Solidarity key for Seattle sprinkler fitters

July 31, 2008

Darrin Hoop explains how union workers won in a strike that shut down Seattle building sites.

SEATTLE--An 11-day strike ended in a victory for 300 fire sprinkler installers, members of the United Association of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Sprinkler Fitters Local 699.

The strike, which began July 1, shut down over 40 construction sites in the Seattle area alone, with upward of 20,000 other union construction workers honoring the picket lines at various times. The total strike area covered seven counties in western Washington.

Because of the wide geographical area covered by the strike and an antiquated anti-union law barring strikers from picketing a specific site for more than three consecutive days, Local 699 shifted the sites it picketed to dozens of different ones around the region. This strategy also helped to limit the financial strain on workers from different construction trades who were honoring the picket lines.

Solidarity was key to this victory. The union reported that no strikers crossed the picket line. This was important because in most cases, Local 699 had only a handful of strikers at each site so they could cover the region with their small numbers. But this was enough to shut the sites down. Ironworkers, electricians, laborers, operating engineers, plus delivery drivers from UPS, were just some of the union workers who refused to cross the picket lines.

The strike by sprinkler workers has shut down building sites across western Washington
The strike by sprinkler workers shut down building sites across western Washington

In an interview, Local 699 business manager Mike Dahl talked about the importance of the support and solidarity from the different trades, but also the community. "We've been respectful of their picket lines for years," Dahl said. "Also, at Southcenter Mall, someone brought us five pizzas for the guys. The teachers union in Tacoma brought us coolers of pop. The support was incredible and we all appreciate the support we received."

THE STRIKE ended on July 11 with the contract passing by a 179-to-24 vote. The key achievement was a change to allow apprentices to move into the journeyman's health care plan after one year. Before, it took the entire five years of becoming a journeyman for apprentices to get the better health care plan.

The other major gain was defeating the National Fire Sprinkler Association's (NFSA) initial offer of a four-year, $14-an-hour wage/benefit package. The union was pushing for, and won, a five-year contract with a wage/benefit package of $13.05 in the first three years of the contract, with a wage/benefit re-opener in the last two years of the contract.

This was important because the union's re-opener will coincide with the expiration of the contracts of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 32, and, most likely, the Ironworkers Local 86.

Local 32 recently ratified a deal with a similar wage/benefit package of $13 for three years. And, according to a union representative of Ironworkers Local 86, on July 18, the ironworkers voted down a contract proposal by a 90 percent vote. Since then, the two sides returned to the table. Now there's a proposal the union is recommending of $9.50 an hour in wages over three years.

This was an improvement from management's initial proposal of raises of only $7 an hour over three years. If it passes, Local 86 will have also won increases in foreman pay and travel, parking and ferry reimbursements. All pay will be retroactive to July 1.

For Local 699, there will be $1.50 wage increases retroactive to July 1. In addition, there will be a 50-cent increase in health care benefits and a 10-cent increase in the pension in each of the first two years of the deal.

Local 699 has seen its share of the fire sprinkler industry grow from 51 percent union in 1997 to 82 percent today. A look at its wage/benefit package helps explain why.

Journey pay is now $40.94 an hour. The health and welfare contribution is $7.15 an hour. They have two different pensions. One is a defined benefit pension with management paying $3.20 an hour. The other, a defined contribution (like a 401k), gets $5.50 an hour (all management funded). After a couple other parts are added to it, the total wage/benefit package adds up to almost $58 an hour.

While there is no separate vacation or sick pay as part of this package, and $1.85 an hour is deducted for dues, it's clear that this strike victory was not only about maintaining, but increasing a strong, well-compensated union job.

The union didn't win everything it wanted. It hoped to eliminate 45 cents an hour paid into an "industry promotion fund." This is paid to the contractors, who can write it off on their taxes and use the money to "promote" their industry. The NFSA will now receive 50 cents an hour for this fund.

The union offset this by winning an extra 5 cents to its apprenticeship fund. The union hoped to increase starting pay from 42 percent of journeymen pay to 45 percent. The percentages remained the same in the new contract. Also, the union fought for, but didn't win, language that would include the inspection and testing of sprinklers as part of its jurisdiction. But the union did prevent the NFSA from increasing the numbers of lower-wage apprenticeships and implementing mandatory random drug testing.

It had been nearly two years since the last major construction workers strike hit the Seattle area. In August 2006, concrete workers who were members of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 302 paralyzed most of the industry for a month.

This latest strike showed the power that the construction trades still have. Despite the worsening economy, a solid picket line and solidarity from other unions led to this victory. As Dan Cochran, an organizer for Local 699, put it, "I think we set a precedent for the industry especially in the context of a worsening economy. It shows you can still strike to improve your standard of living."

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