Michigan road construction restarting after deal struck

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Road construction crews resume work at I-696 at Thomas Avenue in Warren on Friday.

Lansing — Many construction crews are back on the job Friday following an unprecedented road building standoff that stalled 164 projects across the state and frustrated motorists who feared the three-week hiatus would extend their driving woes beyond the construction season.

Gov. Rick Snyder announced Thursday that a short-term agreement had been struck through the 2018 season between the Operating Engineers 324 and the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, which locked out of the road engineers for most of September as part of a labor dispute. 

“This is great news, and I appreciate that both sides were able to see how important the work they do is to the safety and quality of life for all Michiganders,” Snyder said in a statement.

“The vital work of getting Michigan’s roads repaired should not have stalled, but the important thing now is that projects will be getting back on track. A long-term solution to the contract negotiations still needs to be worked out, but that can and should be done after this construction season is completed.”

Road construction crews resume road work along I-696 near Ryan Road on Friday, September 28, 2018. 
Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

While full terms of the deal are not known, Snyder's office said crews will prioritize projects that can be completed before winter weather arrives. Others will continue for as long as possible, including work to prepare roads for winter travel if they cannot be finished by then.

The union and contractors association will use professional mediators throughout the winter to help negotiate a new contract, according to Snyder, who personally met with both sides of the dispute on Monday morning but was unable to initially broker a deal at that time. 

"We're hoping we'll have some (crews) getting back to work as soon as tomorrow,"  said Local 324 spokesman Dan McKernan, who told The Detroit News that the union and contractors group stayed in contact with the governor's office throughout the week. 

The temporary agreement ends a nearly month-long standoff that delayed projects across the state in the midst of a busy summer construction season and brought state consideration of using the National Guard to do some work. 

After its five-year contract expired in June, Local 324 said it didn't want to negotiate a new contract with MITA, an industry group representing contractors. The union said it wanted to bargain with individual contractors. MITA then imposed a work stoppage on Sept. 4.

MITA said earlier this week it was bringing non-union workers from outside the state in an attempt to finish some projects, drawing harsh rebukes from union groups. The Snyder administration had hinted at the possibility of fines if contractors were not able to complete projects on time, and the Michigan Department of Transportation warned of penalties should deadlines not be met.

The dispute had partially or fully shut down 89 MDOT projects and 75 local projects, including the major Interstate 75 River Rouge Bridge construction project and Interstate 696 reconstruction and maintenance project in Macomb County. The I-696 project still needs two-and-a-half more months of work before it will be completed, according to state officials. 

“I understand the frustration this has caused, but our association has an important responsibility to our members who are committed to doing the best work they can to build and maintain Michigan’s infrastructure on behalf of taxpayers,” said Mike Nystrom, executive vice president for MITA, in a statement. 

He told The Detroit News the agreement to try and negotiate a new union contract through mediation was "the real trigger that helped the industry decide to end the lockout," suggesting unions had resisted talks this summer.

Union president Ken Dombrow said his members are "ready to get back on their machines and get these projects done across the state — and look forward to working again as soon as we can." 

 “We still have issues to work out and will represent the best interests of our members throughout those negotiations, as we always have," Dombrow said in a statement.

MDOT is expected to determine a list of projects that can and cannot be finished before the winter. That list has not yet been developed, according to department spokesman Jeff Cranson, who said the deal "happened really fast."

Projects like I-696 and I-75 in Metro Detroit "are a top priority, but in communities big and small the roads are a priority," Cranson said. "If it affects your commute, that's what matters."

Weather will dictate the length of the current construction season, McKernan said. The first frost, which typically comes in November, can prevent crews from transporting necessary equipment. 

The spring season typically starts in April or May, meaning the union and contractors association will have several months to negotiate a long-term deal after crews complete work without a contract this year. 

"For us, it's pretty much a return from where we stood before Labor Day with the added exception of sitting down with contractors for state mediation, which we welcomed and continue to welcome," McKernan said. "We couldn't be happier that our members are going to go back to work. They didn't choose to leave the jobs sites."

MDOT will continue contract provisions related to completion dates, extensions for work, and possible financial penalties, according to the Snyder administration. The governor has also directed MDOT to carefully monitor all projects "and ensure a high level of quality is maintained despite an accelerated pace of work," his office said.

Nystrom said the road building industry feels "very confident" the state will not be able to assess late penalties because the standoff was a labor dispute, and "we will make that argument on a project-by-project basis."

He also expects crews to be back on the job by Friday and is optimistic that "many" of the ongoing road projects can be completed before winter weather arrives.

"The industry deals with the onset of winter here in Michigan every year," Nystrom said. "It varies from year to year. You might see it in late October or mid-December. The contractors each and every year are able to get (projects) buttoned up."