by Elizabeth Turnbull
On Tuesday, a small group of King County workers picketed outside of the county’s Chinook Building on 5th Avenue, in order to remind King County Executive Dow Constantine that racism is a public health crisis and to protest King County’s inaction on fighting racism and discrimination in King County workplaces.
The event was not the first time that the Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS) sponsored a picket — the group staged a picket and rally in front of the county executive’s downtown office earlier this summer to insist Constantine listen to their repeated demands: that he prevent racist threats and harassment at King County worksites, provide restitution for workers who have filed complaints of racism with no satisfactory resolution, and end budget cuts and lay-offs, among other demands.
In late June, Constantine committed to converting the remaining youth detention units at the Clark Children and Family Justice Center to new uses by 2025 and to close the Seattle Jail. In addition, Constantine revealed a 2021–2022 budget proposal in Sept. that details divestments from detention and investment in “restorative community pathways,” as well as the implementation of alternatives to policing in Skyway and East Renton.
While Constantine said some of his budget is set to specifically “work to confront racism as a public health crisis,” King County workers who spoke at the OWLS rally said they feel their specific demands have gone unacknowledged and that when it comes to addressing incidents of racism in the workplace, workers have been met by a flawed system.
In addition, requests for a face-to-face meeting between OWLS members and Constantine have been unmet.
“We continue to hold events like this because not only has nothing changed, but change isn’t even on the horizon,” said Cheryl Jones, a King County Metro Transit Operator, during the event. “There have been promises to do better and talk of action, but no real action or concrete action plan.”
Of the King County employees present at Tuesday’s picket, some speakers cited past incidents of racism such as an incident in June when a King County Metro worker discovered a Black figurine someone had left below a flagpole at the King County Metro’s South Base Complex in Tukwila.The flag’s cords were positioned in a way that some employees believed resembled a noose.
Other speakers, such as James Pratt, who identifies as African American and works as a King County bus mechanic, said that in years past he was taunted daily by a white coworker and that the process of reporting these incidents of racism was ultimately a dead end.
Pratt believes one of the main issues is transparency on the part of Constantine’s office. Cheryl Jones specifically pinpointed the King County Metro’s office of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO)/Equity and Social Justice and claimed that if Dow Constantine were truly striving for equitable workplaces he would dismantle the office.
Jones took issue with Anita Whitfield’s leadership in particular. Whitfield is currently part of Executive Constantine’s Senior Leadership Team and works as King County’s Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer, but Whitfield was formerly the managing director of EEO/Equity and Social Justice for Metro Transit until June of this year.
Before working in both of these roles, Whitfield used to work as the Human Resources Director for King County, which Jones believes is a conflict of interest and an example of management investigating itself.
Individuals who are a part of the OWLS delegation made a request to meet directly with Constantine to address ongoing racism at King County worksites, but instead they were offered a meeting with Whitfield and Constantine’s Chief People Officer, Whitney Abrams. Ultimately, individuals within OWLS are still pushing for a meeting with Constantine himself.
In a statement sent to the Emerald from Dow Constantine’s office, the county executive maintains that his office currently works with labor unions and that instances of racism and descrimination at King County are taken seriously. The statement went on to say that “any substantiated complaints result in prompt, corrective action, up to and including termination, under our Nondiscrimination, Anti-Harassment, and Inappropriate Workplace Conduct Policy.”
Despite such assertions, Jones relayed at the picket on Tuesday that she believes there is a disconnect between Constantine’s words and tangible racial equity actions for King County workers.
“The fact that county representatives say all the right things but do all the wrong things shows that they know what’s right, but choose to do wrong,” Jones said. “So the discrimination is intentional, and Dow’s reluctance to even discuss it should make us all skeptical of any promises of change.”
Elizabeth Turnbull is a Seattle-based journalist.
Featured image: King County workers and their supporters picket outside King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office on October 6. The event was organized by the OWLS (Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity) to address the racist threats some King County Employees have been experiencing at their worksites. (Photo: Susan Fried)