Snyder seeks legal advice about intervening in road building dispute

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, left foreground, patches a pothole with employees from MDOT, along Michigan Avenue just west of Trumbull in this 2015 photo.

Gov. Rick Snyder is urging unionized road builders and members of a contractors group to resolve a labor dispute that's stalled hundreds of road projects across Michigan.

Snyder is also consulting with the state's attorney general about whether the lockout really is a labor dispute. If not, he and the Michigan Department of Transportation could intervene with penalties or other actions.  

"This is a terrible situation and the drivers of Michigan need both sides to sit down and resolve their differences soon, so they can get back to work,” Snyder said in a statement released Thursday.

“This is an unprecedented work stoppage at a time when we are providing historic levels of funding for road and bridge projects in Michigan. I’m sure most Michiganders would agree with me that this makes no sense, and the parties involved need to get serious about resolving their differences.”

The Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association imposed a lockout Sept. 4 after the Operating Engineers Local 324, which represents the road builders, refused to bargain a new contract with the industry association after its five-year deal expired in June.

The predicament has shut down or partially halted more than 150 road projects in southeast Michigan. 

At Snyder's direction, staff from the Michigan Employment Relations Commission have informally offered mediation and arbitration assistance to the union and the contractors' association. Neither side has accepted, the state said Thursday. 

Both sides in the labor dispute say they agree with the governor.

Union members "share the same frustrations" as Snyder "that the work is not getting done," said Dan McKernan, a spokesman for the engineers. 

"We also agree that this should be decided on about the claim of whether it's a (labor) dispute or not so that MDOT can appropriate levy fines and penalties," he said. 

The mediation offer, he said, was of no value to the union since it has declined to bargain with MITA and is not involved in a negotiation stalemate with the industry association. 

The contractors association also agrees with the governor, said Mike Nystrom, MITA’s executive vice president.

“We’d love to see both sides come together for talks,” he said, noting the industry has offered an economic proposal that it argues is “fair and equitable.”

“But the union continues to refuse to even meet," Nystrom said. "It makes it pretty difficult to come to a resolution when one side won’t even meet.”

MITA previously mailed the union an offer to maintain a 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. Instead, union leaders crafted a separate agreement in cooperation with some contractors who are not MITA members. McKernan has maintained the union isn't interested in bargaining with MITA.

In the meantime, Nystrom said the association’s member contractors are doing a variety of things to keep some projects on track with subcontractors and available union trade groups.

Because the dispute is between contractors and their employees, the Michigan Department of Transportation and other state agencies have limited legal power to step in.

Attorney General Bill Schuette is being asked to determine whether the situation is legally a labor dispute and advise what actions MDOT might take to enforce contract provisions, according to the state. The actions would include activating or denying extensions of time provided for in the contracts and possible related penalties for late completion. 

Snyder also has directed his executive office and MDOT staff to begin working on other possible options the state could pursue.

The options could include legislation, court action or other remedies that would require both sides to return to work.


The industry’s opinion is the specifications are clear and that the situation is a labor dispute, Nystrom said. The association looks forward to working with Snyder’s office or the attorney general in their reviews, he said.  

“This lockout can end tomorrow if the union ratifies the industry-proposed contract,” Nystrom said.