State considers using National Guard to finish stalled roadwork

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
MITA represents hundreds of companies who contract to build state roads and bridges, water and sewer systems and utilities.

The state of Michigan is considering calling on the National Guard to complete stalled roadwork amid a breakdown in talks aimed at lifting a lockout of road engineers.

A spokesman for Gov. Rick Snyder raised the possibility Thursday in response to an ongoing rift between the union representing state road builders and an association for industry contractors. 

The Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, or MITA, instituted a work stoppage for workers represented by the Operating Engineers Local 324 on Sept. 4 after multiple failed attempts to bargain a new contract with the union. A prior, five-year deal expired in June.

The two sides had talked with the governor's staff this week in an attempt to get mediation going, but the union put out a statement Thursday claiming that a "handshake agreement" reached with the state and MITA had been pulled back, unraveling any hopes for progress. 

Ari Adler, a spokesman for Snyder on behalf of the governor's team, said Thursday that the union's claims were "patently untrue." 

"This unacceptable work stoppage will put motorists’ safety at risk this winter. Gov. Snyder remains committed to resolving this situation and is looking at what options are available to finish projects as quickly as possible," Adler said in an emailed statement. "These options range from withholding payments for contractors to activating the National Guard and using their heavy equipment operators for roadwork."

The state's position comes after the union earlier Thursday demanded a meeting with Snyder to bring an end to the lockout that's shutdown or partially halted more than 150 road projects in southeast Michigan.

In response to the National Guard option, Mike Nystrom, MITA's executive vice president, said the association “will look at all options.”

“We’re open to any type of creative thinking, and we’ll continue to work with the governor’s office and MDOT to try to make as much progress on these projects as possible during this defensive lockout,” he said. 

The engineers contend a deal to get hundreds of road projects back on track was reached this week with the governor's top staff and MITA. But the state and association have since reneged on that plan. 

“We are deeply disappointed that MITA is now torpedoing our agreement with the Gov. Rick Snyder administration that would have brought workers and contractors together. The only fair way to resolve this dispute is for OE 324 leaders to meet with the governor immediately so that we can get back to work fixing the roads," Operating Engineers 324 President Ken Dombrow said in a released statement on Thursday.

“Operating Engineers 324 has bent over backwards during this entire process to make sure that critical road projects are completed without pain and inconvenience for Michigan drivers. Our road builders showed up every day to do their job, even without a contract since June."

Douglas Stockwell, Operating Engineers 324 business manager and general vice president, added the union wants to meet with the governor right away "to get his proposal back on the table."

Nystrom denied Thursday that any deal was taken off the table and said that the industry was caught off guard by the union's claims.

MITA, he said, had planned to take part in mediated talks beginning Friday morning. Thus far, each side had tossed out parameters, but no formal deals or discussions had begun, he said. 

"There was no deal presented to us whatsoever," said Nystrom, noting the association talked with officials from the governor's office on Monday, as did the union. "There's one child on the playground here that is the problem child and that's the union."

But Dan McKernan, a spokesman for the union, insisted that the engineers were presented with an agreement that they expected would get workers back on the job immediately and that the union would begin mediated discussions with the contractors.

"It was presented to us as 'this is the agreement we want you to take,'" he said. "They (the governor's office) made the offer. We walked out of there, shaking hands with an agreement in place with the governor's office."

The union's members, McKernan said, had worked all summer without a contract and have now been let down by both the contractors and Snyder's office. 

"It is unfortunate that the governor’s office has chosen to engage in political posturing and misinformation rather than progressing what should be their primary goal: getting Michigan road workers back on the job," he said. 

Adler confirmed Thursday that Snyder's team was working on a resolution that would have extended the contract that expired in June through December.

"That way, the governor’s top priority — using historic levels of funding to fix Michigan’s roads — could be done this fall as planned," Adler wrote. "Professional mediation could then be used to help the two sides resolve their differences."

The immediate return of the workers to their jobs was the cornerstone of the agreement that the governor’s office took back, the union claims. MITA's work stoppage has "held the motorists, taxpayers, and skilled workers hostage," McKernan said.

"OE324 did agree to mediation. We did not, nor will we, agree to have a contract with MITA, or extend the one that was terminated June 1," he said. "To suggest otherwise is simply untrue."

Adler said one of the mediators involved in the "grand bargain" funding deal that was part of Detroit's historic bankruptcy also had intended to assist.  But neither side, he said, accepted numerous offers to help find a resolution.

"Gov. Snyder’s team has been working in good faith to end a standoff that has jeopardized the safety of motorists and workers," he said. "This unacceptable work stoppage has resulted in road projects sitting idle at a time when historic levels of road funding should see work accelerating, not slowing down.

"Gov. Snyder also has contacted the National Labor Relations Board to ask it to accelerate the review of unfair labor practice charges that have been filed in this case." 

McKernan claimed Thursday that an arrangement was reached Monday to get the road builders back on the job while the state helped mediate a contract between the union and contractors. But on Tuesday, he said, MITA came back with a new list of conditions that caused progress in the labor standoff to break down.

The governor's office, the union added, is demanding "a host of MITA-imposed conditions."

"These conditions include OE 324 agreeing that contractors can continue to give jobs for highly trained road builders away to less-skilled, less-qualified workers, including those brought in from other states," a press release from the union says. "They also want OE324 to accept fringe benefit payments effective immediately, even though that would be a clear violation of federal law."

Nystrom countered that the two sides had differences but intended to come together on Friday to see if they could talk them out and get the union workers back on the job. That meeting no longer appears to be happening.

"MITA never refused anything. Nothing was off the table as far as we are concerned," Nystrom said. "We just said 'let us review those parameters.'"

McKernan, however, added the union had no knowledge of a meeting planned for Friday.

The road builders continued to work without a contract until the Sept. 4 lockout that MITA has called a "defensive" move after months of "disruptive" and "coercive" conduct by the union, an assertion the union denies. 

McKernan said the union is "frustrated and disappointed," noting both MITA and the state have the ability to get the projects started again. The state, he added, can also begin levying fines. 

"The State of Michigan needs to protect the drivers and taxpayers of the state and levy these penalties immediately," he said. 

In the spring, MITA mailed the union an offer it believed was "fair and equitable" to maintain the 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.

But the union declined to acknowledge MITA's contract offer. Instead, its leaders crafted a separate agreement in cooperation with some contractors who are not MITA members.

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

The association holds power of attorney for its member companies for labor agreements with the Operating Engineers, Laborers, Carpenters, Teamsters and Cement Masons. The member firms are responsible for thousands of construction jobs in Michigan each year.

Historically, bargaining has taken place in a multi-employer setting where they have come together with the union to reach an agreement.