Collective bargaining in the Northwest seems to be off to a smooth start, with five-year agreements signed May 14 between the Associated General Contractors of Washington and regional carpenters and cement masons. The settlements follow a pact signed earlier with the area laborers’ union, but relations with one trade, the operating engineers, remain unsettled. Participants are still hoping, however, to avoid the same kind of labor discord that prompted a disruptive strike last year in the Puget Sound region.

The AGC Master Agreement with carpenters, cement masons, teamsters, laborers and operating engineers expires on May 31. On May 14, the carpenters and cement masons reached five-year agreements with AGC. Those followed an earlier pact with the laborers union. All include raises for the first three years. Doug Peterson, AGC of Washington’s director of labor relations, expects all three will be ratified over the next week. They will take effect June 1,

The Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters’ pact includes raises of 6% in the first year, 5.5% in the second and 5% in the third. Regional cement masons won raises of 5.5%, 5% and 5%.

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  • The Washington and Northern Idaho District Council of Laborers settled earlier with first-year raises ranging from 4% to 5.7%, second year from 4% to 5.5% and third year from 4% to 5%. The top range is for highly-skilled and in demand workers such as lead pipelayers and asphalt rakers. About 90% of the 9,000 laborers covered by the Master Agreement will get a 5% or higher wage increase. Members didn't request any specific benefit increases. The agreement covers laborers’ locals in western Washington and one in Yakima. David Letinich, council business manager and secretary-treasurer, expects the agreement to be ratified.

    But discussions with the operating engineers stalled in April. "I've never seen a situation like this," says AGC’s Petersen, "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 in Seattle and Local 612 in Tacoma have negotiated contracts together. But when Local 302 returned to the table, negotiations were severed and each union proceeded on its own. 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 because it advocates a more aggressive approach to negotiations than does its sister local. 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.

    "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, Local 302 business manager and general vice president. "The market is unparalleled in Washington and we want a fair agreement that reflects the market conditions."

    The local seeks a three-year pact with a $1.50 annual hourly wage increase, $1 for fringes and other wage hikes for handling hazardous waste materials.

    Petersen says other unions have agreed not to strike as long as negotiations are in progress even if talks continue into June. But 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. "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 Transit’s light rail, Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park and dozens of other projects.

    This spring’s contract negotiations come at a time when soaring material costs are already squeezing contractors’ bottom lines 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 sought pay increases and changes in health insurance plans that 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, carpenters’ council communications director.

    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 one in Portland.

    While trade union representatives say wage and benefit increases sought are modest, contractors and project owners are worried that even slight raises could delay or halt projects. The Washington highway department 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.”