Contractor: Michigan road work goes on amid strike, stalled contract talks

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

A road work contractor is forging ahead on Michigan projects despite a weeks-long strike involving hundreds of its workers who resurface and replace the state's roads. 

Indiana-based Rieth-Riley issued a statement Monday amid its second negotiating session with the Operating Engineers Local 324, arguing it continues to negotiate in good faith to reach a contract agreement to get its employees back to work. But the union, it contends, has "failed to offer any substantive changes to their demands."

"In the meantime, Rieth-Riley is operating at nearly full-capacity with its labor force, which includes numerous operators that have resigned their membership with OE 324 under Michigan Right to Work law," the company wrote.

About 200 workers initiated a strike against Indiana-based Rieth-Riley on July 31 at 13 asphalt plants across the state.

Reith-Riley has hundreds of projects in Michigan, said company spokesman Chad Loney. Not all are active today but "we're keeping everything up to speed," he said. 

About 200 workers initiated the strike on July 31 at 13 asphalt plants across the state. Fewer than 10 have dropped out of the union amid the strike, according to the union. 

Dan McKernan, a spokesman for the engineers, said the employees walked out because they've been working 14 months without a new contract. Reith-Riley, he said, has been unwilling to bend and is one of few among 175 that have not signed a contract with the union.

"They are trying to dictate the contract for the entire road industry in Michigan by making us change our contract without offering a decent alternative," McKernan said. "They have consistently come in and said 'we're not willing to talk.'"

The union ratified a five-year agreement in April with many of the state’s contractors. They require subcontractors to pay into a union trust fund for fringe benefits, even if they do not use union laborers.

The contracts were reached months after a three-week lockout of the union engineers in September by the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, impacting dozens of projects around the state. MITA locked the workers out after the union declared it wanted to bargain with individual contractors instead of the association.

Loney countered McKernan's claim that it hasn't provided any alternatives and the ball is in the union's court. The company, he said, wants a contract that is equitable to all. 

"They owed us a counter," said Loney, noting the company provided an alternative in July. "What they brought in today had no substance to it. It's no different than anything they proposed prior."

Reith-Riley said it has offered to agree to nearly all of the terms and conditions of the new statewide contract, but the engineers refuse to make any changes "that will allow the new agreement to be workable in Rieth-Riley’s market" and for the operating engineers it employs.

Rieth-Riley claims the engineers are trying to "strong-arm" the company by not allowing its workers to return unless Rieth-Riley agrees to pay back wages tied to last year's lockout. The first hearing on an unfair labor practice charges isn't until late October. 

But McKernan said the workers voted on their own in favor of the strike.

"As far as us not allowing them to work, a union is made up of the members. They've spoken loud," he said. "The workers are the ones out there holding the signs."