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


Pursuing the Prevailing Wage


An Editorial Treatise for Campus Building Trades


By Jeremy Porter
(June 2002)


          When I started this project, I knew it might be tough to remain objective.  The reason: I was once a member of this over named behemoth, which is the Seattle/King County Building & Construction Trades Council.  Although, I must admit, I never held this knowledge until my university education forced it upon me. My career began as an apprentice in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which is an officially associated member of the Seattle/King County Building & Construction Trades Council.  Honestly, I dealt very little with the latter, and more with the former.  On the UW campus, however, the skilled trades are represented directly by the Building Trades Council.

  In truth, I was at a point in my life where I had grown tired of soliciting better long distance service or donations to not-for-profit organizations over the phone from unwilling customers who were inevitably “in the middle of dinner”, and did not want to talk to me.  Life as a Telephone Sales Representative, surprisingly, is not all it may be cracked up to be.  I had held many other equally untasty jobs before that.  I was looking for a change, and I needed it fast.

          For years, the Seattle/King County Building & Construction Trades Council (furthermore referred to as just “the Council”, which, although ringing slightly Orwellian, is much easier to type) had been helping to put food upon my childhood table.  Also for years, my father had been hounding me to consider joining the IBEW, to learn the trade of electricity, so that I too might one day put food upon my child’s table.  He had “come up” through the IBEW apprenticeship, and was now a Journeyman Electrician in good standing (in line to receive quite a pension, I might add).  I resisted for years, feeling that my father had worked way harder than I ever wanted to for the kinds of rewards he seemed to be winning from it.  Nevertheless, after receiving ruthless rejection upon rejection from faceless voices in cities I had never heard of, and after being cursed at by haughty housewives who were livid with my apparent gall to try and sell something to their recently deceased husbands (how was I supposed to know he was dead, ma’am?), I relented, and signed up for that organization which my family simply refers to as “the Union.”

          Do unions have a place in the dawning of this new century?  Are they archaic representations of an “Industrial Age” gone past?  Could the union possibly benefit me?  We’re about to find out.

          My first personal experience with Local #46 was the admission procedure, which did not resemble a job interview by any stretch of the term.  I filled out some papers, issued my high school transcripts, took a fairly benign test, and was assured a phone call.  And, as much as the strictness of these admissions were touted, I actually did receive a call within two weeks, and was on my first job, tools jostling around in a too-clean, too-stiff work belt the next day.  My dad was so proud.

          Unfortunately, my experience with “the Union” never got better than this, and since this really is not a story about me, I will endeavor to keep this short. 

Local #46’s electrical program for first year apprentices consisted of an immense amount of repetitive, tedious labor which, in the field, we call “pre-fab”, short for prefabrication.  Although the state only requires four years of electrical experience for an apprentice to “turn out”, or to become a state certified Journeyman, the Union made a deal with the local electrical contractors to extend the apprenticeship to five years.  The Union justified this as an opportunity to have better, well-trained Journeymen in the field, but really they just dropped the starting wage of first year apprentices so that contractors could have incredibly cheap labor for a whole year to do “pre-fab.”  All in all, it wasn’t a whole lot of fun, and sometimes I even wished I was back on the phone talking to dead men’s wives.  It was about this time at which the union decided to kick me out (discharge, as they say, which is a much more emphatic word and brings to mind images of warfare) for calling my Journeyman instead of my shop when I was going to miss a day due to illness (it clearly states in section 33 of the apprentice manual that one must call the shop and not the Journeyman); I really wasn’t that disappointed.  The non-union sector scooped me up with open arms, and they didn’t even have a manual.

          I’ve worked for non-union electrical contractors ever since, and have “turned out” just fine.  This, as one can see, makes objectivity with this subject somewhat strained.  However, since both my father and brother still work in “the Union”, I have found myself in a unique position to understand and appreciate two sides of this issue.  So… out with objectivity!  I’m just going to tell you readers what I think.




          I was job-hunting about a year ago, when I came upon an advertisement in the Seattle Times for a Journeyman Electrician on the University of Washington campus.  Admittedly, the first thing that popped into my mind when I saw this was, "Hey, I bet there’s a lot of girls there…" which is something we see very little of in this trade, and would be quite a job perk (you can roll your eyes now at the blatant reinforcement of the construction worker stereotype).  However, the second thing I thought was, "How do they expect to get a journeyman electrician for $22 per hour when I can get closer to $30 in the private sector?"  It puzzled me that a state-funded institution, which charges me close to $1500 per quarter, would be unable to pay a Journeyman Electrician the local prevailing wage.  At the time, I didn’t understand how much the Washington State Legislature had to do with the wages on campus, but now I understand they had everything to do with it.

          The Washington Administrative Code (WAC) is a mammoth conglomerate of rules and regulations, articles and outlines, about which nearly everything public revolves in this state.  Reading it is like reading Swahili philosophy.  As an electrician, I am constantly referring to a section of this code to research such things as: At what angles do I need to support the guy wires from the service mast of a single-family dwelling if the mast is supported in two places below the roof line and the service drop conductors are at least 18 feet above a residential driveway?...etc.  People get paid tax money to memorize such things, and to let other people know when they are not following them precisely.  Most of us don’t know these rules even exist.

          The WAC article #251 is an entire subsection of regulations regarding higher education labor law.  The article states in 251-08-005 that “the director shall prepare… and periodically revise…compensation plans for all classes.”  The term “classes” here refers to different classifications of employees in higher education.  “Compensation” is the ambiguous term which could be more easily summed up as “salary.”  So, if I might endeavor to break this down for our readers, it is essentially the state legislature which sets the wages of public employees in higher education, including the fine members of the Building Trades Council.  The article goes on to explain that the salaries set by the “director” will be assigned “reflecting prevailing rates in other public employment and in private employment in this state or in the locality in which the institution is located.” 

          Clearly, the disparity between my definition of “prevailing rates” and the state’s definition is cavernous.  Using the example of my profession, University of Washington electricians can hope to make approximately 70% (or less) of the local prevailing wage.  These numbers seem to jive with what I’ve been told by Tom Whisenant, the plumber-turned-business representative who busily expresses the needs of the Council members to the state.  He places the average wage for UW Council members, which are included in many trades such as carpenters, plumbers, painters, and machinists, at around 60% of the average private sector employee in the same field.  On top of that, these tradesmen are obligated to join the Council within about 60 days of their employment by the University, after which they will be responsible for paying an average of 1.1% of their gross income to Council dues.  It’s no wonder there is some dissention in the ranks of this “brotherhood.”

          In the past ten years, Tom has helped to defend the Council from six decertification votes.  These votes would have essentially thrown the Council off campus, leaving the trades to fend for themselves with the state and the University administration.  Another vote is closing in swiftly.  One might believe that the administration or some other outside source was instigating these votes, but it is in fact the members who are bringing them about.  With 30% of the members on campus calling for them, these votes necessarily must occur, and occur they have, but to little avail historically. 

With another vote on the way and some groundbreaking legislation currently being passed in Olympia regarding the role of the Council on campus, Tom is understandably breathless.  He seems to get it from both sides.  On one hand, the Council members feel they are paying dues to an organization which seems to help them very little, and on the other hand, the state has historically ensured the confirmation of these beliefs, allowing Tom to merely “suggest” beneficial treatment of his assembly.  Apparently, the state only heeds about 60% of Tom’s “suggestions.”

I believe everyone could essentially agree that wages, or the lack thereof, are the kingpin issue here.  Sure, the workers are provided with decent benefits, as are all state workers; however, I am also provided with stellar benefits from my current private sector employer, and I am earning close to 30% more than what I would have been earning had I taken the University job.  Also, I don’t have to shell out a percentage of my pay into an organization, which claims to be trying to help me, yet has its hands tied by governmental bureaucracy nearly to the extreme of ineffectuality.

Of course, the Council is no stranger to bureaucracy.  They live it.  Tom has been living it for so long, he probably can’t even remember how to thread pipe.  He jokes after explaining that his proletariat will once again be voting to decertify in May, “It makes no difference to me… I can just as easily go back to turning the wrenches.”  His mustachioed, salt-and-pepper face droops slightly as he digresses, “Although I rather prefer this…” he says, grabbing at the buttons of his sport jacket, “…to the coveralls.”  One can see, from the brief sparkle of sadness in his eye, that Tom Whisenant really does care.  He cares for reasons less shallow than that of clean dress.  The man wants nothing more…in fact, does nothing more than to lobby undauntingly for his cause.  He does so much of this; I could hardly get a word with him.  So, for a Council member to say that his or her union is doing nothing for them, I suggest they try to find Tom in an idle moment.

All of Tom’s, and many other people’s, hard work is about to pay off.  After being subjected to fourteen years of hard lobbying, the Washington State legislature is finally passing the Civil Employment Reform Act, which will alter the face of public employment in ways that will make present civil employment practices seem archaic and totalitarian in retrospect.  Indeed, some employees likely feel this way currently.

Probably the most groundbreaking change this Act will queue is the right for the Council to engage in collective bargaining for workers’ wages.  As mentioned before, the state had previously set the wages of employees on campus.  The Council would be able to haggle for better benefits, better working conditions, and possibly better training.  In fact, collective bargaining allows the Council to do all of those things, which it has been paid to do for so many years, but has been unable to do.  It would be counter to reason for the members of the UW Council to vote in favor of decertification at this paramount juncture.  It would be like throwing in the towel after knocking your opponent to the mat.

Not all is peachy with this Act, however.  There is, from the standpoint of labor, one major downfall: the right to strike is still not permitted.  The reason this is a major downfall should be self-evident.  Without the right to strike legally, any action taken by the Council which resembles a strike would not only put them at odds with the administration, but also it would pit them against the state-controlled police force.  Also, by striking illegally, it is very hard for the lawyers to sway judges into the Council’s court in case anything unsavory should happen.  By not allowing the Council to strike, the state in effect pulls the rug of repercussion from under the workers’ feet.  The right to collectively bargain is well and good, but what happens if the state won’t bargain?  More lobbying?

These are the kinds of things that frustrate skilled workers.  The fact is, the idea of prevailing wage is something that is less ambiguous than one might think.  If one was to ask any skilled worker on any jobsite in the Seattle area what the prevailing wage for his or her profession is, the vast majority of those polled would answer with a number that would be within two or three percent of each other.  Thirty percent is an outrage!

The people performing the electrical, mechanical, and plumbing duties in this city are highly skilled workers.  It took as long or longer for them to obtain their respective licenses than it will take many students to earn a bachelor’s degree.  Most of them spend years in a schooling program while working full time, and in culmination are expected to pass a grueling, state-operated test which runs many hours.  Contrary to certain stereotypical images, these professionals are generally bright enough to read, understand, and memorize codebooks the size of bibles, which are so full of cryptic jargon, they must have been written by lawyers.  Does the state expect qualified, intelligent, skilled workers to not notice the huge wage gap?  These people, using trigonometric functions, notice when the degree of bend in a pipe is over the allowable limit.  They know the intricacies of ampacity, pressure, and environmental airflow, and they sure as hell know what their labor is worth in monetary “compensation.”




So, how does the University continue to employ anyone at all?  It is a good question, and one that I will attempt to answer based upon my personal experience in the field.

When I was a member of Local #46, the pay gradient was negotiated by the Union.  There were certain wages, depending on your level of experience, that were indisputable.  Every man was paid the same as the man next to him, as long as they were both in the same level, no matter the disparity in the quality of the worker.  Most were good workers, though, because we were generally being compensated well for our labor.  In the non-union sector, however, there are vast differences in the rate which one employer will pay one employee versus another.  And, there are significant differences in the rate at which one employer is willing to pay over another.  I can honestly say, I’ve worked with them all, and there is one saying in this industry which rings true, no matter which trade you’re in: “You pay peanuts… you get monkeys.”

I’m not trying to infer that the tradesmen on campus are “monkeys.”  I’m almost positive there are some very qualified workers, which help keep the school running.  Some of them likely work at the University because the quality of the job and its various perks (see above) outweigh, for that individual, the pay disparity.  However, I can say that the likelihood of a skilled worker staying at a job where he or she was being paid at 70% scale for any great amount of time is low.  The further the gap, the higher the likelihood that less and less skilled workers find their way onto our campus.  This is an issue which affects every one of us.  The quality of work and compensation for it are not only political issues.  They are also public safety issues, since these workers are affecting the very workings of the facility.  In effect, the state is supporting a policy, which could potentially contribute to an unsafe environment at the University.  If the Council can remedy this, I’m all for it.

It might seem contrary to an outsider for a non-union employee to support the actions of a unionized workforce.  In truth, this is much more common than one might think.  Most of my non-union counterparts understand the complexity of labor in the Seattle area.  Many outsiders, and even union members themselves, believe that non-union tradesmen hold some sort of deep resentment for the union.  Actually, non-union skilled workers understand and appreciate the value of a strong union workforce in the area.  Without this, all of our wages would likely be lower, some of our benefits would likely be cut, and working conditions across the board would generally be poorer.  In essence, a strong union membership forces all employers to conform to union standards, else risk the unpalatable prospect of attaining low-quality workers.  Even non-union contractors pay well above the amount the state is apparently willing to pay its tradesmen.

So, in response to my earlier impasse, yes, the union does have a place in these modern times.  It does have a place at the University.  The fact that unions exist at all essentially maintains the standard of high quality workmanship within our entire state.  Obviously, I’m not advocating unions completely; otherwise, I would be a union member myself.  There are also many difficulties inherent in unionization, such as the abolition of merit-based advancement, the muddiness of large bureaucracy, and the disabling of a contractor’s ability to reprimand poor workmanship.  These issues could all be discussed separately at great length.  Nevertheless, one has to weigh the good and the bad in every situation, and decide for one’s self whether or not unionization is right for her or him.  There is no riper situation for unionization presently than in the public sector, where wages have been steadily falling behind the status quo for decades.  Hopefully the members of the UW Council, as they have so many times before, realize this when the decertification vote comes up in May, and vote it down.  Hopefully, the years of Tom Whisenant’s and others’ struggles will finally pay off for everyone concerned, culminating in higher wages and a safer environment on the University of Washington campus.



          ©2002 Jeremy Porter


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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.