Steve Leigh analyzes the defeat of the Seattle concrete workers strike in light of the developments in the labor movement, including Striketober and the new Teamster leadership.
On April 8, Teamsters Local 174 ended its nearly 4 month strike against concrete companies in the Seattle area. The union will continue to negotiate with the companies for a new contract. However, the prospects for a better contract are not good since even with the pressure of the strike, the companies were largely intransigent .
Over the first 2-3 months of the dispute, the lines held solid with virtually no scabbing. This resulted in the shutdown of major parts of the $23 billion construction industry in Seattle, including the layoff of 15,000 other construction workers. This showed the tremendous power of even 340 concrete drivers when unified. Towards the end the companies began to run some scabs through ghost trucks and subcontracting but this had little overall effect.
The strike was over basic workers’ grievances about raises and benefits. Rick Hicks, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamster Local 174, said,
“These giant, multinational construction companies are demanding that workers accept a package of wages, health care and retirement that would be a decrease in compensation over three years when you take inflation into account. This package would also be significantly less than compensation packages other construction workers in Seattle receive.”
The Teamster Local 174 website also reported that the companies refuse to “fund a health care plan that could save workers thousands of dollars per year in retirement.” As one worker put it:
“The cost of living has gone through the roof! It’s not just us. An entire class of people is tired of being pushed around. Workers deserve to earn enough to go out and eat once in a while, to think about a vacation. We are not meant to go to work, go home and die.”
Other workers in the Seattle area, especially construction workers have been supportive of the strike because as workers on the picket line noted, union contracts influence wage rates even for non-union workers. One worker said, “It sets the bar across the board.” Workers understand the truth of the old union slogan , “ An injury to one is an injury to all .A victory to one is a victory for all”.
With support from the public and among workers, why did the union suffer this setback? The companies they faced were multi-billion dollar operations. The five companies negotiated together and stayed united.
One example of the bosses’ unity came early in the calendar year, when the city and county governments started offering government contracts to any company that broke ranks and signed a deal with the union. The Mayor and King County Executive made the offer to the concrete companies because the strike was severely hurting the overall construction industry in Seattle. Many projects were being delayed, including the expansion of the downtown Convention Center.
Beyond the construction industry, the profits in other industries were also impacted. For example , the repair of the West Seattle Bridge which connects downtown with a major commercial and residential area was halted due to the strike. The closure of the bridge had a major impact on the economy generally. The politicians thought they could facilitate what they saw as a “win/win.” But none of the concrete companies budged.
Though they lost millions in revenue in the Seattle area at least some of them could rely on income from other operations. Cadman for example has operations from Portland, Oregon to northern Washington. Cal Portland has business in Arizona, California, and Nevada as well as wide areas of Washington State not impacted by the strike. It is very likely that these operations helped subsidize the loss of revenue from the strike. In other words, their relative financial health allowed the companies to remain united.
Besides this, as large companies, it is a near certainty that they received Covid subsidies from the Federal Government. These subsidies were supposedly set up to keep workers employed during the pandemic. However, in the broader economy, corruption was widespread and workers received little benefit from these Federal grants. In the case of the Seattle concrete companies, an investigation into these facts are called for, i.e. did the concrete companies use the subsidies to break a strike rather than to keep workers employed? With all these other sources of money, the companies decided they could afford to ride out the strike rather than seriously negotiate. They decided to put the boot in while they could. The union said the companies were engaged in union busting and it appears they were right.
This corporate intransigence has been the pattern even when union workers have been able to win new contracts, like in the cases of Nabisco, Frito Lay and John Deere last year. It often took several contract rejections by workers before they reached a settlement which even then did not meet all their demands. In spite of an uptick in strikes last year, real wages for lower paid workers have not kept up with inflation.
What can workers do to win against intransigent employers? Workers are the source of company profit. Labor creates all products that corporations sell to make their money. Strikes are effective when they fully shut down that source of profit. When companies are small and local, a small group of workers can strike and eliminate company profit. This can put tremendous pressure on a company to settle.
When corporations are large, spread out and reliant on many different types of labor, shutting off the flow of ALL profit is more difficult. When one group of workers strike, the company can continue based on the labor in other areas. Much of labor today is employed by multi-state or even multinational corporations. Labor tactics need to adapt to the current corporate structure.
There are two ways to do this. The labor movement needs to organize the 94% of private workers who are not now in unions. Socialists and other radicals have demanded that unions “Organize the unorganized” for decades. This has become more and more imperative. Secondly, unions need to aggressively spread strikes and seek contracts covering more of a company’s operations. However, union leaders are often reluctant to put up picket lines at branches of the same company if workers at the other branch haven’t voted to go on strike. Some of this reluctance comes from repressive labor laws in the U.S. In this case, if the union had tried to shut down the other parts of these struck companies, this would have exerted more pressure on them to settle.
In this strike, the Teamsters did spread the strike briefly but not systematically. On January 10, “concrete mixer drivers and plant workers employed by Lehigh Northwest Cement Company extended their picket line to the Port of Everett’s 55,000 ton bulk storage cement facility for 3 hours” This shut down the port of Everett.
On February 9, they picketed at two Cadman-owned plants in Snohomish County, north of Seattle, in Woodinville and Smith Island. The plants shut down for the day, holding up several potential concrete pours
Besides, directly shutting off the source of profit, spreading the strike scares management. If it doesn’t know which operations will be shut down when, it cannot effectively plan sales . If it fears further disruption, this puts on even more pressure to settle.
Finally, unions need to be prepared to prevent scabbing. A strike is only effective to the extent that unions prevent strike-breakers from continuing production. This may mean using illegal methods rather than obeying court ordered limitations. There would be no union movement at all in the U.S. if workers had obeyed anti-union laws and court injunctions in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In this strike scabbing never became the most significant problem but lack of spreading the strike was a major issue.
The labor peace of the late 1940s to the early 1970s has long since passed. Employers have been on a union busting tear for decades. Even employers still willing to make contracts demand major concessions. This has resulted in a decline of union membership from 35% in the mid 50s to under 11% today. It has also resulted in a decline in living standards for most workers and a concentration of wealth at the top.
Union leaders have not adapted to the new environment. By and large they continue to act as if the deal with the corporations of the 50s and 60s is still in effect. In those days, unions gave up control of the shop floor in return for steady real wage increases going along with productivity increases. Over the past four decades, corporations have broken this pact. Productivity has continued to rise but wages have stagnated. Labor now has the lowest share of income from the economy since the 1920s.
The Seattle strike was winding down as the new\ leadership of the national Teamster union came into office, with the promise of greater militancy. New Teamster General President Sean O’Brien came out to the picket line and gave one million dollars to the Local 174 strike fund from national Teamster funds. The national Teamster leadership also opposed the state leadership’s legislative deal to give some rights to Uber drivers while leaving them as independent contractors under the law. It is unclear but possible that there would have been more national support for the concrete strike if the new leadership had taken over sooner.
It is time for a return to the class struggle strategies that unions employed to build their power. As long as capitalism exists, there will be class struggle. Bosses will try to squeeze as much as they can out of workers, and workers will resist. The bosses will continue to play hard ball. If the workers don’t we will continue to be beaten. To end this struggle, workers will need to take ownership and control of the economy and eliminate the class of parasites who live off our labor. Until then, we need class struggle unionism.
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Steve Leigh is a member of Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network. He has been an active Marxist since 1971.