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December 4, 2009

Low wages, union hate sustain nonstop war on workers

Full course renovation of Brody Hall in the works

Steep drop in 2009 for U.S. construction, but hopeful signs sprout

What is ‘cap and trade’ anyway?

Face of the U.S. labor movement is changing, report says

Volunteers provide new home, new start for injured veteran

News Brief


Low wages, union hate sustain nonstop war on workers

By Sean McGarvey
AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department

If I asked you to name the longest running war in our nation’s history, what would you say? The Vietnam War? The dual conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Well, from my perspective I would say that the United States’ longest running war has been one waged against American workers. Granted, it is not necessarily a bloody conflict like traditional military wars. But, it is a war nonetheless, and it has produced unspeakable casualties and destruction all across our great nation… simply because American workers have had the audacity to seek decent wages, health and retirement benefits, and safe work conditions. In other words, we have endured a Hundred Year War because of a simple demand by American workers for security and peace of mind.

In more recent times, we are witnessing an intensified war of attrition that businesses are quietly waging on workers. This modern offensive is centered upon a deeper unraveling of jobs and job security, thanks to a globalized economy in which relentlessly hard-pressed American workers are increasingly pitted against cheaper labor pools in Latin America, South Asia, China, and even the American South.

In today’s America, the story is all too familiar by now. A large corporation announces its grandiose plans to locate a new manufacturing facility somewhere in the United States. State governments scramble to put together lavish packages of tax incentives, land transfers, relocation expense credits, and other goodies to entice the company to locate in their state. A bidding war ensues, and the ending is, sadly, always the same. The company invariably selects a location that offers the most generous package of incentives, coupled with a business climate designed to ensure a compliant, low-wage workforce.

The recent examples of Volkswagen and Boeing illustrate this disturbing trend.

A few years ago, Volkswagen was at the center of an intense courtship being mounted by many states who were swooning over Volkswagen’s plans to construct a $1 billion manufacturing facility here in the United States. In the end, they selected the state of Tennessee – where Governor Phil Bredesen and his economic development advisors put together a $600 million package of taxpayer money and resources. This stunning amount was almost $200 million higher than any other state. And the most outrageous component to the package offered up by Governor Bredesen was the intentional omission of any type of “local hire” mandate that would have forced Volkswagen to utilize local contractors and local workers.

This omission is even more egregious when placed in contrast to the fact that Tennessee has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

With an agreement in hand, and in quick order, it became abundantly clear that Volkswagen’s move to America would not be accompanied by an adherence to its own formal company policy espoused through its Declaration on Social Rights and Industrial Relationships at Volkswagen. This declaration “represents the basis of Volkswagen Corporate Policy.” The document goes on to declare that VW acknowledges the basic right of its employees to establish and join unions, and it even goes so far as to encourage partnerships with contractors who share this view.

Apparently for Volkswagen, that progressive policy stance only applied to its operations outside of America. Because when they arrived on our shores, they immediately picked up arms and joined the on-going war on American workers.

This became abundantly clear when the Building and Construction Trades Department approached the company to discuss the inherent benefits of constructing this plant under a project labor agreement. Our suggestion was quickly and summarily dismissed.

Now, as construction of this facility commences outside of Chattanooga, a troubling picture is starting to emerge. Contracts are being awarded to out-of-state contractors who are utilizing out-of-state workers, as well as workers from other countries. One such contractor has incurred so many reportable safety incidents that it has been temporarily suspended from the jobsite.

It’s just another sad chapter in this long-running saga.

And, unfortunately, still another chapter is being written. This week Boeing announced that it is forgoing its workforce in Everett, Washington in order to shift production of its 787 jetliner to the promised land of South Carolina. Gary Chaison, a labor expert at Clark University, summed it up succinctly when he told The Washington Post, “This is the escape from collective bargaining.”

What’s worse, is the fact that Boeing and officials from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers had been involved in negotiations to put the second 787 assembly line in Washington state…at the same time that they were secretly meeting with South Carolina officials on a $170 million deal to bring that project to the Palmetto State.

Why South Carolina? Maybe it’s the fact that the state has the 9th highest number of families living below the federal poverty line (12%), or it could be the fact that South Carolina ranks 41st out of 50 states in family income ($8,000 less than the national median income).

The actions of both Volkswagen and Boeing speak volumes. Who needs union busters, patrolling shop-stewards, or legions of high-paid lawyers fighting wage and hours claims when we have a nation of governors and other politicians who are willing to prostitute the workers of their states?

Additionally, an examination of the corporate opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act offers a glimpse of how the war on American workers continues, and how persistently companies seek to disadvantage their workers. EFCA would allow workers to form a union when a majority of them sign union cards in a given workplace. "Card check," as it is frequently called, enables them to organize unions without the need for an election. In a column surveying the business elite's response to the Act, Wall Street Journal op-ed columnist Thomas Frank wrote: “Card check is about power. Management has it, workers don't, and business doesn't want that to change.”

In Frank's estimation, the current struggle over EFCA is the latest incarnation of a constantly evolving struggle between workers and employers. For the under- or unemployed seeking jobs all across this nation, the current recession isn't a time-out from the normal struggle, it's more like a new open season for corporate attacks on them.

The nation finally has a Democratic Congress and a President who is on record as supporting the Employee Free Choice Act, which would attempt to level the playing field between workers and employers. However, the nation’s executives are not going to give up without a fight. Recipients of federal bailout money got together last fall to plot how they would use those funds for a political attack on the Employee Free Choice Act.

Actually two wars are going on, and only one of them seems to have caught the attention of the press. The headlines about the first war read: Desperate Companies Forced to Cut Jobs. But for American workers, they seem to be experiencing a second war in which businesses – such as Volkswagen and Boeing – are using bad economic times to act in ways they couldn't in the best of times.


Full course renovation of Brody Hall in the works

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

EAST LANSING – A lot of meals move through Michigan State University’s Brody Hall, which at one time was said to provide the largest non-military food service in the nation.

Over the years, no doubt the menu was updated to reflect changing tastes, but the interior and exterior of the building that houses the Brody cafeteria looked pretty much like it was built in the mid-1950s.

“It was an old, tired building,” said Robert McCurdy, planner/inspector/analyst for MSU’s Construction, Maintenance and Interior Design Department. That’s all going to change by 2011, when construction manager Clark Construction and the building trades will finish a complete renovation and expansion of the hall. Brody Hall itself doesn’t house students, but the building’s most important function is to serve as the main food service hub for six nearby residence halls housing 2,400 students.

“Things are going well, there’s good cooperation among the tradespeople and the contractors,” said Clark’s Senior Project Manager Jim Venton. “Everyone is working well together.”

Located on Harrison Road, the 126,000-square-foot, two-story Brody Hall will be expanded by 27,000 square feet. Planning began about two years ago for the renovation. Classrooms were closed in the building last January, and asbestos abatement work began in March, followed by construction.

Complicating the renovation is the need for the food service to remain operational throughout the construction process in a temporary cafeteria set-up on the first floor. The plan calls for the second floor to be renovated first, and 80-100 tradespeople are in the process of creating a food service space that’s sure to be a vast improvement over the past cafeteria experience.

The new 1,000-seat dining area will be set-up with various nearby “venues,” McCurdy said, serving items like pasta, grilled food, salads, sushi, pizza/subs, vegan, ethnic and homestyle meals. All those choices mean numerous food preparation and serving stations need to be constructed. “There’s lot’s of plumbing and electrical on this floor,” McCurdy said. “And the ventilation system is going to be high-tech, with the system constantly being monitored for temperature, CO2 and exhaust. It will know when to exhaust when needed and when to bring in fresh air when needed.”

Virtually all major mechanical, electrical and ventilation will be replaced during this renovation, and MSU is seeking LEED certification for the building’s numerous green building features. As part of that process, McCurdy said more than 90 percent of the construction materials removed during the renovation will be recycled. Easing the handling and recycling of waste materials will also be integrated into the design of the new building.

The building itself is being totally reconfigured during the $49.8 million renovation. A new grand entrance that will allow plenty of sunlight is being erected on the building’s south side. The view of the main entrance of the building is currently dominated by a temporary bathroom trailer (necessary since the interior public restrooms are out of commission) and temporary heating units keep diners and food service staff comfortable. Loading docks will also be moved.

The first floor of Brody Hall will be devoted to classroom, computer instruction and administrative space. MSU found temporary room for those operations in other buildings.

Bruce Haskell, associate director for MSU Dining Services, told State News:  “The main Brody building is a huge space. We want to create an entry point to campus that makes a statement. We’re going to build a new, unique, dynamic and interactive gathering space to try and bring MSU up to where we need to be.”

NEARLY UNTOUCHED since the mid-1950s, Brody Hall on the campus of Michigan State University is getting a wholesale makeover. The building’s primary function is to provide 18-hour-a-day food service to MSU students and staff. Shown here is the framework for the new grand entrance.

ELECTRICIAN Steve Karkau of IBEW Local 665 sets conduit in Brody Hall’s mechanical area. He’s employed by Superior Electric.


Steep drop in 2009 for U.S. construction, but hopeful signs sprout

The value of new U.S. construction starts climbed 12% in October to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $447.6 billion, it was reported by McGraw-Hill Construction. However, through the first ten months of 2009, total construction was down 29% from the same period a year ago.

The upward push came from double-digit gains for nonresidential building and non-building construction (public works and electric utilities). At the same time, residential building in October was unchanged from its September pace.

“After bottoming out in early 2009, there’s been an up-and-down pattern for construction starts, with a gradual upward trend beginning to emerge,” said Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction. “Single family housing is no longer pulling down the overall level of construction activity, and transportation-related public works has strengthened, helped by the federal stimulus funding.”

Meanwhile, the federal government last month reported that 1.6 million construction workers lost their jobs since December 2007. The result: construction unemployment in the U.S. last month was 18.7 percent. The Associated General Contractors reported that over the past year only one state – North Dakota – saw an increase in construction employment, gaining 400 total jobs.

“A shockingly large portion of the construction industry’s workforce has simply evaporated,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the AGC. He added that the 18.7 percent jobless rate was the highest of any sector in October and the industry accounted for one-fifth of all job losses in the past year, even though construction only employs one out of 20 workers.

“The nation's economic troubles are forcing construction workers to shoulder a withering burden,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, AGC's CEO.

Curiously, Michigan actually led the nation in month to month construction employment gains from September 2009 to October 2009, rising 4.6 percent with a gain of 5,400 jobs. If that’s a trend, it’s most welcome, because from October 2008 (when Michigan employed 149,600 in construction) to October 2009, Michigan lost 26,300 jobs. That ranks our state #42 in construction jobs lost during that one-year period.

According to the AGC, the five biggest percentage losses in construction employment over the year through October occurred in Nevada (26.9 percent, or 30,200 jobs), Arizona (24.2 percent, or 42,600 jobs), Tennessee (22.3 percent, or 29,300 jobs), Kentucky (20.8 percent, or 17,600 jobs) and Connecticut (19.3 percent or 12,500 jobs).

Murray said for nonresidential building, much of 2009 “has been characterized by a steep loss of momentum,” so October’s gain suggests that nonresidential building is “beginning to make the transition from steady decline to a more varied pattern,

which signifies the trend is shifting to a slower rate of descent going into 2010.”

On a cautionary note, however, Murray said the nonresidential building market is still looking at several major constraints going forward – rising vacancies, tight bank lending standards, and the weakened fiscal health of state and local governments.

The federal stimulus money is helping somewhat: through the first ten months of 2009, spending on highways and bridges was up 6% to 7% respectively. “Highway and bridge construction began to show the benefits from the federal stimulus funding in late spring,” Murray said, “while the benefits to other construction project types are only now beginning to emerge.”

Sandherr added, “helpful as the stimulus has been in saving some construction jobs, it is going to take more work to halt the devastating job losses that are wiping out millions of construction workers' families.”


What is ‘cap and trade’ anyway?

President Barack Obama is following on a campaign promise to impose caps on the emissions of greenhouse gases from primarily coal-burning power plants. He proposes reducing U.S. emissions 14% below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83% below by 2050. To do so, his plan is to auction off the rights for power plants to emit carbon.

In theory, the cap on emissions will increase the price of fossil-fuel-based energy, and prompt utilities to trade their methods of power production to greener alternatives, like more efficient coal-burners, or wind, solar and even nuclear power.

“The bullets are already flying,” Business Week wrote earlier this year, “but mainly over details of the plan, not the general idea. While there are still fierce opponents of emissions limits, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, much of business is supportive.”

Boilermakers, other unions support climate controls, but warn of jobs threat.

WASHINGTON (PAI) – In a position reiterated by much of organized labor, the Boilermakers told Congress the nation’s unions strongly back the cap-and-trade climate control bill – designed to cut carbon emissions that threaten the environment – but that the legislation must include measures to prevent threats to U.S. jobs.

Testifying in early November to the Senate Finance Committee, which is writing the tax provisions of the climate control cap-and-trade bill, Boilermakers Legislative Director Abraham Breehey said the best ways to cut carbon emissions while putting the maximum number of U.S. workers to work involve building and manning nuclear power plants, followed by “clean coal” technology via “carbon-capture” coal plants. 

Breehey cited a study showing a nuclear plant would create more than 14,000 person-years of work per gigawatt of electricity produced, in construction and later plant operations.  The study from the National Commission on Energy Policy, which included environmental groups, industry, government, the IBEW, the AFL-CIO and the Mine Workers, added a clean-coal carbon plant would come in second, with just under 11,000 person-years of work per gigawatt.  Wind-powered plants trailed behind.

“It is not just jobs or ‘green jobs’ our union is interested in,” Breehey testified.  “Our members are interested in high-quality jobs that enable a clear path to the middle class and that support a family.”

To ensure the construction workers who get jobs building such plants benefit, Breehey advocated inserting a mandate into the cap-and-trade law saying any plants built with its federal funds must be built under rules of the Davis-Bacon Act, which gives prevailing local wages to construction workers.

But the bigger problem, Breehey said, is that without border controls, which would bar importation of “clean energy” technology made dirtily – in other words, in nations without environmental standards in its production – the U.S. would lose the lead in green technology’s production, and jobs with it.

The border controls issue promises to be one of the fights as the Senate considers the cap-and-trade bill, which has now been pushed back to next year. 

Jobs are another issue in the bill.  A group of at least 10 Midwestern Democratic senators, led by Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is making the same point that “green production” jobs must stay here at home –  without incentives to export them abroad, especially to cheap-labor no-standard nations.  That’s linked to the border controls, since lack of controls would have the same impact as the job exports.

“Climate policy must not undermine the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers in the global marketplace,” Breehey warned.  “Industries such as steel, cement and chemicals are more sensitive to cost increases” – such as those needed to retrofit plants to capture carbon and cut global warming – than other sectors of the economy.

The senators who sent their warning about the bill added that without protections for U.S. workers, it would lose their votes, and sink.  The bill is a major cause of the Democratic Obama administration.  Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a longtime leader on the issue, is trying to construct a bipartisan coalition for the cap-and-trade bill, by offering the Republicans more support for nuclear power development and offshore oil drilling, in return for their agreement on emissions controls and cap-and-trade.

Face of the U.S. labor movement is changing, report says

The typical union member looks a lot different than he did 25 years ago. And increasingly, it’s a good chance that “he” is a “she.”

“The view that the typical union worker is a white male manufacturing worker may have been correct a quarter of a century ago, but it's not an accurate description of those in today's labor movement,” said John Schmitt, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) and an author of the report.

Released Nov. 10, The Changing Face of Labor 1983-2008 analyzes trends in the union workforce over the last quarter century and finds that it is more diverse today than just 25 years ago. These trends in the composition of the unionized workforce, in part, reflect similar shifts in the workforce as a whole.

"The unionized workforce is changing with the country," Schmitt continued. "The fastest growing groups in the overall economy are also the fastest growing groups in the labor movement."

The findings of the report reveal this and other shifts in union composition. Among them:
  • Women now make up over 45 percent of unionized workers, up from just 35 percent in 1983. By 2020, women will be the majority of union workers.
  • Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in the labor movement. In 2008, they represented 12.2 percent of the union workforce, up from 5.8 percent in 1983.
  • Asians have seen considerable gains and made up 4.6 percent of the union workforce in 2008, an increase from 2.5 percent in 1989.
  • Black workers were about 13 percent of the total unionized workforce, a share that has held fairly steady since 1983, despite a large decline in the representation of whites over the same period.
  • Over one-third of union workers had a four-year college degree or more, up from only one-in-five in 1983. Almost half of union women had at least a four-year college degree.
  • Only about one-in-ten unionized workers was in manufacturing, down from almost 30 percent in 1983.
  • Just under half (48.9 percent) of unionized workers were in the public sector, up from just over one-third (34.4 percent) in 1983. About 61 percent of unionized women are in the public sector.
  • The typical union worker was 45 years old, or about 7 years older than in 1983. (The typical employee, regardless of union status, was 41 years old, also about 7 years older than in 1983.)
  • More educated workers were more likely to be unionized than less educated workers, a reversal from 25 years ago.
  • Immigrants made up 12.6 percent of union workers in 2008, up from 8.4 percent in 1994.
  • In rough terms, five-in-ten union workers were in the public sector; one of every ten was in manufacturing; and the remaining four of ten were in the private sector outside of manufacturing.


Volunteers provide new home, new start for injured veteran

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

MACOMB TWP. – Union masons in Southeast Michigan are among scores of tradespeople, contractors and well-wishers helping to build a new home for an Army veteran who lost both his legs above the knees during an explosion last year in Iraq.

Brick and tile masons from Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1 volunteered their time and talents last month to clad a ranch home and install interior tile on what will be the new home for Army Spc. David “Alex” Knapp.

The construction of the home is sponsored by “Homes For Our Troops” – a nationwide group that arranges donations of materials, equipment and time from local contractors and skilled and unskilled volunteers to build homes for severely injured veterans. The group, established in 2004, coordinates “the process of building a home that provides maximum freedom of movement and the ability to live more independently.”

The entire effort has been led general contractor Sam J. Palazzolo of Palazzolo Brothers Custom Homes and Vito Pampalona of Vito Anthony Homes and Building Co. The effort to build the home for Knapp on Downing Street has gathered momentum over the past year, culminating in the Oct. 30 weekend “Build Brigade” effort, that brought some 80 volunteers to frame the house and a put a roof overhead.

In subsequent weeks, bricklayers did their work on the exterior, and interior rough plumbing, electrical and other work has been going on. cement masons pour the basement, garage and driveway.

Tom Ward, an out-of-work Local 1 bricklayer, has led the effort in his trade to get masonry materials and volunteers lined up to brick the house. Last spring, he heard from a television report that  “Homes for Our Troops” was about to build a house in Southeast Michigan, so he called Local 1 Business Manager Mark King, who agreed that it would be a very good thing for Local 1 masons to help build the home.

“For me this is something positive we can do for a severely injured vet,” Ward said. “I didn’t serve (in the military) but this is my way of helping someone who did.” About 14 bricklayers worked the week of Nov. 9 to lay brick at the house, and a crew of tile masons came to the house last week, too. One of the bricklayers was journeyman Norm Stites. “This guy deserves it,” he said.

People and companies who volunteered to help the building effort are too numerous to mention here. But for the masonry, Mason Pro, Belden Brick, Wolverine Contracting, Thyssen Krupp, Safeway, Masonry Developers, Ram Construction Services, Chezcore and Monte Costella all contributed.

For the tile masons, contributing contractors/suppliers included Artisan Tile, Eldorado Tile, Virginia Tile and Genesee Tile.

“Anything we’ve needed, equipment, materials, has been no problem to get,” Ward said, adding that Kevin Ryan of the Mason Contractors Association has been a big help in getting the masons what they’ve needed.

Contractors in other crafts have also donated people and materials. Laborers Local 1076 members have helped clean the site. Ward said an investment banker and a real estate agent appeared at the site one day and asked “how can we help?”

“There has been an outpouring of support for a very good cause,” said Tom Saracino of Vito Anthony Homes. “Alex has been overwhelmed. It’s a great thing that has brought people together. It’s just a great group of guys here.”

Knapp’s new home will have wide doorways, lower windows and countertops, wheelchair- accessible bathrooms and an elevator to the basement. To date more than 30 such homes are being constructed around the nation. For more information go to www.homesforourtroops.org.

Knapp lost his legs in March 2008 when an explosive device blew up near the vehicle he was 20 miles south of Baghdad. He spent 18 months rehabilitating at Walter Reed Hospital. Now he’s back home in Michigan with his parents, who live in a quad-level home, which is not handicapped accessible. He has to struggle up stairs just to get into their home. His wheel chair doesn’t fit in his room, and he drags himself on his butt into the bathroom to use the toilet and shower.

“It’s exhausting,” Knapp said. “The fact that it’s going to be a single level house is just going to make everything so much easier for my future. Being able to move anywhere, do laundry on the same level, maneuver in the shower, not needing to wear prosthetics. 

“Homes For Our Troops is going to be able to give me a new start.”

“HOMES FOR OUR TROOPS” relies on numerous volunteers – and in this case, several from BAC Local 1 – to construct homes for injured veterans.


News Brief

Union leaders sneer at tax on benefits

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Union leaders praised Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for crafting a comprehensive 10-year $849 billion health care revision bill but blasted his inclusion of a tax on workers’ health insurance to help pay for it.

In statements, AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, the Steelworkers and Teamsters President James Hoffa all struck that theme. Hoffa came the closest to a position – which Trumka stated before – that if the tax survives, labor would walk away from health care reform legislation.

Reid unveiled the bill on Nov. 18. The legislation includes some sections that unions strongly support, notably a “public option:” The government-run company to compete with the private insurers, cover millions of the uninsured and help curb rising health care costs.

But Reid also kept the tax on so-called “Cadillac” plans – those worth more than $8,500 to an individual and $23,000 to a family – to help pay for health care. And union leaders responded that workers, union and nonunion, would get hit and hurt by that tax.

Reid’s bill “moves us closer to the historic goal of health care for America – high quality, affordable health care for all,” Trumka said. It “takes the strongest steps yet to bring down costs. But the bill is not perfect,” because of the tax on workers health insurance, Trumka declared. The bill also doesn’t order employers to offer insurance.

“A tax on working families’ benefits is the wrong way to finance health care and we will work hard to eliminate this provision” he added.

Trumka made clear that labor prefers the House-passed version of health care, which has both a strong public option and no tax on workers’ health care. The House bill taxes millionaires, instead. Reid’s plan also has a smaller tax on millionaires – a surcharge on their Medicare tax payments – which Trumka praised.

Hoffa was more direct about what would happen if the tax on workers’ health insurance survives the rest of the way. “This provision is really a massive tax increase on the middle class. It is naive to think that insurers won’t pass this tax directly on to workers,” he said. “This tax will fall on one-third of Americans in 10 years. We’re pleased the Senate is moving forward on health insurance reform we so desperately need, but not at the expense of middle-class wage earners.”


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