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Electrician strike in Puget Sound region stretches beyond five weeks

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Electrician strike in Puget Sound region stretches beyond five weeks

May 17, 2024 | 7:42 pm ET
By Grace Deng
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Electrician strike in Puget Sound region stretches beyond five weeks
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An IBEW Local 46 electrician on strike. (IBEW Local 46)

More than 1,000 electricians in the Puget Sound region have been on strike for the past five weeks, disrupting construction at major job sites, including Microsoft and Amazon office buildings. 

Limited energy electricians with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 46, are asking the National Electrical Contractors Association for paid holidays, more pay, and increased safety measures like ensuring radios are available on all job sites.

The full membership of the union’s limited energy electrician unit, which totals around 1,025, hasn’t gone on strike by themselves since 1945, said 47-year-old Michael Holcomb, who’s worked as a limited energy electrician for 17 years, mostly as a union member.

Limited energy electricians install and repair systems like fire alarms, building security systems and phone and fiberoptic lines.

“I think they’re finally starting to realize their self worth,” Holcomb said of his peers. “We’re required to have a license. We do fairly complex work. We’re one of the lower paid trades. We’re finally starting to see we’re worth more than what we’ve been getting paid over the years.” 

The strike began on April 11.

Holcomb said rising living costs in the region also spurred the electricians to strike. And Nicole Grant, political director at IBEW Local 46, said that as a younger, more diverse workforce with “really strong values” enters the electrician field, unpaid holidays are “no longer acceptable.” 

Megan Kirby, a lead negotiator for IBEW Local 46, pointed out that the strike won’t just impact new construction sites, but the infrastructure of existing buildings across King County, including hospitals, prisons and schools. 

“It does affect the general public in a lot of ways that they don’t realize because they don’t see us. You know, what we do isn’t glamorous. But we make sure that everybody’s cell phones work, and emergency responders radios are working,” Kirby said. “That’s the kind of work we do.” 

Strikes lasting over a month involving more than 1,000 employees are rare in Washington, where the vast majority of major strikes end within two weeks. Organizers emphasized that going on strike was a “last resort.” 

“We beat the s*** out of ourselves in our lives,” said Holcomb. “We’re probably not going to work in our retirement because our bodies are trashed. So to have nice little perks along the way in our career, it really means a lot to us.” 

A spokesperson for the National Electrical Contractors Association, Chelsea Croft, told the Standard the organization “cannot comment on ongoing collective bargaining negotiations.” Other IBEW 46 units are in negotiations but are not on strike. 

Electrician strike in Puget Sound region stretches beyond five weeks
A group of IBEW Local 46 members and supporters on the picket line. (IBEW Local 46)

Sticking points

Currently, the electricians get unpaid holidays, which many consider a “forced day off,” Kirby said. Many of the union’s members pick up overtime or do gig work, like driving for DoorDash, to make ends meet during the holiday season. 

“Instead of being able to relax and enjoy the holiday for what it’s meant to be — a celebration with your friends and family — they’re stressed,” Kirby said. 

Non-union electricians get paid holidays, which makes it difficult for the union to retain members. Kirby said that while contractors reason that union electricians get better pensions and health care than non-union workers, that’s not always the case. The limited energy profession as a whole, organizers said, is having recruitment and retention issues due to low pay.

Electrician strike in Puget Sound region stretches beyond five weeks
An IBEW Local 46 member on the picket line. (IBEW Local 46)

“Our contractors — they pay everybody on their staff paid holidays except for the people who do construction,” Kirby said.

The electricians are seeking at least eight paid holidays — but the day before the strike, they tried lowering their ask to just one. 

“We said, ‘How about one paid holiday? And you get to pick the holiday?’” Grant said of negotiations with the contractors. “They were not willing to entertain the conversation on any level.” 

Pay is also an issue. Contractors have offered a $11 raise over three years, and the union wants $16. Kirby said the increase isn’t just for wages, but for benefits. At least 30% of the pay increase will go directly to maintaining benefits, particularly health care costs, which are also on the rise.

Hourly wages under the limited energy electrician contract heading into negotiations range from $17 for entry-level installers to $51.96 for foremen. With benefits factored in, the hourly compensation range is $26.06 to $70.52.

Organizers also say their members don’t think personal cell phones are sufficient for communicating on construction sites, where there are risks of serious, sometimes fatal, accidents. 

“We work in a lot of areas that your cell phone doesn’t work, usually because we’re the ones who put in the infrastructure to make it work,” Kirby said. Once, Kirby was working on a building with an active bomb threat. The only way she found out, she said, was because someone called in on the radio to evacuate the building. 

Kirby said the striking electricians are hoping to make it a standard to have radios at every job site. A survey of IBEW Local 46’s members found that 40% of their members don’t have radios on their job sites. 

“We keep talking to them about safety — it impacts our safety and our ability to do our job,” Kirby said about the negotiations. “They have just been unwilling. They say it’s not an issue for the contractors at the table.”