News Story

Road Workers Oppose Strike, Bail On Union

‘The union is using us as pawns in a power play’

A strike by heavy equipment operators at one of Michigan’s largest road contractors has slowed work at the height of construction season on dozens of projects, most of them on the state’s west side.

And at least some of the workers ordered off the job think the strike is a colossal mistake. “The union is using us as pawns in a power play to get their way,” said one of the operators at Rieth-Riley, who resigned his union membership and returned to work early in the strike that commenced July 31.

“The union (Operating Engineers Local 324) has characterized Rieth-Riley as tyrants. That’s baloney,” said the operator, who declined to be identified publicly for fear of retaliation.

“The bottom line is that Rieth-Riley has gone above and beyond to take care of their employees. They’re the best employer I’ve ever worked for,” he said.

The equipment operator has been with Rieth-Riley and a member of the union for more than a decade. He said a majority of employees at the company opposed the strike but were not given an opportunity, at a union meeting July 25, to vote on it.

The union’s strike authorization against Rieth-Riley stems from a 2018 vote by members of the entire local, and it is targeted at virtually all of the state’s road contractors.

Rieth-Riley’s operators were told July 25 by union officials that no new vote specific to Rieth-Riley would be taken, he said.

That meant, he said, “essentially all of the east side of the state guys (who remain on the job) voted for me to go on strike.”

Local 324 officials claimed the strike targeting Rieth-Riley is the result of a failure to resolve several allegations, lodged in 2018, that the company engaged in unfair labor practices. Rieth-Riley is one of the two major road construction contractors in the state (Michigan Paving and Materials is the other) that have not agreed to a new contract with the union. In 2018 there was a standoff, which resulted in a September work stoppage when dozens of contractors deployed what they called a defensive lockout.

Rieth-Riley officials said they are abiding by essentially all of the provisions of the new contracts agreed to by the other companies. They went on to say that the company does not, however, abide by a requirement that it use only union subcontractors or agree to pay an extra $29 per hour into a union retirement fund for every hour worked by a nonunion member.

“This amounts to a $29.05 per hour taxpayer extortion fee as part of an effort to pad the union’s struggling pension fund,” Rieth-Riley said in a news release at the strike’s outset. Company attorney Chad Loney said the pension fund contribution is the “whole reason” the union called the strike.

Loney said the union pension fund contribution for nonunion members is completely unrealistic in the areas of the state (west and northern Michigan) where the company does most of its work. Many subcontractors in those areas are nonunion. The company estimates the requirement would add an additional $100 million a year to construction costs, with no benefit to taxpayers.

Local 324 officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The ex-union member at Rieth-Riley said the pension fund issue “isn’t a hill worth dying on.” He added, “There is no benefit to the (nonunion) subcontractor or their employees at all. I don’t see where it benefits anybody except the union.”