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April 13, 2001

Carpenters break with AFL-CIO and building trades

Paltry GOP support helps sustain prevailing wage

School's still out on school inspection legislation

Once the world's longest bridge, Ambassador now distinguished for its years of stately service

Want to improve industry's image? Ask the people who wear the hard hats

Bricklayers provide crash course so courses will be straight in Kosovo




Carpenters break with AFL-CIO and building trades

The 350,000-member International Union of Carpenters and Joiners has withdrawn from the AFL-CIO, effective March 29.

The move "had been expected since the union's August convention when delegates gave Carpenters President Douglas J. McCarron the green light to withdraw if he believed it was warranted," reported the Engineering News Record.

McCarron has been critical of the AFL-CIO leadership, particularly with the way union dues have been spent on organizing. The Carpenters reportedly contribute about $3 million a year to the AFL-CIO's $100 million budget.

In a letter to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, McCarron said that the federation "continues to operate under the rules and procedures of an era that passed years ago."

But since 1995, when Sweeney took over the top spot at the AFL-CIO, union membership numbers in the U.S. have been more or less flat - putting a stop to a decades-long slide in the nation's population of union members.

"We are disappointed at the decision of the Carpenters," Sweeney said. "I believe that we have an important and mutually beneficial relationship, and that today's unions need to be unified to provide a strong voice for Carpenters members, other union members and all working families, who face serious and challenging issues. I hope they will reconsider their decision."

The Carpenters did not officially abandon the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department. However, Sweeney said according to the federation's constitution, any international union that disaffiliates is not allowed to remain in any subordinate body of the AFL-CIO - which effectively bans them from the building trades.

In May 1996 the Michigan Regional Carpenters Council effectively withdrew from the Greater Detroit and Michigan Building Trades councils.

On an international union level, this was the first union defection from the AFL-CIO since 1968, when the United Auto Workers withdrew over the federation's support of the Vietnam War.

The withdrawal by the carpenters was all the buzz last week at the Building and Construction Trades Department Legislative Conference in Washington D.C. One of the main questions that was asked then, and was unanswered at press time: what will happen to Carpenters working in the field under national project labor agreements like the National Maintenance Agreement?

NMA projects require an all-union labor force, and contract language also requires that all workers be part of a union that's affiliated with the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department. Will the Carpenters' defection from the building trades mean that their rank and file members will lose their jobs on NMA projects and other jobs that operate under national agreements?

NMA projects in particular employ thousands of building trades workers in Michigan, usually on heavy industry jobs sponsored by the automakers, utilities and steel manufacturers.

Stay tuned. Any binding decisions and directives will be coming from the international union level.

"The Governing Board will be holding an intensive work session in the near future to explore and address the many issues raised by the Carpenters decision to leave the AFL-CIO and the Building and Construction Trades Department, in a manner that respects the sensitive nature of our industry and the relationships within it," said Building Trades Department President Edward C. Sullivan in a letter to affiliates.


Paltry GOP support helps sustain prevailing wage

LANSING - Prevailing wage continues to be one of the Republican Party's favorite whipping boys, but the state law is being saved by a few GOP members who haven't joined in the fray.

This year, there are no less than four bills that would, in one form or another, repeal the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act of 1966. It is the single most important law that keeps Michigan construction wages among the highest in the nation.

There have been bills to repeal prevailing wage in every legislative session in recent memory. This time, the state Republican sponsors are tying prevailing wage repeal to bills that would:

  • Exempt local public school districts from prevailing wage requirements;
  • Eliminate the reference to prevailing wage on state-funded road projects;
  • Eliminate the reference to prevailing wage on public school construction projects.
  • Tie the prevailing wage repeal to proposed repeal of living wage provisions in local communities.

"The anti-prevailing wage bills are out there, but we should be able to turn them back," said Michigan AFL-CIO Legislative Assistant Ken Fletcher. "Republicans still don't have enough votes in the House or the Senate."

The GOP has a majority in both houses of the state legislature, but the building trades have cultivated a few friendships among a handful of Republican lawmakers, who have not bought in to the party line that prevailing wage increases project costs or otherwise harms the state.

According to Fletcher, supporting the building trades in the Michigan House over the prevailing wage issue are Republican representatives Gene DeRossett, Paul DeWeese, Mike Kowall, Randy Richardville, and Sal Rocca.

In the state Senate, Republicans Philip Hoffman, Mike Goschka, John Schwartz have likewise supported prevailing wage.


School's still out on school inspection legislation

Last summer we published a story under the headline, "school inspection bill finally makes the grade among state lawmakers."

Before the year was out, it was expected that the lawmakers would finally close a huge loophole in Michigan law that offers no regulation on the construction of school buildings, except for input from the state fire marshal.

Well, 2000 came to a close - and nothing was passed. And the first three months of 2001 have come and gone - same story. "We're still waiting," state Sen. Chris Dingell said last week. He has been a prime backer of the legislation throughout the 1990s. "We're looking for the bill to be re-introduced into the House in the next few months."

The legislation would require inspection of school buildings during the construction process, either by local building departments or by the state if no one is qualified locally. The legislation would also allow limited inspections of schools that have already been built.

In the last legislative session, a re-worked version of the bill was held up in the Senate primarily by Sen. Mike Rogers, who has since gone on to Congress.

Dingell was motivated to get the legislation adopted because of the near collapse of walls at Patrick Henry Middle School in Woodhaven, located in his district. And in 1998, the tragic collapse a block wall at Flushing High School killed four building trades workers.


Once the world's longest bridge, Ambassador now distinguished for its years of stately service

By Marty Mulcahy

Notoriety surrounding the Ambassador Bridge was never so great as the day it opened to traffic on Nov. 11, 1929.

At 1,850 feet between its main anchorages, the span was an architectural marvel and laid claim to being the longest suspension bridge in the world. Detroit and Windsor, Ontario no longer had to depend on ferry boats to facilitate travel and trade. Completion of the bridge was the apex of astounding growth in the region that took place during the 1920s - which all came to a grinding halt in late October 1929 with the crash of the stock market and the beginning of the Great Depression.

As the busiest international border crossing in the nation, the span cost $23.5 million to build but has easily paid for itself over the years with user fees. Built rock-solid, the bridge's owners have never skimped on maintenance, and today, the bridge stands ready to serve international travelers for decades to come.

"I would say it has been a very well-maintained bridge," said Steve Vlahakis, owner of Seaway Painting. "When we painted it, we went down to bare metal, and we took off maybe five or ten coats. I really believe the lead paint they used over the years helped preserve the metal on that bridge, because we never saw anything more than surface rust."

The company employed 12 union painters in 1999-2000 when three coats of teal paint were applied to one of the bridge's towers and part of the superstructure, as part of a project that saw the span completely repainted.

Since the day it opened, The Ambassador Bridge has provided steady if unspectacular service. Originally painted gloss black, it remained that color until the 1950s, when the bridge's owners decided to try aluminum paint. The experiment failed when they later found that heavy downriver pollution was covering the bridge with a sooty black.

The bridge's original pavement - granite blocks set in sand - was replaced by asphalt in 1952. A necklace of lights were added to the bridge main cables about a decade ago. Throughout the 1990s, improvements have been made to both customs facilities and approach areas.

The Ambassador didn't own the title "World's Longest Suspension Bridge" for very long. The span over the Detroit River was surpassed in length in 1931 with the completion of the George Washington Bridge in New York, which was built nearly twice as long as the Ambassador.

"The Ambassador Bridge was limited by the technology at the time, but that's not a bad thing," said Gongkang Fu, associate professor of civil engineering at Wayne State University. "The engineers at the time built conservatively. The bridges were overbuilt. No one was sure how long the bridge would last, so they made the cables bigger, and they put in thicker steel."

The first plan to build a bridge over the Detroit River in the early 1920s was deemed too ambitious. One New York engineer came forward with a plan to build a two-level bridge that would accommodate automobiles, trains, street cars and pedestrians.

A more realistic and less expensive plan sprang up a few years later, brought forth by American Transit Co. President Joseph Bower and financier John Austin. They were able to sell the idea of building the bridge to the U.S. President, the Governor-General of Canada, Congress, the Canadian Parliament, the State of Michigan, the Province of Ontario, and various maritime associations - everyone but Detroit Mayor John W. Smith. His objection: the bridge's users would pay for its cost and debt service, and eventually would pay a perpetual profit to the owners.

Mayor Smith's objections later led to a referendum in the City of Detroit, and voters favored building the bridge by an 8-1 margin during an election on June 28, 1927.

Boring operations for the bridge had actually started six weeks earlier, because the builders had to meet a federally imposed deadline to start. The general contract for the bridge was signed on July 20, 1927, with engineering and construction awarded to the McClintic-Marshall Co. of Pittsburgh.

With building trades workers nearly ready to suspend the bridge deck from the cables, word came on Feb. 22, 1929 that there were numerous broken heat-treated wires in cable on the nearly completed Mount Hope suspension bridge in Rhode Island. That was bad news, since the Ambassador Bridge was using the same kind of cable.

Cold-drawn wire had been used on bridges for half a century, but the Ambassador Bridge designers opted to go with heat-treated wire cables, which had a much higher tensile strength than the cold-drawn steel wire.

A subsequent inspection of the Ambassador Bridge revealed a few broken strands - but not wanting to take a chance, Bower decided to eat the half-million-dollar cost of replacing the cables. The old cables were replaced in time for the bridge to open on Nov. 11, 1929 - which was still nine months ahead of schedule.

The Ambassador Bridge's two main towers rise 386 feet above the Detroit River, and are anchored 105 feet into the bedrock below the river. The entire length of the bridge is 7,490 feet.

No one knows if the bridge would be in the same good condition today if the heat-treated cables were kept in place. Professor Fu said there are about 50 suspension bridges in the U.S., and inspecting them is difficult because they can't be opened up easily.

Today, he said, suspension bridges are built most often in the Far East, and engineers are "pushing the envelope" of technology with ever-longer spans and the use of lighter materials. If the Ambassador span is maintained properly, Fu said, "even today we still don't have a good answer about how long it will last."

THE AMBASSADOR BRIDGE, once the longest suspension bridge in the world, now ranks 30th. Original plans called for the bridge to be built with 135 feet of clearance over the Detroit River, but concerns over the height of future ships led designers to raise the center of the bridge to 152 feet over the river. From end to end, the bridge is 7,490 feet.

BUILDING TRADES WORKERS toil near the top of the north tower of the Ambassador Bridge, about 386 feet above the Detroit River. This photo was taken on Nov. 14, 1928.

Photo courtesy Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University



Want to improve industry's image? Ask the people who wear the hard hats

Tradesman Viewpoint

There's yet another call to improve the construction industry's "image" - and to do that, improving worker pay is moving ever-so-slowly onto the radar screen.

Robert Desjardins, incoming president of the Associated General Contractors, said in a March 22 interview with the Construction Labor Report that he will urge AGC members and chapters to make investments in education and safety to enhance the industry's image.

"For far too many people, construction has become a career of last resort," Desjardins said. "Construction workers and the construction industry have terrible, undeserved public images. Some think it's where people work when they can't find a better job. Many believe that construction work is unsafe, dirty, unsuitable for women, and not rewarding."

Earlier this year, Henry G. Kelly, the new national president of the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors, said recognizing the value of skilled craftworkers will now be a priority of the contractors group. "We need to be paying them a competitive wage and we need to offer them a competitive benefit package," he said.

The reason: "There are just not as many people available for the industry as there once were," said Kelly. He added, "it's time for contractors to step up and change the image of this industry."

For his part, Desjardins said wages are an issue "only to some extent."

Desjardins should ask construction workers to what "extent" pay is an issue, because we suspect he'd get an earful. Wages have barely kept up with inflation during the 1990s. If construction workers are sick and don't show up for work, they don't get paid. If it rains, construction workers don't get paid. If there's no work, construction workers don't get paid.

The AGC and the ABC are focusing their construction industry image-building efforts on improving training and safety - which are laudable goals. Worker safety issues should be at the top of any industry group's priority, be they union or nonunion.

While improving safety, training and possibly even wages are suddenly on the agenda for the AGC and ABC, permit us to point out that construction unions have been pressing for all those things for more than a century.

No, that doesn't mean that unions have the inside track on attracting or retaining workers today - we were alarmed to see a report in Cockshaw's Newsletter that the nation's unionized general contractors declined from 32 percent in 1996 to 28 percent today. And the number of unionized construction workers has been flat or has declined slightly over the last few years.

But it seems to us that if a nonunion contractor is looking to attract and retain workers, isn't it about time that they got off their high horse and start collectively bargaining with union members about what they want?

Over the last century, construction trade unions have led the way in training, safety and wages. The infrastructure is in place, and currently serves more than three million unionized workers in the U.S. If any worker is aware of his or her needs or priorities needs on the job, it's the union worker.

But do you suppose the business community will ever consult workers about what they want? Don't count on it. Any real changes would require collectively bargaining with unions - and for the nation's nonunion contractors, it's easier to give lip service to changing the industry's image than it would be to give a voice to workers, who would probably tell them a lot of things they don't want to hear, anyway.


Bricklayers provide crash course so courses will be straight in Kosovo

By Marty Mulcahy

What can you teach a layman about laying block in a four-hour crash course?

"If they can do their work without getting themselves or someone else hurt, I'll consider this a success," said Bricklayers and Allied Craft Workers Local 1 apprenticeship instructor Jack Love.

On April 5, Love and some Local 1 apprentices were asked to give a very, very brief lesson in mixing mortar and putting up a block wall to three members of Northville Christian Assembly. The three are among an 18-member team of Assembly of God missionaries who have volunteered to rebuild the devastated infrastructure in Kosovo - specifically, they have been asked to construct a new community center.

One of the men expected to soon head off to Kosovo for a 10-day mission is Michael Sage of Livonia. The 43-year-old Detroit Edison construction manager has a good deal of experience in the building business, and he's been on similar working missions to places like El Salvador, Jamaica and Moldavia.

Sage, who is married with four children, spends his own money on the trips, uses his own vacation time, and does what he does because he believes in helping others to "rebuild physically and spiritually."

"The way I look at it, I can't preach, but I can build a block wall," said Sage at the Local 1 Training Center. "I've laid block before, but it's good to get a refresher. I'd hazard a guess that when we get there, we're going to be the most knowledgeable, so we'll be the most dangerous."

Love said his shortened curriculum will center around safety - the importance of wearing a hard hat, how to heft block without sustaining an injury, erecting scaffolding, and not working where your skull can get bashed in by a falling materials. Other lessons: mixing mortar, buttering block, and setting straight courses.

"We're giving them just a little knowledge to get them going," Love said. "I've never condensed 4,500 hours down to four, but hopefully this will help a little."

Sage said the natives of countries he has visited often don't have a high opinion of Americans, and consider us rich and selfish. "But when they find out we're here to help them, and we're paying our own way, they're dumbfounded," he said. "It amazes them and they're usually quite gracious."

Sage learned about the Local 1/International Masonry Institute Apprenticeship School during a job fair, and then asked for a little training in the craft. Joining him was Mark Wojtkowski, 36, a Northwest Airlines ground service worker.

"These guys are really nice, and they've shown us some great stuff," he said.

"This is just another example of union labor helping out, here, and across the pond," said Local 1 Business Manager Ray Chapman.

BAC LOCAL 1 apprentice instructor Jack Love, left, and Business Manager Ray Chapman, right, look on as Michael Sage learns the finer points of using a trowel.




Some Republicans like project agreements
President Bush may not like union-only project agreements, but his opinion is not shared by all Republicans.

The Construction Labor Report said a surprising number of Republican House lawmakers - 33 - signed a March 12 letter to President Bush expressing disappointment with his Feb. 17 order restricting the use of project labor agreements on federally funded construction projects.

The letter signed by the Republicans said they have "constructive and mutually supportive relationships" with building trades unions. Such agreements, they said, "increase productivity and keep complex projects on schedule."

A ban on such agreements, they said, "would unfairly hamper decision makers who are closer to the particular needs of a given project."

Project labor agreements typically include no-strike, no-lockout clauses, standardize work rules among the crafts, and stipulate that the project must be performed with all union crafts.

Bush voids contractor rule
President Bush on March 30 ordered the suspension of a Clinton Administration rule that would have significantly strengthened the government's ability to deny contracts to companies that have violated workplace safety, environmental and other federal laws.

The move was yet another jab at organized labor. The rule originally took effect the day Bill Clinton left office, and directed federal agencies to assess whether prospective contractors have violated federal laws. Any violations could be held against companies in the competition for more than $200 billion in government contracting work.

The Clinton Administration maintained that the new rule was needed to reduce the risk of fraud and abuse by contractors, but the business community said the rule would amount to "blacklisting" of federal contractors and was a payback to labor unions.

'The administration's decision on the contractor responsibility rule is just the latest in an almost daily and distressful drumbeat of regulatory rollbacks," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

The Bush Administration has been in office for less than three months, but in that time it has killed the above rule, suspended union-only project labor agreements, halted new pro-worker ergonomics guidelines, and has suspended rules that would have strengthened standards governing arsenic levels in drinking water.

ABC's contributions get Bush's attention
If there's any doubt as to why President Bush has been so anti-union in his first months in office, follow the money.

The web site of the Associated Builders and Contractors says the anti-union contractor group had the nation's 29th largest Political Action Committee in the nation during the last election cycle, with $1.4 million in donations. The ABC was also the fifth-largest campaign contributor to Republican candidates.

Of course, organized labor contributed heavily to Al Gore's campaign, so that didn't help the standing of unions with Bush.


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