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April 18, 2008

GOP lawmaker makes right-to-work pitch to Michigan businesses

Our industry needs to redefine role in education

Trades check in to create new Fort Shelby Hotel

Anti-union bias in U.S. isn't the norm worldwide

Brits see U.S. anti-unionism 'in a different league'

News Briefs


GOP lawmaker makes right-to-work pitch to Michigan businesses

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

LANSING - The effort to institute a right-to-work (RTW) law in Michigan is heating up.

With legislation that would make Michigan a right-to-work state completely bottled up in the Democratic-led Michigan House, it has been widely expected that advocates of the anti-union law would attempt a petition drive to put RTW on a statewide ballot. That now appears unlikely to happen in 2008.

But what did happen this month is the mailing of a letter and a "personal opinion survey" by state Rep. Jacob Hoogendyk (R-Kalamazoo County) to Michigan businesses. We're assuming thousands of copies were sent out. (One of our suppliers received the letter and provided us with a copy).

"You see, what Michigan's economy needs more than anything else is to pass a Right to Work law that would end forced unionism in the Wolverine State," Hoogendyk wrote in the letter. He added that he hopes to "work with Right-to-Work allies to: "Rollback union boss power grabs in the Michigan state legislature;" and "Guarantee freedom from union violence and compulsion for every Michigan worker," as well as "provide the jobs, economic growth and tax relief that Right to Work will help bring about."

He also wrote in the letter, "We can do it - you and I, and all freedom-loving Michigan citizens." Hoogendyk's letter was sent six weeks after the Michigan Republican Party voted to throw their support behind making Michigan a right-to-work state. Hoogendyk is also expected to be the Republican challenger to Carl Levin for his U.S. Senate seat, and use his candidacy as a soapbox for right to work in Michigan.

Other Republican candidates in Michigan are also expected to push right-to-work this year, in order to put the issue before the public. "They investigated getting right-to-work on the Michigan ballot in '08, and that didn't happen," said Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney. "Now I think their strategy is, 'let's make this an election issue. Let's get people talking about it.' "

Patrick Devlin, CEO of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, said Hoogendyk's arguments are based on appealing to "the lowest common denominator among Michigan businesses: fear."

Devlin added: " 'Union boss power grabs?' I guess I'm one of those union 'bosses,' but some of the things we've been focusing on with state government are being better partners with MIOSHA to improve worker safety, making sure the state prevailing wage is being followed, and working to improve the jobs climate in the state by repealing Public Act 141, which should open the door to billions of dollars in utility construction.

"And he wants to 'guarantee freedom from union violence and compulsion for every Michigan worker?' What union violence? And what compulsion? Michigan's workers freely join unions because they want to give themselves some protection against this kind of nutcase mentality."

There are currently 22 right-to-work states in the U.S. Oklahoma was the most recent state to adopt a RTW law, in 2001, and it was the first state to adopt the anti-union measure since 1985. Nearly every other state that adopted right-to-work laws did so in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

Under right-to-work laws, workers in a union shop can choose not to pay union dues - yet they still enjoy the benefits of union membership. Such a two-tiered set-up usually guts the clout of unions and eventually leads to their demise.

According to the AFL-CIO, the average worker in a right-to-work state makes about $5,333 a year less than workers in other states ($35,500 compared with $30,167). Weekly wages are $72 greater in free-bargaining states than in right to work states ($621 versus $549).

Hoogendyk's correspondence asked that checks be sent to the "Michigan Right to Work Committee." He said the money will be used "to mobilize up to 100,000 Michigan citizens" to "challenge the union lobbyists' money and power." Their effort will also including making their case with editors of newspapers around the state, and devoting "major resources" to lobbying.

"Right to work is going to rear its ugly head in the 2008 election, and we'll be ready," Gaffney said. "Organized labor in Michigan is going to fight it and win it this year, and we're going to fight it and win it in years to come."



Our industry needs to redefine role in education

By Mark Breslin

If you surveyed a hundred sets of parents in society today and asked them what success looks like for their children, what answer would you get?

If you surveyed a hundred school counselors and asked them what success looks like for their graduating high school students, what answer would you get?

If you asked academics, legislators and others who hold sway on the court of public opinion and resources, what answer would you get?

That the kid earns a college degree. This would be the common identifier.

And I would venture to say that not one of them would identify a high-paying, highly skilled trades career as the definition of success. Simply put, our industry image and story are deficient and unattractive.

Ask anyone who has not been on a jobsite, about a job in construction, and they are going to likely describe old stereotypes and images of an industry that has evolved. But everything from media images to our own lack of imagination continues to stand as obstacles to our attracting an enthusiastic crop of young people to join our industry.

Now I know this is not the case in some communities, and having had generations of construction in my own family, I know there are exceptions to every rule. But simply put, it is time for us to articulate and illustrate the opportunities of our industry in a more strategic manner. And to do this I have three very specific suggestions;

1. Change our story. Every apprenticeship program in the United States and Canada needs to become accredited to issue college credits. In doing just this one simple thing, we remove almost all parental and school counselor opposition to construction as a career destination.
Why do most people join the military? For the educational benefits associated with service. Why not take a page from their long-standing recruitment approach and change our story profoundly. "Hey mom and dad, I am going to learn a trade and get a college education. I am going to graduate making $ 50-60-70K and have an A.A. (or close) degree too."
The apprenticeship programs in North America can stand up to nearly any junior college curriculum in terms of value, curriculum and scope of instruction. If we simply change our story a little, we can push aside pre-conceived notions of our industry that are outdated and create a dual track for those who want and need it.

2. Communicate the Construction Career Pyramid.
Being an apprentice is just a start in the industry. Anyone with some smarts and ambition has unlimited opportunities from there. Journeyman. Foreman. Superintendent. Project Manager. Area Manager. Estimator. Operations Manager. President and Owner. With the demographic shifts occurring in our industry, younger people are going to be running our industry faster than ever before.
The leadership opportunities within the next decade are going to be unprecedented. The opportunity will be there. The money will be there. The upward mobility will be there. It is time to communicate this more effectively. We are not just building a highly skilled workforce, we are building an entire industry of field, office and management prospects.

3. Pay more for talented prospects. The average union apprentice in our industry is 28 years old. What the hell are we doing trying to pay these people $ 13 per hour? Are you kidding me? Many apprentices have to take a pay cut to get into their programs, but at 28 years old people have obligations, family and other financial challenges.

Some will argue they have no practical construction skills at that point so why pay more? My take is that you have to pay for the future potential or you get the bottom of the barrel, whose current market value is low and remains low.

We are competing for talent with almost every other industry. Law enforcement, military, technology, energy, rail and transportation and many other industries are not going to start someone at some marginal wage and make them wait five years to make a living.

Perhaps apprentice rates need to come up two or three dollars. Perhaps they don't need full blown family health or pension benefits and these can be converted to wage. Find a way to put it in their pockets earlier or we are going to lose many prospective stars to other industries.

In summary, we are going to have to do better than the old "booth at the high school job fair" in the future. We are going to have to borrow lessons from the most sophisticated and successful organizations in North America if we want top talent. And it starts with something ever so simple. Changing our story.

Mark Breslin is a strategist and author specializing in labor-management challenges. He is the author of Survival of the Fittest, Organize or Die and coming in 2008 Alpha Dog. He addresses more than 50,000 labor and business leaders each year in North America. More on his work and profile is available at

His next visit to Michigan will take place Thursday, May 8 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Westin Metropolitan Airport Hotel in Romulus. The subject: Top Down Organizing and Business Development Training. For more information go to or call (866) 837-4179.



Trades check in to create new Fort Shelby Hotel

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

DETROIT - After 90 years of use and abuse, the Fort Shelby Hotel is undergoing an unlikely renovation.

With the roof open to the elements - there were trees growing on it - the hulking hotel at Lafayette and First Streets had been virtually empty since it closed in 1974, and had been considered a long-shot for a second chance at redevelopment.

But last year, finally, the right combination of tax credits and investors came together to fund the $82 million renovation project. The finished product will include a 204-room hotel operated by Double Tree Suites on the first ten floors, while floors 11-22 will house 52 luxury apartments. The facility will also contain more than 30,000 square feet of conference space, a restaurant, and a few smaller businesses that typically populate hotels.

"It's a renovation that's vital to the city," said Tom Simko, vice president of operations for The Brinker Group, which is managing the Fort-Shelby renovation. "The tower was done by Albert Kahn, and it's a nice, old design. Anytime you can restore a building like this to its original luster, it's encouraging."

The Fort Shelby Hotel was named after a long-buried fort near the site. Construction took place in two different phases - first a 10-story building in 1917 followed by a 22-story tower in 1927. The hotel's exterior incorporated extensive brick, limestone and terra cotta.

The fortunes of the Fort Shelby Hotel closely mirrored the economy of the region. The 22-story addition was just one of numerous tall structures in downtown Detroit that were constructed in the wildly prosperous pre-Depression years.

"The hotel rode the bust and boom cycles of the Great Depression and the post-World War II years," says the Forgotten Detroit website. "In 1951, ownership was transferred to Pick Hotels. In the 1960s and 70s, the hotel's interior was remodeled, but its relatively isolated location on the southwestern edge of downtown was no longer a draw for out-of-towners. The Pick-Fort-Shelby closed in 1973. An ill-fated attempt to re-make it into a youth-party hotel failed quickly a year later."

The last remaining tenant, a bar occupying part of the first floor, closed in the 1990s.

The project currently employs about 80 to 90 Hardhats, and that's a number that will peak out at more than 200 this summer. The original hotel had 900 rooms, but evidence of them is long gone. "The rooms were really small by today's standards," said Brinker's Jeff Kuhary. "On every floor, we tore out just about everything, except what they wanted us to keep for historical purposes."

Much of the structure is still currently in its concrete shell state, but the trades are moving quickly to rough-in the walls, plumbing, fire protection, and wiring. On a smaller scale, this project is similar to the Fort Shelby's more notorious cousin a couple blocks to the north - the Book-Cadillac Hotel- which is on a similar timeline for completion.

"A renovation like this is all about the unknowns - the latent conditions that you tend to find after opening everything up," Simko said. The biggest unknown, he said, was a major six-story steel structural column on the west side of the building that had severely deteriorated due to the incursion of rain water. It was shored up by encasing the column in cast-in-place concrete.

While there was water incursion, it ultimately had little affect on the viability of the project. The 10-story was built with a cast-in-place concrete structure. The design of the 22-story was a hybrid of steel frame with concrete-encased steel beams. "We're dealing with a good, solid structure," Simko said.

According to the Michigan Center for Geographic Information, the Fort Shelby was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. The center provided the following information:

"The Fort Shelby Hotel is significant as a fine example of early twentieth century hotel architecture in Detroit displaying the Georgian and Classical Revival styles and as an example of the work of two prominent architectural firms - Schmidt, Garden and Martin of Chicago (the ten-story building) and Albert Kahn and Associates of Detroit (which designed the tower).

"Built in 1916, the ten-story hotel quickly became one of Detroit's busiest, so much so that a twenty (two) -story addition was built in 1927 which included club rooms, extensive public space, and catering facilities. For over 60 years the hotel was a popular institution in Detroit and famous for its catering and banquet services. The hotel is representative of a general building type constructed during a relatively short but active period (1915-1935) in Detroit's construction history. This boom period gave rise to numerous brick and stone high-rise office buildings and hotels that to this day give Detroit its distinctive masonry towered skyline."

Elisabeth Knibbe, the project's preservation architect for Quinn Evans Architects, said the building "structurally, is in amazingly good shape." However, she said the vast majority of the building's interior finishes were ruined, "so we were pretty much left with a blank slate."

Knibbe said the hotel's second-floor ballroom had some highly decorative plaster features, "but it just crumbled away." The ceiling plaster will be replicated in a cost-saving measure with a painted canvas, in a form called Trompe L'Oeil. The first-floor lobby's architectural features will be replicated in a "simplified version" of the original, she added.

A grand marble staircase is in fairly good shape and will be repaired and retained. "The decorative features are going to be very nice," Knibbe said, adding: "It was pretty depressing to walk into this building after it had been empty all those years. It was standing dead. So to be able to bring the Fort Shelby back is an incredible feeling."

Said Simko: "There's a lot of nice work going on here. I have to say the people here are working well together, it's been a pleasant experience. There's good morale, and good focus by our trades people and subs on a day-by-day basis with the goal of getting this done by November."

THE FORT-SHELBY Hotel on Lafayette Street in Detroit was constructed in two phases: the 10-story came first in 1917, and the 22-story followed in 1927.

LABORERS Jebree Thomas and Jimmy Thomas of Local 1191 work on a compressor in the shelled-out lobby of the Fort Shelby Hotel in Detroit. The entire hotel was stripped down to its steel and concrete frame, but the building trades are beginning to make it look like a hotel again.


Anti-union bias in U.S. isn't the norm worldwide
(From the Communication Workers News)

By Mark Breslin

"In no other developed country do employers routinely fight to the death efforts by their employees to form a union."

That's the finding of Dr. John Logan, a professor at the London School of
Economics and an expert on union organizing issues, in a new paper titled "Unions Facing HardTimes: The Global Crisis in Union Collective Bargaining."

Dr. Logan in his report finds that collective bargaining coverage remains well over 80 percent in many western European countries (Sweden, France, Italy) and over 60 percent in Germany and 30 percent in Canada. He points to dramatic increases in
collective bargaining density in South Africa, Brazil, Korea and Taiwan fueled
by grassroots political movements which have demanded changes in the government.

Dr. Logan contrasts this to the situation in the United States. "The United States is out of step with most of the developed world when it comes to collective bargaining coverage."

Private sector collective bargaining coverage is now at 7.5 percent in the U.S., its lowest level in a century.

Dr. Logan explains that the United States is "unique, in having a system of union recognition that encourages employers to fight to the death attempts by their workers to choose a union." He uses the ongoing anti-union campaign conducted by Verizon to prevent 30,000 Verizon Wireless and 5,000 Verizon Business workers from joining CWA to highlight the intensity of employer opposition in the United States and the abject failure of American labor law to protect workers' right to organize and bargain collectively.

Dr. Logan states, "The tactics used by Verizon are those employed in practically every aggressive antiunion campaign in the United States: captive audience group anti-union meetings, one-on-one antiunion meetings between workers and their supervisors (who can be fired for refusing to participate in anti-union campaigns), the exploitation of management's exclusive control of the workplace to coerce and intimidate employees, and the use of highly sophisticated union avoidance consultants who orchestrate employer campaigns from behind the scenes."

The effect on U.S. workers and the economy he describes as "profound":

  • In 2005, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans earned 21.2 percent of
    the national income.
  • Americans are working longer hours, with less economic security and fewer benefits than in other developed nations.
  • The bottom 50 percent earned only 12.8 percent of all income.

But Dr. Logan explains that this is not only a problem for the United
States. "The regressive nature of American labor policy is not only a problem for workers in the United States. There is growing evidence that the weakness of American law, which gives free rein to anti-union employers, is emboldening union avoidance consultants, employer groups and multinational corporations to export U.S.-originated anti-union strategies to other parts of the world. If the sustained assault on American unions continues, it will likely have escalating negative consequences for workers in other nations. "It is increasingly evident that what hurts American workers, sooner or later, hurts workers throughout the world.

And what helps American workers - stronger protections for the right to organize and bargain collectively through the Employee Free Choice Act - will help in other countries. If unions are to stop the international onslaught of anti-unionism, they
must reverse the trend towards a union-free environment in the United States."



Brits see U.S. anti-unionism 'in a different league'
(From the Communication Workers News)

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

When European labor experts look at the state of union organizing and collective bargaining in the United States, they often are appalled.

"You may think Britain's anti-unionism is bad; in America, industrial
relations are reaching an all-time low," wrote Professor Gregor Gall in a recent article for the Guardian newspaper.

"Having just visited the U.S. for an industrial relations conference, it's hard to fully comprehend just how anti-union employers are there," he reported. "While not
wishing to let employers in Britain off the hook for their anti-unionism, their American brothers and sisters are in a different league altogether."

Gall, who teaches industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire, went on to cite some statistics about workers' organizing struggles in America that he found

"In 2005, over 31,000 workers (in the U.S.) were disciplined for union activity - that's one every 17 minutes of the year. And the number of workers being disciplined or fired is increasing - between 1993 and 2003, the average was 22,633…."

"Research has found that 49 percent of employers threaten to close their operations when faced with unionization attempts and 91 percent of employees are forced to have one-on-one meetings with supervisors to dissuade them from joining," Gall noted. "Even when (American) workers successfully unionize and gain union recognition, only a third of these agreements ever lead to collective bargaining. So two-thirds of employers that concede union recognition say to themselves, 'we've lost the battle but not the war,' and they get another opportunity to stymie union recognition by
simply refusing to bargain," the professor reported.

He went on to point out: "In this environment, you can then understand why more than half (58 percent) of the U.S. workforce - some 60 million workers - say they would join a union if they could. But they do not, because employers impose costs on workers for joining a union. They make it a risk-laden activity."

Gall explained to his British readers that the American labor movement is pushing for the Employee Free Choice Act to restore organizing and bargaining rights, and making this a central issue in the 2008 congressional and presidential elections.


News Briefs

Prevailing wage law eases into Eaton County
CHARLOTTE - In some communities, getting a prevailing wage law adopted is like pulling teeth.

Not so in Eaton County, located southwest of Lansing, where on March 19, the Board of Commissioners adopted an ordinance that requires the payment of prevailing wage on publicly funded construction projects that exceed $10,000.

"The process took probably six months from start to finish, but we got it done," said Glenn Freeman III, a county commissioner who was the prime mover of the ordinance. Freeman is also a Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 333 member. "Maybe we just surprised them, but there really wasn't very much opposition."

Freeman said Democrats have recently assumed an 8-7 majority on the Board of Commissioners, but the prevailing wage measure was adopted in a bipartisan 12-2 vote. Freeman gave a tip of the cap to IBEW union members who filled the commission meeting hall the night the decision was made.

Both the federal government and State of Michigan, as well as numerous counties and cities, have prevailing wage laws. Such laws require that construction wages which "prevail" in a given geographic area must be paid to construction workers on publicly funded projects. Modeled after the federal Davis-Bacon Act from the 1930s, prevailing wage prevents unscrupulous contractors from underbidding local established contractors through the use of underpaid, out-of-area labor. In this era of rampant use of illegal immigrants, the law still makes sense, because it helps keep local workers employed and local workers paying taxes.

Ron Sweat, business manager of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 671, suggested that if the local political environment is sufficiently friendly, building trades unions might consider pushing for a "Labor Harmony Agreement." For the last two years, the City of Monroe and Monroe County have operated under separate agreements that require the hiring of union-signatory contractors on projects involving taxpayer dollars.

"Labor harmony agreements are good way to go, too," Sweat said. "It's much easier to police. You don't have to keep an eye on things like certified payroll. All you need to do is make sure the contractors are signatory."

Unions support Macomb executive
Macomb County voters will go to the polls Tuesday, May 6 to decide whether to change the county's charter and create the position of county executive.

The county is currently governed by a 26-member Board of Commissioners - but no executive leader. A petition drive held last year garnered 20 percent more signatures than necessary to place the issue on the ballot.

The ballot language states: "Shall the county of Macomb elect a charter commission for the purpose of framing and submitting to the electorate of the county a county home rule charter under the constitution and laws of Michigan?"

Supporters of the change say the broad language is mandated by state law, but will lead to an elected county executive and a reduced number of county commissioners.

The ballot effort to put a strong leader form of government on the ballot is supported by a number of unions, including the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO.


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