor from the market, the union had asserted its authority for the security of its members. Either union labor would be used, or the job would be held up indefinitely.

Another instrument McCarthy, and other skilled trade groups, used to accomplish their aims was the employment of apprenticeship programs. They wanted absolute control over training and hiring. Strict apprenticeship would guarantee long term security and strength, allowing the union to pick who was going to join and how many. A union, through the apprenticeship programs it uses, can basically monopolize a trade’s workforce. They are able to ensure the quality of the work being produced and the people who are capable of performing it. If McCarthy’s vision completely held, the skilled trades would have immense power in determining what they would do and how they would be compensated for it. Lacking access to the different trades’ knowledge and constantly being under the threat of not getting a job done, from lack of skilled workers, would have put employers in a very weak position.

The University of Washington Organizes

Throughout the twentieth century, skilled workers at the University of Washington have been organized in various forms. Originally, the separate trades bargained apart from one another as they did in the private sector. The carpenter local would negotiate for the carpenters on campus and only the carpenters. It was this way for all the trades. Each member’s dues went to their corresponding local, not to an unified local of all the skilled workers on campus. Worker separation created problems in obtaining goals for the U.W. workers. Union representatives were overlooking the interests of campus workers because each local saw issues in the private sector as taking priority over the public. Most of the members were in the private sector so U.W. workers were often paying their dues and receiving little representation. Another problem was disunity. The workers on campus were unable to effectively organize to have common problems they all faced addressed—every unit was isolated. Due to the local union's priorities, and a divided workforce, the benefits and the voice union membership gives was for the most part missing for the U.W. tradesmen.

In 1974 trade groups agreed to reorganize. Instead of each trade on campus being represented by its own local, all of the trades came together as a unified bargaining unit, directly affiliated with the Seattle King County Building and Construction Trades Council. Campus workers now had their own representative to address their demands. Instead of a bunch of business agents running all over campus for the different groups of workers there was one, that dealt specifically with University workers unique situation.

The reconstruction came with a price. The group of men and women skilled workers at the University of Washington was now in a union quite a bit different than what they were accustomed to. Problems that arise between people in any newly formed unit were there—republican versus democrat, man versus woman, individual versus individual, and trade versus trade. The disagreements were no longer simply between a group of carpenters or pipe fitters isolated from each other. It was like sticking a bunch of people together who spoke a different language and asked them write a book. Each trade was used to dealing with things their own way. The need to now act in one determined way was bound to cause growing pains. After a time, each trade was able to put its own idiosyncrasies aside, but the initial problems were just a sign of a tiring, but hopeful, future.

A Lingering Problem

From the mid-seventies to the present day, the union of skilled trades workers at the University of Washington constantly suffered from internal discomfort, but through all the difficult moments they were able to stay together to secure prosperity and autonomy. From 1974, when the U.W skilled trades organized into their current formation, until the late eighties, life in the union was comparatively quiet, but one problem came about that could not be easily ignored. They were not allowed to collective bargain in the typical fashion. The main dilemma came from being represented in the public sector. Unions that represent public employees in Washington are unable to bargain for a number of typical items, most importantly, wages. Salaries are determined by the state legislature and are non-negotiable, which frustrates many members of the U.W skilled trades. They wonder what they are paying their $40 a month for. The union does offer job protection and legal assistance, but cannot do much for what people really care about—the pocket book. Most of the internal problems of the union came, and still come, from the unhappiness with the restrictions of the union negotiating power. What good is the union if it cannot get me more money?

In the late eighties the internal unhappiness over union representation really began to boil over with the help of the United States legal system. Two United States Supreme Court decisions were key in beginning the more aggressive discontent. The 1986 Chicago Teachers Union v. Hudson decision found that unions were required to provide members with information supporting the union’s financial breakdown of forced dues; that those figures be verified by independent audit; and that employees have an opportunity for a prompt, impartial review of the union’s forced-dues calculations. In 1988 the Communications Workers of America v. Beck affirmed the right of union members to withhold forced union dues for all activities unrelated to collective bargaining. These two decisions required unions to conduct what are known as Beck-Hudson audits, which the union must conform with or else due payment becomes optional. The auditor determines how much of the dues are chargeable. Once the numbers are reached, members not wanting to support the union’s non collective bargaining activities can have the percentage of non-chargeable money refunded.[iv]

Optional dues payment severely hurts the power of the union. For one, the union’s money supply is severely depleted. Also, non-paying members receive the same benefits of paying members, which creates intense resentment between employees. Those that pay dues feel like the people not paying are unfairly taking advantage of union benefits. They are not paying dues. Why should they benefit?

Initially, the University of Washington Building and Construction Trades Council was not in compliance with the Beck-Hudson audit. Mandatory dues collections were suspended. The potential shortfall of money for the union could have been its end, but after a couple years the union straightened out its accounting system and passed the audit. For the last two years the independent auditor found that ninety-five percent of the dues collected were chargeable, basically the maximum. Once in agreement with Beck-Hudson, dues payment became mandatory again, with members only being able to withhold the non-chargeable money—the union had survived the audit challenge. But the newfound power dissenting members found during this time manifested itself in a number of other detrimental ways for the union.

Supreme Court decisions allowed any member of a union to call into question the results of any audit. Once objected to, the matter goes to an arbitration hearing. Substantial legal costs are accumulated during these proceedings. No one member usually has the financial means to go through with calling audits into question. It is too expensive, but there are pro-business organizations like the National Right To Work Committee, based in Virginia, who will offer legal support anti-union membership. These associations and members see arbitration hearings as a way to break up a union, driving it bankrupt. Some of the people at the University of Washington are not happy with the union’s current form because it cannot deal with issues they see as most important—wages and benefits. They resented the cost of dues and challenged it through arbitration. A small union cannot afford to deal year after year with the process of arbitration—it would drain all its money away. The U.W. Skilled Trades Council had to face arbitration hearings on three separate occasions in the late nineties. Each time the arbitrator ruled in the union’s favor. At the third case’s conclusion, the arbitrator decided he would allow no more cases against the U.W. Skilled Trades unless they stood on more well-founded ground, seeing the attempts as a waste of everyone’s time. Even though the audit line of attack did not work, it did serve to spur on dissenters to look for other means to get out of a union system they were not happy with.

Another method for anti-union people in the U.W. Skilled Trades to dissolve the union came in the form of two different types of elections. The first was a union shop election. Four such elections have taken place between 1990 and 2002. These elections are held to decide whether or not dues payment should be optional or mandatory. All four of the elections have ended with dues payment remaining mandatory, but if one were to succeed the union would basically cease to be. Some people would not be paying their fair share for representation—creating animosity and drying up vital funds—a situation most unions cannot survive.

The second means used to put an end to the union was a decertification election, which would immediately end union representation if successful. If this happened, the skilled trade's workers would not be allowed union representation for a year, and at that periods end the prospects of reorganizing would be an uphill battle. To get a decertification election started, thirty percent of the union’s members must sign statements. So far, all decertification votes have been defeated, but there will be another one in May, 2002.

Given the frantic nature of the University of Washington Building and Construction Trades Council over the last fifteen years, one might conclude the union is headed towards its demise, but positive signs do exist. Assuming the May decertification vote fails, a more stable future could be around the corner. Though there have been numerous attempts to dismantle the union in its current state, the sentiment for unionization runs extremely deep throughout the rank and file. During the TA’s June 2001 strike ninety-nine percent of the University of Washington skilled workers refused the cross the picket line in a show of solidarity. Even with all the internal strife, deep down most of the skilled workers do value unions. Most of the problem revolves around the small spectrum of items they can negotiate for. If more were on the bargaining table skilled workers internal strife would drastically decrease.

Early in 2002 the Washington State Legislature passed a law granting unionized public workers collective bargaining rights like those prized in the public sector. When it takes effect, what was once off the table in negotiations will be fair game. Unions will be able to negotiate over work rules, pay scales, and benefits. If the decertification vote in May fails, the future for the University of Washington Building and Construction Trades Council could be as bright as it ever has been.


The Skilled workers at the University of Washington undeniably resemble aspects their past. The skilled trades union requires employees to become members within sixty days of being hired. If they don’t, they are let go. They will withhold labor just like their brethren of the past. During the TA strike of the 2001 summer the trade’s workers respected the picket line in a show of solidarity—willing to sacrifice their own pay in the hopes of strengthening the union cause. Apprenticeship programs are also employed. As in the past, they use these to ensure quality work and union loyalty. The Building Trades past and present actions benefit their unionized workers of today—still representing a powerful force on the job and in the state legislature.

Despite all of the apparent problems the University of Washington Building and Construction Trades Council does accomplish a good deal for its members. Members might not make as much as private sector employees, but they are by no means starving. Your average carpenter or painter at the University makes around $41,000 a year. While their private sector journeymen counterparts earn in the neighborhood of $58,136 and $52,000 respectively—with equivalent benefits. These private sector figures have been reached using each trade’s prevailing wage and assuming full time work throughout the year. The higher wages, better benefits, eight-hour workdays, safer workplace, and job security P.H. McCarthy sought at the dawn of the twentieth century are all staples university workers presently enjoy.


© Tyson Burchak 2002


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[iii] Michael Kazin, Union Power in the Building Trades, edited by Eileen Boris (D.C. Heath and Company, 1991), pp. 250-258.


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[1] University of Washington Workforce Profile - University Wide By Job Group and Title Headcount of Classified Staff, ReportsWPsAndRosters.mdb, ReportName: C-WP1, October 2001

[2] Eric, Roger, and Cindy are assumed names used to protect the identity of those interviewed at their request.

[3] University of Washington Workforce Profile - University Wide By Job Group and Title Headcount of Classified          Staff, ReportsWPsAndRosters.mdb, ReportName: C-WP1, October 2001

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These articles were written in Spring 2002. For problems or questions contact James Gregory.