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Strike halts work at over a dozen southeast Wisconsin construction sites

Crane and heavy machine operators seeking better pay after taking 'modest' wage gains in tough times, union president says

Operators strike
Members of of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 march on strike for better wages. The union has been on strike since Saturday, June 1, 2024. Photo courtesy of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139

Hundreds of crane and heavy machine operators are on strike in southeast Wisconsin, halting work at more than a dozen construction sites in the region. 

Roughly 800 members of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 went on strike last Saturday for better pay. That’s caused work stoppages at construction sites in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Racine, Kenosha, Washington and Ozaukee counties.

Some of the job sites where work came to a standstill include a parking garage near Froedtert Hospital, apartments on the east side of Milwaukee, the Milwaukee County Human Services building and a new recreation center at Marquette university, union officials said.

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“Much of the thanks goes to the other trade workers that are on these sites. They’re honoring our members’ picket,” said Terry McGowan, president and business manager for Local 139.

The union has been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the Allied Construction Employers Association and the Associated General Contractors of Milwaukee since April. The last contract expired on May 31. 

After about five negotiating sessions, both sides still couldn’t come to an agreement on wage increases, McGowan said. He said members rejected the company’s most recent offer and voted to go on strike. 

McGowan said membership has taken “modest” pay raises during hard times.

But he says the region is currently experiencing a construction boom and the workers feel they’re “entitled to a much better pay raise than what was offered” because they’ve been working long hours to keep up with demand. 

“An operator might start mid-morning (or) mid-afternoon, and work well into the night,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things that our operators face day in and day out.”

Members of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 march in Milwaukee. They’ve been on strike since Saturday, June 1, 2024. Photo courtesy of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139

Mike Ervin, organizing director for Local 139, said the workers aren’t backing down.

“The workers are basically letting the contractors know they mean business,” he said of the strike. “They’re out here, they’re on the streets and they’re gonna be here until they get a fair contract.”

Mark Kessenich, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of Milwaukee, said via email the contractors respect the workers rights to strike, but they are disappointed both sides haven’t been able to come to an agreement.

“We have a fair and very strong wage package on the table for consideration,” Kessenich said. “The union has exercised its right to strike and picket job sites and we will continue to meet with the union in good faith until we reach an agreement.”

So far, McGowan said the union hasn’t seen much willingness from the contractors to provide the requested wage increases. He declined to provide specifics on the union request, saying he didn’t want to negotiate through the media.

“Once the employees are out on the sidewalk, both sides get dug in,” he said. “It’s just going to be a matter of who’s hurting worse. Right now, our members are pretty dug in.”

The union and the contractors are scheduled to meet again for a negotiating session Monday morning.