The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index
April 14, 2006
By Marty Mulcahy
Large protests in various cities about American immigration policy has placed the issue on the front burner in Congress - and it's a subject that should be closely watched by U.S. construction workers.
The Pew Research Group released a report last month which showed there are about 7.2 million unauthorized migrant workers in the U.S., accounting for nearly 5 percent of the entire U.S. labor force. The construction industry had the second-highest percent of undocumented workers - a situation which leads to lower wages, lower safety standards, lower quality standards and a black eye for the industry.
WASHINGTON (PAI) - In a move that could help determine the future makeup of the U.S. population, the Senate opened debate March 29 on a wide-ranging immigration bill. It features a combination of a path to legal rights for the 11 million undocumented workers already within the country, a "guest worker" program and more enforcement.
By bringing undocumented workers out from the underground economy, the bill could prevent their exploitation by venal employers who now use the threat of deportation to depress workers' wages and impose terrible working conditions. It could also stop employers from using the threat of importing undocumented workers to force native workers into lower wages and working conditions.
"This is a defining issue: Are we going to welcome new blood legally or be an exclusionist nation that betrays the American dream?" asked U.S. Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.), co-author, with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) McCain was speaking last week to delegates of the AFL-CIO Building Trades Conference.
Many building trades union members would beg to differ. The first trade union worker to question McCain at the conference stated that "it's time for your party to listen to working people." Then he challenged the senator about why undocumented workers should be hired for well-paying U.S. construction jobs.
The debate started as lawmakers felt the impact of mass protests, organized by labor, its allies and immigration rights groups. Marchers paraded in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and cities in between, with at least 400,000 turning out in Chicago and half a million in L.A. Further marches are planned in Washington, D.C.
One predominant theme at the marches: it is time to bring the undocumented workers, out of the legal shadows and put them on the path to permanent resident status, through obtaining "green cards" letting them live here without the threat of deportation.
The other theme is that immigrants, and especially their supporters, vote - and that what happens on Capitol Hill would be a key issue at the ballot box this fall.
On the flip side of that argument is that there are existing U.S. laws that should be enforced, which limit the number of immigrant workers into the U.S. While jobs taken by illegal immigrants are said to be for work that Americans don't want to do, that would be news to the tens of thousands of drywallers, framers, painters and landscapers who lose work every day to low-paid, undocumented immigrants
"Too many of those jobs pay poverty-level wages, have no benefits and allow intolerable working conditions," said U.S. labor observer Harry Kelber. "If those jobs paid an attractive wage and health insurance and a safe workplace, there'd be plenty of our people, especially among the unemployed, who would be flocking to fill them."
The protests had at least one immediate impact: The GOP-run Senate Judiciary Committee pulled together and reported the compromise bill, which union leaders applauded. It included legalization procedures, the guest worker plan and a special measure for farm workers that growers and the United Farm Workers hammered out.
And UNITE HERE co-president John Wilhelm noted that the panel's bill, unlike the original legislation authored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) contained specific protections for immigrant workers' rights on the job.
Both the AFL-CIO and Change To Win Coalition praised and lobbied for the compromise measure the panel approved, 12-6, on March 27. Four Republicans and all eight Democrats voted for the compromise. Six Republicans voted against it. GOP President George W. Bush apparently likes it.
"I think it would be a mistake for the Senate not to
pass a comprehensive bill,"
The union leaders portrayed the compromise as a fairer bill
for undocumented workers. AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said
the "guest worker" program leaves too much power over
each worker in the employer's hands.
By Marty Mulcahy
"Fast-paced" is a barely adequate description for the construction schedule of the 225,000-square-foot Robert Bosch Corp. Prototype and Laboratory building going up in Plymouth Twp.
Ground was broken last September, the first steel was set in February, and the keys to the building are expected to handed over to the owner on Dec. 31. And it's not just a big box or a conventional office building - Bosch intends to use the $37.5 million building for administration, research, development and testing of electronic automotive components.
"We're on target, and we're on schedule," said Scott Petiprin, project engineer for general contractor Barton-Malow. "The work of the trades has been good, and we've had a really good team effort with our subs, the architect and the owner."
The project has included some construction time-saving features, like prefabricated exterior panels and the use of a floor system that allows crews to pour cement in 20-degree weather, without Visqueen and heaters. The project will employ more than 100 Hardhats when it ramps up with this summer.
The building at Five Mile and Haggerty will include a four-story office area, with the rest of the building on a single story. Petiprin said Bosch has room to expand the building to one million square feet. Bosch is running out of room at its Farmington Hills headquarters.
The new Technical Center is designed with the environment in mind. One feature will include a closed-loop pump system, which will recover heat generated from thermal chambers and compressors in the lab to help heat the facility. And instead of the use of a retention pond for stormwater runoff, the building's designers opted to take advantage of sandy soil at the site to absorb rainwater.
There are expected to be 475 Bosch employees working at this facility, added to the 1,500 in Farmington Hills.
"The decision by Bosch to build its state-of-the-art
technical center here strengthens our standing as a global automotive
R&D center and demonstrates that our state is the right
According to Bosch, innovations to be engineered at the technical center include the iBolt sensing technology, adaptive cruise control, predictive safety systems and driver assistance technologies.
The announcement of the Bosch expansion was welcome news for economically beleaguered Michigan.
"Michigan continues to provide an ideal location for
Bosch's operations, offering a close proximity to customers and
an atmosphere that fosters growth for the future," said
Kurt Liedtke, chairman, president and CEO of the Robert Bosch
Corporation. "This new facility will allow us to strengthen
our foundation in the state, support the long-term growth of
our North American automotive business and expansion of sales
and engineering activities."
The most extensive ongoing survey of Michigan's construction industry was released in a report last week, with results that reflect an uncertain statewide economy, but a glint of hope for future work prospects.
Conducted by the Construction Association of Michigan (CAM), the Biennial Business and Owner Surveys examined activity in 2005 and the outlook for 2006.
"Results indicate that construction work opportunities are holding steady, client satisfaction is up, and new construction continues to lead work opportunities," said CAM Chairman Frank Nutt, Jr. "However, those surveyed continue to express concerns shared with many other industries: Will there be an adequate labor supply to meet the needs of the marketplace? Will there be new business ventures in Michigan that will generate new construction work?
"Who will succeed when competition for work in our market is tighter than ever before?"
CAM, along with its co-sponsor, Plante & Moran, have been conducting this questionnaire for 14 years. The business survey utilized a sampling of CAM's 3,700 members, which include contractors, suppliers and legal and design services. For the owner business survey, 2,500 randomly selected owners provided an "impressive" response rate, according to CAM, measuring their opinion in three categories: construction outlook, financial health and industry perception.
Following are some highlights of the business (contractors, suppliers, architects, engineers) survey:
CAM provided this summary: "Although those answering the surveys voiced several economic concerns, the overall results indicate that construction work opportunities are holding steady in some areas and actually rising in certain portions of the state. Client satisfaction ratings are up, new construction continues to dominate work opportunities and owners stated that they still plan to build new and larger projects.
"However, many in the design and construction industries who participated in this survey did express apprehension about the future, a feeling that is shared with many other industries. The survey showed that many contractors are handling that apprehension by forming mergers or expanding their business range by seeking work in other market areas."
"Successful organizations will likely adapt and change and will try to focus on what they can control and not what the environment dictates."
Thomas Doyle, a partner of Plante-Moran, the certified public
accounting, and management consulting firm that partnered with
CAM to produce the survey, said, "Construction professionals
are the ultimate entrepreneurs and I believe the profession will
meet these challenges."
KALAMAZOO - Building trades workers and medical personnel are trying to keep out of each other's way during ongoing renovations at Borgess Medical Center.
Phase 3 of a $106 million renovation program at the hospital is ongoing through this year, which primarily includes the transformation of the majority of existing semi-private rooms into 79 private rooms. The trades are also working on a woman's health center.
"As the hospital personnel vacate the various areas, we go in and convert the rooms," said Hisko Timmermans, a Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 357 member and foreman for Mall City Mechanical. "Most of the rooms are being converted into single-occupancy for patients."
He said about a dozen trades workers from Mall City are working around hospital personnel.
The ongoing work follows the 2003 construction of a 900-space patient parking structure (Phase I), the August 2005 opening of the 144,000 square-foot Outpatient Diagnostic and Treatment Center (Phase II).
By Guy Snyder
LANSING - Opponents attack prevailing wage laws from many angles, promising huge savings. Such claims, however, are at best distortions with typically no basis in fact. This appeared to be the quickly drawn conclusion from presentations made March 28 at the Michigan Prevailing Wage Symposium.
This year's symposium, subtitled "The Real Facts on Prevailing Wage," was held at the Lansing Center. It packed a meeting hall with more than 170 representatives from labor, project owners, government, and construction contractors.
An impressive roster of speakers extolled the history, development, advantages, and current application of prevailing wage laws. Included were:
All the speakers agreed that those who condemn prevailing wages always say their abolishment will result in impressive construction project savings. These "pre-construction estimates" have gone as high as 30%, though more often they fall within the 6% to 12% range.
According to Phillips the savings forecast never add up. His research - especially his 2001 study of the elimination or temporary suspension of prevailing wage laws for school projects in the states of Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan during the late 1990s, found no meaningful statistical differences.
The developments in the three states, Phillips said, provided an ideal experimental setting to determine what happens when prevailing wage laws are suspended and what happens when they're re-instituted. In either case, the impact on construction cost per-square foot was unnoticeable. It didn't matter if the project was built by union or open shop contractors. Construction costs, when adjusted for inflation, essentially were stable.
Returning to the same topic in 2002 with two other researchers - Hamid Azari-Rad and Mark Prus - he looked at more than 4,000 new school projects built throughout the U.S. during the same period.
"Again, we found no practical or statistically significant cost savings associated with prevailing wage law repeals," Philips said. "Considerable savings were found when schools were built during construction downturns. Breaking ground in the winter also raised costs." But wages paid to construction workers didn't make a difference.
A major reason for this, both Philips and Cockshaw agreed, is that claims of double-digit project savings due to the lower wages and benefits paid by open shop contractors simply are unrealistic.
Their research, as well as the research of others, document the labor component of construction ranging from 20-25%, depending on the nature of individual projects. To claim, as Gary Johnson, governor of New Mexico did back in 1996, that repeal of that state's prevailing wage law would achieve 25-33% savings in the cost of building schools, would mean the open shop contractors would have had to pay their labor absolutely nothing.
Most people have no idea how much labor it takes to build anything, much less its relationship to the cost of materials, equipment, design, and administration. Opponents to prevailing wage laws, the speakers agree, successfully take advantage of most people's ignorance about blue-collar work as well as the construction industry's economic and technological peculiarities. Philips termed this the "bucket & shovel brigade" mentality.
"You can build a dam with million dollar pieces of equipment and a few skilled, high-paid workers," he said. "Or you can build a dam with an army of low-wage labor using buckets and shovels. Lower wage rates and the absence of benefits does not necessarily imply lower total costs."
For this reason, an open shop contractor, not having enough skilled journeymen or lacking certain pieces of equipment, may try to make up for it by hiring more people with lower skills. But there's a problem with this. One can't assume, as Philips put it, that "blue collar wages can fall substantially without a corresponding fall in labor productivity."
When prevailing wages are abolished, he observed, it's unrealistic to expect "the same people to show up, with the same education, experience, and equipment, even though they're now being paid half of their normal wage."
These realities can motivate open shop contractors to recruit from the bottom of the labor barrel trying to substitute people in a futile attempt to match the higher levels of productivity and quality achieved by experienced, rigorously trained, and skilled union journeymen.
When you focus in on just this one aspect of the prevailing wage issue, Cockshaw said, and run through the math to show how foolish the assumptions of prevailing wage opponents are, it should be easy to obliterate their public credibility. The problem, however, is too often the organized construction industry sits on its hands with its mouth shut.
"You allow your opponents to make these outrageous claims over and over," he charged. "And when you don't refute them, they become accepted as fact."
Perhaps just as bad, in situations where they're required prevailing wages often are not effectively enforced. Workers are denied wage scales and benefits they're entitled to because of employer misclassification, with little remedy or means of appeal. Worse, fraud is committed, especially when workers are mistakenly classified as independent contractors.
Presently this situation is being made even worse by a literal flood of undocumented workers in America, Devlin added. It's estimated they currently make up about 5% of our country's total workforce and, in many instances, are being ruthlessly exploited by their employers.
"It's not a stretch to assume that the wages earned by
those undocumented workers - as low as they are - won't be invested
back into the community," Devlin said.
Researchers look for clues in century-old concrete street
By Jane Nordberg
CALUMET - One of Calumet Village's unassuming residential side streets is receiving renewed attention from engineers and archeologists.
Faculty members and researchers from Michigan Tech University's civil and environmental engineering department and social sciences department drilled a 6-inch core sample last month in the 800 block of Portland Street in the Village of Calumet, a thoroughfare which for years has posted a sign as being "Michigan's Oldest Concrete Pavement."
The core sample will undergo a petrographic analysis to help the researchers learn more about the materials, proportions, workmanship, construction practice and quality of the concrete, said Karl Peterson, a research engineer with MTU's civil and environmental engineering department.
Believed to be constructed in 1906, the pavement is an early example of the once-popular "Rudolph S. Blome Granitoid Pavement" used in cities throughout the Midwest, of which only a few are still in service today, Peterson said. At least one, in Grand Forks, N.D., is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The analysis, which will be done in-house at MTU, would arm researchers with more knowledge of why the pavement has survived 100 years, if not the specific proof that it has.
"It doesn't pin it down to a specific year, but looking at the materials used, we'd be able to narrow it down to a five-year period or so," Peterson said.
Because the street is still in use, drilling was done off to the side of the road so as to not impede current traffic, as well as to provide the most intact sample. Unfortunately, the chosen spot was under a 4-foot snowbank, so industrial archeology graduate student Patrick Corcoran was set to work.
"I'm in archeology, so I don't mind shoveling," he explained.
Meanwhile, civil engineering professor Jim Vivian prepared and primed a Hilti DD130-RIG wet diamond drill, which was then placed over the recently cleared pavement.
Three somewhat noisy minutes later, Peterson pried the sample free with a screwdriver.
"If you look closely, you can see the flecks of copper in there," said Peterson, as he examined the 8-inch-long core sample with Corcoran and civil engineering research associate Matt King.
Peterson said the sample showed all local materials, with about 6 inches of what looked like red sandstone covered by a 2-inch fine concrete cap. After drilling, Peterson scraped another 4 cups of loose sandy material out of the hole, then he and King patched the hole with new concrete. As they were pouring, Corcoran threw a 2006 coin into the hole in case future researchers were interested when the hole was drilled. Corcoran's brainwave was just one of the reasons Peterson cited as a benefit of collaboration between the two departments.
"It's good to have some qualified archeological people around, because they seem to have a lot of good ideas," Peterson said. "As engineers, we're looking at some of the aspects while they might be interested in something very different."
Peterson also was grateful to the Calumet Village council, which approved the drilling only two days prior.
Members of the civil engineering faculty are interested in publishing the results of the core sample analysis in the proceedings from the International Conference on Long-Life Concrete Pavements this spring in Chicago.
This article is from the Daily Mining Gazette, and is reprinted
New sign for state work zones
Before road construction across Michigan kicks into high gear, Michigan's Give 'em a Brake Safety Coalition is hoping motorists pay close attention to a new highway work zone speed limit sign.
The new sign, "Where Workers Present 45," means that motorists must reduce their speed to 45 where workers are present in highway work zones. Last year, motorists were required to reduce their speed to 45 in highway work zones - even where workers were not present.
"We believe these new requirements, which were established by the Michigan Department of Transportation, will provide consistent application of speed limits in all work zones to promote the safety and protection of workers and motorists," said Gary Jorgensen, business manager of Michigan Laborers' District Council and member of Michigan's Give 'em a Brake Safety Coalition.
As always, work zones will have additional signage regarding road work ahead, reduced speed zone ahead, work zone begins, end road work and lane closure signs as applicable. Sgt. Kevin C. Beasley of the Michigan State Police Traffic Services Section said the "Where Workers Present 45" sign will make enforcement of work zone speed limits easier than in the past.
"Since 1988, changes in the Michigan Vehicle Code have affected work zone speed limits in Michigan," Beasley said. "This has resulted in different speed limit criteria being applied from region to region. These inconsistencies have made enforcement difficult as the motorist may see speed limits reduced 10 mph in one work zone, and then see 25 mph reductions in another work zone."
The safety coalition will launch a new radio and bumper sticker campaign within the next month to promote awareness of the new requirements. The safety effort is funded by the Michigan Laborers' District Council, the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, Operating Engineers Local 324, Michigan Department of Transportation, and the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association.
Iron milestone for U.P. mines
The total includes tonnage from six separate pelletizing operations during the past 50 years, according to Cliffs. The mines managed by Cleveland-Cliffs are major employers for building trades in the U.P.
"This is an incredible milestone for Cleveland-Cliffs
and our Michigan operations," said John Brinzo, chairman
and chief executive officer of Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. "Certainly
it speaks well of the adaptability of the company and our commitment
to Michigan. It is also a tribute to all of the men and women
who have worked at these operations over the past 50 years."
The mines are major employers of Michigan tradespeople.