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February 13, 2009

Governor's green initiative blacks out thousands of construction jobs

First order of business: Obama signs Fair Pay Act

Union membership numbers make a significant move up

A northern lodge? No, it's Henry Ford's new $310M hospital

Senate keeps 'Buy American'provision in stimulus bill

Is Obama serious about supporting union expansion? So far, so good

News Briefs


Governor's green initiative blacks out thousands of construction jobs

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

LANSING - Gov. Jennifer Granholm delivered a body blow to Michigan's construction industry during her State of the State address on Feb. 3.

One of the few potential bright spots in the state's economy has been the anticipated construction of several coal-burning power plants around the state. About $6 billion to $10 billion dollars in construction of new plants have been in the planning stages - until Granholm turned out their lights, for now, in favor of a green energy plan.

"So here's our next aggressive goal," Granholm said in her speech. "By the year 2020, Michigan will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels for generating electricity by 45 percent. We will do it through increased renewable energy, gains in energy efficiency and other new technologies. You heard me right: a 45 percent reduction by 2020."

The building trades, Consumers Energy, and other private concerns like Wolverine Power that are underwriting coal-burning power plants wish they hadn't "heard her right."

"The governor threw us under the bus," said Patrick Devlin, chief elected officer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. "These were power plant projects that were in the pipeline, worth billions of dollars, and ready to provide jobs that we desperately need. Our people are ready to build them, right now. Where she's coming from with this proposal, in this economy - it's beyond me."

Granholm's plan doesn't necessarily stop, but will certainly delay the state permitting process on proposals to build coal-burning plants in or near Bay City, Holland, Midland and Rogers City. Three other plants were also being considered. The governor has basically thrown a new wrinkle into the state permitting process for coal-burning plants.

According to the Associated Press: "she is slowing down the permitting process and raising the bar for approval, requiring regulators to evaluate if Michigan needs more power and if alternatives to coal-fired electricity would better serve the state. That ultimately means some plants probably won't be built as Michigan relies more on electricity from wind turbines and other alternative fuel sources."

Consumers Energy spokesman Jeff Holyfield said a state Department of Environmental Quality permit to build a new $2 billion coal-burning plant on the grounds of the existing Karn-Weadock plant near Bay City was "literally expected here in weeks, or even days, but now we've been told it's on hold." Construction was expected to start as early as late 2010.

"We just think it's an ill-advised policy," Holyfield said. "Anything that delays construction of new baseload plants means higher prices for customers and importing more energy from the marketplace. If Michigan is importing energy we're exporting jobs."

Granholm offered further details during her speech that are leaving building trades leaders seething. "Instead of investing in new power plants," the governor said, "they (utilities and power plant owners) will invest in the products and technologies that allow us to use far less energy in our homes. Everything from fuel efficient furnaces to LED light bulbs will produce lower bills for Michigan consumers and more jobs for Michigan workers."

She added: "The third way we'll create jobs through our aggressive 45-by-20 goal is to create the Michigan Energy Corps to put thousands of unemployed Michigan citizens back to work this year, weatherizing homes, schools and other public buildings, installing renewable energy technology, and turning our abundant natural resources into renewable fuels."

An irate Devlin said an "Energy Corps" need not apply when it comes to hiring for that work. "Why does every politician out there think that anybody who is unemployed can be turned into a construction worker?" he said. "I know exactly where she can find all the unemployed building trades workers this state is going to need."

Granholm's proposal came after a successful, exhaustive, bipartisan effort by a group called "Protect Michigan," which included building trades unions, utilities and other groups. Their goal: overturn Public Act 141, a state law adopted during the Engler Administration which deregulated utility service in Michigan, but also handcuffed the ability of the utilities like Consumers Energy and DTE Energy to build new power plants.

Last fall, state Republicans and Democrats came up with a plan to partially re-regulate state electrical providers, opening the door for new plant construction. Michigan hasn't built a new baseload coal-burning plant since 1984.

DTE Energy spokesman John Austerberrry said that utility does not have plans to construct any new coal-burning plants. However, he said DTE Energy is in the permitting process (which could take 10 years) to build a new nuclear plant on the grounds of the Fermi 2 plant near Monroe. He said that process is not affected by Granholm's plan.

"That was a major battle to get Public Act 141 overturned," said Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council President Patrick "Shorty" Gleason. "We had to convince the people in Michigan, convince legislators, that what we were doing would lower electrical rates and bring in more jobs. So there's a credibility issue here too. I just don't know what she's thinking right now."


First order of business: Obama signs Fair Pay Act

WASHINGTON (PAI) - The first law Democratic President Barack Obama signed helps workers: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

With the graying gentle grandmother from Gadsden, Ala., standing just behind, the chief executive on Jan. 29 restored the right of workers - women, minorities, the disabled, those discriminated against because of sexual preference, or those of differing religions - to sue their employers for pay discrimination.

The U.S. Supreme Court took that right away in ruling in 2007 in Ledbetter's case. Near the end of her 19-year supervisory career with Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., in Gadsden, she found her employer had always discriminated against her in pay on the basis of sex. She won in lower courts, but lost in the Supreme Court, 5-4.

The five-man majority, all named by GOP presidents, said the only time Ledbetter -- or any other worker - could sue was within 180 days of being hired. It threw out her case, and her $360,000 award. She won't get a dime from the case. The new law, passed over House GOP opposition, overturned that High Court ruling.

Ironically, Ledbetter told Press Associates Union News Service last year, she suffered huge pay discrimination as a supervisor. She was unprotected by labor law. Rank-and-file female workers at the plant suffered far less pay discrimination, she added, because they were protected by their United Steelworkers contract.

"Equal pay is by no means just a women's issue - it's a family issue," Obama said. "And in this economy, when so many folks are already working harder for less and struggling to get by, the last thing they can afford is losing part of each month's paycheck to simple and plain discrimination.

"So signing this bill today is to send a clear message: That making our economy work means making sure it works for everybody; that there are no second-class citizens in our workplaces."


Union membership numbers make a significant move up

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI) - The number of unionists nationwide rose by 428,000 in 2008 - the largest rise in numbers since statistics started being kept in 1983 - pushing total union gains among the nation's workers to almost three-quarters of a million in the last two years, the Labor Department reported Jan. 29.

Union density nationwide also increased, to 12.4% of all workers, from 12.1% in 2007 and 12% in 2006 the Bureau of Labor Statistics added. It called the 2007-2008 increase "statistically significant."

The labor-backed Economic Policy Institute said with the levels of unemployment declining through 2008, the data "suggests that unions are making a comeback under very difficult circumstances."

The data cheered union spokesmen.

"The key words this year are 'statistically significant,'" said Jason Lefkowtiz on Change To Win's website. "Reported growth for 2007, while encouraging, was small enough that it could have been just statistical 'noise.' This year's results, while not huge, are too big to be outside the margin of error."

But he warned the first year BLS gathered the data, 1983, saw union density of more than 20%. "We all still have a lot of work ahead of us to rebuild the power of workers in the United States…but every journey starts with a single step forward, and this is definitely one of those," Lefkowitz said. He predicted passage of the Employee Free Choice Act "would make these first small steps the start of something big indeed.

Added AFL-CIO President John Sweeney: "Today's numbers confirm what many working people already know: that if given the chance, American workers are choosing to join unions in larger numbers. Workers in unions are much more likely to have health care benefits and a pension than those without a union; in today's economy, that's the difference between sinking and swimming."

While union density rose in 26 states and Washington, D.C., and declined in all but one of the rest, there were some warning signs among the numbers.

The prime one was half the nation's union members are still in just six states: California (2.74 million), New York (2.03 million), Illinois, (939,000) Pennsylvania (847,000), Michigan (771,000) and Ohio (716,000), in that order. But those states had only one-third of the nation's workers, BLS said.

Another warning sign is that the union movement is gray: The highest shares of unionization by age were among workers aged 55-64 and 45-54, while the lowest share - 5% - was among workers aged 16-24, who are the new entrants to the workforce.

Several states had big jumps in union density, numbers, or both. One was California, where 266,000 more workers became unionists, and density rose from 16.7% in 2007 to 18.4% last year. Another was Illinois: Union density rose from 14.5% to 16.6% in one year, and the number of unionists increased by 97,000, to 939,000.

Crashing employment in the auto industry appeared in Michigan, where the number of unionists declined by 48,000, to 771,000. Density declined in Michigan from 19.5% in 2007 to 18.8% last year. The total number of Michigan workers dropped by 104,000.

Unionists maintained a huge wage advantage over their non-union colleagues, BLS said. The median weekly wage for union workers last year - the point at which half are above and half below - was $886, up $23 from the year before. For non-unionists, the median was $691, up $28.

Union density increased in a wide range of occupations from 2007 to 2008, even though two key sectors, construction and manufacturing, shed hundreds of thousands of jobs. BLS said there were 1.195 million unionized construction workers last year, or 15.6% of all building tradespeople. That's up 2,000 from 2007, when union density was 13.9%. In the meantime, construction lost 909,000 workers, many in the predominately nonunion residential sector.


A northern lodge? No, it's Henry Ford's new $310M hospital

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

WEST BLOOMFIELD - It has the look and feel of Northern Michigan lodge, with natural construction components like stone and wood, and an interior courtyard that includes trees and wood chips.

With plenty of glass and nice views, it's bright, airy, and offers wide corridors and many open spaces. The floor plan includes a coffee shop, a pharmacy, a gift shop, a kitchen area for healthy cooking classes, a cafeteria, as well as interior storefronts on "Market Street" offering goods aimed at helping people, especially women, to maintain a healthy lifestyle

Oh, and it's going to be a modern, full-service hospital, too.

Construction Manager Turner Construction and the building trades are winding down the major portion of building the $310 million Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, and moving toward having the facility ready for patients in mid-March. The new 730,000 square-foot hospital will be attached to the existing Henry Ford Medical Center, which opened in 1975 on 15 Mile Rd. west of Drake. Combined, the facility will encompass nearly 1 million square feet, occupying the northern 80 acres of a 160-acre site.

"We had about 500 tradespeople out here at peak employment, and now we're down to about 200," said Cliff Kazmierczak, Turner vice president and project director for health care. "They have worked long hours and have done a very good job. "

The facility will open with 192 beds. When work on the campus is complete in 2011, the facility will be approved for 300 beds. Still to be built this year, Kazmierczak said, are additional operating rooms, diagnostic treatment areas, and catheterization labs.

Henry Ford Health System, like any other organization building or remodeling a hospital these days, conducted the usual due diligence of consulting with patients and looking at other facilities to get ideas for their building. Architectural work was performed by Albert Kahn Associates

"Henry Ford West Bloomfield hospital will provide Oakland County residents the kind of care experience they have told us they want," said Nancy Schlichting, president and chief executive officer for Henry Ford Health System, at the building's groundbreaking. "The hospital will offer the best and latest in medical care and technology for patients in an environmentally friendly surrounding."

Kazmierczak said: "It's been well designed, with natural, high-quality materials, and it's a jewel of a hospital. From my perspective it's going to be one of the best hospitals in Michigan or the Midwest."

Right from the start of project, Kazmierczak said contractors and tradespeople were faced with one of their biggest challenges: the energy center serving the existing health care facility was sitting right where the new atrium was going to be built. So a new energy center had to quickly be built off of the footprint of the new construction, and when it was complete, all services had to be transferred seamlessly to it.

One design phase that worked very well, Kazmierczak said, was use of BIM, Building Informational Modeling. It's a computer program that's especially helpful on a hospital project, allowing the routing of the myriad of ducts, conduit, pipes and cables through the ceilings of the building. Most conflicts showed up in the virtual world, not the real world, "and helped show us if everything would fit," he said.

The building trades and their contractors made sure everything did fit in the new hospital:

  • All 300 beds will be in private rooms, with some windows overlooking a pond and landscaped courtyards.
  • All rooms will have a bed for a family member to spend the night.
  • Called "smart rooms," each patient room will be fitted with a flat panel television where patients can access patient education shows related to their particular illness. All patients will have Internet access. Computerized patient information systems will be located by each bedside, at each staff station outside patient rooms and at a central control station located on each unit.
  • Noise will be reduced by eliminating overhead paging. All health care professionals will carry special cellular phones to communicate.
  • Upon arrival at the hospital, patients go directly to their pre-assigned room.
  • Patients will be able to order meals and beverages of their choice at any time.
  • Each floor of the four-story hospital will have family-oriented rooms (beds, tables, kitchen facilities) for those families who need to stay for extended periods of times.

Total staffing on the West Bloomfield campus will increase from the current 700 employees to approximately 2,300, creating 1,600 new jobs.

The hospital will offer full-service medical and surgical services that include specialties like orthopedics, obstetrics and gynecology, neurosurgery and back surgery, cardiovascular services, women's health, cancer services and emergency care. In addition, a new emergency department will be constructed.

PAINTING A BEAM inside the atrium at the Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital is Frank Cleere of Painters Local 42 and Madias Painting.

WORKING ON the tile floor of "Market Street" at the Henry Ford-West Bloomfield Hospital are Chris Ferber, Noel Meredith, Doug Gardiner, Hank Smithand Artan Gjergji. They're members of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1, employed by Eldorado Tile and Marble.


Senate keeps 'Buy American' provision in stimulus bill

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI)--By a 65-31 vote, the Senate decided on Feb 4 to keep a strong "Buy American" provision in the ever-growing American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus bill. But senators modified the item.

The vote defeated a move by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., last year's GOP presidential nominee, to strip the Buy American plan from the now-$900 billion measure. The Senate's "Buy American" language covers all the spending in the stimulus bill, but said the Buy American provision should be "consistent with U.S. obligations under international agreements."

The House let agencies using steel, concrete and other materials on stimulus-paid construction projects to buy materials abroad only if they could not find enough at home. With U.S. steel plants at 45% capacity, foreign purchases were unlikely.

The vote - and the modification - came after Europe and Canada objected to it as a violation of international trade and government procurement rules the U.S. agreed to in the treaty creating the World Trade Organization. And President Barack Obama (D), in a news clip aired on public broadcasting stations, seemed dubious about "Buy America" with no exceptions. "It's something we need to look at," he said.

That prompted AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, on the same program, to tell PBS that the Buy America provision just reiterates a point that has been part of government policy since 1933 - and that it protects U.S. workers and other nations which have even stronger buy-from-their-own-companies provisions.

Added David Foster, a former Steelworkers vice president and now director of the BlueGreen Alliance of unions and environmental groups: "It's taking American taxpayer dollars and using them to put American taxpayers back to work."

But whether the entire stimulus bill, which includes $148 billion for "shovel-ready" construction projects and billions more for energy efficiency programs which could create jobs for Electrical Workers, Steelworkers, building trades workers and even teachers, survives is another matter. Senate Republican leaders are - again - threatening a filibuster and need only 41 votes to talk the bill to death.

Steelworkers President Leo Gerard's response, voiced at the Good Jobs Green Jobs conference this week in Washington: "If they want to filibuster it, I say bring out the cots" into Senate corridors for a round-the-clock talkathon. "Let them stand up against reviving the American economy."



Is Obama serious about supporting union expansion? So far, so good

By Robert Kuttner
Co-Founder of The American Prospect

I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem, to me it's part of the solution.
- President Barack Obama, Jan. 30, 2009

The great union leader John L. Lewis, who headed the United Mine Workers from the '30s through the '50s and helped organize millions of workers into the CIO, used to declare in organizing drives: "President Roosevelt wants you to join the union." Roosevelt never said that in so many words, but FDR did strongly back the Wagner Act, giving workers the clear right to organize.

During World War II, Roosevelt's War Labor Board made clear that corporations seeking war contracts needed to have good labor relations. In practice, that meant unions; and it meant "pattern bargaining" in which workers for different companies in the same industry got the same wages, so that companies could not play workers off against each other.

Roosevelt's wartime contracting policies, the Wagner Act, and the militancy of the labor movement laid the groundwork for the golden age of American unions during the postwar boom. Not coincidentally, this was also the one period in the past century when the economy became more equal, and more secure for working people.

So, while Roosevelt's words never quite urged workers to join unions, his deeds spoke volumes. John L. Lewis was well within the bounds of poetic license.

On Friday Jan. 30, President Obama, a onetime organizer, had more words to say about unions, and they were the kind of explicit endorsement that we literally haven't heard from a president since FDR's day.

"We need to level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests, because we know that you cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement," the President said. "When workers are prospering, they buy products that make businesses prosper. We can be competitive and lean and mean and still create a situation where workers are thriving in this country."


And Obama offered deeds to match. This stunning declaration of support came at the White House announcement of a Task Force on Middle Class Working Families headed by Vice President Biden, with Jared Bernstein as its executive director. The idea was proposed last summer by Change to Win unions, who endorsed candidate Obama early in the primary season. He embraced the concept, and it was a commitment he kept. His remarks and actions were a dazzling example of the transformative power of a president to shift public opinion and the political center of gravity.

The task force, and the effusive and genuine embrace of the labor movement, came as a huge relief to union leaders, who have watched anxiously as nearly all the key economic posts went to centrist veterans of the Clinton administration, and the job of secretary of labor was not announced with the other senior economic officials. As it turned out, the appointment of Hilda Solis, a very pro-union member of Congress, was delayed because others had turned down the job first, but the delay sent an unfortunate signal.

Labor activists have also been worried about whether Obama will keep his pledge not just to sign the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) guaranteeing the right to join a union, but to work hard on its behalf with legislators, especially in the Senate. Since the election, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and allied anti-union business organizations have mounted a furious publicity and lobbying offensive with one message: Mr. President, you don't need this bruising fight right now.

But the Chamber's allies in the Republican House Caucus have beautifully undercut that logic. The Chamber's premise was that EFCA would be highly divisive, at a time when the new president was seeking unity. With the wall-to-wall Republican stonewalling on the Obama recovery package, that premise is up in smoke. And the Chamber's other allies, on Wall Street, have also done a service by inviting some salutary class warfare. Obama responded last week, calling Wall Street bonuses in the face of government bailouts "shameful," and seems to genuinely view the growth of unions as a necessary counterweight.

The task force itself will be a welcome counterweight to the outsized influence of Wall Street inside the Obama administration. Several weeks ago, Jared Bernstein, then a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute (a union-backed think-tank), wrote a joint op-ed piece for the New York Times with Robert Rubin pointing out where they agreed. One issue where they pointedly disagreed was on the Employee Free Choice Act, which Rubin explicitly refused to endorse.

The Biden operation now looks to be the go-to place for progressives seeing access to Obama's priorities. The Task Force will serve as the White House center to review all proposals, legislative and administrative, for their impact on the effort to raise wages and rebuild a middle class.

Without Obama's strong personal engagement, EFCA will be anything but a legislative cakewalk. Democrats may have a working majority. But at least five business-oriented Democrats are not considered certain votes for EFCA, and Obama will need to let them know that the White House considers this bill a top priority.

Our last two Democrats went out of their way not to get close to organized labor. Jimmy Carter did not lift a finger when the last big push to put some teeth back in the Wagner Act's right to unionize went down to defeat by just two votes in the Senate in 1978.

On Friday, Jan. 30, announcing the Task Force, Obama signed three executive orders. One will prevent federal contractors from discouraging their employees to join unions. Another will assure that workers keep their jobs when a contract changes hands. Down the road is an executive order to promote project agreements on construction contracts.

If Obama is serious, he can take a leaf from FDR's book, and use government's extensive contracting power to actively promote unions. Late in the Clinton administration, then Vice President Al Gore led an effort called the Responsible Contractor Initiative. The idea was to reward federal contractors who took the high road by providing good jobs and not standing in the way of unions.

It remains to be seen just how much real power Obama will give Vice President Biden. But the task force is a superb beginning. If government can just use its influence to make sure employers stay neutral, it will be a new day for the labor movement - and for American progressivism.

Robert Kuttner is Co-Editor of The American Prospect. His new book is "Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency." The article was originally printed in the Huffington Post, and is reprinted with permission.


News Briefs

Green light for Gun Lake Casino

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon on Feb. 5 denied a request to stop the U.S. Department of the Interior from taking into trust 147 acres for the proposed Gun Lake Casino in Wayland. The decision appears to remove the last obstacle to the $200 million project's construction.

The 193,000 square foot Gun Lake Casino has been the dream of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, also known as the Gun Lake Tribe for nearly ten years. It's to be located at a site at US-131 and 129th Avenue, near Bradley, midway between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. The tribe is proposing initial construction of the gaming complex on the property of the former Ampro factory

In 2003 the tribe announced an agreement with Station Casinos of Las Vegas, Nevada, to develop and operate the casino. The facility is to house 2,500 slot machines, 75 gaming tables, an entertainment center, restaurants, and a buffet.

Construction is expected to take from 12 to 16 months. The tribe has declared union labor will be used during its construction. It has also said it will release details about the casino's design and construction team at a later date.
-From Michigan Construction

Jobless numbers: they're not good
January was part of a long, cold economic winter for Michigan and the rest of the nation.

The federal government reported on Feb. 6 that U.S. employers laid off 598,000 workers last month - the most during a month since 1974 - and the nation's unemployment rate rose to 7.6 percent. The U.S. construction industry, the Associated General Contractors reported, has suffered job cuts totaling 747,000 during the last 12 months - representing more than a fifth of all workers who have lost jobs during the last year.

"Today's report on job losses underscores the urgency of implementing a job-boosting economic stimulus package focused on infrastructure," said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the AGC, commenting on the Feb. 6 Bureau of Labor statistics report. "Construction workers have suffered far more than their share of that pain."

Simonson pointed out that the job destruction is no longer confined to homebuilding. "In the past 12 months," he said. "nonresidential builders and specialty trade contractors, along with heavy and civil engineering construction firms, have had to lay off 309,000 workers, or nearly 7 percent of their workforce. Many of these workers would be re-employed within weeks if Congress passes a stimulus bill with at least $150 billion of construction spending."

The Center for American Progress reported that the spike in unemployment in January brings the total number of people out of work to 11.6 million - 4.1 million more than a year ago. The unemployment rate has not risen this fast over a three-month period since the recession of the early 1980s, and there have only been two months since 1948 when there were more unemployed workers in the United States, both during the recession of the early 1980s.

"There are no indications that employers are going to hire workers anytime soon," the Center said. "The temporary help industry, which provides a leading indication of demand for workers, lost 76,400 jobs in January and is down by 695,000 since its peak in December 2006."

Michigan's unemployment rate last month, 10.6 percent, led the nation and was the highest it's been since December 1984.

The unemployed are finding it increasingly difficult to get back to work. The typical unemployed worker has been out of work and searching for a job for 10.3 weeks, and nearly one in four (22.4 percent) unemployed workers have been out of a job for at least six months. The problem is that there are many more job seekers than jobs to be had. There were 2.8 million job openings on the last business day of November (the latest data on job openings), but there were 10.5 million unemployed workers.


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