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The massive
Highway 99 tunnel project has now lost three weeks to delays, as the dispute continues over which union
will load the excavated muck onto barges.

It’s unclear how or how soon this stalemate over eight jobs will be resolved so the machine can resume its 1.7-mile trek from Sodo to South Lake Union.

Construction firms intend to use building-trades union members to operate a conveyor belt, scoop dirt with a front-end loader, and position the barges off Terminal 46 along the Seattle waterfront. They say these tasks support the overall $1.4 billion tunnel contract, and a project labor agreement.

But the International Longshore and Warehouse Union says those jobs — two daily shifts of four workers — are in ILWU territory, because they entail moving materials offshore.

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So far, the Seattle Tunnel Partners construction team hasn’t tried to send workers past an ILWU picket line, which could provoke a confrontation.

Tunnel-boring machine Bertha has been marooned by the labor dispute for the last two weeks, officials say. Before that, the machine advanced a mere 24 feet since drilling began July 30, slowed by fiberglass rods that clogged a screw-type conveyor.

The machine is supposed to reach South Lake Union in about 14 months.

The machine’s rotary cutting head has broken through the concrete launch pit into Sodo soil, yet the rear of the cylinder remains in the pit.

When drilling resumes, the mixture of excavated dirt and rock will be barged to the Mats Mats quarry near Port Townsend.

Hearings are under way at the National Labor Relations Board office in downtown Seattle, where the building trades have formally accused the longshore union of “economic coercion and threats” to undermine the project labor agreement.

The ILWU signed a contract in April with tunneling firms that included the four waterfront jobs, but an arbitrator said in July the building-trades pact takes precedence.

Testimony at the NLRB resumes Tuesday. The record will be forwarded to Washington, D.C., where the five-member board would issue a ruling within weeks, said regional director Ronald Hooks.

The board will be urged to act promptly, because of the stoppage, he said.

Between 20 and 30 longshoremen a day have walked the picket line at T-46, said Cam Williams, president of ILWU Local 19 in Seattle.

Williams wouldn’t predict what happens next on the waterfront if the NLRB rules against the longshoremen.

“We’ll picket as long as we have to, until a resolution is met,” he said.

The Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) team is led by Dragados USA and Tutor-Perini, employing about 250 construction workers.

Last month, project director Chris Dixon said his team previously offered to split the jobs, so the ILWU would handle the barge mooring, while operating engineers and carpenters run the conveyor and a front-end loader.

Dixon’s spokesman referred questions Friday to the state Department of Transportation, which commented: “STP has a contractual obligation to open the tunnel by the end of 2015 and that is what we are holding them responsible to meet.”

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631, On Twitter @mikelindblom

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