Open Letter to MLK Labor leadership regarding the Root Out Racism campaign

Nov. 15, 2022

To:  President Dustin Lambro
Executive Secretary-Treasurer Katie Garrow
MLK Labor Executive Board

As members and initiators of MLK Labor’s Root Out Racism Organizing Committee (ROR OC), we are writing to protest MLK Labor leadership’s refusal to support the vital work of the Organizing Committee over the last year and its dismantlement by MLK Labor leadership as announced at the October delegates meeting.

We hope this letter will help to initiate a discussion that is long overdue on how to bring about deep changes within the MLK Labor Council and larger labor movement around issues of confronting racism, other forms of discrimination, and strengthening democracy. The wellbeing of the labor movement and workers’ lives depends upon it.

The ROR OC was formed after 97 percent of the MLK Labor delegates voted for the “Resolution to Root Out Racism at King County” in October 2021.

Throughout 2022, committee participants collaborated with county workers to initiate actions to carry out the goals in the resolution. MLK Labor Council officials, however, provided poor leadership. Meetings were often cancelled, emails informing committee members were irregular, and announcements weren’t posted and shared. It wasn’t until MLK Labor Council delegates asked from the floor what was happening that meetings were again convened.

In May, MLK Labor President Dustin Lambro met with Organizing Committee members to address our concerns that council leadership was not taking the Committee’s work seriously. He promised that the Council would support ROR OC’s work through ensuring regular meetings, reports to delegates, and posting of meetings on MLK Labor’s website. He added that County Executive Dow Constantine had called him to express displeasure at the establishment of the ROR OC.

But the problems continued. Two more meetings were cancelled and notifications on the website and by email were spotty.

Persisting despite this lack of support, Black correction officers, transit workers, and other committee members spent two months drafting a proposed letter to send to Executive Constantine and the County Council, calling for a public hearing to address the racist treatment and retaliation faced by county workers. (Read the letter here.)

The final draft was sent out to the Root Out Racism Organizing Committee members ahead of time and discussed at the August ROR OC meeting. The committee co-chairs, appointed by President Lambro and Secretary-Treasurer Katie Garrow, opposed moving on the letter but did not offer any alternate language or make recommendations for other action the group could take. They also cautioned that testifying at a public hearing could result in retaliation against Black workers.

But other committee members responded that retaliation is already an ongoing reality and needs to be publicly exposed. The majority felt a sense of urgency to move forward with action to support County workers’ issues with racism and voted to send the letter to MLK Labor delegates for adoption. The proposed letter was sent to the MLK Labor Executive Board but languished with no action taken at their September meeting.

The official axing of the ROR Organizing Committee was completed at the October MLK Labor Executive Board meeting. The work to “root out racism” was given over to the King County Coalition of Unions, a subset of county unions that does not include many of the county workers. This decision was brought to the delegate body with no explanation, and with no notice to Organizing Committee members.

Thus, an organizing group of labor activists trying to tackle the difficult issue of fighting racism on the job, formed by a democratic vote of labor council delegates, was squashed in an undemocratic maneuver by council leaders who seem more concerned about maintaining cordial relations with politicians like Dow Constantine than defending workers of color on the job.

The MLK Labor Council needs to show real solidarity and a commitment to fight for its diverse and multi-racial rank-and-file. We invite MLK Labor delegates and all labor siblings to engage in a serious and honest discussion about how to go forward to build a multi-hued, democratic, politically independent, and fighting labor movement.

In solidarity,

Adam Arriaga, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 587 shop steward; Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS) Steering Committee

Alison Underdahl, Seattle Education Association, and former MLK Labor delegate

Annaliza Torres, Office and Professional Employees International Union 8; Comrades of Color Caucus of Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party

Art Clemens, President, Communication Workers of America 7800

Gabriel Prawl, A. Philip Randolph

Hassan Osman, ATU 587

Jay Herzmark, Retired Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) 1495 and MLK Labor delegate

Jerry Hardy, Retired Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention Captain

Linda Averill, ATU 587 shop steward; OWLS Steering Committee

Mark Cook, Retired Service Employees International Union 925 shop steward; founding member of Black Panthers Northwest

Paula Lukazsek, President, WFSE 1495

Steve Hoffman, WFSE 304 MLK Labor delegate

Su Docekal, Teamsters 763 building rep; founding member of Seattle Pride at Work

Tricia Coley, Retired International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 46 and King County Jail electrician

Note – Affiliations listed are for identification purposes only



This letter was proposed for adoption by the MLK Labor Council by the council’s Root Out Racism Organizing Committee. It was not acted upon by MLK Labor leadership, who also dismantled the Organizing Committee’s work at their Oct. 2022 meeting. 

Draft Letter for Root Out Racism Organizing Committee


To: Dow Constantine, King County Executive and Girmay Zahilay, Chair of the Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee
cc: Councilmembers Claudia Balducci, Rod Dembowski, Reagan Dunn, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Joe McDermott, Sarah Perry, Dave Upthegrove, Pete von Reichbauer

The Martin Luther King Labor Council’s Root Out Racism Organizing Committee calls on our elected County leadership to convene a public hearing of the full County Council to gather testimony from county workers and the public regarding racism within County work sites, and to discuss how King County’s elected leadership will implement and monitor a plan to address this situation, and that will create transparency and lasting changes for all King County workers.

The Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) is one of the most egregious examples of how racism is a public health crisis for County workers of color. Discrimination, retaliation, and bigotry has created a toxic work culture.  Lawsuits have been filed stemming from discrimination regarding work assignments, promotions, discipline, equitable selections in special assignments, and the inability to appropriately address such issues.

Over the last year, Officers of Color who have raised concerns about racist treatment of staff — and also of inmates — have faced retaliation from management and been subjected to racist threats and attacks on social media.

Metro/King County is another department rife with racism and other forms of discrimination. In 2020, transit workers protested a KKK-style death threat at South Base complex. Incidents such as this continue with no transparency from management on what is being done to put the hammer on such open displays of white supremacy.  Women of color face double jeopardy, including gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Employees in the Solid Waste Division have reported nepotism and bigotry.

The County’s subcontracting system also needs examination. At Solid Ground, which provides Access services for King County, 90 percent of drivers are people of color. Despite their challenging and essential work in transporting people with disabilities, Access drivers are paid poverty wages and benefits.  In the past, when better wages were negotiated by their union, the County dumped the Contractor. Subcontracting has perpetuated a system that keeps these workers impoverished and the Amalgamated Transit Union 587 has rightfully called for an end to their second-class status by bringing them in house.

The year 2021 has shown that the County has the ability to bring in appropriate training to work sites. Numerous work groups and actions exist in which change can take place. This forward movement was due to the public being made aware of the issues within the County by workers of color resorting to rallies, picket lines and media exposes.  By the introduction of the light of the public eye on the County’s lack of action the first step to change has started. This is positive.

Now is the time for elected County leadership to ensure initial steps are not just temporary cosmetic changes. Retaliation from management for speaking out keeps far too many workers silent. The Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, despite its poor track record, is once again being allowed to oversee itself. Even when an outside agency is used for an investigation the findings are sent back to the Department, which then has the power to concur or not – and determine the outcome of the issue. Given the long history of problems at DAJD, Metro, and other County departments, it is hard to believe that self-monitoring will lead to progress. Appropriate progressive steps and independent oversight is needed to establish accountability.

The systemic racism within King County work sites is reflective of what workers of color are facing at every level of public and private-sector employment. The newspapers have been filled with stories of fire-fighters, correction officers, city parks department employees, carpenters and more who are confronting and fighting discrimination – all too often alone.  This County, whose namesake is the famous civil rights leader, can do much better and should be a model for the region. The Root Out Racism Organizing Committee was called into creation by the delegate body of the MLK Labor Council, in response to the urgent call for help by County workers of color.

We call on the County Council to hold a public hearing as soon as possible, to invite testimony from county workers on the frontlines, as well as community members, to show the Council’s recognition of how serious the situation is, as well as to signal its commitment to addressing systemic racism and bigotry within County worksites — and bringing about accountability.