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Operating Engineers strike paralyzes Chicago-area construction projects; negotiations to resume July 7

A six-day strike by construction workers represented by the International Union of Operating Engineers, which has paralyzed construction projects across the Chicagoland region, could end soon pending the outcome of negotiations between the union and groups representing employers on a contract to replace an agreement that expired on May 31. The strike, which has affected roughly 8,500 members of the Operating Engineers, came at the conclusion of a 30-day cooling off period. The union had been in talks with the Mid-America Regional Bargaining Association (MARBA) and Excavators, Inc, meeting three times a week with the employer groups since June 1 in an effort to reach an agreement.

According to the union, the employer groups walked out of negotiations on Monday, June 28, saying they would be unable to meet again until July 7. “We made ourselves available 24 hours a day, and the employers only agreed to meet four times in the entire month,” said James M. Sweeney, Local 150’s president and business manager. “The livelihoods of thousands of working men and women depend on these negotiations, and while we have made ourselves available, the employers are running out the back door of meetings.”

At issue are wages and health care benefits—terms on which the union claims to have compromised as much as possible. According to Sweeney, the union asking for a 15 percent wage increase only as a way to offset spiraling healthcare costs. “[W]ith healthcare inflation estimated at 10-12 percent annually over the next three years, we have costs that need to be covered,” Sweeney said. He claims Local 150 will use its reserves to cover an approximate $150 million healthcare shortfall, which he claims has been caused by a reduction in hours worked. Workers who averaged 1,600 hours annually several years ago have seen their yearly hours sink to an average of 1,000 per year, resulting in reduced contributions to the funds. The healthcare and pension funds are administered jointly by labor and management, and Sweeney says the employers “have responsibility as we do to ensure that these funds are stable.” According to the Chicago Tribune, the employers are offering a 3.25 percent increase over three years.

The strike is affecting work on various expressways, schools and other institutions across the region.