The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index

June 8, 2007

Yet another dorm renovated at NMU

Labor pushes for workers' rights in Immigration debate

ABC never fails to disappoint - and they're at it again

Laborer rails against OSHA's waiting room

An update on the rights of asbestos victims, and how they've been wronged

Cerebral palsy bike run set for July 28

News Briefs

 

Yet another dorm renovated at NMU

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

MARQUETTE - Northern Michigan University students had to be out of their Van Antwerp Hall rooms on May 5, just after the end of the winter semester.

On May 8, the building trades and general contractor Gundlach Champion moved in, starting a summer-long process that will result in the complete refurbishment of the 50-year-old hall.

"The upgrades we're doing are really necessary," said Brandon Sager, owner's representative for NMU. "Basically the building hasn't been touched since it was built in the mid-1950s."

The $8 million renovation project will put to work about 60 Hardhats at peak employment. They will be moving quickly over the next few months to get the hall ready for habitation in August.

Sager said the first three weeks of the project involved asbestos abatement, with the removal of ceiling and floor tiles, as well as the removal of lead paint from various areas, especially door frames. He said the project will then proceed to "completely gutting" the interior of the building.

All existing resident rooms, bathroom facilities and lounges will be upgraded. A sunroom will be added to the dorm, new windows will be added, and a system that will improve air circulation in bathrooms and corridors will be installed. The renovations will also include the installation of a new elevator.

NMU said the Van Antwerp renovations are a continutation of the campus' Quad II complex renovation, which included work on Magers Hall (completed in 2005) and Meyland Hall (completed in 2006). Hunt Hall renovations are slated for next year. All the halls are in the range of 60,000 square-feet.

"It's a challenge with the tight time span, but we're looking really good with the schedule," Sager said. "I think we've learned from the previous halls that we've worked on, and that experience has helped us quite a bit."

A DUCT IN VAN ANTWERP HALL under renovation at Northern Michigan University is sized up by Bob Cisluycis of Sheet Metal Workers Local 7.

NEW TRUSSES abound in a lay-down area at Van Antwerp Hall at Northern Michigan University.
Photos by Jack Deo/Superior View Photography, Marquette



TOP

Labor pushes for workers' rights in Immigration debate

The number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. has grown to nearly 5 percent of the U.S. working population, or 12 million workers, according to a report last year by the Pew Hispanic Center. And about 20 percent of that population works in construction.

The building trades have a major stake in the ongoing immigration debate. Undocumented workers drag down wage scales, allowing unscrupulous employers to underbid legitimate contractors while taking away American jobs.

President Bush has suggested that undocumented workers are performing jobs that Americans don't want to do - but organized labor argues that if workers are paid properly, they will do just about anything.

Late last month, Bush and a bipartisan group of senators came up with a compromise immigration plan that drew nasty rhetoric from both parties. The centerpiece of the plan is a "Z Visa" which would set the 12 million illegal immigrants on the road to permanent residency if they pay fines, return to their countries to file paperwork, and learn English. Border security would also need to be improved under the measure.

Here are some reactions to the immigration debate, from several points of view in the organized labor and human rights community:

*"In the AFL-CIO's view, there is no good reason why any immigrant who comes… prepared to work, to pay taxes, and to abide by our laws and rules should be denied what has been offered throughout our history: a path to legal citizenship," said AFL-CIO General Counsel Jon Hiatt. He said the present law "has strengthened the perverse economic incentive employers have to violate immigration laws. As long as employers have access to a class of workers they can prevent from exercising labor rights by merely asking a simple question: 'Do you have papers?' the incentive to exploit will continue."

The bill's "touch back" requirement of having undocumented heads of households return to their home countries to apply for "green cards" and wait for them is not likely to work, said Hiatt. "Exploitation of undocumented workers is economically attractive," he said, and this bill will probably maintain that system.

Employers, he said, use immigration laws to quash worker activism. Hiatt cited one immigration law case from 2003 where the employer called the Immigration and Naturalization Service on itself to quash an organizing campaign.

*Service Employees Vice President Eliseo Medina said the "compromise" has "some positive aspects," notably building a path to eventually legalize undocumented workers now in the U.S. But Medina called the guest worker program "ludicrous." And he added the bill "still falls short of comprehensive immigration reform, and all workers ought to have full protection of labor, civil and employment laws."

There is one more big problem with the bill, said Kevin Appleby of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: "Triggers," demanded by the GOP, that must be in place before legalization starts. They include hiring and training 20,000 more Border Patrol agents and finishing the fence along the U.S.-Mexico boundary.

"Assuming 'triggers' go forward, we would advocate a 'time definite' " for legalization and other parts of the bill "so they wouldn't be delayed for years and years," Appleby said. But workers seeking legalization would have to pay hefty fines and back taxes, show they worked here for eight years, have clean criminal records, learn English and apply for permanent residence "Z visas," similar to green cards. And they could have to wait up to five years for the visas. Their family members would also have to wait.

"How many families are going to wait eight years to 13 years to join their loved ones?" asked Appleby.

*Harry Kelber, the self-proclaimed "labor educator" and a frequent critic of the AFL-CIO, said the labor federation "has come up with an immigration policy that makes sense." He praised the AFL-CIO's call to give immigrant workers "full workplace rights, including the right to organize and protection for whistle-blowers."

Kelber continued: "The labor federation rejects President Bush's proposal for a "guest worker" program that calls for (allowing the importation of) 400,000 foreign workers under a three-year contract, Instead, (the AFL-CIO) proposes that "Labor and business together should design mechanisms to meet the legitimate needs for new workers without compromising the rights and opportunities of workers already here."

"If millions of undocumented workers can be persuaded that organized labor is their strong, steadfast and resourceful ally," Kelber said, "it will be a lot easier to recruit them into unions. They represent the biggest organizing target on the horizon, as well as an important political force. Can we take advantage of this opportunity?"

(Press Associates contributed to this report).

TOP

ABC never fails to disappoint - and they're at it again

Tradesman Viewpoint

If you operate a construction company that relies on temporary workers whose citizenship is frequently found to be a "gray area" - then you probably share the goals of the Associated Builders and Contractors.

On May 25, the ABC - which is basically the arch-enemy of the unionized construction sector - released its own goals for immigration reform. It's safe to say that they don't call for rules to limit the exploitation of workers, as does the AFL-CIO.

What does the ABC want out of a new immigration policy? They believe reform must:

1) "Secure our nation's borders;

2) "Create a workable system that can be used by big and small employers alike to
determine an employee's legal status;

3) "Create a usable temporary worker program that will help the construction industry
meet the increasing labor demands our industry face;

4) "Allow well-meaning undocumented immigrants a means to earn lawful work status
without a mandatory return to their country of origin."

"We are hopeful that Senate Democrats and Republicans working together will produce what Americans are entitled to: an immigration reform package that serves our nation by ensuring the enforcement of our laws, the security of our borders and the prosperity of our economy," said ABC Chairman David Meyer.

It will be real news when the ABC produces a press release that says its affiliated contractors are willing to do their part to limit the hiring of illegals. Such as, making an effort to self-police their hiring, to create a permanent workforce and shun the use of temporary agencies, to pay prevailing wages to make jobs attractive to U.S. workers, and to put into place construction training programs that aren't seen as an industry joke.

But the self-serving goals of the ABC have nothing to do with improving the quality of life for workers, and everything to do with having the federal government open a sanctioned low-wage, low-skill employment system for their contractors.

TOP

Laborer rails against OSHA's waiting room

A workplace hazard at popcorn plants, of all places, was used to illustrate OSHA's agonizingly slow process of setting safety standards on the job.

Speaking on behalf of workers and safety conscious employers across the United States, the Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North America attacked the standard-setting shortcomings of OSHA during April testimony before the House Education and Labor Committee, Subcommittee on Workplace Protections.

Calling OSHA's standard-setting process "broken," LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider urged Congress to set time limits to speed the agency's consideration and adoption of standards.

To correct OSHA's meandering process, Schneider stressed the importance of Congressional prodding to ensure results. "After Congress imposed deadlines, we got an OSHA standard for lead and another for hazardous waste within six months. Without deadlines, we get regular re-statements of OSHA's intention to establish standards, but we do not get any new standards," he said.

His comments were made at a House hearing held in conjunction with a similar hearing on the Senate side. The twin hearings, scheduled the week before Workers' Memorial Day on April 28, were designed to lay the groundwork for workplace safety legislation introduced by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA).

Schneider asked Congress to push OSHA to renew use of its dormant Emergency Temporary Standards (ETS) authority. Such use might have prevented the wave of serious lung injuries incurred over the last decade by workers exposed to diacetyl, a flavoring agent, at popcorn plants across the country. One of these workers, Eric Peoples, also testified at the House hearing, saying he now faces a double-lung transplant.

Peoples began work at a popcorn plant in Missouri in 1997, but was soon ill with bronchiolitis obliterans, an often-fatal lung disease. Doctors in the area quickly realized that other current and former workers at the plant had similar symptoms. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health visited the plant and issued a bulletin in 2001, saying "a work-related cause of lung disease" had occurred there. NIOSH is not empowered to develop standards or to issue safety and health citations. The agency followed up with an alert recommending safeguards to more than 4,000 businesses.

OSHA, however, took a different tact, Schneider said. It sent an inspector who concluded that the plant was in compliance with existing rules and closed the case. Sixteen months later, sick workers filed a complaint with OSHA, but after another inspection, the agency said it could not do anything because no safety standard exists to establish a level beyond which exposure to diacetyl is unacceptable.

Meanwhile, the lawsuits have been piling up. Peoples, himself, recently won a $20 million claim against the flavoring's manufacturer.

"This is exactly the kind of situation where OSHA should step in and issue an ETS," said Schneider. "No one knows the extent of exposure to diacetyl that is safe, but everyone knows it should be minimized. OSHA should have stepped in and required the plants to reduce exposures through ventilation or closed processes and required workers to wear respirators on a temporary basis until a safe, permanent solution could be devised."

Also testifying was OSHA Director Edwin Foulke, who offered a rosy assessment of the agency's performance under the Bush Administration. He cited data that shows all-time lows in occupational injury, illness and fatality rates.

"His testimony was misleading," said Schneider, discussing his and others' remarks in a follow-up interview. "His data is inherently flawed because some of the most common and most significant health concerns in construction" - Schneider highlighted silicosis and hearing loss in his testimony - "are chronic conditions, often missed by doctors and almost never recorded in OSHA logs."

Construction workers are victims of OSHA's waiting room. Discussion of an improved excavation standard began in 2001; six years later, it is still in the pre-rule stage. A possible silica standard also remains in the pre-rule stage four 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 worksites.
The long-awaited Hearing Conservation Program for Construction Workers has been in OSHA's hopper since 1983. There has since been little movement on a new standard since then - and the date of the agency's next action officially remains "undetermined."

(Adapted from an article by the Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North America).

TOP

An update on the rights of asbestos victims, and how they've been wronged

By Michael B. Serling

On April 17 I had the distinct honor of addressing the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council in Lansing. The occasion was their 48th Annual Legislative Conference. Many of the leaders in attendance expressed to me their concerns regarding asbestos disease among their membership.

Rightly so, since the sad truth is that cases of mesothelioma cancer, lung cancer and asbestosis are still prevalent among Michigan building tradesmen. Indeed, mesothelioma cases in the United States are still as numerous as they were ten years ago, perhaps even more so.

Mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung or lining of the abdomen, is almost always a terminal illness for which the only known cause is asbestos exposure. It is a disease that strikes its victims 20, 30 and even 40 years after the first exposure to asbestos. At the conference I told the delegates the story of the first mesothelioma case ever to be filed in the state of Michigan. It happened to be my case.

The year was 1975 and I was only 31 years old at the time, in practice for just five years. My client was an asbestos insulator who died at the age of 53, leaving a widow and two young children. Over the next three decades this tragedy was repeated in tens of thousands of other families of our tradesmen in Michigan and throughout the country.

What is troubling is that redress for the victims of asbestos disease is now under attack in many states, including Michigan. Last year we and many other defenders of victims' rights were in pitched battles in Washington, Lansing and many other state capitals.

On the federal level, the proposed asbestos legislation (the mislabeled "FAIR Act") before the U.S. Senate appears to have faded into the background. This was a controversial bill that actually divided labor.

The AFL-CIO came out against the bill, whereas the UAW supported it. Indeed, some of the building trades supported the legislation while most trades sided with the AFL-CIO in opposing it. Most asbestos law firms opposed the bill as did the American Trial Lawyers Association (now known as American Association for Justice).

Those opposing the bill felt that it would have created a new bureaucracy mired in red tape. Under the proposed bill victims would have given up their right to trial by jury in favor of this new system controlled by the government in power. There was great skepticism about the adequacy of funding. Many predicted that cases would not be compensated for five years or more. Most states, including Michigan, resolve asbestos cases within two years. Fortunately, from our perspective, the bill did not make it through the Senate and has been dormant for over a year. With the Senate now in control of the Democrats, it is unlikely this bill will resurface.

In Michigan bills were brought before committees of the state House and state Senate to establish criteria legislation. This would have defined when an asbestosis or lung cancer case could be brought, somewhat akin to Michigan's No-Fault auto law.

The criteria proposed by the Republican majorities was extremely one-sided and, if passed, would have denied 75% to 90% of asbestosis and lung cancer victims their day in court. I am happy to say that the bills failed and in November Democrats carried enough seats to control the state House.

In the Michigan Supreme Court insurance and company lobbying groups attempted to have the high court in Lansing pass a court rule which would have achieved the same result as the proposed legislation mentioned above. This would likewise have denied 75% to 90% of asbestosis and lung cancer victims access to the courthouse.

Although the state Supreme Court did not give big insurance and big asbestos what they wanted, the court did pass a rule in August 2006 interfering with the ability of Michigan asbestos judges to resolve cases, which they had been doing successfully for many years.

Nonetheless, the parties involved in asbestos litigation have continued resolving about 600-800 cases a year. This has enabled most victims to receive compensation within two years from the date their cases were filed. However, with the new court rule the pace of case resolution could be in jeopardy.

We believe that the current Michigan Supreme Court has demonstrated hostility toward victims' rights and access to the courthouse. Most appeals involving issues affecting the rights of victims are being decided against the plaintiff by a 4-3 margin. There are now several cases in the Michigan Supreme Court which could significantly further erode the rights of asbestos victims.

The cases deal with issues involving the Statute of Limitations, qualifications for expert witnesses and the rights of family members of tradesmen to bring claims for their own asbestos related diseases. My firm and other attorneys representing the rights of asbestos victims are doing our utmost to continue defending those rights of hard-working tradesmen.

We ask every one of you to remain educated on issues affecting the rights of workers and victims of asbestos disease. We urge you to exercise your rights at the ballot box and to contact elected members of our state and federal government on issues that are important in preserving your rights. If we all work hard we can make Michigan once again a place that is safe for workers and a place where workers are free to exercise their constitutional rights as envisioned by our founding fathers.

TOP

Cerebral palsy bike run set for July 28

The second annual Benjamin Franklin Memorial Poker Run will be held starting at with registration at 10 a.m. on Saturday, July 28 at the Lansing Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 333 union hall.

The motorcycle ride is held in memory of Benjamin Tyler Franklin, who died at age three of cerebral palsy. He's the son of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 333 secretary April Franklin and Iron Workers Local 25 member Benjamin Franklin.

In a poker run, drivers of cars and motorcycles make five stops on a pre-planned route and draw a card at each stop. Prizes are given out for those who have the best poker hand.

The ride will start at the Local 333 union hall, at 5405 S. Martin Luther King Drive in Lansing. Bikers will head south before ending at the Wooden Nickel Saloon in Dansville.

The registration cost is $20 per bike/$5 per passenger. Call April at (517) 749-9583 or e-mail afranklin@local333.com for more information.

TOP

News Briefs

ENR ranks nation's top contractors
The status Michigan-based construction contractors large enough to make the Engineering News Record's annual list of top revenue-makers generally held steady from 2006 to 2007.

"The construction market for U.S. contractors is hot, and smart contractors now are enjoying a business environment that they hope for, but rarely experience," said the ENR article that accompanied the rankings. "There is enough work to go around to satisfy contractors in most markets, and there is enough security for them to focus on good business practices."

While Michigan's economy has generally lagged behind the rest of the nation, that trend isn't necessarily hitting the state's largest contractors.

Southfield-based Barton Malow, Michigan's largest contractor in terms of revenue on ENR's list, dipped from No. 37 in 2006 to No. 39 in 2007. Detroit-based Walbridge-Aldinger is No. 51 on the list this year, down 8 spots from 2006.

The rest of the top Michigan-based contractors for revenue on ENR's Top-400 list include Angelo Iafrate of Warren (#118, +17 from 2006); The Christman Co., Lansing (#149 +33); Granger Construction, Lansing (#213, +62); Rockford Construction, Grand Rapids (#227, -46); Roncelli, Inc., Sterling Heights (#296, -12); Pioneer General Contractors, Grand Rapids (#358, +1); George W. Auch, Pontiac #367, -81), and Clark Construction, Lansing (#374, -38).

John M. Olsen of St. Clair Shores, which dropped 40 places from 2005 to 2006 and was #294 last year, dropped from the ENR's Top 400 list this year.

Other construction contractors (and their 2007 rankings) that do a significant amount of business in Michigan include Skanska USA (#5); Washington Group International (#16), and Alberici (#55). Also on the list are The Boldt Co. (#98); Miron Construction (#134), and Lunda Construction (#190), which are all based in Wisconsin.

Nationwide, the top three contractors for revenue in 2007 are Bechtel, Flour and Turner Corp.



April construction slides 5 percent
The value of new U.S. construction starts fell 5% in April to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $565.1 billion, according to a report released May 23 by McGraw-Hill Construction.

For the first four months of 2007, total construction was down 17% from the same period a year ago. Even with the exclusion of the downtrodden residential building sector from year-to-date statistics, new construction starts in the first four months of 2007 were down 3% from last year.

The year-to-date decline for construction starts reflects the comparison to the elevated activity in the first four months of 2006, which was just prior to the time when the single family correction grew pronounced.

"The weak residential sector continues to shape the pattern for overall construction activity," stated Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction. "The rate of decline for single-family housing is not as severe as what took place earlier, but the level of activity is down substantially from the initial months of last year, and renewed expansion is not anticipated any time soon."

For the five major U.S. regions, total construction during the first four months of 2007 relative to last year was the following - the South Central, down 9%; the Northeast, down 14%; the Midwest, down 15%; the South Atlantic, down 18%; and the West, down 25%.

 

TOP

The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index