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Telegraph among roads impacted by construction union lockout

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published September 10, 2018

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — Sept. 5 came and went, and despite the best-laid plans, the scheduled roadwork on Telegraph Road never began.

The problem wasn’t with the stifling heat wave or even a lack of barrels. Rather, it was a lack of bodies.

The Michigan Infrastructure Transportation Association, or MITA, had “locked out” union members of Operating Engineers Local 324 after a contract between the two entities expired in June.

MITA represents contracting companies that build roads and other infrastructure needs, and it told members of the union not to report to work indefinitely, claiming that instead of working toward a new contract, the union allegedly sought to bypass MITA and strike contracts directly with firms.

“After refusing to hold a single meeting to discuss a new contract, which expired June 1, MITA has decided to hold a defensive lockout of Operating Engineers Local 324. This is the result of the coercive, disruptive and unlawful activities the union has spearheaded against MITA contractors,” said Michael Nystrom, executive vice president of MITA, in a prepared statement Sept. 4, the first day of the lockout.

Representatives from OE324 claim that negotiations with MITA dissolved, citing “many years of actions taken by MITA detrimental to OE324 members, including giving members’ work away to workers with less training and skills,” according to Dan McKernan, communications director for OE324.

“Operating engineers run dangerous heavy equipment weighing many tons and requiring years of training. They often run this equipment just feet from motorists and around electrical, water and other infrastructure needs,” McKernan said in a prepared statement. “MITA has encouraged their contractors to keep the machines running with whatever labor is available, a potentially dangerous proposition.”

To the average driver and taxpayer, the result of the feud means various construction projects around the state have come to a halt, and with no idea when the two entities might come to a consensus, roadwork delays and the resulting congestion will continue with no end in sight.

The Michigan Department of Transportation, which hires contractors on behalf of state taxpayers, stressed in a prepared statement that the department is not a party to the negotiations and, like drivers, hopes the struggle comes to an end soon so work can be completed.

MDOT said a speedy resolution would be beneficial not only to alleviate congestion and inconvenience for drivers, but to make sure no one pays for the dispute — literally.

“In the event labor disputes affect active construction projects, MDOT has contractual specifications that address the contractor’s responsibilities. These contractors are obligated to maintain a safe work zone for motorists at all times and are required to do so for the full duration of the project, even during delay caused by a labor dispute,” MDOT states on its website. “The contracts call for MDOT to grant extension because of labor disputes, similar to provisions for acts of God. If that happens, contractors would incur costs. Those (costs) would not be compensated.”

McKernan said residents could be on the hook for overages the delay causes.

“Projects that overrun their allotted time are often subject to stiff fines and penalties from MDOT,” reads his statement. “These fines are levied because cost overruns cost the taxpayers more money as additional hours and materials are needed. MITA has stated they expect MDOT to waive any penalties these layoffs might trigger, which would pass the cost on to the taxpayers.”

Nystrom could not be reached by press time to confirm the claim that they requested that MDOT waive financial penalties.

Among the roads where projects have stalled are Interstate 696 and Telegraph Road, a nearly $7 million federal endeavor that would resurface Telegraph from Long Lake Road to Square Lake Road, and at the Maple Road intersection of Telegraph, from Square Lake Road to Orchard Lake Road, and on northbound Orchard Lake Road to the southbound Telegraph connector ramp.

Bloomfield Township Supervisor Leo Savoie said that a project on Lincoln Road, between Lahser and Telegraph roads, was slated to be repaved where a new safety path was added, but that won’t be happening just yet.

“I haven’t heard any gripes about the lockout from residents, and if anything, their response is, ‘Good, I’m glad Telegraph isn’t all blocked up.’ So they’re not winning any sympathy,” Savoie said. “They hadn’t started any portion of (those projects), so it’s not like 696, where they just walked off and the road is down to two lanes and nobody’s working. Fortunately, that’s not the case.”

MDOT spokesperson Diane Cross did not return requests for additional comment before press time.