Road workers striking in Mich. accuse contractor of unfair labor practices

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

More than 200 workers who resurface and replace Michigan roadways began striking Wednesday in a contractor dispute over unfair labor practices and a new contract.

The workers, part of Operating Engineers 324 union, began the strike at 5 a.m. at 13 asphalt plants across Michigan, directing their action at Indiana-based Rieth-Riley Construction, according to union spokesman Dan McKernan.

Rieth-Riley is the only contractor among dozens that did not sign a recently negotiated contract with the union, McKernan said, and the company has been engaged in alleged unfair labor practices.

Resolving the strike is simple, McKernan said.

"We have to solve these unfair labor practices, (the company) needs to fix what they did to these employees, stop it in the future and get a new contract in place," McKernan said.

In a statement, Rieth-Riley president Keith Rose disputed McKernan's claims.

“We have gone back to the table time and time again and have offered up excellent employee compensation plans and the Union has refused to attempt to negotiate a fair deal,” he said.

The company also said the National Labor Relations Board has not decided on unfair labor practice complaints filed by both sides, adding: "Thus, this strike is premature at best."

The union ratified a five-year deal in April with many of the state's top contractors. The contracts require subcontractors to pay into a union trust fund for fringe benefits even if they do not use union laborers, a provision that Republican members of the state House are trying to prohibit as part of a new state budget.

The contracts were reached after a three-week lockout of the union engineers in September by and industry group representing contractors, the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association.

MITA locked out the workers after the union said it wanted to bargain with individual contractors instead of the association.

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

In its statement, Rieth-Riley said it agreed to "essentially all wages, terms and conditions" negotiated with other contractors "with the exception of the Union's subcontracting clause." The company called the provision a "taxpayer extortion fee as part of an effort to pad the union's struggling pension fund."