The collective bargaining between the Associated General Contractors of Washington and five trade unions expires at the end of the month, and both sides hoping to avoid a conflict such as the concrete workers' strike last August, which halted several local construction projects in the Puget Sound region.

Northwest Region Council of Carpenters
Tacoma turnout drew 8,400 union supporters.

The AGC Master Agreement with carpenters, cement masons, teamsters, laborers and operating engineers expires on May 31. Laborers have already signed a new agreement and contract talks are going smoothly between the builders' trade group and most of the unions. But discussions with the International Union of Operating Engineers stalled in April and than resumed in an unprecedented manner, observers say. "I've never seen a situation like this," says Doug Petersen, AGC of Washington director of labor relations. "We met with them five times and then they walked away from the table and said they wouldn't bargain with us."

Historically, operating engineers' Local 302 of Seattle and Local 612 of Tacoma have negotiated contracts together. But when Local 302 returned to the table, negotiations were severed and each union proceeded down a separate path. When Local 302 returned to the table, the bargaining team brought a 35-page Master Labor Agreement of Washington drafted by the union.

Local 302 representatives say the union chose to proceed separately from its sister union because the organization advocated a more aggressive approach to negotiations than Tacoma union members. The union has been asking independent contractors to sign off on its self-drafted labor agreement, which incorporates terms negotiated with AGC prior to suspension of the talks.

Northwest Region Council of Carpenters
Labor and management hope to avoid last year's acrimonious bargaining sessions.

"We went into negotiations thinking that we were going to obtain a fair contract and we realized after four sessions that the AGC was bargaining as if there was no market share out there for the contractors," says Allan Darr, business manager and general vice president for Local 302. "The market is unparalleled in Washington and we want a fair agreement that reflects the market conditions."

Petersen says other unions have agreed not to strike as long as negotiations are in progress and even if talks continue into June. However, he isn't sure what happens if AGC and Local 302 can't come to terms. "They have told their members that if they don't have a contract on June 1, they couldn't go to work and they would be reprimanded if they did show up," he says.

But Darr insists he wants to avoid another strike like the one last summer. "I am working as hard as I can to get a contract," he says. "A strike serves no one." The operating engineers' union represents the 88 concrete workers who walked the picket line for a month last August, which delayed construction on Sound Transit¹s light rail, Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park and dozens of other projects.

This spring¹s contract negotiations come at a time when soaring material costs are already squeezing contractors¹ bottom line nationwide and the building boom in western Washington is causing a shortage of skilled workers. Trade workers are well aware their skills are in demand and are asking for pay increases and alterations in health insurance plans, which would allow some unions to negotiate medical benefits collectively in an effort to bring down costs.

"We feel that with the strong economy and shortage of skilled workers, the pay raises we are asking for are within reach," says Eric Franklin, communications director for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters.

Northwest Region Council of Carpenters
Stylish sign-in desk attendant sports pink hardhat.

Last summer, 44% of employers statewide reported difficulties hiring qualified workers, according to the Washington state Workforce Board. Some contractors have started paying premiums of $2 and $3 an hour over prevailing wages to attract and keep workers. A precedent may have already been set in eastern Washington, where after a period of only slight wage gains, construction workers representing several trades recently won pay increases of $1 to $1.30 an hour in negotiations with AGC's Inland Northwest chapter.

Recognizing that they have the upper hand, union members began preparing for contract talks earlier this year. The regional carpenters' group came out in full force this year with two regional rallies earlier this month, direct mailers, automated phone calls and a network of hand-picked union members to promote rallies and talk to co-workers about labor issues. As a result, 8,400 members turned out for the rally in Tacoma and another 5,200 came to the rally in Portland.

While trade union representatives say they are asking for modest wage and benefit increases, contractors and project owners are worried that even slight raises could delay or halt projects. The state department of transportation is already having trouble attracting bidders. Bids fell 12% percent in 2006, according to the DOT.

"Contractors have expressed concerns about rising costs. Fuel, materials, labor these things all build up," says Peterson. "Significant wage increases have the potential to delay projects, but I don't know what the tipping point is. We just have to be careful or we'll take ourselves out of the game."