Marquette County road projects stalled due to labor dispute

The intersection of Baldwin Avenue and Croix Street in Negaunee is still closed. The summer paving project is one of almost 20 across Marquette County that is experiencing delays due to a dispute between the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association and the Operating Engineers Local 324. Many residents and municipal leaders are concerned that projects may not be completed at the tail end of the construction season. (Journal photo by Lisa Bowers)

MARQUETTE — It has been said that there are no winners in a labor dispute, and stalled road construction projects across Michigan seem to be proof of that.

Over a dozen road projects in Marquette County and hundreds more across the state have been slowed, delayed or work has ceased all together as the result of a dispute between the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association — a statewide construction trade group consisting of nearly 600 Michigan companies — and the Operating Engineers Union Local No. 324, which represents about 14,000 employees who operate the heavy equipment required to build and repair roadways.

OE 324 members worked on road projects throughout the summer without a labor contract, which expired on June 1. But that changed at 7 a.m. Sept. 3, when MITA instituted a “defensive lockout.”

Dan Weingarten, Michigan Department of Transportation Superior Region’s communications representative, said three projects in Marquette and Baraga counties are expected to be affected by the dispute as of Tuesday morning.

Payne and Dolan is the contractor on a U.S. 41/M-28 resurfacing project from Westwood Drive easterly to Water Street in Ishpeming and Negaunee, as well as the resurfacing of U.S. 41 from old U.S. 41 north to the Baraga County line. A Bacco Construction project to resurface M-94 in Alger, Marquette and Schoolcraft counties is also affected, Weingarten said.

“We do not know what the exact impact of the lockout will be on these projects,” he said.

MDOT Communications Director Jeff Cranson said in a Sept. 4 statement that it is important to understand that MDOT is not a party to the negotiations.

“Our priorities remain the safety of workers and the traveling public and maintaining traffic to alleviate delays as much as possible,” Cranson said.

In an email Tuesday, Marquette County Road Commission Director of Engineering Kurt Taavola listed 11 road commission projects consisting of almost 9 cumulative miles of roadway affected by the lockout.

Taavola said the projects could be separated into two different categories. Five MDOT-let projects consist of shaping and resurfacing with hot mix asphalt on 1.61 miles of Marquette County Road 581; geogrid, gravel overlay and paving on 1.5 miles of CR 545; curb replacement and paving on .6 mile of CR 571; the paving of the CR NP bridge over the Carp River; and the paving of the CR 557 bridge over the west branch of the Escanaba River.

Five county primary paving projects include .97 mile on CR 492 from M-35 to Eagle Mills Road in Negaunee Township; .36 mile on CR 494 from Rose Street to CR 583 in Ishpeming Township; .95 mile on CR 496 from CR 478 to CR CL in Ely Township; 2.7 miles on CR 541 from CR 456 to U.S. 41 in Skandia Township; and 350 feet on CR 601 at the Lake Lory outlet crossing in Humboldt Township.

During a phone interview on Monday, Marquette County Road Commission Engineering Manager Jim Iwanicki acknowledged the lockout was causing a problem for some jobs.

“I am very concerned, but not in panic mode yet. We are watching it and we are hoping that things are settled,” Iwanicki said. “They are wasting good days and good days are hard to come by here in the fall sometimes.”

Smaller municipalities in Marquette County are feeling the impact as well:

≤ Negaunee Township resident Deb Heino has about a 6-inch drop between the newly paved blacktop on North Basin Drive and her driveway, and she is concerned that the problem will not be resolved before winter due to the dispute, and she is not alone.

According to the Negaunee Township website, officials had expected to restore shoulders and repair concrete driveways starting on Sept. 4 and ending Sept. 21. Negaunee Township Board Trustee Gary Wommer said the township lost about a week of work while its contractor Bacco Construction looked for another subcontractor to finish the job.

“Bacco is our contractor and they have hired someone all the way from Iron Mountain to complete the work because they don’t have their men,” Wommer said during a phone interview today. “They just came in and started on Monday. Thankfully we had most of the work done before this started. We paved 10 miles of road, I would hate to have 5 miles unpaved for any reason.”

≤ Ishpeming has experienced some delays with finishing portions of its U.S. Department of Agriculture water infrastructure project due to the dispute, Ishpeming City Manager Mark Slown said in a Tuesday email, although he said he doesn’t have specifics at this time.

“There is an impact on the USDA project; however, I’m being told that it is not a major impact. Some paving and other related work may be delayed until 2019,” Slown said. “We are still evaluating what may happen.”

≤ Heino said she had spoken to a resident who lives on Croix Street in Negaunee as well, where construction has been ongoing since July.

“He said he can barely get down his street. He certainly can’t have any get-togethers at his house because there is no place to park,” Heino said.

In a Tuesday email, Negaunee City Manager Nate Heffron said the lockout has affected the progress on the city’s Croix Street project.

“Croix Street is nearly done, but cannot proceed without pavement,” Heffron said.

Representatives from both sides say they are ready to go back to work, but MITA will lift the lockout only if OE 324 is willing to sign the MITA negotiated contract.

The union, for its part, does not want to negotiate through MITA at all, preferring instead to pursue negotiations with individual contractors.

MITA Executive Vice President Mike Nystrom said the union is turning its back on decades of successful negotiations stating that the lockout came as a result of the union’s “coercive, disruptive and unlawful activities” against MITA and its member contractors.

The tactics, Nystrom said, caused some MITA-affiliated companies to lose about 20 percent of their workforce to non-MITA contractors.

He said OE 324 representatives refused to hold a contract negotiation meeting with MITA, but he remains hopeful something can be worked out.

“The industry, as it has been all spring and all summer, is ready to get back to work,” Nystrom said. “Our offer doesn’t change the contract that we have offered in decades. We haven’t changed any language that would have a negative impact on the workers whatsoever. The industry has always been willing to talk, they always are, and we have always been able to come to a fair and equitable solution.”

OE 324 spokesman Dan McKernan acknowledged that union officials had made no effort to sit down at the table with MITA. Although he did not say what the issue was with the pacts MITA had negotiated with the union for decades.

“When they terminated our previous agreement, we decided to not set that agreement through MITA this time, but with the contractors themselves,” McKernan said. “This is the association refusing to take the will of the union had many of the contractors into account.”

He said there is a new contract between OE 324 and some contractors already in place, but would not disclose how many.

“The contractors of MITA have to sign (the union-authored contract), separate of MITA, but that doesn’t have to happen for us to get back to work,” McKernan said.

State Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, said in a Tuesday email that it’s her hope that OE 324’s “highly skilled workforce” will continue “operating the booms and heavy equipment machinery on taxpayer-funded road and bridge projects across the state.”

“These are multi-million dollar projects,” she said. “Mistakes made from allowing under-skilled employees to operate highly technical machinery could be costly or even require a total rebuild of state-owned bridges and highways if severe enough. With road funding dollars already scarce, why should taxpayers pay for corners to be cut that jeopardize the quality and safety of work being done? We don’t hire dentists to perform heart surgery on us or vice versa — we hire people with specific skills who are professionals in their field. That’s the dispute here. The taxpayers would lose considerably by now allowing under-skilled workers to do these jobs. Our state can’t afford to take that risk.”

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.