More than 150 road projects in Michigan have been halted or slowed for the past three weeks due to a dispute between a contractor group and union heavy-equipment operators and technicians, despite efforts by the governor to intervene.
According to ClickOnDetroit.com, the governor has threatened to call in National Guard heavy-equipment operators to restart the projects.
In a reversal to typical work shutdowns, caused by striking workers, this shutdown was initiated by the contractors group, which has locked out members of the Operating Engineers 324 from jobsites.
The Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association (MITA) started the lockout September 4 after the union had been negotiating contracts with independent contractors. The union and MITA had been battling since spring over a new five-year contract. MITA has proposed a $2-per-hour increase each year for three years and a $1-per-hour raise for each of the remaining two years.
The union did not respond to the offer and began to negotiate separate agreements with non-MITA contractors, according to MITA. The union calls MITA’s lockout an “involuntary layoff.”
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, concerned over the lack of progress to crucial state road projects, intervened, but so far, negotiations have broken down. Major projects affected include bridge repairs to Interstate 75, road and bridge reconstruction on Interstate 96 and construction and maintenance on Interstate 696.
“This is a terrible situation and the drivers of Michigan need both sides to sit down and resolve their differences soon, so they can get back to work,” Snyder said in a statement September 13. “This is an unprecedented work stoppage at a time when we are providing historic levels of funding for road and bridge projects in Michigan. I’m sure most Michiganders would agree with me that this makes no sense and the parties involved need to get serious about resolving their differences.”
On September 20, the union issued a news release accusing Snyder and MITA of reneging on a “handshake agreement” to get workers back on the job.
The union says Snyder’s office offered a deal that the union agreed to, but MITA refused.
“The governor’s office then reneged on the agreement and are now demanding a host of MITA-imposed conditions,” according to an Operating Engineers 324 news release. “These conditions include OE 324 agreeing that contractors can continue to give jobs for highly trained road builders away to less-skilled, less-qualified workers, including those brought in from other states. They also want OE 324 to accept fringe benefit payments effective immediately, even though that would be a clear violation of federal law.”
MITA’s Executive Vice President Mike Nystrom issued a statement saying the union leaders have lied. He said “both parties met separately with the governor’s team, but no formal agreement was ever finalized.”
A member of the governors’ team issued a statement saying the team was working toward a “simple resolution,” in which the contract would be extended until December so crucial roadwork could be completed this fall, ClickOnDetroit reports. After that, professional mediators could help resolve the dispute.
Along with using National Guardsmen, the governor is considering other options, including withholding payments for contractors.
After repeated refusals from both sides to meet with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to mediate the dispute, it appears the two sides might meet this week with Snyder. The governor’s office issued a statement September 21 saying the two sides have agreed to meet with Snyder, according to WXYZ Detroit.
The TV news station also reported that MITA says it is speaking with National Guard officers about using Guard equipment operators during the lockout.
The union and MITA met with the governor September 25, but the talks failed, according to The Detroit News.
MITA has said it plans to bring in out-of-state workers, which the union opposes, the newspaper reports.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated following the result of the September 25 governor’s meeting.