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July 6, 2007

Republicans derail pro-union EFCA; Labor vows return in friendlier Congress

Positive spin aside, labor lost - now what's Plan B?

Out with the old blast furnace, in with the new… in 100 days

Unions laud demise of immigration bill

Steel's up on GM test lab

The big 5-0 for the Mighty Mac

News Briefs

 

Republicans derail pro-union EFCA; Labor vows return in friendlier Congress

WASHINGTON - In the end, the Employee Free Choice Act was doomed, but it did provide some important information for union voters in 2008.

The pro-union EFCA - one of the most important pieces of legislation affecting organized labor - was effectively killed this year on a 51-48 party line vote in the Democratic-led Senate. Democrats have a thin majority in the Senate, but needed a total of 60 votes to shut off a Republican filibuster of the bill.

They didn't come close: while Dems voted unanimously in favor of the measure, the only Republican to vote for it was Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter. The bill was doomed because President Bush was ready with his veto pen. The House passed the bill with a 241-185 vote on March 1.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney put a happy face on the outcome of the vote, although it was a sign of organized labor's political weakness that only a single Republican senator could be lobbied to break with corporate America, which has strongly lobbied against the bill.

"Today's vote shows a majority of the Senate supports changing the law to restore working people's freedom to make their own choice to join a union and bargain
for a better life," Sweeney said. "That is a watershed achievement - one scarcely imagined just a couple of years ago - and an important step toward shoring up our nation's struggling middle class."

Sweeney vowed workers would remember the vote "when they go to the ballot boxes in 2008. The vote made clear exactly who is on the side of working families' dreams and economic opportunity - and who is siding with corporate America to block those opportunities."

And that sums up organized labor's strategy: to use the vote to show members that on such a vital piece of legislation, all Democrats supported unions, while nearly all Republicans did not.

Among other things, the Employee Free Choice Act would write "majority signup" - also called card-check recognition - into labor law. The new rules would simplify the union organizing process by allowing workers to vote in a union at their workplace by signing cards, without going through the more formal and longer secret ballot process.

The EFCA would also raise fines for labor law-breaking to $20,000 per violation, mandate mediation and arbitration if labor and management could not agree on a first contract within 90 days and outlaw boss-run "captive audience" anti-union meetings.

"Corporations trample on workers with reckless disregard for the law, and they must be stopped," said Teamsters President James Hoffa. "Just last week, anti-union FedEx declared it would illegally fight workers in Wilmington, Massachusetts, who voted overwhelmingly to join the Teamsters. Despite the election's certification by the National Labor Relations Board, FedEx said it would 'use the only means available to us to get a court review - refusing to bargain."

In a speech that demonstrates the Republicans and Big Business position on stopping the Employee free Choice Act, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) likened the bill to a Communist dictatorship that stifles free speech. Both McConnell and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) repeated the Big Business mantra that the bill would eliminate the secret ballot vote for a union.

The ultra-conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page said "nearly every business lobby made the vote one of its main priorities for which Members to support in 2008, suggesting how dangerous this would be if it ever became law."

"While they're really hoping that they can scare the hell out of working Americans by implying that this bill will actually result in them losing rights-if not being dragged outside and beaten senseless by fictional union thugs-they are, of course, lying through their capped teeth," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

"The Employee Free Choice Act does not abolish the secret election process," Brown added. "That would still be available. The bill simply enables workers to form a union through majority signup, if they prefer that method." Brown said the holding of formal elections affords employers time to "come in and intimidate workers into voting against their own self interest."

Instead, he said "card check" rules would allow workers to unionize based simply on the majority of them signing cards declaring their desire to form a union.

"The system today is broken," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) who sponsored the EFCA. "Workers know it. Employers know it. Too many of them (employers) want to keep it that way. The only way to ensure economic security for the nation's middle class is to rebuild the nation's unions by leveling the playing field to allow workers to freely decide whether to join a union."

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Positive spin aside, labor lost - now what's Plan B?

By Harry Kelber
'The Labor Educator'

U.S. Senate Republicans were able to block an up-and-down vote on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), where the measure had a slim majority of 51 to 48, by using the closure rule that required the votes of as many as 60 senators before EFCA could be voted on.

The Senate decision on June 26 effectively negated action by the House, which had previously approved Employee Free Choice by 241 to 186.

Even if by some miracle, Congress had approved the pro-union legislation, President George Bush had promised his corporate allies that he would veto it. And clearly there were not enough votes in either the Senate or the House to override his veto.

The core of labor's campaign for EFCA was that workers were fearful of exercising their right to join a union, because they could face intimidation, harassment and loss of their jobs. Labor leaders, in effect, indicated that their ability to organize major corporations and institutions depended on Congress enacting legal restraints on the behavior of anti-union employers. There is ample evidence that many unions put their organizing plans on hold, waiting for the supposed advantages of an EFCA law.

We lost EFCA, but labor leaders are claiming victory

In a statement immediately following the Senate defeat of the Employee Free Choice Act, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, almost jubilantly, "Working people came out of this vote with growing momentum." He also called it a "watershed achievement" and "an important step toward shoring up our nation's struggling middle class."

Anna Burger, Chair of Change to Win (another labor coalition), was as cheerful as Sweeney in assessing the Senate vote. She said: "The historic vote is proof that momentum is building up to win real change for America's workers. Today's vote is a step toward creating a new American Dream for working people."

In general, union leaders tended to emphasize the positive aspects of their EFCA campaign, particularly the favorable vote in the House and the 51-48 majority in the Senate, and they were full of praise for union members who had sent supporting e-mails to their representatives in Washington,

But after the face-saving, self-congratulating reaction has subsided, the grim fact remains: labor lost the EFCA campaign. The net effect of the Senate's action is to doom the Employee Free Choice Act for at least until when the next Congress meets in 2009. And even if the Democrats win the White House, they face a formidable task in electing a 60-member majority in the Senate to beat the cloture rule. But what if they fail? What then? Will that mean the end of large scale organizing campaigns? What will unions do for working people if they feel helpless without an EFCA to lean on?

Do the AFL-CIO and Change to Win have a Plan B to move us forward in case Employee Free Choice is not in the cards? Or will it be the same "business as usual" that has contributed to our decline in numbers and bargaining power? We're entitled to know.

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Out with the old blast furnace, in with the new… in 100 days

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

DEARBORN - Steel making at the Ford Rouge has continued unabated since the complex was opened in the 1920s - and with a $300 million investment to upgrade one of its two blast furnaces, the plant will continue to show its mettle.

Ford no longer owns the steel making processes at the Rouge - SeverStal North America bought out the operation several years ago. But the Russian company has performed several major upgrades of the steel making process, including the ongoing replacement work for the C Blast Furnace.

"There have been a number of modifications over the years to C furnace, but SeverStal decided it's time to replace it," said Andy Payne of Metro Industrial Contracting. "The new furnace is going to have features that didn't exist when this one was built - a new pump house, new turbo-blowers, and all the latest technology."

The construction process is being led by contractors Graycor (the general contractor), Metro Industrial, Power Process Piping, and Triangle Electric. Approximately 540 Hardhats are currently working on the project, a number which will soon increase to about 800, with the workforce toiling 24 hours in two shifts.

Work began on the new blast furnace nine months ago, although planning for the job has been going on for 18 months.

"We looked at many different options over the last few years, from minimal repair to completely replacing the C Blast Furnace," said Dave Morris, manager of engineering for SeverStal. "We concluded that the best value scenario for us is to replace the furnace."

The C Furnace, which is about 50 years old, is active today even as its replacement is being constructed in five major sections in nearby lay-down areas. But on July 13, the old furnace will be shut down, cleared of materials inside, cooled with water, and tested for the presence of gas. After a two-day cool-down period, the trades expect to start tearing down the furnace and have it dismantled in less than two weeks.

One hundred days later, SeverStal should have a modern new blast furnace in place. "It will be one of the most modern blast furnaces in the nation," Morris said. The new furnace, he said will increase production by 20 percent and reduce operating costs with the ability to use pulverized coal instead of costlier natural gas for fuel. Environmental controls on the new furnace are also expected to capture 98-100 percent of polluting emissions during casting operations.

(In the meantime, the site's other blast furnace - "B" - which dates to 1921, will continue to be in operation).

Performing the heavy lifting on the project are a 300-foot tower crane (which Payne said is the largest in North America) and a 340-foot Manitowac 21000. The Manitowac will hoist the project's five heaviest picks, which will come in at about 450 tons each.

"One of our concerns going into the job was that we have the right number of best quality, knowledgeable craftspeople for the project, and the building trades have done that," Morris said. "We have a high level of confidence with the team we have in place with our contractors and workers. You can see that they've done a lot of work already, and they've done an excellent job."

Including the new furnace, SeverStal has several ongoing or planned construction projects through 2009 that will result in the total expenditure of $750 million to enhance its steelmaking operations.

When all is said and done, SeverStal will look to enjoy a 20-year "campaign" of service for the new furnace. "I visited a blast furnace in Canada that will be similar to this one," Payne said. "It was clean, quiet, the emissions were very low, and they were producing more steel."

Added Scott Glasgow, field superintendent for Power Process Piping: "We have a short amount of time to work with, 100 days, but we're going to get it done. We work together here and there's a lot f teamwork."

The blast furnace, which operates at about 2,300 degrees, is the first step in producing steel from iron ore. Pig iron that is produced in a blast furnace is taken to a basic oxygen furnace, and then refined into a higher grade of steel. SeverStal final product is flat-rolled steel, sold mostly to the automotive industry.

Construction challenges ahead, Payne said, include the "ambitious" schedule and the "enormous" lifts.
"The B Furnace will be in operation, and that isn't going to bother us, but we'll be working within the tight quarters at this site," Payne said. "We've had 18 months to plan and think through the process, and we have skilled people and good contractors in place who know what they're doing. The major parts of the new furnace are here, it's just a matter of coordinating the people and the pieces."

THE "C" BLAST FURNACE, part of SeverStal steelmaking operation at the Rouge Plant in Dearborn, dominates the right side of the photo. Much of the C Furnace dates to the late 1940s, but the building trades will start dismantling the structure beginning next week. In its place: a new, cleaner, more environmentally-friendly blast furnacethat will work more efficiently and produce more iron.

PUTTING A GRINDER to a six-inch, schedule 8 high-pressure nitrogen pipe is Rich Mitchell of Pipe Fitters Local 636. At the other end of the pipe is 636er Steve Klein. Both were working for Power Process Piping at the SeverStal "C" Blast Furnace site in Dearborn.


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Unions laud demise of immigration bill

Any chance for comprehensive reform of the nation's immigration laws finally came to an end June 28, when the U.S. Senate voted failed to get enough votes (46-53) to end debate on the matter.

The bill had a strange bedfellows mix of supporters and detractors. Both Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and President Bush supported the bill, but the hotly contested matter ultimately didn't have enough support among either Democrats or Republicans. Most of organized labor didn't like it, either, even though the alternative is the status quo, which no one seems to think is working.

"While we continue to believe we need comprehensive immigration reform, it must be done in a way that upholds workers' most basic rights and removes economic incentives for exploitation. The immigration bill…does neither," AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka said.

Still, he added: "The current system is unworkable. It has become a blueprint for exploitation of all workers, both U.S. and foreign-born."

Supporters of the bill maintained that it would offer a path to legal status for some 12 million immigrants, help secure the borders and benefit employers and immigrants through a guest-worker program.

Detractors argued that it would unfairly confer amnesty on illegal aliens and do too little to make the borders safer. They also argued against the feasibility of requiring current illegal immigrants to go back to their home nation as part of the "touchback" rule.

The bill would have created a 200,000-person annual 'guest worker' program, to "provide greedy employers with a steady stream of vulnerable, indentured workers they exploit for commercial gain," Trumka said. "Because workers are wholly dependent on host employers for both their livelihoods and temporary legal status, it is virtually impossible for them to exercise what few rights they have.

"Employers play on this vulnerability to downgrade wages and working conditions for guest workers while lowering standards for all other workers."

The building trades and service and hospitality industries are frequently cited as the major workplace sectors that are most affected by illegal immigrants. The AFL-CIO Building Trades Department said it was glad to see the bill go down.

"We are not against immigration reform," said Edward Sullivan, president of the department. "We simply desire a process that places the interests of American workers at the center of the debate. And this particular effort failed miserably on that score."

The Building Trades Department said that construction work is estimated to be the third largest employment sector for undocumented workers, with roughly 14 percent of all construction workers in the U.S. being illegal.

Sheet Metal Workers President Michael Sullivan said in a column: "The serf-like conditions" for guest workers "will further harm working conditions in a construction industry that has seen wages depressed by as much as 30% since the 1980s."

The often-ridiculously low wages earned by those undocumented workers act as an anchor for all industry wages. Moreover, building trades unions face a never-ending battle to uphold prevailing wage laws for unionized workers on both state and national levels.

Even though they don't like the current immigration system - with the rampant employment of illegal drywallers and cement crews working for a fraction of the pay of American workers - union leaders fear that immigration reform without some kind of wage standards for immigrants will continue to drag down construction wage levels.

For the past several weeks, the Building Trades Department said it had mounted an all-out grassroots lobbying effort to defeat the bill. "Our members have been as engaged on this issue as any I have seen in my lifetime," Sullivan said. "They knew right away this approach to immigration reform completely ignored their circumstances and interests, and that made them extremely angry."

Most political observers now say the immigration issue won't be revisited until after President Bush leaves office.

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Steel's up on GM test lab

PONTIAC - An expansion of the General Motors Engine Dynamometer Test Facility reached a milestone June 15, with GM, their contractors and the building trades celebrating the topping out of the structure.

Brent Irrer, project manager for Bristol Steel, the fabricator for the building's iron skeleton, said some 4,200 tons of steel have gone into the building. "It's been a real good job from start to finish," he said.

GM hosted a luncheon for all the construction workers on the project, and a number of dignitaries had nice things to say about the job's quality, safety and progress.

General foreman Dan Foco of Iron Workers Local 25 said the steel began going up Jan. 2 in a project that employed about 20 iron workers at peak. Some of them will be around for another four months. "It's been a real smooth job," Foco said.

IRON WORKERS from Local 25 and Bristol Steel top out the GM Dynamometer Test Facility.

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The big 5-0 for the Mighty Mac

ST. IGNACE - Michigan is throwing a 50th anniversary party for the Mackinac Bridge - and we're all invited.

The world's 10th longest suspension bridge, the five-mile-long Mighty Mac was opened to vehicular traffic on Nov. 1, 1957.

Now 50 years later, since the weather at that time of year probably won't be ideal for celebrants to watch a parade and fireworks and listen to outdoor speeches, the State of Michigan wisely decided to hold the event in the summer of 2007.

The 50th anniversary events will start with a ceremony honoring the bridge's designer and chief engineer, David Steinman at 10 a.m. on Thursday, July 26 and culminate with a fireworks display over the Straits of Mackinac on Saturday evening, July 28. In between there are classic cars, a parade, a birthday cake, speeches, the unveiling of a statue, and various iron worker demonstrations.

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News Briefs

ABC spins out 'victory' for workers
All of a sudden, the Associated Builders and Contractors is interested in the welfare of workers?

The anti-union contractor group ABC, which opposed enhanced ergonomic standards to protect workers, which opposes any prevailing wage law at any level to uphold worker wage standards, which has notoriously lousy training programs, and has fought just about every pro-worker pay and safety regulation that has ever come up in its existence - wants the world to know it is interested in protecting workers' privacy.

Time to look under the hood at this one.

Responding to what it called "victory" for American workers after the Employee Free Choice Act went down to defeat (see article at right) ABC president and CEO Kirk Pickerel said in a press release "there is no justification in supporting this legislation in light of the tremendous negative impact it would have on the millions of workers stripped of their right to privacy in the workplace." He added the bill was "a slap in the face of democracy."

So in a transparent, jaw-dropping spin on the situation, the ABC sounds like they're bearing the cross of workers. But that would be a first. What they're doing is re-directing attention away from the fact that they didn't want this bill because it would make it easier for unions to organize their contractors.

Of course, Pickerel ignored the plight of employees who testified before Congress how pro-union workers are harangued, threatened and coerced by management - often during captive audience sessions - in the days leading up to union representation elections. He also conveniently ignored the fact that employees would have the option to have a simple card-signing arrangement to vote in a union, although they could also have a secret ballot election if they chose.

Rep George Miller, who sponsored the EFCA, laid out the true pro-worker position on the subject.

"Under the Employee Free Choice Act, if a majority of workers in a workplace sign cards authorizing a union, then the workers would get a union. By contrast, under current law, even when a majority of workers ask for union representation, their employers can force them to undergo an election process administered by the National Labor Relations Board.

"In NLRB elections, the deck is stacked heavily against pro-union workers. For example, while the employer can discuss the union with its employees anytime - on company property, and even in one-on-one meetings - union advocates are severely restricted in their ability to communicate with workers. Moreover, these elections are wide open to abuse by employers."

The Center for Economic and Policy Research recently estimated that employers fire one in five workers who actively advocate for a union. A December 2005 study by American Rights at Work found that 49 percent of employers studied had threatened to close or relocate all or part of the business if workers elected to form a union.

And Human Rights Watch has said, "freedom of association is a right under severe, often buckling pressure, when workers in the United States try to exercise it."

That's a slap in the face of democracy, too, but don't look for an ABC press release on that subject.

 

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