Seattle’s labor movement got a shot in the arm in early August, as 300 members of Teamsters Local 174’s Sand & Gravel division were pushed to struggle for a better contract. This section of the 7,200 member Local 174 represents the concrete truck drivers from five companies, which supply all the cement for Seattle’s building boom of apartments, hotels, offices, and corporate headquarters.
These drivers have tremendous leverage; without their labor, construction stops. And after previous contracts negotiated during the recession including raises as low as zero, they have a lot of catching up to do – the cost of living continues to skyrocket.
Unfortunately, the companies refused to negotiate, not willing to discuss key issues of concern which included wage increases, health care funding, pension contributions, and language to prevent union busting tactics the employers had been using, threatening the workers’ livelihoods. This refusal to acknowledge workers’ needs was met by the drivers refusal to even vote on the crumbs offered. The employers were negotiating in bad faith, setting off a back and forth of ridiculously low proposals countered by emergency meetings held by the union for the membership to discuss developments, but doubling as an effective one day strike as they were held on workdays.
The one day stoppage was not enough to bring the bosses to the table. A week later, the Teamsters struck the largest of the five companies, CalPortland. The pickets were running 24 hours a day, with the rank and file from many building trades unions, as well as longshoremen, teachers, garbage collectors, grocery store clerks and Socialist Alternative activists turning out in support. Jobsites fell weeks behind schedule as they missed pour dates for concrete.
Other workers on the construction sites are sympathetic, after bum contracts, concessions, and pension losses of their own. After a week of picketing, the Teamsters held another meeting to discuss expanding the strike to the other companies and bringing the money-making bonanza of the developers to a screeching halt. The employers caved overnight and a contract was voted in by the members that addresses wage increases, health care, pension contributions, and ending the union busting maneuvers employed by the companies.
The roots of this victory show the continued power of working people in society. When the people who produce and distribute goods and provide necessary services, stop work, this can have huge ripple effects through the whole economy. It puts pressure on the corporations where they best understand it – their bottom line.
One driver the authors spoke to on the picket line was confident this wouldn’t be his last strike. “I wasn’t prepared for this strike, but my goal in the course of the contract is to save up money so if we have a long strike to win our next contract, I’m ready.”
The overall situation in the building industry in Seattle, and in a number of key urban areas, points toward an increased potential power for construction workers and unions. Socialist Alternative pledges solidarity for all workers in struggle for better wages, benefits, and working conditions and encourages all working people to fight for the best contracts and conditions possible. This construction boom is has lit the fire and the iron is hot – it’s a good time to strike.
Where Labor’s Power Comes From
There are so many cranes in Seattle – from high ground they’re hard to count – the city leads the nation in number of construction projects. In fact, the cranes being used in Seattle are causing a regionwide shortage! This construction boom is driving up housing and real estate costs as every plot of land is a potential development site. As a result, business, and profits are booming.
Coming out of the great recession, when jobs were scarce and construction rare, trade unions in construction agreed to contracts with little or no raises on the promise that raises would be forthcoming when the economy improved. This has not happened. While contractors have more jobs than they can handle and there is a shortage of skilled workers in many industrial jobs, companies are standing firm against giving any real wage, health care, or pension increases to workers.
For the cement truck drivers of Teamsters Local 174, their working conditions are also a key issue. Driving cement trucks is harder than it might initially seem due to each truck having a massive liquid load, the momentum of which makes hills, braking, and turning difficult. Only one-in-five workers who start driving cement trucks make it through training. Due to both the difficulty of the job and also the construction boom, there is a shortage of cement truck drivers.
Construction Busts and Booms
During the Great Recession that started in 2007-2008, as foreclosures and evictions hit an all-time high, investment in new building – of any sort – dropped by 50%. This meant unemployment for construction workers who lost homes, cars, and saw their livelihoods slashed as they struggled to make ends meet. By 2012, the economic recovery returned most people to work, and since 2013 companies have been scrambling for more workers and giving out overtime as standard procedure.
For Seattle, and many other cities, the recovery in the construction industry is related to the fundamentally unsolved contradictions that caused the Great Recession to begin with – principally, a crisis of worldwide overproduction and declining rates of profit. Corporations like Apple sit on hundreds of billions in uninvested cash that they cannot find profitable avenues to invest. With the recovery of the housing market, real estate is seen as a fairly safe investment and companies are starting new projects left and right.
Less well known is that Chinese investment is a significant factor in the real estate boom. The shadow banking system in China is worth nearly $9 trillion, and with limited legal investment opportunities for that capital in China, a significant investment is being made in U.S. real estate. In Seattle, this has intensified since Vancouver – just a short drive across the Canadian border to the North – introduced a new 15% tax on foreign investment.
The result for ordinary people of all this investment is that housing and commercial real estate prices in Seattle are through the roof. Over the past two years, Seattle has had the fastest rising rents in the country and the median home price is now over $750,000.
Can the Construction Industry Keep Up As Is?
Most construction is focused in urban centers which means space for staging on big projects is at a premium. Like other industries, construction has moved to a “just in time” model, where few excess materials are kept on site. Instead, the whole building process is a feat of logistics with each day and hour planned, deliveries unloading and immediate hoisting as the next truck pulls up with another delivery. Even one small delay can set a project back by a full day, or at times, even a week.
Construction is booming to the point where there are shortages of crucial skills and tools in different regions: Seattle is hogging all the cranes and there is an actual shortage of welders throughout the country.
Unions and the Cement Truck Drivers’ Strike
The contracts negotiated between contractors and construction unions over the past decade have been destroying pensions, cutting health care to the bone, while real wages decrease. Concessions given by workers during the great recession have not been reversed. The boom in construction has led to copious overtime, but even after surviving lean years, workers are tired of getting only one day off a week and are finding that the extra money in their check isn’t always worth it. For some trades, workers are afraid to turn down overtime for fear of damaging their relationship with contractors.
Union members are not happy. One union construction worker said, “You have to look hard to find a guy on any job in Seattle who’s happy with their union hall.” After those lean years, construction workers are tired of being told the companies can’t pay enough for real pensions or health care. They’re itching for a more combative stance toward the bosses.
For the building trades, a fighting program linked to solidarity with other unions and strongly enforcing the contracts is needed. The next time one of the building trades strikes – and there will be a next time – union activists should spread word of the strike throughout the city and labor movement, organizing picket visits and solidarity caucuses in other locals. The trades should demand every cent and every percentage needed to make up for the concessions they took – then they should demand integrated cost of living adjustments as a baseline for all future contracts. The construction trades are some of the most physically demanding work around and the building trades should enthusiastically join the fight for Medicare for All.
The cement drivers’ strike showed how any trade in the building industry currently has the potential to use the strike weapon to win concessions. But after decades of decline, why stop at survival? As one of the striking drivers said, “I don’t want to work sixty hours a week just to pay the bills.”
How can working people change this situation? The Teamsters were in the position to win, and they were able to get a far better contract than the pittance on offer from their bosses, but they could have brought every driver into this struggle, they could have appealed to the leaderships and rank and files of other unions, and more broadly to Seattle’s working class to get involved. The cement drivers were only beginning to feel their power and could have held out for more. And what more could have been won? Enough to afford a home in the city we build, enough to tell the boss, “forty hours is enough, I’m going home to see my family,” enough to send a bold message to workers across the country, that this is how we win, this is how we revive the labor movement.
By working together and building solidarity, construction workers and their unions can play a leading role in the struggle for a livable Seattle. One that keeps housing costs down with rent control, and builds thousands of needed units of affordable housing.