Carpenters strike after talks fail

SEATTLE — Major construction sites in Seattle ground to a halt yesterday after union carpenters in Western and Central Washington went on strike a day after contract talks with Associated General Contractors broke down.

Projects include the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Gates Hall at the University of Washington and the 307 Westlake Building, which is to house the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.

Picketing began around 5 a.m. yesterday at about 125 sites in Seattle, Tacoma, Ellensburg, Wenatchee, Bellingham and other cities, said Ole Olsen, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, a regional division of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. The group is striking more than 40 contractors in the area, including Absher Construction, Turner Construction and Sellen Construction.

Health care tops the union's list of concerns. The union said its health-insurance plan has gotten worse because of the rising costs of medical care and poor return on investments. Since September 2001, union carpenters have diverted a percentage of their wage increases to pay for health insurance, but the plan has still been cut. Contract talks began April 10, and the union has said it wants to maintain current health-insurance coverage without members having to pay more for it.

Members of 18 local unions in Western and Central Washington voted last weekend to authorize a strike. Eighty-four percent of the membership authorized the strike.

More than 8,000 union carpenters were covered by the contract that expired May 31 and was extended twice.

In Seattle, Associated General Contractors local Executive Vice President Roland Dewhurst accused the union's negotiating team of failing to bring the contractors' proposal to the employees. "We think we've put a fair proposal on the table that covers the health-care costs of the active employees," he said. "We think the employees would look favorably on it once they understood it."

No new talks are scheduled.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.