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December 24, 2004

Supreme Court hears arguments: Can ABC bring lawsuit to overturn prevailing wage?

Masons to put a handsome new face on old Beaubien House

Jobs faucet turns off at Water Works Park

Recipes for revitalizing labor leave out key ingredient: members

News Briefs

 

'Supreme Court hears arguments: Can ABC bring lawsuit to overturn prevailing wage?

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

LANSING - No one ever accused the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) of being impatient, or unwilling to pay hefty legal bills, when it comes to the effort to rescind Michigan's Prevailing Wage Act.

On Dec. 9, the Michigan Supreme Court heard arguments from attorneys for the ABC and the Michigan Building Trades Council (MBTC) 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 hadn't issued a decision at press time. According to MBTC attorney John Canzano, building trades unions probably won't be happy with whatever ruling is handed down by the state's high court justices - but the prevailing wage law itself is probably not immediately threatened.

"There's a lot of technical stuff going on here," Canzano said. "But your members are going to be concerned with one thing: are they going to continue to earn the prevailing wage? For the foreseeable future, I think the answer is 'yes.' "

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 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 injuries sought by the ABC "are at this point merely hypothetical."

The case before the Supreme Court was not about the legality of the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act - although Canzano said that a majority of the high court is so conservative that it could have used the occasion to throw the law out.

Instead, the high court was asked to agree or disagree with the state Court of Appeals ruling, which effectively said that the ABC has not been injured by the prevailing wage law.

Ominously for the union side, according to Gongwer News Service, "the question of whether an injury exists due to being forced to pay wages above a company's typical standard seemed to interest several justices. Typical was the question posed by Justice Robert Young, Jr.: 'If I'm an employer and I'm forced to pay higher wages, why is that not an injury?' "

Canzano said the high court could do any number of things in response to the legal arguments. The best-case scenario would be for the high court to dismiss the case.

More likely, he said, is that the court will send the case back to the Midland Circuit Court or the Court of Appeals panel for further review. The high court could issue a written "road map" for how the ABC could obtain legal standing to challenge the prevailing wage law in a lawsuit.

"The Supreme Court heard testimony only on whether the ABC has the standing to bring the case," Canzano said, "and not on the validity of the law itself, and that's a good thing."

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Masons to put a handsome new face on old Beaubien House

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

With a few nip and tuck points where needed, new mortar, as well as a vigorous cleaning, a facelift on the exterior brick of one of Detroit's oldest homes - the Beaubien House - will soon have it looking as good as it did when it was constructed in 1851.

Davenport Masonry is donating the masonry restoration of the house, which acts as office space for the nonprofit American Institute of Architects-Michigan.

The architects are striving to be good stewards of the Italianate Townhouse-style structure, and Davenport and its Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1 craftsman are providing their considerable talent to make the restoration happen.

"This architectural jewel, which is historically and architecturally significant, is important to the economic value of the City of Detroit," said Ed Davenport of Davenport Masonry. "Americans have rediscovered and embraced the historic elements of their cities. A building like this preserves the community's distinctive appearance."

The three-story house was built for a middle-class family on the former Antoine Beaubien farm. Today, the house is located on a narrow plot of ground in a most unlikely spot - across busy Jefferson Avenue from the Renaissance Center.

A history of the house prepared by the Michigan AIA said it "is one of the last remaining residences in what was once the premier residential street in Detroit."

The house was built by a local carpenter for Antoine Beaubien's cousin Charles Trombly and his wife, Elizabeth Knaggs. Over the years it was owned or rented by a number of families. Converted into apartments in approximately 1965, the building was restored in 1977 and eventually became the headquarters for the AIA-Michigan.

(A little further east on Jefferson is the Moross House, which the AIA said is the oldest authenticated house in the city, built sometime between 1843-1848). According to the AIA-Michigan, which has owned the Beaubien house since 1981, about 15 similar homes were built in the area, but were torn down in the 1950s for more parking lots.

"The 1950s must be one of the blackest decades for Detroit's architectural historians," the AIA said. "Hundreds of important buildings were demolished just before public interest and concern were mobilized for their preservation."

The Beaubien House is on the National Register of Historic Places. The scope of Davenport's work includes cleaning, removing and replacing deteriorated brick, then tuck-pointing, cleaning and sealing the surface. Scaffolding for the project was donated by Schuster Construction Services. Work began at the back of the building in early December, and when the weather warms early next year Davenport masons will complete the sides and the front.

The job is led by Davenport Project Manager John Fletcher. Foreman Rick Sudderth along with Jeff Hugill of BAC Local 1 were on the job grinding out loose mortar when we paid a visit earlier this month. Sudderth said Davenport went to the trouble of sending out a sample of the mortar to be tested, so that an exact match could be found.

"Autoclaved" mortar consisting of lime and sharp sand is rarely used on modern buildings, but it will be used between the Beaubien House bricks in this renovation. The autoclaved mortar is different from a modern mortar because of different ingredients and because it has to be given some set-up time after it is mixed and before it is applied. Sudderth said they would be making repairs to brick and mortar that have lasted 150 years - as well as repairing a poorly done renovation job in the 1980s.

The masons said it was a stroke of luck that matching bricks were available at no cost from a building from same era that's undergoing a renovation next door. When work on the Beaubien House is complete, Sudderth estimated that 90 percent of the original 1850s brick would be retained on the fascia, with the remainder modern, matching brick.

"There is some spalling of the old brick, but most of the mortar joints are in remarkably good shape," Sudderth said. "By using the autoclaved mortar, it will help us aesthetically to match the new with the old. It's such a beautiful building with a lot of character."

Rae Dumke, Executive Director of the AIA-Michigan, said the interior of the building was completely renovated and converted into the present configuration of office space in 1987.

"It's a great old building, and we're fortunate and extremely pleased that architects, contractors and building trades have come together to help us," she said.

THE EXTERIOR BRICK on the Beaubien House - one of Detroit's oldest - is getting refurbished through the efforts of Davenport Masonry and BAC Local 1 masons.

GRINDING OUT A MORTAR JOINT at the back of the Beaubien House is Rick Sudderth of BAC Local 1 and Davenport Masonry.


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Jobs faucet turns off at Water Works Park

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

You work hard, you do some nice work, then you bury what you've done.

It seems a shame, but that about sums up a lot of the work performed at Detroit's Water Works Park this summer, where more than 1,000 feet of water pipe big enough to walk through was installed and put into service, 20-30 feet underground.

Dug up, replaced or abandoned were century-old wooden and brick-lined pipes that for the most part, continued to serve the system well. New and existing pipes, both active and abandoned, zig-zagged underground across the 110 acre site, making digging a bit of an adventure.

"The drawings for the existing water mains were a little unpredictable," said Jeff Short, project manager for Dan's Excavating. "The records showing where the old pipes were placed are not as good as the records we keep. It was a tough job, but that's what we do."

Dan Bernard, project manager for E.L. Pipe, said workers tore out - and saved - a number of old plumbing applications, including massive brass valves and wooden water mains that were still in service.

"I don't know what will come of it, but they talked about making a museum out of some of the stuff we took out of there," Bernard said. "At one time we had more than 100 plumbers on the job, and it was a great opportunity for journeymen and apprentices to learn how to install various systems in the plant. This was a very challenging, and successful job."

The building trades placed into the water-delivery system about 900 feet of 96-inch diameter pipe, and another 120 feet of 120-inch diameter pipe over a 90-day period. The work was done in concert with other construction activity at the Water Works Park, which is wrapping up a six-year effort to modernize the water plant, which was first built in 1879 in a park-like setting on the Detroit riverfront. The plant supplies water to about 43 percent of Michigan residents.

In 2001 and 2002 we featured work at the plant, including installation of a new pump house, filtration system and ozonation process and related piping and electrical work. Laborer Paul Malnar of Local 1191 recently sent us some photos at the plant that he took this summer, which prompted this update.

While the old pipes have served the system well, higher pressures in the system and old age prompted their replacement. Short said TV cameras that were snaked through the old brick-lined pipe that will remain in service showed them to still be in good shape.

"It's amazing to see the amount of work it took to build that pipe," Short said. "It was very labor intensive."

The new pipes, known as "lock joint," are constructed of a high-compression stainless steel cylinder encapsulated in concrete. A rubber gasket inside the fittings and a stainless steel clamp forms the seal.

The $280 million project has been managed by the Detroit Water Team, a group of five
five partners, including J.S. Alberici and Walsh Construction, Motor City Electric, and engineering firms Black and Veatch and Montgomery Watson.

Only a handful of Hardhats from the Water Team remain at the site, and they expect to be off the job early next month. Bernard said aside from some site demolition, the project is essentially complete.

However, he said if the City of Detroit sometime expands the pumping capacity of the plant from its current 240 million gallons per day to its capacity of 320 million gallons per day, maybe they'll be back….

A 120-INCH DIAMETER water main - the largest size at Detroit's Water Works Park - is lowered into place by tradesman employed by Dan's Excavating.
Photo by Paul Malnar

 

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Recipes for revitalizing labor leave out key ingredient: members

By Harry Kelber

For nearly 10 years, labor's brightest and most influential union leaders, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the 51-member Executive Council, have grappled with the problem of revitalizing the labor movement, but they've failed to arrest the continuing decline in membership and bargaining power.

Responding to criticism, they seem to have tried everything. Not enough money spent on organizing? They increased the AFL-CIO budget for organizing to 30% and urged affiliates to do the same. Not enough organizers? They hired hundreds of organizers. Not enough diversity? They hired large contingents of young African-American and Latino organizers, many of them women.

Not enough training? They poured more money into the Organizing Institute and improved its training programs. Too many losing recruitment drives? They called on top-level strategists to help develop winning campaigns. They created the Union Cities program to enable central labor councils to play an active role in local organizing campaigns.

Over these years, they conducted countless seminars, workshops and classes on improving organizing work. They published tons of brochures, booklets and leaflets to help unions in their organizing campaigns. They adopted strong resolutions calling for more aggressive action on recruiting.

So why didn't any of the formulas work? AFL-CIO leaders blame three factors: the economy, anti-union employers and President George W. Bush. They do not blame themselves. No one doubts that the labor movement is in the throes of a deepening crisis, but there is no agreement what to do about it.

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), says he has a large part the answer. What is needed is to merge the AFL-CIO's 61 international unions into no more than 20, with each mega-union representing a specific sector of the national economy. These enlarged unions, with additional funding and resources, would be able to conduct winning campaigns against major corporations, even Wal-Mart, Stern says.

Stern's restructuring plan, which has been given extensive coverage in the media, has very little support from most unions and rank-and-filers outside the SEIU. But even on the wild assumption that the plan would be approved by the Executive Council, what evidence is there that the forced merger of internationals would increase union membership or economic power? In fact, there is evidence to the contrary.

When the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, they had 104 international unions with a combined total of 16 million members. Today, 49 years later, AFL CIO's 61 internationals represent about 13 million members. Despite those 43 mergers, organized labor suffered a net loss of three million members. How does Stern explain that?

The Service Employees International Union plan emphasizes the importance of density (the ratio of union members in a given industry or region) in its campaign to re-energize the labor movement. Of course, density is important, but density is achieved only by massive and successful recruiting. Stern has not spelled out organizing strategies that are essentially different from those currently in use that have failed.

To counter SEIU's 10-point Unite to Win!, Larry Cohen, Communication Workers Association executive vice president, has come up with a 10-point plan of his own: American Labor - Working Together. Cohen, who does not call for radical repackaging the AFL-CIO structure, lists policies that progressive trade unionists have advocated for some time, such as a strong shop steward system, an ample national strike fund and more effective collective bargaining.

Both the SEIU and CWA plans have several features in common: they favor a more aggressive effort on health care reform, expanded political action, more funds and resources devoted to organizing, and building a global labor movement. These ideas have been around for a long time and there are hardly any AFL-CIO affiliates that would disagree with them.

What's wrong with the SEIU and CWA plans is they both provide no significant role for the AFL-CIO's 13 million members, labor's most precious and most neglected asset. Stern and Cohen are making the same fatal mistake, as did Sweeney and the heavy hitters on the Executive Council: that if they come up with the right plan, millions of union members will automatically follow them.

As Leo Gerard, president of the United Steel Workers, said of Stern and his colleagues on the New Union Partnership during an interview: "These are five guys sitting around and talking. They don't represent the labor movement."

The starting point for any labor leader who has a plan to revitalize the labor movement is to inspire enthusiastic support from a substantial cross-section of the AFL-CIO membership. Stern, Cohen and the others want to impose their plans simply by winning Executive Council approval. It hasn't worked in the past 10 years and it won't work now.

(Mr. Kelber, a frequent critic of the AFL-CIO, publishes "Labor Talk" columns at www.laboreducator.org).

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News Briefs
Lawmakers warn of pension problems

WASHINGTON (PAI) - The federal agency that guarantees at least partial payment of traditional pensions when workers' firms go broke is heading for the financial rocks unless Congress does something about it, two lawmakers warn.

And the situation could get worse very fast, if two major airlines - US Airways and United - convince federal bankruptcy judges to let them dump their unionized workers' pension plans on the agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) issued their warnings last month after PBGC reported the deficit suffered by its fund covering single-employer pensions rose from $11.2 billion in fiscal 2003 to $23.3 billion in fiscal 2004.

PBGC insures "defined benefit" pension plans, the traditional plan that guarantees payments. "Defined contribution" plans, which are newer and now more prevalent in private industry, do not guarantee payment if the plan fails.

But when a firm with a defined benefit plan goes belly-up, PBGC steps in, using money gathered from prior assessments on all firms with such traditional pensions. PBGC's payments substitute for some, but not all, of a worker's pension payouts.

But PBGC can't cover them if it's short of cash, Miller and Harkin say. "It is deeply disappointing that we have not taken this long-term problem seriously," Harkin said. "Public policy has not encouraged companies to prepare for the rainy day. Congress must establish tax and accounting policies that create positive incentives for companies to keep their pensions well-funded and healthy."

Miller warned: "PBGC is living on borrowed time," "The deficit again highlights the failure of the administration and Congress to address growing retirement insecurity of millions."

Labor on board new workforce panel
LANSING - Gov. Jennifer Granholm this month announced an executive order creating the Council for Labor and Economic Growth (CLEG). The council's work will focus on developing strategies to prepare Michigan's workers for the 21st century.

"The Council for Labor and Economic Growth will be our guide as we strive to meet Michigan's job needs of today while fostering the skilled and flexible workforce that Michigan businesses need to compete successfully in the future," said Granholm. "This talented body will help us challenge the status quo on how best to develop and invest effectively in Michigan's 21st century workforce."

The Executive Order creates a business-led council and replaces the current Michigan Workforce Investment Board. The council's members include key leaders from business, labor, community colleges, universities, community-based organizations, local workforce boards, the K-12 educational community, and government. The council will recommend strategies to encourage and stimulate innovative responses to Michigan's workforce challenges.

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