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April 10, 2009

Major setback for Employee Free Choice Act

Smooth road for Gateway project

Granholm relaxes stance on power plant permits

Road work the first sector to get stimulus money; others in line

Hire Michigan 1st stalls in state Senate

News Briefs


Major setback for Employee Free Choice Act

WASHINGTON - Organized labor has pushed long and hard to get a worker-friendly Congress and president in office, in order to assure passage of its No. 1 legislative priority, the Employee Free Choice Act.

But the nation's big business community has pushed back with all of its might, money and political machinery to keep the EFCA from getting passed - and it won the latest round.

On March 24, moderate Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter dealt a crippling blow to the prospects of the Employee Free Choice Act, by announcing that he would not support the measure. Specter's defection (he supported the EFCA last year) deprived labor, and Senate Democrats, of what would be the needed 60th vote to derail a certain Republican filibuster against the bill.

"The better way to expand labor's clout in collective bargaining is through amendments to the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act) rather than on eliminating the secret ballot and mandatory arbitration," Specter said in his floor speech.

Specter's statement "is a disappointment and a rebuke to working people" nationwide, said AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. Sweeney nevertheless vowed unions and their allies would continue to keep up their campaign for the law. "We will continue to work with Democrats and a number of Republicans to create common sense solutions to the decades of corporate power. We do not plan to let a hardball campaign from Big Business derail the Employee Free Choice Act or the dreams of workers."

Spector's position, said the Wall Street Journal, "could clear the way for compromise legislation," although both labor and Big Business said they didn't like an alternative plan put forth by the CEOs of Whole Foods Market, Costco and Starbucks. It would give union organizers greater access to workers, set quicker dates for elections, and impose tougher penalties on employers for intimidating workers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, big business and virtually the entire Republican Party hate the Employee Free Choice Act. Home Depot CEO Bernie Marcus actually said passage of the bill would be the "demise of civilization." Last year the business community spent $70 million in television ads to oppose the EFCA.

In addition, just before Specter's announcement, nonunion Federal Express announced that if the Employee Free Choice act were to pass, it would cancel the purchase of 30 new Boeing planes. Union officials accused FedEx of blackmailing Congress.

Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is expected to make it easier for unions to organize. The act would allow workers to choose a secret ballot or majority sign-up when deciding whether to join a union. Under majority sign-up, workers could join a union if most of them sign cards saying that they want to join a union.

But the current system allows employers, not workers, to choose whether secret ballots or majority card sign-up is used. Employers usually choose the more formal secret ballot system, and are able to delay the ballots for months or years, while taking the time to coerce workers not to choose union representation.

Employers' two biggest arguments against EFCA are the loss of the secret ballot for workers (even though workers could use secret ballots if they chose) and the use of an arbitrator - the EFCA requires company management and newly certified unions to enter binding arbitration if they can't come to terms on an initial contract after 90 days of negotiations.

"Employers almost always choose secret elections," said Teamsters President James Hoffa in a column we published last month. "These elections are fair in the way secret elections in East Germany were fair. Employers hire union-busters to determine workers' preferences. Workers who support unions are threatened, intimidated, and fired."

Specter acknowledged that he would be the key vote to break the filibuster, since he estimated the Democrats would have 59 votes by the time the legislation hits the floor, assuming Democrat Al Franken eventually wins Minnesota's still-open Senate seat. The Senate is the battleground for the bill. The EFCA would easily pass the Democratic-lead House, and President Obama has indicated he would sign the bill.

The head of the other major labor federation, Change To Win Chair Anna Burger, who is also a Pennsylvanian, was more optimistic about bringing Specter around - eventually. Specter said a recession was the wrong time to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, but that he would review his stand when conditions change. Specter is also facing a tough fight for his seat in the next Senate primary, and his stance on the EFCA will help him with Republicans.

"Allowing workers the choice to join together, free from intimidation and harassment, to bargain for job security, better wages and health care will stimulate our economy and put working families back on the path of prosperity," Burger said. "We will continue to work with Democrats and Republicans, including Specter, to pass this critical legislation and make our economy work for everyone."

The rancor over the bill has also caused heartburn for moderate Democratic senators, especially in Southern states, who know that a vote for the EFCA will be used against them at election time. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) told Politico: "I think it now begs for a compromise."

(Press Associates contributed to this report)


Smooth road for Gateway project

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

Rounding the bend and heading home, the single largest construction contract in the history of the Michigan Department of Transportation is proceeding nicely, thank you.

The I-75 Gateway Project involves the reconstruction of 2.5 miles of I-75 and I-96, and 18 bridges and 24 ramps. The goal of the project, which runs along the I-75/I-96 corridor from Rosa Parks Boulevard to Clark Street in southwest Detroit, is to ease traffic congestion at the Detroit-Windsor border crossing, and provide a direct connection from I-75, I-96 and other area freeways to the Ambassador Bridge.

The project began in February 2008, and was originally scheduled to be complete in December 2009, but that timeline has been moved up for completion sometime in the early fall. The project is "inching toward 80 percent complete," said Victor Judnic, senior delivery engineer for MDOT.

MDOT, together with prime contractor Toebe Construction, its subcontractors and the building trades, have completed work on one mile of I-96 and one mile of I-75, along with three miles of new retaining and sound walls designed to minimize noise and enhance safety in neighborhoods adjacent to the freeway. Of the ramps and bridges impacted by the project, MDOT has removed four structures, replaced two and rehabilitated seven. Work on the remaining bridges and ramps is in progress and at various levels of completion.

"We've been able to stay ahead of any major issues, and overall it's been a fairly smooth project," Judnic said. The project will cost about $170 million.

He said the biggest challenge has been to coordinate with simultaneous work by the Ambassador Bridge Co., which is busy in the area erecting the plaza entrance to the bridge. (There are serious proposals to build another U.S.-Canada span next to the Ambassador Bridge or further downriver, but so far no decisions have been made).

Judnic said the roads will be paved with 13-inch slabs of concrete - slightly thicker than usual - along with the use of a "substantial" aggregate base underneath. Tining, or grooving of the concrete surfaces, will aid traction for vehicles. However, he said overall "it's much more of a bridge project, than a road project." A signature feature of the project will be a landmark cable stay pedestrian bridge at Bagley Street.

"The workmanship has been top-notch; we have had no quality issues with the tradespeople," Judnic said. "We have been pleased with the work."

MOVING UP TO work on under a pedestrian overpass at the Gateway Project in Detroit are Fernando Estevan of Cement Masons Local 514 and Eddie Gaddies of Laborers Local 1191. Both were working for Toebe.

SETTING UP A PALLET of steel to be unloaded from a flatbed on the Gateway Project is Jason Smith of Iron Workers Local 25, working for Ace Steel. The Ambassador Bridge provides the backdrop.


Granholm relaxes stance on power plant permits

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

LANSING - It seems the looming 50th Legislative Conference of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council - and the arrival into town of a number of angry union delegates - prompted a change of heart by Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

A March 31 deal brokered between state building trades leaders, Granholm and Lt. Gov. John Cherry on the day before the conference started, led to what appears to be a softening by the Granholm administration on state requirements for coal plant construction.

During her State of the State speech in February, Granholm shocked the building trades and the state's utilities by announcing a rule change in the permitting process for coal-burning power plant construction in Michigan. She added another level to the process by ordering the state Department of Environmental Quality to examine whether the state even needs at least four new planned coal-fired plants, if other "greener" alternatives might be moe appropriate.

On April 1, Cherry was the first speaker to talk to the conference of Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council delegates. A candidate for governor next year, Cherry told delegates that at a meeting the day before with himself, Granholm and the building trades, an agreement emerged for the state to alter and ease the permitting process.

Cherry said utilities applying for new plant permit applications will now be asked only to submit a "carbon reduction strategy" to the state Department of Environmental Quality, and to apply, presumably from the federal government, for pollution controlling carbon reduction technology grant money if it becomes available.

"That's why I went to bat for you, to make sure the process got back on track," Cherry told delegates. "If they (the utilities) apply for a permit, they will get a permit. It's that simple," Cherry added.

Granholm's stance outlined in her state of the state speech was certainly done with a nod to environmental groups. But the result of her announcement was to at least delay and possibly put at risk some $9 billion in clean coal plant construction. On hold were various state permits for plants in or near Bay City, Holland, Midland and Rogers City. Cherry said the revision to Granholm's plan "doesn't slow up the process one iota."

Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Chief Elected Officer Patrick Devlin said the trades would maintain a "wait and see attitude."

"Although construction on these plants wasn't imminent in the sense that they would start with shovels in the ground this summer, long-term they amounted to our own statewide stimulus program," Devlin said "We were blindsided and had no idea where she was coming from when she put a hold on all those desperately needed construction jobs."

Said Council President Patrick "Shorty" Gleason: The governor's change in direction is most welcome, and we appreciate Lt. Gov. Cherry's help in getting this turned around. But we're still a little wary and we're going to wait to see how this shakes out."

A new coal-fired plant on the grounds of Consumers Energy's Karn Weadock facility near Bay City is the closest to groundbreaking, with a start date that has been pushed back from the end of 2010 to mid-2012 following the governor's state of the state announcement. Consumers Energy Vice President Jim Pomaranski told delegates the utility is still "assessing the impact" of the governor's new directive.

DELEGATES ATTENDED the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council's 50th Legislative Conference, April 1-2 at the Radisson Hotel in Lansing.


Road work the first sector to get stimulus money; others in line

LANSING - The state is starting to spend the stimulus.

On March 31, Gov. Jennifer Granholm authorized the spending of $873 million - the state's first major chunk of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act - which will go toward hundreds of road and transit projects across the state.

"This legislation gives the green light to hundreds of projects that will put thousands of Michigan citizens to work within weeks, doing the vital work of improving our crumbling roads and bridges all across the state," Granholm said. "It was essential to get this legislation passed in time for construction season, and I want to thank our legislators for moving so fast. Pumping this federal money into the state's economy quickly will help accomplish our goal of using it to accelerate our own recovery plan for Michigan."

Michigan is expected to get a total of $7 billion in stimulus money. The state said the federal dollars are expected to address a range of "shovel-ready" projects such as road-resurfacing, rehabilitation and widening, bridge repairs and transportation enhancement projects. The projects were chosen by planners, engineers, and local leaders and cover every region of the state.

The transportation construction money directs $635.4 million to the state trunkline (US, I and M routes) fund, $211.8 million directed to programs administered by local jurisdictions, and $25.8 million directed to rural and inter-city bus capital projects.

Just a few examples of projects include repair of 11 bridges over I-96 in Detroit ($22 million), reconstruction and widening of I-96 in Kent County ($30 million), and road reconstruction and bridge work on I-475 in Genesee County ($26 million).

The spending is the first use of Michigan's share of about $7 billion in federal recovery money that the state will invest in accelerating its own recovery plan. It is in addition to approximately $980 million Michigan is spending on transportation funding this year, which will create more than 27,000 additional jobs, according to the state.

"These recovery projects will allow Michigan construction workers to keep working in Michigan," said state Transportation Director Kirk T. Steudle. "It is also a shot in the arm for our transportation system. Although this won't meet all our state's long-term transportation needs, it's a huge step toward making our roads and bridges safer for our citizens and visitors and attracting new employers."

Transportation construction isn't the only sector getting federal money. On March 30, Granholm announced that 69 Michigan communities and tribal governments would soon be getting $76.6 million to fund energy efficiency and energy conservation projects.

"Making our state more energy efficient will put Michigan workers back on the job, increase demand for our own renewable energy technologies, and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, Granholm said.

Though the federal Department of Energy has determined the overall funding levels for state and local governments, communities still must submit an application to the DOE before they will receive their Recovery Act dollars.

The money will be spent on: conducting energy audits and installing energy efficiency retrofits in residential and commercial buildings; developing and implementing advanced building codes; creating financial incentives for energy efficiency improvements; equipping landfills to reduce and capture methane and other greenhouse gases; installing renewable energy technologies on government buildings; investing in energy efficient traffic signals and street lights, and utilizing combined heat and power and district heating and cooling systems.

Further indication of how the $7 billion in stimulus will be spent was revealed on March 26, when the Michigan House of Representatives adopted a plan that will spread $2.1 billion of federal stimulus funds across 10 state departments. The plan now heads to the Senate for approval.

"This investment in Michigan will lay the foundation we need to get our economy moving in the right direction," said House Majority Floor Leader Kathy Angerer (D-Dundee).

The plan that passed the Michigan House will provide at least some yet-to-be determined work for the construction industry, but overall, it provides indications how large portions of the stimulus money will be spent:

  • $962.6 million to the Department of Education, which will focus on handicapped preschool initiative grants, special education, assisting at-risk children and school improvements.
  • $435 million to the Department of Human Services for weatherization programs, food assistance and other community assistance.
  • $344 million to the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth to support energy efficiency programs, unemployment and employment services, and workforce training programs.

An amendment to the plan offered by State Representative Dan Scripps (D-Leland) requires that the agencies post reports on a public web site to detail how each dollar of the federal stimulus funding is spent.

"This is a one-time investment in Michigan, so we must make sure every cent is spent wisely," Scripps said.


Hire Michigan 1st stalls in state Senate

LANSING - The Hire Michigan First bill sailed through the Democratic majority in the state House, but was brought to a screeching halt on April 1 by the majority of Republicans in the state Senate.

Trying to get a vote on the legislation before the Easter break, Senate Democrats tried to push the legislation out of committee for a full floor vote. By a party line vote of 21-16, Michigan Senate Republicans voted to keep the bill in the Senate Commerce Committee.

State Senate Democratic Leader Mike Prusi (D-Ishpeming) said Dems pushed for a vote because of the urgency of the state's jobless situation, and because work is starting to go out for bids from the federal stimulus package. "I don't have to tell you, you know how many members you have out of work," Prusi told delegates to the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council's 50th Legislative Conference.

Mostly along party lines, the Michigan House adopted the Hire Michigan First legislation on March 12, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against. The bill would reward companies (with the use of tax breaks) if they hire a 100 percent Michigan workforce on state taxpayer funded developments. The legislation also creates penalties for companies that hire undocumented workers.

The lead sponsor of the bill in the House, state Rep. Fred Miller (D- Mt. Clemens) said the package of bills in "Hire Michigan First" are intended to get more control over who benefits from state-funded construction. He said in today's jobs environment, "it's unconscionable that state money could be used to hire workers from other states, or other countries."

State Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D- East Lansing) told Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council legislative conference, "They (Senate Republicans) will say it was just a procedural vote, and that it doesn't matter. It does matter."

A Republican response: "They (Democrats) were trying to take it out of committee and put it on the floor," said state Sen. Randy Richardville (R-Monroe), said to the same delegates. "It didn't follow procedure. We want to make sure the language is right." A moderate Republican, Richardville said he "totally supports" Hire Michigan First.

Other Republicans have claimed that the legislation would place additional burdens on state businesses. According to Prusi, state Republicans also claimed that the legislation is "intended to protect workers. They seemed to use the work 'union' as a curse word."



News Briefs

Revised forecast: construction down
Overall construction starts for 2009 are estimated to drop to $463.1 billion, or down 15 percent compared to a year ago.

"The construction industry is facing divergent forces in 2009," said Robert Murray, vice president of economic affairs, McGraw-Hill Construction. "The economy has weakened substantially, and despite all the efforts last fall directed at thawing frozen credit markets, there's yet to be any sign that lending conditions for construction have improved. On the plus side, the federal stimulus bill is now in place, which will provide quick support to public works this year."

A revised construction outlook issued by McGraw-Hill on April 2 said the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2008 will grow public works construction by 10 percent in 2009, including 15 percent for highways and bridges. Without the stimulus funds, it's expected that public works funding in 2009 would have dropped 10 percent.

The rest of the forecast by McGraw-Hill is fairly grim:

  • Commercial building in 2009 will drop 27%, steeper than the 17% slide reported last year. The tight lending environment has made it extremely difficult to obtain project financing, leading to more projects being deferred or cancelled, McGraw-Hill said. All commercial project types will register declines in 2009, with the most severe decline anticipated for hotel construction.
  • Residential building in 2009 will drop an additional 31%, continuing the downward trend that's been under-way since 2006. Similar declines are expected for single family housing (down 30%) and multifamily housing (down 31%). Steps taken in early 2009 to address the foreclosure problem should help to ease the rate of descent for housing as 2009 progresses, McGraw-Hill said.
  • Institutional building in 2009 will retreat 6%. The stimulus funding will provide a lift to military facilities and energy upgrades for federal buildings, which will moderate this year's overall institutional decline.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that construction lost 126,000 jobs in March, seasonally adjusted, and 928,000 jobs over the past 12 months. Even though construction accounts for only 5 percent of the workforce, construction layoffs now account for almost 20 percent of total job losses this past year.


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