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HEAVY-EQUIPMENT OPERATORS CALL STRIKE AGAINST CONTRACTORS

Striking heavy-equipment operators and their Buffalo-area employers are far apart, a union official said Monday, raising the odds that the work stoppage could delay highway projects this summer.

"It could slow things down on the road and bridge rebuilding in Western New York," said Mark Kirsch, business manager of the Operating Engineers Local 17 in Hamburg.

The union called a strike over the weekend against a group of 21 employers, the Associated General Contractors/Labor Relations Division, rejecting a contract proposal with no raises.

Local 17 members run backhoes, cranes, bulldozers and other equipment in six Western New York counties. About 300 of its 1,000 members work at the associated contractor group, whose contract expired March 31.

The major sticking point involves "nonproductive work rules," said A.J. Castelbuono, chairman of the Associated Contractors' negotiating committee. Castelbuono, president of the AGC's New York chapter in Albany, said he expected to be in Buffalo for meetings with member companies today.

Kirsch called the Associated Contractors' proposal "a slap in the face" designed to provoke a showdown with the union. The employers' final offer included zero raises over three years and rescinded all six paid holidays provided in previous contracts, he said.

Castelbuono said he didn't think that holidays were an issue but declined to comment further about the negotiations.

Some pickets were outside eight contractors' offices on Monday, Kirsch said. If the strike continues into the construction season, union members will picket construction projects, likely halting work as other unions honor the lines. Unionized builders handle the bulk of highway project work, which pays state-mandated wages.

Among the construction sites where Associated General Contractors members perform work are Main Street in Buffalo, Union Road in Cheektowaga and Interstate 86 in the Southern Tier, Kirsch said. The companies in the group perform paving and concrete work, drilling, drainage, landscaping and other tasks.

Zero raises would mean cuts in take-home pay for operating engineers, who pay deductions for their health care and pension funds, Kirsch said. The previous contract included raises of about 3 percent a year, he said.

The average wage for a Local 17 skilled equipment operator is $28 an hour, Kirsch said. Annually, the seasonal work pays members of the union an average of $31,000, he said, including apprentices who make less than top rates.

Local 17 represents workers on projects in Erie, Orleans, Wyoming, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties and the western portion of Genesee County.

Talks are continuing with two other employer groups who represent independent contractors and utility contractors, Kirsch said. Although those contracts have also expired, he characterized the proposals as closer to agreement.

Laborers Local 210 in Buffalo, another major construction union, has contracts with employers that expire April 30, industry sources said. Local 210 officials couldn't be reached for comment.

Contractors are preparing for the beginning of the highway project season. In a series of contracts let on March 17, the state Transportation Department awarded $18.8 million for projects in Erie County, including widening of Route 20 in Hamburg, bridge replacements in Eden and Buffalo, and maintenance of the Kensington Expressway in Buffalo and Cheektowaga.

In 2002, Local 17 members struck the Associated Contractors group for a week after the expiration of the previous three-year contract.

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com