LANSING – The eastern lanes of I-696 in Macomb County – one of the busiest parts of the Michigan highway – have been torn and untouched for ten days during a labor dispute that began on 4 September.

No talks are planned and there is still no end to the dispute between the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association and Operating Engineers Local 324, the trade union representing operators of cranes and other heavy equipment.

With an estimated two and a half months of work needed to complete the project, the Michigan Department of Transportation is more concerned about the $ 90 million job on the highway – along with many of the more than 100 road building projects the dispute has been reached – perhaps not finished before the frost falls and fresh concrete can no longer be poured.

"We remain hopeful that the two parties can find each other, but … the longer this will take, the harder it will be to complete the project this year," said Jeff Cranson, a spokesman for the department.

But Rick Snyder said on Thursday that he is consulting with the attorney general's office about the dispute and weighing options that include legislation and action in court.

"This is a terrible situation and the Michigan executives need both parties to sit down and resolve their differences quickly so that they can get back to work," said Snyder. "This is an unprecedented break at a time when we are providing historic financing for road and bridge projects in Michigan, and I am sure that most of the Michiganders agree with me that this is not useful and that the parties involved need to be serious about solving of their differences. "

At the moment 696 is closed for traffic to the west between I-94 and Dequindre and the eastbound traffic passes on the newly constructed westbound lanes. Cranson would not say whether the partial closure could continue throughout the winter.

"We really hope it does not come to that", he said Thursday.

Other major projects on high-volume routes affected by the dispute – which contractors call a "defensive exclusion" and the union calls an "involuntary dismissal" – include:

  • Work on the I-75 bridge over the Rouge River, south of Detroit, and related nodes. The project had a predicted November 30 date on which the labor dispute began. Partial closures remain in place.
  • Reconstruction of the I-96 around Plainfield Avenue near Grand Rapids. There is another detour, but this project was almost complete when the labor dispute began, officials said.

It is not only large highway projects that are affected, but also local projects such as one that affects Dearborn residents on Cherry Hill Road, parts of which have been reduced to gravel and dirt when the work was stuck.

Residents and companies want the road to be completed quickly.

Ababakr Abbas, owner of YNT Fuel on the corner of Cherry Hill and Telegraph Road, said Thursday that he has lost significant revenue in the last four months due to construction.

Currently, access to Cherry Hill is only for residents of the city, from Telegraph to Outer Drive. That has significantly reduced traffic.

"If it stays that way for two months, I'll leave," said Abbas. "At the moment I am giving money out of my own pocket."

Muhammad "Moe" Beydoun, who lives in Waverly near Cherry Hill, said he owns two black trucks and must constantly wash them because of the dust that is generated.

"It's pretty messy," Beydoun said. "I have to spray through the windows because there is so much dust on it."

It seems that the two parties in the dispute can not be further apart and there are no signs of strong pressure from third parties to bring them together.

MITA, representing the contractors and blocking more than 1,000 union workers on September 4 after their contract expired on June 1, says it is willing to join the union at any time to discuss their proposed contract offer.

"It seems that the other party is not willing to sit down and talk," said MITA vice president Mike Nystrom.

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The union, which claims that it has signed a new main agreement with several unspecified individual contractors, says it will not negotiate with MITA, citing alleged anti-union rhetoric and actions by the association, which both union members and non-contractors among its members.

"Most contractors want to go back to work and they want to do it with our members," said Dan McKernan, a Local 324 spokesman.

A development that could exert pressure on the contractors would be MDOT imposing financial sanctions that are built into public contracts for the construction of project delays.

Cranson said that labor conflicts such as strikes are treated as "acts of God," and delays due to them are therefore exempt from such sanctions.

McKernan said that there is no labor dispute – just a lock-out by contractors of trade unionists who are willing to continue working, for now, according to the terms of the expired contract. That's why MDOT should impose the fines, McKernan said.

Snyder said Thursday that he consults with the Attorney General's Office for advice on whether the stalemate meets the legal definition of a labor dispute. The answer "would be a guide to actions that MDOT may have (available) to enforce contractual clauses," and "possible … fines for late completion," Snyder said in a press release.

Snyder said that he and government agencies "have limited legal authority to have any effect on the negotiations," but he has offered mediation and arbitration assistance through the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, which both parties have rejected.

He said he also appointed officers to explore other options, including unspecified legislation or legal action.

Even the trade union admits that there is nothing legal or contractual that prevents contractors from attracting non-agglomeration workers. But there is no movement to do so, according to both parties in the dispute.

"It is not openly discussed as a group," Nystrom said. Taking such an action would bring the labor dispute to "a whole different level".

McKernan said that one of the reasons that the contractors did not take such a step is because there is not enough labor pool of non-agents with the required skills and certification to operate the cranes and other heavy equipment safely and efficiently.

"Who are you going to call and do you want to make that call?" McKernan asked. "Once you have started on that road, you may not be able to follow your steps."

Asked what would happen if individual contractors who are MITA members invited the union workers back to their job sites, Nystrom said he did not see it happening.

"The industry is pretty united," he said. "We remain excluded because we have used the colossal tactics and disruptive efforts of the trade union."

Nystrom did not want to comment when asked whether a contractor who brought the union back to work, contractually or otherwise, would be legally at risk with MITA.

MITA has already taken legal action by filing a series of complaints against the union with the National Labor Relations Board. They are still under consideration.

And on August 2, a member of the union filed a proposal for a class action lawsuit in the Detroit federal court against local 324 officials, claiming to violate their fiduciary duties by refusing to pay cash for contractors – in this case health care – and deposit the money into the right funds.

McKernan said that the lawyers of the union have advised that because there is no contract and no negotiations are under way, it would be wrong if the union would collect and file the benefit checks and the union would take action to protect its members.

As far as health care is concerned, this means that the premiums previously paid by the contractor will now be borne by the trade union member, he said. That has not become a big problem, because most trade union members have a savings account that covers the premiums. But it can become a problem if the dispute continues, he said.

Nystrom said the situation is "critical", but also said that there are ways to make up for the lost time on jobs before the winter weather arrives.

McKernan said the union is very concerned about the cold weather that is approaching.

"In the U.P. (Upper Peninsula) they (motorists) are much more angry because their road season ends mid-October, in some cases," he said.

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or pegan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @ paulegan4.

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