Some Michigan road projects could halt amid union lockout

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
According to MITA, all road operators will be locked out beginning at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

Some Michigan road projects could be halted beginning Tuesday amid plans to lock out unionized road builders by an association representing dozens of contractors following stalled labor negotiations. 

The Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association in a Thursday letter to the Operating Engineers Local 324 said it would be instituting the lockout following months of "disruptive, coercive and oftentimes unlawful conduct" by the union, contends Mike Nystrom, MITA's executive vice president.

Dan McKernan, a spokesman for the engineers, said the union was taken by surprise by the work stoppage plan it regards as an "involuntary layoff." The engineers contend the move will impact hundreds of unionized road builders and put multiple projects — from bridge repair on Interstate 75 to road reconstruction and maintenance on I-696, to road and bridge reconstruction on I-96 — in flux.

"Our guys have been working all summer on these projects," McKernan said Thursday. "They are working on them today. They'll be working on them tomorrow. They are going to come back from Labor Day and be told to go home, not because of anything that they've done or we’ve done. We’re at a loss here."

According to MITA, all road operators will be locked out beginning at 7 a.m. Tuesday. Both the union and the association could not specify how many projects would be impacted by the action. Each company is notifying their employees of the plan, and each job will be handled differently, Nystrom said.

"It's a defensive lockout," he said. "We had to react to the coercive and indiscriminate and sometimes unlawful actions that the union was taking. This decision was not taken lightly. The contracting community puts the driving public and their employees as their highest priority."

The decision comes after multiple failed attempts by the association to work out a new contract agreement with the engineers after a prior, five-year deal expired in June. 

The union representing heavy equipment operators and technicians and stationary engineers declined to engage in any negotiations with MITA, which — until now — has negotiated 13 different contracts with five unions for more than 50 years.

Instead, the operating engineers, McKernan said, have worked with contractors not represented by MITA to forge an agreement that some have signed onto. They are urging MITA-represented contractors to do the same, he said.

Nystrom said the lockout will end once the operating engineers ratify a statewide road contract proposed by MITA in the spring. It proposed 3 percent raises across the board in a five-year contract.

MITA represents hundreds of companies who contract to build state roads and bridges, water and sewer systems and utilities.

"We believe this action is necessary in order for us to achieve a new labor contract with the operating engineers," he said.

Despite its unwillingness to negotiate MITA, the union workers represented under the expired contract have remained on the job while the prospect of a new contract remains in limbo. 

The Thursday letter to the union notes the lockout will "obviously have a significant impact on road construction projects across the state and may affect many contractors involved in those projects."

The lockout, Nystrom said, only affects employees working under the expired operating engineers' road contract. Work by and with other groups, including Laborers, Carpenters, Teamsters and Cement Masons, will continue.

Some contractors, he added, may opt to bring in other employees to operate bulldozers, backhoes, excavators and cranes in the absence of the unionized workers.

"Not every project will shut down completely. We've notified the other unions that this is going on, and we anticipate that the other trades will continue to work," he said. "We're going to work very hard as an industry to keep the projects moving forward. Some projects may slow down or come to a halt."

The Michigan Department of Transportation has more than 140 construction projects in the works or planned this year around the state with more than $100 million earmarked for freeway construction projects in Macomb and Oakland counties alone. On Thursday, MDOT stressed it has no role in the contract dispute. 

"It is important to understand that MDOT is not a party to these negotiations. Our priorities remain the safety of workers and the traveling public and maintaining traffic to alleviate delays as much as possible," MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson said in an email.

"In the event labor disputes affect active construction projects, MDOT has contractual specifications that address the contractor’s responsibilities. The contractors are obligated to maintain a safe work zone for motorists at all times and are required to do so for the full duration of the project even during delay caused by a labor dispute."

MITA has attempted to negotiate with the engineers for more than four months and "they have refused to even have one meeting," Nystrom said.

The association 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 a $2 per hour increase annually for the first three years of the contract and $1 per hour more annually for the final two years. The union did not acknowledge the offer. 

Nystrom contends the union has failed to certify registered apprentices, which is a requirement under MDOT and labor regulations. It also has not been accepting and crediting fringe benefit contributions from MITA-represented contractors, which puts union members at risk of losing benefits. 

Nystrom noted the union has taken numerous actions throughout the summer, including what he characterized as a "strike action" on I-96 during paving work last weekend when union members showed up with pickets that "could have had an impact on the driving public." 

McKernan countered that the action on I-96 last week was not a strike but an "informational picket" that did not disrupt the work and was conducted by a few union members who were not affiliated with the project. 

He did acknowledge the union has not accepted the fringe benefits, saying it legally can't without a contract. Cranson and McKernan both said they could not speak to Nystrom's claims related to apprentices. 

"Every action taken by the union has been prescribed by legal counsel and with the full hope that we would get a contract done with the (MITA) contractors," McKernan said. 

Nystrom contends the engineers' "self-authored contract" was done without negotiations and that they are telling contractors it's the only option that will end the labor dispute. The contract, he said, includes a rate increase of $1.75 per hour and it impacts projects being bid by MDOT.

McKernan, however, said that some contractors — not represented by MITA — did work with the union to craft the agreement.

"They missed the party and they want us to throw them a new one the next night," he said. "This is grasping at straws."