Western Washington crane operators strike after union members reject labor deal

The Seattle area’s construction frenzy slowed Tuesday as crane operators and some other workers walked off the job after rejecting a new union contract.

Western Washington members of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 302 started the strike at 6 a.m. Tuesday, according to a statement on its website. In addition to crane and other heavy equipment operators, the union is made up of mechanics, surveyors in the construction industry, and stationary engineers, who work in operations and maintenance in building and industrial complexes, according to the Washington State Labor Council.

The crane operators, in particular, are pivotal: Seattle has 65 cranes remaking its skyline — the most in the country — while Bellevue has 14. On most days, their giant arms are busy swinging around heavy equipment, but on Tuesday, most sat idle.

Union officials said the majority of the membership rejected the contract, but they did not return calls Tuesday to explain the sticking points in the stalled negotiations. It’s also unclear how long the strike could last.

The union and management — the Associated General Contractors of Washington — have been negotiating since May. Representatives from both sides had reached tentative agreements on two occasions, but both were rejected by the workers.

The most recent tentative deal, reached earlier this month, included a 15.9 percent pay increase across the board over three years, as well as a 13 percent increase in fringe benefits such as health and welfare and pension pay. The first offer, which was rejected by nearly two-thirds of union members in July, had proposed a 14.9 percent pay bump and 9.2 percent fringe benefit increase over three years. Union workers make $37.70 to $43.13 an hour in base pay now.

“This union has been a long-time partner with us and we’re going to work with them,” said Doug Peterson, director of labor relations for the Associated General Contractors of Washington.

The contractors group added in a statement that it was disappointed that the contract was rejected but that the group was “committed to bargaining in good faith.” No future negotiating sessions have been scheduled.

The union’s last three-year contract expired in June. That deal included a total 6 percent pay increase over three years.

Peterson noted that this particular union hasn’t gone on strike in recent memory. A year ago, local concrete truck drivers in a Teamsters union went on strike for about a week and slowed construction before reaching a new contract.

The cranes can cost $15,000 to $55,000 a month to rent, depending on the model.