Construction halts in King County as concrete workers strike for fair wages and health care

by Tushar Khurana

As the fifth wave of COVID-19 fueled by omicron disrupts schools, grocery stores, airports and hospitals, construction in King County has also come to a halt, albeit for different reasons. For nearly eight weeks, drivers and workers have been on strike at Gary Merlino Construction and the five main concrete suppliers in the region. As a result, many of Puget Sound’s biggest construction projects — including affordable housing and the Federal Way Link light rail expansion project in the South End — are now on hold.

After their previous employment contracts expired in July and months of stalled negotiations failed, the strike began on November 19, when 34 dump truck drivers from Gary Merlino Construction set up picket lines in their Renton and South Park facilities. By December 3, that number had risen to 330 as those drivers were joined by cement mixer drivers, concrete pourers and a host of mechanics, plant and lab technicians and construction workers at facilities in the King County, ending the majority. concrete deliveries.

The strikers are demanding competitive wage increases and a better health care package, and allege their employers refuse to bargain in good faith.

national unionization rate in heavy and commercial construction remain higher than most private sector industries. Every three years in western Washington, the national chapter of the Associated General Contractors (AGC) industry association and major unions negotiate territorial collective agreements in a process that can often be contentious. Last September, this negotiation process ended in a strike where nearly 2,000 of the 12,000 unionized carpenters in the region went on strike demanding better wages, pension contributions and reimbursement for parking. In 2018, Seattle’s 65 construction cranes were left idle as part of a 17 days strike by operations engineers for better pay.

The current work stoppage is a continuation of the same negotiation. In an interview with the emerald, Jamie Fleming, director of communications and research at Teamsters Local 174, explained that “all the other construction trades have settled their contracts…and they’ve all settled at about the same stage in terms of wages, pensions, health and welfare. The employers had a detailed plan outlining what our members would need to ratify. Instead of offering something on par, employers offered about 25% less.

A group of striking concrete workers outside a CalPortland/Glacier Northwest facility on East Marginal Way. Most of the companies involved are mainstays of the Duwamish Valley Industrial Corridor, where their facilities have operated for decades. Photo courtesy of Teamsters Local 174.

Denny Emerson is a second generation employee at one of the companies involved in the dispute, concrete supplier Cadman Inc. “I started at Cadman six and a half years ago and my father worked for Cadman for 25 years “said Emerson, during a picket line outside their East Marginal Way facility. “We give them our blood, our sweat and our tears. We work overtime, our schedule is never the same and we lack time with our family. Giving them years and years of this and preventing them from giving us a fair chance to meet the cost of living or basic human rights, like decent medical care, is disrespectful.

Unpredictable 50-60 hour weeks in physically demanding construction work take their toll, and many drivers are forced into retirement before they are eligible for Medicare with back, elbow and shoulder problems, carpal tunnel syndrome and lung disease due to silica and diesel exhaust. Another key bargaining issue for the Teamsters is a post-retirement health care package that would save union members nearly $6,000 a year in premiums, a deal already confirmed in other AGC contracts.

According to Fleming, employers’ resistance to this demand is malicious. “[This plan] saves retirees a lot of money on health care and there’s really no reason for employers to say no because it’s cheap for them. She clarified that “the plan only costs 46 cents an hour. Our side even said that instead of the pay raise we are asking for, cut that pay raise by 46 cents and give us retiree health care.

Of the six companies involved in the dispute, three are owned by international construction conglomerates and two by the local Merlino family. Although they did not respond to the emeraldrequest for comments in time for publication, many public statements say their offer, which has remained the same throughout the dispute, is the best yet and “includes a 17.6% wage increase over three years, improved pension contributions, excellent medical benefits and generous medical insurance for retirees rarely found in other contracts. »

The work stoppage has largely suspended Seattle’s $23 billion construction industry and hundreds of workers were made redundant due to stalled projects, effects that speak to the essential role of concrete in modern construction. “We are the first and the last to go,” Emerson explains. “We’re responsible for putting the pilings in and filling them in, we sink all the levels of these buildings all the way to the top, and after all the trades come in and out, we end up with the sidewalks at the very end.”

Like regional leaders intervened to encourage resolution, the companies’ public messaging argues that workers are the cause of the disruption. They argue that the union has rebuffed repeated requests to engage with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services, the national agency responsible for resolving labor disputes across the country.

Fleming disagrees, pointing out that the federal mediation agency itself says negotiations are deadlocked because of employers, not workers. “We are the ones on the streets, cold and miserable. We are the ones who most want to come back to the table so we can get a contract and get back to work. She says adding, “We have been in contact with the [federal] mediator who agrees that negotiations will only be successful if there is a change in the attitude of the employer.

Photo depicting a group of individuals wearing reflective vests carrying signs stating
The strikers extended their picket line to the Port of Everett on January 10, where longshoremen honored the picket line, shutting down port operations for the day. Photo courtesy of Teamsters Local 174.

On January 20, a day after Fleming spoke to the emerald, this dynamic was confirmed when the union and staff representatives met a mediator for the first time. The talks ended in less than a day at the request of the mediator who quoted no progress or resolution.

Teamsters Press Releases expressed concern that this could be the start of “a multi-year effort to purge unionized workers from Seattle’s construction industry.” Given that every other similar contract in the industry has adhered to a similar plan, Fleming explains, this employer holdback “only makes sense if it’s part of a plan to come back and undermine everybody.” later”.

It is perhaps for this reason that other unions continue to support the Teamsters, despite the layoff of their members. Emerson attests to the “incredible support” they have received from unions and community members, who “regularly drop off sandwiches and donuts, wave, honk or stop to shake hands as they pass.” During the Christmas holidays, the Teamsters held a successful toy drive for their members, and they received a wave of donations for their strike fund.

“Other trades have massively respected the picket lines,” Fleming added, “because they understand that today is us, but tomorrow it could be them. We are all united. »

Tushar Khurana (he/she) lives, writes and organizes in South Seattle. He has a background in climate science, environmental policy and clean energy.

📸 The featured image: The Teamsters stepped into downtown Seattle at the Washington Chapter headquarters of the Associated General Contractors (AGC) industry association in January 2022. Photo courtesy of Teamsters Local 174.

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