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June 5, 2009

Building trades chief: Construction unions share 'enormous stake' in Employee Free Choice

Good, safe work at J.H. Campbell outage brings acclaim to trades

Weak version of 'Hire Michigan 1st' adopted by Senate

Employer intimidation 'standard practice' in fighting union drives

Slip in April construction 'establishing a bottom' for industry?

Trades sprinkle, help refurbish this old house

News Briefs


Building trades chief: Construction unions share 'enormous stake' in Employee Free Choice

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI)--Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act could open up residential construction worker organizing to the nation's building trades unions, the head of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department says.

The election of labor-backed Democrat Barack Obama to the White House and increased pro-worker majorities in Congress mean "we are finally at the point…where we do not have to fight the battles of the past," department President Mark Ayers told his 3,000-person legislative conference in his May 18 keynote address.

"But it doesn't stop there," he said, referring to past battles against GOP administrations to preserve the Davis-Bacon prevailing wage law and other worker protections. "This president, our president, is backing the Employee Free Choice Act."

That legislation, now the subject of intense lobbying by both workers and business on Capitol Hill, "will do more to strengthen the right to organize than any law since the original 1935 National Labor Relations Act," Ayers added.

"In our case, it would help us organizing in construction markets that have eluded us far too long now. That's why we all share an enormous stake in seeing this legislation become law," he declared.

The law, which would help level the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing and bargaining, was item #1 in the briefing booklet BCTD distributed to each delegate. All headed to Congress to lobby during the rest of their May 17-20 confab.

In an interview after his speech, Ayers said specifically that passage of the law would help building trades unions organize residential construction workers. "God only knows they need it," he said of those workers, many of them exploited immigrants.

"Historically, our hands have been tied" in organizing home construction workers, Ayers elaborated. "By the time we get to a job site, get the (union election authorization) cards signed, and get the election date set, the job is done and the workers dispersed."

A key section of the Employee Free Choice Act, and the section that has drawn the most business opposition, would shorten those steps, by mandating that when the union gets a verified majority of workers at a site to sign the cards, the workers - not the bosses - may choose either to hold a National Labor Relations Board-run election or to demand and get automatic recognition of the union as their bargaining agent.

Bosses, including anti-union construction companies, are afraid of that provision, Ayers told his delegates. "From the ABC (Associated Builders and Contractors) and the Chamber of Commerce on down, every anti-union corporate interest in American made it plain their #1 legislative priority is to stop EFCA," he said.

Ayers had no estimate on how many more construction workers building trades unions could organize should the law pass. He said he heard AFL-CIO-wide estimates of organizing 1 million new workers nationwide in the first year after it's approved. Unions now have 16.1 million workers nationwide, or one of every eight, federal figures show. Construction unions have 15.6% of all construction workers, the data adds. Separate figures for residential construction were not included.

In other points, Ayers:

  • Again said construction unions would accomplish more if they were all united under one roof. The Carpenters, who are members of Change To Win, and the Operating Engineers, who are in the AFL-CIO, are not in the BCTD. "We can't create new unionism on our own. It takes all of us. Not only the unions represented here today, but our bothers and sisters in the Operating Engineers and the Carpenters. I say to the leaders of these two great institutions: Come work with us to crate the solutions that will make our country a better place for our industry, our contractors and for all craft unions."
  • Said other groups that worked for Obama, and "that have as much skin in the game as we do" are wary of construction unions' past exclusion of women and minorities. "This has the potential to create roadblocks to our success," Ayers added. "For better or worse, our unions have come under scrutiny…The solution is to build coalitions with the communities in which we work like never before" to show them the unions' inclusiveness of all, Ayers said. The result would be both "more union jobs, not less, and more union members, not less."

Other speakers at the conference's opening day included Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., co-chair of the small House GOP Labor Caucus. Solis touted the construction jobs already created by the stimulus law in 3,000 projects in every state and territory, along with the green jobs, including construction jobs, the law envisions. She also promised "strong enforcement" of Davis-Bacon prevailing wage laws.

All three backed the Employee Free Choice Act, but neither lawmaker said when it would face a House vote. And Solis implied it hasn't come up yet before Obama, who also backs it. "I'm looking forward to working with this new White House to make the strongest case for why we need the Employee Free Choice Act," Solis said.


Good, safe work at J.H. Campbell outage brings acclaim to trades

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

PORT SHELDON TWP. - Another outage, another collection of kudos for the men and women in the building trades who made repairs to J.H. Campbell Unit 2 at Consumers Energy's J.H. Campbell Generating Complex in Ottawa County.

"The work was good, really good," said Bob Griffith project manager for prime contractor Babcock and Wilcox, as the outage was winding down. "The weld rate has been phenomenal, and we're going to be finished ahead of schedule. These people really stepped up to the plate."

A building trades crew of primarily boilermakers, working day and night shifts, began work at the plant last November, completing tasks that could be accomplished before the Feb. 6 boiler shutdown. Before it came back online May 7, the trades worked on massive tube repair and replacement of side-wall panels, inlets and outlets, super-heat pendants and the ash hopper, among other tasks.

Griffith said tube repair and replacement were the primary task, but the entire $55 million maintenance outage was aimed at returning the 44-year-old boiler to "run reliably, like it should."

Consumers Energy vice president of generation construction Jim Pomaranski spotlighted the work at the Campbell plant when he talked to the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Legislative Conference in early April.

With the outage 75 percent complete, he said there were 5,400 welds performed during the repair and maintenance of Campbell Unit 2. "The weld rejection rate has been 1.6 percent," Pomaranski said, "and 3-5 percent is considered world class. Nice work, boilermakers."

More importantly, he said the project had zero recordable injuries. "It goes to show you that a safe job is a productive job," he said. (The outage ended with one recordable injury, a twisted ankle).

Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council President Patrick "Shorty" Gleason told Pomaranski and delegates at the conference that "that kind of safety record didn't just happen. It was driven by the owner."

Gleason related that at a meeting for the planning work at the Campbell plant, Consumers Energy Vice President Jim Coddington asked about the schedule for construction. "Is this timeline going to be safe for the building trades? Twenty years from now, when we look back at this, we won't remember that we were a month late, but we will remember it if results in a worker's death or serious injury."

Gleason continued: "When we get a commitment like that, we really appreciate it. That's our people you're protecting."

The 1,440-megawatt Campbell Complex is located on a 2,000-acre site along the Lake Michigan shoreline near West Olive, Mich. Campbell Unit 1 first began providing electricity in 1962.

The Campbell generating complex consists of three separate coal-fired plants: the 260-megawatt Unit 1, 360-megawatt Unit 2 and the 820-megawatt Unit 3 plant, which includes the largest coal-fueled unit in the company's fleet.

BOILERMAKERS Local 169 members perform work on the reheat elements of the Unit 2 boiler during an outage at Consumers Energy's J.H. Campbell Generating Complex. Photo courtesy Babcock & Wilcox

WELDER Tom O'Haire of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Service Trades Local 174 completes a weld on soot blower air piping at the J.H. Campbell plant. Photo by Dennis McKee, Consumers Energy



Weak version of 'Hire Michigan 1st' adopted by Senate

LANSING - A watered-down version of the "Hire Michigan First" package of bills was adopted on a bipartisan basis by the Michigan Senate on May 7 - but state Democrats said plenty of work still needs to be done before the legislation reaches its full potential.

The items in the Hire Michigan First package that were approved by the Senate would ensure that the millions of dollars Michigan spends in the form of tax breaks, abatements and other economic incentives "will be re-invested in our workers," according to Michigan Senate Democrats. "The bills passed would also prohibit and punish those businesses that would contract with persons not authorized to work in the United States."

A much stronger version of the package of Hire Michigan First bills was adopted earlier this year in the House, which is controlled by Democrats. The Senate version is now back in the House where the disparities will be subject to further negotiations by Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

"It's not enough to just see products that say, 'Made in Michigan,' we want our products, buildings, and bridges to be made by Michigan," said Sen. Glenn Anderson (D), a lead sponsor of the Senate package. "That's why I fought for this issue every chance I got and it's why I will continue to push for the elements of this plan that weren't included in today's vote."

Republicans have opposed most "Hire Michigan First" elements on the premise that they're bad for business. "We don't see this as a good economic environment to start slapping more requirements on companies," said Jared Rodriguez, vice president of public policy and government affairs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, to the Business Review Western Michigan.

The legislation as adopted by the Senate does allow the cancellation of state tax breaks for firms that hire undocumented workers, and includes incentives for companies to hire Michigan workers.

But state Rep. Fred Miller, the legislation's lead sponsor in the state House, said "many key pieces were left out." The Senate Republicans didn't include the portion of the plan that would raise the number of Michigan workers to be hired on state contracts to 100 percent. And, a plan to require companies that receive taxpayer incentives to follow state law - such as prevailing wage - also was left out.

House Democrats adopted their version of the Hire Michigan First plan on March 12, after years of building a coalition of lawmakers and supporters in the public sector. The plan that passed the House:

  • Rewards companies that hire the most Michigan residents in the pursuit of state tax breaks and other economic development incentives. This rule would apply to projects handled by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and certain state-funded programs, including the Michigan Economic Growth Authority and the Renaissance Zone Act.
  • Encourages transparency and accountability by requiring companies that accept incentives to report on who they hire to ensure that Michigan residents come first.
  • Cracks down on companies that hire undocumented workers by creating penalties that include requiring them to pay back their tax incentives and barring them from future state contracts.

"It is a good first step, but more needs to be done to reward companies that hire Michigan workers," Miller said of the Senate vote. "The public deserves credit for forcing the Senate to end two years of inaction."


Employer intimidation 'standard practice' in fighting union drives

By Dick Meister

A new study by one of the country's most highly regarded labor experts makes clear beyond doubt that illegal employer actions and lax government oversight have denied great and growing numbers of workers the legal right of unionization.

That's had much to with the percentage of workers belonging to unions dropping to little more than 12 percent from a level almost double that three decades ago, says Kate Bronfenbrenner. She's director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

"Our labor law system is broken," Bronfenbrenner concluded. "Polling consistently shows that a majority of workers believe they would be better off if they had a union in their workplace, but they also feel that they would be taking a great risk if they were to try to organize."

As a result, she says, "the overwhelming majority of workers who want unions don't have them."

The workers, Bronfenbrenner adds, "know intuitively what our data show - that the overwhelming majority of U.S. employers are willing to use a broad arsenal of legal and illegal tactics to interfere with the rights of workers to organize, and that they do so with near impunity."

As her study notes, the system is "operating in direct violation of the law" - the law that says employers must allow employees to vote freely, without threats of retaliation or any other consequences, on whether they want a union to bargain with the employers to set their working conditions.

The study covered a random sample of 1,004 union organizing drives over a recent four-year period. In more than half the drives, employers threatened to close all or part of their facilities or lay-off workers if they voted to unionize. In nearly half the drives, employers threatened to reduce pay and benefits.

In most of the drives, employees were required to attend meetings where employers raised those and other threats as they argued, unchallenged, against a vote for unionization. Employers also met with workers one-on-one to demand that they divulge how they and others were going to vote.

Some spied on union organizers as they made their rounds or simply refused them access to their employees. Some had anti-union employees infiltrate union organizing committees, or they set up anti-union committees of their own. Some fired or suspended union supporters, or imposed onerous
assignments on them. Some employers took the opposite approach and offered supporters cash bribes, promotions or other special favors to vote against unionization.

The study clearly documented that employers' "intense and aggressive " use of such illegal tactics to block workers' freedom to form unions has been steadily increasing, to the point that it's become standard practice.

Even workers who manage to win the right to negotiate a union contract often face continued employer opposition. Employers' stalling tactics keep winners waiting for as long as five years before agreeing to contracts. Most others have been forced to wait at least a year.

It's obvious that the federal government has done little to protect workers from the many employers who openly violate the 74-year-old National Labor Relations Act, a key New Deal law that was enacted as a way to encourage the growth of unionization and the growth of a middle class that would follow, as it did.

Employers face minimal penalties for violating the law, even for penalizing workers who complain to government officials about violations. Usually, offending employers are ordered to do no more than allow workers a second vote and to post notices spelling out the workers' legal rights.

At most, offending employers have to make back-pay settlements to illegally fired union supporters. The payments commonly amount to no more than a few thousand dollars per worker and sometimes are withheld for two years or more. The study notes, too, that there are no punitive damages or extra penalties for repeat offenders.

Bronfenbrenner's study will undoubtedly play an important role in the heated political debate over the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to freely exercise their union rights.

Instead of holding elections that employers can, and do, manipulate to illegally escape unionization, employers could be required to bargain with a union on the showing of membership cards in that union by a majority of their employees.

Consider that very few of the illegal tactics cited in the study were used against public employees - most of whom were granted union recognition by a simple show of union cards.

In addition to allowing card-check recognition, the Free Choice Act calls for fines of $20,000 for willful and repeat violations and requires employers to reach contract agreements with unions within 90 days after they are legally recognized as their employees' representative or else have the terms dictated by a government arbitrator.

Bronfenbrenner thinks the Free Choice Act is the most important of the reforms necessary to correct the serious harm shown by her study. She says it would be a start - but only a start - toward "giving workers back their rights and protections."

Thanks to her study, even those who oppose the proposed law now have the strongest evidence yet of the crucial need to thoroughly revamp the imperfect laws that govern our working lives.

(The article comes via the International Labor Communications Association. The writer is a San Francisco-based journalist who has covered labor and political issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. www.dickmeister.com).


Slip in April construction 'establishing a bottom' for industry?

The value of new construction starts fell 1% in April to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $386.6 billion, according to a May 19 report from McGraw-Hill Construction. The drop was due to a slower pace for public works construction, which had been lifted in March by the start of several large pipeline and rail projects.

At the same time, nonresidential building in April picked up the pace after the very weak activity reported during the prior two months, and residential building was helped by improvement for single family housing.

The level of contracting as shown by the McGraw Hill report witnessed a steady retreat from mid-2008 through February, followed by a gain in March and then April's slight setback.

"The pattern of construction starts over the past two months suggests a transition from extended declines to more of an up-and-down pattern, which generally takes place when a bottom gets established," stated Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction. "This process of establishing a bottom is still in its early stages, and will be affected by how different construction sectors perform in coming months. The impact from the stimulus bill on public works construction is just beginning to emerge, with this sector expected to see more strength as 2009 proceeds."

Murray added that single-family housing "remains at a very low volume, but the worst of its correction appears to have passed." For nonresidential building, he said "there's been the occasional display of resilience by such institutional structure types as healthcare facilities and public buildings, but the downward trend for the commercial structure types is still very much underway."

While acknowledging the lower level of construction, Associated General Contractors economist Ken Simonson said last month that "early reports indicate that the infrastructure portion of the stimulus is beginning to do exactly what was intended, put construction workers back on the job."

By geography, total construction during the first four months of 2009 showed the steepest drop in the Northeast, down 55%; followed by the South Atlantic, down 43%; the West, down 37%; the South Central, down 34%; and the Midwest, down 26%.


Trades sprinkle, help refurbish this old house

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

PONTIAC - A century-old house that will be a home to post-foster care kids is slowly being renovated, and when it's complete, it will have added fire protection and proper wiring, thanks in good part to union trades and their contractors.

Constructed about 1910, the three-story house has been gutted and is slowly being transformed into a home that will house young adults who have become too old for foster care.

"The house is primarily being renovated through the help of donated time and labor," said Kent Clark, pastor of the Grace Gospel Fellowship. He's also CEO of the Grace Centers of Hope, which owns and will operate the home. "It's beyond wonderful what people are doing for us, and we are most grateful for the donations of time and materials."

Pastor Clark said 20,000 young people in Michigan leave foster care every year at age 18 or so, most with nowhere to go. "In Oakland County, we give them a three-page brochure, and little else," he said. "The need out there is tremendous."

The house at 76 Fairgrove was abandoned when it was acquired by the Grace Centers of Hope a year ago. Clark said it would be the first house they have owned which will help post-foster care kids. He said the center has more than 20 other homes nearby which offer shelter to other people in need. The Grace Centers have their headquarters in an old post office building in Pontiac, and the group runs several thrift stores.

He said combined, their operations offered 55,000 nights of stay and 127,000 meals last year to the needy - and they still were forced to turn away 2,500 women and children because of lack of room.

Pastor Clark said the outside of the house on Fairgrove Street, "wasn't too bad - but the inside was a disaster." After it was gutted with the help of funds from Pepsi Cola, leaders at Sprinkler Fitters Local 704 took a look at it and together with their contractors, thought it would be a good teaching opportunity for apprentices - as well as a good community service project - to install a residential sprinkler system inside.

"I've been in contact with Pastor Clark, and they said they had a house and they could use some help," said Local 704 Business Manager Bob Rutan. "We talked it over and offered to install a fire protection system for them using our apprentices. We're always looking to increase our share of the residential market, and we thought this would be a good training exercise for our apprentices. Plus, it's for a very good cause."

The sprinkler fitter apprentices are installing a "Soffi-Steel" system in the house, which will hide any sprinkler pipes behind snap-together steel soffits that can't be hidden by drywall. The materials are being donated by Jack Grice of Grice Engineering.

Other firms donating to the project include Ace Fire Protection and Slifco Electric.

Local 704 Training Director Joe Duquet said there are 50 apprentices in the Local 704 program, and all are taking part in the design, measurement and installation of the fire protection system in the house. "I want them to learn to work together, to learn foreman skills, and to find ways to find answers to problems that come up," he said. "It's a fantastic experience the guys are getting here."

Pastor Clark said he hopes to have the project completed this summer.

THIS HOUSE in Pontiac is being turned into a home for young adults who can no longer be served by foster care. Currently gutted, the house is being transformed by donated labor and materials.


News Briefs

Work zone crashes drop 9 percent in Michigan
The lousy economy took its toll on some of the largest Michigan-based construction contractors, as many dropped in their positions - or dropped off the chart - of the top 400 contractors as ranked by the Engineering News Record.

Released last month, the annual list puts Barton Malow at the top of the rankings for Michigan-based firms. Overall, the Southfield-based company was the 39th largest contractor by revenue in 2008, climbing four spots. Not far behind was Detroit-based Walbridge, ranked 48th, eight spots better than 2008.

Barton Malow and Walbridge are perennially at the top of the list for Michigan-based companies.

With the horrific drop in the U.S. market not taking place until October, the ENR said overall, 2008 was still a good year for large U.S. contractors. "With the economy in recession and the market in decline, many large contractors are thankful that 2008 was booming, giving them one last chance to build backlogs," the ENR said.

It was a bit of a different story for the rest of the top Michigan-based contractors in the top-400 for revenue. Angelo Iafrate Co., Warren climbed on the list (#131, +8 from 2008).

But other big contractors dropped: The Christman Co., Lansing (#172, -8); Rockford Construction Co., Grand Rapids (#248, -53); Clark Construction, Lansing (#324, -27); Owens-Ames-Kimball, Grand Rapids (#361, -56); Aristeo Construction Co. Livonia (#365, -23); Granger Construction Co., Lansing #369, -115), and Roncelli, Inc., Sterling Heights (#371, -73).

Nationwide, the top-six largest contractors in 2009 didn't change from 2008: Bechtel, Fluor, The Turner Corp., KBR, Kiewit, and Skanska USA, Inc.

Top-400 contractors that have a presence in Michigan include Alberici (#47); The Boldt Co. (#86); Miron Construction (#106), and Lunda Construction (#213).

The Engineering News Record reported that its top 400 contractors earned $338.38 billion in contracting revenue in 2008, up 11.2% over the $304.36 billion that the Top 400 took in during 2007.

The ENR said of 375 contractors on this year's list that submitted surveys last year, 245 had revenue increases, 128 saw declines and two were virtually unchanged.



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