Jane Byrne interchange, other Chicago-area road work disrupted as operating engineers strike drags on

The strike also delays road resurfacing around Chicago and projects including the Interstate 55 and Weber Road interchange and the Interstate 80 bridge in Joliet.

A strike, now almost a month old, against three construction material producers is snagging road projects in the Chicago area and could force some to be canceled.

Local 150 of the International Union of Operating Engineers has been on strike since June 7 against companies the union said to operate 35 quarries and other locations across Northern Illinois.

Lehigh Hanson, Vulcan Materials, and Lafarge Holcim produce sand, gravel, and crushed stone for asphalt and concrete. About 300 workers are involved in the walkout.

Ed Maher, communications director for Local 150, said asphalt has become nearly impossible for road crews to get and that problems with concrete supplies are growing. He said the companies have agreed to no talks since a brief session Wednesday.

“We have made ourselves available every day,” Maher said. “We recognize the impact this strike has on the construction industry, and that’s why we want to bargain and get this settled.”

The companies negotiate as members of the Chicago Area Aggregate Producers Association. A spokesperson for the group said Monday that bargaining will resume Wednesday and that the companies have negotiated in good faith.

Omer Osman, secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation, urged the three companies in a letter Thursday to settle the strike.

Osman said the strike is lengthening projects such as the Jane Byrne Interchange downtown, the Interstate 55 and Weber Road interchange, and the Interstate 80 bridge in Joliet. Numerous resurfacing projects in the Chicago area also are affected, he said.

“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.

He said contracts approved in June might need to be suspended and that those scheduled in July could be deferred.

The companies released a response letter to Osman on Monday, saying they could not get Local 150 to the bargaining table for weeks and that the union called a strike without presenting a wage proposal.

Maria Castaneda, an IDOT spokesperson, said some road crews have made do by changing schedules and working through stockpiles but that the problems are compounding. Castaneda said most of the agency’s roadwork is affected, though some projects in Northern Illinois use material from Indiana and Wisconsin.

Erica Schroeder of the city of Chicago Department of Transportation said that agency has “been able to work through stockpiles, but every day the strike gets more detrimental.”

Local 150 member Jamal Chester said his employer in McCook, Vulcan, has used supervisors to try to handle some equipment and that the other two companies have tried strikebreakers. He said the companies have been slow to negotiate.

“I guess they really didn’t think we would stand by our word,” Chester said.

Maher said disputed matters that need to be settled include wages, benefits, and grievance procedures. The companies said through a spokesperson that grievances procedures have been settled. The union has filed several complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the companies of unfair labor practices, while the employers have accused the union of bad-faith bargaining.

He said leaders of Local 150 have been frustrated that the companies’ negotiators apparently lack decision-making authority. Two of the three companies are based overseas, according to their websites.

Maher said the union was grateful that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, voiced his support for the strike Friday.

“These billion-dollar companies have seen SKYROCKETING profits,” Sanders tweeted. “YES — they can afford to treat workers with respect and to bargain in good faith.”