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April 1, 2005

Labor summit leader: Union reps, members need new business plan focused on 'profits, productivity, and value'

Trades work to clear the air at Consumers Campbell plant

NLRB works overtime - against workers

No pallets or forklifts in this new 'warehouse': only lofts

News Briefs

 

Labor summit leader: Union reps, members need new business plan focused on 'profits, productivity, and value'

By Guy Snyder

EAST LANSING - In the words of Mark Breslin, the secret of winning back market share for unionized construction in Michigan is pretty basic. It's convincing project owners and non-union contractors that "unions are trustworthy, highly ethical organizations that you can enter into a business relationship with."

Winning acceptance of this truth is the hard part, however, because decades of falsehoods, poor communication, and adversarial conflict must first be washed away.

The nationally recognized speaker, trainer, and facilitator addressed 275 representatives of the state's unionized construction industry on March 21 at Michigan State University's Kellogg Center. His venue was a special labor-management forum organized by the Mid-Michigan Construction Alliance (MMCA), which includes unions and union contractor associations. The next day he followed up with an even more focused workshop for union business agents on specific marketing methods.

The conference picked up where the MMCA's first Michigan Construction Industry Labor-Management Economic Summit left off last Nov. 8. Breslin reprised some of his thoughts but added far more detail.

With more hours this time around, Breslin provided many ideas for the drafting and implementation of a professional business development plan for Michigan's construction industry. It's a concept that for months has been garnering considerable discussion among many of its skilled trade unions.

Stripped to essentials, Breslin said the plan seeks to reverse a disturbing trend toward inferior quality by bringing the competition up to union levels of superior service and value. Crucial for achieving this is to break away from old fashioned and ill-conceived adversarial relationships between unions and contractors. Instead, he said both labor and management need to combine forces "to build a business plan that drives the market to where we are, rather than having us trying to drive ourselves to the market."

Adversarial relationships may have been necessary 50 years ago. But market conditions have radically changed. Today it's a vitally important philosophy buttressing valuable market development tools.

Return on investment.

Focusing on his audience, primarily drawn from union business agents, Breslin said the first step of a professional business plan must focus on market development that achieves an appropriate return on investment, or ROI.

To achieve it, he said Michigan's construction industry must develop the right marketing materials that communicate an accurate image of union professionalism and skill. Union representatives, Breslin said, must dress and conduct themselves in a highly professional manner, like business people, deliberately avoiding anything that could evoke a negative stereotype.

And, rather than trying to expand construction unions by working from the rank and file level on up - trying to organize workers in the traditional, adversarial way against the "boss" - Breslin said unions need to reverse direction. They have to start working from top levels on down, recognizing that the future will be found in convincing the management of non-union companies that greater profitability and more effective company operation comes as a tangible benefit of unionization.

Selling this idea even means unions must be prepared to work with project owners and non-union contractors that have kicked unions out due to past bad experiences.

Breslin said some unions in the past, indeed, projected an air of arrogance and cost-ineffectiveness that spawned enemies. However that era has now gone the way of the dinosaur. Today's construction unions are far more focused, responsible, and professional in conduct. And that's the true message that needs to be delivered, even though up to this point it's been very difficult to get it out.

How can unions improve their reception?

According to Breslin: "You do this by selling the union program in a way that never has been sold to business before." As he identified it, unions must prove their commitment to "profits, productivity, and value." Otherwise "going union" makes no business sense.

To achieve this requires a major change in labor/management marketing strategy. Everything within the unionized construction industry, he said, has to be re-designed to improve market share. "Market share is what drives our business," Breslin said, "It's the key." Without improved market share the organized labor movement - and its unionized employers - will find their futures to be extremely tough, he added.

Rank and file role.

One barrier affecting today's construction unions has been erected by members of the rank and file who sport negative work attitudes. These can be "problem" workers. But workers who possess relatively good work skills may also showcase negative images to anyone within view or earshot, for a variety of reasons.

This negativity can be expressed in improper dress - such as work shirts with bad or profane messages - inappropriate jokes that demean unions, people, or institutions - and improper on-the-job speech and conduct.

Breslin argued that today's unions need to do a much better job prescreening apprenticeship applicants to prevent people with bad work attitudes from ever entering a skilled trade. He said the professional construction industry really has no room for juvenile mentalities. He noted that police and fire departments use personality screening tests to identify unsuitable job candidates. He recommended their use by union training centers

It's not an attempt to infringe on a worker's individual liberties and rights, Breslin said. But unions need to enlist their rank and file into doing their part to "sell union." This can be done through professionalism, workmanship, and displays of union pride, to enhance the project owner's purchasing decision.

"The rank and file plays a crucial role for either success or the failure of our professional business plan," Breslin said. Members of the rank and file need to enjoy coming to work and doing their jobs. Otherwise their bad feelings will be quickly picked up by project owners, to the detriment of all of the skilled trade unions they've engaged.

As a second point of the plan, Breslin said job stewards should be identifying and assisting workers who aren't finding their jobs fulfilling and rewarding. As a practical concern, the stewards need to prevent them from "messing up our relationship with employers." But there are many humane reasons as well.

Sometimes these negative workers can be turned around when given opportunities to upgrade or improve their skills. Their negativity may also be temporary because it's a reflection of personal problems - problems that unions may be able offer help in resolving. Counseling and guidance may beneficial. Whatever the case, these workers have to be re-committed to union goals, or guided toward a profession that's better suited for them.

Unions as problem solvers.

The remainder of Breslin's presentation was made up of more extensive discussions of the above, augmented by several case histories. He said union representatives need to knock on doors and use the telephone more, developing helpful relationships with contractors and project owners. They need to increase union involvement in business organizations, particularly local Chambers of Commerce, to further build these relationships, both on and off the job.

Unions can also engage in more public relations and advertising activity. But this, Breslin said, should be designed to enhance relationships, not just showcase positive images that have little or nothing to do with business concerns. Understanding business clients and getting them to know and understand construction unions is of primary importance for the confirmation of project decisions. "Unions Yes!" on a bumper stick may make a union feel warm about itself, but "Unions Enhance Your Profits" is a message that's much more on target.

None of this is rocket science, Breslin emphasized. It's merely applying professional business development plans that have been successfully implemented in other industries.

"All we're doing is stealing ideas from those who have already done it," Breslin said. "We have to redefine the image of the union as problem-bringer to that of problem-solver."

(Mr. Snyder is editor of MichiganConstructionNews.com)

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Trades work to clear the air at Consumers Campbell plant

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

Consumers Energy's Campbell Generating Complex is in the process of getting more environmentally friendly.

Engineer/constructor Babcock and Wilcox and the building trades are knee-deep in a $350 million project to install air emissions reduction equipment at the coal-burning power plant.

The five-year project to enhance Campbell Unit 3's emissions control capabilities includes installation of selective catalytic reduction (SCR) equipment, which is designed to reduce nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions at the plant. NOx can contribute to the formation of smog during hot summer weather.

Building trades workers will continue to also play a major role in Consumers Energy's strategy to convert plants within its fleet to burn more western coal, which produces less sulfur and is about half the price of eastern coal. Greater utilization of western coal will further reduce sulfur dioxide - a constituent of acid rain - and keep down fuel costs.

"This is a very complex, very labor-intensive, highly engineered project," said Jim Pomaranski, P.E., executive manager for Title I (Clean Air Act) Compliance for Consumers Energy. "This is the largest project we have undertaken at the plant since it opened."

At 1.4 kilowatts, the J.H. Campbell complex is Consumers Energy's largest coal-fired power plant, burning about 3.5 million tons of coal per year. Located along the Lake Michigan shore between Holland and Grand Haven, the Campbell plant began operation in 1962 with the start-up of Unit 1. Unit 2 fired up in 1967, and Unit 3 in 1980. The three turbines at the plant provide enough power for a community of one million people.

Several years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandated coal-burners like the Campbell plant to significantly lower emissions. To date, owners of 110 plants across the nation have chosen to install SCR technology to reduce plant emissions. In the last few years, SCRs were installed at two units at Consumers Energy's Karn-Weadock plant near Bay City. Those SCR units have operated for two ozone seasons and the company said it has seen excellent NOx reduction - 83 percent during the 2004 ozone season.

Consumers and its contractors are building on lessons learned at the Karn-Weadock plant, where the most important construction statistic was that there was only one recordable injury during 524,000 person-hours of work.

"Good safety usually carries over into the schedule and budget," Pomaranski said. "And here we're on schedule and on budget. And the quality of work has been excellent." There are currently 200 construction workers at the Campbell plant.

Since the SCR structure is being built adjacent to the Unit 3 boiler, it can continue operating until it will have to be taken off line prior to the SCR becoming operational in 2007. After the Unit 3 SCR is complete, Consumers will review its continuing regulatory compliance strategy to determine what additional emissions control equipment needs to be installed, when and where. Overall, the utility will spend $800 million at the Campbell plant alone on SCR construction.

"This project is a reflection of where environmental policy and government regulations meet," said Jim Coddington, Consumers Energy's vice president of fossil operations. "As a company and industry, we're working hard to play our part in continuing the nearly 30-year trend of helping improve the nation's air quality year by year. It's a worthwhile effort that requires a tremendous investment to balance the environmental benefit with the economic reality that energy costs need to be kept as affordable as possible."


DUCT WORK for the new selective catalytic reduction system is hoisted into place at the Consumers Energy Campbell Generating Complex. Photos by William Fleury

 

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NLRB works overtime - against workers

To most Americans, the NLRB is just another four-letter acronym for a little-understood government agency.

For American workers and union members, the agency that was set up to defend their rights is akin to just another four-letter word.

Former Michigan Democratic Congressman David Bonior, who chairs a worker advocacy group called American Rights at Work, said "workers who stand up for themselves are now in double jeopardy - attacked by their employer and abandoned by the federal agency created to protect them."

The NLRB was set up under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which was passed to protect the right of American workers "to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing." The federal law requires that once workers form a union, the employer and the union are obligated to bargain "in good faith." Both parties must "meet as reasonable times" and productively confer about "wages, hours and other conditions of employment."

According to American Rights at Work, "a simple but effective union busting strategy for employers is to avoid meaningful bargaining at all costs. 'You haven't lost until you sign a contract,' consultants tell employers." The group said 32 percent of workers who demonstrate majority support for union representation lack a collective bargaining agreement one year later.

Recent rulings made by President Bush-appointees to the five-member NLRB indicate that things are going to get worse before they get better for workers. NLRB members are appointed by the president with Senate confirmation to five-year terms, with one member's term expiring each year. Senate Democrats have blocked two of Bush's appointees, so the NLRB currently only has three members - two Republicans and one Democrat.

Traditionally, the NLRB doesn't overturn previous board decisions with less than three votes. In 2004, the Republicans enjoyed a brief 3-1 majority on the board, when Bush was able to make a temporary recess appointment. All three Bush appointees had backgrounds supporting corporations.

The result: several anti-worker rulings were made by the NLRB:

  • It was made lawful for employers to prohibit communications between workers expressing displeasure or anger over working conditions.
  • The NLRB made it more difficult for workers to receive legal protection from employer threats. For example, the onus has been placed on employees to prove that an employer threatened to close a plant in order to thwart a union organizing drive.
  • Temporary workers who want to organize with regular employees, must now get permission of both the temp agency and the employer.
  • Graduate students and research assistants - who perform work similar to college faculty - have no legally protected right to organize.
  • In June, the three Bush nominees voted to overturn a 30-year-old rule that offered one of the few workplace protections for nonunion workers: the right to have a co-worker accompany them to the boss's office for a disciplinary interrogation.
  • The NLRB has also made it harder for workers to form a union by attacking the right of workers to unionize with a simple majority by signing cards, called "card check."

The board's Republican majority, wrote Tom Robbins of The Village Voice, "has been working overtime… and churning out decisions that have rolled back advances that unions and workers had made under prior boards."

Beyond the actions of the NLRB against workers, The Bush Administration has moved to take away bargaining rights for tens of thousands of Homeland Security employees. In addition, last year the president strongly pushed for, and won, a rule that could end up stripping more than half a million workers eligibility to overtime, by simply reclassifying the workers as "supervisors."

Bush is also promoting a plan to allow employers to require workers to accept compensatory time off in lieu of being paid overtime.

The President has also failed to endorse the Employee Free Choice Act, federal legislation which would provide meaningful protections for workers who wish to form unions and bargain.

"While the President pushes his agenda of spreading freedom around the world, the U.S. badly needs to address the state of affairs for workers at home," said Bonior. "As a result of employer anti-union campaigns, backed by weak labor laws, more than 23,000 workers are fired or experience discrimination every year for attempting to exercise their freedom of association."

The AFL-CIO stated last year: "The National Labor Relations Board has entered one of the most shameful chapters in its 69-year history. In theory, the NLRB is the leading federal agency mandated to uphold and protect the freedom of America's workers to form unions and bargain collectively. In practice, with a working majority appointed by President Bush, the NLRB has been perverted into a dangerous enemy of workers' rights."

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No pallets or forklifts in this new 'warehouse': only lofts

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

Urban lofts evoke images of transforming old commercial space into living quarters, complete with exposed structural steel, ductwork, conduit and brick walls.

But there are tradeoffs to transforming, say, an 80-year-old old warehouse into a space for human habitation. The downside can include the potential for choosing a bad neighborhood, poor energy efficiency, inadequate ventilation and electrical service, noise issues and the need to adapt the living space to the structure.

Why bother with all those question marks, ask the builders of Metro Lofts in Royal Oak, when a brand new building can be erected, complete with a modern interior lofts that are designed with the appearance of transformed commercial space?

The Denali Development Group, the Cornerstone Building Group and building trades union workers are in the process of erecting such a modern loft building a few blocks from trendy downtown Royal Oak in the city's industrial south end. The four-story building in the first phase will have 30 lofts with 11- to 30-foot ceilings, concrete floors, living spaces ranging from 1,217 to 5,100 square-feet, patios and a rooftop garden.

"It will look like a vintage, industrial-style warehouse that you would find in industrial areas like SoHo in New York City, said Mark DeMaria, principal of the Denali Development Group. "We took a lot of the best of what we say from everywhere and really tried to incorporate it into this project."

The price tag on the lofts ranges from $300,000 to $800,000. The first of three phases will be complete this summer; the rest of the project, with a total of 140 lofts, will be complete in the fall of 2008.

Since it is a newly constructed building rather than a converted industrial building, the Metro Lofts will have heating, cooling and electrical systems designed for the space as well as high-speed Internet access and security cameras that work with the cable television system.

"It's one of the nicest condo projects to come down the pike in a while, and we've had quite a few of them," said Royal Oak Mayor Jim Ellison. "It's an original design. Personally, I like it. It is a good looking piece of architecture. I think Metro Lofts will be a catalyst for that area of town."

Trade union members who are unaccustomed to building residential aren't out of place at this project.

"This is really a commercial building, you're not going to find many residential finishes," said Brian Speer, project superintendent for Cornerstone. "There's a lot of exposed brick, stainless steel, and glass, which I think gives it a lot of character."

Here is a rendering of the completed loft building, which has the flavor of an old warehouse.

AN INTERIOR masonry wall which will remain exposed inside the Metro Lofts in Royal Oak is set by bricklayer Shawn Novencido.


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News Briefs
Slight dip in '05 for construction wages

Wage and benefit increases in the U.S. construction industry will "ease slightly" in 2005, according to the Construction Labor Research Council.

Increases in collectively bargained contracts will average 3.9 percent or $1.59 per hour in 2005, according to the CLRC. Through 2006, agreements then dip to 3.7 percent or $1.59 per hour.

Over the last five-year period through Jan. 1, 2005, construction industry increases have risen slowly, at 4 percent annually and was highest in 2002 at 4.3 percent.

Hike in '05 seen for building biz
New U.S. construction activity will rise 6 percent in 2005, up from $974 billion in 2004, said a March 3 report by construction consulting firm FMI.

Unlike other prognosticators who say there will be a decline in residential activity in 2005, FMI predicts that area will grow by 7 percent this year.

FMI predicts highway construction will rise 3 percent. Nonresidential building will increase 6 percent, and manufacturing construction will ratchet up by 13 percent.

In the meantime, a survey by Manpower Inc. in the Construction Labor Report said 41 percent of U.S. construction employers anticipate increased hiring and 49 percent anticipate no change in hiring as construction season ramps up during the second quarter of 2005.

More swings for material prices
Prices of construction materials are expected to continue to be unstable in 2005 - just as they were in 2004.

"Last year, the ride was more like a rocket, as steel, petroleum, gypsum, and other materials costs shot straight up," said Ken Simonson, chief economist the Associated General Contractors of America, during the trade group's annual convention last month, as reported by the Engineering News Record. "This year, there should be some price drops, but like a true thrill ride, you may not see them coming."

The ENR said crude prices climbed to record heights last October, then plunged in November and December, and have come back up with a fury. Prices for items like steel, copper, aluminum and wallboard are expected to also be unstable.

"All of these items jumped more than 20% in cost in 2004," Simonson toold the ENR. "This year, there'll be some downturns, but analysts disagree widely as to when relief will come, how deep it will be, and how long it will last."

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