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Originally published September 10, 2013 at 8:48 PM | Page modified September 10, 2013 at 11:01 PM

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Bertha is stuck and needs help to get out of this muck

Bertha, the giant waterfront-tunnel boring machine, is awaiting a little leadership to get moving again after being stalled by a labor dispute linked to a major management screw-up.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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Poor Bertha, the tunnel megadrill. She obviously had no clue what an impenetrable mess she’d be digging through in Seattle.

I’m not talking about the dirt.

Bertha is the giant bore that’s supposed to be tunneling under downtown. It turns out she’s a personality — she’s even got her own Twitter account — and back on July 18 she got all cocky about what quick work she was about to make of our city.

“In a matter of weeks, I’ll be gone,” Bertha boasted. “You’ll be cruising along SR 99 near the stadiums. You’ll wind your way around the curvy section of highway that skirts the 80-foot-deep pit where I’ve spent the past few months. Except this time, when you glance into the pit, I won’t be there.

“I’ll be chewing my way through the ground beneath Seattle.”

As if. Instead you’re lying idle while bureaucrats and labor leaders chew over the regulations and politics that truly make up the foundation of this city.

“You stuck, bro?” someone tweeted snarkily at Bertha the other day.

No answer. But Bertha’s banal, perky tweets of late (“Happy 50th birthday to the 520 bridge!”) sure sound like the machine version of a cry for help.

“None of this is our fault,” the longshoreman tells me.

I’m down on the waterfront, next to where Bertha lies motionless (and increasingly tweetless.) Kurt Harriage, a crane operator and second-generation longshoreman, is showing me around the union picket line that has been blamed for putting a temporary stop to the Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel project.

“We’re not stopping that drill,” he insists. “You’re telling me these 20 guys can bring a $3 billion project to a standstill?”

The longshoremen are mad because the jobs loading the tunnel dirt onto barges aren’t going to them, but to a building-trades union. It’s just four jobs — one each to run a conveyor belt and a bulldozer, and two to position the barges.

It’s not the number but the principle, Harriage says.

“We’ve been doing the work at this terminal for 80 years, so yeah, we’re willing to make a stink now that they’re trying to take it away,” he said.

The other union also wants the jobs. Both unions, maddeningly, have a legal claim to them.

That’s due to a major management screw-up. Different deals were signed granting the two unions the same four jobs.

So even though we’ve been planning for this waterfront megaproject for a decade, we failed to pin down in advance who will do the dock work.

I say, for the sake of poor Bertha: compromise. Give the International Longshore and Warehouse Union the barges, and the trade unions the bulldozer and conveyor belt. I got the sense the longshoremen will eventually agree to this.

But in the meantime, do I think 20 union guys can stop a $3 billion project? This being Seattle: Yes, I do. No politician here is willing to preside over the crossing of a longshoremen picket line. In fact if this thing escalates, there won’t be any room on that picket line due to all the elected officials jostling to sing old Woody Guthrie songs around the burn barrel.

We have no shortage of leaders who have clout with these unions. Our Democratic governor, for instance. Shouldn’t he be brokering a deal to try to end this tiny yet heated standoff? Either that or stepping in and saying “tough luck” to one union or the other. It’s his project after all.

Or there’s the mayor, who could be looking to show his city that his old feud with the tunnel project is bygones, and that he can be a problem solver?

Anyone?

Sorry, Bertha. You stuck, bro. You really stuck.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com



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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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