Work stoppage by operating engineers union shut down construction sites in the Pioneer Valley Friday (with correction)

Last modified: Monday, October 07, 2013

Construction sites across the Pioneer Valley were shut down Friday by a strike by members of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 98, including on Easthampton’s Manhan Bridge, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and on Route 91 in Deerfield.

The dispute arises out of contract negotiations underway since spring, according to representatives from both sides. The existing contract expired at the end of June.

The strike involves about 100 Local 98 members in western Massachusetts at about 10 construction sites — and a union official said he expects the strike will continue beyond Friday, though he couldn’t say for how long.

Among the firms affected by the work stoppage are Northern Construction Service, which is handling Easthampton’s bridge project; Gagliarducci Construction; J.F. White Construction; Palmer Paving; and Warner Brothers Construction.

Eugene Melville Jr., president and business manager for Local 98, said the strike was called over a company proposal to reduce the number of entry-level positions known as “oilers” on cranes.

“For us, this is about employment opportunities for residents of western Massachusetts,” said Melville, whose union represents 1,300 heavy equipment operators and mechanics in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire Hampden and Worcester counties.

With construction work potentially expanding in the region due to proposed casinos, Melville said the union wants to preserve as many entry level spots as possible on big cranes.

“These are the places we bring in the females and the minorities,” he said. “Local 98 has had oilers in its contract forever and now they want to eliminate them.”

Peter Bennett, an attorney for the Labor Relations Division of the Construction Industries of Massachusetts, said companies are simply seeking the same number of oilers as provided for in collective bargaining agreements with other construction workers’ unions.

“We’re asking for something that’s equitable,” Bennett said. “We want a level playing field with other unions.”

He said Local 98 is also “demanding creation of a crane operators’ premium over the basic wage” that would add about $4 per hour to the average hourly wage of about $30 for union members.

Neither side was sure when they would return to the bargaining table.

“I know both sides will be hurt economically by this,” Bennett said.

Meville said union members “will continue this action until we have achieved our goals.”

At the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst, a handful of picketers showed up Friday at the Academic Classroom Building under construction on North Pleasant Street, said UMass spokesman Patrick Callahan.*

The picket meant some employees with private companies were not able to work.

“Four of the subcontracting firms refused to cross the picket line,” Callahan said.

Four Local 98 members picketed Friday morning near the turnoff for Amherst Regional High School on Triangle Street.

The workers all donned yellow reflective vests covered with a sign reading “On Strike Against Warner Brothers. No Contract, No Work.” Triangle Street was recently resurfaced by Warner Brothers.

The workers, who were waving to passing vehicles, referred questions to Local 98 headquarters in East Longmeadow.

In Easthampton, Police Chief Bruce McMahon said traffic officers who showed up for the Manhan Bridge detail around 7 a.m. were met by a handful of union members holding signs.

“We had no clue about this,” he said.

The bridge was unusually quiet, with construction vehicles sitting idle around 10 a.m. The picketers had left the site by then.

John Rahkonen, owner of Northern Construction, said work on the Easthampton span was ahead of schedule and due to be finished next month.

“Now, I don’t know where we’ll end up,” he said, in a phone interview Friday.

The strike also shut down Northern Construction’s projects on Route 2 in Gill and at UMass, Rahkonen said.

“Anything that’s a focal point, Local 98 has struck,” he said.

Michael Verseckes, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said the department was still looking into the work stoppage situation late Friday afternoon and did not have “a definitive answer” as to what it would mean for the Manhan Bridge project — or two others DOT is overseeing in the Pioneer Valley on Route 2 in Gill and I-91 in Deerfield.

A Warner Brothers project in Huntington was also part of Friday’s work stoppage.

State police from the Northampton and Russell barracks said there were no reports of problems caused by picketing at any of the sites involved in the strike.

Gazette staff writers Scott Merzbach and Debra Scherban contributed to this report.

* CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story provided incorrect information about where picketers were located on the University of Massachusetts campus.


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