Concrete Actions Toward Worker Power

Concrete Actions Toward Worker Power

Three hundred Teamsters in the Seattle area are bringing the local construction industry to a standstill.


Six weeks ago, several hundred union workers in Seattle called for an industry-wide work stoppage that has since expanded its picket line into nearby communities, disrupted a variety of businesses, and left building sites across the city vacant. The Teamsters have labeled it a general strike, which is typically defined as a work stoppage in which a substantial proportion of the labor force in a specific location participates to achieve an economic or political objective. As labor’s “nuclear option,” such actions are vanishingly rare, and technically illegal; those who wish to replicate the massive general strikes of old are now stymied by the federal ban on sympathy strikes, which prohibits workers from joining other strikes in solidarity. This strike began with 34 drivers at Gary Merlino Construction, but now includes over 300 members of Teamsters Local 174 at six different companies in the Seattle area, and is made up of cement mixer drivers, concrete plant workers, mechanics, lab workers, terminal attendants, quality control workers, and yard workers in the concrete and sand industries. “We are calling this a general strike, because it is not limited to one sector of workers, but many—from concrete pourers, drivers, mixers, safety and quality control, and more—covering the entire concrete industry,” explained Jamie Fleming, director of communications and research at Teamsters Local 174 in an e-mail. “The workers on strike are from multiple different companies, and covered under different contracts, but they are all fighting together toward the same goal of being treated and compensated fairly.”

The Seattle strike may not have captured as much attention as the perennial calls on social media for a #GeneralStrike, but it’s an example of how workers across industries in multiple locations can come together and force capital to bend to their demands. A general strike in which workers across the country hit the streets in a militant pursuit of justice (or at least, a few well-defined and agreed-upon goals) may one day be possible. But, for now, those who yearn for change should be taking notes from these Teamsters, and thinking about how to replicate these kinds of actions on a local level. We might not get to a nationwide general strike anytime soon, but there are a lot of industries, companies, towns, cities, and most importantly, groups of discontented workers in this country. Any one of them could be next, provided they have the right tools.

Lest we forget, this isn’t the first time Seattle has broken out this particular blueprint. On February 6, 1919, the city of Seattle went on strike. Beginning on the docks, a 35,000-strong shipyard workers’ strike spread as 25,000 other union members throughout the city joined them on a “sympathy strike” endorsed by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the American Federation of Labor, and everyone else stayed home. For five days, commerce virtually stopped, and a General Strike Committee organized culinary workers to set up strike kitchens and distribute food to city residents. Firefighters remained on call, sanitation workers picked up hazardous garbage, and Teamsters delivered supplies to hospitals. The strike began to waver after the third day when the mayor increased the police presence and called in two battalions of US Army troops to menace the quieted streets. High-level union leaders, fearful of losing face and nervous about the militancy of the strike, began pressuring the Strike Committee to end the work stoppage. As the days went on and the difficulty of living in a striking city began to weigh heavily on the people, more and more workers trickled back to their jobs. By February 11, the committee had officially ended the Seattle General Strike. The revolutionary project started strong but ended with a begrudging consensus vote. Still, for all of its failures, the Seattle General Strike was an important moment in labor history. It was one of the earliest 20th-century solidarity strikes in the United States to be proclaimed a “general strike,” and its lessons about mutual aid, power building, and solidarity remain useful to today’s aspiring general strikers (as well as those already on the picket lines).

More than a century later, another Seattle strike began on December 3, 2021, after contract negotiations broke down between the Teamsters bargaining committee and a representative of the five companies—Cadman Materials, Inc., CalPortland, Lehigh Cement, Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel Company, and Stoneway Concrete—that control the sand and gravel industry. Cadman and Lehigh are both owned by German construction giants Heidelberg Cement Group, while CalPortland is owned by the Japanese Taiheiyo Cement Corporation. Local 174’s members work under seven contracts that are simultaneously bargained with all five companies (not including a separate contract with drivers at Gary Merlino Construction, who first struck in November) and their most recent contract expired back in July. The bargaining committee didn’t expect much of a fight going into negotiations, but hopes for a smooth process quickly broke down when it became apparent that the companies’ bargaining representative didn’t actually seem interested in bargaining. After six months of stalled negotiations, the Teamsters were ready to walk. “They weren’t continuing to bargain in good faith,” Brett Gallagher, a longtime cement mixer driver and member of the bargaining committee, told me over the phone earlier this week. “They weren’t moving forward. There’s no way we could meet anywhere close to the middle if they just stop talking to us and stop listening. That’s not fair to us. And finally, we couldn’t wait anymore.”

Gallagher, who turns 47 next week, works for CalPortland, and has been a Teamster since 2005. He is proud to have a good union job, and enjoys his gig driving a massive mixer truck around metropolitan Seattle, sometimes logging up to 300 miles a day on the road. The work schedule is unpredictable, but, as Gallagher sees it, that’s just part of the deal. My dad is an operating engineer with a similarly touch-and-go schedule, and in the building trades that “we’ll call you when we need you” mentality is the norm. For Gallagher, the good outweighs the bad, especially when he gets to make a more personal connection with his customers. He told me a cute story about the time he showed up to a well-meaning but clueless young father’s house and ended up coaching the family on how to get their patio poured, including teaching their young daughter how to operate a crucial lever on the back of the truck. “I empowered that little kid so much,” he said. “And I keep thinking she’s gonna pop into a mixer one day, and I’m gonna run into her and hear her say, ‘That’s the reason I got into this!’ That’s a pipe dream, I know, but I just love stuff like that.”

That union difference—in pay, working conditions, and pride—spurred Gallagher to become more involved in his local. “I felt the need to do more for what I get for the dues I pay every month,” he explained. “I want to show how grateful I am for what they’re doing for me.” As a first-time member of the bargaining committee, he is seeing how unwilling the bosses are to budge on the issues. In this round of negotiations, the main point of contention besides wages is health care, specifically the medical costs that currently fall on the union’s retirees. A career in concrete is hard on a worker’s body, and health care costs add up the longer you’re on the job. Wear-and-tear injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome, torn rotator cuffs, and shoulder problems are common. The risk of silicosis, a brutal lung disease caused by breathing in silica fragments of rock and soil, is ever present, and, as Gallagher said, “there’s really nothing to do [for that] other than wear full hazmat gear all day every day.”

The union’s proposal would save retired members nearly $6,000 per year in premiums, and wouldn’t cost the companies a thing, since Local 174’s membership has pledged to cover any cost increases the company may incur. “All the companies have to do is agree to allow the language; there is a little additional cost involved, which every active member is more than happy to cover out of the wages we currently make,” Gallagher explained. “Those guys worked so hard for so long. Let them go. Let them enjoy their lives. We got it—we’ll cover it. Take it out of our check.” Management wouldn’t budge, and the impasse remained as relations between the two parties continued to deteriorate. “A spokesman for the company stepped up and he said, ‘It’s not that we can’t afford it. We’re just not gonna pay it,’” Gallagher fumed. “What message are you sending everybody with that? That was really insulting.”

As the unfair labor practices strike stretches into its second month, it has also expanded its borders. As of last week, the picket line has been extended to the Port of Everett, a West Coast customs hub that typically distributes half a million tons of concrete each year, and to Cadman-owned plants in Woodinville and Smith Island. Pacific Northwest labor buffs will feel a twinge at the mention of Everett, which in 1916 became the site of a bloody battle between IWW union members and local law enforcement. The Wobblies had planned a public demonstration that day, but were instead met by 200 armed deputies, who fired wildly into their vessel and killed at least five—and potentially as many as 12—labor activists. The Wobblies fired back, killing two deputies and wounding 20 more. The Teamsters, with their own storied and complicated past, even have a direct connection. In the aftermath of the massacre, a Teamster named Thomas Tracy was pulled up on murder charges, though he was eventually acquitted. The ugly confrontation was indicative of the violence, suspicion, and repression that followed the IWW and other leftist labor activists during and after World War I. Seeing striking laborers return to the area is a poignant reminder of that history and of the sacrifices that were made by those who struggled before.

Meanwhile, the entire $23 billion Seattle-area construction industry is feeling the strain as Local 174 continues to hold the line, because, as Gallagher told me, nothing gets done without him and his coworkers. “This industry is literally the foundation that every other building trade builds upon,” he explained. Without concrete, none of the construction projects dotting Seattle can get off the ground, and as a result, building project after project has been delayed while the strike continues. “No matter how long this strike takes, the work will keep piling up. None of that work goes away, and we’re gonna have to dig so hard to get out from under this mountain. It was not a decision the local took lightly, to go out on strike.”

Gallagher is eager to win a good contract and get back to work, but knows that the deeper issues afflicting his hometown and his livelihood won’t disappear after the ink dries. Everything, from real estate to the ground beef at his local Safeway—”7.99 a pound!”—is getting more expensive, and he’s not surprised that workers in other industries have been taking to the streets and walking picket lines too. “We’re building a city we literally can’t afford to live in,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing here in King County. It’s nuts, and people are getting sick of it. We can only take so much.”

Throughout our conversation, the good-natured Teamster connected Local 174’s struggle with other developments within labor, from the recent Teamsters United win to the propulsive campaign to unionize Seattle’s caffeinated hometown heroes, Starbucks baristas. He and his union siblings are appreciative of the support they’ve gotten during the strike, and he sounded especially chuffed about one unexpected supporter: Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, who auctioned off a guitar for their strike fund and is an old friend of the Teamsters (he even played at their annual convention in 2016). His own sentiments about fighting for retirees also echo striking workers from GM to John Deere to Kellogg’s to Columbia to Warrior Met Coal.

“We’re not fighting for just our benefit,” Gallagher told me. “We’re fighting for everybody that comes behind us. We’re fighting for the next generation. We’re fighting for people down the street. It’s a lot bigger than just us.”

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