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December 12, 2003

Labor, allies fear the wrong diagnosis for Medicare plan

Bush puts nation over a (pork) barrel

Bush gets his way as workers lose overtime benefits

Trades, Walsh say no to overflows with new sewage holding facility

The Gangbox



Labor, allies fear the wrong diagnosis for Medicare plan

Organized labor and most of its allies in Congress heartily dislike the sweeping new $400 billion Medicare bill passed by Congress on Nov. 25. Oddly enough, for entirely different reasons, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal doesn't like it, either.

But the leadership of the powerful American Association of Retired People (AARP) supports it. So do 11 Democratic senators. So do President Bush and a majority of Republicans in Congress, whose support, given their record, should raise a red flag with working people.

What is clear in the days following the passage of the Medicare overhaul bill is that the structure of one of the nation's basic social safety nets has been changed forever. But whether it's a positive change that will improve the health and welfare of most older Americans may not be known for years. The early reviews coming from organized labor and its allies aren't good.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) led the fight against the bill. "In exchange for destroying Medicare, it offers senior citizens a paltry, inadequate drug benefit," he said. "The moment it is implemented, it will make nine million senior citizens, almost a quarter of all senior citizens, worse off than they are today."

The Medicare bill approved by Congress and signed by the president, which primarily affects prescription drug costs, will initially provide older Americans a 15 percent discount off the cost of their prescription drugs for 2004 and 2005.

The standard benefit for drugs begins in 2006. Seniors can choose to pay about $35 for a monthly premium for coverage with a $250 deductible. That coverage pays for 75 percent of prescription costs up to $2,250 per year. Then, coverage stops until out-of-pocket costs hit $3,600 per year. When prescription costs exceed $3,600, the federal government pays for 95 percent of expenses. Low-income seniors would get even more help.

And tucked away into the law is a decision to link the cost of the prescription drug program to increases in drug costs. Those costs can be passed along to consumers every year in the form of higher premiums.

The new law shifts responsibility for much of Medicare away from the federal government into the hands of private insurers. The bill also includes the creation of tax-preferred health savings accounts, open to individuals who purchase high-deductible health insurance policies. Beginning in 2010, the legislation would create a limited program of direct competition between traditional Medicare and private plans. Critics say privatizing would lead to "cherry picking" of relatively healthy seniors and higher premiums for sicker old people.

From far and near, opinions about the new Medicare plan abounded. Here is a sampling:

  • AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney called it "a partisan proposal that, under the guise of creating the much-needed and long-promised prescription drug benefit, would reward the pharmaceutical companies and HMOs that are the political backers of the plan's sponsors."
  • Pointing out the that rate of federal spending has increased 21 percent over the past two years - not including the $400 billion for Medicare - the Wall Street Journal said President Bush hasn't been willing to show "restraint" when it comes to federal spending bills. "Mr. Bush seems willing to sign just about anything," the Journal added.
  • "If we don't do this at this time, it may be years" before another opportunity comes along, said Sen. Charles Grassley, (R-Iowa,) an architect of the bill. "There will never be total agreement," added Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) Grassley's partner on the issue.
  • Said Michigan Sen. Carl Levin: "We are confronting in this bill a turning away from Medicare's noble purpose - to create an insurance pool of all seniors where the risks and financial burdens of all are shared, not for the profit of insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies, but for the common good. The legislation before us is a fundamental and ill-advised restructuring of Medicare under the guise of adding a prescription drug benefit to the program."
  • A statement by AARP, which represents 35 million members, said "We should all take special pride in the fact that this bill helps those who need it the most - people with low incomes, as well as those with high drug costs. In addition, the bill will provide some additional relief to millions more in Medicare and also provide preventive care, chronic disease management and other measures to improve health care."

But thousands of AARP members have reportedly disassociated themselves from the group over its support of Medicare reform.

  • Another group that represents older people, the Alliance for Retired Americans, came out against the new plan and urged its three million members to mobilize and agitate. "We need to let all of our union members know what happened, so they can make decisions in 2004 about whether they want the architect of this - Bush - to continue in office," spokeswoman Layne Windham said.


Bush puts nation over a (pork) barrel

WASHINGTON - Not long ago, Republicans were the self-proclaimed "party of fiscal responsibility." They stood for the elimination of the federal deficits, reduced government spending and lower taxes.

They've been successful with the low taxes, but when it comes to federal deficits and government spending, Congress is "spending money like a drunken sailor," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former Navy officer. "And I've never known a sailor, drunk or sober, with the imagination that this Congress has."

Congressional spending has gone up 9 percent this year, and 21 percent the last two years. Non-military discretionary spending rose by 8.5 percent last year, more than double the 4 percent cap President Bush vowed to enforce.

George Bush and the Republican Congress are completely in charge of spending in the federal government, and they have turned a government surplus in 2000 into a record deficit of $374.2 billion as of October.

"Elected in 1994 as the party of limited government, Republicans seem to have abandoned any effort to limit spending," opined a Nov. 25 Wall Street Journal editorial, referring to the Medicare bill, aid to farmers, transportation projects and education. "Worse, the current Republican president has shown no inclination to control it, either."

The president hasn't vetoed a single spending bill in three years, despite numerous "pork-barrel" projects proposed by lawmakers.

"Any economist will tell you we cannot have this level of debt of increasing deficits without eventually it affecting interest rates and inflation," McCain said. "Those are the greatest enemies of middle-income Americans and retired Americans."

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska), who voted against the new Medicare package, said "Republicans used to believe in balanced budgets. Republicans used to believe in fiscal responsibility, limited international entanglements and limited government. We have lost our way. We have come loose from our moorings. The Medicare reform bill is a good example of our lack of direction, purpose and responsibility. If we don't get some control over this out-of-control spending and policy-for-the-moment decision-making, we will put America on a course that we may not be able to recover from."


Bush gets his way as workers lose overtime benefits

Nothing can stop one of the most obnoxious rules affecting working people in U.S. history.

As many as eight million U.S. workers could be affected by the rule, which has been strongly pushed by President George Bush who is seeking to modernize U.S. labor law.

"What did middle-class Americans do to so anger this president that he is intent on punishing them by taking away their access to overtime pay?" asked Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.).

The rules, which could go into effect as early as this month, will allow employees who work more than 40 hours in a week to choose between premium pay or compensatory time off scheduled at a later date, both at the time-and-a-half hourly rate.

What's so bad about that?

Labor leaders say the current overtime law acts as a protection to the 40-hour work week because companies wanting more work from their employees now must provide premium pay. Organized labor also thinks that under the bill, employers will assign overtime only to workers who agree to choose comp time.

In addition, the legislation provides no meaningful protection that would prevent employers from requiring workers to take compensatory time off instead of receiving their salary. And, employers would also have the last word as to when employee comp time could be taken.

Organized labor thought it had this issue killed earlier this year, and in fact, both the U.S. House and the Senate inserted provisions in a massive funding bill this fall that banned the Labor Department from imposing the rules.

"Despite bipartisan congressional support to block overtime pay cuts sought by the White House, the Bush Administration strong-armed House and Senate leaders into removing" the ban from the money bill, said a statement by the AFL-CIO.

Most workers who toil under collective bargaining agreements aren't at risk of losing overtime - yet - but employers are expected to test the waters during negotiations in future years. And there is one argument that government workers who are unionized could automatically lose their rights to overtime pay because Bush's rule change effectively changes federal law.

Other workers classifications, like nurses and nonunion firefighters, have been cited as being at-risk for losing OT privileges because they could easily be re-classified by employers as being "supervisory" and thus ineligible for overtime pay but eligible for employer-imposed comp time.


Trades, Walsh say no to overflows with new sewage holding facility

By Marty Mulcahy

The City of Detroit is getting serious about cleaning up its wastewater.

Two months ago, we reported on the $62 million project in southwest Detroit to upgrade sewage holding and pumping capacity at the city's Patton Park Baby Creek plant. At the same time, on the east side of the city, the building trades and general contractor Walsh Construction are in the process of building the $187 million Connor Creek Pilot Combined Sewer Overflow facility, which will have a similar purpose.

Both projects are designed to alleviate a long-standing problem with the system, which combines storm water and sewage in the same pipes. When heavy rains hit the area, a lack of storage capacity in the pipes means raw sewage is diverted into rivers.

"It's basically a holding facility," said Rick Prukop, general superintendent for Walsh. "The Connor Creek project will introduce 30 million gallons of sewage storage capacity into the system, and that kind of capacity has never existed before,"

The project, which began in May 2001, has employed up to 200 construction workers. The job is scheduled for completion in January 2005.

Being built along Connor Creek, which drains into the Detroit River, the project involves an elaborate use of cofferdams, which hold back water from the creek so that concrete holding tank walls can be poured underground. About 6,700 pilings were driven, and more than 100,000 cubic yards of concrete have been poured. The job also includes a screening building and a control building for the system's pumps.

While the wastewater is being held at the facility, it will be screened to remove solids and then pre-treated with sodium hypochloride, which kills bacteria and pathogens. The sewage will then be directed to the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant for final treatment.

The project will provide a long-term fix, and a near-term one as well. Connor Creek, the dumping area for the sewage overflow, is heavily polluted. Approximately 150,000 cubic yards of sediment has accumulated in the creek, according to Mirza M. Rabbaig, P.E., program manager of the project. The sediment is composed of sand, silt and of course, sewage-related organic material in various stages of decomposition. The building trades are removing this sediment, which will improve the quality of the creek's water, and should improve the smell that emanates from the polluted waterway.

The Connor Creek plant serves the northeastern suburbs of Detroit, and it creates the largest combined overflow discharge in Michigan, according to the Environmental Management Association, an advocacy group that promotes environmental and economic development in Michigan.

The EMA awarded the City of Detroit the Association's 2003 Environmental Achievement Award for making the expensive move to end the sewage overflows.

"The City of Detroit's Water and Sewage Department has demonstrated its leadership and expertise in managing a long-standing situation with Connor Creek, which will result in long-term environmental improvements," said Tina Chavez, EMA president. "It's important, also to note that the clean-up of Connor Creek would not have been possible without the professional expertise of private contractors who bring innovative solutions to public enterprises such as the water department."

Added Prukop, "the weather hasn't held us up too much, and the people are doing a pretty good job. Things are moving along well."

IN THE EVENT OF A rainwater deluge, some of these gates behind Cement Masons Local 514 member Jim Hocker, above, would open as a safety valve to allow screened and partially treated sewage to be released into Connor Creek in Detroit. But with 30 million gallons of sewage holding capacity being constructed at the Connor Creek Pilor Combined Sewer Overflow, the city expects that the gates will rarely, if ever, open.

AN ACTUATOR is wired by Jim Schoonfield and David Hulett of IBEW Local 58 and Dyna Electric at the Connor Creek plant. The actuators will control movement of the overflow gates shown in the photo above.


The Gangbox

Assorted news and notes

Democrats are saying "ditto" to Rush Limbaugh.

Not that they agree with the conservative radio talk show host's views. But Dems do think having more liberal voices on the airwaves can make a difference when it comes to framing national debate - especially with a presidential election in 2004.

A newly formed company, Progress Media, said last month that they plan to acquire radio stations and have them up and running with liberal voices in the nation's five largest markets in time to be part of the public dialogue during the 2004 presidential campaign.

The five markets are New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston. Other markets may come later. The content of the show would include news analysis segments, talk shows and entertainment programs.

One of the proposed hosts for the show who is being pursued by organizers is former Saturday Night Live actor and writer Al Franken, who penned a book a few years ago called "Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot." Actress/comedienne Jeanine Garafolo is also being approached to host a show.

Republicans contend that liberals haven't been successful in talk radio because there simply isn't a market for their opinions, which tend to be much more diversified than those of conservatives. A pair of wealthy Democrats from Chicago think otherwise, and provided the seed money for the radio station purchases.

"Our task is to be funny and entertaining, a no-sacred-cows sort of thing," said Progress Media President John Sinton.

President Bush made a political decision last year to impose tariffs on foreign steel, in an effort to curry favor with steel producing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Those political "swing states" have been hit severely by the importation of foreign steel - whose price has been artificially lowered by government subsidies - making it extremely difficult for domestic manufacturers to compete.

Now, Bush is set to rescind those tariffs under pressure from the World Trade Organization, which has ruled the tariffs illegal and is threatening to impose sanctions on the U.S. of up to $2.2 billion. But lifting those sanction could produce a backlash in those and other Big Steel states.

The Washington Post called Bush's dilemma "one of the diciest political calculations of this term."

Michigan is also affected by the steel issue: the mines in the U.P. have been hit hard because domestic manufacturers aren't buying iron ore, and companies like Rouge Steel have a hard time competing internationally. However, auto manufacturers are unhappy with the tariffs, because they have raised the price of steel.

The AFL-CIO's workers are taking two days of unpaid leave to avoid layoffs as the labor federation is attempting to cope with a severe budget shortfall.

The Associated Press reports that the so-called "solidarity days" were agreed-to last summer by employees in contract negotiations between managers and the union, which represents about 200 AFL-CIO workers. A federation spokeswoman said the employees agreed to the unpaid leave in order to avoid layoffs. Managers have also agreed to take unpaid time.

The spokeswoman said AFL-CIO-affiliated unions have been hit hard by the loss of 2.3 million jobs since January 2001, particularly in the manufacturing sector, which has slashed payrolls for 38 consecutive months.

Some unions are strapped for cash, including the United Food and Commercial Workers, which is fighting a two-month labor dispute in California, and AFSCME, which is cutting spending to raise money for politics.



Casinos seek to build, re-build in Michigan
Casinos, casinos, everywhere.

Romulus voters OK'd a plan on Dec. 2 that would allow the construction of a new casino and race track, at a cost of $474 million. The casino would be sponsored by the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

State authorities and Congress still have to approve the project.

In Detroit, three "temporary" casinos have been in place for a few years, and now plans are starting to fall into place to construct permanent facilities for two of them. But obstacles remain.

A legal settlement arranged two weeks ago between Motor City Casino, Greektown Casino and the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Tribe clears up a seven-year-old legal battle, and one of the remaining legal hurdles to the construction of hotels at those sites in Detroit.

However, approval has to be given by the Detroit City Council, and the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals still must lift its injunction in the case that is preventing construction. An injunction won't be lifted against the construction of a permanent MGM Grand Casino, because MGM wasn't part of the settlement.

Greektown Casino plans to build a 400-room, 26-story hotel tower near Ford Field. MotorCity plans to build a 16-story casino hotel near its current location. The price tag on the casinos is expected to come in at a cool $400 million each.

Meanwhile The Gun Lake Band of Potawatomi Indians is reportedly planning to construct a $100 million casino and resort on 153 acres in Allegan County's Wayland Township, south of Grand Rapids, although there is tremendous opposition from the business community.

The courts are also holding up the construction of another casino, in New Buffalo, which would be a $75 million, 190,000- square-foot facility.

A handful of other casinos are also planned in Michigan, which currently has 19 casinos.

Workers' interests lost twice
WASHINGTON (PAI)- Workers' interests lost twice in the $402 billion defense bill that became law in late November.

The biggest losers were 746,000 civilian workers at the Defense Department, who were stripped of most, if not all, of their employee rights by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

And other workers lost when Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) dumped a "Buy American" provision.

Faced with the revocation of defense workers' rights, their union, the American Federation of Government Employees, called its Defense Department locals in for an emergency session "to share what steps we must take together in ensuring defense workers have a voice at work."

"Rumsfeld justifies his new fiefdom by using the words 'national security,' but this has nothing to do with improving security," AFGE President John Gage explained. "All it does is strip federal workers of the right to protect themselves.

"Rumsfeld's plan effectively discards critical civil service laws designed to put an end" to fairness on the job, Gage said. Instead, it imposes "a federal spoils system where patronage is rewarded and merit principles are a thing of the past."

Rumsfeld's plan eliminates annual raises, overtime pay, holiday pay, hazard pay, weekend pay, appeal rights, bargaining rights and protection against arbitrary firings, the union and congressional Democrats said. "It makes a mockery of labor relations at the Defense Department" for the next 6 years, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) added.

U.S. workers also lost when Warner dropped the House-passed requirement that at least 65 percent of any goods DOD buys be U.S.-made. Federal Times reported lobbyists for electronics, information technology and aerospace industries pushed successfully against the buy-American provision in the bill.


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