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Jan. 21, 2022

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Seattle-area carpenters union under trusteeship amid investigation into mismanagement, ‘voter fraud’

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SEATTLE — Just a few weeks after a strike and contentious contract vote, the Northwest Carpenters Union has been placed into a trusteeship by its international union and three top officials have resigned.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America says it has found “evidence of voting fraud” during a recent union contract vote and is investigating other alleged misconduct.

“There is a UBC team on the ground in the Kent office conducting a thorough investigation into voter fraud, pension and welfare investment improprieties, and other areas of mismanagement,” wrote James Gleason, the new supervisor of the local union, in a statement to members on Nov. 3.

UBC General President Doug McCarron addressed Seattle-area union members at a meeting Tuesday evening.

The news of the trusteeship over recent weeks has come as a “gut punch,” said Lee Carter, a carpenter and rank-and-file member of the bargaining team during recent negotiations.

“I’m embarrassed, disappointed. I can’t believe this would actually happen,” Carter said.

The Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, also called the Northwest Carpenters Union, represents about 28,000 workers across Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Wyoming and Alaska.

The union’s Western Washington members voted in September to reject the fourth tentative contract deal reached between their union and their employers and to authorize a strike. The strike began Sept. 16 and lasted nearly three weeks.

The strike was contentious, with some union members alleging union leadership was too cozy with the contractors who employ the carpenters. The effects of the strike were muted because the vast majority of the union’s members worked at job sites where the union and employers had signed no-strike agreements.

After several roaming protests and wildcat strikes not sanctioned by union leadership, union leaders temporarily paused picketing. Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant publicly backed carpenters who were agitating against union leadership and criticized the no-strike agreements.

On Oct. 5, the union announced it had reached a new tentative deal and carpenters went back to work. That deal passed with a 54% to 46% vote on Oct. 11, according to the union. The final deal included a $2.26 wage increase each year and modest improvements to parking benefits. In total, the offer included $10.02 in pay and benefit increases over three years.

The details and extent of the alleged voting problems are not yet clear.

According to the UBC, “there was evidence of voting fraud” during the vote on the third tentative agreement this summer, “but it has not been determined whether” the fourth and fifth deals were affected.

Also concerning to some union members is the alleged “pension and welfare investment improprieties,” though details remain scarce.

Members learned early this year that their pension plans had faced losses because of investments by Allianz, a German firm now facing an array of lawsuits over billions of dollars in investment losses early in the pandemic. Unions across the country have sued.

The Carpenters Trusts of Western Washington told members the loss had “not jeopardized the long-term health of the plans.” According to the UBC, $250 million in “pension and health fund assets” were lost.

The lack of detailed information has confused and frustrated some union members.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen next,” said Art Esparza, a union member who led a group opposing recent contract deals.

“I don’t think anybody knows who to trust anymore,” Esparza said.

Esparza said he’s skeptical of international union leadership, too. “I want to see that the investigation itself is run with integrity and public accountability,” he said.

It’s unclear what exactly led up to the trusteeship. On Oct. 25, the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters executive committee passed a resolution granting the international union trusteeship over the local union.

“We need an independent investigation into the election vote rigging that Regional Council staff uncovered and into other matters the UBC determines necessary. And, we need the UBC to take corrective actions to fix the problems found,” the resolution said.

The resolution was signed by 19 members of the local council’s executive committee saying they “welcome and consent to the UBC Trusteeship.”

However, that same week, three union leaders resigned their leadership posts and their membership in the union: Executive Secretary-Treasurer Evelyn Shapiro, Director of Organizing Juan Sanchez and Director of Contract Administration Dan Hutchins.

The executive board has been disbanded and “new elections will be held once the trusteeship is complete,” according to the UBC.

Local and national union representatives have not responded to requests for comment. A Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters spokesperson declined to comment beyond the statements posted online.

Carter said he welcomed an investigation. “The international coming in and trying to take the reins is the start of mending that trust,” he said.

In a trusteeship, a national or international union essentially temporarily takes over control of a local union.

Federal law allows trusteeships to correct mismanagement or financial malpractice at local unions, or in situations when a union fails to administer its contract agreements, can’t maintain orderly meetings or after certain wildcat strikes.

The international union has a month to file a report to the U.S. Department of Labor stating the reasons for the trusteeship and financial condition of the union local.

Trusteeships are “fairly rare” and their outcomes can vary, said Aaron Streepy, a Washington attorney who has represented labor unions but did not speak specifically about the carpenters union.

A national union may place a small union local with little remaining membership or activity under trusteeship, 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 issue is, fix that and then begin some process to transfer authority and power back to the local level,” Streepy said.

This is not the first time the UBC has placed a local carpenters union in a trusteeship.

In 2013, the UBC imposed a trusteeship on the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, which represents carpenters in California, Nevada and several other states, to correct alleged financial malpractice. About three years later, the regional council conducted a new officer election and the UBC lifted the trusteeship.

In 2019, the UBC placed a New York local in a trusteeship, which the UBC lifted early this year after new elections of union officers.

Other large unions have imposed trusteeships, too. In 2009, the Service Employees International Union placed a California local into trusteeship after disputes over union funds and the proposed transfer of thousands of members to a different local. That same year, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees imposed a trusteeship over a New York City local amid allegations that union leadership misspent member dues.

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