Tunnel-digger Bertha heading back to work
The stranded Highway 99 tunnel machine should restart within a few days, but longshore workers vow to continue the fight for a handful of tunnel-related jobs.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
The stranded Highway 99 tunnel machine should restart within a few days, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday, now that longshore workers have agreed to halt picketing on the waterfront.
But while protest signs have been removed, and the massive drill Bertha can resume its 14-month dig from Sodo to South Lake Union, the longshore workers vow to continue the fight for a handful of tunnel-related jobs.
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.
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.
Inslee emphasized during a news conference Tuesday that he doesn’t have the power to dictate a labor agreement — these aren’t state workers, but private companies making their own contracts with unions.
The governor met Monday morning in Bellevue with union officials, then held an evening conference call. Inslee previously tried to mediate on Aug. 29.
“I have been increasingly frustrated by this situation, and I know that Washingtonians feel this same frustration to the nth degree,” he said Tuesday. “I could not allow this dispute to continue to put stresses and reduce progress on this key link to our economic growth of our state. ... I told them this had gone on long enough and I wanted Bertha digging again, and soon.”
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.
In Longview in 2011, grain exporter EGT tried to employ operating engineers, but longshore workers and their supporters blocked a grain train, and some were arrested. The ILWU members were eventually hired, after Gov. Chris Gregoire mediated.
ILWU International President Robert McEllrath cites that episode in the rift with the AFL-CIO, and in his letter explaining the separation, he goes on to mention the Seattle tunnel: “Some of the Building Trades affiliates have displaced ILWU workers in the loading of barges at Terminal 46 in Seattle where longshoremen have done this work for generations. They also had the gall to file several ULP [unfair labor practice] charges against us for picketing at our own marine terminal.”
Along the West Coast, a labor contract affecting 20,000 dockworkers is up for renegotiation next year.
“Going into these, ILWU needs to maintain its militancy and diligence in these types of matters,” said Williams, local ILWU president.
Josh Swanson, representing the International Union of Operating Engineers in Seattle, said his union has no comment because the talks between the unions have not concluded.
Lee Newgent, executive secretary of the Seattle Building & Construction Trades Council, said the building trades made a compromise offer Monday that the ILWU rejected.
One idea suggested earlier this year would have split the jobs between the unions. The longshore workers rejected that, but Williams said on Tuesday the ILWU is willing to discuss scenarios and has “an open mind.”
Contractors have started building an alternative muck-holding bin onshore near Alaskan Way South, so if the talks fail, the conveyor system could be curtailed there and material could be trucked away instead of being poured onto barges.
On Tuesday, the state DOT directed Seattle Tunnel Partners to stop building that facility, said Dixon. Nonetheless, design work will continue, in case matters go sour again and builders resort to the trucking option, he said.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @mikelindblom