Despite Project Labor Agreement, Union Dispute Shuts Down Seattle Tunnel Job for Four Weeks

0 September 18, 2013  Federal Construction, State & Local Construction

A project labor agreement (PLA) failed to prevent a labor dispute that shut-down a portion of a Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) mega-construction project for more than four weeks.

It is one of many recent examples of PLA projects suffering from delays and increased costs resulting from labor disputes and strikes, despite the fact that PLA proponents claim these special interest schemes prevent labor unrest.

Longshoreman Picket Line Big Bertha

ILWU Local 19 members picket Seattle Tunnel, delaying project for four weeks and violating PLA’s no-strike/labor dispute delay promise.

The Seattle Times reports work on the Highway 99 project in Seattle will resume this week following a truce pushed by Washington Gov. Inslee (D) between multiple labor unions engaged in a labor dispute that has halted work since August 20 on the jobsite of a $1.44 billion contract to dig a tunnel as part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project (“Tunnel-digger Bertha heading back to work,” 9/17/13):

A struggle between unions — longshore versus building trades, for four jobs per shift moving muck — has delayed the project for about a month.

And it also has put the Democratic governor in a tight spot as he works to push the $2 billion state project forward. [snip]

For the time being, the jobs at issue will be performed by building-trades workers.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) could resume picketing if a solution isn’t reached during talks expected to resume in a few days. Inslee thanked the ILWU for a show of “good faith.”

Cam Williams, president of ILWU Local 19 in Seattle, said union members were willing to stop picketing because of optimism that the governor’s involvement would lead to a favorable solution.

Unions are grappling over who will operate a conveyor belt, drive a front-end loader and perform the two-person job of adjusting the position of a barge, which will ferry the muck to a quarry near Port Townsend.

The tunnel-boring machine, the largest in the world at 57 feet, 4 inches diameter, has moved only 24 feet since drilling started July 30, slowed at first by a clog in the conveyor screw, and then by the dispute.

Seattle Tunnel Partners and the construction-trades unions say the jobs belong to the building trades, because of a labor agreement on the overall tunnel project. They argue muck removal is part of the tunnel effort, which employs 250 tradesmen.

The longshore union, feeling pressure at several West Coast ports, says the muck loading is ILWU territory because it entails moving materials offshore, historically a longshore job. In April, Seattle Tunnel Partners signed a contract with an ILWU employer that included the muck-handling jobs. But Dixon says it was signed “under duress” while a giant cargo vessel containing Bertha’s 41 segments was anchored off Elliott Bay, with no other way to get the ship unloaded than to sign.

This summer, an arbitrator ruled the jobs belong to the building trades.

Testimony continued Tuesday in a National Labor Relations Board hearing in Seattle to weigh an accusation by the building trades that the longshore union is engaging in “economic coercion and threats.” But by the time the board rules, in a few weeks, the project would have fallen further behind — and it’s not clear the ILWU would capitulate if the feds rule against it.

Seattle Tunnel Partners did not try to send workers across the picket line.

The ILWU recently left the AFL-CIO, in part because of what it considers a pattern of incursions by other unions.

Here is a copy of the July 13, 2013, arbitration decision, which provides additional details about the cause of the labor dispute.

Strikes on construction projects subject to PLAs violate provisions contained in typical PLAs that allegedly prevent strikes, walkouts and other labor disputes that can shut down a jobsite and increase costs to owners—calling into question the value of these anti-competitive and costly schemes.

The PLA Hustle

In order to create more jobs for union members and increase the unionized sector’s dwindling market share, union bosses market PLAs to public and private construction owners as a tool to guarantee quality construction, safety and labor peace on jobsites in exchange for a requirement by owners to exclusively use contractors that agree to be bound by the union-friendly terms and conditions of a PLA.

Big Labor bosses load PLAs with language favorable to union leaders, union members and unionized contractors hand-picked to receive preferential treatment by a PLA.

These agreements typically force contractors to hire all or most of their tradespeople from union hiring halls, pay into union pension and benefit plans, follow inefficient union work rules, and hire apprentices exclusively from union apprenticeship programs. As a condition of working on a PLA project, provisions in typical PLAs also can force nonunion employees to:

  • join a union or receive unwanted union representation;
  • follow archaic work rules;
  • pay union dues and initiation fees; and
  • forfeit any employer and employee contributions to union benefit plans unless they join a union and become vested in these plans.

Of course, these provisions discourage competition from qualified nonunion contractors and their skilled employees. Costly union rules and less competition results in increased costs. Research across the country has found PLAs increase the cost of construction between 12 percent and 18 percent compared to similar non-PLA projects.

For years, even Big Labor bosses have admitted that a PLA’s promise to prevent strikes and labor unrest is often broken, resulting in the potential for lost market share for union contractors.

For example, Joseph Hunt, president of the Ironworkers Union, devoted his President’s Page column (“Ironworkers Have Tradition and Honor in Project Labor Agreements“) in the February 2008 edition of The Ironworker to inform the Ironworkers Brotherhood that they need to stop striking on PLA projects:

“Once again, it is my duty to inform you there has been an increase in work stoppages on jobs governed by project labor agreements.”

“A No Work Stoppage-No Lock Out clause is the most important because it is the foremost reason owners and contractors are willing to use the agreement [a PLA] to commit to an all-union job.”

“They [owners] have a choice and they know that the non-union do not have jurisdictional disputes nor do they have strikes.”

What good is a PLA if it can’t uphold basic no-strike promises, especially when nonunion firms and workers do not engage in jurisdictional disputes or strikes that can shut down a jobsite?

Will Taxpayers Pick Up Tab For Labor Dispute, Delays?

The delays caused by the tunnel dig shutdown will certainly increase costs, which may be passed along to taxpayers by the contractor or state, depending on who is really at fault for the delay:

Chris Dixon, project manager for the Seattle Tunnel Partners construction team, said late Tuesday the companies will seek reimbursement from the state Department of Transportation (DOT) for millions of dollars lost to delays.

This sets up a possible argument with Inslee, who earlier Tuesday insisted taxpayers won’t be liable, and that the construction team is required under contract with the state to open the four-lane tunnel by the end of 2015.

“We, six and a half million Washingtonians, are owed something by a business here. There is a private business that owes us the fulfillment of that contract. And we intend to be rigorous in insisting that that private business fulfill its end of the bargain, and that includes being able to have some labor relationship that does not end up with this kind of a slowdown,” he said. will be following this story closely to see how long the truce will hold and evaluate how much the delays will end up costing federal, state and local taxpayers, who are picking up the tab for this massive public works project.

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