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August 31, 2007

Right-to-work proposal the latest struggle in cycle of labor history

Goodbye summer, hello Labor Day - Events slated in several communities

'Hire Michigan First:' Dems win first round in local hiring effort

Will we let YO-YOs decide our future?

On a roll, trades complete MSU dorm work

News Briefs


Right-to-work proposal the latest struggle in cycle of labor history

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

Old-timers swear that a lot of things were better when they were younger - and when it comes to unions and Labor Day celebrations, they may have a point.

The peak of union influence over the last century took place in 1953, when 36 percent of private sector workers in the U.S. were unionized. In January 2007, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that private sector union membership had dropped in 2006 to 7.4 percent (12 percent if government workers are included).

Union membership numbers in the U.S. have been steadily declining - and they might get worse before they get better. In Michigan the BLS said in January that our state's private/public unionization rate continued to decline, from 21 percent in 2005 to 19.6 percent (or 879,000 union workers) in 2006.

Still, Michigan has the sixth highest union penetration percentage in the nation - and there's expected to be a strong push by the business community to knock that ranking down a few pegs by bringing a right-to-work ballot initiative to Michigan, perhaps as early as next year.

"Those who want to fix Michigan only by seeking to attract businesses to a low-wage state have it wrong," said Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney. "Families need adequate income to have a high quality of life. Trying to reduce our way to prosperity by cutting wages and benefits and weakening unions just doesn't work."

The concept that history repeats itself is probably most appropriate when looking at the labor movement over the last century. In the first half of the century, the nation had an economic system that didn't provide health insurance or pension plans for workers - and unions were weaker until after World War II.

After the war, with the resurgence of union clout, came a system of employer-provided health insurance and pensions that became the norm.

Now, with the federal government looking on, the system is shifting away from employer-backed health insurance and pensions. More than 40 million Americans are now without health insurance, and increasingly, defined contribution pensions are being replaced with 401k plans as part of a conservative agenda for workers to take "ownership" of their money.

"It has gone in a circle hasn't it?" said Stan Arnold, 84, who led the Michigan State Building and Construction Trades Council from 1957 until his retirement in 1984. "Way back when, we fought to get the pay and the pensions and the health insurance. People in the unions today are fighting to keep those things."

Mack Cenahowicz, 88, a Taylor resident, recalled that when he was 16 he lied and said he was two years older in order to get hired into a nonunion metal finishing plant in 1936. "The pay wasn't great," he said of the Depression-era job, "and they worked the hell out of you."

He served in the Army Air Corps in World War II and eventually found work after the war as a union plumber in 1952.

"I got into the trades and it was automatically a better lifestyle," he said. "I bought a car, bought a house and was able to save some money.

"I don't think people in their 40s, 50s or 60s realize that bringing in the union in those days meant survival," Cehanowicz said. "Unions brought in a safety factor, the union meant that they couldn't treat you like cattle.

"Now all the jobs are going to countries where there are no unions. In my opinion, the workers in those countries who have gotten our jobs because of NAFTA and CAFTA are in the same situation that we were in during the 1930s. It will take time, but maybe those workers will be like we were, and realize they need a union, too."

Arnold said he had to have special "working papers" to work in the Lathers union as a 15-year-old in 1937 - "and the wages were nothing," he said. After he served as a Marine in World War II, he came home and worked his trade earning $1.72 per hour - "that was good money," he said, made possible by the union.

He said even as a union member, the only thing workers received from employers was a paycheck. The first benefit unions sought and won was vacation pay, then later a pension and health insurance.

"That was a time when we had to stand up with each other and demand improvements," Arnold said. "There was a lot of solidarity then, but it was a way of life. Of course we went to show solidarity at the Labor Day parades. It was the thing to do. Now they're trying to take away the pensions and the health care and lower the pay with right to work. It is like a cycle."


Goodbye summer, hello Labor Day - Events slated in several communities

We don't know where the summer went, either - but as the end of August starts to loom, it's time to start thinking about Labor Day.

Building trades workers are encouraged to join with their fellow union members and celebrate Labor Day on Monday, Sept. 3. Labor Day celebrations will be held this year in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Marquette/Ishpeming and Muskegon.

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

Detroit -The 2007 Detroit Labor Day Parade will start earlier than usual at 9 a.m. It will be staged as usual for the building trades along Trumbull Ave. south of Michigan Ave., proceeding along Michigan to Woodward. The earlier starting time will allow the building trades to move ahead of the other unions' line of march, which moves south along Woodward Avenue to Jefferson Avenue to the Legacy of Labor Monument in Hart Plaza.

The theme of the Detroit parade is "Unions benefit all workers."

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

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.,

The shuttle to take walking participants from John Ball to the staging area starts running at 7 a.m. Members wishing to drive their company vehicles, cars or motorcycles in the parade should report directly to the staging area by 7 am. After the parade there will be a hospitality tent with refreshments and entertainment.

Marquette - The annual Labor Day Festival will be in Ishpeming, southwest of Marquette. The parade will start at 11 a.m. EST on Labor Day, with a parade along Euclid Street, Main Street, Division Street and Lakeshore Drive. A picnic and program will follow at the Cliffs Shaft Mine Museum and Lake Bancroft Park on Lakeshore and Euclid Streets.

The Muskegon United Labor Day Parade will be at Pere Marquette Park on Labor Day, Sept. 3, 2007. The parade begins at 11a.m. Participants should meet at the Harbor Towne area at 9 a.m. to catch the trolley to the staging area. Following the parade will be a Solidarity Tent with food and refreshments.


'Hire Michigan First:' Dems win first round in local hiring effort

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

LANSING - An effort to give preference to hiring Michigan workers on state taxpayer-funded projects moved quickly last week, and resulted in a victory for the home team.

On Aug. 20, State Rep. Fred Miller (D-Mt. Clemens) announced a plan "that gives priority for economic development projects to companies that employ 100 percent Michigan workers." The "Hire Michigan First" initiative would also crack down on the practice of hiring illegal immigrants and would prohibit businesses that violate these guidelines from receiving tax breaks or future state contracts.

Then the initiative quickly became implemented. As the state Senate was going to vote on new spending measures on Aug. 22, State Sen. John Gleason (D-Flushing) attached an amendment to Senate Bill 239, which provides funding for projects that come out of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth. The amendment was right out of the playbook for "Hire Michigan First" effort. The pro-Michigan-worker amendment passed, 38-0, with all Democrats and Republicans voting for it.

But… the amendment was adopted shortly after state Republicans unanimously rejected an identical amendment attaching the "Hire Michigan First" legislation to a bill funding projects sponsored by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

"After it went down the first time, I figured what the hell, I'd try to shame them (Republican senators) into going along with it," Gleason said. "I just got up an asked them 'whose side are you on? Out-of-state workers? Illegal aliens? Or Michigan workers?' They voted for Michigan workers. Maybe they were embarrassed."

With the House controlled by Democrats, passage of the bill with the pro-Michigan worker amendment is expected.

"Michigan families have been hit hard by outsourcing and downsizing, and every scarce state dollar should be used to create jobs here in Michigan," Miller said.

The "Hire Michigan First" effort was unveiled last month with considerable pressure from building trades unions. A consistent sore point over the past year has been the ongoing construction at the Marysville Ethanol, LLC plant south of Port Huron. The $95 million plant received a four-year, 100 percent tax abatement from St. Clair County, plus considerable state incentives. They hired hundreds of construction workers - some of them union who are local residents, many who are nonunion and who live out of state.

"I think this 'Hire Michigan First' effort is long overdue," said Mike Moran, business agent for IBEW Local 58. Moran and other agents and supporters have staged pickets on the highway in front of the plant nearly once a week for a year to call attention to the hiring of out-of-area workers. "It's great that we have friends like (State Reps) Fred Miller and Terry Brown in the House and John Gleason in the Senate who are willing to fight for us. After all, we're the taxpayers who are helping to pay for these jobs - we should be the ones who benefit."

State Democratic lawmakers aim to have the "Hire Michigan First" rule permanently tied into spending packages for 10 other state-funded programs, including the Transportation Economic Development Fund, the 21st Century Jobs Fund and the Michigan Economic Growth Authority.

The policy would require companies that accept state economic development incentives to report who they hire to ensure that Michigan workers are hired first - "encouraging transparency and accountability."

Businesses with contracts for construction of state buildings would be required to hire 100 percent of their workers from Michigan - strengthening the current requirement of 50 percent.

And, companies found to hire illegal immigrants would have their state incentives and contracts canceled, require them to pay back past incentives, and bar them from future dealings with the state.

"I've visited the pickets in Marysville a few times, and I learned a lot," Gleason said. "There are investigations going on regarding whether workers there are in this country legally. Everything about this whole situation, with what's going on in Marysville and in Lansing, should remind building trades workers to remember who their friends are at election time."


Will we let YO-YOs decide our future?

By Jared Bernstein
Economic Policy Institute

As Labor Day once again dawns on America, we are faced with old problems and new solutions.

As any economic cheerleader from Wall Street or Washington will tell you, we've been posting some impressive economic statistics, the most important of which is faster productivity growth.

These same boosters will stress that faster growth of output per hour is the main channel through which we achieve higher living standards.

But over the past few years, that channel has been blocked, and economic growth is failing to reach many, if not most, working families. Real wages for most workers, after rising for the first few years of the 2000s, have fallen lately, and despite 14 percent higher productivity, a typical worker's real weekly earnings are down 3 percent over this expansion. Median family income is down about $1,500 since 2000, and more than 5 million people have been added to the poverty rolls.

In other words, the economy looks fine until you take a closer look at the people in it. And while it continues to bewilder those who focus exclusively on these top-line statistics, majorities consistently report dissatisfaction with the economy.

But it should be no mystery. Many families, stretching to meet their budgets with squeezed paychecks after filling up their gas tanks, must be wondering: With recoveries like this, who needs recessions?

So where's the growth going? Again, no mystery: Profits, as a share of GDP, are the highest they've ever been.

Like I said, it's an old story. But this Labor Day, the story doesn't stop here.

Today, there is a palpable sense among the public that our leaders are not up to the challenges they face. This is most clear in the foreign policy arena, but you see it on the economy as well. A recent New York Times/CBS poll revealed that for the first time since they started asking the question in the early 1980s, fewer than half of the adults surveyed expect their children's living standards to surpass their own.

Stop and ponder this for a second. America's workers are working harder and smarter than ever before, and we've got the productivity numbers to prove it. But we're growing more pessimistic about our kids' future.
Something is awfully wrong with this picture, and I believe the YOYOs are at the root of it.

YOYO is the acronym for "You're On Your Own," the philosophy that drives much of today's politics and policy. It's the idea that the best way to solve the economic challenges we face, from Social Security to health care to globalization and inequality, is a tax cut, a private account and a pat - if not a shove - on the back as individuals are pushed to fend for themselves in the private market, supposedly tapping the power of competitive forces to deal with these daunting forces.

What's lost amid all this rampant, hyper-individualism is the sense of WITT ("We're In This Together"), the notion that there are problems - like those just cited - that are too large for individuals to face down on their own. Each of these challenges is much more effectively addressed by pooling risk, not shifting it to individuals.

Conservatives have been pummeling progressives on these issues for decades, arguing with tremendous conviction - but without convincing evidence - that any steps toward the WITT agenda will kill the golden goose of growth. Whether it's universal health care, a higher minimum wage, greater union power, or a pause in trade agreements while we build the policy structure to offset the downsides of globalization, the YOYOs have only one message: "Sounds nice, but sorry…can't go there."

This Labor Day, their arguments ring especially hollow. The gap between productivity and working-family incomes is too large to ignore, and politicians do so at their peril. Be prepared to hear a lot more about these problems as coming election cycles gear up.

Which leaves us with the critical question: What, precisely, will those who want our support propose to do to close the gap? You'll recognize the Your On Your Owns easily enough: They bemoan the problem, and their solutions will be a) patience, b) privatization, c) tax cuts for investors, and d) more education (the opportunities are there; you're just not smart enough to take advantage of them).

The We're In This Togethers will support the education agenda, because it's critical for equalizing opportunity. But they won't stop there. They'll recognize that the time has come to construct the architecture needed to start actively shaping economic outcomes, not passively accepting them. They will speak of universal health care (listen for "Medicare for All") and replacing the labor demand sapped by globalization by actively creating more quality job opportunities through full employment initiatives and investment in public infrastructure, including energy independence.

They will support a rational fiscal policy that stresses a measured role for government, not one based on starving the public sector of the revenues it needs to do its job.

There lies the continuum on which we should judge those who seek our support. At one end lies YOYO'ism. Been there, done that, and the pendulum has already begun its swing. The question is how far toward the other end - toward the WITT agenda - will it swing.

That, ultimately, is up to us.

(The author is senior economist at the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute is the author of All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy, published by Berrett-Koehler and available from The Union Shop Online).


On a roll, trades complete MSU dorm work

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

EAST LANSING - Just in time for the new fall semester, the building trades late last month were wrapping up the renovation of the Snyder/Phillips residence halls.

The adjacent dormitory halls received their first major overhaul since they were built in 1946. The renovation work cost more than $40 million. Renovations to nearby Shaw Hall (completed in 2002) and Mason/Abbott (1997) were also performed by the building trades.

"This was a major project and the tradespeople and contractors really did an outstanding job for us," said Sherry Margraves, MSU's manager for construction maintenance and interior design. "It was a major engineering project and they did it in a short period of time, and got it ready for this semester."

The major part of the project was demolishing the center portion of Snyder Hall and excavating 13 feet below the existing building to allow for easier hookup with steam and other utility lines that snake through the campus. The demolished area of the hall was replaced with a cool food court that has several dining options, art gallery and classrooms.

According to Jeff White, project superintendent for Christman Construction, careful planning for the project allowed for immediately putting to work some 150 construction workers at the project's inception in May 2006. The job peaked out at about 220 workers.

He said the planning and construction process had an added layer of complexity by the interconnection and redundancies (for backup) of steam and electrical lines with other buildings on the campus. "Whatever we did affected other buildings, so it was almost like doing three or four projects at the same time," White said.

The Snyder/Phillips renovation project also included: upgrading the community restrooms, replacing windows, restoring exterior masonry, replacing the fire alarm system, adding an indoor sprinkler system, updating the electrical distribution system, adding an emergency generator, upgrading the ventilation systems, and
improving building accessibility.

"It is important that renovations upgrade our facilities so that they enhance safety while better meeting the needs and wishes of our students," said Charles Gagliano, assistant vice president for Housing and Food Services, when the project was announced. "The renovations will also provide more privacy and space for students, and help the university maintain the residence hall for the next several years."

Approximately 290,000 square feet of space was involved in the renovated portion of the project, and another 87,000 square feet of new space was added.

"The construction crew here has been great to work with, but they really should be called a team," White said. "It takes a team to do some $40 million worth of work in 15 months. These guys were really rolling."

HANDLING WIRE for a VAB box at the Snyder dorm on the Michigan State University campus is Chuck Smith of IBEW Local 665.

Below, grinding a 3-inch steam line is Greg Paksi of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 33, while Dennis Gordon looks away from the sparks.


News Briefs

July construction retreats 11 percent
The value of new U.S. construction starts fell 11% in July to $588.1 billion, according to an Aug. 22 report by McGraw-Hill Construction.

Nonresidential building experienced "an exceptionally strong June" but returned to a slower pace, the report said. Residential building "continued to weaken" the report said.

For the first seven months of 2007, total construction on an unadjusted basis was reported at $363.2 billion, down 13% from the same period a year ago. If residential building is excluded, then new construction starts during the January-July period of 2007 would be up 2% compared to last year.

"July's slower activity for nonresidential building was expected, since June had been boosted by the start of several massive projects," stated Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction. "The year-to-date figures show that
nonresidential building, up 1%, is performing fairly well in 2007. For residential building, however, the July report shows that this market continues to lose momentum, and that the correction for homebuilding is turning out to be deeper and more extended than initially believed.

By region, the Midwest was down 11% in July.

Construction gains 4.6% in bargaining
Collective bargaining settlements among all U.S. construction contracts through mid-July showed that the average first-year wage increase was 4.6 percent, compared with 3.9 percent in 2006. The information was compiled and released last month by the Construction Labor Report.

In collective bargaining among all industries, average first-year increases so far this year were 3.6 percent, compared to 3.2 percent in 2006.

In the meantime, another group, the Construction Labor Research Council, via the Construction Labor Report, issued similar numbers for all of unionized construction, saying that first-year wage-benefit increases were up 4.7 percent, or $1.90 per hour through June 2007. That compares to $1.74 a year ago.

The CLRC said most construction first-year increases fell between 3.0 percent and 5.9 percent. In Michigan and the rest of the "East North Central Region," the CLRC said the average increase was below the rest of the country: $1.72 (or 4.2 percent) for wages and benefits in the first year, and $1.72 (3.9 percent) for the second year.

Send Wal-Mart back to school
WASHINGTON (PAI) - With rallies in 100 cities and radio spots in 26 markets, union-backed Wake-Up Wal-Mart launched a new drive August 16 to get consumers to stop buying school supplies at the monster anti-worker retailer Wal-Mart, unless it cleans up its act.

"Send Wal-Mart Back to School" featured community leaders, activists, teachers and students with blue T-shirts and black chalkboard banners, seeking consumer pledges to boycott Wal-Mart unless it starts paying a living wage, ends discrimination against women, "adopts a zero tolerance policy on child labor," and provides affordable health care to its workers rather than forcing taxpayers to foot half the bill.

AFT signed a letter calling on Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott to address the company's irresponsible business practices. "As the nation's largest private employer, with profits of $12 billion in just the past year, Wal-Mart can afford to do better by its employees, its customers, taxpayers and the children of America," the union wrote.


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