The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index
August 5, 2005
By Mark Gruenberg
The disaffiliation by three of the federation's largest unions, who have four million members combined, disappointed and angered AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, a former SEIU President. Before the pullout, the AFL-CIO had nearly 13 million members.
"Pulling out dishonors the founders and members of my union," Sweeney said in his keynote address to the federation convention at Chicago's Navy Pier.
"It is a grievous insult to all the unions that helped us," he added, referring to SEIU's past struggles to win bargaining rights, helped by other federation unions. The pullout also insulted "the unions who came here to discuss and debate difficult issues and make historic changes" in the federation, said Sweeney.
But Teamsters President James Hoffa and SEIU President Andrew Stern took a sharply different view of why their unions left the House of Labor.
"It's a new era. This is not the (19)30s any more. Companies, not countries, run the economy," Stern said to a packed press conference in Chicago after his board's vote.
"The loose structure of the AFL-CIO is not the way to go in the 21st century. It (the labor movement) is not about independence. It's about interdependence," he declared.
To further that goal, the unions in the dissenting "Change to Win" coalition - the Teamsters, SEIU, the Laborers, the Farm Workers, UNITE HERE and the non-AFL-CIO Carpenters - met in Chicago to start sketching out such joint efforts.
"We're talking about hiring permanent skilled staff to form a core in organizing, then have our unions work with those people to go out and organize," Hoffa said. Emphasizing organizing in "core industries" is the top priority of the coalition, including the two unions that left.
Hoffa expanded on the Teamsters' views in a statement: "In our view, we must have more union members in order to change the political climate that is undermining workers rights in this country. The AFL-CIO has chosen the opposite approach.
"Today's decision means that we have chosen a course of growth and strength for the American labor movement based on organizing new members. Striking workers, no matter what union they belong to, can always count on the Teamsters for support and assistance. That is our history and tradition and we will never waver from our proud role as defenders of America's working families.
"We will continue to work with our brothers and sisters in the building trades, in state federations and central labor councils to achieve justice for all working people."
In a separate interview with Press Associates Union News Service, Laborers President Terry O'Sullivan - whose union, though part of the coalition, is staying in the AFL-CIO for now - said one advantage the new group would provide is more and better research, coordination and capital strategies to support joint organizing campaigns.
"Bruce Raynor's got 80 strategic researchers and Andy's got 200," O'Sullivan said of the presidents of UNITE HERE and SEIU. "We have a handful in the building trades. We've never had national campaigns against national contractors. Now we can complement local and regional organizing" by locals and councils "with a national campaign," he added.
Dues were also a factor in the Teamster and SEIU pullouts. Hoffa and Stern each said his union sends $10 million yearly in per capita dues to the AFL-CIO. Each pledged to use the money for organizing, instead. Hoffa said IBT would probably split the money, which he called "new money," 50-50 between organizing and paying for the Change to Win structure. Stern was not specific.
And Hoffa reiterated his previous proposal that the AFL-CIO rebate half of any union's dues to those unions that create and engage in strategic organizing campaigns. The AFL-CIO Executive Council rejected that earlier this year.
"They said 'no.' Their idea is to keep throwing money at politicians. We say we have to grow and we say now it's time to change," he declared.
Sweeney and his allies held a strong majority in the AFL-CIO even before SEIU and the Teamsters withdrew. He viewed the situation differently.
In his opening speech, but before the dissenters' votes, Sweeney called the pullout "a tragedy for working people. Because it's at a time when our corporate and conservative adversaries have created the most powerful anti-worker political machine in the history of our country, a divided labor movement hurts the hopes of working families."
After the two voted to leave, he added the pullout "will
injure working people, who deserve better. I have trust and confidence
that the people in this hall" - the remaining unions - "will
work harder to overcome this obstacle."
Only time will tell the ultimate result of the historic splintering of the labor movement that began at the AFL-CIO convention last month. Will the new Change to Win Coalition revitalize the labor movement, as organizers hope? Or will labor lose clout because of a splintering effect, as detractors fear?
Following are excerpts of a wide variety of viewpoints on the new reality in the U.S. labor movement:
"The plight of unions, as the economy has changed, sometimes makes them look dated and ineffective. But that's not the case. Unions are hardly going away. In fact, the greatest gains unions are making today are among hospital workers and other largely immigrant laborers in the lower-paid service occupations, fulfilling labor's historic role of representing the poor.
"Labor's original political clout was built from the
voting power of just such immigrant workers. By organizing them
again, labor could be going back to the future."
"The recent establishment of the Change to Win Coalition, which will probably be a rival federation to the AFL-CIO, could be the best thing to happen to the American labor movement in decades.
"The new competition among unions will create more
dynamic unions and will force labor leaders to be accountable
to their constituents. Competition among unions leads not only
to the creation of better options for the already organized rank
and file, but also to the organization of new industries as unions
animated by the rivalry generate enthusiasm among the unorganized."
"What does it say about the AFL-CIO leadership that, despite (President John) Sweeney's abysmal record during the past ten years, 44 international union presidents are ready to give him four more years, without the slightest assurance that he will do any better than in the past?
"Isn't it remarkable that there isn't a single national
labor leader, who has the courage, charisma and leadership skills
to challenge Sweeney for the presidency? Is Sweeney the best
that organized labor can produce?"
"We are in the midst of the most significant and profound
transformative moment in economic history, and workers are suffering,"
said SEIU President Andrew Stern. "Our goal is not to divide
the labor movement, but to rebuild it so working people can once
again achieve the American dream."
"What the labor movement really needs is a new generation
of leaders who understand the emerging competition to U.S. workers
from the likes of India and China. Rather than oppose imports
to protect textile jobs that can't be saved, such leaders would
work to reform education so Americans can compete in the knowledge
industries that will grow the fastest."
"In addition to hampering organized labor's efforts
to win legislation that would prevent employers from intimidating
workers attempting to organize, a divided labor movement would
be severely weakened in pursuing changes to unfair trade policies
that are wiping out manufacturing jobs by the millions
"Among Democrats, there is considerable fear that
the labor split will undercut the AFL.-CIO's role as a highly
effective coordinator for the nation's unions in lobbying and
political campaigns. 'There's a lot of anxiety any time one of
your principal allies is split, especially given the amount of
resources that the other side has amassed against us," said
David Axelrod, a Democratic consultant. 'The White House, the
Republican Party, would like nothing better than to put labor
out of business as a political force.'"
"Politically, unions have to put aside fantasies of 'taking back' Congress and the White House and concentrate instead on rebuilding political capacity from the ground up.
"Here in Washington, a rebuilding strategy would surely involve focusing on a small number of core legislative priorities, like the minimum wage and labor law reform. It would mean taking a page from the Teamster playbook and learning to dance on a more bipartisan basis with the party in power.
"And it would surely require cleaning out the patronage-ridden
old guard at AFL-CIO headquarters and bringing in top-notch marketing
talent to craft and sell a new message."
"Organized labor needs to get back to the business of fighting to protect the best interests of the working men and women of America. We need to counter the Administration's efforts to gut Social Security, address the health care crisis and stop the export of jobs overseas through bad trade deals.
"We need to stop the spread of Wal-Mart's employment
philosophy and fight for good jobs with a living wage and benefits.
We need to help more workers climb back into the middle class
and stay there. These are some of the darkest days for working
families in 100 years. Our enemies are strong enough without
giving them aid and comfort by dividing the labor movement."
"As dysfunctional as we are, we're a family."
Michigan is spending more than $1 billion to improve roads and bridges in 2005, and among the largest projects is the rehabilitation of I-96 in Detroit.
The Michigan Department of Transportation, its contractors and the building trades are repairing or replacing 12 miles of freeway roughly between Telegraph and I-94 near downtown Detroit - and in the process an astounding 62 overpasses are being rehabilitated.
"We're on pace to finish by Thanksgiving," said MDOT Delivery Engineer Victor Judnic, who is charge of "delivering" the work on an eight-mile section of I-96. "The biggest challenge we've had is doing the work to meet that deadline. There's just a tremendous volume of work out here."
I-96 was built in the early 1960s, and much of the pavement that's being replaced is original. Until work began in March 2004, driving over the extensive potholes and patches made it painfully obvious to motorists that the pavement needed replacement.
Judnic said the major structural difference between the 1960s freeway and the modern I-96 will never be seen by motorists: the underlayment and drainage under the new freeway will be "greatly improved," he said. A deeper aggregate base, plus larger stones, and the use of plastic tubes under the surface "should improve drainage and extend the life of the surface," Judnic added.
MDOT is also experimenting with the use of lime mixed with subgrade soil on a four-mile stretch of highway. Adding the lime is expected to allow the soil to compact better and become more stable.
Still, over a four-mile stretch, the underlying road-bed was still in sufficiently good shape and MDOT decided to go with an asphalt overlayment, instead of a complete tear-out of the road.
The major unknown in a project like this is akin to tearing
down a wall in a home improvement project. "Especially on
the bridges, everything is just a guessing game until you open
things up," Judnic said. "We've found deterioration
in the bridges, but that's not surprising, they're old."
By Marty Mulcahy
LANSING - The anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors are on a seemingly unending mission to repeal Michigan's Prevailing Wage Act.
But after a July 19 ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals, their efforts continue to be a case of mission impossible.
A three-judge Court of Appeals panel squarely upheld the statute. The court unanimously disagreed with the ABC's contention that the state's prevailing wage law is unconstitutional. The appellate court cited state legal precedent and stated: "Having considered the merits . . . we conclude that the PWA does not unconstitutionally delegate legislative authority to private parties, and . . . that the PWA is not unconstitutionally vague . . ."
Michigan Building Trades Council attorney John Canzano, who has been arguing the case, expanded on the judges' ruling. "The ABC's beef with the prevailing wage law basically comes down to the fact that they don't like it. The court's response was that if you don't like the law, you need to go to the legislature to get the law repealed. And the ABC keeps striking out with the legislature."
The ABC has dragged this case through three different courts and at least four separate court hearings. The next stop is probably a return visit to the Michigan Supreme Court.
There is no other law on Michigan books that has such a vital implication for the living standards of the state's construction workers, both union and nonunion.
Here is a short history lesson on the case:
The ABC originally filed a lawsuit in what it expected would be an employer-friendly Midland County Circuit Court in 2000, alleging that the Prevailing Wage Act is unconstitutional under Michigan law. The Midland court gave the ABC a partial victory, but when the case first went to the Michigan Court of Appeals, the legal panel ruled against the ABC in August 2003.
The panel ruled that the law is not "impermissibly vague" as the ABC alleged and that the (financial) injuries sought by the ABC "are at this point merely hypothetical."
On Dec. 9, 2004, the Michigan Supreme Court heard arguments from attorneys for the ABC and the Michigan Building Trades Council together with the State of Michigan on whether the ABC-Saginaw Valley Area Chapter had the legal standing to go to the courts to challenge the legality of the state's prevailing law.
The high court did rule that the ABC had legal standing and was affected by the law. However, on the issue of whether the Prevailing Wage Act is unconstitutional, the court sent the case back to the Court of Appeals for a ruling. With that ruling being made, the ABC will likely take the case back to the state's highest court.
While the Michigan Supreme Court has been notoriously conservative over the past several years, Canzano expressed confidence that they won't overturn the Appeals Court ruling.
"I think that the Appeals Court wrote their decision in such a way that the Supreme Court will likely agree with it," Canzano said. "Over the years, this Supreme Court has indicated that they're here to interpret the law as written, not rewrite the law or make new law. I'm encouraged by that."
In issuing a statement on this case, Michigan Appeals Court judge William Whitbeck wrote: " Since 1972 there have been 13 proposed amendments to exempt certain projects from the Prevailing Wage Act. During the same time period there have been 10 attempts to repeal the act. However, no proposed amendment, or repeal of the act has passed.
"In essence, the Saginaw ABC invites us to do what the
legislature has refused to do: repeal the Prevailing Wage Act.
As is clear from the majority opinion, today we have declined
By Marty Mulcahy
For the last decade, anti-worker, pro-business rulings have been the order of the day for the Michigan Supreme Court.
But a surprising 7-0 ruling released on July 12 by Michigan's high court, opens the door for some construction workers injured on the job to win damages from general contractors.
"I was really quite surprised at the ruling, given the court's history," said Marshall Lasser, the Southfield attorney who argued the case for an injured IBEW electrician. "I wouldn't be so bold as to say this represents a change in heart by the Michigan Supreme Court. But this is a very important decision for Michigan's construction workers."
The reason: the ruling places liability on general contractors, Lasser said, for injuries sustained by construction workers hurt by "open and obvious" hazards in "common work areas."
Over the last few years, rulings by the Michigan Supreme Court and the Courts of Appeal, Lasser said, have made it nearly impossible for workers injured on the job to win damages beyond workers' compensation. Neither general contractors nor subcontractors have been legally liable for injuries sustained by workers hurt by "open and obvious hazards" in common work areas.
Michigan judges have said, for example, that under the "open and obvious" doctrine a landlord is not liable for injuries caused by hazards which a person could have seen, such as a parking lot pot hole, broken stairs, oil on pavement, or a pipe sticking into a pathway at eye level.
But a general contractor is not a landlord - and that is at the heart of the Supreme Court's ruling in this case. With its ruling, the high court said the injured electrician could sue the general contractor for failing to remove the pipes on the floor on which the electrician slipped.
The case arises out of an accident during the construction of the IMAX Theatre in Dearborn in 2000. An electrician slipped on pipes that were left on the floor of a storage area, used by many trades as a common work area. The pipes were owned by other subcontractors.
The electrician, who sustained back injuries and underwent shoulder surgery, was permanently disabled from working his trade. He sued the Henry Ford Museum (which owned the project), the general contractor, and a host of subcontractors on the project, for compensation for his injuries. Wayne County Circuit Court dismissed the case, ruling that pipes on the floor were "open and obvious." The worker appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which affirmed the lower court's ruling.
In their July 12 ruling, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the lower courts, stating that the "open and obvious" doctrine could not be used by a general contractor to shield itself from liability.
In this ruling, the court cited its own decision in 1974 that said "placing ultimate responsibility on the general contractor for job safety in common work areas will, from a practical, economic standpoint, render it more likely that the various subcontractors being supervised by the general contractor will implement or that the general contractor will himself implement the necessary precautions and provide the necessary safety equipment in those areas."
With regard to the subcontractors who owned the pipes, the high court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for that court to decide whether the subcontractors owed other tradesmen a duty to work safely. The high court said the subcontractors cannot use the "open and obvious" defense.
Lasser said it is unclear if the Court of Appeals will rule that the subcontractors had a duty to work safe practices so as not to injure tradesmen. If they decide there was no duty, Lasser said he will appeal again to the Supreme Court.
Although it will be two or three years before his client recovers
any damages for his injury, Lasser said, at least the Supreme
Court has made an important decision making it clear to general
contractors that they must correct safety hazards in common work
areas that affect building tradesmen.
LANSING - A flurry of recent construction-related governmental appointments highlights the benefit of having a union-friendly governor running the state.
In the past several weeks, Gov. Jennifer Granholm made several appointments to state construction-related boards, in many cases placing representatives of unions or union-related businesses on the panels. Due to the term lengths for many positions, this is the first opportunity she has had to make appointments to these positions.
Following are some of the appointments:
State Building Authority Board of Trustees - Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Greater Detroit Building & Construction Trades Council, was appointed by the governor to represent the general public for a term expiring Aug. 21, 2006.
The State Building Authority Board of Trustees oversees the use and allocation of funds to acquire, construct, furnish, equip, renovate, operate, mortgage, and/or maintain facilities and equipment for the use of the state or any of its agencies, including public universities and community colleges.
Michigan Construction Safety Standards Commission - D. Lynn Coleman, training director of the Michigan Laborers Training and Apprenticeship Institute, and Gregg Newsom, training director for Operating Engineers Local 324 Journeyman & Apprentice Training Fund, have been appointed to represent labor on the committee.
Coleman and Newsom, whose terms expired in 2008, are "appointed to represent labor and persons actively engaged in construction operations on the employee level," according to the job description.
In addition, Donald Staley, safety manager for the Christman Co. was appointed to the committee to represent management. So too was Valerie Warren, vice president of administration and safety director for Dee Cramer, Inc.
The Construction Safety Standards Commission provides rules and establishes safety standards for construction operations to protect the life and safety of construction workers in Michigan.
State Construction Code Commission - Nelson McMath, secretary-treasurer for Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers Local 9, has been appointed to represent organized labor for a term expiring Jan. 31, 2006.
In addition, Beth A. Yorke, construction project manager for Barton Malow Co., was appointed to represent the field of building contracting for a term expiring Jan. 31, 2007.
The Commission prepares and promulgates the state construction code that governs the construction, use, and occupation of buildings and structures. The commission is also charged with adding, amending, and/or rescinding rules to update the code at least once every three years in order to coincide with the national code change cycle.
Electrical Administrative Board - Mark A. Bauer, assistant business manager with IBEW Local 692, has been appointed to represent master electricians serving as supervisors for a term expiring Aug. 10, 2007.
Also, Ernest Harju, electrical project coordinator for M.J. Electric, was appointed to represent electrical journeymen for a term expiring Aug. 10, 2007.
The Electrical Administrative Board, in addition to the inspection
of wiring and its installation, establishes fees for inspection
and appoints inspectors.
President Bush is certain to sign the agreement, which will lower trade barriers between the U.S. and six Central American nations: Guatemala, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
"Under the president's administration, we have lost millions of manufacturing jobs," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "He is still in the net-loss column for manufacturing jobs. So as our manufacturing base erodes, as our industrial base erodes, we have a president who is contributing to the further erosion of that base."
Organized labor has maintained that the agreement, modeled after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), will lead to further U.S. job losses as multinational firms transfer production to use Central America's rock-bottom wages, income inequality, weak labor laws and non-existent enforcement.
The vote count for the agreement included 15 House Democrats (none from Michigan), who joined 202 Republicans in favor. In addition, 27 Republican members of Congress joined 187 Democrats and 1 Independent in voting against CAFTA: Lawmakers faced intense pressure to pass the measure from the Bush Administration.
The day after CAFTA passed, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called the 15 Democrats and 202 GOPers "sellouts of working men and women."
Labor was particularly upset that three of the Democrats - Reps. Melissa Bean of Illinois, Jim Matheson of Utah and Dennis Moore of Kansas - voted for the Bush Administration's legislation to implement CAFTA just a week after they were among the beneficiaries of a labor-assembled fundraiser that raised $300,000.
Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger, chair of the
federation's political committee, said the first move of union
presidents who contributed "would be to see if we legally
can get our money back."
Better times for union busters?
Convention delegates voted unanimously on July 27 to support the union's national "Wake-Up Wal-Mart" campaign.
The campaign is designed to shine a bright light on the behemoth retailer and its anti-worker actions, including rock-bottom and poverty wages, lack of affordable health care benefits, flagrant labor law-breaking and its ability to force its suppliers to cut their workers' wages and benefits or move to cheap labor areas, notably China.
The AFL-CIO said it and its member unions "commit to supporting UFCW's national Wake-Up Wal-Mart campaign to build a nationwide grass-roots movement by organizing local community coalitions throughout the country" against the million-worker retailer.
The resolution also pledged AFL-CIO support for UFCW's efforts to take the campaign global "to ensure that Wal-Mart's anti-union business model does not become established internationally."
UFCW leaders, including President Joe Hansen, were not at
the convention. They were part of the Change to Win coalition
and decided to boycott it. Two other coalition members, SEIU
and the Teamsters, withdrew from the AFL-CIO, and UFCW may follow,
as Hansen told federation President John J. Sweeney in a previous