Editorial: End labor dispute, return to fixing roads

The Detroit News
Dozens of road projects in southeast Michigan, including seven of 10 major work sites in Oakland County, have been shut down this week after a contractors association locked out unionized road builders during stalled labor negotiations.

For more than a week, a labor dispute has brought road projects around Michigan to a standstill. The summer construction season is quickly nearing an end, and there is no time to lose in addressing the state's terrible roads. This standoff impacts hundreds of thousands of drivers, and they should let their displeasure be known. 

This labor lockout has affected about 80 percent of Michigan road workers and has slowed construction projects on Interstate 696 in Wayne, M-59 in Macomb, Interstate 94 in Jackson and the Interstate 75 bridge project.

House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, had it right when he called the current labor standoff between the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Associate (MITA) and Operating Engineers Local 324 “unacceptable.”

Leonard has cause for frustration. Earlier this year, he worked to get $175 million of the state’s budget surplus spent a year ahead of time to expedite critical road repairs.

“The negotiation tactics being acted out are hurting Michigan’s progress, and they threaten our state’s future,” Leonard said in a statement last week. "Time is short – let’s get these potholes filled now.”

On Sept. 4, contractors affiliated with MITA, a contractors association, informed members of Operating Engineers Local 324 (OE324), a road workers union currently working on road construction projects, that they should not report to work indefinitely.

After the expiration of a five-year contract in June, the union has refused to bargain a new deal with MITA.

Mike Nystrom, executive vice president of MITA, says the contractors association had reached out to OE 324 back in the spring to begin contract negotiations. Instead, the union sent a self-authored contract to the contractors and asked them to sign and return.

“The demands in the contract were egregious,” Nystrom says. “They would put an established contractor out of business in short order.”

OE324 members wanted to keep working without a contract while the contract dispute got sorted out, but the union contends that MITA has issued involuntary layoffs to strain workers' wallets and force OE324 to come to the table.

But as of today, there has still been no contract discussion between MITA and OE 324.

Dan McKernan, a spokesman for OE324, says the layoffs have only galvanized their members against MITA, believing that a relationship with them provides little value to its members. OE324 would prefer to deal with contractors directly.

“Our relationship with MITA has run its course,” McKernan says. “It has been damaging to our members and to our industry as a whole.”

The only thing keeping workers off of construction sites is individual contractors obeying MITA’s labor lockout. McKernan says there is nothing that prevents the workers from returning to their projects other than the contractors’ hesitance to go against MITA’s wishes.

If they call the workers, road construction can continue as usual until some sort of agreement can be reached.

But if that doesn't happen and these projects are still left hanging, the Michigan Department of Transportation can fine contractors for not finishing the work. That's exactly what the department should do, given what's at stake.

While these factions are sitting on their hands, the traditional November frost date is fast approaching and will soon bring road construction to its annual halt.

Given the short time-frame to complete these projects, the parties involved need to figure out a solution immediately.