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April 16, 2004
WASHINGTON (PAI) - Politics, pensions and the fate of the massive highway-mass transit bill captured the attention and the focus of 3,000 Building Trades delegates meeting in Washington.
The delegates, in D.C. for their March 29-31 legislative conference, went to Capitol Hill to lobby for several causes. Two key ones: More money for the six-year highway-mass transit construction bill, and preserving the financial health of multi-employer pension plans.
As it turns out, prospects are bleak that those issues will turn out in favor of the building trades.
The Bush Administration opposes the higher-cost transportation bill approved by the House Infrastructure and Transportation Committee. Bush wants $256 billion over six years, not the $318 billion pushed by the GOP-led Senate, even though each billion dollars creates an estimated 47,000 jobs.
Bush also opposes relief for the multi-employer pension plans, which like other pension plans, lost billions of dollars in asset values in the three-year stock market slump. See related story.
Without new standards for calculating pensions, multi-employer plans, which are prevalent in construction, would have to ante up millions for future payments.
Speakers emphasized those struggles, and everyone from AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney to Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Illinois U.S. Senate nominee Barack Obama (D) stressed the current regime's anti-worker policies and the need for a change in government in Washington.
"This election is about jobs, jobs, jobs, good jobs," said Sweeney. "We need leaders who believe in us. Our president has been AWOL on jobs."
All got loud ovations, led by Clinton and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). After that greeting, Clinton said of the GOP: "What's the first thing they do when they come in? They throw project labor agreements out the window.
"Then they begin an assault on Davis-Bacon, and then on overtime. They were intent on undermining the standard of living and the income of ordinary Americans," she said.
After reciting other GOP abuses - turning the budget surplus into a deficit, tax cuts for the rich, endangering the pensions, forcing state and local governments to raise taxes, and to fund homeland security - Clinton challenged delegates: "If you think this has been hard to take for the last three years, imagine what it'll be like with no election to face.
"They'll want to transform America and the world, concentrate wealth and power and implement their right-wing agenda."
The sole exception to the political talk was the sole GOPer, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), an Infrastructure and Transportation Committee member who dealt with the highway-mass transit bill.
He reminded delegates his panel approved a bipartisan version of that bill that was $119 billion more than Bush wanted. LaHood said the bipartisan bill would create thousands of jobs and that it includes Davis-Bacon wage protection guarantees.
But, facing Bush opposition, the panel approved that big bill but did not send it to the full GOP-run House. Instead it sent a $274 billion transit-highway bill out, which was approved by the House.
"The Republicans have also refused to vote on billions for water treatment, school construction and roads because they don't want to vote for Davis-Bacon's prevailing wages," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) added.
Senators told unionists their bill is larger - $318 billion over six years - and they hope to prevail in negotiations later. Bush threatens to veto anything larger than what he demands.
Sweeney, Clinton and Harkin all said Bush wants to cut overtime. So did Pelosi: "Bush calls it 'payroll adjustment.' We call it what it is: 'A pay cut for working families.'"
Sweeney and Building Trades Department President Edward Sullivan emphasized backing politicians who back workers. "Let your representatives and senators know you will fight them if they don't fight for you," Sullivan said. He said on March 30 that his department's endorsement list of pro-worker lawmakers is bipartisan, including Democrats and several GOP-ers, such as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
Harkin discussed the GOP parliamentary maneuvers that prevented a Senate vote - which labor would have won - to protect overtime. Then, with a quip, he summed up the political theme:
"All you ever need to know about this election you learned
in driver's ed," he said. Referring to an automatic-shift
car, Harkin pointed out, "If you want to go backward, put
it in 'R.' And if you want to go forward, put it in 'D.' "
WASHINGTON - Changes in federal law are on the way that will provide about $80 billion in relief in the form of lower contributions for all U.S. pension plans - except multi-employer plans mostly used by the U.S. construction industry.
Over the objections of many Democrats, the bill was adopted in both chambers of the Republican-controlled Congress, and President Bush is expected to sign it. The Democratic leader of the committee with jurisdiction over the measure, Sen. Edward Kennedy, called it an "unfair and spiteful" bill that "President Bush should be embarrassed to sign."
Most U.S. pension plans have been hit hard by the lousy stock market over the last few years. According to the Washington Post, a key element of the bill is a change in the way pension plans must compute their liabilities.
The relief is provided to pension plans in the form of changing the way liabilities are calculated, and through the use of a more favorable interest rate used to calculate funding liabilities.
However, building trades unions and their employers were treated worse by the bill. The bill would allow only about 1 percent of multi-employer plans to put off, for two years, increased contributions required to make up for stock market losses in 2002. But in the third year, they would be required to make up those foregone contributions with a lump sum payment.
Democrats sought to allow about 20 percent of multi-employer plans to put off the increased contributions - with hopes that construction activity and the stock market will improve - but the Bush Administration indicated it would not sign a bill that helps multi-employer plans. His reasons were not clear at press time.
House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a written statement after the Senate vote that the measure "represents a responsible, short-term approach to the under-funding problems that are putting worker retirement benefits at risk."
In the short-term, since multi-employer plans were not included in the relief package, many employers will be forced to come up with millions of dollars on April 15 to fund their pensions. Long-term, there's sure to be more trouble for multi-employer plans.
Kennedy and other Democrats accused the White House of having an antiunion bias. "These are the workers you see on the top of the buildings ... the workers you see working in the ditch," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D., La.), said. She said they are the people the White House "doesn't like, doesn't want to help, or doesn't (believe) needs help."
Michigan, which is one of a number of states seeking to lose its status as a "donor" state for highway funding, will apparently have to get used to that status for a while longer.
On April 2, the U.S. House adopted the next generation of the Transportation Equity Act (TEA LU, or HR 3550), which allocates $275 billion in federal highway spending over the next six years. The House bill would reduce Michigan's share of federal road money by $100 million per year, and if adopted would result in the immediate cessation of some state contruction plans.
Michigan planned to spend about $1.3 billion on road and bridge construction this year, about the same as 2003. The increase adopted by the House does nothing to address the spending "equity" among the states. As a donor state, Michigan only receives 90.5 percent of its return on highway money sent to Washington.
"We continue to be frustrated and disappointed that HR 3550 represents a major step backwards on the issue of donor state equity," said Gary Naeyaert, co-chair of Michigan's Transportation Team (MTT), a diverse coalition working to improve transportation funding fairness for all states. "Receiving the same meager return on a smaller piece of the pie is unacceptable, and we urge the leadership in Congress to remedy these fundamental deficiencies in the conference committee report."
The House's new six year transportation funding program actually reduces the minimum funding guarantee to states, to only 84% of what is sent to Washington.
The U.S. Senate's version of highway spending is more generous. On Feb. 12, the Senate adopted a six-year, $318 billion spending bill that increases the minimum guarantee rate-of-return to 95.0% for all states. The differences will be worked out in conference.
"We have over a billion reasons to persuade transportation advocates to stay energized and continue working on this bill," said Naeyaert. "The estimated difference in funding for Michigan between the Senate bill and the House bill is at least $1.2 billion."
Meanwhile, President Bush has threatened to veto any transportation spending bill that comes to his desk with a price tag greater than $256 billion over six years.
Michigan has become much more serious about transportation funding in recent years. Our state spent an average of $560 million per year from 1994-1996, and the expenditures have been even or have risen every year since.
"Michigan cannot afford any reduction in the scope of minimum guarantee funds, and we cannot continue to settle for only a 90.5 percent return on our federal transportation taxes," said state Transportation Director Gloria Jeff. "If TEA LU is approved in its current form at the $275 billion funding level, Michigan's federal transportation funding equity problem will worsen during the next six years."
Michigan's road work zones now have an official beginning, and ending, with legislation that went into effect April 8.
Work zones will be marked with "Work Zone Begins" and "End Road Work," and mobile crews will be sandwiched by "Begin Work Convoy" and "End Work Convoy." The new state law also requires posting a speed limit sign in all work zones.
"This bill is about protecting road workers, but also slowing everyone down for their own protection," said State Transportation Director Gloria Jeff. "Most motorists don't realize that statistically they are more at risk than the workers are in work zones. But, the point is, we want everyone to slow down for safety. This new law will clearly mark the beginning and end of work zones while informing the motorist what the speed limit is 'in the zone.' "
The law requiring the new and improved signage is a follow up to "Andy's Law," which was adopted in 2001 and was named for 19-year-old construction worker Andrew Lefko. He was seriously injured by a driver in a 1999 construction zone crash in Southeast Michigan.
This law created penalties: up to 15 years in prison and $7,500 in fines for driving in a criminal manner - such as reckless or drunken driving - and killing a construction or maintenance worker; and up to one year in jail and $2,500 in fines for injuring a worker.
The new law, P.A. 315, will include penalties for lesser driving offenses such as careless driving or speeding. State legislators adopted the new law in response to an August 2002 traffic accident on I-94 in Macomb County. A driver traveling at nearly 80 miles per hour through a highway work zone hit and killed one road construction worker while seriously injuring another. The driver was acquitted of all charges in part, prosecutors say, because Andy's Law lacked a clear definition of a work zone.
"The safety of workers has always been one of my top concerns," said Sen. Shirley Johnson, R-Troy, who introduced the legislation in the state Senate. "We must make driving safely in work zones one of our top priorities this year as construction starts up again in Michigan."
The AFL-CIO's membership report released last month revealed that building trades unions did relatively well compared to other unions when it came to preserving their membership base.
There are 14 building trades unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO, and for 2003, the unions collectively lost about 9,800 members. If the International Brotherhood of Teamsters is not counted (only about 8 percent of its members work on construction work sites) the building trades gained a net of about 7,000 members last year.
The Laborers International Union was easily the top gainer among building trades unions in terms of membership, adding 31,700 members in 2003. Compared to all other unions in 2003, the Laborers membership gain was second only to Service Employees.
Over the last five years, the Bricklayers and Allied Crafts saw a net gain of 31,486 members, seventh among AFL-CIO affiliates.
Overall in 2003, the AFL-CIO organized 400,000 new members, but lost a net of 39,439 for a total of 13.1 million AFL-CIO union members.
Overall union membership (comprised of unions inside and outside the AFL-CIO) declined in 2003, dropping to 12.9 percent of the nation's workforce, compared to 13.3 percent in 2002, according to a federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report earlier this year.
BLS statistics show that U.S. union membership has declined steadily since 1983, when 20.1 percent of the nation's workforce was in a union.
Building trade union membership data
2003 1998 Five-year change
Asbestos Workers 18,311 12,000 6,311
Boilermakers 44,495 39,826 4,669
Bricklayers/Allied Crafts 93,761 62,275 31,486
Electrical Workers 643,925 656,733 (12,808)
Elevator Constructors 24,022 20,441 3,581
Operating Engineers 280,050 292,000 (11,950)
Iron Workers 87,728 81,125 6,603
Laborers 353,735 297,869 55,866
Painters/Allied Trades 97,159 94,027 3,132
Plasterers/Cement Masons 29,500 28,425 1,075
Pipe Trades 219,800 219,800 -
Roofers 18,973 20,651 (1,678)
By Marty Mulcahy
SALINE - If you wanted to put a headline over the new Saline High School building, it would be a little long but would go something like this: "It's big, it's beautiful, and five months before students will be roaming the halls, it's 95 percent complete."
Standing on a 510,000-square-foot footprint, the new high school in Washtenaw County is reputed to be the largest in Michigan in terms of size, but not student population.
The $89 million high school, scheduled to be open in August, will include a three-story academic wing including 70 classrooms, an 1,100-seat performing arts center, five full-size gymnasiums, including one that seats 2,500. The project also includes an eight-lane swimming pool that includes a depth-adjustment feature that hydraulically raises and lowers the floor.
"We planned the project so we could hand over a building to the school district under a schedule where students could be taught without trades people around," said Jim Peace, project manager for Granger Construction, the project's construction manager. "And that's what is happening. This project has gone unbelievably well."
Currently about 80 Hardhats are roaming the halls and plying their trade, completing a construction project that will have taken slightly more than two years, with an additional two years of planning.
"We have had a good crew out here," said fitter foreman Tim Seegert of Local 190 and Smith-Hammond Piping. "At one time we had about 38 fitters and plumbers out here, so it's been a nice job."
The new building replaces the current 288,000-square-foot high school that was completed in 1971. According to the Saline School District, the "optimal" student capacity of the new building is 2040 students, and 1,775 students are projected to attend on opening day.
"The trades and the contractors have been great," Peace said. "We haven't had any significant accidents. I don't know what my next project is going to be, but I wish I could take them all with me. It's all about great skills and a good attitude, and everybody pitched in together to do the job."
The new high school is loaded with features, and if some or all of them were not found in the high school you attended, you're not alone.
The commons in the center of the building will serve as the cafeteria, as well as a meeting and gathering location for students before and after school. The main concourse extends the length of the building and is 22 feet wide and approximately 640 feet long, or longer than two football fields placed end to end.
In addition to computer technology classrooms and labs, there will be five mobile laptop labs which can be rolled anywhere in the building to instantly provide a computer lab for specific learning activities. Wireless technology will enable students and staff to access the Internet from wireless "hot spots" in the building.
Teaching stations include 13 science classrooms/labs, four art rooms, one television studio/lab as well as four band, orchestra, choir and drama classrooms. There will be educational areas for auto, welding, machine tool, and culinary arts. And that's not all: the school will have space for agri-science, child care, marketing, a school store, and a graphics/photo lab
"It's a beautiful building," Peace said. "The
quality of construction is high, and the trades people took a
lot of pride in their work and it shows. I'm very proud of this
Asbestos bill still unresolved
AFL-CIO opposition is helping to hold up a bill that would create a multi-billion-dollar trust fund for workers exposed to asbestos. The federation is putting pressure on Democrats and Republicans to oppose the bill. The wide-ranging bill would allow workers harmed by exposure to asbestos to seek a remedy outside of the courts through a trust fund, probably administered by the Labor Department.
Labor and its Democratic allies in Congress oppose the trust fund proposal, in good part because they argue that the fund is inadequate to meet the needs of sick workers.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist pledged to bring the asbestos bill for a Senate floor vote by early April - a deadline that came and went. A Senate aide told the Construction Labor Report that there is little negotiation movement over compensation levels and the size of the trust fund. Frist has proposed a trust fund of $105 billion, while Democrats have maintained that that amount is woefully inadequate.
UAW Caterpillar workers OK strike
The March 21 tally does not necessarily mean the 8,000 UAW-represented workers at the big machinery maker will repeat their bitter struggle of six years ago. The UAW members' contract expired on March 31.
If they try, Caterpillar has already ordered its rank-and-file workers, at least in Peoria, to help train management and administrative workers in the assembly plant tasks there.
With their contract expiring on March 31, UAW-represented members at Caterpillar plants in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Tennessee voted by a 96 percent-4 percent margin to authorize a strike.
UAW Vice President Cal Repson said the "vote indicates strong support for our bargaining team and for our bargaining objectives."
The two sides are keeping a tight lid on information about
the talks, which started last Dec. 10. But Dave Chapman, President
of Cat's 4,000-member UAW Local 974 in Peoria, said on his web
site that health care would be the top issue in bargaining.
Should unions take on marketing role?
Mark Breslin, an industry consultant who heads a union contractor association in California, suggested trade unions should assume the role of a "marketing organization" to be successful in today's economy. He said unions need to make the case to potential signatory contractors that it makes economic sense to hire union workers, using the argument that they can provide greater productivity and a higher skill level than the nonunion.
Breslin suggests that top-down organizing - convincing the heads of contracting firms to organize rather than the workforce - is the most effective type of organizing.
He said a new culture of younger construction workers is open to new ideas, which can make such a union transformation happen.