Illinois heavy machine operator strike puts the brakes on roadwork

Dive Brief:

  • A Chicago-area heavy equipment operators’ strike, now a month long, has begun creating increasingly large speed bumps for roadwork and construction in the region.
  • Members of the International Union of Operating Engineers chapter Local 150 have been striking since June 7 against three major employers, who collectively bargain as the Chicago Area Aggregate Producers Association. Material harvesting for cement and asphalt production has stopped at 35 quarries in northern Illinois.
  • Significant projects already impacted by the lack of material include the Jane Byrne highway interchange reconstruction in the heart of Chicago, the Interstate 55 and Weber Road interchange, the Interstate 80 bridge in Joliet and various resurfacing projects throughout northeast Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Dive Insight:

When the strike began, contractors relied on material reserves to ensure work could continue, said Maria Castaneda, communications manager for IDOT.

“At first, our contractors had very little impact, because our contractors have stockpiles,” she said. “As the strike has continued and time has continued on, a lot of our contractors or a good majority of them have gotten to a point where their stockpiles have dwindled down.”

Castaneda added that work has dwindled as contractors cannot do major asphalt and concrete pours on road projects, forcing IDOT to get creative with how they manage the timing of projects. Some contractors have managed to secure materials from Wisconsin and Indiana, during a time when gas prices are at record levels.

Projects are losing precious time too, Castaneda said; the summer months are vital for construction in a city like Chicago, when the winter creates unpredictability and harsher conditions for all work.

In a letter to the CAAPA members — Vulcan Materials, Lafarge Holcim and Lehigh Hanson — IDOT Director Omer Osman urged the parties to come together and end the strike quickly.

“The timing of the work stoppage could not occur at a worse time, at the height of construction season and during peak driving season with an eager public ready to travel after two years of a pandemic,” Osman wrote.

The IDOT director added that the department reserved the right to find alternative mixes and materials to ensure continuity of the state’s projects.

CAAPA replied in a letter to Osman, claiming to do everything it could to bargain in good faith and encourage employees to return to work.

“We continue to meet with Local 150 to find common ground on a fair and equitable contract. Getting our employees back to work is our number one priority,” CAAPA said in a statement shared with Construction Dive.

Local 150 alleges unfair labor practices, claiming that the employers have not engaged “in a cooperative spirit” for about three years prior to the strike, largely surrounding COVID-19 policies. The union claimed to have filed several complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.

Representatives for Local 150 could not be reached for comment by time of publication.

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