Picketers hold signs in front of Waterview
Tower project.

Striking building trades workers shut down more than 150 projects in the Chicago area, protesting a contract proposed by employers that threatens to slash pensions and pay rates.

Members of the laborers’ union went on strike June 1 after a month of talks with companies affiliated with the Mid-America Regional Bargaining Association ended in a standstill. The firms constitute about 10% of the area’s construction market, according to the Construction and General Laborers’ District Council of Chicago Vicinity.

Publicly funded transportation projects were hit hardest by the strike. About 150 highway projects came to a halt or were operating at less-than-normal capacity, according to Mike Claffey, a spokesman for the Illinois Dept. of Transportation.

Project labor agreements with the state-operated Illinois Tollway kept its $5.3-billion reconstruction program moving forward, though, says one tollway official.

Laborers working for local general contractor Walsh Construction Co. stayed on the rebuild of Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway due to a “strike notification clause” the firm had previously inked with the union.

The measure will keep most of the $600-million highway job up and running for 30 days if picketing continues that long, says Claffey. Subcontracted sewer work along the expressway has halted, however.

MARBA offered laborers an annual pay raise of 5.3% for two years. They currently receive a base wage of $30.15 per hour. Union officials left the negotiating table on May 30 after the trade group proposed cutting pensions by about 20%. The laborers’ most-recent collective-bargaining agreement with MARBA expired on May 31.

The group also sought to drop pay rates for less-skilled work, such as sweeping and flagging, by 50%.

Fifteen bucks isn’t worth me getting run over,” says Dave Johnson, a member of laborers’ Local 288. He spent June 1 picketing in downtown Chicago. Cars and trucks honked their horns in support as they drove by.

Bargaining officials did not return ENR’s phone calls. “It seems clear that the union had no intention of reaching an agreement,” says Randy Larson, MARBA’s chief negotiator, in a written statement. “We’re ready to sit down and talk whenever they are.”

The building trades did not stay away from every job among the private projects in the city’s downtown districts. It was all quiet at the site of the $430-million Waterview Tower, a luxury hotel and condo high-rise undergoing foundation construction. In contrast, plenty of activity buzzed nearby on the site of the $750-million Trump International Hotel & Tower, another luxury tower.

Across town, the $6.6-billion expansion of O’Hare International Airport was completely shut down. It has executed more than $200 million in contracts so far, but as much as $700 million in other projects this year may be delayed if picketing drags on. “Other unions are honoring the strike,” says project spokesman Roderick Drew.

(Photo by Tudor Hampton for ENR)