Road worker strike drives into second month with no end in sight

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — A heavy machinery operator strike at a major Michigan road building contractor will enter its second month over the Labor Day weekend with no signs of impending resolution and an uncertain impact on repair projects across the state.

Nearly 200 road builders at Rieth-Riley Construction Co. have been on strike since late July, protesting a contract dispute that has lasted more than 14 months while seeking back pay from a related work stoppage in the summer of 2018. 

Road construction equipment sits idle on northbound I-75 at Exit 46 in September 2018. Back pay resulting from a lockout of unionized builders last year remains a sticking point between Operating Engineers 324 and Rieth-Riley Construction Co.

Rieth-Riley officials say the firm is operating at roughly 80% capacity by continuing to use union laborers from other trades and some replacement heavy machinery operators who resigned their union membership under Michigan’s right-to-work law.

Operating Engineers 324 marked the Labor Day weekend by urging Rieth-Riley to return to the negotiating table and questioned the speed, safety and quality of work being performed by replacement workers.

"Rieth-Riley should be held accountable for any delay, as well as the quality of their work,” Operating Engineers 324 President Ken Dombrow said in a statement. “Taxpayers need to know who’s been working on the roads and bridges that our families will be using and whether they’re safe.”

The firm primarily operates in mid-Michigan and West Michigan and holds dozens of active contracts with the state, including multimillion-dollar projects on Interstate 96 in Ingham and Livingston counties and various stretches of I-94 in Berrien and Calhoun counties.

The strike has delayed the start date of some projects, but it doesn’t mean work has been halted or traffic delayed at active construction sites, said Jeff Cranson, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation.

There were some project delays in the early days of the strike, acknowledged Chad Loney of Rieth-Riley, who said “everything is getting back up to speed” now that the firm has hired replacement workers.

“For years, Rieth-Riley has trained their own workers, including the operating engineers, and we’re continuing to train the people working for us,” Loney said.

Dombrow said it “seems unlikely” that Rieth-Riley is operating at 80% capacity and urged the state to hold the contractor “to the same standards of safety, workmanship and timetables as any other contractor.”

The Michigan Department of Transportation “puts the safety of travelers and the people working on the roads above all else,” Cranson said, noting engineers are monitoring state projects “very closely.”

“Whether a project is ongoing or work is delayed for any reason, the contractor will be responsible for ensuring that work zones are clear and traffic is safely maintained,” Cranson said.

The contract dispute stems from a proposed provision that would steer work toward union shops by requiring subcontractors to pay into a union trust fund for fringe benefits. Operating Engineers 324 has touted it as a way to protect “taxpayers and workers alike from substandard workmanship and compensation.”

But Rieth-Riley has called the provision unworkable in mid-Michigan and West Michigan, where Loney said a majority of subcontractors do not use unionized labor. While other contractors have agreed to the provision, the firm has described it as a  “taxpayer extortion fee” that will drive up costs.

“There just aren’t enough union contractors to do the work,” Loney said. “The union can’t provide enough members to do the work, and the non-union contractors aren’t willing to pay the union fringes without getting the benefit.”

Operating Engineers 324 said Rieth-Riley is one of only two union road construction companies out of more than 170 in Michigan that have not signed contracts for the 2019 construction season. The heavy machine operators had been working without a contract since June 1, 2018.

The union also alleges Rieth-Riley violated federal labor standards during the summer 2018 lockout and engaged in a “bait-and-switch” by docking worker pay to take back money it had provided them during the work stoppage.

Operating Engineers 324 Business Manager Doug Stockwell accused the contractor of hiding behind “PR flaks and spin machine” to smear hard-working men and women whose “dedication and hard work have helped the company succeed.”

Loney of Rieth-Riley said the two sides are not set to sit down again until Sept. 25 and said “the ball is kind of in their court” after the union refused to budge on key differences when they last met Aug. 19 for negotiations.

“Our employees that have been forced on strike … we would like to see them back to work, for themselves and their family,” he said. “The union forced them off the job, not us.”