Seattle Teamsters strike is over, but concrete could take weeks to flow

Dive Brief:

  • Teamsters Local 174 agreed to return to work unconditionally, but builders may have to wait some two weeks before concrete deliveries resume.
  • The union’s Seattle chapter ended its five-month strike for higher wages and better healthcare benefits for recent retirees, saying about 330 ready-mixed concrete truck drivers would go back to work Monday.
  • Few employees have received calls to report to work, however, as employers await the inspections of trucks loaned to third party delivery services.

Dive Insight:

Americans have witnessed a resurgence of union power in recent months, from an Amazon warehouse in New York to a handful of Starbucks coffee shops, but truckers on the picket lines in Seattle didn’t achieve the same success.

The union also risked declining public support, as commuters were forced onto slower, longer routes while the West Seattle Bridge — shuttered in March 2020 for repairs — remained closed.

“Our members love our community and are returning to work for the people of Seattle,” Rick Hicks, Teamsters Local 174 Secretary-Treasurer, said in a face-saving statement.

Brett Gallagher, mixer driver for CalPortland and member of the union’s bargaining committee, tried to put a good face on the unexpected and unconditional return to work. 

“You can’t keep beating a dead horse,” Gallagher told Construction Dive. “We need to get moving again.”

Slow return

That “moving,” however, could take 10 days to two weeks.

Despite the unconditional return, counter allegations and acrimony still ran high Tuesday morning. In a statement emailed to Construction Dive, the union emphasized that few workers have been called back to work. Builders are ready for concrete, the union said, and alleged the employers were purposefully delaying jobs.

“The people of Seattle should be livid that these concrete companies continue to starve our community of critical infrastructure projects,” Gallagher, said in a statement. “Offering to return to work without a fair contract was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made, but we made the decision as a union because this is bigger than ourselves, and we didn’t want to see our community hurt anymore. It’s a slap in the face to everyone in Seattle that these concrete companies are so used to dragging their feet that they can’t even call us back to work.”

But the companies from the outset indicated work would not immediately resume.

The employers — Stoneway Concrete, Gary Merlino Construction, Cadman Materials, CalPortland/Glacier Northwest, Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel, and Lehigh Cement — will have to take back trucks loaned to third party drivers and inspect them to ensure they meet standards before deliveries can begin.

“Each of the companies will now focus on rapidly ramping up operations to facilitate the workers’ return; it will take us time to get back to pre-strike levels,” Glacier Northwest, Stoneway, Salmon Bay and Cadman said in a joint statement, responding to the return to work. 

Months in the making

The strike began with Stoneway workers protesting unfair labor practices in November. Numbers swelled to 330 in December, and work stoppages continued well into the spring. Both sides claimed the other didn’t bargain in good faith. 

The Teamsters alleged collusion took place between the employers, prompting public officials to call for an investigation. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters offered a $1 million donation, as employers tried to coax workers back to work when their healthcare was set to expire on April 1.

One week after that deadline, the union announced the return.

Strategy change

King County Executive Dow Constantine — who wrote a letter to Seattle Attorney General Bob Ferguson, asking him to investigate the collusion between the employers — said in a statement shared via Twitter he hoped projects could get back on track.

“I’m optimistic today’s news will lead to concrete safely moving around our region,” Constantine said. “At the same time, these workers need to be treated fairly, so it’s more urgent than ever to get a long term deal secured as swiftly as possible.”

When about 40 Teamsters returned in a sign of good faith, for Salmon Bay, Lehigh and Cadman Seattle, it took several days to get the drivers back to work. That process will continue with more than 300 workers. 

After five months of striking with no deal, the Teamsters needed a new strategy.

The strike had impacted construction projects, and, in turn, caused layoffs for local tradespeople, a side effect Gallagher said helped spur returning to work. 

The union will use the remaining funds from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ $1 million donation to continue the fight, buying ads and billboards or paying the bargaining committee.

“We’ve proven that we can stay out on strike, we can stay out on strike a lot longer than this. Our coffers are full,” he said, and their demands for a new contract remain unchanged.

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