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July 20, 2001
By Marty Mulcahy
It was said more than once in the days before last November's general election that "this election will determine the fate of working people in Michigan for the next 10 years."
It wasn't hype or an embellishment. Last week, the Michigan House and Senate approved the method in which Michigan's district lines will be drawn in a process that takes place after the completion of every 10-year census. With Republicans maintaining control of all portions of state government, including the Michigan Supreme Court, it was expected that they would re-draw or gerrymander lawmaker boundaries to allow the GOP to maintain its advantage for years to come on the state and federal level.
That's exactly what happened.
"Blind partisanship is what it is, and I would hope it would not prevail," said U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, whose district was combined with Rep. David Bonior, who is running for Michigan governor.
Here is what the re-drawn boundaries are expected to do on various levels of government.
Michigan congressional delegation.
The results of the U.S. Census revealed that Michigan gained population, but not as much in proportion to other states, especially compared to the Sun Belt. As a result, Michigan will lose one of its 16 seats in Congress. Republicans structured the new districts to give themselves a hoped-for 9-6 majority in that delegation, instead of the current 9-7 edge held by Dems.
"The claim is that this is based on neutral criteria," said Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer. "If you have a plan that results in a 9-6 Republican advantage, it's not neutral."
Democrats argue that the process shouldn't place their party at such a disadvantage, given the evenly matched numbers in the last election. Al Gore won 51 percent of the vote, and current U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow won her seat with the same margin last November.
The Republican plan moves boundaries to make it much easier for current Secretary of State Candice Miller to win the re-drawn district formerly held by Bonior in Macomb County.
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Brighton, who squeaked by in winning his seat in Congress last November, got a substantially more Republican district in the redrawing process. The new plan will force Downriver Democratic Rep. John Dingell and Ann Arbor Congressional Democrat Lynn Rivers to vie for the same seat. U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee of Flint and James Barcia of Bay City will also be forced to fight for the same seat.
The Michigan Democratic Party is suing to have the lines re-drawn, and they're taking their case to federal court - knowing that they have little chance of winning in the Michigan Supreme Court. Candice Miller was the subject of the suit - it was alleged that the new plan violates the federal Voting Rights Act, which says states cannot discriminate against minorities when district boundaries are re-drawn.
The lawsuit may bring changes - The 1991-1992 congressional redistricting was ultimately done by a federal court, after it rejected plans put forward by the Democrats and by the Republicans as too partisan.
Michigan House of Representative - This body is now controlled by a 57-52 Republican majority, and the gerrymandering process is expected to boost the GOP advantage to favor that party in as many as 63 districts.
The City of Detroit is a big loser in the process, reflecting its loss of population. A large portion of the east side of the city, for example, is expected to be placed in the district of a Grosse Pointe Republican.
"This is a blueprint for diluting minority voting districts," said Sen. Joseph Young, Jr., D-Detroit, providing for the argument in the court or appeals.
The Michigan Senate - It's expected to be equally bloody for Democrats in this chamber. Republicans currently enjoy a 22-15 majority, and analysts now say with luck, the GOP could gain as many as 25 seats. Republicans have so much control that they could afford to alienate their less-conservative members by moving boundaries that favor senators who are more conservative.
Statewide offices - Offices like Michigan governor, secretary of state, and attorney general won't be affected by redistricting.
Through all the speculation, in the political process, the right candidates have to be found, the right campaigns have to be run, and the voters in the newly formed districts have to vote the way the Republican gerrymanderers think they will. Things may not turn out the way they planned. Still
"The Republican Party owns the process this time around
... that's never happened before," said John Chamberlin,
associate dean of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public
Policy in a published report. "They're going to get the
chance to stack the deck for a decade."
By Marty Mulcahy
More than 600 Hardhats are currently in the Ford Field playbook, working to shape the future gridiron into one of the most unique stadiums in the nation. In two months, the roster of trades workers is expected to double - making the football stadium project in Detroit among the largest construction jobs in the state.
Ford Field is actually two projects being handled simultaneously. One is the renovation of the 80-year-old Hudson's warehouse, which will form the south wall of the stadium and will house luxury suites, press box, restaurants, food courts, lounge areas, banquet facilities and retail and office space. That portion of the project is being managed by White/Olson. Calling the plays for the rest of the stadium job outside of the warehouse are Hunt Construction Group and Jenkins Construction.
Ground was broken on the project on Nov. 16, 1999, and the entire project is set for completion on July 1, 2002. The stadium will seat 65,000 and will cost more than $300 million.
Tom Lewand, the Lions' vice president for stadium development, earlier this year talked about a number of features of the new stadium. The priority listed here is in the eye of the beholder:
The unconventional stadium is also being constructed unconventionally. The stadium's upper bowl is rising first, followed by the roof. The lower bowl will be dug out after most of the buildings exterior is complete in order to make it easier to build the rest of the structure. For the sake of worker safety, steel trusses that will support the roof are being constructed on the field and are being lifted into place.
Ford Field will be the home to Super Bowl XL on Feb. 5, 2006.
"You are not going to see another one of these or anything even close to it any place," said Michael McGunn, project manager for SmithGroup, the lead design and engineering team. "The connection to a warehouse hasn't been done in football. Even in baseball, the warehouse in Baltimore at Camden Yards is across the street. At this stadium, when you are in the warehouse, you are in the stadium."
The Michigan House and Senate last month adopted a bill that would make it a felony for motorists to injure or kill construction workers because of drunk or reckless driving. Gov. John Engler is expected to sign it.
Introduced by GOP Sen. Bill Bullard, Jr., the Injuring Highway Construction Workers Act is a response to increased road construction over the last several years - and the increase in road worker injuries and fatalities.
Under the legislation, motorists driving drunk who are responsible for causing injury or death to workers in construction zones would be charged with a felony plus larger fines. A conviction would bring a maximum sentence of up to 15 years.
The bill would also mandate denial or revocation of the motorist's license if he or she is found guilty for the reckless death of a highway construction zone worker. The legislation goes well beyond the current law, which doubles penalties in work zones but does not necessarily mandate a charge of a felony.
Bullard said the measures complements legislation addressing the injury or death of police officers and emergency services personnel that was passed into law last year.
"Establishing tough penalties for violating construction
zone speed limits and traffic controls sends a strong, clear
message to all drivers that those orange barrels and cautionary
signs must be obeyed," he said. . We need to ensure our
highway construction workers are just as safe and well protected."
Modernizing the 75-year-old mechanical systems at Detroit's St. Patrick's Senior Center has taken nearly four years, hundreds of hours of volunteer labor, and thousands of dollars in at-cost and donated supplies.
The inner-city Detroit parish off of Woodward has been the recipient of such generosity because of all the good it does. The parish's senior center serves 6,000 meals a month and offers meals, medical and dental care to the area's low-income senior citizens.
Over the years, Pipe Fitters Local 636 and their contractors and suppliers have teamed up to help the parish improve and upgrade its steam heating system, as well as take care of numerous other miscellaneous jobs. The latest project should address the parish's needs for the foreseeable future - installation of a permanent cooling system on a converted cold food pantry behind the senior center, which replaces a nearby old refrigerated truck trailer that was intended to be "temporary" when it was first installed 20 years ago.
Journeymen pipe fitters Mike Pitts, Bob Miller and apprentice Chris Gouin, all W.J. O'Neil employees, each volunteered their time to relocate the existing evaporator, installing a new condenser and putting in new wiring to keep the food storage locker area cold for years to come. Toiling after work and on weekends, they each put in 30-40 hours on the project.
"We're pretty fortunate, we have a good job and earn good money," Pitts said. "There are a lot of less-fortunate people out there, and the people at St. Pat's do a great job of helping them out. This is our way of giving something back to the community." Added Miller: "The church has been around a few years, and it needs some work. This is for a good cause, so I'm happy to help out."
Pipe Fitters Local 636 Business Manager Jim Lapham said the first time he had heard of St. Patrick's was when its executive director, Sister Mary Watson, was on the radio and mentioned the need for volunteers to repair their steam heating system.
"I talked to her because I thought she needed her boiler fixed," Lapham said. "But she told me, 'no, we need a new boiler.' Well that would have cost about $300,000. It turns out that Detroit Edison, which feeds them their steam, was threatening to turn off the supply, but they changed their mind, thank God.
"So we didn't have to find a new boiler, but she did have a whole list of things that needed to be done, and now I think that we're about at the end of the list. I'm afraid to ask if she's happy because she's probably going to find something else for us to do," Lapham joked.
She's happy. The entire senior center is happy.
"It was just Cadillac workmanship, we're ecstatic," said Jackie Brown, the senior center's office manager. Sister Mary was on vacation last week. "A lot of people think that money alone is the answer, but it isn't. We could never afford all the work they did. They gave so much of their time and effort to help us, and we're so grateful."
"The guys really did a great job, they devoted a whole weekend to getting the job done," said Local 636 BA Frank Wiechert. "It really shows how helpful union people care about their community."
Not long ago, Magnatech President John Emmerson received a desperate call on a Friday afternoon from a welding contractor building a power plant on a Caribbean island.
Twenty percent of his workforce walked off the job that day, and he had a tall order: could Connecticut-based Magnatech deliver orbital mechanized welding machines to the island by Monday morning? The contractor figured that even though his existing workforce had little or no experience with orbital welding, the use of the machines - which cost an average of $50,000 each - could make up for the loss of manpower, and keep his construction project on schedule.
"It didn't matter whether we could get the machines there, I told him he's got it all wrong," said Emmerson. "You can't expect this machinery to come in on one day, and the next day make it work for you. That's why I like what the Boilermakers are doing. They're giving their people adequate time to train, without saying, 'tomorrow, you're going to have to produce.' The machine is dumb. It needs trained people to operate it."
Last month, Boilermakers Local 169, in conjunction with Magnatech and two other firms, sponsored a two-week-long seminar to train union instructors in the use of orbital mechanized welding. The process was first developed about 30 years ago in the nuclear power and aerospace industries, and today the system is used in just about any industry that uses welded tubes and pipes.
Orbital welding takes the task of holding a stick and torch and puts it into a machine process, which results in an orbital weld 360 degrees around a tube. The process can yield greater speed and productivity - in the right application. The system works best when the handler sets up the workflow to include similar-sized pipes in a repetitive set-up.
"It's an expensive technology, but it's here to stay," said Local 169 Business Manager John Marek. "More and more customers, particularly the utilities, want people who are qualified in orbital welding, and this is our way of making sure our people are able to man those jobs."
In some ways, use of the machine is effective simply because it doesn't require breaks and doesn't get sore shoulders. Given a suitable application, mechanized welding productivity can realistically increase three-fold over manual welding, but preparation means everything in the process.
Ten Boilermaker instructors, from both Local 169 and Toledo Local 85, took part in the week-long training. The local bought a machine and rented two for the training program. Tony Jacobs, Local 169's president and apprenticeship coordinator, said armed with their new knowledge, the local's training staff will develop a training curriculum and mesh it into the Boilermakers' existing certified welder program.
"It's pretty slick," said Local 169 instructor Rich
Cowley. "At times you just can't use it, especially when
there are space limitations. But in the right application, it
definitely saves time."
Workers shortchanged with jobless money
That means that increasing numbers of building trades workers are relying on state Unemployment Insurance to help get them over the rough financial spots - and as we've pointed out several times in the last few months, they're finding they're not getting as much help as they might have expected.
Every few months, we get a press release wherein the Michigan Unemployment Agency continues to tout the state's business climate while rubbing salt into the wound of the state's workers. Late last month, their press advisory announced that Michigan's unemployment benefits trust fund is at a record-high $3.1 billion. In addition, the estimated tax rate for Michigan employers dropped in 2000 to 2.60 percent from 2.66 percent in 1999.
"Michigan gave most employers a 10 percent across-the-board cut in jobless taxes last year as well as a reduction in one of the tax rate components," the press release said. "The cuts were triggered by a high cash reserve in the state's unemployment insurance trust fund."
Good for the employers. But workers are continuing to get the short end of the stick. In an era of record trust fund reserves, the Unemployment Insurance benefit has been capped at $300 per week since 1995, with no allowance to adjust for inflation. That task was taken care of by Gov. John Engler and the Republican-dominated state legislature.
If that bill had not passed into law, and the old rules were still in effect, the maximum Unemployment Insurance benefit would now be $414.39 cents a week.
Proposals to increase that benefit amount by democratic lawmakers
have gone nowhere.
Wage increases move higher
The report, released by the Construction Labor Research Council, said the "East North Central Region," which includes Michigan, had the largest number of contract settlements compared to the rest of the nation, and that helped weight the average to a higher level.
Last year, the average construction increase was $1.23 per
hour or 4.1 percent. Most new contracts are for the traditional
three-year periods, but "a number of four-year contracts
have also been signed," the CLRC said. The group said a
more detailed report will be issued later in the year.
Prevention is focus of new chief OSHA
R. Davis Layne said the "message to me" from his
immediate boss, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, "is that we
have to do more to reach the workplace to prevent unsafe or unhealthful
working conditions from occurring before OSHA gets there, and
not after the fact."