As a costly labor dispute between concrete mixer drivers and Seattle-area concrete suppliers has dragged on for months, local contractors are turning increasingly to nonunion drivers to get concrete to projects, including at several for Sound Transit.

The use of “ghost trucks,” as union members call them, began quietly and went largely unnoticed soon after the strike by 330 Teamsters drivers began in early December.

But the controversial practice, which often involves bringing in out-of-area drivers to operate some of the estimated 300 local mixer trucks owned by several of the six local suppliers, has become evermore standard for contractors as talks between Teamsters and the companies have stalled.

Across the Seattle area, ready-mix trucks, some with their company logos taped over, have been delivering thousands of cubic yards of concrete to projects ranging from apartment high-rises to transit lines.

Over the last week, contractors brought in upward of 100 nonunion truckloads of concrete for Sound Transit work at Northgate, Lynnwood and Redmond as well as for state Department of Transportation work on the 520 bridge, officials at both agencies said this week. (A truckload is usually around 10 cubic yards.) Small amounts of non-union concrete have also been used on city of Seattle projects during the strike.

The tactic is drawing fire from Teamsters, who have raised safety concerns over the use of nonunion drivers.

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Union-provided photos show trucks operating without company names and U.S. Department of Transportation numbers or missing the chute cover that prevents concrete and debris from falling out of the truck. “These drivers and vehicles don’t even belong on the road,” Teamsters Local 174 spokesperson Jamie Fleming said. 

But ghost trucks are seen as a critical workaround by area contractors who’ve have had to slow or stop work and cut thousands of workers at projects across the strike territory, which began in King County and spread to Snohomish County on Feb. 11.

Contractors are also betting ghost trucks will pressure Teamsters to settle with the suppliers by undercutting the leverage the union had earlier in the strike, when little concrete was flowing in King County.

“I think this thing is pretty much unraveling,” Leon Johnson, president of Mill Creek-based Greater Seattle Concrete, recipient of around 100 nonunion truckloads of concrete since March 2, said of the strike.

Union officials dispute that ghost trucks hurt their leverage. “I don’t think it’s taking our bargaining power away,” said Brett Gallagher, a Teamsters bargaining committee member and a driver for a CalPortland, one of the six companies in the dispute. “It shows me that these companies will do whatever it takes to keep us from having a fair contract.”

‘Desperate’ builders

The suppliers won’t say how many of their trucks are in use. CalPortland, for example, acknowledged bringing in “qualified experienced ready-mix drivers” from the company’s operations elsewhere in Washington and other Western states, according to Pete Stoltz, a CalPortland executive, but hasn’t said how many of its trucks are running.

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Several other suppliers have reportedly some of their local fleet, according to several contractors.

Gallagher, with the union, said the practice has grown since December but “seems now to have leveled off.” Bringing in outside drivers, he argues, is “not a successful business model.”

But several area contractors insist the practice is still expanding as contractors, eager to restart delayed projects, have been willing to pay extra for nonunion concrete — and in some cases have begun running concrete themselves in trucks leased from the suppliers.

Ryatt Construction, a Seattle-based demolition, excavation and utility work contractor, is leasing eight trucks from two of the local suppliers caught in the strike and hopes to triple that fleet by the end of March to meet demand.

Builders and contractors “are desperate,” says Matt Howland, co-owner of Ryatt, which delivered nonunion concrete to a Sound Transit project near Northgate on Wednesday and Thursday. “They’re trying to get on our schedule as much as they can,” Howland said, adding that his temporary fleet delivers to as many as six different contractors a day and is already booked through April.

Some contractors have purchased their own trucks and some out-of-area independent truck owners have brought their vehicles into the county to work, area contractors say. At least one contractor has brought in a portable batch plant that can produce concrete on-site.

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Howland and other contractors expect ghost trucks and other workarounds to multiply as the strike wears on.

The Department of Transportation’s contractor brought in around 10 truckloads of nonunion concrete for part of Montlake 520 project last week, according to department officials. Given that the agency needs another 12 or so truckloads over just the next two weeks for projects in the strike-affected area, “it’s pretty clear [contractors] are going to continue to try to do that,” agency spokesperson Lars Erickson said.

Government projects

The use of ghost drivers is raising questions about decades-old norms that govern the construction business.

Although publicly funded transportation projects have historically relied heavily on union workers, labor agreements that cover state and Sound Transit projects in the strike-affected area don’t actually apply to deliveries of concrete and some other building materials, agency officials say.

That means deliveries can be made by either union or nonunion drivers and the two agencies leave those decisions to contractors, agency officials say.

“Contractors are free to get concrete from whatever source they’re able to get it from,” said Matt Preedy, Sound Transit’s director of construction management.

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“Contractors determine who they will buy concrete from and those businesses determine who will drive those trucks,” adds DOT’s Erickson.

The specter of ghost trucks and nonunion concrete also complicates life for some Seattle-area politicians, who tend to side with unions.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said Wednesday he has “no confirmation that any county project has received nonunion concrete.”

Constantine also echoed union concerns about the quality of nonunion work. Though the county can’t reject a concrete delivery simply because the company is nonunion, “we clearly would have to send someone to inspect material,” said Constantine, who is also vice president of the Sound Transit Board.

Constantine has also stepped up criticism of the concrete companies. In a Feb. 25 letter, he asked state Attorney General Bob Ferguson to investigate whether the companies are violating state or federal competition laws. 

In early February, Constantine sought to play mediator by offering concrete companies to become the county’s exclusive suppliers for at least three years provided they had a union contract with their workers.

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A spokesperson with the Seattle Department of Transportation, whose contractors can also use union or nonunion concrete, said Friday that “non-union labor has been used to pour comparatively small amounts of concrete” at two SDOT projects — the Andover Street Pedestrian Bridge Seismic Retrofit and the 23rd Avenue East Vision Zero Project.

Seattle-area politicians remain under pressure to help end the strike, which has led to widespread layoffs: 246 at Sound Transit alone.

It’s also delaying much-needed housing and other key projects, such as repair of the cracked West Seattle Bridge, whose reopening is likely to miss the contractor’s original June 30 deadline. Also slowed is UW Medicine’s new behavioral health teaching facility, which was originally set to open in late 2023 with 150 patient beds.

“This is something that we badly need in the state, because we don’t have the capacity to serve all the people in need,” said Jürgen Unützer, chair of Psychiatry at UW Medicine.

For now, however, the hospital does not plan to rely on nonunion concrete.

Short-term fix?

It’s not clear how long the ghost truck workaround can be sustained.

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The extra cost of leasing trucks, which can run up to $12,000 a month, means nonunion concrete is often costly: Johnson, with Greater Seattle Concrete, says he’s paying around $300 a yard for nonunion mud, compared to around $120 before the strike.

Qualified drivers are scarce and often command a premium wage — not least because they may get yelled at by Teamsters picketing projects they’re servicing, said Ryatt’s Howland.

Temporary delivery companies may also run into trouble if the dispute is quickly settled and the suppliers need their trucks back.

More broadly, few expect ghost trucks can solve the region’s concrete deficit.

To catch up on the roughly 39,000 yards of concrete that Sound Transit alone has missed due to the strike would require a queue of concrete trucks almost 26 miles long, agency officials say.

“It’s unrealistic to think that a collection of smaller operations or fly-by-night operations is going to be able to provide what a huge and growing region like ours needs,” Constantine said.

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“It’s not a lot of capacity,” acknowledges Bill Ketcham, general manager of the Seattle office of Turner Construction, which is looking into ghost trucks and other workarounds for half a dozen Seattle-area projects, including a low-income housing project.

But the real benefit may be the effect this workaround has on negotiations, Ketcham said. “If nothing else comes of this, the pressure that is putting on the sides to get to the resolution is worth it.”

Coverage of the pandemic’s economic impacts is partially underwritten by Microsoft Philanthropies. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.