Editor's Note: This story was updated July 18, 2022.
A strike by heavy equipment operators at aggregate quarries in northern Illinois is stalling road projects and could lead to bid lettings being suspended, according to the state's transportation secretary.
Transportation Secretary Omer Osman wrote a letter to the three aggregates producers targeted in the strike – Lehigh Hanson, Vulcan and Lafarge Holcim – asking them to reach a deal with the 300 members of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 who took to the picket line June 7.
“The ongoing strike has brought many of our projects to a halt, with more projects shutting down by the day,” Osman wrote June 30. “…The timing of the work stoppage could not occur at a worse time, at the height of construction season and during peak driving season with an eager public ready to travel after two years of a pandemic.”
Projects negatively affected include the Jane Byrne Interchange reconstruction in Chicago, the Interstate 55 and Weber Road interchange, the Interstate 80 bridge in Joliet and resurfacing projects throughout northeast Illinois and Chicago, he said.
He writes that if the strike continues the Illinois Department of Transportation might suspend June lettings and revisit whether to go forward with July lettings. He also mentions the “the right to explore using alternative mix designs to ensure the continuity of our projects.”
“The department will not bear any responsibility or cost for increased expenses experienced because of the strike,” he adds.
“The workers of IUOE Local 150 have played a critical role in revitalizing our state’s infrastructure, stepping up to continue working on our job sites as essential workers throughout the pandemic. With the best interests of the state in mind, we call on management to bargain in good faith and offer the wages and protections the workers deserve. We urge the parties to come to a fair resolution without delay.”
The IUOE Local 150 says it called the strike over unfair labor practices and has presented the companies a comprehensive counterproposal to the companies’ offer. It says this is the first time it has voted to strike against the materials producers industry since 1967.
“This strike can only be resolved through negotiations with the companies, and they are simply not bargaining in good faith at this time,” said union President-Business Manager James M. Sweeney on June 30. “Every day, more companies are running out of material, more projects are being delayed, and more workers are being laid off as a result.”
The union tweeted that negotiations resumed July 6 “with progress on several issues.” Talks were continued to July 7.
The three companies are negotiating as the Chicago Area Aggregate Producers Association. They operate 35 sand, gravel and stone quarries across northern Illinois. Workers on strike operate heavy equipment in the quarries. The companies have brought in replacement workers with no skills or safety training, according to the union. The companies have denied this.
The association accuses the union of stalling talks and says the strike was called without a wage proposal being presented after their labor agreement expired April 30.
“Local 150 has made unfounded claims regarding safety issues and using unskilled replacement workers,” the Aggregate Producers Association said in a news release June 16. “These allegations are simply not true. Our trained and experienced management employees are working to support our customers to minimize disruption to their businesses.
“The strike not only jeopardizes essential infrastructure needs that impact roads, bridges and flood-prevention projects, it also increases costs for taxpayers during this shortened construction season.”
In response to Osman's letter, the association said it has been "at the bargaining table with the union nearly a dozen times." But it adds that it has "struggled to understand the exact purpose of the strike." As to wages and benefits, it says it has not yet been able to come to agreement on the union's proposal.
On July 7, the association said, "We continue to meet with Local 150 to find common ground on a fair and equitable contract. Getting our employees back to work is out number one priority."
As of July 18, the two sides had not reached a deal.