Labor dispute could mean longer road construction season

Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A labor dispute between road workers and construction companies is threatening to disrupt road work statewide, even as commute-delaying projects are nearing the finish line.  

That could impact projects right here in West Michigan.  

The organization that represents the owners of road construction companies and the union that represents heavy equipment operators are at odds over a contract that expired in June.  

Barring the unlikely event that a new contract will be signed in Monday night; some construction projects could come to a halt, lengthening a construction season that already seems endless.  

Operating Engineers Local 324 represents some 14,000 heavy equipment operators statewide – these are the folks who operate things like rollers, bulldozers, excavators, paving machines and the like.  

For the last 80 years, the union has negotiated with the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, which has 500 members made up of the owners of construction companies.  

This year, the union has decided it is cutting MITA out of the process and has sent a contract to individual companies saying they need to take control of the process for the benefit of the workers.  

“One of the biggest things they’re driving to do is send work out of state, to send work to non-affiliated contractors,” said Dan McKernan, a spokesman for Operating Engineers Local 324.  

This weekend, MITA announced it would be engaging in what they call a defensive lockout.  

“The union has been initiating disruptive, coercive and sometimes even unlawful activities all summer long,” said Mike Nystrom, MITA executive vice president.  

What this means is no pay for workers and bad news for drivers.  

“In certain areas on certain jobs, there’s certainly gonna be jobs that shut down tomorrow,” Nystrom said.  

No one seems to know which projects will be impacted and which will be able to continue.  

“There isn’t a company out there that truly wants to have their project come to a halt,” Nystrom said.  

A Kent County Road Commission spokesperson says they do not believe the work stoppage will have an impact of county projects.   

But Grand Rapids’ City Engineer says the work on Kalamazoo Avenue SE between 28th Street and Alger streets uses union workers, and they were expected to be doing work Tuesday and Wednesday, weather permitting.  

“There isn’t a company that is looking out their operator that is making money on this deal, it is not good for the industry to do this,” Nystrom said  

MITA says it has offered a contract that gives workers an $8 per-hour raise over the length of the contract, but the union says wages are not the only issue.  

“This is a chance to grab of our own destiny and to say ‘no, money’s important but it’s not as important as knowing the roads in this state and the infrastructure’s going to get done right, by the right people using the right tools,” said McKernan.  

McKernan said he believes this will impact any construction project on federal highways like US-131 and I-96, but it is possible that some road projects can move forward with other kinds of work not involving heavy equipment and some contractors may use workers who are not part of this union.  

It’s also important to point out that this is just for road workers, not for heavy equipment on other kinds of building and construction.   

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