06/16/11 A strike by International Operating Engineers Local 150 has spread across northern Indiana to include road, highway and bridge construction projects.
The local ramifications spread just as wide as area cities and towns grapple with halted road projects.
Gary officials voiced concern Wednesday that the work stoppage on the County Line Road bridge in Miller could impact the popular July 15-17 Gary South Shore Air Show.
Traffic has been reduced to one lane on the bridge by West Beach owned by the federal government.
“It’s a very precarious situation,” said Gary planning director Christopher Meyers on the stoppage.
The work is almost done on the bridge project, according the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore officials, but the strike began before the final asphalt pouring.
If the strike continues and the County Line Bridge isn’t completed, city officials might have to funnel traffic down Lake Street to the air show.
Work has also stopped on the Regional Development Authority-funded $28.3 million Marquette Park renovation, also in Miller.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Four County Contractors Group, which represents 24 construction companies across the area, said Local 150 is not telling the full story.
The contract for the heavy machine operators expired April 15.
“It’s about economics,” said Keith Rose, president of Gary-based Reith-Riley Construction and a spokesman for the FCCG. “(Local 150) has represented in the media that this is about health care costs, but they’re asking for more than double the increase in health care costs.”
Local 150 members authorized a strike against the FCCG, which stopped all work on major building projects in northern Indiana. They expanded the scope to include the road projects.
IUOE spokesman Ed Maher acknowledged the union has focused on health care costs, which, he claimed are rising 10 percent to 14 percent annually. He said other issues include pension and training costs.
“Health care is, by far, the largest concern, but these are big, complex agreements, and there are other issues,” he said. “We run our own health insurance program, so we’ve seen the bills, and we know where the costs are.”
The contractors offered hourly increases of $1.15 for 2011 and $1.20 next year, while the union sought an extra $2.35 an hour and $2.45 an hour for 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Health care costs would actually cost about $1 an hour more, Rose said.
Rose also said the current wage for Local 150 workers costs the companies $61.15 an hour, with $39.20 of that as a base wage. The next closest hourly rate is for operating engineers is $46.10, he said.
Maher disputes the numbers but the contractors say Local 150’s cost for health and welfare is $10 an hour, an average of $6.64 an hour more than other unions.
Maher criticized the contractors for taking such details to area media.
“Unlike the employers, I don’t think negotiating in the media is an effective strategy,” he said. “Our proposals are not out of line, and I’d be interested to see where they get their numbers.”