Snyder: Impasse over road work continues despite meeting
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Rick Snyder expressed frustration Tuesday after failing to end what he called an unprecedented labor impasse between road contractors and a union of heavy equipment operators that is disrupting more than 150 construction projects statewide, including major work on Interstates 75 and 696 in the Detroit area.
“Our public is not going to be happy about this. I’m not happy. This is not a good situation,” Snyder said after holding his first in-person meeting with the parties. His aides had met separately with the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association and the Operating Engineers 324 union last week, when the Republican governor was on a trade trip in China.
About 50 contractors exercised what they call a “defensive lockout” of between 1,000 and 2,000 unionized workers three weeks ago, more than three months after the expiration of their contract. The union calls it an “involuntary layoff.”
Snyder, who is worried that the dispute will keep projects from being completed by the winter, said he likely will next warn both sides of unspecified consequences due to their “failure to make progress.” It is unclear what steps he may take, though one option under consideration is activating the Michigan National Guard.
While the state Department of Transportation has contracts with the road builders, which include penalties for not completing projects on time, the agency is thought to have limited legal authority to affect negotiations because the dispute in between the contractors and their employees. MDOT has warned contractors that they could have to pay liquidated damages if their work extends beyond contractually required completion dates.
“We’re still looking at all the legal options,” said Snyder, who has asked state Attorney General Bill Schuette for guidance. “It’s not as simple as simply declaring a state of emergency and having them go back to work. Much of this is under federal labor law.”
The guard, he said, potentially could be used for “critical” projects — not for typical construction but rather to “help button up or get some in a better spot than they are today.”
MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson said traffic for the most part is moving smoothly through construction zones where work has been halted, but traffic is “heavily, heavily affected” at the I-75 Rouge River project near Detroit and the I-696 site in Macomb County, where lanes are closed.
At Snyder’s request, both the contractors and the union declined to comment on the meeting.
But Mike Nystrom, executive vice president/secretary for MITA, which represents the contractors, said they have started temporarily hiring an unspecified number of nonunion replacement workers to start as soon as this week. Many are from out of state, he said, adding that managers at the companies — which he estimated do 80 to 85 percent of the state’s road work — are “hopping back in the seats of equipment to try to move projects forward.”
“The decision is being made company by company that we’ve got to get something going here,” Nystrom said. “Without a contract in place with the operators, all other options have to be put on the table.”
Operating Engineers 324 spokesman Dan McKernan did not comment on the contractors’ move to begin bringing in nonunion workers to operate heavy equipment.