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Negotiations are underway between contractors and the union representing Michigan's road builders following a contentious construction season that extended into the cold months after a dispute between the two sides delayed dozens of projects around the state.

The union and contractors are using mediators throughout the winter months to help negotiate a new contract, which was part of terms agreed upon after then-Gov. Rick Snyder helped broker a deal to resume construction work in the fall.

But the talks involving the Operating Engineers 324 this year have been directly with the contractors instead of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, the association for the industry contractors that imposed a three-week work stoppage in September.

“There are conversations going on with some contractors, but not with MITA,” Local 324 spokesman Dan McKernan said. “Our decision last year was that we did not want to enter into an agreement with MITA as an association. We wanted to work directly with contractors. Our relationship with MITA as an association had become toxic.”

After its five-year contract expired in June, Local 324 said it didn't want to negotiate a new contract with the industry group representing contractors. The union said it wanted to bargain with individual contractors, which prompted MITA to lock out the union engineers. 

The construction standoff prompted the shutdown or partial halt of 89 MDOT projects and 75 local projects.

MITA vice president Mike Nystrom acknowledged "there are federal mediators who have been involved in some of the negotiations but not all of them."

"Some discussions are taking place between contractors and union members with no mediators involved," he said. "There is progress being made, but no contract agreement has been made at this time. There’s still a lot of conversation to take place.”

McKernan said his members continued to work without a contract through the construction season, “hoping the contractors would speak to us directly, and that’s where we are today.”

“Our goal is not to eliminate MITA,” he said. “It is to eliminate them from being a wedge between us and the contractors.”

He explained the difference in the situation from last year.

“We couldn’t talk to contractors directly because they turned their power of attorney over to MITA,” he said. “But when they rescinded the power of attorney from MITA, now we can talk.”

Asked if he was optimistic all sides could reach an agreement before the new road construction season, McKernan said, “we certainly hope it will be resolved before road construction season.”

To the same question, Nystrom responded: “I would say there is hope that these discussions will lead to a new contract.”

Nystrom was asked if MITA would consider another lockout.

“At this point, no ... because MITA is not involved directly in the negotiations, and the contractors would like to avoid that type of situation,” he said. “That’s why discussions are taking place at this time.”

Asked how closing the sides are following the agreement worked out by Snyder last fall, Nystrom said the exact terms were never engraved in stone.

“It was just a guideline, not something set in stone that anyone had to follow as gospel,” he said. “It was a guideline to a hopeful resolution, and that’s what they all are still doing.”

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