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July 17, 2009

Jobs ‘fell off a cliff’ – Report says slump is the worst in 80 years

Recession has ‘devastating impact’ on construction industry

‘A ton of pain in the pipeline’

New U-M data center is all about redundancy 

Franken signs on to first bill: Employee Free Choice Act

OSHA to clear the air on silica rule?

News Briefs


Jobs ‘fell off a cliff’ – Report says slump is the worst in 80 years

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Now it’s official, as far as the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute is concerned: The current U.S. economic slump “has become the longest and deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression.”

EPI director Larry Mishel and co-author Heidi Shierholz said in an analysis last month that as of May, the recession was in its 16th month, and June’s numbers made it 17. 

“This is the only recession since the Great Depression to wipe out all jobs growth from the previous business cycle, a testament both to the enormity of the current crisis and to the extreme weakness of jobs growth over the business cycle from 2000 to 2007,” the researchers wrote.

Some key findings by Mishel and Shierholz:

    * Unemployment “increased much more rapidly during this recession than in other post-war recessions.  The unemployment rate increased 4 percentage points in the first 16 months of the current recession, a far steeper increase than any of the previous recessions.  In particular, during the first 16 months of the deep recession of 1981-1982, the unemployment rate increased only 3.2 percentage points.”

    * The number of workers gainfully employed went down in this recession far more than it did in the prior 50 years.  “Total non-farm employment...decreased much more during this recession –  4.2% –  than in prior recessions.  In particular, during the first 15 months of the recession of 1981-1982, employment declined by only 2.9%.”  Employment “fell off a cliff” in the last eight months of the current crash.

    * “While the labor market shed 5.7 million jobs since the start of this recession in December 2007, in those 16 months, the population continued to grow.  Just to keep up with growth, the economy must add approximately 127,000 jobs every month.  Two million jobs should have been added over this period.  In other words, the economy is now almost 8 million jobs below what is needed to maintain pre-recession employment levels.”

    * “Underemployment is a more comprehensive measure of labor market slack that includes not just the unemployed, but also ‘involuntarily’ part-time workers and marginally attached workers (jobless workers who want a job but are not actively seeking work and are not counted as officially unemployed). 

The number of involuntarily part-time workers has nearly doubled since the start of this recession, from 4.6 million to 9 million. The underemployment rate increased from 8.7% to 15.8%, so that now 24.8 million people – one of every six workers – are either unemployed or underemployed.”


Recession has ‘devastating impact’ on construction industry

An economic bellwether and one of the hardest-hit industries during this recession, the construction industry is a very sick patient that isn’t getting better,

A federal jobs report issued July 2 found that U.S. construction unemployment dropped another 79,000 jobs in the month of June. Over the previous 12 months, 992,000 U.S. construction workers lost their jobs. While overall unemployment is 9.7 percent, the construction industry is experiencing 17.4 percent unemployment.

The jobs numbers, said Stephen Sandherr, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). “highlight the devastating impact current economic conditions are having on the construction industry. While there is little doubt that the stimulus has helped slow the decline, the fact remains the construction industry has many long, slow and difficult months ahead as the one trillion dollar construction market continues to suffer from declining state and local revenue, little demand for commercial or retail facilities and shrinking orders for new factories and facilities."

Five months into passage of the $787 billion federal stimulus package aimed at creating more jobs and providing a wider safety net for the jobless and the disadvantaged, the unemployment rate has actually increased, and many economists expect it will climb over 10 percent by the end of the year. The construction industry is expected to be a major beneficiary of the stimulus money, but with bidding requirements and governmental regulations slowing the job-letting process, patience among unemployed workers is growing thin.

The AGC is one group calling for lawmakers to take steps to not only get the stimulus money moving, but to also start greasing the credit markets to get cash flowing for other jobs.

"The Administration and Congress must see today's figures as a reminder to stimulate new commercial lending and hasten non-transportation stimulus construction projects that have by and large yet to begin,” Sandherr said. “And they must not delay action on a host of other infrastructure work, including the surface transportation, aviation and water infrastructure legislation.

“If the stimulus is followed with inaction and political gridlock, many thousands more construction workers will soon be out of work."

 Last week there were calls, mainly from Democratic lawmakers, to create a second stimulus package more focused on job creation. Construction union leaders earlier this year pushed for this stimulus package to have greater spending on infrastructure projects – a ‘la the New Deal work created by President Roosevelt in the 1930s – to improve the nation’s roads, bridges, drinking water systems and other aging fixtures in our society. 

Instead, a lot of the money went for social safety net spending. The current stimulus, said Laborers International Union President Terrence O’Sullivan, “fails to fully take advantage of the opportunity to put America back to work building the essential and long neglected basics of our country, which would leave behind real assets for future generations.”


‘A ton of pain in the pipeline’

Throughout this decade, Michigan has had the dubious distinction of being well ahead of the economic curve: our march toward economic calamity has been years ahead of other states – and we’re still ahead of the pack.

The latest jobless numbers have Michigan leading the nation, once again, at 14.1 percent, the highest recorded in our state since it was 14.2 percent in July 1983. Federal numbers released last month found that the number of unemployed Americans climbed to 14.5 million.

But is it going to get even uglier? Probably.

The labor-backed Economic Policy Institute, which tends to do a better job of blending economic numbers with their impact on real people than other think-tanks, reported last month:

“In his Sunday Washington Post story, ‘Recovery’s Missing Ingredient: New Jobs,’ reporter Michael Fletcher spotlights a story told by the nation’s leading labor market experts but overlooked by many news organizations: the worst is still ahead, as it is likely that unemployment will continue to rise for another 12 months.” 

Economic Policy Institute’s president, Lawrence Mishel told the Post:

“I find it unfathomable that people are not horrified about what is going to happen. I regard all this talk about how the recession is maybe going to end, all the talk about deficits and inflation, to be the equivalent of telling Americans, 'You are just going to have to tough it out.' But we're looking at persistent unemployment that is going to be extraordinarily damaging to many communities. There is a ton of pain in the pipeline."

That pain is defined in greater detail in Mishel’s analysis, “Sounding the Alarm,” which offers a step-by-step guide to the current state of the U.S. labor market.

Mishel also points out that, as bad as the national employment rate is, many states are struggling to cope with rates that are much worse. State-by-state data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in late June shows unemployment rates in 14 states have already crossed into double digits.

“We are stuck in what is – or will soon be – the worst economic downturn since the 1930s,” said New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. “Newspapers and the U.S. auto industry are on life support. The employment picture for even the most well-educated Americans – men and women with four-year college degrees or higher – is the worst on record.

“If there is something about this economy to be cheerful about – something real – I wish someone would let me know.”


New U-M data center is all about redundancy

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

ANN ARBOR – Taking care of sick people is the job of medical staff at the University of Michigan Hospitals and Health Centers.

Taking care of medical information related to those sick people will be the job of staff at the new U-M Hospitals and Health Data Center project, currently under construction on campus.

According to a 2007 University of Michigan’s Regents Communication justifying the new data center by Robert Keith, executive vice president for Medical Affairs, and Timothy Slottow, executive vice president and CFO for the U-M, space for the current U-M data center is inadequate. It occupies about 6,000 square feet in the Taubman Center, space it has held since 1986. “Since that time,” the Regents Communication said, “the information technology support required by the UMHHC has grown substantially. Because of this technology growth, the data center is at capacity with regards to space, power and cooling.”

They added: “Where there was once only a mainframe computer, a manual tape machine and a large printer, there are now hundreds of servers, paging equipment, automated backup equipment and file storage equipment.”

Enter the new $51 million data center, which will house an 11,000 square-foot data center, as well as 7,500 square-foot of support space, and 28,500 square-feet of space for power, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and data infrastructure support. The building will be among the safest in the region, built to withstand 200 mile-per-hour wind gusts. The building will also have redundant power and on-site backup generators, as well as redundant cooling and water storage to allow continuous operation if local utility supplies are interrupted.

Other sectors of the University of Michigan will also utilize the new data center, for storage or safe parallel backup of information. “With the new data center, we can store copies of our data at two separate locations several miles apart, said Bill Wrobleski, director of Technical Infrastructure Operations in the Michigan Administrative Information Services, to the University Record.

The trades are installing no less than 23 cooling units to chill the computer systems in the building. Batteries in two large rooms in the data center will be the last line of defense in the extremely unlikely event that all the power redundancies fail beforehand.

There were about 100 Hardhats constructing the data center last month, with a second shift expected to be added in short order.

“It’s an important building, and it’s all about providing cooling for their computers and secure space for their backup computer files,” said Project Manager Darryl Doneral of Granger Construction, which is overseeing the project. “Everything in this building is overkill, but it’s made to withstand a hurricane for a reason. If this facility goes down, the hospital goes down.”

The building is expected to be handed over to the university in early November.

INSTALLING A BOX for lighting in the packed ceiling of the U-M Data Center is Bruce Williams of IBEW Local 252, working for Huron Valley Electric.

SETTING UP A 10-INCH steel chilled water line for installation at the U-M Data Center project are Steve Cook, left, and Brian Rogers of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 190, employed by Boone and Darr.


Franken signs on to first bill: Employee Free Choice Act

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Minnesota’s new Democratic U.S. Senator, Al Franken, marked his first day in office on July 7 by signing on as a co-sponsor to a bill for the first time: The Employee Free Choice Act.

In doing so, Franken symbolized the hopes of workers that he would be the 60th vote needed to shut off a planned GOP filibuster aimed at killing the bill, which is labor’s top legislative priority.  Franken’s support has been awaited by the bill’s Senate backers to move it forward.

The Employee Free Choice Act would make it easier for workers to form unions and has been vigorously opposed by big business and business-backed front groups.

During the 2008 Senate campaign against then-incumbent Norman Coleman, R-Minn., Franken came under attack in a barrage of television ads, paid for by the Chamber  of Commerce and its allies, for his support of the Employee Free Choice Act.  Similar anti-EFCA ads, all targeting Democratic hopefuls, ran in other tight Senate races nationwide.  The Democrats won those races.  Franken’s was the tightest. 

“They (business) were going after him more than anyone,” recalled Bill McCarthy, president of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, whom Franken invited to Washington to witness the swearing-in ceremony.  “He didn’t back down then and he didn’t back down now,” McCarthy said.

Franken took office six months after other senators due to a mandatory ballot-by-ballot recount after the election, because it was so close, followed by court challenges from Coleman.  Franken won by 312 votes out of almost 3 million cast in a 3-way race.

Franken’s campaign championed interests of middle class families.  He maintained that enacting the Employee Free Choice Act is a way to strengthen the middle class, by giving more workers the opportunity to bargain collectively to improve wages and benefits.  He made the announcement about signing on as a co-sponsor of the bill at a reception that evening in his honor at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington.

“As of about half an hour ago, I became the co-sponsor of my first piece of legislation in the Senate.  And it’s something called the Employee Free Choice Act,” the Harvard Law graduate-turned-comedian-turned-senator deadpanned.

(By Steve Share, Editor, The Minneapolis Labor Review and Press Associates)


OSHA to clear the air on silica rule?

Action last month by OSHA indicates that silica has moved high on the agency’s regulatory agenda. OSHA requested a “quick turn-around” of the peer review of the draft silica standard’s health effects document, a request that will accelerate the adoption process. In addition, it issued Controlling Silica Exposures in Construction, a guidance document that mirrors the draft standard’s approach to hazard mitigation.

“After all the years of misdirection at OSHA, we welcome these signs of renewed focus on protecting Laborers,” says Laborers General President Terence O’Sullivan. “Now, we expect adoption and implementation of an effective silica standard within two years.”

As far back as the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins launched educational efforts to limit worker exposure to silica, but the government never regulated the hazard. It took a tentative step in 1996, establishing a special emphasis program to encourage compliance with the agency’s permissible exposure limit (PEL).

Yet, independent studies indicate that the silica PEL is too permissive and unsafe.

In 2003, the agency finally got started on a draft standard. However, after the draft was favorably reviewed by OSHA’s Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health, it came under fire from the Small Business Administration and the process stalled. With the agency now requesting an expedited peer review, expectations for a successful completion of the adoption process are on the rise.

If the essence of the draft standard is retained in the final rule, controls and respirator usage for most silica dust producing operations will be specified by construction task. By allowing protection on a task basis, the standard reduces the need for air monitoring and simplifies protection and enforcement programs.

OSHA’s new publication – available free online – employs this approach by providing detailed guidance on control options for the most common sources of silica exposure in construction.

“The most basic rule is always wet cut where feasible,” says LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider. “Also, unless another respirator is specified, use the P100 filtering face respirator. In addition, tradespeople should be sure to wash their hands and face before eating, drinking or smoking and, if possible, shower and change into clean clothes before going home. Employers should concentrate on upstream controls – engineering and administrative controls that limit exposure.”

                (By Scott Clark, Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North America)

The hazards of exposure to silica dust

Silicosis is a disabling, nonreversible and sometimes fatal lung disease caused by overexposure to respirable crystalline silica.

Silica exposure remains a serious threat to nearly two million U.S. workers. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health  reports that each year more than 250 die from silicosis and hundreds more are disabled.

There is no cure for the disease, but it is 100 percent preventable if employers, workers, and health professionals work together to reduce exposures. (From  OSHA)


News Briefs

Pope Benedict is a union man

Pope Benedict XVI, in a new encyclical released July 7, says the support of unions that can defend workers' rights must be "honored today even more than in the past." The worldwide leader of the Roman Catholic Church  notes that workers' ability to form a union and bargain is at risk, partly because governments "often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions."

Here’s what the pope had to say on the need for workers to have the freedom to form unions:

“Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome.

“The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.”

The Vatican and a wide variety of Catholic leaders have continued to express support throughout the year for workers’ freedom to form unions, and many Catholic scholars and organizations like the Catholic Labor Network and Catholics for Working Families have come out in support of the Employee Free Choice Act.

Big drop for annual construction rate

Construction during May dropped 0.9 percent compared to April, but the rate fell a whopping 11.6 percent compared to the level in May 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau reported.

A total of $964 billion was spent on construction in May. In the nonresidential sector, spending on construction gained slightly from the month before, while nonresidential work dropped 3.4 percent.

Public construction during May dropped 0.6% below the revised April estimate, and gighway construction fell 1.3%

Data for June 2009 will be released on Aug. 3.


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