by Tushar Khurana
As the omicron-fueled fifth wave of COVID-19 disrupts schools, grocery stores, airports, and hospitals, construction across King County has come to a standstill as well, albeit for different reasons. For nearly eight weeks now, drivers and workers have been striking at Gary Merlino Construction and the region’s five major concrete suppliers. As a result, many of Puget Sound’s largest construction projects — including affordable housing and the Federal Way Link light rail extension project in the South End — are now on hold.
After their previous labor contracts expired in July and months of stalled negotiations fell flat, the strike began on Nov. 19, when 34 dump truck drivers at Gary Merlino Construction set up picket lines at their facilities in Renton and South Park. By Dec. 3, that number had swelled to 330 as these drivers were joined by cement mixer drivers, concrete pourers, and a host of mechanics, plant and lab technicians, and yard workers at facilities across King County, putting a stop to the majority of concrete deliveries.
The striking workers are demanding competitive wage increases and a better health care package, and allege that their employers are refusing to bargain in good faith.
National unionization rates in heavy and commercial construction remain higher than most private sector industries. Every three years in Western Washington, the statewide chapter of the industry association Associated General Contractors (AGC) and the major unions negotiate area-wide collective bargaining contracts in a process that can often be contentious. Last September, this negotiation process resulted in a strike where nearly 2,000 of the region’s 12,000 unionized carpenters walked off the job demanding better wages, pension contributions, and parking reimbursement. In 2018, Seattle’s 65 construction cranes were left idle as part of a 17-day operating engineer strike 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 been settling their contracts … and they all settled at roughly the same ballpark in terms of wages, pensions, health, and welfare. The employers had a blueprint for exactly what it was going to take for our members to ratify. Instead of offering something on par, the employers offered about 25% under it.”
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 dad worked for Cadman for 25 years,” said Emerson, at a picket line outside their East Marginal Way facility. “We give them our blood, sweat, and tears. We work overtime, our schedule is never the same, and we miss out on time with our family. To give them years and years of that and have them unwilling to give us a fair chance at meeting the cost of living, or basic human rights, like decent medical care, feels disrespectful.”
Unpredictable 50–60 hour weeks in physically demanding construction work exacts a toll, and many drivers are forced to retire before they qualify for Medicare with back, elbow, and shoulder problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, and lung diseases from silica and diesel exhaust. Another key topic of negotiation for the Teamsters is a post-retirement health care package that would save union members nearly $6,000 per year in premiums, an agreement already confirmed in other AGC contracts.
According to Fleming, the employers’ resistance to this demand feels spiteful. “[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 not expensive for them.” She elaborated that “the plan only costs 46 cents an hour. Our side even said instead of the wage increase we are asking for, cut that wage increase by 46 cents and give us the retiree health care.”
Of the six companies involved in the dispute, three are owned by international construction conglomerates and two are owned by the local Merlino family. While they did not respond to the Emerald’s request for comment in time for publication, multiple public statements claim that their offer, which has remained the same throughout the dispute, is the best to date and “includes a 17.6% pay increase over three years, improves pension contributions, provides excellent medical benefits, and generous retiree medical insurance rarely found in other labor contracts.”
The work stoppage has largely suspended Seattle’s $23-billion construction industry and hundreds of workers have been laid off as a result of stalled projects, effects which speak to the critical role of concrete in modern construction. “We’re the first ones on and the last ones off,” explains Emerson. “We’re responsible for putting the pilings in and filling them, we pour every level of these buildings all the way up, and once all the trades come in and leave, we finish up with the sidewalks at the very end.”
As regional leaders have stepped in to encourage resolution, the companies’ public messaging maintains that the 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 tasked with resolving labor disputes across the country.
Fleming disagrees, pointing out that the federal mediation agency itself says negotiations are stalemated because of the employers, not workers. “We are the ones that are out on the street, cold and miserable. We are the ones that most want to get back to the table so that 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 won’t be fruitful unless there is some change in the attitude of the employer.”
On Jan. 20, a day after Fleming spoke to the Emerald, this dynamic was confirmed when the union and employee representatives met with a mediator for the first time. The talks ended in less than a day at the direction of the mediator who cited no progress or resolution.
Teamsters’ press releases have expressed concern that this could be the beginning of “a multiyear effort to purge union workers from the Seattle construction industry.” Given that all the other similar contracts across the industry adhered to a similar blueprint, Fleming elaborates, this employer holdout “doesn’t make sense unless this is part of some plan to come back and undercut everybody else later.”
It is perhaps for this reason that other unions remain supportive of the Teamsters, despite their members being laid off. Emerson attests to the “incredible support” that they’ve received from unions and community members, who “are regularly dropping off sandwiches and donuts, waving, honking, or stopping to shake hands as they drive by.” Over the Christmas break, the teamsters held a successful toy drive for their members, and they’ve received an outpouring of donations to their strike hardship fund.
“The other trades have overwhelmingly honored the picket lines,” Fleming added, “because they understand that today it’s us but tomorrow it could be them. We all stand together in solidarity.”
Tushar Khurana (he/him) lives, writes, and organizes in South Seattle. He has a background in climate science, environmental policy, and clean energy.
📸 Featured Image: Teamsters took action in downtown Seattle at the headquarters of the Washington chapter of the Associated General Contractors (AGC) industry association in Jan. 2022. Photo courtesy of Teamsters Local 174.
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