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December 8, 2006

NAFTA, 12 years later…Workers are still waiting for the benefits to kick in

Helping working families leads Dems' priorities, but vetos loom

Maybe it's time for a new/old idea: fixing labor laws

Trades on track with fast-track casino

MGM-Detroit Hardhats rock; roll in dough for homeless

What's up with the holes in those beams?

News Briefs

 

NAFTA, 12 years later…Workers are still waiting for the benefits to kick in

A labor-backed research association published a study this fall revealing that adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has had a "perverse" impact on the distribution of income, wealth, and political power across the continent.

The study, undertaken by the Economic Policy Association (EPI), studied the effects of the 12-year-old trade agreement, and found that "NAFTA has not lived up to its promise of better jobs and faster growth for Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Instead it has promoted an integrated continental economy with rules set by and for the benefit of the political and economic elite."

Jeff Faux, EPI Distinguished Fellow and author of The Global Class War, states in the
introduction, "NAFTA rules protect the interests of large corporate investors while undercutting
workers' rights, environmental protections, and democratic accountability. …The time for a
continent-wide debate over the future of this agreement, which was negotiated by and for the
rich and powerful in all three countries, is now overdue."

NAFTA is a trade treaty which eliminates customs duties on transactions between Canada, Mexico and the United States, creating the largest free trade zone in the world. Organized labor has consistently objected to NAFTA, and its sister agreement that covers Central America, because the agreements institute no pay, safety or environmental requirements on nations that sign on.

Here are some highlights from the study:

  • Americans were promised that NAFTA would generate large numbers of net new good jobs. Instead, over a million jobs that would otherwise have been created were lost, and wages were pressured downward for a large number of workers with less than a college education.
  • Mexican employment did increase, but much of it in low-wage "maquiladora" industries, which the promoters of NAFTA promised would disappear. The agricultural sector was devastated and the share of jobs with no security, no benefits, and no future expanded. The continued willingness every year of hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens to risk their lives crossing the border to the United States because they cannot make a living at home is "in itself testimony to the failure of NAFTA to deliver on the promises of its promoters," the study said.
  • Working families haven't benefited in Canada, either. Except for those at the top, real incomes have virtually stagnated. Canadians were assured that NAFTA and the earlier Canada- U.S. Free Trade Agreement were necessary to save their social safety net. Yet a dozen years later, government transfers to individuals have dropped from 11.5% of GDP to 7.8% of the country's GDP.
  • Twelve years later, the study said, "it is clear that the costs to workers outweighed the benefits in all three nations." The process differed from country to country, and given the greater size and wealth of the U.S., the impact has not been as great as it was in Mexico and Canada. But the overall pattern has been similar. In each nation, workers' share of the gains from rising productivity fell and the proportion of income and wealth going to those at the very top of the economic pyramid grew.
  • Defenders of NAFTA have two main responses. One is that its damage to workers is exaggerated. Perhaps. But NAFTA was supposed to make things a great deal better for workers, not - even a little - worse. The second response is that the problems of inequality are largely the result of domestic policies and have nothing to do with globalization. Yet that ignores the enormous increase in bargaining leverage over workers that the ability to shift production out of the country, and then sell the products back home, gives the transnational corporation. With that leverage, corporate influence over economic policy has greatly expanded in all three nations since the agreement was signed.
  • The "vision" of NAFTA… pushes nations back toward a 19th century ideology in which government's economic function is to protect the interests of investors, while working people - the overwhelming majority in each nation - are left to fend for themselves.
  • Growing trade deficits with Mexico and Canada have displaced production that supported 1.01 million U.S. jobs since NAFTA took effect in 1994. The displacement of 1 million jobs from traded to non-traded goods industries reduced wage payments to U.S. workers by $7.6 billion in 2004 alone.
  • The lost job opportunities are distributed among all 50 states and the District of Columbia, with the biggest losers, in numeric terms: California (-123,995), Texas (-72,257), Michigan (-63,148), New York (-51,582), Ohio (-49,886), Illinois (-47,701), Pennsylvania (-44,173), Florida (-39,987), Indiana (-35,157), North Carolina (-34,150), and Georgia (-30,464).

As a share of total state employment, Michigan's workforce has been the hardest-hit in the nation since NAFTA's introduction.

"For over 12 years," the EPI report concluded, "we have been told by NAFTA's champions to be patient, that NAFTA's great benefits were just around the corner. We are still waiting. The time for a continent-wide debate over the future of this agreement, which was negotiated by and for the rich and powerful in all three countries, is now overdue."

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Helping working families leads Dems' priorities, but vetos loom

WASHINGTON (PAI) - The Republican-run 109th Congress has yet to stagger to a conclusion - it returns for another lame-duck session in early December. But incoming Democratic lawmakers have already laid out an ambitious legislative agenda for the coming Democratic-run Congress.

It includes passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and extending Medicare to all.

Those plans will come after the Democratic Congress pushes through its first priority, raising the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade. Dems want to increase the minimum wage from its present $5.15 an hour in three steps in just over two years, to $7.25.

"We're not rewarding work fairly anymore, and working families are falling behind," said Senate Labor Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in presenting his agenda for the panel just after the Democrats won enough Senate seats Nov. 7 to control the chamber 51-49.

"A minimum wage worker who works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year still makes just $10,700 a year - $6,000 below the poverty line for a family of three," Kennedy said. "In this era of skyrocketing costs, these hardworking Americans are forced to make impossible choices - between paying the rent or buying food, between paying for gas or paying the doctor. Americans understand fairness, and they know this is unfair."

Following are some other priorities of Dems and their allies in organized labor, who have a wish list in place, but face a potential Bush veto on any of their pet projects.

  • Organized labor has long desired passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would help level the playing field between workers and management. EFCA would outlaw employer-run "captive audience" meetings during organizing drives, institute simpler card-check rules to ease union recognition, and increase labor law-breaking penalties and mandate first-contract arbitration, among other moves.
  • Kennedy also mentioned extending the Family and Medical Leave Act by creating paid leave. FMLA now offers eligible workers only 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Kennedy and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have drafted legislation to give seven days of paid sick leave to all workers in companies with at least 15 employees.
  • Because of the massive expense, the concept of extending universal health care for all will be very controversial. But with one in seven Americans uninsured, many see a broken system that needs massive overhaul.
  • "The most straightforward way to see that every American has affordable, quality health care is to extend Medicare to all citizens," Kennedy said, citing the "Medicare for All" act he wrote with Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). Dingell will chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has some power over health legislation. "This proposal should be the starting point for discussions on achieving universal coverage."
  • Meanwhile, at least 200 union groups, including locals, retiree groups, central labor councils and 15 state federations, back a similar Medicare-based government-run single-payer health care bill, HR 676, drafted by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) will take over the House Ways and Means Committee, the key panel that handles "fast track," anti-worker trade treaties, Social Security, taxes and Medicare, among other issues. Moneyweb said Rangel cites 'ending tax shelters for companies that move American jobs overseas' as one of his main objectives. He is also expected to complicate the White House's efforts to further liberalize trade by demanding strong protections for labor in any trade deals." Rangel pledged Dems would try to extend expiring tax deductions that benefit middle-income people, such as the one 3.3 million teachers took last year for buying school supplies for their students and classrooms.
  • New Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) declared any Social Security privatization plan by GOP President George W. Bush dead.

(Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer)

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Maybe it's time for a new/old idea: fixing labor laws

By Stuart Appelbaum

It is no secret that the Democratic national election victory has less to do with who the Democrats are than who they are not. But while voter outrage over the Republicans' handling of just about everything carried Democrats across the finish line, it will take more than Bush-bashing to keep them there.

What's a party to do? Here is my suggestion: Reform labor laws first. This may seem obscure, but the truth is that it is one of the most significant problems the Democrats could take on. It is also one that could yield enormous political dividends for them in years to come.

Unions, of course, have been under the gun for some time. Today, the illegal firing of workers who attempt to organize is commonplace. Under the control of Republican appointees, the National Labor Relations Board has further fanned the flames of employer resistance to organized labor.

In a series of recent decisions the labor board even gave a green light to business efforts to reclassify millions of workers as supervisors, thus robbing as many as eight million Americans of their right to collective bargaining.

While the decline in unionization has thrilled labor's conservative opponents, it has exacted a huge toll on Michigan. Historically, unions have enabled Americans, who might otherwise live in poverty, to join the middle-class.

They still can. On average, unionized workers' wages are 29 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts. What's more, only 16 percent of nonunion workers have guaranteed pensions, compared to 73 percent of union workers. No less significant, more than 90 percent of unionized workers have jobs that provide health insurance benefits, by virtue of having the right to collectively bargain.

The problem is not that Democrats in Congress are anti-union. Today, virtually all of them are co-sponsors of the Employee Free Choice Act; a bill to ease the ability of workers to organize and more effectively punish employers who violate labor laws.

The problem is that Democrats too often consider reforming labor laws to be a niche issue: a priority for union officials alone. It doesn't have to be that way. Instead, Democrats can make the revitalization of America's unions a cornerstone of their economic agenda. It would be in their interest to do so.

A new study by labor expert Jim Grossfeld for the Center for American Progress, points out that even well educated white collar workers feel they are treading water as they face growing economic uncertainties. Many see their careers tanking. Instead of shying away from unions, he urges political progressives to show how organized labor can help them succeed in the new economy.

Now that Democrats have won the power to set the agenda in the next Congress they will need to move fast to demonstrate that they have something substantive to offer U.S. workers, blue and white collar alike. Sure, let's raise the minimum wage and make college more affordable. But Democrats can do more than
that: they can move to strengthen the right to organize and, with it, give all Americans a stronger voice on the job and more control over their own future.

Unions, they may discover, are an old idea whose time has come.

(The author is president of the 100,000-member Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, United Food and Commercial Workers. This column originally appeared in the Detroit News).

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Trades on track with fast-track casino

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

PETOSKEY - One of the largest construction projects in this area's recent history is moving along, very quickly, in the form of a new $140 million casino for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

About 250 Hardhats are currently working on the project, installing drywall, electrical, mechanical and doing some painting, according to Ken Lawless, vice president/chief operating officer for construction manager Clark Construction.

"We're moving along well and my thoughts right now are about the schedule, and meeting the owner's deadline," Lawless said. "We're getting a lot done in a 15-month timeline."

Work began in March on the new 290,000 square-foot casino, off of Lears Rd. via U.S. 131, which will replace the tribe's nearby Victories Casino. The project is expected to wrap up next June.

The two-level casino complex will include a gaming floor with 1,500 slot machines, a nightclub, several restaurants, a deli, and administrative offices. The project is made even more complex with the construction of a wastewater treatment plant on site, as well as a water tower. A hotel and parking deck are planned for future construction.

Tribal Chairman Frank Ettawageshik told the Petoskey News-Review that "we've been really careful to makes sure we have as (little) as we can as far as impact on the property." The tribe hopes to implement as many Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards into the complex as possible.

Lawless said the only complication that implementing the LEED characteristics into the building process is an increase in paperwork.

The casino complex is being constructed under a project labor agreement, which Lawless said is "working very well. Everyone from labor, to our contractors to the Little Traverse Bay Band is working together as a team. Their attitude has been not how you can't get it done, but how do we overcome obstacles to get it done. And their work has been excellent."

Traverse City IBEW Local 498 Business Manager Jeff Bush said the PLA doesn't require the exclusive use of union trades, but does require the payment of union wage rates and sets a consistent apprentice ratio of no more than 25 percent. As a result, there is a small nonunion presence on the job. Also as part of the PLA, the building trades also had a job fair for the tribe, which resulted in the employment of three apprentice electricians on the job, and more from other trades.

"This casino has been a great employer for us," Bush said, "We have about 50 of our people out there, and that's at a time when work has been really slow around here."

BURYING CONDUIT leading to the new Odawa Indian casino in Petoskey are (l-r) Dan Spinner and Ed Ware of IBEW Local 498 and Perceptive Electric. Operating the excavator is John Morrow of Operating Engineers Local 324.
Photos by Randall Goss

SETTING UP SNOWMELT tubing under a walkway at the new casino are (l-r) Steve Pulda and Jim Brado of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 85.

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MGM-Detroit Hardhats rock; roll in dough for homeless

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

A tip of the hard hat to the men and women in the building trades constructing the new MGM Grand Casino in Detroit.

At a jobsite luncheon served on Nov. 21, construction workers and their contractors contributed an astounding $21,600 and an additional $5,000 in toys and gifts, with proceeds earmarked for the Salvation Army's Christmas for Families program.

MGM Grand previously announced that they would provide lunch for the 800-plus workers on site that day, and asked for $10 donations and/or an unwrapped toy for the Salvation Army.

"Our goal was to collect $10,000 or so, but to get over $21,000 in cash, plus a lot of really nice toys? The outpouring of generosity was incredible," said Gary Wolfe, general superintendent for MGM-Grand Detroit Casino. "It never fails that with construction people, they always go the extra mile. It's nice to know we helped do our part to make sure a lot of families will have a nice Christmas."

In addition to the individual contributions from workers, more than 40 contractors working the project chipped in generously, some matching the donations of their employees.

The idea for the fundraiser started with Joan Wolfe of 3LK Construction and Kathy Short of Colasanti, who wanted to adopt a family for Christmas using proceeds from empty bottle returns on the site. After calling charitable organizations to find a family that needed help, they found the Salvation Army feeds and shelters homeless families, but didn't allow for adopting a single family. So the effort to help needy families expanded, to say the least.

Major Donna Miller, the pastoral care administrator for the Ellen A. Thompson Booth Center, a homeless shelter in Detroit, said a portion of the money has already been spent at the shelter. The shelter usually operates at capacity, which is about 220 people. They bought new bikes, tricycles and wagons and new winter coats for use of the kids at the shelter. The Salvation Army also spent a portion on new dining room chairs and a dining room table.

"We have always made do with second-hand, broken-down bikes and trikes, so it was nice to be able to get these," Major Miller said. "The kids were unbelievably excited. And we will have plenty left over for Christmas.

"It's so rare that we get a contribution of this size. I just want to say that the donation from the guys and gals there was just fabulous. Let me put it this way: construction workers rock."

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What's up with the holes in those beams?

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

SAGINAW - The familiar wide flange structural steel beam hasn't changed much over the past century. It's the near-perfect combination of simplicity, strength and efficiency in structural building design.

So it's highly unusual in today's construction industry to see wide-flange steel with what appear to be holes in it, used in the structural support of a building. We found them during a walk-through of the expansion of Saginaw Valley State University's Pioneer Hall, where the unusual beams were holding up just fine, thank you.

" I haven't seen them used in my 40 years experience," said Joe Veryser, associate dean in the College of Architecture and Design and the university architect for Lawrence Technological University in Southfield. "Normally, they just cost more, and that's why people don't use them. But if they're using it in a Green building application, that could make sense. They're just going to pay a premium."

In fact, the expanded Pioneer Hall is being constructed under LEED guidelines - or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a standard which offers varying levels of certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED ratings are only given after a building is constructed - so the jury is still out on how the beams will help Pioneer Hall's rating.

Depending on the cut, they're called "castellated" (non-round hole) or "cellular" (round hole) beams, and the concept behind the design has been around since the early 1900s. The beams are particularly visible on old bridges, when structural weight was an issue, or perhaps when wartime demands made iron or raw materials scarce.

Castellated steel manufacturers are rare in the U.S. CMC Steel Group/ SMI Steel Products of Rockwall, Texas fabricated the cellular steel used at Pioneer Hall, and calls its product the "SmartBeam" design. They don't manufacture the steel by simply punching or cutting holes in the web of the beam.

Billy Milligan, vice president of CMC/SMI, wrote in Modern Steel Construction that prior to automated cutting and welding, castellated steel manufacturers used to split the beam apart, manually cut out the steel, then weld the beams back together. He wrote that the labor and expense involved in that process led to the abandonment of that type of processing - until 1999, when his company was able to automate the process.

SmartBeams, he wrote, are manufactured by cutting wide flange beams in a zig-zag pattern along the length of the web of the beam with a computer-controlled plasma torch. The two sections are then welded back together - which makes the beam taller by about 50 percent, and actually increases its strength by about 40 percent. Of course, the process also gives the beam the appearance of having holes or other shapes cut out of its center.

The beams are useful for long-span composite floor beams - the holes in the beams allow for easy flexibility in running mechanical systems. The long-span strength capabilities of castellated beams also make them well-suited for construction of multi-level parking decks, since they reduce the need for structural columns.

Don Allen, director of engineering for the Steel Framing Alliance, said he is aware of the use of castellated beams in parking decks, but their use in other types of construction has been slow to catch on.

He said strength, weight or convenience advantages that might be gained from the use of castellated beams are offset by their higher cost. And, their higher profile tends to raise floor to floor height.

"I have yet to see the use of castellated beams in an office building or a similar structure," he said.

In Michigan, he'd see them at Pioneer Hall. Paul Haselhuhn, an AIA architect on the project for Wigen, Tincknell and Meyer, said a number of factors went into the choice of the cellular beams. A reduction in structural steel weight by about 20 percent (vs. typical steel members) fit in with the LEED concept.

The steel, which has an interesting appearance, will be kept exposed and will fit aesthetically with the mechanical/engineering programs that will be housed within. Duct work and mechanical systems can be run through the beams, saving space, especially in the high-bay areas. The design of the addition/renovation allowed for straight beam lengths of more than 30 feet, which saves fabrication costs.

All in all, Haselhuhn said, the cost of the cellular beams are expected to be the about the same cost as traditional steel, or slightly more.

"In the end, the decision to use the cellular steel was a combination of things," he said. "Left exposed, it has some architectural value. It has practical value during the construction process and when the building will be occupied. Steel is definitely a green building product; it's about 90 percent recycled. For us, on this project, using this steel just made sense."

REFERRED TO AS "CELLULAR" beams (those without the round shape are "castellated"), the use of this type of structural iron is very rare in Michigan.

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News Briefs

Kennecott ruling moved to 2007
A preliminary ruling had been expected in late November on the nickel and copper mine proposed for the Yellow Dog Plains in northwestern Marquette County, but the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has delayed it until January.

The reason, the agency announced last week, was to allow more time for the public to study the plans outlined by the Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company and for its Eagle Project. The proposal has generated public opposition from groups such as the National Wildlife Federation who fear it will have a negative environmental impact.

Kennecott had said it wants to begin work on $100 million investments to support its mining effort. The mine is to work a copper deposit estimated at 336 million pounds and a nickel deposit estimated at 300 million pounds. The resources are contained on a site near the headwaters of the Salmon Trout River, west of Big Bay, in northwestern Marquette County.

Kennecott plans to drill a shaft into a large outcrop next to the Triple A Road in Michigamme Township, approximately 10 miles southwest of Big Bay. Tunneling from there it is to continue diagonally to a depth of approximately 1,000 feet to reach the nickel and other minerals.

For the operation Kennecott has purchased and leased 1,800 acres, most of which will be left open for recreational purposes. The construction for the mine and its support facilities is to occupy about 88 acres. The support facilities are to include a power plant, a warehouse with office space attached to it, a water treatment plant, fuel and propane storage areas, and areas for the storage of rock, ore, and excavated soil.

(From Michigan Construction News.com)

October construction Drops 4 percent
New construction starts in October fell 4% from September to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $601.8 billion, according to McGraw-Hill Construction, a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Moderate declines compared to September were reported for each of the construction industry's three main sectors - nonresidential building, residential building, and nonbuilding construction (public works and electric utilities).

Through the first ten months of 2006, total U.S. construction on an unadjusted basis was up 0.5% relative to the same period a year ago.

The pace of construction starts has lagged markedly in recent months. "The primary reason for this year's slowing pace of construction starts has been the sharp pullback by single family housing," stated Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction. "The slide for single-family housing grew pronounced in late spring, and it's been followed by a further loss of momentum through October.

By region, total construction during the first ten months of 2006 was mixed - the South Central was up 13%; the Northeast, up 2%; the Midwest and West, each down 2%; and the South Atlantic, down 4%.

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