Detroit News: Marick Masters on end of Michigan road building contract

A trade association's contract with 14,000 unionized road builders expires Friday with no talks scheduled, raising the prospect of a work stoppage at the peak of Michigan's busy summer construction season. Representatives of both the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association and Operating Engineers Local 324 say expiration of their deal won't trigger an immediate shutdown. But failure to reach a new deal eventually could bring all work to a "screeching halt," said MITA Executive Vice President Mike Nystrom. "They've refused to meet. Period. We're baffled by the strategy. We have never encountered it."

Marick Masters, director of Labor@Wayne for Wayne State University, said the union might be taking a "whipsaw" approach to negotiations, going after a few employers in the multi-employer bargaining group. "You would pick where you get the best deal, negotiate that first and use that as the model that you expect the other companies to live up to," he said. "That's what they might try and do in this particular case."

Masters said there's been a tendency in recent years to move away from broad-based deals in favor of individualized agreements among some groups, including in the automotive and airline industries. This approach, he added, could be subject to litigation over who has the right to bargain. Many larger groups wouldn't be willing to negotiate directly with the union since they have empowered MITA for those dealings. 

"I'm not certain that all of these companies would all of the sudden unilaterally take up these obligations themselves," he said. The timing, which poses a risk to upcoming road projects, could also be a bargaining tactic, Masters said. "The union may be using this to its advantage in saying that the construction season is opening up, there’s going to be lots of new work that has been funded by the Legislature and obviously, you are not going to want to take a strike, so you are going to want to strike a better deal with us," he said.

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