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December 21, 2007

Union ties that bind are a little loose

'General nonsense' guides logic in splits among union

'What bonds us is much more compelling than what divides us'

Preserving data is Job One at technology center addition

On-the-job injury numbers don't always add up

News Briefs


Union ties that bind are a little loose

Two years ago, in the first major split in organized labor in 50 years, the Change-to-Win (CTW) Federation broke away from the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO federation lost about one-third of its membership to CTW, including the Service Employees International Union, Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Carpenters, Laborers, Farm Workers and UNITE-HERE (Needletrades and Restaurant employees).

Change-to-Win unions protested the direction of the AFL-CIO, especially its inability to grow America's unions and the spending of dues money on political action, rather than organizing, among other grievances.

The AFL-CIO Building Trades Department is also dealing with its own breaking of ranks: The Carpenters, Laborers and Operating Engineers all severed ties with the department in 2006. "I'll be perfectly blunt, I don't hold out any hope that they are coming back into the building trades," said William Hite, general president of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters, to the Construction Labor Report.

The grievances by the breakaway building trades unions dealt mainly with issues on an International Union level - including how votes within the Building Trades Department are counted, jurisdictional issues, and budget, staffing and personnel grievances.

Hite said the building trades unions that stayed with the Building Trades Department have acquiesced to the important issues raised by the Carpenters, Laborers and Operators - but they chose to form their own group, the National Construction Alliance, and as 2007 comes to a close, remain split.

Into this environment comes Mark Ayers, who hails from the IBEW and was elected president of the Building Trades Department on Sept. 6, 2007. In a Dec. 5 message to state and local building trades councils, Ayers comments on the breakaway unions in the building trades. His message follows:


'General nonsense' guides logic in splits among union

By Mark H. Ayers
AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department

I would like to focus on a particular, on-going theme that causes me great concern - the fragmentation of the union construction industry.

If you are a student of the building trades' collective history (which will officially span 100 years in 2008), you will know that the periods in which the union construction industry enjoyed prosperity and significant levels of market share just happened to coincide with periods of relative harmony among the trades. Here's just one example, pulled together from the book, "Skilled Hands, Strong Spirits - A Century of Building Trades History":

"Between 1947 and 1954, expenditures for new construction increased by 119 percent nationwide, and set a record high of $47.3 billion in 1957, 3 percent higher than the record set in 1956. Building trades unions and their contractors were in the industry together; one could not prosper without the other, an economic fact of life that the BCTD had been preaching for years.

"Mutual interests had produced the 1939 agreement with the Associated General Contractors that had kept defense construction on track through the 1940s and into the 1950s. And a mutual desire to cut down on jurisdictional fights, and keep the federal government out of industry affairs after the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act, had led unions and contractor associations to establish the National Joint Board in 1948.

"And when BCTD-affiliated unions negotiated national agreements with the National Constructors Association that traded a no-strike clause for union wage rates and conditions, they bolstered union control of heavy industrial construction."

The lesson we can take from our own history is quite simple: Harmony = Success. And those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat the same, tragic mistakes. That is where we find ourselves today. We do not have the luxury of trying to sustain a fragmented industry. Folks, it's do or die time!

In fact, the mantra that I want to instill throughout the Building Trades is one that is very simple, yet very acute: PERFORM OR PERISH. And we cannot perform to the best of our abilities if we have an industry and union movement that is fragmented.

Our success is being stifled because of continued fragmentation and conflict, which are symptoms, to be blunt, of an entire industry leadership culture that does not value unity, ethics and cooperation. Whether its BCTD (Building and Construction Trades Department) unions vs. BCTD unions, or BCTD unions vs. NCA unions, or all of us vs. contractors (and vice versa), we are wasting too much time, energy and resources on these adversarial battles… which, unfortunately have the effect of turning allies into enemies. It has to stop.

We cannot, and we will not, be effective in recapturing market share if we continue to sustain these insidious conflicts.

Yes, we all have a sense of pride and identity that comes with membership in each of our organizations. I am an IBEW man at heart. It's in my blood. But, more importantly, I am a trade unionist…which is in my heart and soul. And as trade unionists, we conduct ourselves by the belief that working towards the greater good is in our personal best interests.

Basic trade unionism is about standing up for what's right… and working to challenge those philosophies, policies and practices that are injurious to working families. We must wake up and realize that these petty squabbles - union vs. union and unions vs. contractors - are stunting the progress we can be making for our members… those men and women in the field who are busting their butts day in and day out.

I take great pride in the fact that at the state and local council level the conflicts between the crafts are not as pronounced as they are at the national level. Perhaps that is a function of the fact that the closer you are to the job, the less tolerance there is for egos and personalities and general nonsense.

I would ask that the leaders of those councils where all fifteen crafts are working in harmony would take the time to communicate the particulars of your success to the general presidents of the NCA unions (and of the BCTD as well) and to encourage them to do what it takes to find the common ground that will allow us to coalesce around a strategy to take back the North American construction market.

Let's stop the madness associated with the time and energy being wasted when we focus on our differences, and instead foster a renewed commitment to trust and understanding within our brotherhoods, and pride and professionalism within our industry.

With those two concepts driving our actions, the world can be ours for the taking.


'What bonds us is much more compelling than what divides us'

By Mark Breslin

When I was in high school I was not the first kid most parents wanted to see their kid hang out with. Thus it was no surprise that after a major championship basketball game with an arch-rival school, one of their reputed tough kids, was giving me the "stink eye" out in the parking lot. I knew a fight was coming and frankly didn't give myself much of a chance based on his reputation.

Just about that time, a pickup truck rolled by and beer bottles were tossed at us from the guys in the bed. The bottles smashed right in front of us and showered our legs with glass. I looked at him and the first words he ever said to me were, "lets' go." And into battle we went together. This was the start of both an epic brawl and a lasting personal friendship that has now spanned 30 years of our lives.

It is funny how adversaries can immediately put aside their differences when faced with a threat from a third party. When under pressure, you decide fast who is on, or off your team. When under attack, how clearly what bonds us is much more compelling than what divides us. But without outside pressure, and when left to our own devices, the petty nature of man or our competitive ego needs can sometimes cause a great degree of "stink eye" when none is called for. Is this not the state of our union construction industry today?

Be it labor vs. management. Or union vs. union. Or local vs. local. Leader vs. leader. Or association vs. association. Contractor vs. contractor. Or any combination. The competitive and fragmented nature of the union construction industry often tends to paint our potential partners as adversaries. And eventually, like the Hatfields and McCoys, there exists a belief system of non-cooperation that we cannot overcome despite every reason to do so.

The threatening third party arrived in our industry decades ago, in the form of strong open shop competition. And despite their arrival and subsequent market domination of "our high school parking lot" some still persist in traditional old school non-cooperation with each other. Now I don't know about you, but if some guys are punching me in the back of the head, common sense tells me that I need to strategically partner with whoever shares my direct interests.

It is not about me or the way I wish it was. It is a choice of politics versus pragmatism. It is a choice of reality vs. rhetoric. It is a choice between joint risk taking vs. denial and market decline.

Now it must be said that harmony for its own sake is a waste of time. There has to be a uniting objective. And blaming the other guy when you won't do what is necessary is no strategy either. Unity is based on "doing," not talking. I don't want to find myself in a serious fight and find out that my partner is a wimp. Unable to carry his load; overcautious and unable to take risk; unwilling to wade in when it gets tough; incapable of changing methods, strategies or tools for immediate and necessary results.

I want to know that he trusts me and I trust him so we are not wasting time and energy suspiciously looking over our shoulder at one another. I am thinking about what he needs and trying to get it for him and he is doing the same thing for me. Unity in business or personal relationships cannot be achieved with promises or "waiting for the other guy" to make the first moves.

Trust is built on action, and every person in our industry; from major contractors, union leaders, trainers, agents, association leaders, down to the very last apprentice in the field, are now required to take both personal initiative and action. All in service of unity in the face of competition and our own market survival.

The "beer bottle" of our market challenge broke at our feet years ago. The Us vs. Them changed. And yet today we often are still standing here focused on our differences. It distracts us from what needs to be done, but that is not going to get us anywhere.

There is only one choice. There is only one alternative. We need to go out into that market and try to kick some ass together. We need to watch out for each other and build a business bond of truth and trust. Lets see if that can create a lasting opportunity, a meaningful friendship or an unbreakable bond. With that accomplished, the market will surely follow.

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


Preserving data is Job One at technology center addition

BELLEVILLE - From the outside, the JP Morgan Chase Technology Center looks like your run-of-the-mill office building addition - albeit without windows.

Inside, it's a different story.

Walsh Construction is managing the construction of a 68,000 square-foot addition on the south side of their existing building at Haggerty and Tyler Roads. The project is filled with all manner of electrical and technology-related gear - to the extent that it brings a sense of astonishment to even the most veteran electrician.

"I've never seen anything like this in my years in the business," said IBEW Local 58 steward Bob "Flash" Blackmore, working for Centerline Electric. "It's a very interesting job. This is the first time, and probably the last time, I'll ever see all this kind of gear, all this color-coordinated wire, and everything else in this building. Everything is very neatly done. It's a very nice job."

JP Morgan Chase processes banking information at the Belleville facility - and the addition will expand its capacity to do so.

The expansion project began last December, and one year later, the building is in place and many of the data operations are already being tested. The entire project is expected to be completed in March.

All of the building trades were in on the construction of the technology center addition, but the space is essentially a shell devoted to electronics, and the electrical contract, led by Centerline Electric, is more than 40 percent of the $100 million-plus budget. Conti Electric, Huron Valley Electric and Lake Erie Electric have also contributed to the project.

John Gelardi, Centerline Electric's project manager, said the project began with the placement of underground conduit in January. He said the frozen earth had to be heated underneath the still-to-be-constructed building - adding he's "still amazed" at how quickly the center was built.

When it comes to the electrical and data systems, "we have a little bit of everything in here," Gelardi said. "So much of the project was planning, with all the CAD layout work. It was very complex, you had to know where everything was going to be installed and plan for it."

And from one end to the other, the electrical work is all about redundancy. The system starts with a new Detroit Edison substation on the grounds of the JP Morgan Chase site. Twin electrical 13.2 kilovolt feeds power the facility. If utility power is interrupted, the facility's power system seamlessly switches to a massive battery backup operation, which can power the operations in the building for about 10 minutes.

But it should only take seconds for six diesel-powered generators to kick on, providing substitute power for the facility until utility power can be restored.

The battery operations alone are a thing to behold. The system includes a total of 2,400 lead-calcium batteries, wired together, and placed on racks in five separate rooms. Each battery weighs 350 lbs. apiece, for a total of more than 840,000 pounds of batteries.

A monitoring system allows plant managers to identify and replace individual batteries that go bad. For that matter, no less than 300,000 parts of the power system can be monitored. The entire electrical and technology system is also rated to withstand a seismic event or tornado.

Conduit raceways go through walls, ceilings and floors throughout the building, and many are bent like industrial works of art. Inside the conduit are all manner of different wire, power and data, all color-coded. The facility has a number of systems with their own unique labeled acronyms - a PDU is a Power Distribution Unit, and there are electricians who can tell you all about the building's "Synchropower System" its "multifunction generator" and the "diesel generator switch room."

The systems are placed logically in a number of rooms throughout the addition.

According to a report in the local Independent newspaper, the JP Morgan Chase Technology Center is one of only five financial data center sites in the world that are at "Tier 3 Security" - with Tier 4 being found at military installations. The paper said the original building was erected in 1990 and with the expansion, it will encompass 332,000 square feet. This expansion will allow for a net increase of 50 jobs.

The project employed some 145 electricians at peak employment last August, Blackmore said, and about 60 were on site earlier this month. Counting all trades, the project peaked out at about 500 Hardhats.

The biggest challenge, said Paul Pauline, electrical project manager for Walsh Construction, was moving the addition along without affecting the operations - electrical or otherwise - at the rest of the JP Morgan Chase facility.

"The bank got a good job, there's very good workmanship on this project," Pauline said. "With all the challenges out here, people worked very well together. To have this building virtually complete in a year - that's a real source of pride to me."

WORKING ON ONE of the 2,400 batteries in the JP Morgan Chase Technology Center is John Arnast of IBEW Local 58 and Lake Erie Electric. He's in one of five similar rooms that hold batteries, used in case utility power is interrupted at the facility.

HEFTING A LADDER through "Data Center 5" at the JP Morgan Chase Technology Center is Pernell Garrison Jr. of IBEW Local 58 and Centerline Electric.



On-the-job injury numbers don't always add up

Workplace injury and illness numbers in the U.S. may not be what they seem.

News item from the Oct. 26 issue of The Building Tradesman: "The construction industry was a little safer for workers in 2006, according to a report issued Oct. 16 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)." Based on the government numbers, we reported that from 2005 to 2006 the total "recordable case rate" for job injuries in the U.S. declined from 6.3 cases to 5.9 cases per 100 full-time workers in 2006.

End of story? No, says a report by Mike Hall of the AFL-CIO, issued last month. "As workplace safety advocates and academics long have pointed out, these figures have a major flaw - they are compiled from one source - employers," Hall wrote.

He said some studies, including a 2006 report in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, find that the government's tallies of injuries and illnesses on the job could be underreported by as much as 69 percent.

For example, he said "in 2005, BLS reported there were 4.2 million nonfatal injuries and illnesses in private-sector workplaces, but once underreporting is factored in, the figure is closer to 12.6 million incidents."

As the AFL-CIO's 2007 report Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect notes: "Under-reporting of workplace injuries and illnesses is not a new phenomenon. Numerous government-driven and independent studies have documented the problem of under-reporting and made recommendations to correct it, yet little mention ever is made of under-reporting when the BLS statistics are released."

To highlight incidents of under-reporting, a fall protection expert cited by the Construction Labor Report, said one prime hazardous example is that of truck drivers who are required to secure protective tarps on the beds of flatbed vehicles. The expert, J. Nigel Ellis, found six fatal falls from stationary flatbed trucks at a single corporation in 2006 - but the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported only two such fatalities nationwide.

Ellis said the discrepancy is due to the fact that many of the truckers are owner-operators - and owners are supposed to report the fatalities.

Beyond that example - why would employers deliberately under-report workers' injuries and illnesses? As Death on the Job points out, there are several economic reasons, including:

  • Workers' compensation systems create incentives for employers to underreport by increasing costs for companies that show an increase in injuries.
  • Firms seeking government contracts may fear being denied a contract if their injury rate is high.
  • OSHA's reliance on injury rates in targeting inspections and measuring performance creates a clear incentive for employers not to record injuries.

"While the number of hours worked in construction increased by 6 percent from 2005 to 2006, the number of injuries and illnesses for workers was essentially the same. As a result, the total recordable case rate in construction declined from 6.3 cases to 5.9 cases per 100 full-time workers in 2006. The BLS reported that the number of construction injuries and illnesses totaled 412,900 in 2006, down from 414,900 in 2005."


News Briefs

NLRB chief defends anti-worker rulings
National Labor Relations Board Chairman Robert Battista, a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush, took the unusual step on Dec. 13 of addressing charges that the NLRB has been issuing anti-worker and pro-business decisions.

Three of the five members on the NLRB were appointed by President Bush, and organized labor and Democrats in Congress have been complaining loudly about the board's recent anti-labor decisions.

"The NLRB has shown itself again to be little more than a political tool of right-wing Republicans in their continuing assault on America's working families," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

Battista said in an oral statement before the board: "First, I want to set the record straight regarding the number and timing of the decisions the Board issued in September 2007. Our critics allege that the 'Bush majority' rushed out 61 decisions in September in what they describe as a 'massive assault on workers' before the President's term ends. That is just not so."

Battista said every September, there is always a busy caseload for the NLRB - but as for the substance of the rulings, "the decisions speak for themselves," he said. He added that in the majority of unfair labor practice cases issued in September, the board found one or more violations of the National Labor Relations Act were by the employer.

That may be the case, but organized labor maintains that NLRB issued some whopper anti-worker rulings in those minority of cases.

The Republican majority on the NLRB has taken away unionization rights from a large number of American workers, especially nurses, by reclassifying them as "supervisors." The board has made it easier for employers to block back pay for workers when they fail at stopping union organizing drives.

In the most recent example, in a ruling involving Dana Corp., labor leaders were astonished that the board's conservative majority voted to require Dana to post information on how dissenting workers could decertify the UAW's recent organizing drive at the company - even though Dana didn't oppose the organizing drive.

"In allowing a small group of workers to undermine both the majority of workers' and the employer's wishes, the labor board is effectively making a mockery of the law's allowance for voluntary recognition," Sweeney said.

Michigan has healthy health care plans
One of the residual benefits of the down-but-not-out union influence on Michigan's economy is the existence of some pretty good health care plans in our state.

U.S. News and World Report placed 13 Michigan-based health care plans as top performers among 70 that were ranked nationwide. Michigan had six plans in the top 20 and 11 plans in the top 50.

Michigan-based plans that that appeared in the rankings include: M-Care (name has changed to BlueCaid of Michgan), Health Plan of Michigan, Physicians Health Plan of Mid-Michigan, HealthPlus of Michigan, Upper Peninsula Health Plan, Priority Health, McLaren Health Plan, Total Health Care, OmniCare Health Plan, Midwest Health Plan, Molina Healthcare of Michigan, Great Lakes Health Plan, and Community Choice Michigan.

"Our residents deserve quality health care services and this ranking demonstrates that Michigan*s health plans are providing citizens with good benefits and choices," said Janet Olszewski, director of the
Michigan Department of Community Health.


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