A King County judge will limit some Teamsters picketing activity after five concrete companies whose workers are on strike alleged union picketers created safety issues as they stood in the way of vehicles coming and going from concrete facilities around the region.
King County Superior Court Commissioner Mark Hillman said he plans to impose “reasonable” restrictions on the picket lines.
“I’m afraid somebody is going to get hurt,” Hillman said.
The court fight marks an escalation in the tense strike that has dragged on for three months. About 330 mixer drivers are off the job, arguing for better pay and claiming management of the concrete companies refuse to bargain in good faith. The companies say they bargained in good faith and offered pay raises.
The strike has brought public and private construction projects across the region to a halt and caused thousands of layoffs in the building trades, by one labor group’s estimate. Public officials are pushing for a resolution, raising the specter of delays and cost hikes on roads, bridges and other taxpayer-funded projects.
Both sides say they support mediation, but a session last month ended without a resolution, and other meetings have so far not been set.
Strikers have formed picket lines at concrete plants since the start of the strike to slow vehicles trying to enter and exit the facilities.
Stoneway Concrete, Gary Merlino Construction, Cadman Materials, Lehigh Northwest Cement Company and CalPortland filed a complaint in King County Superior Court Wednesday alleging picketers are creating unsafe conditions.
The companies asked the court to issue a restraining order to stop picketers from blocking vehicles coming in and out of the facilities and to allow the companies to paint white lines 10 feet from the entrances and exits and only allow picketing outside the lines.
Teamsters Local 174 denied that picketers risked anyone’s safety, instead blaming inexperienced or aggressive drivers crossing the picket line. Attorneys for the union argued the dispute should be handled by the National Labor Relations Board and warned against curtailing union rights.
Hillman landed in the middle, restricting certain picketing activities but dismissing the white line idea and allowing the union to continue blocking some trucks for a limited amount of time.
“The union has an absolute right to strike. They have an absolute right to picket,” Hillman said.
“The intent of this order is to do the minimal amount that I see to keep the peace,” he said.
In court filings, the concrete companies allege picketers have become more aggressive and intimidating, shouting insults and blocking both commercial and personal vehicles coming in and out of the plants.
The companies said that when picketers blocked trucks from entering the facilities, they stranded them in traffic or on active train tracks and, in one case, caused a crash. A Teamsters steward said in a court filing the driver of the pickup involved in the crash parked in an unsafe location despite warnings.
Police were called on several occasions, but only intervened in certain instances such as picketers blocking personal vehicles, the companies said.
The union says it typically uses a “two-minute rule” to temporarily block vehicles entering or leaving concrete facilities, which the union says offers predictability so drivers know they will be able to enter or leave after two minutes. But picketers staged an hourslong blockade in Redmond on Monday after police there said they would not enforce the two-minute rule, according to court filings.
Hillman said he would sign a written order to bar picketers from blocking trucks trying to get into facilities because of the potential for blocking traffic. Picketers can continue to block large commercial vehicles from leaving the plants for up to two minutes each, he said. They will not be allowed to block standard-size cars and pickups.
Hillman said his order would bar physical contact with vehicles, assaults, threats of bodily harm and vehicles charging at picketers. He said he would not limit the number of picketers or their use of bullhorns or sirens.
Limiting strike activity
The Teamsters argued their strike activity is protected.
“Minor problems or isolated occurrences do not deprive picketing of its constitutional and statutory protections,” union attorneys wrote in a court filing.
Labor law experts say that while federal law generally protects workers’ right to strike, courts can limit activity that blocks people from entering and leaving facilities or involves threats of violence.
Judges consider, “Does this interfere with ingress and egress? Is it violent? Does it involve threats of violence? Is it inconsistent with peace and order?” said William Gould IV, a former chair of the National Labor Relations Board.
“And if a court is of the view that it meets that standard, then it can determine … how the picket line is supposed to be reordered.”
The bar for limiting strike activity should be high, argued Cornell University labor law professor Angela Cornell.
“Our labor history is replete with many decades of obstruction and repression against workers, the exercise of workers’ collective rights,” Cornell said, “and that includes strike and picketing activity.
“It’s a rough-and-tumble world of striker and striker replacements and labor disputes, and generally the National Labor Relations Board can tolerate a fair amount of rough conduct on the picket line if there’s not violence and threats and if it doesn’t actually block the entrance to the facility
Hillman said he had the authority to “protect the domestic peace,” including preventing traffic blockages and ensuring concrete employees trying to leave in their personal vehicles could pass through pickets.
Teamsters attorney Kathleen Barnard said the union may challenge the decision.