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February 20, 2004

Kerry endorsed by building trades for U.S. president

In 2003, another drop for union membership

Trades transform Merchants Row

The Gangbox - Assorted news and notes

Bricklayers rediscover lost art of lighthouse construction



Kerry endorsed by building trades for U.S. president

All aboard the Kerry bandwagon.

With a candidacy given up for dead just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has swept nearly all the states which have held primaries or caucuses - including Michigan - and is now labor's candidate for the Oval Office.

Most individual building trades unions, including the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department, have kept their political action money in the bank while the primaries have played out. Now, said Building Trades Department President Edward Sullivan, the time has come to start supporting Kerry.

The 15 Building Trades Governing Board of Presidents met Feb. 10 and voted with "no objections" to officially support the candidacy of the Massachusetts Democrat.

"There were several solid candidates whom we respect and admire for their support of union issues," said Sullivan. "But we believe it is clear that one candidate, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, has emerged as the strongest and best-equipped to secure both the Democratic nomination and the presidency of the United States.

"Considering that the outcome of this election year is truly critical for the labor movement and for our nation, we believe it is time for the building trades to take unified action now and to work hard to make a significant difference to the November results."

Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who had the most union backing in the race before he dropped out after his disastrous loss in the Iowa caucuses, endorsed Kerry on Feb. 6 in Warren, the day before Michigan's caucus.

Numerous other unions have already endorsed Kerry. Some, including AFSCME, switched their allegiance to the Massachusetts Democrat after endorsing Howard Dean.

The Sheet Metal Workers have endorsed Kerry to restore "prosperity and peace," President Michael Sullivan said.

President Bush, he said, "failed us in generating the jobs we depend on, the affordable health care we require and in providing a secure future. It is time for this president, and his party of irresponsibility, to surrender the White House."


In 2003, another drop for union membership

WASHINGTON (PAI) - Union membership declined again in 2003, dropping to 12.9 percent of the nation's workforce, compared to 13.3 percent in 2002. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the numbers last month.

BLS said unions had 15.8 million members last year, a decline of 369,000. The numbers include AFL-CIO unions as well as independents such as the National Education Association, the National Treasury Employees Union, the Carpenters and the United Transportation Union. Unions also represented another 1.7 million workers who are not members, most of them in government, BLS said.

BLS statistics show that U.S. union membership has declined steadily since 1983, when 20.1 percent of the nation's workforce was in a union.

The U.S. construction industry, at 21.7 percent, remains one of the highest job sectors for private-sector union density, trailing only the transportation and public utility industries. However, membership in building trades unions in 2003 fell by 40,000, or 3.5 percent, to 1,139 million.

The AFL-CIO had no comment on the numbers. Robert Gasperow, executive director of the Construction Labor Research Council, told the Construction Labor Report, "it would have been a surprise for (construction union membership) numbers to do anything but decline." That's because of the strong residential building sector in 2003, which is typically a stronghold for nonunion companies. Union-dominated commercial and heavy industrial sectors were down last year.

The BLS numbers did show a continuing trend of union members earning far more than do their non-union colleagues. The median weekly earnings figure for unionists last year was $760, compared to $599 for nonunion workers. In the construction industry, the gap between union and nonunion wages rose significantly from 35 percent in 2002 to 47 percent in 2003.

Federation President John J. Sweeney set an eventual goal of organizing 500,000 workers per year. Last year, the federation reported organizing approximately 150,000. Union dissidents, publicized by Harry Kalber, a longtime labor journalist and editor of the Labor Educator, say the declining numbers show the federation's present strategy is failing.

The strongest job sector for unions is in government: three of every eight government workers are unionists, including 42.4 percent of local government workers - teachers, firefighters, police, etc. That figure is 0.1 percent more than in 2002.

BLS records show that half of all the nation's union members live in six states: California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, in that order.


Trades transform Merchants Row

By Marty Mulcahy

The huge dust cloud from the imploded J.L. Hudson's building on Woodward Avenue in 1998 has been long been settled.

Across the street from the old Hudson's site in Detroit, no doubt some of that dust is now being cleaned out from a lineup of buildings that are now called the Lofts of Merchant's Row. The development calls for Turner Construction and the building trades to gut and transform the row of buildings - most of them about 90 years old - into retail and loft space.

The $30 million project will have about 157 units in several buildings along the west side of Woodward. Plans call for the construction of a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments ranging in size from 820 square-feet to 1,500 square-feet. The lofts will have 12- to 15-foot ceilings with exposed duct work and floor plans.

Turner referred questions about the project to Kern Woodward Associates, a partnership between Schostak Bros. and The Sterling Group, who could not be reached for comment.

Robert Kraemer, principal architect for the project for the Kraemer Design Group, said this project "will create a sense of neighborhood in a key block of Woodward that has long been neglected. The restoration of the exterior of the building will be a significant contribution to the improvements that are planned for Woodward Avenue, and the interiors will be all-new with great views and modern amenities that will make this a great place to live."

The development was spurred by construction of the new $350 million Compuware headquarters building, which was substantially completed last fall. Merchants Row sits across Woodward and a little to the north of Compuware. Directly across Woodward is a below-ground parking deck where the Hudson's building used to be located.

Merchant's Row was given that name in reference to the types of buildings that occupied the site before Detroit's downtown was abandoned in many areas in the 1970s. In recent years, Merchant's Row had housed shops with seedy storefronts, most of them empty. Some of the shops continue to operate, although the developer is in negotiations to buy them out.

The renovated buildings will literally be a shell of their former selves, with only the architecturally interesting storefronts kept in place. Plans also call for the construction of a parking deck to serve the residents.

THE LOFTS OF MERCHANTS ROW development is taking place along Woodward Avenue in Detroit. There are more buildings to the right. These buildings sit across from the old J.L. Hudson's department store site, which is now marked by the stumps of iron. The iron will anchor any new development. A parking deck was constructed below.

IRON WORKER LaNard Graham goes to work between the shelled out area between two Merchant's Row buildings.


The Gangbox - Assorted news and notes

More money for Michigan? Maybe. Michigan may be in line to get an increase in federal transportation funding, and at a rate faster than other states. But there are two big strings attached.

As we have noted in the past, Michigan is a currently a "donor" state when it comes to transportation funding, receiving only 88 cents on each tax dollar sent to the federal government in taxes.

According to the Construction Labor Report, based on figures compiled by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, highway funding is expected to increase 35 percent over the next six years, and all states are expected to eventually get 95 percent return on their money.

But Michigan is among the handful of states that are expected to get the 95 percent rate of return with the first year of funding, while other states will have to wait to get to that level. Faster growing states in the South and West will have to wait a little longer to get to the 95 percent level.

The strings that are attached to the plan are held by the Senate, where the legislation is bogged down, and by President Bush, who has vowed to use his veto pen because he feels the transportation plan costs too much.

Help restore funding fairness. Michigan Hardhats can help move the transportation spending issue along by logging on to There you can enter your Zip Code and e-mail your member of Congress, urging him or her to support funding fairness for transportation construction.

Michigan currently ranks 47th in the nation in terms of rate of return for highway funding, and a coalition of labor, management, politicians and business groups have formed the Michigan Transportation Team and started up the website in an effort to get more bang for the buck when it comes to highway spending in Michigan.

A mean form of tailgating. You've heard of stolen hub caps. You've heard of stolen air bags. Now, at least one thief has moved on to stealing pickup truck tailgates.

Mike Renaud, an IBEW electrician, walked out of the Ford Wixom plant where he was working on a construction project late last month and discovered the tailgate stolen from his two-year-old Dodge Ram. His pickup was parked not far from a guard shack in the employee parking lot.

"I'm running into people who are saying the same thing happened to them," he said. "I heard there were a bunch taken one morning at the Wixom plant, and another six in one morning at the Ford Wayne plant. "They were taken from Fords, Chevys, whatever. I know air bags can be a hot item for thieves, but I never heard of tailgates being stolen. I just wanted to make the brothers aware of what's going on."

Det. Sgt. Jim Osborne of the Wixom Police Department confirmed Renaud's account, and said that there were 13 tailgates stolen on a single day at the Ford Wixom plant, and "multiple" tailgates taken in Wayne. He checked around and found no other similar incidents in other areas.

"The only real common denominator is that it happened at two different Ford plants," Osborne said. "I find it extremely odd, I have never heard of tailgates as a high-theft item. If this is going to be a trend, we're right at the start."

Homebuilding hot, other areas not. It's difficult to believe given the lackluster state of Michigan's construction economy, but U.S. construction activity advanced three percent in 2003 over the year before, according to McGraw-Hill Construction, which tracks these things. That rate of growth was better than anticipated.

The continuing boom in single-family housing construction led the charge - but that building sector has been dominated by nonunion contractors for decades.

"The overall level of construction activity was quite healthy during 2003, thanks to the robust volume of single-family housing," said Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction, on Jan. 29. "At the same time, it was a different picture for construction's other sectors."

Contractors who weren't building houses were hurting, as nonresidential building dropped three percent in the U.S. in 2003.

Murray said a "tough fiscal climate" in 2003 "dampened" institutional building, and caused public works to "lose momentum after four straight years of expansion." He said commercial building may be turning the corner after a weak 2003.

"Moving into 2004," he said, "continued growth for total construction will require more broad-based improvement from commercial building, since it's expected that single family housing will ease back from its exceptional 2003 pace."


Bricklayers rediscover lost art of lighthouse construction

By Marty Mulcahy

It looks like a lighthouse. It was modeled after a lighthouse. But the U.S. Coast Guard prefers that we don't call it a lighthouse.

We're going call it a lighthouse, anyway.

Construction wrapped up last month on the 58-foot-tall "Harbor Entry Safety Light," built in Detroit's Tricentennial Park at the foot of St. Aubin Street and the Detroit River. A crew of Davenport Masonry masons took nearly three months to erect the lighthouse, which was built as a decorative element rather than a navigation aid - hence the distinction by the Coast Guard.

Even as a decorative element, it's impressive.

"This is way out of the ordinary, I never did anything like this before in my life," said Davenport Masonry foreman Mike Piazza, who talked to us on one of the last days of the project. "Normally, we deal with level surfaces. But here there was no frame, anchors or reference points to work with. Just circular courses of brick and mortar. The work is tedious. But it did turn out beautiful."

The lighthouse is roughly modeled after the 70-foot-tall Tawas Point Lighthouse on Lake Huron, which was built in 1876. Pat Roach, the project architect for the Smith Group, said the Tawas Point light was considered by the state DNR to be an "iconic Michigan lighthouse," and thus a good candidate for reproduction.

The lighthouse will be the focal point in the 31-acre Tricentennial Park, which was named for Detroit's 300th birthday in 2001. The project includes a marina and is part of the $500 million, three-mile long RiverWalk project in Detroit, which extends from Hart Plaza to the Belle Isle Bridge. Dan's Excavating is acting as general contractor on the state park, the state's first to be constructed in an urban setting.

The Detroit lighthouse has a base circumference measurement of 16 feet, tapering with a five-degree vertical slope to an eight-foot circumference at the top.

While some smaller replica lighthouses have been built on the Great Lakes - and some beacons have been rebuilt - it appears that their construction is a lost art.

According to the National Park Service, the oldest surviving lighthouse in Michigan is the brick Fort Gratiot light, built in 1829 in St. Clair County. The most recently built lighthouse used for navigation and not decoration, is the Round Island Light near Mackinac Island, constructed in 1948.

"Building a lighthouse is a first for us, and I guess I don't know of anybody who is alive who has ever built one this size," said Kyle Lochonic, project manager for Davenport Masonry.

The bricklaying work on the Detroit lighthouse proceeded during some brutally cold weather on the river. Piazza said a wood wedge taped to a mason's level provided the proper angle "so we could see the bubble" to allow for the tapering of the walls as the courses of brick were laid. The bricks are a common rectangular shape. A slight amount of "play" in mortar from course to course was also utilized to shape the lighthouse's brick walls, Piazza said.

Installing the masonry frame for the rectangular door was also a challenge, Piazza said. "We don't think twice about building a brick doorway in a square building," he said. "But try putting a square doorway in a round building. We had to do some thinking on that one."

Last month, the hollow interior of the lighthouse included an incomplete steel structure that will provide anchorage points for the masonry walls. The interior will not be open to the public, and there is certainly no room for a keeper. A ladder will allow maintenance access to the lantern house and the observation area atop the lighthouse.

The specifications on the light, Roach said, were made in consultation with the Coast Guard. They settled on the installation of three 39-watt metalhalide lamps, "which creates some sparkle up there, but isn't bright enough that any boaters will confuse us with Belle Isle," Roach said.

If you want a lighthouse of your own, the cost came in under half a million dollars.

"It's an example of good, old-fashioned, solid load-bearing masonry, but there's no doubt, it's an unusual project," Roach said. "All in all, this went better than I expected. Davenport is an experienced and well-qualified contractor and they did a good job."

THE CREW who helped erect the Detroit lighthouse include (l-r) foreman Mike Piazza, Don Locker, Lee Felty, Brian Gardner, Carl Portels and Robert Terbush. Not in the photo are Doug Burnett and Terry Bennett.

BRICKLAYER Don Locker chips away excess mortar at the base of the lighthouse.



House reinstates jobless $ - sort of
First the good news: the Republican-run U.S. House of Representatives approved a six-month reinstatement of federal jobless benefits on Feb. 4.

And now the bad news: the Washington Post called the vote "largely symbolic" because the Senate and President Bush still have to approve the measure, but have shown no sign that they're willing to do so.

In addition, the House GOP leadership, which opposed the extension, called its passage a "hypocritical" political ploy because the House lawmakers didn't provide any money to fund the added benefits. The vote was along party lines, with 39 Republicans breaking ranks to help approve the measure, 227 to 179.

"The Republican leadership has been playing with political dynamite in resisting this simple measure to aid families who are hardest hit by long-term unemployment," federation President John J. Sweeney said after labor lobbied for restoring the federal benefits, which expired Dec. 31. Since then 375,000 people have exhausted their state jobless benefits, the only ones available.

Sweeney demanded that GOP President George W. Bush stop opposing jobless benefits and "prove his compassion for working families extends to those who want to work but cannot find jobs.

"Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) wrote the language providing $6.7 billion in unemployment benefits. "Last week the shocking neglect of the administration became all too apparent," Miller said. "They (the unemployed) can't find work and this administration won't help them."

Pay increases trend downward
Settlements in newly negotiated construction labor agreements in 2003 averaged $1.42 or 4.3 percent for the first year, according to the Construction Labor Research Council. The average increase was right in the middle of average first-year increases since 2000, which have ranged from 4.1 percent to 4.5 percent.

The average second- and third-year increases were both at 3.8 percent. An average of 63 cents of those increases were allocated to health and welfare costs.

The news was a little worse in Michigan, where the CLRC reported that average first-year increases were 4.0 percent in the first year and 3.6 percent in the second year. Michigan in recent years has been at the top of the rankings among states when comparing pay increases.

"As in most years," the CLRC said, "agreements of three years or more were most common. The difference (in 2003) was a reduced tendency to negotiate agreements of more than three years. The pattern of even longer agreements, which had been growing in recent years, has, therefore, subsided."


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