Michigan’s roads have turned to crap. So has a strike among road builders.

LANSING — A months-long union strike at one of Michigan’s largest road building firms has delayed some pavement projects and shows no signs of letting up as the summer construction season nears an end.

Instead, it's turned to crap. Literally, according to a National Labor Relations Board complaint filed Aug. 28 by Operating Engineers 324, a Metro Detroit-based union that represents road builders trained to operate heavy machinery.

Indiana-based Rieth-Riley Construction Co. “interfered with, restrained and coerced employees’ [union] rights by spraying water and depositing large quantities of animal feces at location where employees are picketing,” a union attorney alleged in the federal complaint.

The mess was discovered when striking workers returned to their picket line perch outside a Rieth-Riley asphalt plant in Grand Rapids and found a pile of “over 100 pounds of turkey crap" on the lawn, said union spokesman Dan McKernan. Its stench forced workers to abandon pickets for the day. 

“It’s a particularly foul-smelling thing — no pun intended,” said McKernan, who provided photos of the olfactory offense.

turkey poo

“It’s a particularly foul smelling thing — no pun intended,” an Operating Engineers 324 spokesman said of alleged turkey poop piles found at a Rieth-Riley strike site in Grand Rapids. (Courtesy photo from Operating Engineers 324)

A company spokesman denied involvement: “I can’t even tell you for sure that it did happen,” Chad Loney, a regional vice president for Rieth-Riley told Bridge Magazine. “They claim it, but I don’t have any knowledge of it.”

The incident is the latest in a series of allegations – including dueling claims of traffic blockades, physical assault  and roadway nail traps – in a strike that could impact a second road construction season if not resolved this winter.

Michigan transportation officials say Rieth-Riley is behind on about 25 state road building projects that will be pushed into next year, a count that does not include any local project delays. In some cases, the state may seek damages from the firm for breach of contract. 

The strike comes at a critical time for Michigan infrastructure as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer continues to push the GOP-led Legislature for additional money to “fix the damn roads,” which are among the nation’s worst and require some $2 billion per year in new funding to repair.

The roads builders dispute –  which lawmakers have sought to forcibly resolve through the budget process –  focuses on a proposed contract provision requiring subcontractors to pay into a union fund for fringe benefits. The union says it would ensure quality work, but the firm claims could cause construction prices to skyrocket. 

The crux of the contract dispute

Nearly 200 heavy machinery operators who had been working without a contract for more than a year walked off the job at Rieth-Riley in late July after what the union described as a near-unanimous strike vote. About 150 of those workers remain on strike, according to union officials, while others have found new union jobs or crossed the picket line. 

The company has more than a dozen asphalt plants in Michigan and has temporarily suspended one of its operations in Ludington in west Michigan. The company asserts that construction delays have been minimal and it is running at 85 percent or 90 percent of its usual capacity in Michigan.

“We've got work to do and projects to complete,” Loney said, describing the current workforce as a combination of operators who crossed the picket line, laborers from other unions, employee-owners and new hires. “We have a small handful of projects that are pushed off until next year, but other than that, the majority of our stuff is running on time.”

"The last thing we want to do is be out here," Ryan Doon, a union representative said recently, while frying bacon as he and a striking colleague huddled outside Rieth-Riley in 40-degree weather. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosling)

With the season coming to a close, Rieth-Riley has 78 active road construction contracts with the state worth more than $155 million. It also contracts with local government road agencies around the state and could face penalties if work is not completed on time. 

As of Friday, Rieth-Riley had completed 55 percent of a $9.87 million project on Interstate 94 near the Indiana border that initially was supposed to be completed Aug. 23, according to records from the state Department of Transportation. 

A $6.6 million project on M-72 in Kalkaska and Crawford Counties that had been slated for completion by Oct. 4 was 60 percent complete. 

Several projects originally slated for completion this year, including a $2.5 million repair job on US 131 south of Grand Rapids, have not yet begun, according to MDOT.

All state trunklines lanes “will be open going into this winter,” but the start of some Rieth-Riley projects will be delayed until 2020, said Jeff Cranson, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation. 

MDOT’s legal counsel is “reviewing protocols for enforcing liquidated damages in cases where projects were delayed or postponed,” he said, referencing paybacks the state could seek for contract breaches. 

Rieth-Riley’s largest active state project – a $15.9 million job involving upgrades on I-196, I-94 and M-3 in southwest Michigan – was 18 percent complete as of last week but is not slated to be complete by June 2020, according to state records and the original contract letting.

The firm and union have attempted to resume negotiations on three separate occasions with no success. Each side claims the other has refused to change their position.

The union contends the contract provision would ensure that Rieth-Riley cannot simply pocket extra profits by bidding for road work as a union contractor but then hiring cheaper subcontractors to do the work. 

"Our members are losing work because the new game has been ‘bid the project as a union company, subcontract it out non-union, and profit,’” said McKernan, the union spokesman.

“It doesn't do any good for us to have our members sitting at home watching other people do the work for the company that is supposedly aligned with us.”

Rieth-Riley has agreed to similar provisions in neighboring states, but officials for the company argue the subcontracting clause would cripple its business in west and northern Michigan.

“It’s predominately a non-union environment,” Loney said of out-state Michigan. “So there’s not enough union contractors to complete all that work.”

The contract language would require subcontractors to pay into a fund for union fringe benefits –  including pensions, health care and training programs – even if they don't utilize union labor. 

That amounts to “taxpayer extortion,” Loney argued, who estimated the costs could total nearly $29 per hour for each worker atop their regular pay.

Legislature weighs in

The same subcontractor contract demand prompted many of the state’s largest road builders to lock out workers in the summer of 2018, but many eventually agreed to the provision. Rieth-Riley is one of two major road builders that did not. 

In addition to the strike, the Operating Engineers 324 union is fighting the firm for $1.8 million in worker backpay from the 2018 lockout. That claim is part of a separate National Labor Relations Board case that went to trial Oct. 21. The trial is expected to take a week, but a decision could take months. 

While union contractors are prevalent in Metro Detroit, it is "nearly impossible" to find certain specialized subcontractors in other parts of the state, said Mike Nystrom, executive vice president of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association.

The trade group represents both union and non-union contractors and is backing Rieth-Riley in the National Labor Relations Board case over lockout backpay. 

In a counterclaim, MITA accuses the union of using “coercive tactics” to divide contractors during 2018 bargaining, a move Nystrom said led to the "defensive lockout."

The contract fight has spilled into the state Legislature, whose Republican majority in September approved a 2020 budget that would have prohibited the Michigan Department of Transportation from awarding contracts to road builders that agree to the subcontracting position.

Industry officials warned the budget language could have disqualified most of the state’s largest road builders that had already agreed to the union contract. Whitmer used her line-item veto power to reject the requirement.

The Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan, which represents non-union shops, had pushed for the budget language. The group’s state director, Jeff Wiggins, predicted Whitmer’s veto will “inflate the price of road projects" by driving up costs for subcontractors. 

"You have companies that are like, 'Love to keep working with you, but we can't afford it,'" Wiggins told Bridge.

Beyond turkey poop

Union officials acknowledge they may never know if Rieth-Riley was behind the turkey poop incident, but McKernan described it as the latest in a series of challenges for road builders who have been on strike for almost the entire summer construction season. 

In a separate incident, an Operating Engineers member on strike outside a Rieth-Riley facility near Houghton Lake in Roscommon County was clipped by a truck driver trying to enter the facility, prompting a hospital visit and call to the Michigan State Police. 

“Luckily, nothing was broken,” McKernan said. 

State Police referred the incident to Roscommon County Prosecutor Mary Beebe, but her office declined to charge the truck driver, citing “insufficient evidence to show intent to commit an assault,” a spokeswoman said.

Rieth-Riley, meanwhile, alleges that striking workers –  who are minimally paid from a union strike fund – have blocked traffic and thrown nails in the roadway outside their facilities.

“We’ve had multiple flat tires from nails and screws that they’ve thrown in the driveways,” Loney said. 

At a strike site in Lansing, union workers say they found tampons littering the lawn one morning, a gesture they assumed was meant to question their masculinity. 

"The last thing we want to do is be out here," Ryan Doon, a union representative said recently, while frying bacon as he and a striking colleague huddled outside Rieth-Riley in 40-degree weather.

McKernan said he doubts the company itself would encourage such behavior, and it is possible subcontractors or customers may have been responsible for the alleged incidents outside Rieth-Riley facilities. 

"The anti-union stuff Rieth-Riley has done has been much more institutional in nature," he said, suggesting efforts to encourage employees to revoke their membership in the Operating Engineers.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation this summer published a special legal notice telling Rieth-Riley workers how to revoke their membership or force a no-confidence vote in their bargaining unit.

“The urgency in my mind is getting the operators back to work so that they can provide for themselves and their family,” said Loney, the Rieth-Riley vice president. 

“But it's not Rieth-Riley that's keeping those operators from coming back to work. They're welcome to come back anytime.”

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Comments

water2Wine
Thu, 10/24/2019 - 11:35am

About the roads. Nearly the entire house of representatives is republican. Republicans don't support unions. Your democratic governor is weak. She is unable to fight them. Do not expect any sort of good changes in Michigan to occur until you get the republicans out of the house. Even the majority vote to stop the gerrymandering is going on the back burner because the republicans declare it dead. And if they are forced "by law" to appoint that new panel before the 2020 election they have decided to change term limits so we will be stuck with them forever. It all makes me sick.

Terry
Thu, 10/24/2019 - 4:30pm

I was FORCED to be a member of the seiu for 34 years. They made great promises of better conditions, wages etc. Those promises were empty. The only thing they were good at was taking dues out of our checks. With regular increases of course. When I retired we hadn't had a raise in 10 yrs. Yet the union leaders all got very nice salaries and raises. Our dues were spent to support causes and politicians (exclusively democratic) I vehemently opposed yet we had no say in this or anything else they decided was in "our best interest". I can't speak for other unions but seiu is a corrupt scam in my opinion. If I only had the money now that was taken from me all those years!

Anonymous
Sat, 10/26/2019 - 4:51am

No, you weren't forced to do anything. In Michigan, according to Republicans, you are an at will employee. If you didn't like it, you could've stepped up and either tried to be apart of union leadership or you could've done something else for employment. It's called accountability. You should get some and stop blaming a political party for your own inaction.

Anonymous
Sat, 10/26/2019 - 4:51am

No, you weren't forced to do anything. In Michigan, according to Republicans, you are an at will employee. If you didn't like it, you could've stepped up and either tried to be apart of union leadership or you could've done something else for employment. It's called accountability. You should get some and stop blaming a political party for your own inaction.

middle of the mit
Sat, 10/26/2019 - 11:52pm

NO one forces ANYONE in America to be a Union employee. If you apply to a shop that has a union, YOU applied to that shop. YOU were fully able to find work anywhere else you wanted to. Yet you stayed employed by a union and benefited from that with better pay and retirement, which after 34 years, I am betting you are retired now. Would you like what most people get after 34 years of employment at a company? NOT what you received . They would have to work until they received SS to retire, and I would bet you receive that on TOP of your pension. And since I bet you made more than non union, Your SS is more too

Poor, poor victim. Couldn't find anywhere else to work for 34 years except a liberal taxhole!

How would you feel if all YOUR raises went to CEO bonuses or vacations? That is what the rest of us have been experiencing while you are complaining about union bosses making 6 figures, CEO'S have been making 8 figures and you don't complain about that.

Keep drying your eyes.

Zeke
Thu, 10/24/2019 - 6:19pm

Perhaps Michigan should take a look at the way roads are being built in other areas of the country. Michigan roads are terrible compared to the rest of the frost and frozen states. Really tired of hearing excuses from the contractors, engineers who can't seem to get it together. What is Wisconsin or Iowa doing differently than Michigan? It's an embarrassment to be paying for these Michigan roads. Not a Republican or Democrat issue.

Mrs A
Thu, 10/24/2019 - 8:20pm

Zeke, the roads in Michigan are "terrible" because virtually NO money has been spent to adequately maintain and upgrade them for several decades now. The Democrats relied historically on taxes from the Big Three which have evaporated in recent decades, leaving a puny gas tax that doesn't cut it. Republicans simply refuse to acknowledge responsibility for roadwork which might entail - GASP! - new taxation. I lay most blame at the Republicans' door since they held the reins for a good decade through the Great Recession, and while they talked a lot about fixing the roads, they achieved squat.

As I read this article, I noted that the striking operating engineers - mostly older, white males with some or no college - reflect an important chunk of the Republican voting base. Isn't it shortsighted to fail to support them? What is the problem with a hardworkng adult earning a union wage anyway? Why does the Republican mindset, legion in Indiana as well as the Michigan congress, resist the idea of paying people a professional wage? Don't the construction managers and civil engineers on the project earn professional wages? It has always seemed odd that Republicans don't embrace the union sector of the electorate, accusing them of supporting Democratic candidates, however wouldn't any union pivot to actively donate campaign funds to any party that worked on its behalf? The Republicans always embraced white collar management and owners over workers, which reeks of economic discrimination. And yet won't the votes of those striking workers be ones Trump may be counting on come Nov. 2020? (Provided he hasn't been impeached and removed from office by then.)

middle of the mit
Sat, 10/26/2019 - 11:30pm

[[Why does the Republican mindset, legion in Indiana as well as the Michigan congress, resist the idea of paying people a professional wage?]]

I am still unsure why the workers and voter do, but I know what republicans tell them, and I still don't know why they vote that way. They literally tell them if they don't provide increased value or knowledge, they are not worthy of raises, yet you only grow in knowledge and productivity the longer you are in that field.

I am at a loss for why. I used to believe like they did, that if you provided more value, you would get ahead. Guess what? Stagnation sucks.

Let us brand them the way they branded Jimmy Carter.

Here! I think I've got it!

If tax cuts make a better USA, why are we forced into austerity?

sl
Fri, 10/25/2019 - 3:16pm

Did anyone else notice that the OPERATING ENGINEERS use electrician's tape to hold their structure together?

middle of the mit
Sat, 10/26/2019 - 11:38pm

Maybe because it is easier to remove than duct tape?

Good eye though!!

You would think that engineers could find a better way. Maybe they are taking austerity seriously. I wonder if they will take austerity seriously enough that they will apply it to their wages? Ya think?

Naw!