As a monthslong concrete-mixer driver strike threatens government projects and thousands of construction jobs, King County officials hope an exclusive multimillion-dollar proposal can jump-start talks between six Seattle-area concrete companies and their unionized workers.
The county is soliciting bids from concrete companies to become the county’s exclusive suppliers for at least three years. The catch: to qualify, companies need a union contract with their workers.
“My sincere hope is that by having the opportunity to really secure the business for themselves — $30 million over the course of next three years, much more in the future — that they will understand that there are larger issues and really more money at stake than what’s represented in the relatively minor differences between the Teamsters and concrete companies in this negotiation,” said County Executive Dow Constantine, one of many local officials anxious for an end to the strike.
The proposal, unveiled Wednesday, represents a last-ditch effort to end the strike, which is creating costly delays on taxpayer-funded roads, light rail lines and other projects.
The agreement would secure a steady supply of concrete for the county, Constantine said, while also pushing the companies to reach a deal with the Teamsters Local 174, who represent around 300 truck drivers. Some industry insiders think the offer is also meant to drive a wedge between the companies, if one or more are willing to settle with the union to get the county deal. But others wonder if the dollars on offer are too small to move the needle.
The concrete companies had not commented on the morning announcement by the end of the day Wednesday. The Teamsters welcomed it.
“Our fingers are crossed that this will be the motivation these companies need to come back to the table and talk to us,” spokesperson Jamie Fleming said.
The county’s maneuver comes as projects stall and layoffs mount.
Local mixer drivers have been on strike for months, starting with a smaller group in November and later expanding to 330 workers for six companies. Without concrete, construction has slowed or stopped on public and private work, including a RapidRide bus-line expansion in South Park and the Washington State Convention Center expansion.
Seattle says the reopening of the West Seattle Bridge, now set for midyear, could be delayed, and Sound Transit says its contractors have laid off more than 200 workers. The city and Sound Transit have both urged an end to the strike.
Job losses are now in “the thousands,” said Monty Anderson, executive secretary of the Seattle Building & Construction Trades Council, a coalition of unions. ”And it’s just going to get worse.”
So far, public agencies do not appear to have tried to tap into nonunion concrete suppliers.
King County has not pursued nonunion drivers to get projects moving because “most qualified workers are working for large companies that are union,” Constantine said. Concrete can also only travel a limited distance to a job site.
The concrete companies have maintained a united front during the contact talks. Some industry and government officials see the county’s bid as an effort to break that unity by tempting at least one company into a deal.
“It’s very likely somebody would say, ‘You know what? My trucks haven’t moved in 80 days. This is a good deal. It’s local work. The county pays on time. You guys can keep fighting with the Teamsters, but I’m going to go sign a contract and get to work,’” said Anderson, with the council of building trades unions. “It happens more than you think.”
Contractors were divided Wednesday. Bill Ketcham, general manager of the Seattle office of Turner Construction, called Constantine’s proposal a “great idea.”
“We cannot sustain this current situation where the … two sides are so at odds with each other that they’re both sitting back and waiting,” said Ketcham, whose company was one of group of around 30 major contractors, developers and subcontractors that released a letter Wednesday urging Teamsters and concrete companies to settle.
“So, if this proposal helps advance discussions and get them closer to a resolution by in some way forcing the hands of the parties, then I’m fully supportive,” Ketcham said.
Others, however, worry that the effort is too narrow to affect the negotiations. Neither Seattle nor Sound Transit have released similar requests for an exclusive concrete supplier, meaning that, for now, any impact of a deal is limited to county projects.
Leon Johnson, president of Mill Creek-based Greater Seattle Concrete thinks the amount of money being offered means the proposal “is not a workable deal.”
The roughly $30 million in county work is “not that much money compared to what they do privately,” Johnson said. He said his mid-size company alone uses roughly $10 million in concrete a year, and he reckons that larger builders might use that much concrete in a single month. For “anybody who understands how much concrete costs and how much people pour, 30 million is a drop in the bucket,” he said.
Johnson, who said he has laid off around 110 of his 170 employees because of the strike, expects the ready-mix companies to continue “sticking together.”
“It sounds like a bunch of noise to me,” he said. “It’s going to have to come down to the union and the ready-mix companies for this thing to get settled.” he said.
King County estimates it will need concrete for at least 92 projects during the next three years, including a new rapid bus line to Burien, a new sewage-treatment facility in Georgetown and road improvements.
The request states that the county’s exclusive supplier “must have a fully executed collective bargaining agreement with a labor organization that represents 100 or more truck drivers regularly employed in King County.” The contract must include both a no-strike clause and a prohibition on employer lockouts during that time.
Those requirements likely apply to few concrete companies other than those whose workers are represented by the Teamsters. The county could choose “one or more” suppliers.
Government agencies often make so-called labor harmony agreements with contractors requiring that strikes and other actions do not disrupt work, but it’s rare to make an agreement directly with the supplier of a building product, such as concrete or steel. Constantine said he thinks this would be the county’s first deal like this with a supplier.
For now, it’s not clear when the concrete companies and Teamsters will meet again.
Negotiators met with two federal mediators last month, but that ended without a resolution. No further dates are set, according to the union.
Neither side will provide dollars-and-cents details about their negotiations.
The companies have said their offer includes a 17.6% pay increase over three years but have not shared exact details of the offer. The union argues the companies want the drivers to settle for a less generous deal than other trades have received in recent years.
According to the union, the top hourly rate for mixer drivers is about $37 an hour. Pay for public projects is higher. On taxpayer-funded job sites, the prevailing wage for a ready mix driver on a King County project starting today would be $69.95 an hour, according to the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries. That includes wages as well as benefits such as health care and pension.