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July 6, 2001
By Marty Mulcahy
PORT HURON - The St. Clair County Board of Commissioners on June 27 voted 7-0 to approve a project labor agreement with building trade unions governing the construction of a $32 million Jail/Juvenile Center.
Project labor agreements aren't unusual in some parts of the state, but they are here. In fact, the vote to approve a PLA is remarkable because this region has typically been lukewarm at best when it comes to supporting union construction activity.
"We've been pushing for this facility over the last two years," said St. Clair County Board of Commissioners Chair Juanita Gittings, "and we're finally at the point where we're ready to go ahead with construction. We want the best building possible, and I think the best way to go is to use workers who are paid fair wages and benefits. They're the ones who have the knowledge and skill to get the job done right."
Steve Ellery, business representative with Painters Local 1474 in Port Huron, said the vote is part of a pro-union trend in the local construction industry that he and others have been cultivating. Ellery attempts to further that effort through his seat on the County Board of Commissioners - and of course, the June 27 resolution got a "yea" vote from him.
Also voting for the PLA were commissioners Patricia Anger, Edward Schultz, Patrick Quain, Lee Masters and Don Dodge.
"For the longest time, this was anti-union country," Ellery said. "But there were two projects that really turned things around for us - the second (Blue Water) bridge and the rail tunnel that have been built in the last few years. Those jobs really opened some eyes around here and showed how union labor gets things done."
There were two other projects that may have opened some eyes in the community. One was a debacle: the expansion and renovation of a local paper mill in 1993, which was done by a consortium of out-of-town, nonunion contractors. The contractors accepted state grant that included taxpayer funds to perform the work, then hired hundreds of out-of-town workers and paid them substandard wages.
The Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council brought legal action against the contractor consortium for discriminating against union workers and refusing to hire them because of their legal affiliation. The trades won a $1.15 million penalty awarded by the National Labor Relations Board.
The other was a near-debacle: The construction of the St. Clair County Administrative Building about two years ago. Built mostly nonunion, shoddy work on the project prompted the county to call in union contractors, who made repairs and completed the project.
Ellery said there will be several more opportunities for unions to expand their work opportunities in the area, with a proposed casino, three new powerhouses and other work planned for the region. He said five painting and drywall contractors have signed union contracts since January.
"We've tried to change the environment for unions, and we're doing that," Ellery said.
Electrical Workers Local 58 is another local union that has made great strides in organizing and improving market share in the Blue Water Area.
"Since 1997 we made the decision to devote two organizers
to the Port Huron area, Gary Polulak and Mike Moran," said
Local 58 Business Manager Jeff Radjewski. "And frankly,
they've done great, in terms of selling union labor, and in terms
of getting involved in the community. When it comes to organizing
and securing more work, you don't just wave a magic wand, you
have to earn trust and respect. This is one project that shows
their work is paying off."
More than 800 friends, family and well-wishers came together June 22 to honor Joe Sposita, who is set to retire later this year after 48 years of working as a plumber, as a union officer for Local 98 and as a representative for the International Union of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Sprinkler Fitters.
The salute to Sposita was held at the Hyatt Regency in Dearborn, and included his wife Lois and sons Joe Jr. and Tony. There were references aplenty to Joe's Italian heritage, numerous accomplishments, good sense of humor and his potential post-retirement career as a singer.
"Tonight, Joe is Detroit's favorite son," said UA International President Martin Maddaloni. "Joe is one of the finest labor leaders in the country, a tireless fighter for the members and their families. Thanks, Joe, for all you have done over the years for the United Association."
Sposita began his apprenticeship in Local 98 in 1952. He was elected to the local's Executive Board in 1964, was elected business representative in 1967; then business manager in 1974.
The economy had its ups and downs during the 15 years Sposita worked as business manager for Local 98, but generally, there was a good deal of unemployment. From 1985 to 1989, Sposita served as President of The Greater Detroit Building and Construction Trades Council, and helped put together project labor agreements for construction of the Mazda Plant in Flat Rock, the Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, the GM Poletown and Lake Orion plants, as well as projects at the Ford Rouge and Rouge Steel.
"Joe has been an outstanding leader in Local 98 and in the United Association, and he's built a lot of friendships over the years," said Local 98 Business Manager Gary Young, the master of ceremonies. "The 800 people in this room are proof of that." Among them were former Gov. Jim Blanchard, who said "there were a lot of construction workers who wouldn't have had a job if it weren't for Joe Sposita."
Despite the occasional need to call for picketing and other labor actions over the years, Sposita never lost his good reputation among contractors as a fair and honorable adversary when it came to bargaining or fighting for members.
"You've worked with us for nearly 50 years, and it's been a great union-contractor relationship," said Pete Green of the John E Green Co. "You've worked for a great union, and we appreciate all you've done."
In 1989, Sposita was assigned by then-UA President Marvin Boede to represent the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin for the International Union, and in 1997, Maddaloni assigned him to represent the State of Michigan.
Sposita came back to a difficult job in Michigan, as he and UA international reps across the country were given the wrenching task of consolidating local unions. Pat Devlin, secretary-treasurer of The Greater Detroit Building and Construction Trades Council, served as president of the Michigan State Pipe Trades Association during that period of consolidation.
"Joe had to make some very, very difficult decisions
concerning the consolidation of local unions during his time
here in Michigan, and a lot of what happened wasn't received
very well," Devlin told a convention of the state pipe trades
earlier in the week during the state pipe trades convention.
"But whatever you think about the merging of locals, I don't
think anyone in this room could have handled himself with the
dignity and class Joe exhibited during that rough time."
"I can't help but think of the good life the UA has given us over the years," Sposita said. "There have been many challenges over the years, many tough times, but we always seemed to come out OK. As long as unions have had the kind of friendships we've had with our contractors, no one can beat us. For all building trade union workers the most important thing that I have learned over the years is that if we stay together, we will prosper and continue to provide good jobs in this country."
A changing of the guard and an appearance by the head-of-state for the United Association of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Sprinkler Fitters marked the 89th Convention of the Michigan Pipe Trades Association, held June 19-22 in Detroit.
The meetings, which included a mixed assessment of statewide piping industry employment, was highlighted by UA General President Martin Maddaloni's announcement that Sprinkler Fitters Local 704 Business Manager Tom McNamara will take over as International Representative for Michigan. He will replace Joe Sposita, who will retire later this year.
"Joe's done a great job for Michigan and he will be missed," Maddaloni said to the pipe trades delegates. "But we have a talented individual in Tom McNamara who has the ingredients to keep everything together and move things forward. Tom, welcome aboard, and I know you'll do a great job."
McNamara, 45, has been a member of Local 704 for over 25 years. He was elected to the local's Executive Board in 1982, and was elected President/Business Agent in 1988. He has been the local's business manager for the last two-and-a-half years.
Tom is the third generation of McNamara to work out of the International Union office. McNamara's father, Don, served as the United Association's Assistant General President until his retirement in 1996. The UA's Washington office also employed his grandfather, also named Tom McNamara. His immediate family includes his wife of 21 years, Cindy, and children Melinda and Tom.
"I'm going to miss representing the membership of Local 704," Tom McNamara said. "I feel honored just to be considered for an International position. I have some big shoes to fill in replacing Joe and all the people who were in that position before. I look forward to representing the entire State of Michigan for the United Association, and will work hard to make sure there are work opportunities for our members."
McNamara will assume his new position during an uncertain time in the construction trades. Business managers present at the meeting had mostly good things to report about work opportunities around the state, although workers were reported on the bench in the Upper Peninsula and in the Detroit area. Pipe Fitters Local 636 Business Manager Jim Lapham said the fall-off in auto industry work "is killing us" - approximately 150 Local 636 fitters are unemployed.
Western Michigan Local 174 Business Manager Doug Bennett reported
"a pretty good summer" for his members, while U.P.
Local 506 Business Manager Bill Retaskie said work in the north
"continues to be slow." Flint Local 370 Business Manager
Mark Johnson reported full employment in that area, as did Ann
Arbor Local 190 Business Manager Ron House and Lansing/Jackson
Local 333 Business Manager Jim
Maddaloni said with the slowdown in the economy, "there
is unemployment, but the UA is positioned to reap whatever benefits"
that can be found during economic downturns, through better training,
organizing and efforts to regain market share.
Section 415 of the IRS Code was passed in 1974 to keep top executives and wealthy professionals from receiving lavish pensions.
But like the passage of some other laws, there were unintended consequences. This portion of the tax code had evolved over the last 26 years to the point where it has kept multi-employer plans from paying higher pensions to unionized construction workers - even if a plan was in excellent financial condition.
That all changed last Memorial Day weekend. With the huge tax cut package that was adopted, Congress also passed Section 415 pension reform, which especially helps early retirees not to take a financial penalty. The AFL-CIO Building Trades Department has been pushing for this reform legislation for years.
"This is a great victory for everyone in the building trades who worked so hard for many years," said Building Trades Department President Edward C. Sullivan. "It shows what you can do when you use people power on both sides of the aisle (in Congress)."
According to the Building Trades Department, Section 415 allowed a pension plan to pay an annual pension of no more than $130,000 for someone retiring at age 65. But the limit dropped sharply for early retirees, defined by law as retirement at any age before being fully eligible for full Social Security benefits (age 66 or 67).
In real terms, that meant that someone retiring at age 50 could receive no more than about $41,000 annually in pension benefits; for workers born in 1955 or later, that amount dropped to about $38,500.
Even more workers have pensions cut under the provision of Section 415, which held that the annual pension could not be more than the worker's average pay under the plan over the three highest-paid consecutive years. If a worker's highest-earning years weren't consecutive - common in the boom-and-bust construction industry - the threshold was lowered.
The package of the Section 415 pension changes:
The law takes effect Jan. 1, 2002.
"The immediate effect of the law will depend on how each fund is set up," said George Buhalis, president of Benesys, which acts as fund administrator for numerous Michigan union pension plans.
He said workers who participate in pension plans that don't reduce benefits for early retirees will be particularly aided by the new rules.
"Generally, the people who are really going to benefit
are the apprentices and those who are 15 or 20 years away from
retirement. Unlike the 1960s, they're already starting with a
high contribution rate, and work has been good over the last
few years, so those factors, along with the removal of the Section
415 limits, are going to help a lot of people."
Operating Engineers Local 324 Business Manager Sam. T. Hart is the 2001 recipient of the Norm Sylvester Award, given by The Greater Detroit Building and Construction Trades Council Softball League to an individual who "exhibits a sense of fair play both on and off the field."
A few years ago, when a strong workload brought about lagging interest in playing softball, Hart bolstered the league by recruiting sufficient players for two teams of Operating Engineers - red and blue - who have since been among the league's strongest teams.
"I think the league is worthwhile, and I didn't want to see it go down the drain," Hart said. "The league has been around for years, and people who play really seem to enjoy it. I wanted to help make sure that continues."
The award most recently was given to Local 324's Joe Pinchero and his wife Diane, on behalf of their son, Joe Jr., who played in the league and was killed in 1999. They presented the plaque to Hart.
"Sam has done a lot for the league, and he deserves to be recognized," said Joe Pinchero.
The award's namesake, the late Norm Sylvester, was a Pipe Fitters Local 636 business agent and a die-hard unionist who was also a major booster of the softball league.
Construction: The Opportunity Industry is the message emblazoned on Michigan's billboards, broadcast on the airwaves and appearing in print this summer, as part of a campaign to get the word out about the trades as a job opportunity.
The billboards show a link to a website, www.michiganconstructioncareers.org, which has information about how to find a union construction job. The coordinated campaign promotes the concept of construction as an "opportunity industry," with press releases that can be fashioned for local media around Michigan, as well as advertising materials and radio and television public service announcements.
"This effort will go a long way toward helping increase awareness that construction work is a career, not just a job," said Tom Boensch, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan State Building and Construction Trades Council.
Various trade unions and councils around Michigan are participating in the campaign, which will emphasize the industry's decent pay levels, health insurance, retirement benefits, and career opportunities for men and women.
Even though construction work is slowing somewhat in Michigan and in other parts of the country, most projections indicate that with retirements and difficulty attracting new workers, there will be a shortfall in construction workers over the next several years.
"Michigan's building trades unions offer several distinct advantages over other sources for construction workers," Boensch added. "Building trades unions offer the best pay and benefits, provide high-quality paid apprenticeship training as well as upgrade training, and actively promote a safe workplace."
"The construction industry also affords its workers the
opportunity to enjoy the satisfaction of owning, operating and
managing his or her own construction company," said Mike
Comstock, president of the Michigan Chapter of Associated General
Contractors. "With the proper skill development and training,
opportunities for entrepreneurship and management abound for
all construction workers."
Gil Hill receives GDBTC's endorsement
"Gil Hill has always been a good friend of the building trades," said GDBTC Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Devlin. "We know we can always count on him when it comes to supporting our issues. There are a lot of candidates, but we think he stands out, and offering him our endorsement was an easy decision."
Hill, 69, is serving his third term on the Detroit City Council and his first as its president. A former Detroit police officer, Hill was the head of the department's Homicide Division for many years. He appeared in three "Beverly Hills Cop" films with Eddie Murphy. Hill got 13,000 more votes than the nearest council candidate in the last election.
He said his priorities as mayor of Detroit would include uniting
the city, extending economic development into the neighborhoods
and improving the delivery of city services.
Democrats hold Newaygo Co. picnic
All are welcome. Special invited guests are Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, and Michigan gubernatorial candidates Jim Blanchard, David Bonior Jennifer Granholm, Gary Peters, and Alma Wheeler Smith.
Barton Township Park is located in Newaygo County at 7886 17 Mile Rd. Follow the blue arrows to the park. The park has ball fields, horseshoe pits, a playground and free parking.
From the south on U.S. 131 get off at the 19 Mile exit (second Big Rapids exit). Go west on 19 Mile, which becomes 13 Mile upon entering Newaygo County. Turn left on Beach. At the stop sign turn left (west) on 16 Mile Rd., follow the curve to Cottonwood. Turn left onto 17 Mile Rd. to Barton Twp. Park.
From the north on U.S. 131 get off at the U.S. 10 exit. Go west on U.S. 10. Turn left on Hawkins Rd., which becomes Cottonwood upon entering Newaygo County. Turn right (west) on 17 Mile Rd. to Barton Twp. Park.
For more information call Don at (231) 266-8914 or Mark or
Paul, (231) 796-0513.
Iron workers appreciate Helmer's generosity
Gary attended the Iron Workers Corn County golf outing on June 16, 2001 and won a 50/50 drawing worth $500. Gary didn't hesitate in donating the money back to the family of Local 25 member Gary Copeland, who was killed on the job.
Gary's donation is a definite indication of the kind of people
affiliated with not only the iron workers but with all the trades.
This was a special act and was greatly appreciated.