Union lockout halts work at some Mich. road projects

Road construction equipment sets idle on Northbound I-75 at Exit 46 as traffic crosses the Livernois bridge over the interstate, Tuesday afternoon, September 4, 2018, after a contractors association made good on its word to lock out unionized road builders because of stalled labor negotiations.

Some of Michigan's most important road projects were halted Tuesday after a contractors association made good on its word to lock out unionized road builders because of stalled labor negotiations.

The predicament stems from a dispute between the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association and the Operating Engineers Local 324, which has refused to bargain a new contract with the industry association after its prior five-year deal expired in June.

"A lockout is a situation that we hope comes to an end very quickly. But at this point, there's been no communication from the union directly to us," Mike Nystrom, executive vice president of MITA, told The Detroit News late Tuesday. 

The Michigan Department of Transportation officials said the lockout is going to affect most of its projects. MDOT has more than 140 construction projects across the state in the works or planned for the year, including Rouge River Bridge repair along Interstate 75, road reconstruction and maintenance on Interstate 696 and road and bridge reconstruction on Interstate 96.

"The whole industry is interested in having this be done quickly," Nystrom said of the lockout that went into effect at 7 a.m. Tuesday. "We want to get back to work fixing the roads and getting employees back to work is very important to these contractors."

The exact number of workers impacted by the lockout wasn't clear, but it's well into the hundreds and "probably into the thousands," said Dan McKernan, a spokesman for the union, late Tuesday.

McKernan said work has stopped on Interstate 696, M-59, I-94 in Jackson and the I-75 bridge project heading into Detroit.

"We're hoping that cooler heads and common sense prevail," McKernan said. "To get things moving again, all they have to do is call the workers back. They can do that right now and the projects can start again tomorrow."

Based in Lansing, MITA represents more than 500 Michigan companies in road, bridge, sewer and water system, utility, railroad, excavation and specialty construction. It holds power of attorney for its member companies for labor agreements with the Operating Engineers, Laborers, Carpenters, Teamsters and Cement Masons.

The group said last week it would institute the temporary work stoppage for workers of the Bloomfield Township-based union that represents about 14,000 workers.

Nystrom said Tuesday it's not clear how long the lockout could last.

"That's completely up in the air," he said. "It's going to last until the union ratifies the industry proposed agreement."

MITA has proposed 3 percent raises across the board in a five-year contract.

But McKernan says the union's message has been consistent: it isn't going to negotiate with MITA, and it's urging the contractors to revoke their power of attorney agreements with the association. 

"All they have to do is rescind their power of attorney and give us a call," he said. 

Douglas Stockwell, Local 324's business manager and general vice president, called MITA's action "involuntary layoffs." 

“Our road builders are dedicated men and women who have given their all to the job, despite having been denied a contract since June," he said in a statement on the union's Facebook page. "They’ve shown up, day after day, often in record-breaking heat, because they understand how critical their job is to fix Michigan’s crumbling infrastructure and keep drivers safe. There have been no strikes or work stoppages.

"We’re calling on MITA-affiliated contractors to put Michigan people first and stop their hostile, involuntary layoffs of workers now.”

The message also said Local 324 has called a meeting for 8 p.m. Tuesday at its Construction Career Center in Howell. 

Kecia Harper of Inkster has been an operator for seven years and was expecting to begin work on Ford Road in Canton Township and along the Southfield Freeway from Michigan Avenue to I-96. 

Instead, she and other union workers employed by Troy-based Ajax Paving got called into a meeting Tuesday morning and informed they were being locked out. 

"It's not right. I am a loyal employee. I get to work early, and I'm there every day," said Harper, who operates a roller, backhoe and mini mill. "They are playing with everyone's lives. Where do you get work now? What's going to happen?" 

Harper said Ajax had told its union workers that it would work to get the contract concerns taken care of without stopping work. A representative for Ajax was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday.

 "It does not make any sense to me why we're not working," she said. "We have a lot of this work to do."

Jeff Cranson, an MDOT spokesman, said he didn't know exactly which road construction projects will be affected by the lockout. On Tuesday, machines sat idle at the I-75 construction site in Detroit and work was not being conducted. 

Cranson also pointed out MDOT said it is not party to the negotiations. He also reiterated a statement made by the department.

"Our priorities remain the safety of workers and the traveling public and maintaining traffic to alleviate delays as much as possible," the statement said.

Under MDOT contracts, road construction companies are required to maintain safe work zones for motorists in active project sites at all times until the project is completed, officials said, even during delays due to labor disputes.

The contracts also call for MDOT to grant extensions because of labor disputes, similar to provisions for acts of God, the statement said. If disputes happen, contractors could incur costs for which they will not be compensated, officials said.
"MDOT takes delays very seriously, working very hard to alleviate congestion and the inconvenience to drivers," the statement said. "So, of course, we hope the two sides reach agreement soon."

Nystrom said the length of delays in individual projects will vary from project to project.

"It's really hard to say how long the delays could be or what the impact will be," he said. "Some may shut down immediately and some projects may continue to make progress with other trades handling the work and then there a lot of non-union companies that work on these projects that aren't impacted."

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Twitter: @CharlesERamirez