Road projects across Michigan that were stopped Sept. 4 due to a labor impasse resumed Sept. 28 as the two sides agreed to return to work with an agreement to negotiate a new contract this winter and work under the terms of a deal that expired in June until a new agreement can be reached.
Gov. Rick Snyder (R) met with the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association and the Operating Engineers Local 324 last week, and the agreement to renew work was announced Sept. 27. MITA will allow operating engineers on more than 160 road projects and contractors to return to their projects. OE Local 324 agreed to professional mediation through the winter to help with negotiation of new contracts.
“Both sides agreed to professional mediation to help them with their long-term dispute,” said Ari Adler, director of communications for Gov. Snyder. “It’s a move in a positive direction in that we got them to agree with that. It’s up to them which mediator they use and where that goes from here. We’ve arranged to have someone who was instrumental in putting together the grand bargain in Detroit for that city’s bankruptcy to work with the sides if they are interested in that. We’re hopeful they will take advantage of that and get these road contracts hammered out.”
The dispute goes back to June 1, when the previous agreement was terminated. Workers continued to work without a contract until September when MITA member contractors shut down their projects, citing a lack of progress in negotiations. OE Local 324 viewed the situation as an involuntary layoff. Michigan already has a statewide road agreement with OE Local 324, which has been in place since July.
“It’s our belief that MITA contractors have nothing to fear from that contract once we have the ability to sit down and talk it through with them. When the time comes for mediation for those contractors that do not see that as the way to go, that’s something we’ll look at, but first we want to talk to contractors and see where they stand,” said Dan McKernan, communications director for OE Local 324. “MITA is a bit of an odd situation in that it’s an association of contractors that’s both union and nonunion, whereas most of the organizations we work with are union. We found ourselves constantly at odds over things like subcontracting and other union/nonunion issues.”
Fewer than half of MITA's 550 member organizations are union contractors.
“I understand the frustration this has caused, but our association has an important responsibility to our members, who are committed to doing the best work they can to build and maintain Michigan’s infrastructure on behalf of taxpayers,” said Mike Nystrom, executive vice president and secretary of MITA, in a statement. “We appreciate the Governor’s commitment to resolving this issue in a satisfactory manner for both sides so we can get these road projects underway again. Our members will work with the Michigan Department of Transportation to get things wrapped up as quickly as possible and get lanes open again for motorists.”
In a press release sent out by Gov. Snyder’s office, the list of projects that can and cannot be finished prior to the onset of significant winter weather will be managed by MDOT, which will continue to review contract provisions related to completion dates, extensions for work, and possible financial penalties on a project-by-project basis. The governor has directed the department to monitor all projects and ensure quality is maintained despite the accelerated pace of work necessitated by the nearly four-week impasse.
“The state is a customer in all of this, it’s really a contract dispute between the road builders and the operating engineers union that they use for their employees, so our options were somewhat limited when we had the stalled projects,” Adler said. “We wanted to get them talking to each other again to at least get a short-term resolution to get the road projects done and then get them to agree, moving forward, to address the long-term contract situation.”
Snyder is termed out, so it’s likely the new governor will inherit the dispute.