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January 22, 2010

Ugly era for Michigan construction

Unions cut deal to move universal health plan

Labor isn’t going to accept a bad bill” Oh really?
A viewpoint by by Press Associates Union News Service

Employee Free Choice Act: ‘It has to be this year…’

‘We’re glad to be here’
Trades set up Detroit auto show

News Briefs

 

Ugly era for Michigan construction

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

The odometer has flipped from 2009 to 2010, but no one associated with the construction industry will forget what may have been the worst year for the building trades in Michigan since the Great Depression.

“There were – and are – a lot of local unions with 50-, 60-, or 70-percent unemployment,” said Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. “I know a lot of building trades families are going through hell, losing cars, homes. Michigan has been in slumps before, but we’ve never seen it where our workers couldn’t find some work, somewhere in the country.

“The tough part is, everything that is happening is really out of our control.”

Apparently, much of that control rests in the hands of the people who control the money. Credit has grown increasingly difficult to get. Even state funding for road and bridge construction will be significantly down, as the State of Michigan budget faces consistent funding deficits.

Across Michigan, there are a few geographical pockets that are doing somewhat well, but for everywhere else, it isn’t pretty. Across the nation, the construction unemployment rate climbed in December to 22.7 percent.

Following is our annual informal and completely unscientific roundup of what is typically a dismal level of construction activity in various parts of the Great Lake State:

Ann Arbor/Washtenaw County – “If you want to talk about construction work around here, it won’t be a long conversation,” said IBEW Local 252 Business Manager Greg Stephens. “Last year was a tough year, and it followed three tough years.”

Public and higher education construction, once again primarily led by work sponsored by the University of Michigan, was the saving grace for building trades workers in the Washtenaw County area.

The massive $523 million C.S. Mott Women’s and Children’s Hospital – one of the top two or three largest ongoing construction project in the state – is in its third year of construction. The University of Michigan Stadium Renovation and Expansion Project will add multi-story masonry structures on the east and west ends of the stadium and include 83 suites and 3,000 club seats. Also ongoing on the U-M campus is the new $175 million North Quad Residential and Academic Complex.

There are other projects that will employ the trades in 2010, but the list isn’t nearly as long as it has been in years past. Much of the public school work has dried up. St. Joseph Mercy hospital is starting a new patient tower. The Jefferson Science Building is just coming out of the ground at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. A new dorm is slated to be built at Washtenaw Community College. Ann Arbor is building a new water treatment plant, as well as a new municipal building. Leoni Twp. is building a new sewer treatment facility.

“I believe we’re going to see better times in 2010,” Stephens said. “But just about all the work we have on the books is in the public sector. We have to see some of the money being loosened up in the credit markets so we can get some private work started.”

Bay City/Saginaw/Midland area – There have only been a handful of light commercial, light manufacturing or retail construction permits pulled in the Tri-County Bay Region since November 2008.

And that tells much of the story for the fortunes of construction for most trades in the region, said Tri-County Building Trades President Bill Borch, who is also upstate business agent for Iron Workers Local 25. “Other than a few shiny spots, we’re looking at a very slow employment picture for 2010,” he said.

That’s not to say there aren’t several big-ticket projects, and for the pipe trades at least, not a bad outlook. For other union trades, the jobs picture isn’t as good, as nonunion contractors have a foot in the door for much of the work.

Dow Chemical, in a joint venture with Kokam America Inc. are procuring the last of federal dollars needed to build a $665 million, 800,000 square-foot advanced lithium-polymer battery plant in Midland. Borch said he is “cautiously optimistic” that a significant number of union trades will get a piece of the action – Dow has been using nonunion labor for years.

Dow Chemical, Dow Corning and Dow’s Hemlock Semiconductor plants have been undergoing about $1.8 billion in construction over the last two years or so. They’re building capacity for polycrystalline silicon, a material needed to produce solar cells, as well as the production of gas used in solar cell manufacturing.  Scott Brink, BA with Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 85, said the “tail-end” of that work will be bid this month, and all the associated work will wind down in the spring of 2011.

Other ongoing work includes a new $20 million tower at Midland Hospital, and a $28 million College of Health & Human Services Building for Saginaw Valley State University that will be complete this year.

GM is investing $37 million in its Bay City Powertrain plant to produce engine parts for the 2011 Chevrolet Volt and Cruze electric cars.

Suniva, a Georgia-based maker of high-efficiency, low-cost solar panels, is planning to invest $250 million in a new plant in Saginaw County.

GlobalWatt will gut an existing building in Saginaw and invest $177 million in a  solar parts facility.

Construction of the $2 billion Karn Weadock clean-coal plant took a step closer to a start last month, when it received a state air quality permit. But with legal action coming from environmental groups, substantial construction is likely about two years away. However, the Units 1 & 2 at the plant will get baghouse upgrades in the spring.

The proposed $1 billion Wolverine Power House in Rogers City could be considered “dead in the water,” Borch said, awaiting state air quality permits that likely won’t be approved under the Granholm Administration.

At Central Michigan University’s Rose Arena, work is ongoing on a $21.5 million renovation that will include an events center, adding a main entrance to the arena and a practice gym and revamping seating.

While Brink of the Plumbers and Steamfitters said the region would probably be taking on pipe trades travelers by springtime, Borch said the outlook is a “lean year” for the rest of the trades.

Detroit/Southeast Michigan – Good riddance to 2009 – perhaps the worst year on record in the area for construction employment since the Great Depression. Hello 2010: will you be an improvement?

“It’s all about whether the money starts moving again,” said Ed Coffey, newly retired business representative for the Detroit office Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. “If the car companies start making a comeback and spend money again on their plants, I’m optimistic. Things haven’t changed much around here – so much is tied into the auto industry.”

And the auto companies are starting to loosen their purse strings on plant work – at least a little.

At the Detroit auto show last week, Ford announced it would invest an additional $450 million in electrification initiatives in Michigan, including moving future battery pack assembly or hybrid vehicles from Mexico to Michigan.

The investment will impact several Michigan Ford facilities, including Michigan Assembly, Wayne Stamping, Van Dyke Transmission in Sterling Heights and the Product Development Center in Dearborn. The plants will need to be renovated to allow the assembly of components for the next-generation hybrid electric vehicle, a plug-in hybrid with lithium-ion batteries.

GM is investing $336 million in the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant where the Chevrolet Volt will be produced, complete with lithium-ion batteries made at a GM facility in Brownstown Twp.

GM is also renovating its Orion Twp. plant to accommodate production of its next generation small car.

Idled in 2007, the Ford Wixom plant will be undergoing a $725 million rehabilitation project, which will create what’s being call the nation’s largest renewable energy park. Xtreme Power and Clairvoyant Energy plan to retool the plant to build solar panels and utility scale batteries for generating renewable power. Work is expected to commence after the real estate deal closes, which is not expected until springtime.

Among the civic projects undertaken by the building trades, few are as large as the $57 million renovation of the Guardian Building in Detroit. The renovation work on the upper floors has allowed Wayne County to move their offices from the Wayne County building a few blocks away. That first phase is complete, a second phase this year will transform space in the building for tenant use.

A major push will reinvigorate construction at the Marathon refinery in Southwest Detroit, beginning in March. Last February, Marathon announced that in order to better align the completion of the Detroit Heavy Oil Upgrade (DHOUP) project with changes in Canadian oil sands production projections and to optimize the completion of this project, the scheduled start-up date for the refinery has been deferred until mid-2012. The cost of the project has increased approximately 15 percent to $2.2 billion due to additional costs associated with the project deferral as well as a scope change that will allow the Detroit refinery to process heavier and higher acidic crudes.

BAE Land and Armament Systems plans to tear down all of the obsolete manufacturing and office areas at the old TRW site in Sterling Heights, renovating it into a two-story office area and building a new office building and engineering area. There also will be a track in the back of the facility to test combat vehicles for the U.S. Army Heavy Brigades. Projected investment: $31.8 million.

Coffey said Severstal is expected to go forward with its plans for a new coal mill on its grounds at the former Ford Rouge plant. He said there is some projected work at the McNamara Terminal at Metro Airport, and the Smith Terminal will be demolished at some point. A good-size U.S. Army tower is going up in Warren.

A number of major health care projects were completed and taken off the construction books last year, including the McLaren Health Village in Independence Twp., two major Henry Ford projects, at West Bloomfield and a Detroit expansion, and the Troy Beaumont Emergency expansion. Health care work in the area will be thin in 2010.

Proposed movie studio work in Allen Park and Pontiac haven’t really gotten moving. School work is scarce, although the 238,000 square-foot Marysville High School project is proceeding nicely.

“We were actually projecting a pretty decent year in early 2009,” Coffey said. “Then the money dried up and everything was mothballed. I think in 2010, we’re going to be on the mend a little bit.”

Flint area – “Last year was very slow,” said Flint Area Building Trades President Zane Walker, also a business agent with Iron Workers Local 25. “Very little work was coming out of the halls, and most people traveled out of the area to find work. This year doesn’t look like it’s going to be a stellar year either, but there will be some work here and there.”

At the top of the list is the $250 million renovation of the Flint Engine South plant. The trades are prepping the plant to make the 1.4-liter 4-cylinder Chevrolet Volt engine. There are also rumors of a new production line at the old Flint Truck and Bus building.

Next door on Bristol Road at Flint Metal Fab, a $40 million project will involve tearing old metal presses and installing new ones.

Renovations costing $60 million at McLaren Health Care in Flint will yield a new Cancer Center.

A $30 million to $40 million Swedish BioDiesel plant will be located at the old Buick City plant in Flint.

Mott Community College is building a $9 million library.

Work continues, albeit slowly, on the $30 million renovation of the historic Durant Hotel. And the old Flint Hyatt hotel is looking like it might spend $23 million on upgrades, for student housing at nearby U-M Flint.

At the old Suncrest building, Lapeer County Medical Facility will build a $12 million addition.

Between Lapeer and Genessee Counties, four water treatment facilities will be built, costing millions of dollars. A number of schools will also be built in both counties.

“The guys who get work these days are guys who hustle,” Walker said. “When you hear of work out of town, you can’t wait two or three days to decide whether you’re going to take it. You have to snap it up.”

Grand Rapids/Muskegon – At the beginning of 2009, the state’s recession hadn’t quite caught up with the construction industry in West Michigan, although a few trades were hurting.

Fast forward to January 2010, and  “it has just been a steady decline all year,” said Mark Mangione, president of the West Michigan Building Trades Council and Business Manager of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Service Trades Local 174. “They say construction is a lagging economic indicator, and that was the case around here. Work has steadily dropped off.”

Work on the “Hospital Hill” in Grand Rapids is winding down, with the $250 million Helen Devos Children’s Hospital the only substantial project remaining to be finished after more than a $1 billion in construction work along Michigan Street over the past few years.

There are a few potential bright spots, but they aren’t necessarily projects that will go union, and they might not get off the ground at all.  Three battery manufacturing facilities are being proposed, two in Holland and one in Muskegon. A casino is being proposed for Muskegon. A new $103.2 million powdered milk plant is being proposed by Continental Dairy Products for a vacant Delphi facility in Coopersville.

Grand Valley State is adding more dining and residence areas to its Allendale campus to the tune of $52 million. 

Under a Dec. 23 West Michigan Business Review article titled “West Michigan construction on hold,” a number of local money handlers said that in many cases, money to build is available. The problem is, few are asking for it.

Said Mike Peters, senior vice president and principal at Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber in Grand Rapids: “Financing, I think, is much more available than some people might think – but it’s what you mean by the word ‘financing. Is there money out there? Yeah, I think there’s money out there. Are there people willing to invest and lend it? Well, that gets beyond just the fact that there’s a pool of money – now you’re getting into people questioning the viability of the venture.”

Mangione said although there is currently anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent unemployment among union crafts in the regions, there’s “reason for optimism” in 2010 in West Michigan.

“It looks like there’s some work coming up, and we’re going to have to work to make sure it goes union,” he said.

Lansing area – While short- and long-term work prospects at Michigan State University are encouraging, the lousy economy is having an “unprecedented” negative impact on the area’s construction workforce, said Scott Clark, business manager of IBEW Local 665.

“We’re going to get some relief in 2010, but with the budget problems of state and local governments, we’re still trying to turn the corner,” Brink said.

The encouraging news coming out of the Michigan State campus is that the $49.8 million expansion of Brody Hall will continue into this year, and the planned renovation of other nearby residence halls, like Emmons, are expected to work under a project labor agreement. 

The $550 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) at MSU is still about three years away from starting construction.

Construction is continuing on the new $182 million Accident Fund Headquarters, which is transforming the Ottawa Street Power Station near downtown Lansing. Lansing Community College is sponsoring some moderate-sized projects, and some work has come from GM’s Delta Township plant

The $85 million expansion of the Delta Dental headquarters campus in Okemos will continue into a new phase this year, with the renovation of the existing headquarters building.

“Last year was probably our worst ever in terms of unemployment,” Clark said. “The electrical industry hasn’t seen any effect, good or bad, from the federal stimulus. We’re hearing that money might start moving into the private and public sectors and that good things might start happening by April. But even then, it’s going to take a while for things to start moving again.”

Monroe – Last year “we had a good run up until about June,” said Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 671 Business Manager Ron Sweat. “But the second half of the year kind of sucked.”

This year, he said, “shows some promise, but it’s going to be slow getting started.”

DTE Energy will continue with scrubber work at its Units 1 and 2 at the Monroe Power Plant. And a 12-week or so outage is expected to take place at the plant beginning March 12. Another outage will take place at the Fermi 2 Nuclear Power plant beginning in the fall, probably later September or early October, for a length of 25 days or so.

The Chrysler Engine Plant in Dundee is due for a $170 million remodel to made a new Fiat engine, but that’s not expected to start until later in the year.

School work is light in the Monroe County area, and “most everything else is dead in the water,” Sweat said. “This year won’t develop much until the third quarter, If we can just hang on until it comes.”

Southwest Michigan – “I would call 2009 flat, it wasn’t doom and gloom by any means, but we had to fight and scratch for everything we got,” said Hugh Coward, Business Manager of Iron Workers Local 340 and President of the Southwest Michigan Building Trades Council. “This year we’re looking at more of the same, but farther out, 2011 might be better.”

The area’s biggest project last year, the $300 million Firekeepers Casino in Battle Creek, opened in August. A phase II conference center and hotel at the site likely won’t get off the ground this year.

The Gun Lake Band of Pottawatomi have cleared most of the hurdles for a new $157 million casino in Wayland Twp. – except financing, which means construction may not start in earnest until 2011. The work will be performed under a project labor agreement.

Toda America Inc. plans to open a new $70.1 million plant at Fort Custer Industrial Park in Battle Creek to build lithium ion batteries in conjunction with a Johnson Controls plant in Holland.

Work continues on renovations and additions to Battle Creek Central High School, part of a $67 million bond issue that also included work on an elementary school.

Two major outages will commence at the D.C. Cook Nuclear Power plant (starting in the spring) and at the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant (starting in the fall).

There are a number of mid-size jobs in the region. Construction of a new airport terminal at the Battle Creek/Kalamazoo Airport is proceeding. The new terminal will be 33,000 square feet larger than the current facility and cost $40 million. The second phase will include a new control tower.

Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo is expected to sponsor two projects. But the Sangren Hall renovation, with a price tag of $60 million, is awaiting state funding. And an apartment/dorm complex is a go, but will likely have little union participation.

Covance Inc. said it plans to open a $14 million nutritional chemistry and food safety laboratory in Battle Creek, working in conjunction with Kellogg’s.

The VA Hospital in Battle Creek will be sponsoring a good-sized boiler project. The Army reserve is funding a $10 million new building in Battle Creek. American Axle in Three Rivers is expected to have some line work.

The old Kellegg’s Cereal City USA Museum will be renovated and expanded to the tune of $18.8 million into a building that will house Battle Creek Area School District’s Area Math and Science Center.

“It’s looking like another flat and stagnant year, with a lot of smaller projects,” Coward said. “In talking to the other building trades, and looking forward, there’s not a lot of optimism.”

Traverse City/N.W. Michigan – With 106 journeymen laid off at IBEW Local 498, amounting to 60 percent unemployment – “it’s not good around here,” said Business Manager Jeff Bush.

There are 13 Local 498 members working in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few electricians are working in area oil fields applying heat tape to fittings, and a few are working service calls. Any medium or large jobs that went union are complete, and any projects in the region that have been available have been won by nonunion firms.

“Basically guys are picking up anything they can right now,” Bush said. “The competition is working so cheap that we can’t even use targeting money against them.”

Upper Peninsula – “It was a very, very slow year in the U.P. in 2009,” said Tony Retaski, executive director of the U.P. Construction Council. “We had a few projects that just never came to life. We have a lot of workers traveling throughout the U.S. We look forward to 2010 being a better year.”

There are several large-scale projects that look to provide significant employment in 2010. A new $16.5 million residence hall at Michigan Tech University in Houghton is ongoing. There are significant K-12 school projects in Houghton and Hancock, including a new school and renovation work.

Retaskie said state permits were issued last month for the $55 million upgrade of the Ripley Heating Plant at Northern Michigan University, and now arranging funding is the next step. The plant would burn wood chips for fuel.

Only a federal groundwater injection permit is needed for final approval of the Kennecott Eagle Mine, a $100 million investment in an underground nickel mine on land located 20 miles north of Marquette.

The proposed mine has a high concentration of nickel and would be the only primary nickel mine in the world. The project would also consist of the $80 million refurbishment of the 1960s-era Humboldt Mill, which has sat unused since the 1990s.

The NewPage Paper plant near Escanaba is expected to sponsor a large-scale boiler project, but not until the fourth quarter of the year.

Renewafuel has won state grants and is planning on remodeling two hangars at the old K.I. Sawyer air base near Marquette to build a new biofuels plant. The company, owned by Cliffs Natural Resources, would make 150,000 tons of biofuel cubes that can be burned in place of coal by power plants, and burn cleaner. The cubes are a composite of collected wood and agricultural feedstocks, which will be supplied by local farmers and loggers.

Construction is continuing on the new Mackinac Straits Hospital in St. Ignace, a new $37.2 facility. Skanska USA Building is managing construction of the project, a two-story hospital that’s being erected on the north side of the city along the I-75 Business Loop on the north side of town. Work is scheduled to wrap up this spring.

A $300 cellulosic ethanol plant is also still in the works, but probably won’t start until 2012. Such a plant would create ethanol through a process that utilizes enzyme-secreting micro-organisms to convert hardwood pulp material into ethanol. Mascoma and J.M. Longyear LLC are proposing to build the plant on an old airbase in the Upper Peninsula’s Kinross Twp., about 15 miles from the Soo.

“We’re looking for 2010 to be a better year,” Retaski said. “There are some fairly significant projects in the industrial sector that have some real potential to help us thrive,” he said.

MICHIGAN, LIKE THE REST of the nation, is not exactly a hotbed for construction activity. One of the largest projects in the state is the C.S. Mott Children’s and Women’s Hospitals Replacement Project. Sponsored by the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the $523 million, 1.1 million square-foot complex  will create a new, state-of-the-art in-patient facility for children and women, and also provide shelled space for flexibility and expansion opportunities in the future. The existing hospital can’t meet current patient demand. The facility will  consist of a clinic building of nine floors and an in-patient building of 12 floors plus penthouses for mechanical equipment. Construction is scheduled to be completed in Spring 2011.

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Unions cut deal to move universal health plan

WASHINGTON – A number of union leaders seem to be on the verge of dropping their opposition to the U.S. Senate’s version of health care reform legislation, after lengthy negotiations last week with the Obama Administration.

Union leaders have strenuously objected to a scheme for paying for expanding health care by imposing a surtax on so-called “Cadillac” health care plans, like those held by many union members.

But after those negotiations… that surtax still exists. According to the Wall Street Journal, under an agreement forged by the Obama Administration, Democratic lawmakers and a number of union leaders, the surtax won’t kick in until 2018, five years after it starts for nonunion workers.

That agreement lines up with the Senate’s version of health care reform, which taxes 40% of the value of workers’ health insurance above minimums of $8,500 yearly for an individual and $23,000 for a family, with annual increases pegged to the inflation rate.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters the final health care bill he expects to emerge will be “a milestone. We’ve been fighting for health care for over 60 years, and we are on the threshold of a significant achievement….But we don’t look at this as the end of the fight, but another step in the quest for real reform.”

Wrote IBEW General President Edwin Hill, in a Jan. 14 website statement to union members: “We believe that our efforts have yielded provisions that will allow health care reform to move forward while protecting the large body of middle-class Americans, both union members and those who do not belong to unions. The unions’ talks with the administration reduced the impact of the excise tax on the middle class by a cumulative total of $60 billion.”

Paying for health care coverage for tens of millions of uninsured Americans has become a contentious issue – not only among Democrats and Republicans (who overwhelmingly don’t want anything to do with these health insurance reforms) – but among Democrats.

Some plans for revenue to offset the added costs include raising taxes on the rich, and increasing the taxes on medical device makers, nursing homes and drug manufacturers. They may or may not be included in the final plan, which must be agreed to by House and Senate negotiators. Both the House and Senate have agreed to different health-care-for-all blueprints. But this plan, now with the proposed built-in advantage for union plans, is drawing howls of protest from a number of corners.

“The White House and Congressional Democrats are picking one group of workers over another,” said Antonia Ferrier, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) to the Wall Street Journal. “If this sounds discriminatory, well, it is.”

Michael Whitney, a progressive blogger, wrote on the AFl-CIO website: “If unions take this deal, it’s a sell-out of epic proportions. I’m hard pressed to think of a deal unions could cut in health care that would cause more long-term damage to not just the credibility of the labor movement, but to the middle class itself.

“The excise tax is a tax on more expensive insurance plans that is supposed to fund part of health care reform. It was branded the ‘Cadillac tax,’ but that distorts the reality of who it will affect. This isn’t a tax on the rich; it’s a tax on the middle class, the old, and the sick with more expensive plans. And a good chunk of those plans are negotiated under collective bargaining agreements, i.e. under union contracts.”

The separate bills passed by the House and Senate would both extend coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans. The price tag would be about $1 trillion. Under both plans would be a requirement for almost everyone to carry health insurance. Employers would also be unable to prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions. Lower-income people would get subsidies to help them buy insurance.

“We are on the doorstep of accomplishing something that Washington has been talking about since Teddy Roosevelt was president, and that is reforming health care and health insurance here in America,” Obama told rank-and-file House Democrats on Jan. 14 during a visit to the Capitol.

Union leaders met with Obama officials twice last week in the effort to get a plan both sides could live with. The Fire Fighters and the Machinists, who were not in the talks, stayed opposed to taxing health care for Cadillac plans even as the AFL-CIO and other unions agreed to the tax, with the five-year delay. Numerous other unions had not issued statements on the matter.

Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger called Obama’s support of taxing health insurance benefits, “a huge disappointment” that “cannot be ignored,” as it breaks Obama’s campaign promise not to do so.  “If President Obama continues to support it and signs a bill that includes the excise tax on workers, we will hold him accountable,” he said.

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Labor isn’t going to accept a bad bill” Oh really?
A viewpoint by by Press Associates Union News Service

“We aren’t going to accept a bad bill just to get an agreement,” AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka said on Jan. 11 of the Senate’s health care revision bill.

Sorry, Mr. President, you just did.

After a week of intense negotiations between union leaders and Democratic President Barack Obama – and his top staffers -- over taxing workers’ health insurance benefits, above certain minimums, to help pay for almost-universal health care coverage, the unionists finally yielded on the issue.

They won some changes from the Senate bill: Higher minimums – $8,900 for an individual and $24,000 for a family – below which the value of health care plans would not be taxed.  And the minimums would rise with inflation.  They didn’t in the original Senate bill.

Plans with large numbers of women and/or older workers would have even higher minimums than those numbers, though how much higher was not specified.  Same thing for plans covering workers in high-risk professions, such as fire fighting.

And the $24,000 minimum is actually more like $26,000, the AFL-CIO fact sheet said, because dental and vision coverage wouldn’t be counted.  Dentistry is expensive. 

But the fact remains that, starting in 2018, union workers’ health care plans will be taxed.  

There is no public option to compete with the insurance companies, their high co-pays and deductibles, their denial of care, their ejection of policyholders right when people need insurance when they get sick, and the insurers-caused 44,780 annual deaths due to lack of coverage.   There is no option for establishing single-payer government-run alternatives to the insurers, not even state by state.    

There is no strong requirement that companies cover their workers.  Wal-Mart can still get away with not doing so, maybe just paying a small per-worker fine.

And there is still the Stupak amendment and its virtual ban on insurance coverage of abortion –  either with federal funds or your own – to overcome.

Put this together and it spells the “bad bill” Trumka denounced.

One union blogger reacting to the health care tax agreement, on the AFL-CIO website, wrote a list of what unions had demanded and retreated from in health care, ending each position with the words “Scratch that!”  At the close, the blogger predicted union leaders would ask members to campaign for the Democrats again this fall, and responded “SCRATCH THAT!!!!!”

In his speech, Trumka said: “In 1992, workers voted for Democrats who promised action on jobs, who talked about reining in corporate greed and who promised health care reform.

“Instead, we got NAFTA, an emboldened Wall Street and not much more.  We swallowed our disappointment and worked to preserve a Democratic majority in 1994 because we knew what the alternative was.  But there was no way to persuade enough working Americans to go to the polls when they couldn’t tell the difference between the two parties.  Politicians who think working Americans have it too good…are inviting a repeat of 1994,” when the GOP swept Congress. 

Politicians and union leaders “are inviting a repeat of 1994” this fall. By taxing workers’ health care benefits, they’ll get it.

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Employee Free Choice Act: ‘It has to be this year…’

WASHINGTON – (PAI) In an interview with Press Associates Union News Service, AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel said a vote on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) “it has to be this year because who knows what Congress will look like” after this fall’s election.

The labor legislation, one of the union movement’s top two legislative priorities -- comprehensive, universal, affordable health care is the other -- has been hung up virtually ever since the 111th Congress began for two reasons: Health care consumed Congress’ attention, and Senate Democrats lacked the 60 votes they needed to overcome a planned and promised GOP filibuster against the workers’ rights law.

“Negotiations were suspended over the summer” over compromises to get wavering Senate Democrats – including Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and Arkansas’ Blanche Lambert Lincoln – on board, Samuel explained. And it has recently been announced that veteran pro-worker Sens. Byron Dorgan D-N.D., and Chris Dodd, D-Conn., are retiring, with Dorgan’s seat up for grabs.

House passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is taken for granted.

Before that, senators talked about several compromises in the legislation. The bill is designed to help level the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing campaigns and in bargaining. The compromises would supersede the bill’s most-notable provision, majority sign-up as an alternative to NLRB-run elections.

“We’ll have input on that” compromise if one is crafted, “but then we’ll have to make a judgment about if it is a bill we can support,” Samuel added.

But even if the three wavering Dems had voted to shut off a GOP filibuster – if not for the bill itself – the bill still would have lacked the 60 Democratic votes for it last year, Samuel points out.

That’s due to the illnesses and sporadic attendance of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., the fatal brain cancer and death of longtime labor champion Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., a long vacancy in Minnesota’s second U.S. Senate seat – finally filled by Democrat Al Franken – and a shorter one in Massachusetts after Kennedy died.

“We didn’t have the votes for it last year, but now it’s in a position to pass,” Samuel says of EFCA. “When it does, we still think there’s a hope some Senate Republicans will support it, but the modern Senate is very polarized,” politically. The compromises needed to gain Specter, Landrieu, Lincoln and other wavering Democrats might be enough to get votes from the remaining few Senate GOP moderates, he says.

Nearly everything has taken a back seat to health care, and there is no timetable for a Senate vote on EFCA, Samuel admits.


‘We’re glad to be here’
Trades set up Detroit auto show


DETROIT – Organizers of the annual North American International Auto Show tout the impact of the annual new car fest by pointing out the 650,000 visitors to Cobo Center, global press coverage by journalists from 50 countries, and the 50 vehicle debuts.

But behind the scenes, hundreds of electricians, iron worker/riggers, Stagehands and Teamsters may be the happiest people in the area to have the annual show come to town. “You wouldn’t believe what this show means to people doing the set-up,” said IBEW Local 58 journeyman Mike Karam, working the show for Motor City Electric. “With all the unemployment, in the dead of winter, we’re glad to be here.”

The auto show provides an economic impact of some $350 million to Southeast Michigan. The displays aren’t quite as elaborate as they were a few years ago – when many automakers went to double-deck set-ups because of a lack of space at Cobo.  But the set-ups are a little more elaborate than last year’s, when two of the Big Three domestic automakers were headed for bankruptcy.

“”I think the displays are a little better, and the mood here is a little better,” said IBEW Local 58 foreman Randy Lewis, who is working his fourth auto show. “The domestic automakers are making a nice statement, and they’re showcasing their products really well.”

The public can see the auto show through Jan. 24. More than 700 vehicles will be on display, in what the auto show calls “North America's largest and most prestigious automotive showcase.”

SETTING UP A power inverter under a Chevy Silverado at the Detroit auto show is Jay Schultz of IBEW Local 58, working for Motor City Electric.

IBEW LOCAL 58 electrician Mike Karam sets up the power inverter on a Ram Heavy Duty 4500 truck at the Detroit auto show.

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News Briefs

Big dip for wages in construction

The Great Recession has caught up with construction wages and benefits – and how.

Construction industry collective bargaining agreements in 2009 often brought about low or no wage and benefit increases. And where wage increases were agreed to, the additional money was usually allocated to pension funds.

As researched by the Construction Labor Research Council and reported by the Construction Labor Report, settlements for labor agreements in 2009 averaged $1.23 or 2.8 percent for the first year. The last time the average first year increase was under 3 percent was in 1996.

In 2008, the first year of construction labor settlements was $1.95 per hour or 4.6 percent. Between 1999 and two years ago, the average of first year settlement increases ranged from 3.8 to 4.6 percent.

The numbers were worse In the East North Central Region, which includes Michigan, where wage and benefit increases in 2009 amounted to $1.15 per hour or 2.5 percent.

Construction a drag on U.S. economy

Deteriorating demand for construction services continued to drag on the economy as new federal figures show another 53,000 construction workers lost their jobs in December and the industry’s unemployment rate climbed to 22.7 percent, the Associated General Contractors of America reported Jan. 12.

Overall U.S. unemployment held steady at 10.0 percent in December.

“If it wasn’t for construction, our economic picture would actually be getting slightly better,” said the AGC’s chief economist, Ken Simonson. “Unfortunately, construction layoffs are dragging down the broader employment picture.”

Simonson noted that outside of construction, non-farm payroll employment rose by 31,000, seasonally adjusted, in November and shrank by 32,000 in December. Construction, however, lost 80,000 more jobs in both months, he added, while the industry’s unemployment rate, not seasonally adjusted, is now more than double the all-industry rate.

According to the new federal employment figures, more than 2 million construction workers are currently unemployed and 934,000 construction workers lost their jobs during the past 12 months alone.

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