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July 21, 2006

More supervisors = fewer union members: NLRB weighs rules on classifying workers

Steel's up on MGM's grand casino

NMU'S Jacobetti Center to house apprenticeship programs

New and improved: NMU's Meyland Hall

OSHA delays, worker safety denied

Get a room…Trades ready to renovate historic hotels - The Book is back… really

Fort-Shelby ready, too?

News Briefs


More supervisors = fewer union members: NLRB weighs rules on classifying workers

Have you ever shown a co-worker how to perform a task, or been asked to look over someone else's work?

If so, your freedom to form a union and bargain collectively is in danger. The Bush-packed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is considering three cases that could alter the definition of supervisor - and that could mean hundreds of thousands of nurses, building trades workers, newspaper and television employees and others could be prohibited from forming unions.

A decision in favor of employers in these three cases, known collectively as Kentucky River, could further erode workers' freedom to form unions by expanding the definition of supervisors. Under federal labor law, supervisors are barred from forming unions.

During the week of July 10, hundreds of thousands of union members took to the streets in a week of action to fight for their right to union membership. Already, some 7,000 nurses and other health care workers at eight New Jersey hospitals threatened to strike to protect nurses' right to speak out for their patients through their union.

Thousands more union members have asked their members of Congress to appeal to the Labor Board for an opportunity to provide oral arguments. The NLRB has refused to hear oral arguments on the cases - and has heard no oral arguments, a fundamental part of any due process, since the Bush administration took office. In fact, the NLRB denied union requests to heard oral arguments in these cases.

How did we as a nation come to the point where those in power threaten the rights of hundreds of thousands of workers to exercise the freedom to form unions - one of the pillars of the Bill of Rights?

Although nurses in 2006 New Jersey may seem to have little in common with auto foremen in the 1940s, the attack the hospital nurses face today is part of a relentless, decades-long assault by corporate-backed members of Congress on the bargaining rights of workers - from auto foremen to nurses.

From the time the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed in the 1930s, Big Business interests have sought to deny America's workers their fundamental freedom to form unions. One strategy has been to limit the number of workers who qualify for union membership and federal labor law protection. Among those targeted are workers whom employers seek to classify as "supervisors."

In 1941, foremen at the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn began forming a union. Although foremen's unions had existed for decades in the printing, building trades and other industries, the independent Foremen's Association of America represented a clear challenge to industrial management's authority. Between 1920 and 1940, the ratio of foremen to workers remained static but increased by 70 percent in the 1940s.

Not only were foremen a large and burgeoning segment of one of the nation's most powerful and fastest-growing workforces, their successes in organizing their peers quickly gained momentum: By the early post-war years, an estimated 100,000 foremen had joined together in some form of bargaining unit.

The idea of foremen ("supervisors" in today's parlance) forming unions scared corporate interests. No, scratch that. It didn't scare them. It terrified them.

By 1947, corporate-backed Republicans in the House and Senate, who had spent years trying to legislatively hamstring the NLRA, succeeded in passing the Taft-Hartley Act. With its passage, Taft-Hartley basically destroyed the main goal of the NLRA: to give workers a fair chance to decide whether to form unions.

Taft-Hartley includes a dirty laundry list of rules, but among the most significant - although the least noted at the time of the law's passage - is its ban on supervisors forming unions.
So, the Ford foremen's union was abolished. And the growing number of white-collar, "middle management" professionals who proliferated throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were powerless to join together and bargain collectively with their bosses. Today, such workers are called "at-will" employees, a friendly sounding euphemism that in fact means they can be fired for anything - as long as it doesn't violate federal discrimination or other such laws.

Under Taft-Hartley, a supervisor is defined as

"…any individual having authority, in the interest of the employer, to hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward or discipline other employees, or responsibility to direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or effectively to recommend such action, if in connection with the foregoing the exercise of such authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment."
But this definition wasn't enough for Big Business. In the decades following Taft-Hartley passage, corporations have continued to expand Taft-Hartley's meaning of "supervisor."

Current U.S. labor law makes it easy for employers to delay recognizing unions. If a group of workers votes to join a union, union-hating employers can merely assert that the workers perform supervisory functions and are not eligible to be part of a bargaining unit. In doing so, employers accomplish two things:

They delay, often by years, the time in which they recognize and must bargain with the union.

If successful in their challenge, they further limit the number of America's workers who can join unions.

The legal process is long and tedious, but by working through the federal courts and the National Labor Relations Board, which was set up by the NLRA to administer the law, corporations have successfully chipped away at the scope of "supervisor."

With the extension of the NLRA to nonprofit hospitals, the question of what duties a worker must perform to be considered a "supervisor" moved to the health care field, now among the nation's fastest-growing job sectors. Two key cases on the question of whether nurses are supervisors wound their way through years of NLRB and federal court rulings to the Supreme Court. And in all three cases, the high court agreed with employers and further limited the ability of nurses to form unions.

In the most recent Supreme Court case, NLRB v. Kentucky River Community Care, the justices in 2001 ruled, 5-4, that six RNs were supervisors. The ruling stood on the issue of "independent judgment." In his dissent, Justice Stevens argued the statutory terms "independent judgment" and "responsibility to direct" are ambiguous. Stevens further warned:

…if the term "supervisor" is construed too broadly, without regard for the statutory context, then Congress's inclusion of professionals within the Act's protections is effectively nullified.
Justice Stevens is right that construing the term "supervisor" broadly will eliminate professional employees from NLRA protections. This is exactly what many fear the Bush labor board will do.

Although it would be nice to buy in to the fiction that regulatory bodies are above politics, they aren't. As James Gross has shown in his volumes on the history of the NLRB, the board rules in the interests of its members. And if those members are corporate-backed Republicans, they almost inevitably will rule in the interests of Big Business.

The connection between political action and organizing could never be more clear. (The background on auto foremen stems from historian Nelson Lichtenstein's great study, "The Man in the Middle: A Social History of Automobile Industry Foremen," On the Line: Essays in the History of Auto Work, eds. Lichtenstein and Stephen Meyer.)
- By Tula Connell, via the AFL-CIO


Steel's up on MGM's grand casino

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

DETROIT -The structural steel on the MGM Grand Casino was topped out June 23, creating a milestone for a huge, fast-moving construction project that's one of Michigan's largest.

Midwest Steel and about 60 iron workers from Local 25 placed about 8,700 tons of steel in the casino, which is going up north of Michigan Avenue at Third Street. The first steel was set Jan. 30.

"It's been a great job; very fast-paced," said Mark Dungan, general foreman for Midwest Steel. "All the trades out here are getting along well and are doing a great job."

Getting the steel erected at the casino is only one part of a construction project that will provide MGM Grand with a "permanent" casino in Detroit. MGM's temporary casino, housed in a renovated government building, was built six years years ago.

The new 100,000-square-foot casino is being built on a former parking lot aside DTE Energy's headquarters tower. Together with a 17-story, 400-room hotel, the complex will have a $765 million price tag. It will include a parking deck, shops, restaurants, a spa and other amenities. It is the largest of the three Detroit casinos, which are all going forward with new development plans.

By comparison, Ford Field cost about $500 million and Comerica Park cost $350 million.

"We're very happy with the progress," said Gary Wolfe, "we're within a day of the schedule we established. This has to be the fastest design-build job this area has ever seen." So fast, that many interior areas have yet to be designed. They will be - and the facility is expected to open in 2008.

The hotel and casino will employ 3,500 workers - which are 1,000 more than the existing casino.

MGM Grand along with Tre Builders are managing the construction. Mark Rushlow of Local 25, Tre Builders project superintendent in charge of steel/precast, said for him, the use of the evergreen tree in this topping-out ceremony signifies "that no lives were lost due to the conscious efforts and the skilled training of all the men and women who worked on this job."

MIDWEST STEEL, MGM Grand, Tre Builders, iron workers and operating engineers celebrated the topping out of the new MGM Grand Casino in Detroit on June 23.


NMU'S Jacobetti Center to house apprenticeship programs

MARQUETTE - In an agreement inked June 27 between the Michigan State Building and Construction Trades Council and Northern Michigan University, apprenticeship programs for five skilled trades will be moved to the Jacobetti Center on NMU's campus this fall.

Students training for careers as ironworkers, plumbers and pipe fitters, sheet metal workers, bricklayers and allied crafts, and operating engineers will take courses at the Jacobetti Center, taught in partnership by NMU faculty and trade instructors.

The programs were previously housed in the Toivo-Seilo Apprenticeship School on Fair Avenue near Marquette Senior High School.

"This heralds a new era in craft apprenticeship and training in the Upper Peninsula," said Jon LaSalle, Michigan State Building and Construction Trades Council field representative. "In order for the trades to grow and meet the needs of industry, our apprenticeship programs need to expand and utilize state-of-the-art facilities. At Northern we have a much higher-opportunity facility, the ability to expand our curriculum and increase the number of students we train."

Sixty students are currently enrolled in the program and LaSalle expects to see a 20 percent growth in enrollment over the next year due to this partnership. He characterizes the three- and four-year programs as "earning the equivalent of a Ph.D. for blue-collar workers."

Upon completion of the intensive coursework and on-the-job training, students are awarded a certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training.

"We're very pleased to provide good training facilities for apprentices," said NMU President Les Wong. "With NMU's fundamental philosophy of being a main force in economic development in the U.P., working hand-in-hand with trades people is a natural fit for us and a win-win situation for all involved."


New and improved: NMU's Meyland Hall

MARQUETTE - Upgraded housing for students at Northern Michigan University is in the works.

This summer, much of the renovation work is focusing on 40-year-od Meyland Hall, a 58,000-square-foot student dormitory. Gundlach-Champion is overseeing the $8 million project, along with mechanical contractor Berger and King and S & T Electrical. Work is expected to be complete in early August.

According to the NMU Engineering and Planning Department, the Meyland Hall renovations will be a continuation of the Quad II complex renovation that includes Magers Hall (completed in 2005), Meyland Hall, Van Antrwerp, and Hunt Hall.

All existing resident rooms, bathroom facilities and lounges will have upgraded finishes. The entire plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems will be replaced. A building addition will be constructed to incorporate an elevator for access to all floor including the Quad II basement. The exterior will have a facelift with a new pitched roof, pre-cast concrete panels and windows. Three story additions with upper level sunrooms will be constructed at the three main entrances.

RE-LEADING a sewer drain at the Meyland Hall project is Mike Graham of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 506 and Berger and King Mechanical.

A truss is lifted into position at Meyland Hall. Photos by Jerry Bielicki



OSHA delays, worker safety denied

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is responsible for protecting the safety and health of workers in the United States, but its own reports indicate that setting safety standards is a low priority at the agency.

With changes in technology, equipment and work practices, developing new rules to improve worker safety - especially in construction - is vital. According to the Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North America, there are 27 actions under review by OSHA, each with handles like "pre-rule," "proposed rule," and "long-term action." Only two are complete, and one is held up in court. Fourteen of those 27 are construction-related, and the average time for some sort of resolution to take place is 7.4 years.

"Enforceable safety standards raise the bar and ensure a level playing field for all contractors," says Laborers General President Terence M. O'Sullivan. "Drafting and adopting new standards would significantly decrease ongoing injuries, illnesses and fatalities" among construction workers.

The Laborers safety fund pointed out that OSHA has a three-pronged mandate: (1) to issue safety and health standards; (2) to enforce those standards; and (3) to assist companies in compliance. Currently, only three percent of the agency's budget is devoted to standard setting and the actual dollar amount, relative to inflation, has declined in recent years.

Falls are the most common cause of construction fatalities, yet the Walking Working Surfaces and Personal Fall Protection Systems standard has languished more than 16 years since the first action was initiated. Over the last 13 years (data for earlier years is unavailable), 9,149 American workers have been killed in falls, an average of 703 per year.

Similarly, hearing loss is a widespread problem among construction workers and it has been 20 years since a hearing conservation standard was issued for general industry. Four years have passed since work began on a possible standard for construction but, now, no further action is promised.

Discussion of an excavation standard began in 2001; five years later, it is still in the "pre-rule" stage. A possible silica standard also remains in the pre-rule stage three years after it was first considered and more than 60 years after the Department of Labor promised to eliminate the threat of silicosis from American work sites.

"As these examples indicate, OSHA's process is so slow that sometimes advancing science has rendered a permissible exposure limit or another aspect of a standard obsolete by the time it is adopted," O'Sullivan said. "The basic problem is the lack of political will to create and improve standards and to keep them up-to-date. Congress, the Executive Branch and OSHA must expand funding and accelerate rulemaking immediately."


Get a room…Trades ready to renovate historic hotels

The Book is back… really

DETROIT - Three years ago this month, a festive press conference was held aside the shell of the Book-Cadillac hotel, proclaiming "The Next Chapter" was about to be turned on the mammoth building, empty since 1984.

It took awhile to turn the page. Since then, the original reconstruction financing fell through, and it took this long to set up another incredibly complicated money package that involves an unprecedented 22 public and private investors. With the money in place, it now appears the Book is back, again.

Construction could start on the 33-story hotel at any time. The $180 million transformation will offer a 455-room hotel and 67 luxury condominiums. The hotel, will offer flat-screen televisions and high-speed cable and wireless Internet access in each room, a swimming pool, whirlpool and state-of-the-art fitness center, as well as onsite retail and fine dining.

"This has been a long, difficult effort, but I have always believed one of Detroit's greatest landmarks was worth the attempt," said Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on June 27. "Today's announcement makes all of the work to overcome all of the obstacles we have encountered worthwhile. The Book-Cadillac certainly is one of the most challenging projects the City of Detroit has ever worked on. It also is one of the most significant as it will anchor three main streets vital to Detroit's redevelopment."

Unless there's another hiccup in the financing, the savior is The Ferchill Group, the Cleveland-based developer which specializes in redeveloping urban landmarks like the Book.

This month, "we will begin the transformation of this historic and long-neglected corner on Washington Boulevard and Michigan Avenue to anchor downtown Detroit for investment and create catalytic opportunity with its connections to the Convention Center, Riverwalk and the City's celebrated sports arenas and ballparks," Ferchill said.

Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council CEO Patrick Devlin said a union-only project labor agreement for the Book is in the works. Ferchill wants to work with a Cleveland-based construction manager.

The history of the Book-Cadillac mirrors the rise, fall, and ongoing rebirth of downtown Detroit. Completed in 1924 - during the zenith of downtown Detroit's decade-long skyscraper boom - The Book brothers, Herbert and Frank, had the hotel built in the Venetian style of the Italian Renaissance by architect Louis Kamper.

"Downtown's largest and arguably most beautiful vacant skyscraper is the Book-Cadillac Hotel," says the Forgotten Detroit website. "Long a rival to the Statler (demolished last year), the Book-Cadillac offered 1,200 guest rooms and some of the most amazing interior spaces in the city. It is the supreme symbol of 1920's Detroit's wealth and optimism."

Continuing, "The Book-Cadillac featured five floors of grand public rooms and shops. Among the amenities were large lounges, three dining rooms, a coffee shop, three unique and functional ballrooms, and a tea room. They were the most richly decorated interiors found in any Detroit hotel.

"A popular stop for traveling salesmen, the Book featured 38 'sample rooms' for them to show their wares to guests. Three basement levels contained the most modern boilers and laundry facilities of the time. The total cost of construction exceeded $14 million."

The Book hosted Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon, and baseball legends Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, among many others.

The hotel changed ownership and names over the years. It also underwent several interior renovations in an attempt to keep up with modern styles and meet the perceived demands of the customer.

But by the end of the 1970s, the hotel met the same fate as the nearby Statler Hotel and the Fort-Shelby. Businesses were leaving downtown Detroit in droves, and the owners announced the building would close. The Book stayed open for the Republican Convention in 1980, but a plan to revitalize the Book by reducing rooms and adding offices fell through.

The building closed for good in 1984. When the building was no longer guarded after a few years, vandals stripped anything of value from the building. The building trades also stripped the building of hazardous materials when the renovation was announced three years ago. Much of the interior spaces on lower floors had been wrecked by vandals or water damage.

Now, the hotel promises to be the biggest and most significant renovation project in downtown Detroit since the opening of the Fox Theatre in 1988.

"This project reflects the tenacity of the Detroit community, particularly its leaders for moving this project forward against all odds," Ferchill said. "We are proud to play a role in the preservation and renewal of one of the City's most storied assets. We respect the sentiment Detroit has for this architectural treasure and remain committed to seeing this project through to completion."

WHEN IT WAS COMPLETED in 1924, the Book-Cadillac was the world's largest hotel. Empty for 22 years, renovations are about to begin.


Fort-Shelby ready, too?

DETROIT - While we're at it, how about renovating the Pick-Fort-Shelby Hotel, too?

As witnessed by the Book-Cadillac, financing deals for old and decrepit hotel properties are chancey. But in February, a Chicago real estate and development firm announced that it intends to redevelop the empty hotel at Lafayette and First streets.

If the announced $76 million renovation takes place, the 22-story Fort Shelby Hotel and Conference Center will include: a 204-room hotel, apartments, and about 30,000 square feet of convention space.

According to developer RSC and Associates, there will be 62 one-to-three bedroom apartments on floors 11-21 and one 2,272 square foot penthouse on the 22nd floor with a private terrace. The hotel portion of the project, to be managed by Doubletree Guest Suites, includes approximately 243,200 gross square feet with 204 guestrooms, plus 2,347 square feet of new space for back-of-house uses.

Rich Curto, principal of RSC & Associates LLC, a real estate investment and development firm in Chicago, told the Detroit News, "we plan to be a strong competitor in downtown Detroit."

Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council CEO Patrick Devlin said like the Book-Cadillac renovation, a union-only project labor agreement is the works for this project, too.

Named for a fort built on the site, the first 10-story portion of the Fort-Shelby Hotel opened in 1917 with 450 rooms. It was a success, and architect Albert Kahn designed the 22-story wing that was added in 1927, with another 450 rooms.

Not as opulent as the Book-Cadillac or the Detroit Statler, the Fort-Shelby had a
spacious lobby, formal main dining room, a coffee shop, and lobby shops. Additional meeting space was put into place when the tower was built.

"It was the wish of the Fort Shelby Hotel Co.," says the Forgotten Detroit website, "to provide affordable first-class accommodations to the traveling public. With this intent in mind, the location made perfect sense." The hotel was near the Detroit River steamer docks, on a trolley line to the Michigan Central Depot, and near theatres and the city's financial district.

The hotel rode the bust and boom cycles of the Great Depression and the post-World War II years. In 1951, ownership was transferred to Pick Hotels. In the 1960s and 70s, the hotel's interior was remodeled, but its relatively isolated location on the southwestern edge of downtown was no longer a draw for out-of-towners. The Pick-Fort-Shelby closed in 1973. An ill-fated attempt to re-make it into a youth-party hotel failed quickly a year later.

This is the Pick-Fort-Shelby hotel. The 22-story tower in the foreground was built 10 years after the original 10-story hotel was erected in 1917.


News Briefs

Tentative pact for UA Local 636
As we went to press, a tentative agreement had been reached between members of Detroit Pipe Fitters, Steamfitters, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Local 636 and the Mechanical Contractors Association following a six-day strike. Both sides failed to reach a collective bargaining agreement on July 12.

The money presented for the two-year contract was not the stumbling block. At issue, union leaders said, was MCA's insistence on introduction of low-paid, low-skilled helpers on the job, at a ratio that was unacceptable to the Local 636 Negotiating Committee.

'Tepid' employment for construction
Washington, D.C. - "A tepid construction job report in June reflected the mix of a hot nonresidential construction job market with a fast-cooling residential scene," said Ken Simonson, chief economist for The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), earlier this month.

Simonson was commenting on a July 7 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that showed overall construction employment was essentially unchanged for the fourth straight month, at a seasonally adjusted total of 7.5 million.

"The seemingly stagnant job pool results from cross-cutting currents," said Simonson. "Residential building and specialty trade construction employment fell by 25,000 since February, including a drop of 9,000 jobs just in June. "Meanwhile," Simonson continued, "nonresidential building and specialty trade contractors added 44,000 workers over four months, including 9,000 in June.

He said June 2005 to June 2006 comparisons show overall construction employment expanded at a 3.1 percentage rate - more than double the non-farm employment growth rate.

However, he noted a shift in construction employment. Manufacturing, energy and mining, and hospitals are adding jobs, while the once-hot single-family and condominium construction sector is slowing, and will drop faster once the backlog of current projects is finished. He said highway construction is also "vulnerable," due to high material and fuel prices.

In the meantime, construction spending dropped in May for the second straight month, the AGC reported. A July 3 Census Bureau report said that U.S. building activity dropped 0.4 percent in May, following a 0.2 percent drop in April.



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