Labor issue stalls road construction across Michigan

HOUGHTON — A state-level labor dispute has put many local flood recovery projects on hold for an unclear length of time, along with numerous road projects across Michigan.

The dispute revolves around the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association, a contractor’s association and Operating Engineers, Local 324, a builders union. MITA initiated the lockout of OE early Tuesday after what MITA describes as a refusal to negotiate following the June 1 expiration of their previous contract.

“We have not heard from the operating engineers. We have reached out to them all summer long asking them to sit down at the negotiations table and they have refused,” said MITA Executive Vice President Mike Nystrom.

MITA represents about 100 contractor groups who contract workers from Operating Engineers Union 324, and those contractors are behind some of the largest projects in the state, accounting for more than half of Michigan’s road work.

While many projects were already halted Tuesday with more to join as sites are made safe, there are some projects that will not be impacted. Non-union road builders, companies and other trades will not be impacted by the dust-up.

MITA also accused the union of “coercive and disruptive activities,” that they say were impacting contractors job sites.

OE did not respond to request for comment as of Tuesday but issued an update on Facebook referring to the move by MITA as an involuntary layoff in the last stretch of the construction season.

“MITA is framing this as a ‘labor dispute,’ but we have no dispute with, nor have taken actions against MITA,” one post stated.

However, Dan McKernan, a spokesperson for the union, told a Grand Rapids television station that the union has no interest in negotiating with MITA.

“Whenever a contract is at it’s conclusion, we evaluate the relationship we have with whomever the contract is with,” McKernan said. “We had been thinking for some time that the ongoing relationship we had with MITA was toxic and it was time to deal directly with contractors.”

In Houghton County, the dispute could spell problems for flood recovery projects if not quickly resolved.

MDOT and local municipalities are not a part in negotiations, reiterated Dan Weingarten Michigan Department of Transportation Superior Region communications representative out of Ishpeming.

The lockout could ultimately impact hundreds of projects around the state and thousands of employees.

“We’re hopeful that this will end quickly. No one wins in a labor dispute. The employers are impacted, the employees are impacted and the driving public, in this instance, is impacted. So there’s no winners. We’re hoping we can get this resolved quickly,” Nystrom said.

Kali Katerberg can be reached at kkaterberg@mininggazette.com.