Union blasts decision to bring in out-of-state workers to build roads

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
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.

A spokesman for the engineers' union that is being locked out of road projects around the state called contractors' plans to import out-of-state and non-union workers to restart roadwork "ridiculous."

Operating Engineers Local 324 spokesman Dan McKernan said Wednesday that he disagrees with the move, which comes amid a stalemate between the union and the association representing the contractors, causing nearly 150 projects across the state to sit idle for most of September.

"What they're doing is bringing in workers from out-of-state to replace workers in state that have been willing to work without a contract," McKernan said. "They've worked all summer, and the only reason they're not on the job site now is that they were laid off.

"They're getting rid of one group willing to work to bring in another group from out of state."

Local 324's five-year contract expired in June but the union workers stayed on their jobs until Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, which represents the contractors, imposed a work stoppage on Sept. 4.

The local has said it does not want to negotiate a new contract with MITA. The union said it preferred to bargain with individual contractors.

McKernan said he did not know how many new workers were being brought into the state to pick up the projects.

"I don't know if they're looking to complete projects or just button some up," he said.  

On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Snyder met with both sides, but there was no deal either short- or long-term. The governor said his administration continues to look at legal options to restart projects, including major ones like the I-75 bridge project and I-696 in Macomb and Oakland counties. The I-696 project still needs two-and-a-half more months of work before it will be completed, according to state officials.

The dispute has partially or fully shut down 89 Michigan Department of Transportation projects and 75 local projects.

Mike Nystrom, MITA's vice president, said Wednesday that he still did not have an exact number of restarted projects.

"I can say that contractors are ramping up," he said. "Contractors are looking at every option. My guess is that they may be upwards of 50 percent, and hopefully will get up to 70 percent."

As far as how many out-of-state workers on the jobs, Nystrom, again, did not have solid numbers.

"Some are using non-union and union labor," he said. "Others are using management, who may have moved up through the ranks and at one time operated machinery, others are looking at out-of-state headhunters."

MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson said Wednesday that he did not know of any specific projects that have been restarted or the number of operators being brought in.

"That would be up to the contractors," he said. "MDOT would not know how many operators they are using."

Bringing in the National Guard engineering units to help on projects also is on the table. Both the state and MITA have had discussions with the guard. The state is considering using the guard's engineering units to address critical projects with higher safety risks or commuter challenges before winter.

"There's still talk today with the National Guard figuring out where they can be placed," Nystrom said.

Snyder's spokesman, Ari Adler, said Tuesday afternoon that MITA's contractors already use union and non-union employees, and it's "their call as the contractor" on staffing projects.

But with lack of clarity on whether contractors will have enough of a labor force to complete the road construction, Adler said the state will continue to explore its options.