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June 19, 2009

The Employee Free Choice Act: time for a compromise in Congress?

Kids, families are the focus at new children’s hospital

‘Work is just getting started’ – Slow roll-out for stimulus

Trades: Don’t harm our existing health care plans

Funding outlook is grim for crumbling state roads

More room to operate at Munson Hospital

News Briefs


The Employee Free Choice Act: time for a compromise in Congress?

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Congressional supporters of the Employee Free Choice Act, trying to get the 60 senators they need to break a planned Republican-led filibuster, are discussing a compromise to replace a key provision, majority sign-up, with mail-in ballots in union recognition elections.

The mail-in provision was disclosed by unionists attending the big conference of progressives in Washington, June 1-3.   One pro-worker negotiator, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, confirmed to Press Associates Union News Service that mail-in balloting “is one option we’re considering.”  They’re still going through details, he added.

The talks are led by the act’s new sponsor, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.  He told the activists – estimates ranged from 1,500 to 3,000 – that negotiations are continuing. Harkin reiterated that if they fail, he will bring the original legislation to the Senate floor to force an up-or-down vote.  Some reports said Vice President Joseph Biden, a longtime pro-worker senator, is actively participating in the bargaining, but Brown said Biden has not been in sessions he attended.

If the ballot provision is inserted in the proposed legislation, workers would vote by mail, in union authorization elections, still with the requirement that the union would need a majority of votes cast to win.  Mail-in ballots are now used in some union recognition votes, notably at airlines and railroads, under provisions of the Railway Labor Act (RLA), which covers those two industries.

That mail-in ballot provision would replace “majority sign-up,” where the union must get signed and verified election authorization cards from an absolute majority of workers at a shop.  The union could then demand and get automatic recognition, or it could choose to go through the National Labor Relations Board elections process.

Still another compromise being discussed, Brown said, is to legally shorten election campaigns.  That’s a position put forth by, among others, Service Employees President Andrew Stern.  Stern argues that shorter campaigns would give firms less time and scope for the rampant illegal intimidation, harassment, spying, threats and firings companies now use to combat union organizing.

The revisions of the Employee Free Choice Act are designed to bring over wavering Democrats, notably both Arkansas senators, California’s Dianne Feinstein, and Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, in what will be the key vote, to break the GOP talkathon against the bill, labor’s #1 legislative priority.

Unionists discussing the legislation said they could accept mail-in ballots as a possible substitute for majority sign-up, though speakers at the conference – led by  Communications Workers President Larry Cohen and Steel Workers President Leo Gerard – strongly campaigned for the original provision. 

“But it would be no problem organizing” workplace by workplace with mail-in ballots as the deciding factor, one unionist said.  “The real problem is with other provisions” of the Railway Labor Act, he added. 

The particular RLA roadblock is an RLA section that orders unions to get 50%-plus-1 majorities from an entire company, not worksite by worksite.   That would make organizing large firms, such as Wal-Mart or Delta Airlines, difficult, if not impossible.

Whether unionists would accept a mail-in ballot compromise is open to question.  David Bonior, president of American Rights At Work, which is leading the pro-worker information and advertising campaign for the bill, said that if the mail-in is inserted, “He (Harkin) will bring it back to us and we’ll decide if we can support it.” 

Unlike prior years, when workers’ rights were downplayed, shoved into a corner or given lip service by the progressive groups, they took center stage at the conference, renamed “America’s Future Now” -- in recognition of electoral wins in 2006 and 2008 -- from its old “Take Back America” title.

The speakers urged the progressives to get strongly behind the Employee Free Choice Act, with a grass-roots campaign to put pressure on senators to vote for it, particularly in the filibuster vote.  Democrats hold a 59-40 majority in the Senate, with Minnesota’s second seat vacant but Democrat Al Franken leading in an election now tied up in court.  As a result, no Employee Free Choice Act vote has been scheduled.

“We need to say to every Democratic senator: ‘Which side are you on?’” Cohen told the crowd.  “It’s an uphill fight,” Harkin admitted in the same session.

The problem with courting the wavering senators, Cohen told Press Associates afterwards, is “they want to water down the bill before deciding how to vote” on the filibuster.  Meanwhile, “the Chamber of Commerce campaign” against it “put a lot of pressure on them,” adds Cohen, who chairs the AFL-CIO’s legislation committee.

“I’ve been meeting Democrats 1-on-1 who’ve had reservations” Harkin said of his talks with waverers.  “We always expected that if we have to make some compromises, we would, but there are three principles on which we will not compromise: An absolute

right to organize, a firm deadline for getting a first contract, and meaningful penalties.”

Cohen, in urging the progressives to grass-roots campaign for the legislation, held up a graphic with dozens of flags on one side – showing nations that allow majority signup recognition of unions – and one flag, of the U.S., on the other. It doesn’t. 


Kids, families are the focus at new children’s hospital

GRAND RAPIDS – Under construction along Michigan Street, the 14-story Helen Devos Children’s Hospital expansion will add 440,000 square-feet of space to the city’s Medical Mile, a collection of health care and research facilities.

The $286 million, 206-bed children's hospital will include a neonatal intensive care unit with 40 private rooms; a 24-bed, inpatient medical/surgical floor; a 24-bed inpatient surgical floor for children recovering from neurosurgery, cardiac surgery, general surgery or kidney transplantation; a 24-bed pediatric intensive care unit for children with life-threatening illness, traumatic injuries or recovering from major operations, and a 24-bed medical/surgical unit devoted to children with cancer and those recovering from bone marrow transplant or neurosurgery.

Opened in 1993, Spectrum Health’s Devos Children’s Hospital was the first of its kind in the region, and today serves children and families in 37 counties. But more room is needed, and the new facility will open in early 2011.

“Our children’s hospital has grown very rapidly,” said Bob Connors, M.D., surgeon and president of Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “Fifteen years ago there were only a handful of pediatric specialists in West Michigan. We now have more than 100 experts in more than 40 subspecialties serving patients and families.” The new hospital space, he said, “marks a major milestone in achieving our goal of becoming one of the nation’s leading children’s hospitals.”

Some of the kid- and family-centered features of the new space will be built into the 11th floor. According to the hospital, it will include a 600-square-foot multi-faith chapel, multi-purpose rooms and space for child life activities such as therapeutic recreation, medical play, and arts and crafts. This floor will also include exercise space, family laundry, kitchenette facilities and four family sleep rooms to accommodate extended families.

“Our community understands that children need a level of care designed especially for them,” said Richard C. Breon, President & CEO of Spectrum Health. “Our new children's hospital will be here to meet their unique health care needs for generations to come.”

The “Medical Mile” work in Grand Rapids includes an expansion for medical research at the Van Andel Institute, plus construction of the Lemmon-Holton Cancer Center, the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, Grand Rapids Community College’s Science Center, Grand Valley State University’s Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences, and the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

Wolverine Construction and the Turner Group are partnering to manage the construction. Contractor Andy J. Egan is handing the piping on the project.

“Things are going well,” said Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Service Trades Local 174 Steward Mel Atkins, working for Egan. “There’s lots of changes, and we’re a little behind with the prints, but it’s nothing we can’t handle. It’s a good job.”

THE $286 MILLION Helen Devos Children’s Hospital being built in Grand Rapids.

MANEUVERING HIS LIFT around a chilled water line in the mechanical chiller room at the Helen Devos Children’s Hospital under construction in Grand Rapids is Mark Van Noord of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Service Trades Local 174, working for Andy J. Egan.



‘Work is just getting started’ – Slow roll-out for stimulus

The federal stimulus money is slowly starting to put Americans to work.

 A May 21 report by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure revealed that 90 days after President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law, $8.9 billion has been spent on “contracted” projects, creating 7,653 new jobs, although that number is expected to climb rapidly in the construction industry.

And at the 100-day mark, the Obama Administration said “we have obligated more than $112 billion, created more than 150,000 jobs and helped communities and tribes in every state and territory.”

Michigan is #9 so far among the states in contracted funding, getting $1.14 billion. The top 10 states in Recovery Act money spending have put to work more than half of the newly created or sustained infrastructure jobs, the report said.

Including the infrastructure money, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granhom said at the 90-day milepost that more than $3.8 billion in stimulus money has been spent in Michigan. She said in addition to money that went straight to the State of Michigan, the federal allocations have also gone into the coffers of more than 1,700 local government recipients.

The construction industry has been a major benefactor of the federal money, but hardly the only one. The state said Michigan allocations so far have included:

  • $931 million for education, including Title I funding to support education for at-risk students and funding for special education services;
  • $464 million in additional support for Medicaid;
  • $302 million to upgrade public sewer and drinking water infrastructure;
  • $243 million for weatherization assistance;
  • $236 million for water and sewer infrastructure projects;
  • $183 million for expanded worker training.

“Citizens in every county of our state are beginning to feel the benefits from Recovery Act funds,” said Leslee Fritz, director of the Michigan Economic Recovery Office. “In the days ahead, we’ll see additional funding creating more jobs and providing more services to those in need.”

Obama has received his share of criticism for the U.S. losing jobs since the $787 stimulus programs started. "Let's be clear,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steel. “100 projects, nearly $1 trillion spent, and 1 million jobs lost doesn't sound like progress to me.”

Responded Obama: “Across the country, the Recovery Act is already at work, providing essential financial relief for American families and businesses, creating and saving jobs, and spurring technology and infrastructure investments that will lay the groundwork for the new economy – and work is just getting started.”


Trades: Don’t harm our existing health care plans

The head of the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department, who generally speaks on behalf of all the group’s affiliated unions, last month urged Congress to blend universal health care coverage in the U.S. with existing Taft-Hartley rules plans that currently cover all building trades union workers.

Building Trades Department President Mark Ayers called it “one of the most important challenges confronting our nation: the need for a national health care system that provides universal access to affordable, quality health care, that responsibly controls costs, and that distributes costs fairly, without unnecessarily disrupting established employment-based health plans that are meeting their participants’ needs.  National, systemic reform has long been an aspiration.  Hopefully it will soon become reality beginning with enactment of comprehensive legislation this year.”

That’s how Ayers opened his May 22 letter to Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. As the debate continues over instituting a national health care plan, the building trades and the rest of organized labor have been busy outlining their positions on the subject.

Ayers insisted in his letter that “great care must be taken in crafting legislation to avoid harming Taft-Hartley, multi-employer health and welfare funds which are an essential part of the employment-based system that the Committee is trying to preserve.  As you know, even the best intended legislation can have destructive unintended consequences.”

The letter by Ayers essentially provides a blueprint for how the building trades intend to proceed, on behalf of the union members they represent, in the discussion on what a new health care system should look like. The building trades are essentially saying, if the nation is going to keep employer-based health care as a major component of the system– and that’s the direction President Obama seems to be headed – then construction unions are strongly in favor of keeping multi-employer plans.

Discussion in Congress has talked about blending employer plans with some kind of other universal coverage, but any solutions are a long way off.

“We again applaud you for taking on this important task of crafting national, systemic health care reform legislation,” Ayers wrote. “We ask that you take care first to do no harm to the Taft-Hartley, multi-employer health and welfare fund community, but also to foster the continued growth and soundness of the funds for the benefit of the many millions of workers and families who depend on them.”


Funding outlook is grim for crumbling state roads

LANSING – These are lean, lean times in Michigan for the highway building industry. And they’re not much better around the country, either.

On June 3, the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association (MITA) delivered bottles to state lawmakers filled with pieces of a pulverized road – the road is now gravel, and was formerly paved – located in Montcalm County. The gravel represented a growing trend in Michigan: due to funding shortfalls, MITA pointed out, counties throughout Michigan have been forced to allow once smoothly paved roads to revert to gravel.

“There will never be a ‘right’ time to invest in our infrastructure; we can’t wait another day, and we can’t wait for another county to turn its roads back to gravel because there isn’t enough funding to maintain them,” said Mike Nystrom, co-chair of the Michigan Transportation Team. “Delivering this message in a bottle draws critical attention to the immediate need for our roads to be fixed.”

MTT is a bipartisan partnership of business, labor, local government, associations and citizens linked with the common goal of improving Michigan’s transportation infrastructure.

The transportation team pointed out that the Michigan legislature is currently exploring a package of bills that would increase road funding over the next five years in Michigan. The plan is expected to yield an additional $1.8 billion in new transportation revenue per year.

The 13-member Michigan Transportation Funding Task Force – a bipartisan group appointed by the governor and legislature that included labor, political and business representatives – last November issued a report recommending our state double the $3.2 billion that was spent on roads in 2008 to create a “good” investment level. As defined by the task force, a “good” spending level would allow the state to match anticipated federal aid, and would preserve 85 percent of state trunk-line pavements and 90 percent of state trunk-line bridges in good condition.

But Michigan is sliding backward. The day after the gravel was delivered to Lansing lawmakers, The Detroit News reported that more than 137 transportation projects across Michigan have been cancelled because the state can’t come up with matching funds that would trigger the spending of $740 million in federal money.

Federal stimulus money will help plug some of the funding gap, but only temporarily. Gov. Jennifer Granholm on March 31 signed legislation authorizing Michigan to spend $873 million in Recovery Act money on state highway work.

While Michigan has its share of road construction woes, so too does the federal government. The AFL-CIO Building Trades Department reports that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, announced that the Federal Highway Trust Fund will run out of money sometime this summer, and will require between $5 billion and $7 billion to stay solvent.

Unlike the State of Michigan, however, the federal government can just print more money, or move it around to plug the gaps.


More room to operate at Munson Hospital

TRAVERSE CITY – Air handlers and related fixtures for a major expansion project at Munson Medical Center are being deftly handled by Sheet Metal Workers Local 7 members.

Employed by Cooke Sheet Metal, a handful of sheet metal workers have been working on and off at the hospital, which is undergoing a two-year project to increase the number of operating rooms. As part of the project, one new rooftop air handler was installed, another was placed in a mechanical room, while a third was upgraded as part of the project.

“So far, so good,” said Cooke Sheet Metal’s Ken Cooke. “They’re happy, we’re happy. We’re just trying to work around the hospital’s schedule, and that means working some nights and weekends.”

The tinknockers also worked on the expansion of the hospital’s emergency department two years ago. Established in 1926, Munson has been named a top 100 hospital in the U.S. 11 times.

Munson Medical Center is equipped to provide critical care for patients from 22 counties. Services in specialties such as neurology, oncology, cardiology, and orthopedics are provided through more than 300,000 annual patient visits.

A ROOFTOP air handler is installed at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City by George Shink and Ed Bush of Shhet Metal Workers Local 7. They’re working for Cooke Sheet Metal.


News Briefs

Carpenters looking at rejoining trades

International Brotherhood of Carpenters General President Doug McCarron said that his union – in concert with the International Union of Operating Engineers – is “optimistic” about returning to the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department in the next two years.

The Carpenters left the AFL-CIO in 2001 primarily in a dispute over how union dues were being spent on organizing. The Carpenters subsequently had an on-and-off again relationship with the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department over money and personnel issues, and ultimately left in 2005 to join the alternative union umbrella group, the Change-to-Win Coalition. The Operating Engineers left the Building Trades Department in 2006.

Invited to speak to the Association of Union Constructors “Top Leadership Conference” last month in Orlando, McCarron opened the floor to questions from the audience. One contractor expressed frustration at “conflicts” on jobs where carpenters don’t participate with the rest of the building trades, which causes duplication of effort for contractors having to deal with the Carpenters – and everyone else.

Responded McCarron: “That’s a customer service problem, there’s no question about that. I am very optimistic. I have had a couple meetings with (President) Mark Ayers of the Building Trades. I think he’s putting a different spin on the building trades. I just had a meeting with him a couple weeks ago and I see some changes there. I see some hope there at least on the industrial side, with both the NCA (National Construction Alliance) and the building trades working in concert on those jobs. So we’re trying to address those problems. And it should be… I don’t want to say worked out, but I’m hopeful and I’m optimistic  with what Mark Ayers is doing with the building trades. So maybe over the next couple years we can get that stuff squared away.”

When asked if there was a scenario where the carpenters would rejoin the building trades, McCarron responded: “That decision will be made not only by myself, but by the Operating Engineers. Whatever we do we will do together. I don’t want to talk for the Operators, but let me say the likelihood went up quite a bit with Ayers (who took over as president in September 2007).

“Both of us are very impressed with him. We have to see. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not ready to jump back in. But if you know his agenda and his things work out, we’ll see what happens a year or two down the line.  He seems to get it.”

Craft mergers. There should be and there should be some opportunity during this recession. Suggested getting the crafts down to six or seven. I’ve taken a lot of heat for saying it over the years. If we really want to run the customer service aspect of it with our owners there has to be room for consolidation in the building trades.


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