Labor issue stalls Escanaba bridge work, road projects statewide

Motorists travel on the U.S. 2 and 41 bridge over the Escanaba River earlier this week. An ongoing labor dispute that has affected work on the bridge and other projects across the state has led to a statewide lockout by the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association against Operating Engineers 324. (Jordan Beck/Daily Press photo)

WELLS — No progress was reported this week in an ongoing labor dispute that has led to a statewide lockout by the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association against Operating Engineers 324.

The dispute has affected work on the U.S. 2 and 41 bridge over the Escanaba River, along with many other projects across Michigan.

Dan McKernan, communications director for OE324, said the lockout began Tuesday. Members who work for many of the MITA-affiliated contractors were informed that they were not to report to work until further notice, he said.

The labor dispute began 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.

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 that 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.

OE324 invited contractors to take part in the negotiation of a new contract for the state of Michigan, according to McKernan.

“MITA contractors did not participate, so a road agreement was reached with other contractors and ratified by the membership,” he said.“MITA is now demanding that OE324 vacate that statewide road agreement in favor of their own, self-authored agreement.”

In a statement, Michigan Department of Transportation 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, he said costs would not be compensated.

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

McKernan maintains the work stoppage is unnecessary.

“Operating Engineers 324 members continued to work on every single project around the state without a contract,” he said. ” It has long been OE324’s contention that the contract would work itself out, but completing the work of rebuilding Michigan’s roads was of the utmost importance and therefore, must continue.”

Jordan Beck can be reached at jbeck@dailypress.net.

COMMENTS