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June 9, 2006
Federal lawmakers failed earlier this year - once again - in a years-long compromise effort to establish a trust fund to help victims of asbestos-related diseases.
The trust fund money would come from companies and their insurance providers that manufactured asbestos-containing materials. So far, there have been unsolvable disagreements in Congress over how much money should be placed in the trust, and how sick a person should be in order to have access to the money.
Now, lawmakers in some states, including Michigan, are seeking their own path to fixing and settling asbestos cases. Construction workers make up a large bloc of those who are afflicted - and could still be afflicted - with asbestos-related disease. And those afflicted workers are not going to like the fix that's being served up by Republicans in the Michigan House and Senate, and separately, through a side agenda by conservatives on the state Supreme Court.
"The bottom line right now is that the Michigan legislature is trying to deny a lot more workers who have been exposed to asbestos from getting their day in court," said asbestos attorney Michael Serling. "And not only that, the Michigan Supreme Court is trying to do the same thing through what they call 'procedural and docket control.' "
Serling said the legislation, if passed, would remove about 80 percent of non-cancer asbestosis cases from the state's court dockets.
According to an April report by the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America via the Insurance Journal, "Michigan has looked at the efforts of other states such as Georgia, Florida and Texas that have worked to cut down on frivolous asbestos lawsuits and tried to prevent companies that did not produce asbestos from being sued into bankruptcy."
Michigan House and Senate panels have held hearings this year on legislation that would create more stringent rules for asbestos or silicosis victims from getting access to the courts in Michigan. The new rules, according to the Insurance Journal, would "establish reasonable medical standards for asbestos and silicosis claims necessary to verify these illnesses; they place no additional burden on mesothelioma victims and suspend the statute of limitations, preserving the right of claimants to sue should they become ill."
The key to the issue, of course, is defining "reasonable medical standards." In other words, at what point is a person exposed to asbestos, "sick?" Serling said there are two separate standards at play in Michigan.
The first, which Serling said more widely supports the rights of workers, was put out in September 2004 by the American Thoracic Society. A second standard, promulgated in 2003 by the American Bar Association - of all groups - sought to limit the number of claimants to asbestos funds by raising the medical standard for who is sick, and who isn't.
Serling said the Michigan Supreme Court is considering using the ABA's standards as a guide for thinning the number of claimants on asbestos dockets. Asbestos victims deemed not sick enough under the new rules would have their cases move from an active docket to an inactive docket.
On May 24, Serling argued before a hearing in the state's high court that the court is now effectively creating legislation to reduce the number of asbestos claimants - a role that should be - and in this case, currently is - taken on by state lawmakers.
"The fact that the state legislature is now actively dealing with these issues should be enough reason for this court to let the legislative process proceed," Serling wrote in a brief to the Supreme Court. "We urge this Court to refrain from instituting any inactive docketing system with regard to asbestos litigation."
As we've reported in the past, Michigan's Republican lawmakers and Supreme Court justices may be ignoring the old saying, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Until recent legislation in that state was adopted, there were 48,000 asbestos-related court cases in Ohio - Michigan has only 2,500. An effective case management system has been set up, Serling said, and most cases go to trial within two years of filing. One judge handles 85 percent of all asbestos cases in Michigan. "Most cases now settle," Serling wrote, "and few issues are appealed."
Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council President Patrick "Shorty" Gleason, an iron worker, also testified before the Supreme Court on May 24, providing a construction workers' perspective of job sites in the 1970s.
"We would walk past guys tearing asbestos insulation out of boilers in a power plant day after day, none of us had respirators or other safety equipment," Gleason testified. "Personally, it scares the hell out of me that I was breathing that stuff for years. My dad, a retired iron worker, today has breathing problems related to asbestos.
"It can get pretty easy to forget that there have been
real, breathing human beings out there, who either lost their
lives, or lost their quality of life, because of exposure to
asbestos. I think it would be just as great an injustice for
this court to allow asbestos manufacturers to shirk from their
responsibility to these workers."
WYOMING - It is rare these days for a health care organization to be able to start with a clean slate, and have the opportunity to get exactly what it wants by designing and building a new hospital "village" from the ground up.
Metropolitan Hospital, which has been operating its facility in east Grand Rapids since 1957, is in that position. Its current building is landlocked, preventing growth, and modifying the set-up of the building was deemed too expensive and impractical. So, together with Turner-Christman, its subcontractors and the building trades, Metro Hospital is being erected - a $150 million health care complex on a sprawling 170-acre site off of the new M-6 freeway at Byron Center Rd.
Michael Faas, president and CEO for Metro Health, has been intimately involved in the design and construction. The new hospital building is about eight miles from the existing building. And at 500,000 square feet, the new building isn't much larger than the current hospital.
But, "the ability to go into a new building, and the ability to start with a blank slate, is going to make us use space more efficiently," Faas said. "We learned on the job a lot of ideas on how to improve the design." He said he has visited about 15 other hospitals to see how they're set up, and got tips on signage, patient and employee flow, and what works and doesn't work.
Construction started in 2004 on the eight-story hospital. There are currently about 250 Hardhats on the project.
"We're on schedule, and the quality control and the workmanship have been excellent," said Jarrod Pitts, manager of property and construction for Metro Health. "Christman-Turner has been phenomenal to work with, and (mechanical contractor) Andy Egan is hands-down, No. 1 in health care construction in west Michigan."
To date, Pitts pointed out that there have been 400,000 man-hours worked on the project with no lost-time injury incidents.
The new hospital, with an exterior featuring elements of the Frank-Lloyd Wright "Prairie Style," will include 208 licensed beds plus 25-short-stay beds.
There are other features, including:
"It's been a big challenge running a hospital and building a new hospital at the same time," Faas said. "They are both full time jobs. But we chose the right partners, Turner-Christman, their subs and the tradespeople have been great, they've done everything we've asked of them."
In the Metro Health Village, the buildings closest to the hospital have been set aside for other health-care related enterprises such as physician offices, fitness and specialty centers. The outer areas of the village are designated for retail, and may also include restaurants, a hotel and small retail and personal service providers.
At the rear of the property is an "able-to-play" park - a playground designed for children with physical or visual impairments. Metro Health donated the land and volunteers affiliated with the union group "Friends of Labor" donated their time and skills to make it happen.
"Union participation has had an extremely positive effect on this project," Pitts said. Construction is expected to wrap up in late 2007.
"When a patient seeks treatment at the new Metro Hospital,"
Faas said, "we want them to remember their experience as
seamless and soothing, warm and welcoming, receptive and responsive.
We intend to leave behind the institutional hospital of the past
and replace it with one that is less stark and more inviting."
There hasn't been much news over the last two years concerning some critical labor law cases before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that could "deal a major setback to the struggling labor movement's efforts in growing areas of the economy ." - like construction, said the Wall Street Journal on May 26.
But that will change in the next few months, as organized labor readies for NLRB decisions that will likely prevent significant numbers of workers from being organized.
Back in June 2003, President Bush's Labor Department announced new rules designed to restrict the ability of millions of U.S. workers to get overtime pay. The new rules, introduced at the behest of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, would allow employers to reclassify workers as "administrators" or "supervisors," which would exempt those workers from earning overtime under current law. They would also be exempt from being covered by a collectively bargained contract.
Employers could impose the switch even if the workers' job involved only negligible supervisory duties. Nurses are seen as a major target for the change, since one of the NLRB cases was brought by workers in that profession.
"This will have a far-reaching impact on workers," predicted AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to the Journal, of the impending NLRB ruling. Hundreds of thousands of workers could be barred from joining unions because of their new "supervisor" status.
There isn't a lot of confidence that any ruling will go labor's way - the National Labor Relations Board is all Bush appointees, and the majority will almost certainly side with the president.
The Journal and other media have speculated that the "supervisor" titles could easily be imposed on construction workers, especially those who might have added responsibilities with scheduling or making job assignments.
Workers currently toiling under a collective bargaining agreement
won't be affected if the new rules are imposed, at least until
their contracts expire.
WASHINGTON (PAI) - There are now two separate bills that have been adopted in the House and Snate that offer widely differing paths to immigration reform.
It's a matter of huge importance to the building trades, where it's estimated that 14 percent of all U.S. construction workers are undocumented workers.
Given the divergence in opinion on the overall immigration issue, perhaps one of the biggest developments amounted to another snub for workers, both native and immigrants. By a 57-40 vote, the Republican-run Senate on May 23 killed an amendment to the immigration bill that would have strengthened workers' rights for both immigrant workers and native-born workers. (See the sidebar article). Senators passed the bill without the pro-labor amendment.
The amendment's drafter, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), argued that immigrants have no labor rights, and that allows unethical employers to exploit them, under threat of deportation, and use the threat of importing undocumented workers to drive down native workers' wages and working conditions, he added.
"History shows us that it is not enough to pass good labor laws if we do not also make a strong commitment to enforcing these laws. Beyond anything we have provided in the bill, the most important step we could take to help American workers and immigrant workers alike would be to improve our enforcement of the critical labor protections that have been a part of U.S. law for decades," Kennedy told his colleagues.
He continued, "We have laws on the books that protect the safety of American workers. Yet each year over 5,700 workers are killed on the job, and 4.3 million others become ill or injured. We have laws on the books that prohibit child labor. Yet there are about 148,000 illegally employed children in the U.S. today."
Furthermore, Kennedy said, "We have laws on the books
that give workers a voice
"These appalling statistics persist because our efforts to seek out and punish employers who violate the law are laughably inadequate. We find and address only a minuscule fraction of the number of violations that occur each year. Even when we do try to enforce the law, the penalties for breaking it are so low that employers treat them as a minor cost of doing business."
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a frequent labor and Kennedy ally, "reluctantly" opposed the pro-worker amendment.
"This represents a sweeping change to the Fair Labor Standards Act and to OSHA. In particular, it increases certain penalties five- and tenfold. It increases civil fines under OSHA and criminal penalties under OSHA without any record as to whether such increases are necessary. There have been no hearings on this bill," Specter said.
The House bill, seen as harsher to the illegal workers, makes them and those who help them felons. The Senate "tried mightily to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but failed," said Laborers President Terry O'Sullivan.
The Senate bill would provide a slow path to eventual "green cards" for millions of the 11 million-12 million undocumented workers now in the U.S. Those here five years or more could apply for documentation but only after paying some $3,250 per person in fines and fees and after proving they followed U.S. laws and paid their taxes.
The Senate bill says that undocumented workers in the U.S.
from 2-5 years would have to return to border cities and apply
for readmission. Those here under two years, estimated at 2
The Senate bill also calls for more border enforcement, a 370-mile fence, a 200,000-per-year "guest worker" program.
There is little chance that this issue will be settled any
If the Radical Right can have its "litmus test" for judicial nominees, why can't we have one for congressional candidates?
In that spirit, here is a first example: The Senate voted on a labor rights amendment on May 23. The amendment, by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), lost in the GOP-run Senate, 57-40. Remember that, and remember Republicans own the Senate, 55-45.
Kennedy's amendment, which he also tried to attach to the immigration bill the Senate passed on May 25, would have brought undocumented workers under U.S. labor laws.
It also would have drastically increased fines on employers who break job safety and health laws and wage and hour laws, and imposed criminal penalties - five years in jail - for any employer whose "willful" violation of federal job safety and health standards leads to a worker's death on the job.
And it would have made it easier for workers to go to court and get judges to order employers to stop labor law-breaking, notably the rampant illegal firing and harassment of pro-union workers and union organizers.
Kennedy noted his amendment would not just help the undocumented workers by bringing them out of the shadows and under protection of labor law, overturning a Supreme Court decision, but it would also have helped native workers. That's because venal and vicious employers use the threat of importing undocumented workers to force the native workers to accept lower wages and lousy working conditions.
We don't know how much lobbying Kennedy, or unions, did for his amendment beforehand. Let's assume there was little, because that makes the vote even clearer: It shows the present minimum number of senators workers can count on - and which political party they belong to.
And it also shows the stance of all senators who various pundits say are pondering runs for the White House in 2008, and all who seek re-election this year.
With those elections in mind, here are the results:
YPSILANTI - Michigan's plumbing and pipefitting unions re-started a dormant tradition this year: a statewide contest to determine the top apprentice in various fields of skill.
This year's contest was a tune-up for 2007, when the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters will re-start its own nationwide contest. This competition was held at the United Association's Great Lakes Regional Training Facility at Washtenaw Community College - which will be the same venue for the International Union's competition next year.
"It's a little extra work for all of us, but it's worth it," said Scott Klapper, apprenticeship coordinator for host Local 190 and coordinator of the contest. "All the coordinators have jumped in to do their part to put this together, and the apprentices have been working hard."
The two-day, 16-hour contest May 4-5 determined the state's top plumber, fitter, service technician and welder. Apprentices took written exams, and were tested in skills like pipe threading, welding, cutting, bending, layout and rigging.
"I think the contest is a valuable tool to encourage our apprentices to improve their skills, and display them in a competitive format," said John Reilly, apprentice coordinator for Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 333.
The International Union's contest fell by the wayside 22 years ago, and was never re-started.
"The students get to see a world bigger than their own local," said Plumbers Local 98 Apprenticeship Coordinator Carl Schroeder. "And you think your stuff is being taught; but this helps show you if the lessons are being learned. The contest also allows coordinators to look and see how they can improve their own programs."
Klapper said when the coordinators talked afterward, they
agreed that rigging and knot-tying were the major weak points
that needed to be addressed back at their schools.
Following are the top three finishers in three categories:
Service technicians: 1. Brent Denovich (Local 333); 2. Nick Beldyga (85), 3, Michael Kantz (190).
Plumbers: 1. Lonnie Birchmeier (370); 2. James Abraham (636), 3. Shawn Denny (333).
Fitters: 1. Sean Samson (333); 2. James Abraham (636), 3. Corey Wieland (85).
"I've watched some very talented people here," said
Bob Anderson, apprenticeship coordinator for Plumbers and Steamfitters
Local 85. "Some of them I've asked how many years they've
been doing this, because the skills they've displayed have really
ENR ranks nation's top contractors
The fact that the bottom has not fallen out on Michigan's big general contractors is an encouraging sign - given the current generally sluggish nature of our state's construction economy vs. the rest of the nation.
Published by the Engineering News-Record, the rankings showed that Michigan's two largest general contractors moved only slightly in their spots from 2005 to 2006 in the top 100. Southfield-based Barton-Malow dropped from No. 35 in 2005 to No. 37 in 2006, while Detroit-based Walbridge-Aldinger slipped from No. 34 to 43 this year.
"For many, if not most, large general contractors, this is a time like few have ever seen," the ENR article said. "The economy is strong, the markets vibrant, and there is more than enough work to go around in most major markets and geographic regions. What soft spots that can be found are not catastrophic."
Among the ENR's top 400 contractors, nine are Michigan-based. Here are the rankings of the other seven, and where they moved on the list compared to their standing a year ago: Angelo Iafrate of Warren (#135, +2); Rockford, Grand Rapids (#181, +27); The Christman Co., Lansing (#182, -31); Granger Construction, Lansing (#275, -6); George W. Auch, Pontiac (#286, +3); John M. Olsen, St. Clair Shores (#294, -40), and Roncelli, Sterling Heights (#308, -30).
Out-of-state contractors that are familiar to the Michigan construction community include Boldt (#69, +16); Miron, (#130, -7); the Clark Group, (#12, -3); the Washington Group (#13, -3) and Alberici (#39, +21).
The top three contractors in the nation are Bechtel, Centex and Flour.
The ENR said the Top 400 contractors posted a combined revenue
of $235.56 billion for 2005, a strong 12.3% increase above 2004
Moderate gains were reported for nonresidential building and nonbuilding construction (public works and electric utilities), while residential building showed more modest growth.
Through the first four months of 2006, total construction
on an unadjusted basis
"The current year is seeing a shift in the source of
expansion for construction activity,"