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Road worker strikes could cause delays, MDOT says

road closed construction sign
Anna Schlutt
Michigan Radio

Many Michiganders like to say there are two seasons in Michigan: winter, and construction. We’re in the midst of that second season now, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing.

Update: August 20, 2019 8:25 a.m.

Road construction projects in Michigan continue even as contract negotiations have stalled between the company in charge of the work and its workers who resurface and replace the roads.

The Operating Engineers Local 324 says it hasn't had a new contract in 14 months and it wants a new one. So it’s continuing a strike that started three weeks ago.

Indiana-based Reith-Riley says it has operated in good faith at two meetings to reach a contract agreement between the union and the company, but they're in a gridlock. The company says the union won't compromise.

Meanwhile, Reith-Riley says road repair work on hundreds of sites throughout the state is on track.

That's in part because Reith-Riley says it is operating at nearly full capacity and using numerous workers who have resigned their membership with the union under Michigan's Right to Work law.

OE 324 officials say fewer than 10 members have dropped out of the union.

Original post: August 7, 2019 5:36 p.m. Workers who resurface roads and do other roadwork in Michigan went on strike last week after failing to reach an agreement with contractor Rieth-Riley Construction.

Dan McKernan is the communications director for Operating Engineers 324, the union representing the striking workers. He says the strike is a last resort for frustrated workers.

“A strike is always the last option. It's not good for the employees, it's not good for the company," he says. "These employees have made the decision to forgo their own wages in the most lucrative time of the season in order to make their voices heard because everything else they've tried hasn't worked.”

McKernan says Rieth-Riley is the only contractor who has yet to sign the newly negotiated contract with OE 324. He says Rieth-Riley has created "a culture of intimidation and unfair treatment" of workers, but he says the main issue with Rieth-Riley is subcontracting.

“It’s not good for their employees, who could be sitting at home without work while they bring in a subcontractor from another state for pennies on the dollar," he says. “It's not fair to the taxpayer to be paying for roads that they expect to be built by a well-trained workforce and instead get the cheapest that they can possibly bring in from some other state, while Michigan workers stay home not working.”

The company did not respond to our interview request, but said in a press release, “Michigan residents have spoken loud and clear. They want to have the roads fixed. But rather than fixing the roads at a lower price, the Union wants the taxpayers of Michigan to pay a higher price only because of the Union’s greediness.” It also says the union has been “negotiating in bad faith.” 

Jeff Cranson is the director of communications at the Michigan Department of Transportation. He says there haven’t been any major delays yet.

“For the most part, it hasn't had a big impact yet, but it will. Any delays at all in repaving roads, I mean, the season is only so long in Michigan to do this kind of work, so a road that is rough and that you were hopeful might be repaired this year, might not be done,” he says.

Cranson says Rieth-Riley is one of the largest contractors for MDOT. MDOT currently has 88 active state and local projectscontracted with Rieth-Riley, most of which are in west Michigan and the northern Lower Peninsula. The projects have a combined value of more than $171,000,000.

“We hope the two sides can figure something out, because MDOT isn’t a party to the contracts, but obviously has an interest in the safe and convenient travel of everybody in the state,” Cranson says. “We respect the right to collective bargaining for better pay and health benefits and everything that is part of that agreement, and we hope the two sides can reach an agreement and keep the work going.”

Lauren Talley is Michigan Radio’s Morning Edition producer. She produces and edits studio interviews and feature stories, and helps manage the “Mornings in Michigan” series. Lauren also serves as the lead substitute host for Morning Edition.
Caroline is a third year history major at the University of Michigan. She also works at The Michigan Daily, where she has been a copy editor and an opinion columnist. When she’s not at work, you can find her down at Argo Pond as a coxswain for the Michigan men’s rowing team. Caroline loves swimming, going for walks, being outdoors, cooking, trivia, and spending time with her two-year-old cat, Pepper.
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