Governor questions legality of road construction labor dispute; I-96 reopens

Posted at 6:37 PM, Sep 14, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-14 18:43:29-04

WEST MICHIGAN -- The much-anticipated reopening of I-96 in Kent County happened late Friday afternoon. It was scheduled to reopen Thursday night. The entrance ramp at Plainfield Avenue is still closed, and other road projects across the state are still delayed because of a dispute between two groups having trouble reaching a new collective bargaining agreement.

It’s not only frustrating for drivers. Now the governor’s office is questioning if it's even legal.

The dispute is between the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association (MITA) and the union Operating Engineers Local 324. MITA represents the companies contracted with the state to build the roads. The union represents the workers. The parties can't reach a new collective bargaining agreement.

Mike Nystrom, MITA's executive director said, "We've reached out. We've said we're open to talks. The other side continues to refuse to talk. So I think there's only one roadblock here."

Operating Engineers Local 324's spokesperson Dan McKernan said, "We tried to explain to the governor's office that this is in no way shape or form our members choosing not to work. This is the contractors choosing not to let us work."

Thursday, Governor Snyder tweeted, "I am also consulting with the attorney general to provide guidance on whether this situation can legally be classified as a labor dispute, so I can take additional actions on behalf of Michigan residents."

In response, Nystrom said, "We've looked into that deeply. We did not go into this without considering all options."

He added, "We believe, based on our legal counsel guidance that it is [a legal labor dispute]. There've been Supreme Court decisions that have clearly said that a lockout is a labor dispute."

But as the finger-pointing continues, McKernan said workers are frustrated, want to work, and need to feed their families.

"I would say the ideal outcome is two parts: one, the contractors simply bring the workers back. They can do that at any time. They can do that right now and the workers would be back on-site working tomorrow morning," McKernan explained.

He continued, "The second part - those contractors would reach out to us and say 'ok, let's talk contract. They would do it with us directly and without the association."

The Michigan Department of Transportation hires the companies (also referred to as contractors). MDOT didn’t want to comment but sources tell FOX 17 MDOT is 'beyond frustrated but that this is up to the contractors. They have all of the personnel, equipment, gear, etcetera, to finish up. They are imploring them to finish.'