Labor spat leaves bridge work uncertain

Jordan Beck | Daily Press Traffic travels on the U.S. 2 and 41 bridge over the Escanaba River Wednesday. An ongoing labor dispute which has affected work on this bridge and other projects across the state has led to a statewide lockout by the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association against Operating Engineers 324, according to representatives of organizations linked to the situation.

WELLS — An ongoing labor dispute has led to a statewide lockout by the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association (MITA) against Operating Engineers 324 (OE324), according to representatives of organizations linked to the situation. This dispute has affected work on the U.S. 2 and 41 bridge over the Escanaba River, along with other projects in the Upper Peninsula and across Michigan.

Dan McKernan, communications director for OE324, said the lockout began Tuesday.

“Our members who work for many of the MITA-affiliated contractors … were informed that, as of 7:00 yesterday morning, they were not to report to work until further notice,” he said.

The labor dispute began on June 1, when MITA’s contract with OE324 ended.

“Right now, there’s no contract in place — therefore, it’s a layoff,” McKernan said of the current situation.

MITA Executive Vice President Michael Nystrom said that OE324 has not been willing to hold meetings to discuss a new contract.

“The union refused to even meet one time,” he said.

Nystrom went on to say that OE324 has obstructed progress on the Escanaba River bridge and other projects in Michigan.

“Since then, they’ve engaged in numerous disruptive and coercive activities over the summer,” he said. According to a MITA press release, these activities include (but are not limited to) not providing additional operating engineer employees when contractors asked them to, redirecting employees away from MITA contractors, not certifying registered apprentices for MITA-represented contractors, and self-authoring a new road agreement which was not negotiated with other entities.

McKernan said MITA’s claims regarding OE324’s activities were inaccurate and misleading.

“That is patently untrue,” he said. In response to the last claim specifically, he noted that OE324 worked with various contractors to develop their current road agreement.

According to Nystrom, the lockout will end once OE324 ratifies a new contract proposed by MITA. He said that Operating Engineers workers were making $55.67 per hour on average in wages and benefits under the contract which expired on June 1, and that MITA has proposed an increase of wages and benefits by $8 an hour (or 14.4 percent) over five years to $63.67 an hour.

McKernan said that, while OE324 is open to negotiating with individual contractors, they are not interested in entering negotiations with MITA. However, he hopes that MITA will allow OE324 members to return to work as soon as possible.

“We’re hoping that common sense and cooler heads prevail, and they call us back to work,” he said.

In a statement, Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) Communications Director Jeff Cranson said the department is not directly involved with this situation.

“It is important to understand that MDOT is not a party to these negotiations. Our priorities remain the safety of workers and the traveling public and maintaining traffic to alleviate delays as much as possible,” he said.

According to Cranson, MDOT’s contracts call for the department to grant extensions due to labor disputes. If contractors incur costs as a result of these extensions, said costs would not be compensated.

Cranson also noted that MDOT has contractual specifications addressing contractors’ responsibilities, which include maintaining safe work zones for drivers for the entire duration of projects — even during delays caused by labor disputes.

Several different projects across the state of Michigan have been affected by the labor dispute. Locally, these include the resurfacing of M-94 in the counties of Alger, Marquette, and Schoolcraft, the reconstruction of U.S. 2 and 41 from Rapid River to Gladstone, and repairs on the M-35 Cedar River bridge in Menominee County.

Work on the Escanaba River bridge project has not been completely stopped, MDOT Communications Representative for the Superior Region Dan Weingarten said.

“There is some work on the bridge deck going on right now,” he said.

However, he added that MDOT is not certain how much work on the bridge can be done during the current construction season.

“We’re evaluating the schedule, and we’ll let people know as soon as we can, but the situation is unclear,” Weingarten said.