The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index

February 16, 2001

Needs of Working Families Top Democratic Agenda

Cross the t's, dot the i's before crossing Michigan's Workers Comp panelists

Water Works Park II features new technology in an old setting

Fitter crusades against GHB, which killed her daughter

Number of union construction workers takes a dip in 2000

Bush places steel erection standard on the shelf




Needs of Working Families Top Democratic Agenda

By David Bonior
U.S. House Minority Whip

WASHINGTON D.C. - Members of the 107th Congress sworn in to office in early January face many new challenges and unique opportunities as they set out to get the
people's work done. Topping the Democratic agenda is unfinished business
from the last Congress that working families care deeply about:

  • Fiscally responsible tax relief
  • Raising the minimum wage
  • Protecting our environment
  • Improving education

These are common-sense issues that can and should be dealt with in a
bipartisan fashion in the new Congress to improve the quality of life for
working families.

Tax Relief. In the current era of budget surpluses, it makes sense
to give hard-working Americans the tax relief they deserve. We need to make
sure that the majority of tax relief goes to working families - not the
wealthiest 10 percent. First, these families need meaningful tax relief to help
them bear the costs of child care, health care, higher education, and long
term care of elderly relatives.

In addition, we can reach agreement on measures to eliminate the marriage tax penalty and reduce the estate tax. Elimination of the marriage tax penalty is a matter of simple fairness. And a reduction in the estate tax is necessary to ensure that small business owners, family farmers, and other working Americans can keep their assets in their family after their death.

As we seek to reduce taxes for American families, we need to be careful that we do it in a context of fiscal responsibility. Over the past eight years, we have made great strides in paying down the national debt and balancing the budget. A $1.9 trillion tax cut could eat up our entire
budget surplus, threaten our economic security, and result in rising interest rates. We need to use our surplus not just for tax cuts, but also for continuing to pay down the national debt, investing in the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds, and devoting resources to meet the growing needs of our nation's families. These are investments we need to make now to ensure that our prosperity will continue well into the future.

Raising the Minimum Wage. A top Democratic priority in the coming year is a long-overdue raise in the minimum wage. Last Congress, I fought to increase the minimum wage, but my efforts to restore its buying power were blocked by the Republican Congress. Today, the minimum wage is only 65% of its 1968 value.

In just the last two years, inflation has eroded the purchasing power of the minimum wage by nearly 40 cents an hour. It has been almost five years since the wage was last increased, and individuals working minimum wage jobs need the extra dollars now more than ever. For
these workers, a raise in the minimum wage makes a big difference in their efforts to pay for food, rent, education, or save money for the future.

This Congress, we will be fighting to see that the value of the wage is increased to where it should be so that the earnings for an hour's work goes farther.

Protecting our Environment. Particularly important for the health and security of our families is the preservation of our environment for future generations. Ensuring that our water is safe to drink and our fish are safe to eat is a crucial part of that goal. We need to fully enforce
the Clean Water Act and monitor the amount of pollution that is reaching our rivers, lakes, and water supplies. In addition, we need to take steps within our own communities to make improvements in our sewers and water treatment facilities to protect water quality and reduce the amount of run-off reaching our water sources.

Improving Education. Time and time again, working families have expressed to me that improving the quality of public education is one of their greatest concerns. In the last Congress, we were successful in securing funds for new school construction, after-school programs, and
reduction of class sizes, but more needs to be done. We need to build upon
these successes to fully meet the needs of our nation's schools.

Particularly in the area of school construction, we have a long way to go. Across the country, students are sitting in crowded, inadequate, and deteriorating classrooms. We need to devote more funds to building and renovating schools so that students can learn in a healthy environment. And as we invest in school construction and renovation, we need to ensure that all new projects comply with Davis-Bacon prevailing wage laws.

Clearly, Congress has a lot on its plate in the coming year and it will require that we all work together in new ways to get things done. With Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, Senate, and Presidency, we need to be particularly vigilant in our protection of
policies that support workers rights and address the needs of working

We need to ensure that the gains working families have made are not rolled back or threatened in any way. In particular jeopardy could be Davis-Bacon protections, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) recent regulations on worker safety, and even the right to collective bargaining. With America's working families depending on us to stand up for them, there's no time to waste. We must be steadfast in our commitment to
championing their needs - not the demands of special interests.


Cross the t's, dot the i's before crossing Michigan's Workers Comp panelists

By Marshall Lasser

John Engler's men have done it again.

His appointees to the Workers' Compensation Appellate Commission have denied benefits to an injured worker for his lifetime. The ruling will be used to deny benefits to thousands of workers.

The case in question involves an iron worker hurt in Michigan who filed a workers' compensation claim against his employer. He told his lawyer's secretary that after the injury he worked a few weeks for another company in New York, but the secretary failed to include that fact on the Application for Mediation or Hearing when she typed it up.

She sent it to the worker, who apparently failed to read the document before he signed it. The signed application was filed with the Bureau of Workers Compensation. Several weeks later, the lawyer caught the omission and told the lawyer for the contractor about the post-injury work, providing the name and address of the New York employer.

At trial, the workers compensation magistrate ruled the worker did not willfully hide the information from the contractor, and because the worker's lawyer quickly corrected the mistake, the contractor suffered no "prejudice" as a result of the omission.

The magistrate awarded benefits to the worker. She said she could not conclude from the worker's mere signing of the application that he intentionally withheld information. "It is equally plausible," she said, "that plaintiff failed to review the petition after it was prepared by the counsel's office."

On appeal by the contractor, the Appellate Commission reversed the magistrate and denied benefits to the worker for the rest of his life. It ruled the worker "willfully" withheld information about the New York employer, reasoning that since he knew he had worked for the New York employer, he must have intended to hide the information when he signed the complete application.

It disregarded the fact there was no testimony to indicate he planned to withhold the information, and it ignored the magistrate's ruling that it was "equally plausible plaintiff failed to review the petition" before he signed it.

Now, every employer and every insurance company in Michigan will be whipping out their magnifying glasses and scrutinizing every application for workers' compensation. If they find any omission, they will accuse the worker of lying, and they will howl for lifetime denial of benefits. For example, if the worker lists on his application three doctors who treated him for his injury, and two weeks later the worker adds another name, insurance companues will seek permanent denial of benefits. They will win, because of the precedent set in this case.

This ironworker and all workers are in trouble unless the Supreme Court overturns this cruel decision of the Appellate Commission. That is possible, but not likely, because the Supreme Court has five Engler-appointed Republicans and only two Democrats.

What workers must do to prevent lifetime loss of benefits:

  1. Make certain an application for Mediation or Hearing is complete and accurate before signing it.
  2. Elect a Democratic governor. He or she will kick out the Engler hacks on the Workers Compensation Appellate Commission and replace them with people friendly to workers.


Water Works Park II features new technology in an old setting

By Marty Mulcahy

Hardhats and a host of contractors are in the process of making a change that will be near and dear to the health and safety of millions of Metro Detroiters - a massive overhaul to the nerve center of the water delivery system.

The building trades, the Detroit Water and Sewer Department and their contractors - dubbed the Detroit Water Team - are in the process of replacing virtually the entire water filtration and pumping systems at Water Works Park on the city's riverfront. The $280 million project will involve the replacement of mechanical systems that date to 1910, and earlier.

"The enormity of the system is really impressive," said Dan Bernard, project manager for the project's mechanical contractor, E.L. Pipe. "I'd love to see how they built this place. They built it over a 30-year period, and it's amazing to see how they did things, and to see the different kinds of pipe and systems in here."

The Water Works II project will involve the replacement of miles of pipe and plumbing systems, but most of that work won't get under way until March or April. Diameters of pipe on the job will range from 120 inches down to three-eighths of an inch. Most of the trades workers currently on site are upgrading electrical systems, and putting in structural iron and re-bar.

"This place is cool as hell," said Doug Hiller, site superintendent for Motor City Electric. "We're virtually building a brand new water treatment plant next door to the existing one. What we're all working for on this whole project will be to throw the switch on the new system and not have the customer lose a drop of water."

Once the new plant is on line, it will run concurrently with the old system for about nine months, and then the old plant will be torn out, Hiller said. The new plant will be able to treat about 320 million gallons per day. Water is expected to be pumped from the new system beginning in November.

The Detroit Water Team consists of five partners, including J.S. Alberici and Walsh Construction, Motor City Electric, and engineering firms Black and Veatch and Montgomery Watson. The project began in early 1999 and the target date for completion of the entire project in April 2002.

One of the largest water treatment plants in the nation, Water Works Park is part of a system that serves about 4 million customers and 127 communities - supplying water to about 43 percent of Michigan residents.

Originally constructed in 1879 on 110 acres on the riverfront, east of Belle Isle, Water Works Park has been revamped over the years and has remained the area's primary water treatment plant.

Around the turn of the century, the park was also a mecca for tourists. The main function of the site was to supply water to metropolitan Detroit, but water commissioners had intended the grounds to be used as a public park as well. At one time, the park included a curving lagoon, where children could wade and navigate small sailboats, tennis courts, a baseball diamond, a picnic area, teeter-totters and swings.

The pumping station at the site probably wasn't very interesting to the general public, but a 185-foot tall brick stand-pipe tower at the site proved to be a tourist attraction. Once called "an architectural exclamation point," this slender minaret-like tower was built to provide an equal pressure for water being pumped into Detroit's water mains. Standing 185 feet tall, this brick structure covered an iron stairway that circled the stand-pipe up the middle that was the business part of the tower. Its usefulness ended in 1893 as new pumping stations came on line to keep up water pressure. But it stayed on as a tourist attraction until it was found to unsafe and unrepairable in 1945, when it was demolished.

The site will return to its role as a public institution, as the renovation will include a science academy and a research center that will serve as the base for a university outreach program and a museum.

When ground was broken on the project, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department director Steve Gorden said customers will get water from a "modern filtration plant at a price seen in the '60s."

The plant will use ozonation to disinfect the raw water pumped in from the Detroit River. Plain air will be passed through an electrical charge, causing the oxygen in the air to turn into ozone, which is an unstable element. Added to the water, the ozone will clean the water and kill bacteria. As a result, the amount of chlorine added to the water can be drastically cut.

The largest building on the site is the Pumping Station No. 2, completed in 1914. Steam-driven pumps were removed long ago, replaced with relatively modern control pumps and motors. The building, which will be retained, has brass fixtures, a marble foyer, beautiful arched windows and character that simply isn't designed into today's buildings.

"This place is amazing," Hiller said. "They'd never justify putting this stuff in a building today."

STEAM-DRIVEN pumps are long-gone from the Detroit Water Works Park Station No. 2, completed in 1914, but new equipment and renovations to the grand old building visible from Jefferson Ave. will play an important role in the upgrade of the mechanical workings of the water system.

AIR PRESSURE testing a 48-inch re-circulation pipe at the Water Works Park plant are Scott Zarembski and Kip Brown of Plumbers 98 and E.L. Pipe.

PLACING CONDUIT amid the re-bar on the new low-lift pump station are a gang of IBEW 58, Motor City electricians, including Robert Hierhozer, John Levering, Scott Housley, Mike Manenti, Kevin Wilks, Doug Hiller, Kraig Kolomyski, Victor Stos and Jason Cape. Two of them aren't pictured.


Fitter crusades against GHB, which killed her daughter

GHB has been touted as a sleep aid. It is purported to be a safe alternative to steroids for bodybuilders. It is said to improve sexual function.

On Jan. 17, 1999, in an effort to liven up a party, 17-year-old Joshua Cole poured some GHB into a Mountain Dew and then served the drink to 15-year-old Samantha Reid of Rockwood and her best friend, Melanie Sindone, 14, of Gibraltar. Melanie survived the poisoning, but Samantha died - proving that on top of everything else GHB is supposed to do, it's also a killer.

Samantha's mom, Judi Clark, has been a Pipe Fitters Local 636 member for the last 10 years. Since her daughter's death, she has been on a mission to tell anyone who will listen about the dangers of GHB. She has started the Samantha Reid Foundation which publishes pamphlets and sponsors billboards to educate the public about GHB, and she has started an informational web site, Michigan's Department of Community Health has named March "GHB Awareness Month."

"Taking care of Sam was my life, and now I take care of her in a different way," said Clark, 39. "This keeps me going. I'll do anything I can to raise awareness."

Called "the date rape drug," gamma hydroxybutyrate has been illegal in Michigan since 1998, and last March, at the urging of Clark, "The Hillary Farias-Samantha Reid Date Rape Drug Prohibition Act of 2000" was adopted on a federal level, which added GHB to the list of restricted controlled substances, imposing stiff penalties for the sale and use of GHB.

"Samantha's death brought a lot of awareness to GHB here in Michigan and even across the country," Clark said. "Even police officers hadn't heard about the effects of GHB."

Cole was sentenced to up to 15 years for involuntary manslaughter, as were two other teens present at the party. Cole admitted putting GHB in a Mountain Dew which Samantha drank before vomiting and passing out on a bathroom floor. A fourth defendant, 26, who hosted the party in his Grosse Ile apartment where Samantha was slipped the fatal dose of GHB, received three to five years for being an accessory to manslaughter after the fact. Hours after the girls passed out, the young men finally took them to a hospital, where Samantha died.

It was the first prosecution for GHB-related homicide in the nation, said the Wayne County prosecutor.

A colorless, odorless drug, GHB mimics the affects of alcohol intoxication. There have been eight instances of GHB-related assaults in Michigan in recent years. In addition to Samantha's death, five teenagers in Lake City, MI became comatose after ingesting the drug and last July, another young woman was assaulted in Royal Oak. Since 1990 there have been more than 30 deaths and 3,500 overdoses from these drugs nationwide.

"There is no drug out there as scary, except maybe heroin," said Phyllis Good, a Michigan State Police specialist. "It will continue to increase, and it's only going to get worse."

GHB is a central nervous system depressant that occurs naturally in the body. The drug was first introduced in the U.S. as a surgical anesthetic in the 1960s, but was later rejected by the Food and Drug Administration because of dangerous side effects, including coma and severe respiratory depression.

Bodybuilders began using health food store GHB as a "natural" alternative to steroids, although there are no clinical studies to back this claim. Bodybuilders began taking more than the recommended amount and became euphoric. Word began to spread that these "natural" health food products can give you feelings of euphoria. Recreational drug users began to mix GHB with alcohol and other drugs, with devastating effects.

More than anyone, young people are at greatest risk of GHB poisoning, especially at parties. They are urged by the Samantha Reid Foundation not to accept a drink from people you don't know or trust, never to leave a drink unattended, and to discard a drink that tastes salty or soapy or has particles in it.

Samantha had never heard of GHB. Court testimony indicated that she noticed her Mountain Dew didn't taste right, but she drank it anyway.

Samantha Reid and her mom, Judi Clark



Number of union construction workers takes a dip in 2000

Reflecting the overall trend in organized labor, the percentage of construction workers represented by unions declined in 2000 to 19.0 percent, down from 19.6 percent in 1999.

Construction union membership in the U.S. actually increased from 1999 to 2000 - up 33,000 to 1.22 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But, employment in the industry rose nearly 7 percent, from 6.2 million in 1999 to a record 6.6 million in 2000, and the number of nonunion construction workers grew at a greater rate.

The BLS data showed that union pay rates in construction were significantly higher - 54 percent higher - than those of nonunion workers. That compares to 1999, when nonunion construction workers earned an average of 35 percent less than union workers.

Construction workers who were members of unions in 1999 had median weekly earnings of $814 in 2000, the highest of any industry, compared to $529 for nonunion workers. Pay for union members increased by 4.6 percent from 1999-2000.


Bush places steel erection standard on the shelf

The new federal steel erection standard we mentioned in our last issue, expected to save an estimated 30 lives, prevent 1,142 injuries per year and save $40 million, has been set aside by the Bush Administration.

In the first action after he took office, President George W. Bush froze regulatory activity and blocked final governmental rules that had not been in effect by the time he took office on Jan. 20.

The long-awaited standard enhances protections provided to iron workers by addressing the hazards that have been identified as the major causes of injuries and fatalities in the steel erection industry. These are hazards associated with working under loads; hoisting, landing and placing decking; column stability; double connections; landing and placing steel joints; and falls to lower levels.

A Bush spokesman said the new president would review all regulations and orders, but no timeline was set.



Union-only agreements at risk
A huge push by the nation's unions nearly helped to put Al Gore into the White House in the Nov. 7 election. He didn't win, and now its time for unions to face the music with the guy who is sitting in the Oval Office.

Under the headline, "Unions allege Bush payback for their strong support of Al Gore," the Wall Street Journal reported last week the White House is circulating drafts of executive orders on major labor issues.

At the top of the list is a proposal to rescind a 1998 order by President Clinton that would allow local governments that use federal tax dollars on construction projects to enter into union-only contracts. Nonunion contractors have criticized the Clinton order, saying it keeps them from bidding on billions of dollars in construction work.

"Reversing this is our No. 1 priority," said Scott Brown of the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors, a major Bush backer.

Said AFL-CIO General Counsel Jon Hiatt, "this is retaliation for unions…being such a dominant force in the last election."

Tax break 'goodies' go to the wealthy
"In reality," said Wall Street Journal columnist Albert Hunt, "middle-class Americans are the 'Trojan Horse' that will deliver the real goodies to the rich."

That was how Hunt, many Democrats and nonpartisans viewed President Bush's plan to cut taxes for Americans by $1.6 trillion over the next 10 years.

Under Bush's plan, the top 1 percent of income earners - people who make $750,000 or more before taxes every year - would get more of a tax break than the bottom 80 percent of all taxpayers combined. "Conversely," Hunt said, "people living at or slightly above the poverty level get nothing."

According to the Center on Budget Priorities, a non-partisan think-tank, people in that top 1 percent would get 36-43 percent of all the benefits provided by the tax cut. Conversely, the lowest-earning 40 percent would get just a 4 percent tax break. In fact, a typical family of four would get no tax break at all until their income rises above $25,867, the center said.

"When you look at reality, the plan leaves out the working poor and does remarkably little for low-income families," said the center's executive director, Robert Greenstein.

In presenting the plan, Bush said a married couple earning $100,000 a year, both working, with two children, would see their taxes reduced by $3,418 per year. The same couple earning $50,000 a year would see a tax reduction of $1,975.

Meanwhile, Democrats pointed out, wage earners who earn $300,000 a year would get a $45,000 tax break under Bush's plan.

The "average" American family, Bush said, would see a tax reduction of $1,600. Hunt likened that figure to the following baseball trivia question: which brothers hold the Major League record for most career home runs? The answer: Hank Aaron, who hit 755, and his brother Tommy, who hit 13.

"The wealthy are the Henry Aarons of the Bush tax plan, while working class players are the Tommys," Hunt said. "But the president packages the cuts as equally generous to all. Mr. Bush will continue to insist that under his plan the 'average' American family gets a $1,600 tax cut, ignoring the fact that more than 80 percent get less than that. But then, some insist that the Aarons hit an average of 384 home runs."


The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index