About 14,000 unionized road builders will work without a contract after the union that's been resistant to negotiating a new deal with the trade association representing industry contractors rejected a Friday offer to extend an existing agreement.

Operating Engineers Local 324 has declined to schedule talks with the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, a move that has raised the prospect of a work stoppage at the peak of the state's summer construction season.

The existing five-year deal expired at midnight Friday, and MITA offered a contract extension to the union in the morning, which they declined to accept, said Mike Nystrom, MITA's executive vice president.

If the labor stalemate escalates, it could impact major projects on an expressway, such as I-696 or I-75, or smaller neighborhood roadways.

Union workers, however, remain on the job and officials on both sides say there's no expectation that workers will abandon their projects. 

"We do not feel road work is at risk," said Dan McKernan, a spokesman for the engineers, in a text message to The Detroit News. "We do not want work stoppages."

But the union representing heavy equipment operators and technicians and stationary engineers says it has no interest in negotiating with MITA, which — until now — has negotiated 13 different contracts with five unions for more than 50 years. The union instead intends to deal directly with individual member contractors, McKernan said. 

"Operating Engineers 324 has a long history of being tireless advocates for our members, on job sites and at the negotiating table," said McKernan, adding new negotiations won't be taking place with MITA. 

"We will negotiate with our contractors, with the goal to reach agreements that are mutually beneficial and keep our members working, fairly compensated and safe. That is what our focus is and will remain on — representing our members to the best of our abilities, and continuing the work we have undertaken for over one hundred years: operating and maintaining the heavy equipment that builds and repairs the infrastructure of this great state."

MITA previously mailed the union an offer to maintain its prior five-year agreement apart from proposed wage increases in a deal to run through May 31, 2023. Workers in all classes would have received $2 increase annually for the first three years of the contract and $1 more annually for the final two years. The union did not acknowledge that offer. 

Nystrom said the workers, for now, will receive the same wages and fringes as under the previous agreement, "just like an extension was accepted."

MITA holds power of attorney for its member companies for labor agreements with the Operating Engineers, Laborers, Carpenters, Teamsters and Cement Masons and Nystrom said the association's member contractors want to maintain that.

"From the contractor perspective, the only way we're going to negotiate with them is if they come together in a collective manner through MITA," he said. "At this point, we just keep waiting for them to sit down and negotiate with us in a collective manner."

McKernan said the union would not make a decision like it has without research and discussion and "we feel confident we will reach agreements with our contractors in this manner."

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