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August 18, 2006

Trades like plan to stabilize pensions

Tax break for wealthy is 'poison pill' that kills minimum wage hike

Masons preside at federal courthouse

If you love a parade, or even if you only like one, Labor Day is for you

Bike ride benefits cerebral palsy

Radio host Brian James moves left with new show

News Briefs


Trades like plan to stabilize pensions

WASHINGTON D.C. - Multi-employer pension plans like those used by building trades unions and their contractors are not nearly in the same sorry shape as many single-employer plans such as the one held by Northwest Airlines.

But both types of plans are in need of some major rules changes that will allow them to be more fiscally responsible and prosperous. That's the aim of HR 4 - the Pension Protection Act - which was adopted by the U.S. House on July 29. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where prospects for passage are good.

There is some dissatisfaction with the rule changes contained in the bill for single-employer plans. But both the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department and the Associated General Contractors of America like what they see with the multi-employer pension plan reforms.

"This bipartisan bill includes desperately needed reforms for multi-employer plans that were carefully negotiated by labor and employer groups," said Building Trades Department President Edward Sullivan. "(The bill) will help preserve the long-term viability of multi-employer plans, for current and future pensioners."

Said Associated General Contractors of America CEO Stephen E. Sandherr: "This is an important addition to retirement security for unionized labor in our industry."

The construction industry funds more than 40 percent of multi-employer plans nationwide. Under current rules, employers are bound by a contribution deductibility limit of 100 percent, which makes it difficult for them to create sufficient plan savings during slow work periods or when the stock market takes a dive.

The reforms in HR 4 would:

  • Increase the deductibility limit to 140 percent of current liability, allowing plans to save more for future retirees and avoid future funding shortfalls.
  • Require that plans improve their funded status in order to ensure that they are always fully funded. For plans whose funded percentage is less than 80 percent, trustees would be required to put together a schedule to improve their plan over a 10-year period, as well as notify plan participants.
  • Establish new funding standards and restrictions in benefit increases for multi-employer plans that are funded at less than 65 percent.

The pension bill includes the authority for critical-status plans to protect normal retirement benefits by collecting extra contributions from employers on an emergency basis.

"It is imperative that workers have some assurance that the pensions they earned are there when they retire and that we keep our commitment to current retirees," Sullivan said. "This is a strong piece of legislation that is absolutely necessary…."

There's less enthusiasm for the reforms involving single-employer plans, which are the much greater target of the new rules. The federal government's primary concern is not getting stuck with the all or part of the current $23 billion deficit of the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. The PBGC backs up employer pension plan obligations - and with so many domestic airlines, steelmakers and automakers on the financial ropes, that deficit could balloon to more than $100 billion.

The new rules would give most single-employer plans seven years to fully fund their pension plans and require accelerated payments from funds that are severely under-funded. There are also new accounting features similar to those with multi-employer plans.

The pitfalls of the new single-employer rules is that they don't kick in until 2008. Even then, rules will be phased in, lowering the number of companies deemed at-risk of defaulting on pension obligations. Auto companies won an exemption allowing them some favorable leeway in how they determine their liabilities.

The new rules that give companies time to grow out of their financial difficulties are a balancing act between immediately imposing new rules that could send them into bankruptcy, or allow them time to increase their pension funding.

Stephen McMillin, deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget told The Wall Street Journal: "If you push some of these companies too hard too fast you're going to be pushing them into a situation where, instead of protecting the worker from the theoretical risk 10 or 20 years down the line, you've created actual harm to them in the first few years."


Tax break for wealthy is 'poison pill' that kills minimum wage hike

WASHINGTON D.C. - The U.S. Senate was busy before its summer recess, blocking a bill that tied together a minimum wage hike with providing estate tax relief.

The Senate voted 56-42 to end debate (short of the 60 votes necessary to end cloture and force a vote) on a measure that would have hiked the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour, extend about 20 tax reform measures, and provide estate tax relief that would only affect 8,700 of the wealthiest Americans.

The votes were mostly along party lines, with most Republicans voting to bring the matter to a vote. Democrats were put in the position of essentially voting against a minimum wage hike that they have been pushing for all year, because of Republican insistence on bundling the wage increase with another tax cut for the wealthy. The House has already passed the measure. Republicans have been accused of only bringing up the minimum wage - which Americans favor overwhelmingly in polling - to gain votes in the November congressional election.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the estate tax reduction "is a poison pill that stands in the way of minimum wage workers getting a long overdue pay raise." He said the Senate vote was a message to "stop playing games with the minimum wage." Added Sen. Maria Cantrell, (D-Wash.), who provided a key vote against the measure: "This is a cynical ploy on the part of the Republican leadership in an election year."

Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist switched his vote at the very end in a procedural move that will allow the bill to come up for reconsideration this year, before the Nov. 7 elections. "As I've said before, these issues must be addressed as a package - all or nothing," Frist said. He said both are "vital to the economic security of everyday Americans."

In March, the Republican-led Michigan legislature agreed to raise the state's minimum wage incrementally from $5.15 per hour to $7.40 per hour by July 1, 2008. The election-year vote also staved off a petition effort by the Michigan AFL-CIO that was on its way to hiking the minimum wage and indexing future increases the inflation rate.

An estimated 6.5 million workers nationwide have earned the $5.15 per hour minimum wage since 1997, the last year in which it was increased. The plan in Congress is to phase in wage increases to $7.25 per hour over three years.

"If estate tax repeal is added to the minimum wage increase, there will be no increase for minimum wage workers because the Senate has already rejected the estate tax repeal. That is unlikely to change, and Republican leaders of the House know it," Sweeney said. "The minimum wage increase should not depend on whether billionaires get another tax break."


Masons preside at federal courthouse

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

DETROIT - Leave it to a handful of skilled masons to repair some of cracks in the federal justice system.

OK, that's taking a little editorial license with what's really happening at the Theodore Levin Federal Courthouse. But it is true that Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1 members, working for Grunwell-Cashero, are making repairs to the joints and seams on the limestone exterior of the building, helping assure that the impressive edifice will be there to host the federal justice for years to come.

Completed in 1934, the 11-story, 605,000 square-foot Detroit Federal Building/U.S. Courthouse takes up a city block at Lafayette and Shelby streets. Over the years, said Grunwell-Cashero Project Manager Rich Montmorency, the federal government has been a good steward for the building, keeping up a regular maintenance schedule on the exterior, which has helped keep water away from where it shouldn't be.

"The masonry is in good condition, it really just needs maintenance work like cleaning and performing tuckpointing, which is what we're doing," Montmorency said. "We're going over all sides of the building and making any necessary repairs."

Montmorency said Grunwell-Cashero has performed masonry repairs at the building over the last two decades, with the most extensive renovation being capstone replacement on the roof in 1988.

He said the building's designers used variegated limestone panels on the exterior. From a distance, the walls look the same, Close up, the panels are slightly different colors, and a mortar patch color was chosen to match the panels - and all the previous mortar repair work - as much as possible.

The project began three months ago with a thorough cleaning of the exterior. The process of patching and caulking is ongoing. Foreman Jim Tracht, Jr. said there is very little rust on the straps holding the limestone panels in place, so it's anticipated that only a few panels will need to be replaced. The job is expected to extend into next spring after a break over the winter.

"It's quite an amazing building, and I really enjoy working on it," Tracht said. "To me limestone buildings are really aesthetically pleasing, but they very rarely use limestone like this in new construction. The engraved murals and medallions on the upper levels are very detailed. You can even seen the pleats on the pants of one of the guys on a mural."

While not usually grouped with the collection of architecturally classic skyscrapers that downtown Detroit enjoys, the federal courthouse is a solid citizen among the city's buildings. It serves as the federal courthouse for the Eastern District of Michigan.

According to Emporis, the courthouse was designed "in a sleek moderne style," faced with limestone above a base of polished black stone. The building has an open center light court the public never sees, and relief sculptures of eagles and emblems about the Lafayette and Fort street entrances indicate the building's governmental function.

Inside, we're told by tradespeople who have done work that the building is ornamentally striking.

The space under the building is another story. The Federal Courthouse Building sits atop the site of the former Fort Lernout, Fort Shelby and then the 1897 U.S. Post Office, Courthouse and Custom House.

In 1927, demolition of the 1897 building at the site revealed some of the remnants of the long-buried Fort Lernout, which was built by the British during the Revolutionary War.

According to the Michigan Historical Marker at the site, "This marks the site of the southwest bastion of Fort Lernoult. It was here, on July 11, 1796, that the American flag was first flown over Detroit. The fort was built by the British in 1778-79 to protect Detroit against possible attack by George Rogers Clark and the American army.

"Overlooking the stockaded village and named for its commander, Richard B. Lernoult, the fort controlled river traffic and land routes. The fort was not attacked during the American Revolution. However, it was then the foremost British military post in the West, a base for Indian raids against American frontier settlements, and a guardian of the rich fur trade. Although the peace treaty of 1783 gave Michigan to the United States, the British did not evacuate the fort until 1796. In 1812, Fort Lernoult was surrendered to the British, but was regained by the Americans in 1813 and re-named Fort Shelby. The last troops were removed in 1826. The fort was leveled in the next two or three years."

BRICKLAYERS and Allied Craftworkers Local 1 masons Don Ross, left and Steve Malloy perform tuckpointing on the exterior of the federal courthouse building in Detroit.

ALL THE LIMESTONE panels and joints on the exterior of the Levin courthouse in Detroit will get checked for cracks and leaks.


If you love a parade, or even if you only like one, Labor Day is for you

Building trades workers are encouraged to join with their fellow union members and celebrate Labor Day on Monday, Sept. 4.

Labor Day celebrations will be held this year in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Marquette, Muskegon and St. Ignace.

Here are some of the things you might need to know about each event:

Detroit - There will be an earlier start to the 2006 Detroit Labor Day Parade, 9:15 a.m. It will be staged as usual for the building trades on Trumbull Ave. south of Michigan. The earlier starting time will allow the building trades to move ahead of the other line of march, which moves south along Woodward Avenue to Jefferson Ave.

The theme of the parade is "In solidarity, unions march, unions vote!"

The building trades parade lineup will start with Heat and Frost Insulators, followed by the IBEW, Cement Masons and Plasterers, Bricklayers and Allied Crafts, Elevator Constructors, Sheet Metal Workers, Laborers, Roofers, Painters, Pipe Trades, Iron Workers, Boilermakers and Operating Engineers.

A blood drive will be held on Labor Day in the basement of IBEW Local 58 on Abbott Street, east of Trumbull from 7-1 p.m. Walk-ins are welcome. The American Red Cross reports that they usually collect 30-40 pints of blood in this collection effort - which would be welcome this year with blood supplies running low.

The Grand Rapids United Labor Day Parade starts at 10 a.m. on Labor Day. The staging area will be in the Grand Valley parking lots (Mt. Vernon lot and Watson lot) on the south side of Fulton and Mt. Vernon Ave., trucks on Summer Street. Participants should arrive at John Ball Park at 8 a.m.

A shuttle will provide transportation from John Ball to the staging area where there will be coffee, juice, and donuts. T-shirts will be passed out at this time. Members wishing to drive their company vehicles, cars or motorcycles in the parade should report directly to the staging area. After the parade there will be a hospitality tent with refreshments and entertainment.

Marquette - The Labor Day Festival will actually be in Ishpeming, southwest of Marquette at the Cliff's Shaft Museum site. The parade will start at 11 a.m. EST on Labor Day, with a picnic at noon and a program at about 1 p.m.

The Muskegon United Labor Day Parade will be at Pere Marquette Park on Labor Day, Sept. 4. The parade begins at 11a.m. Participants should meet at the Harbor Towne area at 9 a.m. for their T-shirts and hats. Following the parade will be a Solidarity Tent with food and refreshments.

The annual Mackinac Bridge Walk kicks off in St. Ignace. Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who has jogged the past two years, will lead the way over the five-mile long bridge at about 7 a.m. No one will be permitted to start after 11 a.m.


Bike ride benefits cerebral palsy

LANSING - The first Benjamin Franklin Memorial Poker Run raised $5,200 for the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Michigan.

The July 29 motorcycle ride, intended to be an annual event, honors Benjamin Tyler Franklin, who died at age three of cerebral palsy. He's the son of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 333 secretary April Franklin and Iron Workers Local 25 member Benjamin Franklin,

"A lot of Local 333 and other union members, and a lot of people we didn't know, participated in the ride," said April Franklin, who chaired the event. "We appreciate everyone who participated. There was a really good response, and we got some awesome feedback. We plan on making it an annual event."

The ride started at the Local 333 union hall in Lansing, and ended at the Wooden Nickel Saloon in Dansville. There were 58 bikes and 200 participants.

In a poker run, drivers of cars and motorcycles make five stops on a pre-planned route and draw a card at each stop. At the final stop, prizes age given out for those who have the best poker hand. Food, music and prizes were given out at the Wooden Nickel.

John Tesija, funds attorney for Local 333 and other unions, took part in the ride. "It was fun," he said, "but the best part was that it was for a good cause. You feel good about doing it."

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN Memorial Poker Run riders prepare to leave the Local 333 parking lot.


Radio host Brian James moves left with new show

The radio show "Answer the Question" is a small start in the battle against corporate media giants, and the crush of conservative talk on the airwaves - but it's a start.

The talk show, described as "progressive radio" by its host, Brian James, 54, is heard on Sunday mornings from 9-10 a.m. on WKRK, FM-97.1, in Southeast Michigan. A handful of union groups are among the sponsors of the show.

About half a dozen programs have aired so far, providing a more left-leaning point of view on issues like free trade, the labor situation at Northwest Airlines, the U.S. auto industry, and federal pension laws.

"I came up with the idea for the show, and it was born out of the idea that someone has to counterbalance the extreme right-wing radio that's so prevalent out there," James said. "Organized labor and the middle class are the foundation of America, and right now they're under attack. You've heard of the greatest generation; I don't want this to be the worst generation."

James' day job is a city attorney for Royal Oak. A few years ago he and colleagues sought and obtained representation by the Teamsters when the city made a bid to privatize the legal staff. Deciding that he wanted to be more of a voice for working men and women, James, with no previous broadcasting experience, graduated from the Specs Howard School of Broadcasting with the intention of starting a radio program. In May 2005, he made his on-air debut by buying his own time at another radio station, then earlier this year moved to WKRK, which is also the flagship station for the Detroit Lions.

"The basic premise for me behind starting Answer the Question is 'if not me, who? If not now, when?' " James said.

To date, he has hosted union leaders like the UAW President Ron Gettlefinger, Teamsters President James Hoffa, and Anita Berger of the Change to Win Federation. James also takes phone calls. His program is also videotaped and broadcast on local cable television.

"It's tough to cover everything I want to talk about in an hour," he said. "I'm not a flaming liberal, but I don't like stupidity, and I think there's a lot of stupidity on conservative radio."


News Briefs

Low wages jobs migrate out of China
Remember when Mexico's low wages were the magnet for job-moving manufacturers in the U.S.?

Then, when China opened its borders and the world discovered even cheaper wages there, it became the world's low-wage darling? Under a headline "China loses some allure as the world's factory," The Wall Street Journal reported Aug. 7 that stupendous growth in China from 1990 to 2003 flattened in 2004 and 2005 at about $60 billion per year, before dropping a half-percent in the first half of 2006.

"Even a flattening in the trend is striking," the Journal said, "given the reputation China has developed as an irresistible magnet for foreign companies' money."

The reason for the lack of growth, the Journal said, is probably because the manufacturing that can be profitably shifted there has already done so. For example, there aren't many Asian electronics manufacturers who haven't moved to China, a nation which also limits how much foreign investment can be made in domestic companies.

But don't weep just yet for the world's employers. Although wages have risen in China - which is another reason why growth is stagnant - there are other nations like Malaysia, Indonesia with weak labor laws and low wages. Even Vietnam, the Journal said, "has become a hot spot for manufacturing."

AFL-CIO links With day laborers
When you think "day laborer," you might think of adjectives like "underpaid," "exploited," "undocumented," or "overworked." Certainly, "nonunion" would apply.

The AFL-CIO, trying new strategies to increase union exposure to workers and help the situation of all workers, announced on Aug. 9 a partnership forged with the National Day Labor Organizing Network, pledging to work together on issues ranging from workplace rights to immigration reform to health and safety and other job-related concerns.

"Through this watershed partnership," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, "we will strengthen our ability to promote and enforce the workplace rights for all workers - union and non-union, immigrant and non-immigrant alike."

Local, state and national AFL-CIO reps will be able to work with 140 "worker centers" in 80 cities and towns around the nation, which serve as a place for day laborers and low-wage workers, many of them immigrants and people of color, to come together and learn about their rights. The centers also operate as advocates for the workers - and there are approximately 200,000 in the U.S.

The centers provide a structure by which workers join together to set their own terms and conditions of employment. For example, in Agoura Hills, Calif., day laborers have set their minimum wage at $15 per hour.

The centers also provide a variety of services, including leadership development, legal representation to recover unpaid wages, English classes, workers' rights education and access to health clinics, bank accounts and loans. Through creative strategies, worker centers have achieved significant success, the AFL-CIO said, in improving working conditions and raising wages for low-wage workers in high turnover industries and in permanent employment relationships.

"One of the ways to ensure that the rights of all workers in this country are protected is to ensure that the 12 million undocumented immigrants come out of the shadows," said Executive Director Pablo Alvarado "We thank President Sweeney for his leadership in supporting a legalization program with a path to citizenship and political equality."

Earlier today, the Executive Council passed a policy statement to allow the creation of the partnership with NDLON and with individual worker centers.
(In May, Janice Fine, assistant professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University, wrote a Point of View column for the AFL-CIO website about worker centers and how the labor community can work with the centers for both their benefits.)

The centers provide a structure by which workers join together to set their own terms and conditions of employment. In Agoura Hills, Calif., day laborers have set their minimum wage at $15 per hour. Centers also provide a variety of services, including leadership development, legal representation to recover unpaid wages, English classes, workers' rights education and access to health clinics, bank accounts and loans. Through creative strategies, worker centers have achieved significant success in improving working conditions and raising wages for low-wage workers in high turnover industries and in permanent employment relationships.


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