LANSING – The eastbound lanes of I-696 in Macomb County — one of the busiest stretches of highway in Michigan — have been sitting torn up and untouched for 10 days amid a labor dispute that began Sept. 4.
There are no talks scheduled and no end in sight to the dispute between the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association and Operating Engineers Local 324, the union representing operators of cranes and other heavy equipment.
With an estimated two and a half months of work required to complete the project, the Michigan Department of Transportation is increasingly worried the $90-million highway job — along with many other of the more than 100 road projects affected by the dispute — might not be finished before frost sets in and fresh concrete can no longer be poured.
“We remain hopeful the two sides can get together but … the longer this goes, the more difficult it will be to complete the project this year,” said Jeff Cranson, a spokesman for the department.
But Gov. Rick Snyder said Thursday he is consulting with the Attorney General’s Office on the dispute and weighing options that include legislation and action in the courts.
“This is a terrible situation and the drivers of Michigan need both sides to sit down and resolve their differences soon, so they can get back to work,” Snyder said. “This is an unprecedented work stoppage at a time when we are providing historic levels of funding for road and bridge projects in Michigan. I’m sure most Michiganders would agree with me that this makes no sense and the parties involved need to get serious about resolving their differences.”
Right now, 696 is closed to westbound traffic between I-94 and Dequindre and eastbound traffic is getting through on the newly constructed westbound lanes. Cranson wouldn’t say whether the partial closure might continue all winter.
“We really hope it doesn’t come to that,” he said Thursday.
Other big projects on high-volume routes affected by the dispute — which contractors call a “defensive lockout” and the union calls an “involuntary layoff” — include:
- Work on the the I-75 bridge over the Rouge River, south of Detroit, and related interchanges. The project had a projected Nov. 30 completion date when the labor dispute began. Partial closures remain in place.
- Reconstruction work on I-96 around Plainfield Avenue near Grand Rapids. A detour remains in place, but this project was close to completion when the labor dispute began, officials said.
It’s not just major highway projects that are impacted, but also local projects such as one affecting Dearborn residents on Cherry Hill Road, parts of which had been reduced to gravel and dirt when work was stalled.
Residents and businesses want the road job finished quickly.
Ababakr Abbas, owner of YNT Fuel on the corner of Cherry Hill and Telegraph Road, said Thursday he has lost considerable revenue in the last four months because of the construction.
Currently, access to Cherry Hill is supposed to be for local residents only, from Telegraph to Outer Drive. That has reduced traffic considerably.
“If it is going to stay this way for another two months, I am leaving,” Abbas said. “I am spending money from my own pocket at this point.”
Muhammad “Moe” Beydoun, who lives on Waverly near Cherry Hill, said he owns two black trucks and has to constantly wash them because of the dust being generated.
“It’s pretty messy,” Beydoun said. “I have to spray down the windows because they get so much dust on them.”
It seems the two sides in the dispute couldn’t be further apart and there are no signs of strong pressure from any third parties to bring them together.
MITA, which represents the contractors and locked out more than 1,000 union workers on Sept. 4 after their contract expired June 1, says it’s willing to sit down with the union at any time to discuss their proposed contract offer.
“It seems like the other side is not willing to sit down and talk,” MITA vice president Mike Nystrom said.
The union, which says it has signed a new master agreement with several unspecified individual contractors, says it won’t negotiate with MITA, citing alleged anti-union rhetoric and actions by the association, which includes both union and nonunion contractors among its members.
“Most of the contractors want to get back to work, and they want to do it with our members,” said Dan McKernan, a spokesman for Local 324.
One development that might put pressure on the contractors would be MDOT imposing financial penalties that are built into state construction contracts for project delays.
Cranson said labor disputes such as strikes are treated as “acts of God,” and delays resulting from them are therefore exempt from such penalties.
McKernan said there is no labor dispute — just a lockout by contractors of union members willing to keep working, for now, under the terms of the expired contract. Therefore, MDOT should impose the fines, said McKernan.
Snyder said Thursday that he is consulting with the Attorney General’s Office for advice on whether the impasse meets the legal definition of a labor dispute. The answer “would provide guidance on actions that MDOT might have (available) to enforce contract provisions,” and “possible … penalties for late completion,” Snyder said in a news release.
Snyder said he and state agencies have “limited legal authority to have any effect on the negotiations,” but he has offered mediation and arbitration assistance through the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, which both sides have declined.
He said he also has directed officials to explore other options, including unspecified legislation or court action.
Even the union concedes there is nothing legally or contractually stopping the contractors from bringing in nonunion workers. But there has been no move to do that, according to both sides in the dispute.
“It hasn’t been discussed openly, as a group,” Nystrom said. Taking such an action would elevate the labor dispute to “a whole different level.”
McKernan said one reason the contractors haven’t made such a move is because there isn’t a sufficient available labor pool of nonunion workers with the required skills and certification to safely and efficiently operate the cranes and other heavy equipment.
“Who are you going to call, and do you want to make that call?” McKernan asked. “Once you start heading down that road, you may not be able to retrace your steps.”
Asked what would happen if individual contractors who are MITA members invited the union workers back to their job sites, Nystrom said he doesn’t see that happening.
“The industry is pretty unified,” he said. “We’re going to stay locked out because we are sick and tired of the egregious tactics and disruptive efforts by the union.”
Nystrom wouldn’t comment when asked whether a contractor who invited the union back to work would be in contractual or other legal jeopardy with MITA.
MITA has already taken legal action, filing a series of complaints against the union with the National Labor Relations Board. Those are still pending.
And on Aug. 2, a member of the union filed a proposed class-action lawsuit in federal court in Detroit against Local 324 officials, alleging they are breaching their fiduciary duties by refusing to cash contractor checks for fringe benefits — in this case, health care — and deposit the money in the appropriate funds.
McKernan said the union’s attorneys have advised that because no contract is in place and no negotiations are underway, it would be wrong for the union to cash and deposit the fringe benefit checks and the union is taking the action to protect its members.
On health care, that means premiums previously paid by the contractor are, for now, charged to the union member, he said. That hasn’t become a significant problem yet because most union members have health savings accounts that are covering the premiums. But it could become a problem if the dispute continues, he said.
Nystrom said the situation is “critical,” but also said there are ways to make up for lost time on jobs before the winter weather arrives.
McKernan said the union is highly concerned about the cold weather that’s approaching.
“In the U.P. (Upper Peninsula), they (motorists) are much angrier because their road season ends mid-October, in some instances,” he said.