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December 22, 2000

Wage standards upheld -- at least for this year

Trades, Walbridge help improve togetherness among GM engineers

Good times continue in construction, but warning signs loom

'A' for effort on early S-Curve completion

Sanitation standard moves slowly, but now, not-so-surely

Union movers picket

NEWS BRIEFS

 

 

Wage standards upheld -- at least for this year

LANSING - The building trades and other working class people dodged three more bullets in the state legislature last week, avoiding some pretty major legislation that would have prevented municipalities from passing or enforcing "living wage" and prevailing wage ordinances.

Earlier this month, in the "lame duck" session following the Nov. 7 election, the Michigan Senate passed a resolution, 20-16, that would have prevented communities from enacting, enforcing or maintaining wage requirements higher than Michigan's $5.15 per hour minimum wage. The bill would have struck down living wage ordinances already adopted in Detroit, Warren, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Twp.

The bill died in the House, where it lacked support. But what died along with it was an amendment to the bill that also would have thrown out and prevented local prevailing wage ordinances for municipally funded construction projects.

In fact, said Michigan AFL-CIO Legislative Assistant Ken Fletcher, the presence of the prevailing wage amendment probably tipped the scales, and helped convince four Republican House members not to support the entire package.

"My guess is that we haven't heard the last of this one," Fletcher said. "I would expect they'll take it up again next year."

The four Republicans House members who helped out on saving prevailing wage were Gene DeRossett, Jennifer Faunce, Randy Richardville, Sue Rocca.

Fletcher said even the anti-union ABC backed off on the issue, because legislators were talking about another amendment to the bill that would have put language in state law that specifically protects prevailing wage on local construction projects.

Two other bills that were obnoxious to organized labor never saw the light of day. On Nov. 14, the Michigan Senate adopted bills 1356 and 1357, which were intended to create a legal way for school districts to shift the ownership of their school buildings to private developers, in effect privatizing them. If adopted, new construction or remodeling of existing school buildings could take place without the worker wage protections assured by the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act, one of the most important laws on the books that upholds the standards of building trades workers' wages.

Fletcher said the legislation, which specifically involved Grand Rapids, died in the state House for lack of votes. Gov. Engler was said to have some major problems with the proposal because it would have resulted in a reduction in funds going into the state treasury.

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Trades, Walbridge help improve togetherness among GM engineers

By Marty Mulcahy
Editor

With 13 engineering facilities scattered up and down the I-75 corridor, General Motors came to the conclusion a decade ago that that portion of its operations wasn't running on all cylinders

During the 1990s, GM began consolidating its engineering staff into a cluster of buildings in Pontiac called the Centerpoint Business Campus, intended, the automaker says, "to create a world-class office facility for employees that supports GM's global engineering enterprise."

The latest addition to the Centerpoint campus is the Truck Products Center-North facility, a three-story, 660,000 square-foot building that will house 2,000 GM employees. Walbridge-Aldinger and the building trades have been on the $63 million job since June 1, 1999, and construction is expected to wrap up about six months from now.

According to GM Facility Manager Lawrence Pitcole, the North facility on the Centerpoint campus follows the six-year-old , 1.1 million square-foot Truck Products Center Central building, and then the construction of the 400,000 square-foot Truck Products Center East building. The TPC West building, a vehicle test lab, was also constructed. Not anticipating the world's voracious appetite for GM's truck products the last few years, "we found we didn't build big enough," Pitcole said, "and that brings us to where we are today, with the TPC North. We think that when we're finished here, there's a good probability that this should be it for awhile."

The L-shaped building, which will create both a physical and visual gateway to Centerpoint, "will basically define the campus," Pitcole said.

But getting the structure built hasn't been easy - even before construction started. The area was once a residential neighborhood and was a parking lot for trucks that served a nearby plant, so underground water and sewer lines, including major sanitary and storm trunk lines, had to be relocated. High-tension power lines in the area were also relocated.

According to Walbridge-Aldinger Project Manager Glen Bays, the project is currently employing about 167 building trades workers - about 40 less than when the project peaked out last August.

"The job is going well," Bays said. "We have a good relationship with the unions out here and they're doing good work."

FIREPROOFING is applied by Jose Nieves of Plasterers Local 67 and W.E. Harnish in the upper reaches of a level of the 660,000-square-foot Truck Products Center North building in Pontiac.

Here is an aerial view of the building from two months ago.

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Good times continue in construction, but warning signs loom

Will the seemingly endless current construction boom continue into 2001?
The signs point to "yes" - but for the first time in years, there are caution flags being waved that signal the good time times can't go on forever.

First, the good prognostications:

  • The nation's current decade-long construction boom will continue "for the next several years" predicts FMI Corp. a construction management firm.
  • Standard and Poor Chief Economist David Wyss said he believes the record expansion of construction activity in the U.S. still has left "at least one or two more years of good, solid growth."
  • Robert Murray, vice president of economic affairs for the F.W. Dodge Division of McGraw-Hill, forecast that total U.S. construction activity will end up rising 3 percent this year to $461.7 billion, with another 1 percent increase in 2001.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 8,107 construction workers filed for unemployment benefits with state agencies in the third quarter of this year - compared to 12,075 in the third quarter of 1999.
  • The current expansion of construction work has been based on gradual, rather than explosive growth, which could mean the eventual downturn will be gradual, too. That's what Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan's "soft landing" is all about.

But…

  • A headline in The Wall Street Journal last week said "the Midwest is in for a bumpy landing." The story went on to say, "many economists and business officials already are writing off 2001 as a transition year of little or no economic growth for the Midwest." They quoted Comerica Chief Economist David Littmann, "the damage is being done as we speak. And injury to the auto economy is getting worse."
  • Indeed, other economist are looking at big industries to pick up on trends, and they don't like what they see. Layoffs of thousands of workers have been announced at Whirlpool, DaimerChrysler, Visteon, Delphi Automitive. Profits are way down at Ford and G.M.
  • Wyss of Standard and Poor said to watch out for what's going on globally, including higher oil prices, the potential collapse of the European Dollar, the recession in Asia. Any of those things could turn around the industry very quickly.
  • Manpower shortages could affect the industry. Labor supply along with technology, increased collaboration and partnering among construction users providers, and suppliers and industry consolidation are the most significant factors that will affect industry growth in the foreseeable future, the FMI study said.

There's good and bad in the economic forecast for 2001 and beyond, but all in all it's hardly time to circle the wagons - especially in the building industry. While there's some uneasiness about the general market, the analysts are still bullish on construction. Industry spending jumped 0.9 percent in October to its second-highest level on record, $756.9 billion. "For many construction companies…business is better than it has been for months," said the Wall Street Journal. Added economist Ian Shepherdson, "construction is incredibly strong."

 

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'A' for effort on early S-Curve completion

GRAND RAPIDS - The state Department of Transportation called the city's S-Curve "by far the largest and most complex civil engineering project ever launched in West Michigan."

Due to the work of the building trades and Kiewit Western Co. the reconstruction of the mile-long portion of U.S. 131 through the downtown area opened to traffic 35 days early after being closed since Jan. 17.

"This is phenomenal news that everyone should be celebrating," said State Transportation Director James DeSana. "Thanks to the hard work of everyone involved with this project, west Michigan has survived what was predicted to be the traffic storm of the century. The staff's dedication to this project and the perseverance of west Michigan drivers has paid off."
Kiewit, the prime contractor on the $165 million project, earned a $1.75 million bonus for the early freeway opening.

"From the beginning, we knew that if we pulled together as a community we could survive this," said Grand Region Engineer Steven J. Earl. "Those who felt closing the S-Curve would be the end of Grand Rapids didn't give the people of west Michigan nearly enough credit."

The improvements involved total re-construction of the roadbed with a new 10-inch-thick surface, construction of additional through lanes and shoulders, reconfiguring entrance and exit ramps, and shoring up the bridge foundations. The trades also installed a snow melt system with nozzles that shoot a de-icing compound over the road when conditions are icy.

Despite both sides of the freeway now being open, there is finishing work still needed on the S-Curve and the city streets underneath. Some entrance and exit ramps will remain closed for work.

In addition to the specific work mentioned above, the contractor and trades will be working on lighting and electrical systems on the S-Curve, as well as work underneath on sidewalks, city streets, walls, architectural features, and parking lots.

"We've made it this far, and remaining traffic disruptions should prove minimal in comparison," Earl said. "It's time for us all to breathe a collective sigh of relief."

THE S-CURVE is actually a series of six elevated spans, including one that crosses the Grand River. When the S portion of U.S. 131 was completed in 1963, there were fewer vehicles, and few, if any, public hearings to get input on creating such a potential bottleneck - with left-turn exits and no shoulders - on a major highway in the middle of Grand Rapids.

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Sanitation standard moves slowly, but now, not-so-surely

By Marty Mulcahy
Editor

In April 1999, we wrote, "things are starting to move" in getting a federal sanitation standard implemented that would require employers to provide toilet and hand-washing facilities on virtually every construction job site.

Well, things stopped. And federal law continues to treat construction workers as third-class citizens.

Stephen Cooper, executive director, safety and health for the Iron Workers International Union and co-chairman of the Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health, said he is still confident that a national sanitation standard will be adopted by OSHA, but he has no idea about a timetable. Twenty months ago, he fully expected that such a standard would be adopted by the end of 1999 at the latest.

"There's no reason a standard couldn't be out by now," Cooper said earlier this month. "It p----- us all off. We've been bugging OSHA every time we meet. But their attitude seems to be that it's not a priority because it doesn't save lives."

Currently, OHSA does have a portable toilet-per-worker ratio on job sites. But the standard for requiring portable toilets is ill-defined on job sites where there are only a handful of workers. And there are no provisions at all for providing any hand-washing facilities on construction sites.

And throw this into the mix: a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) representative said "unbelievable as it may be," there are still employers "who have toilet facilities for their employees but are unwilling to let their employees take time out to use them."

The OSHA advisory committee in the last two years has proposed to OSHA that employers should be required to provide toilet facilities on an "as-needed basis," and then inspect, clean and maintain the facilities.

The committee has also recommended that the federal standard be changed to require hot running water "where practical," or allow for the use of germicidal gel as a substitute.

"One guy at NIOSH was arguing that the gel could be an irritant to the hands," Cooper said. "I said I don't give a damn about the irritation. That gel is better than nothing. Hell, Exxon gas stations are putting that gel on the side of their gas pumps. And we can't put them on the side of a portajohn?"

The sanitation standard has several obstacles to pass before it can see the light of day. The standard seems to have been put on the back-burner as OSHA wrestles with controversial ergonomics regulations. In addition, the George W. Bush administration is headed for Washington, D.C., and he has pledged to reduce, not increase, government regulation. And Cooper, the sanitation standard's biggest booster, is retiring at the end of this year.

As a result, the best course of action to improve sanitation on job sites would be to do what unions were set up to do: take care of business in the collective bargaining process. Proper sanitation standards can be written into collective bargaining agreements, and employees and employers can come up with the best solution for everyone.

"They wonder why we can't get good people in the trades," Cooper said, "when they expect our people to go behind their car in three feet of snow and pee. Those are Third-World conditions."

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Union movers picket

OPERATING ENGINEERS Local 324 members picketed Canadian Machinery Movers on Nov. 30 and will continue to confront the company for paying substandard wages and benefits. Companies that don't pay standard wages and benefits of course diminishes their employees' ability to make a living, but such policies lowers the bar and drag down the standard of living for all workers. "We'll keep after them," said Local 324 President John Hamilton. "We will not give up because this is a problem that affects each and every one of us."

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NEWS BRIEFS

Newspaper dispute ends with settlements
Detroit's Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions announced Monday that contract ratification votes by two Teamsters locals brings to an end the five-and-a-half-year labor dispute.

Other unions who were involved in the strike and subsequent lockout had previously settled their contract with the Detroit News and Free Press. A statement about ending the union boycott of the two papers was expected after our paper went to press.

"These newspapers will soon try and begin to earn the trust of Metro Detroit,
which is a cherished commodity earned by newspapers across the country," said Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions Chairman Al Derey. "And hopefully they will begin that process of building trust - and healing the hurt bestowed on this community - by expeditiously calling back workers on the recall list and doing the utmost to consider the reemployment of terminated strikers, many of whom have unfair labor practice charges rendered in their favor."

Building trades featured in calendar
Detroit and Michigan's rich labor history will come to life in a new wall calendar issued by the Michigan Labor History Society. The calendar includes some rare photos of Detroit building trades workers.

Produced in observance of Detroit's 300th birthday in 2001, the 16-month calendar, "We built this city," is available at Book Beat in Oak Park and at Paperbacks Unlimited in Ferndale.

Local unions can order bundles of the calendar with their own imprint, at a special price. More information is available from Dennis McCann at IBEW Local 58, (313) 963-2130.

Proceeds will help fund a major downtown labor legacy monument and interpretive walkway planned as a gift to the city. The monument is planned to honor, inform, and inspire viewers with its look at Detroit's history and vision for the future. Surrounding the monument will be a landscaped area highlighting labor's contributions to the Detroit community.

Plans call for the display to be placed along Jefferson Avenue with a related kiosk in the lobby of Cobo Center or the UAW-Ford Training Center.

Supreme Court halts recount, Gore
The U.S. Supreme Court slammed the door shut Dec. 12 on efforts to count every vote in the Florida presidential count. In the opinion, five justices said, "We reverse the order of the Supreme Court of Florida ordering the recount to proceed."

In a dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said, "Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the law."

On Dec. 13, Vice President Al Gore directed his Florida recount committee to cease operations, and he conceded the election. In a statement after the ruling, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the decision "by a deeply divided Supreme Court is a real national tragedy that, in the words of Justice Stevens, 'effectively orders the disenfranchisement' of voters in our presidential election.

"Despite our virulent objections to the flaws in the voting process, the AFL-CIO will work with Governor Bush to bring our nation together and address the many important concerns of America's working men and women.

"The first order of business for the next president is to take bold and effective steps to ensure that in no future election do tens of thousands of Americans have their voices stilled in the most important civic act of our democracy," Sweeney added.

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