A concrete workers strike is entering its third month, halting work at Seattle-area construction projects, idling hundreds of workers and threatening delays of several major transportation projects.
Although the strike directly affects just 330 Teamsters-represented concrete mixer drivers and plant workers at six local concrete companies, it has already created cascading problems across the Seattle area during one of the biggest construction booms in years.
“We’re kind of sitting dead in the water right now on two projects,” said Rob Warnaca, president of Kirkland-based GenCap Construction, which has two Seattle-area apartments in the “concrete phase,” where workers would be pouring foundations, columns, elevator shafts and other concrete components.
The dispute has also meant layoffs as some contractors and subcontractors stalled out by the lack of concrete have been forced to scale back their own crews.
“Laying off people … before Christmas was not [a] cool thing to do,” said Leon Johnson, president of Mill Creek-based Greater Seattle Concrete, who said he let 90 of his 170 employees go over the last three weeks because of the strike. But “as an employer, my hands are tied,” he added. ”If we cannot get concrete, then there is not work to perform.”
Despite the rising stakes — and despite behind-the-scenes mediating efforts of King County Executive Dow Constantine — the two sides are reportedly far from a settlement. Each side accuses the other of refusing mediation, and neither will publicly disclose the details of the contract offer.
That’s raising fears among builders of still more delays to projects, some of which have been idle for weeks.
It’s also putting pressure on strikers as they see the dispute hit some of their fellow workers in other trades.
After facing layoffs during the Great Recession, ready-mix driver Brett Gallagher said he feels for other workers whose jobs are affected.
So far, Gallagher says, those other trades are still supporting the strike. “When we’re out on the strike line, we’re visited by the other trades almost daily — carpenters, electricians, plumbers,” he added. “They come by, shake hands, drop off coffee or pizza and say, ‘Keep up the good work. Keep up the fight’.”
Yet those pressures can only grow as the absence of concrete continues to ripple through the construction sector.
Concrete is one of the most indispensable building materials in modern construction — essential in everything from foundations and elevator shafts to framing and flooring.
For some projects that were early in the construction phases, such as pouring foundations, work has largely ground to a halt since the strike picked up steam early last month.
Although crews at Warnaca’s two sites, for example, can still do some site work, such as below-ground utilities, so-called critical path work can’t happen “until we can start pouring concrete again,” Warnaca said of the projects — near the Seattle Center and in Totem Lake. “We literally have two giant holes in the ground right now,” he added.
The strike’s effects may be delayed at projects that are further along. For example, at a high-rise project where lower floors have already been poured, electrical, plumbing and other ancillary work can often continue until higher floors need to be poured, contractors say. But eventually, those ancillary tasks end and progress halts until more concrete is poured.
That has been an issue at the Convention Center expansion in downtown Seattle, said Matt Griffin, managing partner at the Pine Street Group.
“The contractor was able to work around it for some period of time, but after a while you can’t keep working around concrete when a building has a whole bunch of concrete,” Griffin said.
Work has also been delayed at some Sound Transit projects, including guideways, parking garages, retaining walls and affordable housing on surplus Sound Transit property, the agency said.
The agency, along with the Washington State Department of Transportation, Seattle and King County, has warned that ‘a prolonged work stoppage could delay critical regional infrastructure activities under construction currently, including roads, bridges, girders, light rail guideways, and much more.”
Some contractors estimated the strike could delay projects by up to four months, depending on how long the dispute drags on, how long it takes to rehire laid-off workers, and how competitive the local concrete market becomes as hundreds of contractors vie for a fixed supply.
Even when the strike ends, Sound Transit warned Thursday, “high demand may delay concrete availability.”
The construction sector has weathered other contract disputes, such as the carpenters in September — but the concrete fight is complicated by the unique structure of the negotiations.
In most negotiations, building trade unions bargain with the Association of General Contractors of Washington, which essentially gives contractors a say in the negations. But with concrete, the Teamsters are negotiating with the six concrete companies, which means contractors and other nonconcrete firms are largely excluded from the talks and are at the mercy of a smaller bargaining group.
Indeed, although the strike began on a smaller scale in November with drivers for Gary Merlino Construction, before expanding to about 330 people across six companies on Dec. 3, the two sides have not bargained since the strike began.
Teamsters contend the concrete companies are offering mixer drivers less generous terms than other trades have received, but will not share exact numbers from the company’s last offer.
To accept the latest offer would not only hurt concrete drivers, Teamsters officials say; it could also set a bad precedent for future negotiations with other trade groups.
“If we cave and accept an offer lower than what everyone else agreed to, they’re going to come after them next,” Teamsters Local 174 spokesperson Jamie Fleming said.
The concrete companies, meanwhile, have said their offer “includes wage increases of 17.6% over the next three years” as well as other benefits, but also have not shared many specifics. The companies say their offer included several benefits that were not in an agreement between the Teamsters and AGC, such as guaranteed eight-hour pay and paid vacation.
Gallagher, a member of the union bargaining committee, says the dispute is all the more significant given the escalating cost of housing and other essentials facing workers.
Younger drivers especially will struggle with high costs of living in Seattle, said Gallagher “The next generation is going to need help,” he said.
As the strike continues, pressure for a settlement has grown. Both sides say a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has been involved, but the mediator’s current status was unclear.
Constantine, meanwhile, “has been making calls and talking to everyone involved,” said spokesperson Chase Gallagher, who declined to share details about the substance of the calls.
But some builders and workers affected by the strike have had few formal opportunities to influence the talks.
For them, the costs of the dispute could outlast the picket lines.
Building contracts often allow contractors to push back construction deadlines if work is interrupted by a strike, said Warnaca, who, like many builders, will work to get projects back on schedule once the strike is over.
But builders often still must cover other project costs, such as management and field staff, that continue even if most of the building stops. “We’re still incurring those costs,” said Warnaca, adding that at the two affected GenCap sites, total costs for the company and subcontractors amount to “hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.”
With no sign of progress at the bargaining table, developers and contractors have little idea how long they’ll face those delays.
“You can’t plan,” said Kim Faust, senior vice president of development at Kirkland-based MainStreet Property Group, which has two Seattle-area apartments in the concrete phase. “You can’t say, ‘oh, this is a 30-day delay.’ It’s currently an unknown.”
The costs are also adding up for workers indirectly affected by the strike. About 100 people working on the Convention Center project have been laid off, Griffin said. On Thursday, Sound Transit said it has laid off 100 workers and projects it could let another 123 go in January.
Johnson, with Greater Seattle Concrete, said he anticipates more layoffs next week. And although his firm has projects scheduled through early 2023, he has little idea when he’ll be able to call workers back.
“Whenever this ends, we’ll have work.” But he worries that it could drag out. “Both sides seem to be digging in their heels,” he said.