Hundreds of striking Seattle-area concrete mixer drivers will return to work without a deal, ending a work stoppage that has upended construction projects across the region.
Teamsters Local 174 said Friday afternoon that all of the more than 300 striking drivers, who work for six local companies, have “offered an unconditional return to work starting on Monday.” The union had previously sent a portion of its drivers back to work.
“This won’t stop the negotiations. It will just stop people thinking we’re to blame and we’re the bad guys,” said Brett Gallagher, a mixer driver and member of the union bargaining committee. “We have a lot of mud to get done and a lot of people to get back to work.”
The end of the strike will be a significant turnaround for the local construction industry, where both public and private jobs slowed and scores of workers were laid off because of the lack of concrete. Contractors and politicians have urged the two sides to reach a deal.
In a joint statement, the companies whose drivers have been on strike said they “applauded” the decision.
“We look forward to welcoming the drivers back so that we can begin filling the backlog created by the strike,” the statement said. “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.”
For unionized workers, the end of the strike is likely to bring mixed emotions.
Returning to work without a deal is a blow to striking drivers, who appear to have forced little movement from their employers during negotiations on a key issue of health care benefits for retirees. But it will mean a return of steady paychecks for affected workers in other trades.
“The majority of us are ready to stay out for another year, but what would that do to the region?” Gallagher said. “We can’t keep asking our brothers and sisters who honor us in every other trade to keep suffering along with us. … I think we’ve asked that long enough. We’ve got to try something else.”
As the strike dragged on, some local concrete suppliers turned to replacement workers and so-called “ghost trucks” to keep concrete moving across the Teamsters picket lines. A handful of union members have also crossed the line. And pressure has mounted as employees in other trades lost work.
Job losses hit various building trades, but especially laborers, cement masons and ironworkers, said Monty Anderson, executive secretary of the Seattle Building & Construction Trades Council, which represents local construction unions.
“People are going to be happy to go back to work. That’s a fact,” Anderson said. “But we can’t sugarcoat it. These Teamsters stood the line for something that’s bigger than money. It’s tough on retirees.”
The drivers’ union has sought improvements to a current retiree healthcare plan and accused the companies of refusing to bargain in good faith.
A current retiree health care plan covers drivers who retire before age 65 until they become eligible for Medicare at 65, but that coverage costs retirees about $350 a month, Gallagher said. Drivers are seeking an improved plan that would cost current drivers more each month but lower the monthly price for retirees to about $150, he said.
The Teamsters say they offered to “assume the risk on the retiree health care and pay for it in whole for 10 years — the companies still rejected it.”
Throughout the strike, the companies have not commented on the health care issue other than to describe the existing retiree medical plan as “generous.”
“We’ve negotiated in good faith, working hard to find an agreement that meets the economic needs of the drivers,” the companies said Friday.
Developers and public agencies whose projects have been slowed by the strike welcomed the announcement.
“With months of backlogged concrete deliveries across the region, we all must now work together to dig ourselves out of a deep hole,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said in a statement. Contractors working on Sound Transit projects laid off about 200 workers between early December and late March, according to the agency.
Concrete flowing “means construction sites and critical infrastructure like housing, transit, bridges and stormwater projects will be back on track soon,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine.
At the high-profile convention center expansion downtown, the strike has pushed back the expected completion date this summer by 2 1/2 or three months, said Matt Griffin, principal at Pine Street Group.
The project still needs concrete for its loading dock area, sidewalks, and for work on nearby residential and office buildings.
An end to the strike is “very good for the community,” Griffin said, citing housing and public projects.
Negotiations between the two sides will continue.
Despite help from mediators, those talks have shown little apparent progress.
“The mediators are throwing their hands up. We’re throwing our hands up. The companies are throwing their hands up,” Gallagher said.
The concrete companies have defended their negotiations. “We remain [committed] to bargaining in good faith and we look forward to continuing to negotiate with Teamsters on a new contract,” the companies said.