Illinois heavy machinery workers go on strike, slowing concrete flow

Dive Brief:

  • Construction projects in Chicago and beyond are facing delays a few weeks after 300 heavy equipment operators in Northern Illinois went on strike over alleged unfair business practices by three employers: Lehigh Hanson, Vulcan Materials and Lafarge Holcim. 
  • Members of Local 150 of the International Union of Operating Engineers ceased work June 7 at over 30 quarries and mines in Northern Illinois, halting the harvesting of aggregate materials like sand, gravel and crushed stone that are vital for concrete production. 
  • Consequently, the strike is now impacting not just operators, but many other union trades people in the Chicagoland area,” Dan Rosenberg, principal attorney at Chicago-based law firm Much Shelist, told Construction Dive. “For example, this is now [affecting] carpenters, masons, iron workers, laborers etc. that work on concrete crews because if there is no concrete, those folks will not be able to work.”

Dive Insight:

The union chapter alleges unfair business practices and bad faith bargaining by the three employers, which together collectively bargain as Chicago Area Aggregate Producers Association. The union claimed to initiate the strike not over pay nor benefits, but over alleged unfair labor practices.

The employers have not engaged “in a cooperative spirit” for the last two or three years, Ed Maher, communications director for Local 150, told Construction Dive. The union looks to resolve issues, specifically, surrounding COVID-19, Maher said. During the pandemic, he said employers changed the application of “time” and “time off,” contrary to the collective bargaining agreement with the union when it came to sick leave for COVID-19 or time off for testing. 

The union filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, and CAAPA denied the unfair labor charges.

“The unfair labor practice complaints have no merit,” Emily MacMillan, a spokesperson for CAAPA told Construction Dive. “They are moving through the Labor Board process and we will make our case at the appropriate time.”

CAAPA also alleged unfair labor practices by Local 150, saying they refused to meet for a new contract, ignoring requests until the contract expired on April 30. CAAPA said the union is “currently refusing to put a proposal on the table regarding wages and benefits,” but the union maintained the strike is not about those issues.

CAAPA also denied busing in replacement workers, which the union has alleged.

Ripple effects

Greater Chicago has already begun to feel the effect of the strike. As a result, the Local 150 strike will likely soon impact other tradesworkers in what Rosenberg says is a largely union-friendly city.

Despite the impact that the strike will undoubtedly have on construction workers and companies in the area, Rosenberg said that contractors and unions outside the strike will have little more than outside sway. With no seat at the table to represent construction’s interest, it will fall to Local 150 and CAAPA alone to resolve the issue.

Nevertheless, the union is aware of the ripple effects from its work stoppage.

“It’s not in our interest to delay the construction or delay projects like this,” Maher told Construction Dive. “We’re doing everything we can to work to a resolution here.”

Larger labor trend

The Chicago operator strike echoes that of the recent Seattle Teamsters’ concrete truck drivers, which halted the material’s flow to the region and delayed major infrastructure projects. That strike also involved about 300 workers. Lehigh Cement — one of the employers in Seattle — also falls under the same parent company as Lehigh Hanson: Heidelberg Cement.

The Teamsters strike ended April 8 without a new contract, and in that instance, the strike’s length was likely its undoing. Striking for a long period of time increases anxiety, and even with a union’s coffers full to support members while not working, eventually, that uneasiness can prevail.

As workers unionize at major employers like Starbucks and Amazon, it can seem like a time of organized labor reckoning in the U.S., after decades of decline in membership

Labor organizations look to take advantage of the change: Liz Shuler, newly elected president of the AFL-CIO, pledged to add 1 million new union members within the next decade. That’s a tall order, considering that 241,000 fewer American workers belonged to a union in 2021, compared to 2020.

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