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 Representatives from both sides of a labor disagreement are expected to meet this week to hopefully craft an arrangement that will get roadworkers back on the job to complete projects before winter.

Representatives from both sides of a labor disagreement are expected to meet this week to hopefully craft an arrangement that will get roadworkers back on the job to complete projects before winter.

File photo by Deb Jacques

Roadwork remains stalled as union, contractors hold fast in dispute

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published September 24, 2018

METRO DETROIT — There’s hope that this week, according to Gov. Rick Snyder’s office, the two sides of the roadwork lockout will sit down to find an agreement that will get workers back on the job to finish projects around the state.

According to the governor’s director of communications, Ari Adler, the Michigan Infrastructure Transportation Association, or MITA, and Operating Engineers Local 324 have agreed to meet with Snyder to discuss their ongoing dispute over contract negotiations.

“It’s our hope that after a short cooling-off period, with assistance from the governor, both sides can see through their differences and focus on the vital work that needs to be completed so the motorists of Michigan can have road projects finished and their travel routes restored prior to winter,” Adler said in an email.

The battle has been ongoing throughout the summer since the contract between the two entities expired in June, and it came to a head at the beginning of September when MITA imposed what it called a “defensive lockout” of OE 324 members at Michigan Department of Transportation construction sites around the state, which MITA said it did in order to implore the union back to the bargaining table.

MITA and OE 324 have been vocal in the media about the dispute, pointing fingers as to who is holding out on contract negotiations, and thus preventing progress on road projects.

The delay has government officials across metro Detroit sounding off, saying that while the lockout goes on, the ones really paying the price are residents.

“Our roads are falling apart, and every day this MITA work stoppage continues, it hurts businesses and costs families more and more money,” said state Rep. Kevin Hertel, D-St. Clair Shores, in a prepared statement. “Families in Macomb (County) and across the state have already been paying more at the pump and in registration fees to fix the roads — they don’t deserve to pay even more for MITA work delays.”

During the course of the nearly monthlong saga, MITA officials claim that OE 324 members have avoided entering into a new contract, and instead sidestepped MITA and have approached contractors directly to strike deals.

On the reverse, the union has referred to the lockout as an involuntary layoff of road builders, and insists that union members have been willing to work without a contract instead of halting construction or leaving jobs in the hands of unskilled workers.

Last week, both sides agreed that a “handshake agreement” had been struck, but that fell apart within just days.

“We are deeply disappointed that MITA is now torpedoing our agreement with the Gov. Rick Snyder administration that would have brought workers and contractors together,” OE 324 President Ken Dombrow said in a statement. “The only fair way to resolve this dispute is for OE 324 leaders to meet with the governor immediately so we can get back to work fixing the roads.”

“Leaders of OE 324 issued a statement to the media falsely claiming that MITA rejected an agreement Monday negotiated by the governor’s office to put OE 324 members back to work,” Mike Nystrom, the executive vice president of MITA, said in a press release. “MITA member companies are more unified than ever, and I will say it again: This defensive lockout will end as soon as the union ratifies the industry-proposed contract.”

With MITA and OE 324 steadfast in their places and seemingly little progress being made to get workers back to road projects, Adler confirmed statements made in the media that Snyder has been in talks with the Michigan National Guard and MDOT to possibly complete projects that were in progress at the time of the lockout.

“We’re continuing to review options we might have to complete the road projects or at least get them in a safer condition for winter travel if MITA and OE 324 members do not return ... quickly,” Adler said.

Hertel, for one, doesn’t support bringing in the National Guard.

“Instead of levying ridiculous threats and proposing unnecessary and costly ideas like deploying the National Guard to do work where qualified workers already exist, Gov. Snyder has a responsibility to listen to both sides and resolve the issue, including levying fines against the contractors causing this delay to protect taxpayer interests.”

On Sept. 13, Snyder announced that his office would seek advice from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette on whether the situation is legally a labor dispute. That would make a difference in whether MDOT would need to allow for delays and late completion without penalty, as contracts allow for extensions in the event of labor disputes and acts of God. Schuette hadn’t released his opinion on the matter by press time.

The lockouts have impacted major projects around the state, including Interstate 75 bridge repairs, road and bridge reconstruction on Interstate 96, and road reconstruction and maintenance on Interstate 696.

Along with Hertel, Warren Mayor Jim Fouts has denounced the debacle, calling for the governor to declare a state of emergency with “extreme” traffic backups on mile roads and throughout neighborhoods as a result of unfinished construction.  

Staff Writer Brian Louwers contributed to this report.