The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index

June 22, 2007

Veto threat aside, Senate Dems to move on key organizing bill

A PAI Special Report: Labor law turned upside down...Taft-Hartley signed 60 years ago

Outage results in extreme makeover at Consumers' J.H. Campbell plant

High Court ruling advances Indian casinos

Reduced work zone speeds are working

News Briefs

 

Veto threat aside, Senate Dems to move on key organizing bill
By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI) - The Senate was scheduled to vote on June 20 on whether to cut off a two-day Republican filibuster against the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation designed to help level the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing and bargaining

The vote will follow intensive lobbying by a labor-led wide-ranging coalition, including community groups, religious leaders and civil rights groups.

The vote "is critically important," said AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff, because even if we can't overcome the filibuster, it (the vote) will set a marker for the next two years - to get a Senate to pass it and a (new) president who twists arms for it."

The law faces an uphill battle, even with the lobbying. Acuff said "defeating it has become the No. 1 priority of the Radical Right Wing." The bill passed the House March 1, 241-185, with 228 Democrats and 13 Republicans voting for it. And President George W. Bush plans to veto it.

If the Employee Free Choice Act (HR 800/S 1041) becomes law, it would help level the playing field by legally endorsing "card-check" recognition of unions at work sites. Card-check is a simplified election process for voting during union organizing drives. The process helps prevent employer intimidation of employees during the process of a ballot election.

Organized labor maintains that management often takes the time before those elections to hold closed-door meetings and intimidate and threaten workers into voting against union representation.

Backers of the legislation said it has 48 Senate co-sponsors and counted 52 votes, going in, to shut off the GOP filibuster. But they needed 60 votes to succeed. Among the senators targeted were George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Norman Coleman (R-Minn.), and both GOP senators from Maine and both Republicans from Alaska.

The business community has launched radio and TV ad blitzes in states of undecided senators, wrapping itself in the flag of the "secret ballot" in union recognition elections, while ignoring the rampant business labor law-breaking that occurs before those votes.

This year's Senate vote came on an infamous anniversary: On June 20, 1947--precisely 60 years ago--Democratic President Harry S Truman vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act. That law, by the GOP-run 80th Congress, incorporated the original National Labor Relations Act, but made labor law pro-management. The House overrode Truman's veto that day and the Senate did so three days later.

TOP

A PAI Special Report: Labor law turned upside down...Taft-Hartley signed 60 years ago

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI) - On June 23, 1947, U.S. labor law turned upside down.

That's when the Republican-run 80th Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, by overriding a scathing veto by Democratic President Harry S Truman and over intense opposition from organized labor.

Marking that infamous anniversary is appropriate: The Democratic-run House this year passed the Employee Free Choice Act, designed to undo some abuses that have arisen in the 60 years since Taft-Hartley became law. The Employee Free Choice Act (HR 800/S1041) is pending before the Democratic-run Senate, but faces a GOP filibuster and - if that fails - a veto GOP President George W. Bush.

"Enactment of Taft-Hartley culminated a decade's worth of efforts directed at repealing, modifying, confining or undercutting the Wagner Act," Boston College law professor Thomas Kohler told a symposium on the impact of that law, on its 50th anniversary.

"Too much of the (Taft-Hartley) act shows it was the product of men who did not know how things work in industry or in the administration of the NLRA (the National Labor Relations Act), and of some who wished to weaken the position of all labor organizations in the economic and political scene," Kohler added.

Will the Employee Free Choice Act undo Taft-Hartley, and restore the nation's labor law to what the original Wagner Act - the National Labor Relations Act - intended in 1935?

No, because of 60 years of labor case law and court decisions made the nation's labor law "system" a pro-corporate, legalistic maze of procedural delays. One new law cannot untie that entire Gordian Knot. It can loosen it, however. The Employee Free Choice Act aims to do so.

With that in mind, it is useful to review some of the major provisions of Taft-Hartley and what labor said about it at the time - and later:

*The Taft-Hartley Act solidified the National Labor Relations Board's status as a quasi-judicial body, acting only on cases brought before it but with little enforcement power. Taft-Hartley also turned the board's General Counsel into an administrator and prosecutor, empowered to investigate complaints and prosecute when and where the counsel finds legitimate reason.

*Taft-Hartley reaffirmed Wagner Act provisions outlining 13 types of management labor law-breaking, formally called "unfair labor practice," charges. It added six methods of union labor law-breaking. Taft-Hartley also outlawed a key weapon unions had available until then, the secondary boycott.

Sponsoring Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio) Taft "had a mental block on one phase of labor relations: The secondary boycott. He couldn't understand it," the late AFL-CIO President George Meany said.

*Supervisors were barred from unionizing under Taft-Hartley. Under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, they could, in their own bargaining units. As supervisors, thanks to Taft-Hartley, they may be forced into anti-union anti-worker campaigning, or be fired. One impact of the Bush NLRB majority's Kentucky River nurses-are-supervisors ruling last year is that millions of more people - from construction workers to physicians' assistants to newspaper reporters - could arbitrarily become "supervisors" who can't unionize, thanks to Taft-Hartley.

Congressional Democrats have introduced legislation to reverse Kentucky River.

* Taft-Hartley let states enact so-called "right-to-work" laws. It said that a contract that includes a union shop provision could see a de-certification election against that provision alone. The Bush-named majority on the NLRB just made such de-certification votes against union shop provisions easier to seek. The right-to-work provision particularly upset the AFL, Meany said in a later interview. Indeed, Taft-Hartley "didn't put us out of business, but we felt highly emotional about" both it and the right-to-work provision. "It said in effect: 'Here is the federal standard, but if the states want to tighten up and make it more difficult for labor to organize, they can do so. But they can't go the other way,'" and make it easier to organize, Meany added.

The Employee Free Choice Act does not repeal right-to-work. The last time the union movement tried, and failed, to repeal that part - section 14(b) - of Taft-Hartley was 1965.

* Taft-Hartley did reaffirm that encouraging collective bargaining as a way to settle labor-management disputes is a legitimate national interest. That was object of the NLRA, but House Republicans actually knocked that "national interest" language out of their version of Taft-Hartley in 1947. Sen. Taft stuck it back in, and in it stayed. "The bill is based on the theory of the Wagner Act. It is based on the theory that the solution of the labor problem in the United States is free, collective bargaining," Taft said during the debate over Truman's veto.

* With the passage of Taft-Hartley, enshrined into labor law was the so-called "free speech" provision, letting employers campaign against unions. "Although unions are limited in campaigning on company time and property, employers are not," writes noted St. Louis labor law attorney Bruce Feldacker in Labor's Guide To Labor Law.

"An employer has the right to speak to employees on company time and require employees to attend the meeting. This is the so-called 'captive audience' doctrine. An union does not have the right to reply on company time," Feldacker adds. It was cemented into labor law, other specialists say, by Taft-Hartley.

The Employee Free Choice Act would outlaw captive audience meetings.

Taft-Hartley had many other provisions, all designed, as speakers at the symposium said, to allegedly correct the pro-union tilt of the NLRA. Union leaders said business interests wrote Taft-Hartley.

"The Hartley-National Association of Manufacturers bill…is designed to bring about the destruction of free trade unions in our country," Meany told a radio audience in 1947. "Throughout the 68 pages we find the ideas and the very language of the NAM's anti-labor program lifted bodily and incorporated into the bill." Mine Workers President John L. Lewis called Taft-Hartley "the first ugly, savage thrust of fascism in America" written by "those who still believe in the institution of human slavery."

Today, AFL-CIO General Counsel Laurence Gould says the problem isn't Taft-Hartley, but labor law in general, combined with the NLRB's rulings and management's attitudes.

"Congress, the board and the courts enormously underestimated employer determination to maintain the status quo as the sole master of the enterprise and as the figure who is entitled to loyalty and to punish disloyalty," Gould told the Wagner Act symposium. "The rules that govern organizing campaigns may have changed the methods of coercion that are available, but they have done little or nothing to change the final result.

"In those terms, insofar as the (Wagner) act was designed to change the brute fact of employers' dominance, the act has failed. I do not believe procedural niceties and questions of enforcement….are at all determinative as to whether this law has any vitality at this point in time. This has come about because there are no major shared objectives between management and labor," Gould added. That was true when Taft-Hartley became law. As the fight over the Employee Free Choice Act shows, it still is.

TOP

Outage results in extreme makeover at Consumers' J.H. Campbell plant

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

PORT SHELDON TWP. -The population of this small town on the Lake Michigan shoreline grew by up to 1,400 from last November through March, as the building trades, their contractors and support staff descended on Consumers Energy's J.H. Campbell Generating Complex to complete installation of pollution controls and convert the 820-megawatt boiler to burn low sulfur western coal.

The major tasks on their to-do list during the Campbell Unit 3 emission control equipment installation outage include: tie-in the selective catalytic reduction (SCR) equipment on the plant and convert the unit to allow burning 100% low sulfur western coal. The work is part of a three-year, $450 million plan whose goal is to reduce the plant's nitrogen oxide emissions.

The SCR technology allows a small amount of ammonia to be injected into flue gas leaving the boiler and entering a catalyst. The chemical reaction converts ozone contributing nitrogen oxide to nitrogen - which makes up about three-fourths of the air in nature - and water vapor.

"This has been an extremely large outage," said Rich Kasper, the project manager who handled the contract labor force for Consumers Energy. "Converting the boiler to burn western coal was the largest project we've ever undertaken at this site beyond initial construction of the three power plants."

The project has been led by APCom Power/Alstom Construction. The Unit 3 outage began in the last week of September, and employment for the outage peaked in late January. Work on the boiler and related plant equipment was essentially complete in April with testing and analysis occurring in May.

The project from 2006 through 2007 has involved two million man-hours of work, with some highlights including:

  • Completion of the new SCR superstructure and supporting equipment
  • Replacement of boiler tubes
  • Replacement of induced draft fans
  • Installation of a new static exciter on the generator
  • Installation of a new boiler economizer and re-heat section.
  • A large amount of maintenance on valves and pumps
  • Generator refurbishment
  • Complete inspection of turbines
  • A tremendous amount of associated wiring

Kasper said with the vast number of welds that were performed on the boiler tubes some flaws were anticipated, and welders were performing leak-seeking and repairs while the system was pressurized late last month.

Much planning went into the outage, Kasper said, and when it came time to do the work, Hardhats usually toiled 24 hours in two shifts.

"We had four large trestle cranes, and now we're down to one," he said late last month. "Right now, we're in demobilization and clean-up, and from now through November, we'll be restoring the superstructure and doing punch-list work."

Consumers Energy spokesman Dennis McKee said the modifications to reduce emissions from Unit 3 are unprecedented in scope for any plant in the utility's fleet - and for that matter, the rest of the country. "We expect the rest of the industry will emulate the work we've done here," McKee said.

Overall the project "was a great campaign," Kasper said. "We did it with tremendous attention to safety and it was close to being on time. We've had a lot of success stories but we've learned lessons, too."

The project's safety record was marred by the fall of an iron worker who was severely injured on the project.

And, on Feb. 22, an outdoor crane at the job site collapsed. The 300-foot crane boom fell onto the building housing the complex's Unit 3 turbine. Miraculously, with about 100 Consumers Energy and construction personnel inside the building at the time, no one was seriously injured. The crane was not manned at the time. While MIOSHA hasn't released a final report on its investigation of the incident, there were high winds at the time off of Lake Michigan.

The modifications at the plant are expected to result in an 85 percent decline in nitrogen oxide emissions and a 20 percent drop in sulfur dioxide emission rate.

The 260 megawatt Unit 1 at the Campbell Plant has already been configured to burn Western coal, and the 360 megawatt Unit 2 can burn 40 percent Western coal. The installation of future pollution controls on Units 1 and 2 "will be determined by government policies and what makes economic and environmental sense," McKee said.

Jim Kaffenberger, a business agent with Boilermakers Local 169, said Consumers Energy was "excellent to work with. They went out of their way to give us everything we needed. One thing they did was heat the building, which was a really big plus for us."

Dan Malone, site manager at the Campbell Complex, said the quality of work from the trades "is very high - craftworkers and the Consumers site staff interacted very well together. They were a very easy group to manage, and the work they've done has brought about a very high quality, reliable unit."

BOILERMAKERS from Local 169 work amid a mass of boiler tubes several stories up at Consumers Energy's J.H. Campbell plant. More than 800 boilermakers worked at the plant in late January at the peak outage period. Photos by Dennis McKee/Consumers Energy

A SECTION of duct-work starts its journey from a flatbed to a retrofitted area of the Campbell plant.


TOP

High Court ruling advances Indian casinos

(From Michigan Construction News.com)

A Michigan Supreme Court ruling tossing out a challenge by TOMAC ("Taxpayers Of Michigan Against Casinos") will allow the Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo Township to open in August, as scheduled. It's also seen as a decision that will aid other Native American owned casino projects in the state.

Ground was broken a year ago by the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians for the estimated $400 million casino and resort.

The casino facilities are rising on a 51-acre portion of a 675-acre site located north of M-239 and east of I-94 at Exit 1. Included is to be 130,000 square-feet of gaming space, six restaurants, and three bars. There are also to be 164 hotel rooms, including 98 suites; meeting rooms; an exercise facility; outdoor spa; and childcare facility and arcade.

TOMAC had argued Michigan's process for ratifying compacts signed between the Native American tribes and the governor to be improper. It also claimed the governor could not amend them without additional ratification by the state legislature. The high court disagreed, by a 5-2 decision issued June 1.

In addition to the Pokagons, the decision let stand casino gaming compacts with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, and the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi.

Though it must overcome another legal challenge, the Huron Band hopes to break ground late this summer on its $120 million Firekeepers Casino near Battle Creek. It would rise on a 78-acre site in Calhoun County's Emmett Township.

TOP

Reduced work zone speeds are working

In 2005, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) considered ways to attack the increasing problem of tragic work zone crashes. Its "Where Workers Present 45" campaign seems to have made a difference.

"Like transportation departments in all states, MDOT is faced with the difficult task of maintaining highways that are increasingly clogged with traffic," says the Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North America's Occupational Safety and Health Division Associate Director Walter Jones, who testified at the state's legislative hearings. "In Michigan, about 20 people are killed every year in work zone crashes - the vast majority being the drivers or passengers of the vehicles that crash. About ten percent are construction workers, mostly Laborers."

Due to increasing traffic demand, road closures for repair are problematic. In some areas, night work has been more widely employed, but this has additional costs and different (as well as similar) dangers. Physical separation with barriers is generally recommended but, because of the mobile nature of roadway work, is difficult to implement in many situations. Police presence is known to slow drivers, but it is costly and enforcement in a work zone area can add to the confusion and danger.

Thus, among these other tactics, states continue to rely on messages aimed at the motoring public that are designed to get them to slow down and pay attention in and around work zones.

"But, even that is not so simple," says Gary Jorgensen, Michigan Laborers District Council Business Manager. "Initially, the state's police and engineers - citing studies that indicate that whenever drivers make sudden speed adjustments, the risk of crashes with other drivers increases - wanted to allow speeds of 60 mph in work zones. We had to battle to get them to listen to our perspective. Even then, their plan was to change the limit to ten mph below the highway's posted speed limit. In many cases, that would have meant 55 mph."

Meanwhile, working with the "Give 'em a Brake Safety Coalition" - an alliance of MDOT, builders' associations and unions - to educate the driving public, Jorgensen convinced the MDOT director (an engineer, since returned to the private sector) that she should create a media photo opportunity to dramatize the danger for road workers by setting up her desk in a highway work zone. "With cars whizzing by at 60 miles per hour, she also began to soften her support for raising the work zone speed limit," recalls Jorgensen. "Then, we were able to work out the compromise, agreeing to keep the speed limit at 45 but adding 'when workers are present.' It seems to be working."

The new plan was implemented in 2006 and the progress is good. Crashes in 2006 declined 20 percent from 2005. Injuries dropped from 1,811 to 1,450 and fatalities from 20 to 18.

While he praised the progress and attributed it to the new signage, new MDOT Director Kirk T. Steudle said, "We must continue to promote work zone safety in order to reduce crashes, injuries and deaths even further. Our goal is to make 2007 the safest yet."

Previously, the state had enacted a series of laws to attack the work zone safety problem. In 1997, it doubled fines for speeding in work zones. In 2001, the state enacted "Andy's Law" that imposes a year in prison for injuring, and up to 15 years for killing, a road construction worker. In 2002, it increased the number of points issued for speeding in work zones (three for ten miles per hour or less over the limit, four for ten to 15 mph over and five for greater than 15 mph over). Twelve total points necessitates a license re-examination and the possibility of a restriction, suspension or revocation.

Only after the "Where Workers Present 45" program was implemented did crashes, injuries and fatalities actually decline. More study will be needed to fully understand the success, but in the meantime, Michigan drivers will continue to slow down when workers are present and highway workers will hopefully enjoy "the safest year ever."
(From the Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North America).

MICHIGAN'S 'where workers present' strategy for speed control in work zones helped lower injuries and fatalities.

Photo by Bill Phillips/MDOT

TOP

News Briefs

Construction lags jobless numbers
LANSING - Michigan's construction and manufacturing industries acted as anchors for the state's jobless numbers, which overall had some good news, dropping two-tenths of a percentage point to 6.9 percent in May from April's' 7.1 percent.

"May's 6.9 percent unemployment rate matched the state's 2006 annual average rate," said Rick Waclawek, director of Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth's Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives on June 13. "However, Michigan continues to outpace the nation in manufacturing and construction job loss. These losses have been tempered by steady growth in health services."

Michigan employed 181,000 construction workers in May 2006, and a year later, that number dropped to 168,000.

From April to May 2007, total employment increased by 14,000 and unemployment declined by 9,000 as the state's labor force rose slightly by 5,000. Michigan's May 2007 jobless rate increased by three-tenths of a percentage point from the state's May 2006 rate of 6.6 percent. In the same period, the national jobless rate decreased one-tenth of a percentage point.

In May, the number of unemployed in Michigan was 348,000. The total number of unemployed in the state has hovered around 350,000 for about four and a half years.


Circuit City not winning friends
(PAI) - A second round of mass firings by the big electronics retailer Circuit City - many of them at its Richmond, Va., headquarters - prompted some workers there to contact the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in New York.

And while RWDSU has made no move to organize the chain, "we're reaching out" to the firm's workers, union spokeswoman Zita Allen adds.

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum blasted the second round of firings. He said they showed the firm's managers are "poster children for corporate irresponsibility." The coming firings will cut 654 store managers nationwide and 200 workers in Richmond, the Wall Street Journal reported, quoting Circuit City CEO Philip Schoonhover.

Earlier this year, the retailer fired 3,400 staffers nationwide, virtually all because they were its highest-paid workers. It told them they could reapply for their old jobs in two months, at half the pay, and in the meantime it stuck with lower-paid workers. Customers responded by abandoning Circuit City due to lack of expertise on the stores' floors. The firings led to a crash in revenues in the first quarter of 2007.

Schoonhoover earned $17 million last year in pay and benefits while rank and file Circuit City workers earned $7.75-$10 an hour with few or no benefits.

That first round of firings also prompted protests, including one in Minneapolis, where unionists emphasized that had Circuit City workers been organized - a prospect that could occur if the Employee Free Choice Act was law - they would have had protection against the arbitrary pink slips.

 

TOP

The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index