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February 2, 2001
By Marty Mulcahy
LANSING -For the first time in 15 years, General Motors is building a new assembly plant on U.S. soil.
But when they get around to building 'em, they build 'em big.
GM, the building trades, construction manager The Washington Group, and hundreds of subcontractors are in the process of building the new Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant, a $560 million project spread over nearly two million square feet of space. An astounding number of construction workers - about 1,200 - are currently putting their skills to work on the fast-track, two-year project, scheduled for completion on Nov. 12.
"We're on-schedule, and we're really pleased with the trades workers on this project," said GM Project Manager Dale Griffith. "We were very concerned about manpower shortages, but the Lansing Building Trades did an outstanding job of getting good, motivated workers."
The new plant is GM's first to be built in the U.S. since the Saturn Plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. was completed in 1986. The site consists a body shop, a paint shop and a general assembly building, and will build the next generation Cadillac Catera and other luxury vehicles.
GM has had some experience in building new plants over the last 15 years, having erected assembly plants in Poland, Argentina, China, Brazil and Thailand.
"Lansing Grand River gives us the opportunity to merge our best manufacturing processes from around the world," said G. Richard Wagoner, GM president and chief operating officer, during a site dedication ceremony. "The experience gained and the lessons learned from these projects will help make Lansing Grand River a truly world-class facility."
This is the first GM plant in the U.S. to be designed using a 3-D computer model - called "a virtual factory" - allowing the automaker to test how systems will work before any concrete is poured or beams are set.
"In the past, we couldn't validate the integration of equipment, tools, fixtures and machinery until everything was set up on the plant floor during startup," said Donald E. Hackworth, senior vice president of GM and group executive for the GM North America Car Group. "With a virtual factory, we are able to computer-model a safer and more ergonomically friendly environment, saving time in the design and validation process, and reducing costs by identifying and resolving problems upfront."
The virtual factory allowed the automaker to erect the 617,000 square-foot general assembly building in approximately half the space as in the past. And, the new plant will include improved material handling system. Supply trucks will deliver materials directly to where they're needed in the plant, with conveyors moving the materials on the inside of the plant, instead of building a single loading dock and using a forklift to transport materials.
The plant, projected to employ 1,500 people by its third year of operation, will be able to shift rapidly from car to truck production, or produce both at the same time. The Olds Alero and Pontiac Grand Am are also being built at existing production facilities on the site.
"We have a good working relationship with the contractors and GM," said Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Business Rep. T. Jeff Cole. "And we've had to, considering the fact that this project is going from ground zero to full operation in two years."
Despite the unprecedented allocation of resources for union organizing over the last decade, union membership numbers continue to fall in Michigan and around the nation.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics last month reported that 938,000, or 20.8 percent, of Michigan's workers belonged to unions in 2000, down from 963,000, or 21.5 percent, in 1999.
For the past two years, organized labor could see light at the end of the tunnel, celebrating the fact that the nation's union membership had halted a long slide in membership numbers by remaining even from 1998-2000 - but this year, the losses re-started.
"We recognize that the numbers are not where we want or need them to be," AFL-CIO Organizing Director Mark Splain told the Wall Street Journal.
Nationwide, the percentage of American workers who belong to a union dropped to 16.3 million or 13.5 percent in 2000 - a record low. In 1983, unions represented 20.1 percent of all American workers.
After eight years of tremendous economic prosperity, and with signals that the nation's economy is slowing, the lower numbers aren't a good sign. "Another reason the economic downturn is so worrisome to union officials is that organized labor struggles even in good times to replace workers who have left because of automation, retirement and migration of blue collar jobs abroad," wrote the Wall Street Journal last week.
More blunt was Gary Chaison, a Clark University labor expert quoted in the Journal: "(Unions) lose during prosperity and they lose during recession."
Undoubtedly, the loss in membership for unions would have been much greater without the commitment to organizing in recent years. The AFL-CIO has maintained that organizing efforts take time to develop, and remains committed to organizing.
Michigan ranks as the fourth-highest unionized state by percentage, behind New York (25.5 percent), Hawaii and Alaska. In terms of actual number of union members, Michigan also ranks fourth, behind California, New York and Illinois. The statistics show states with the lowest percentage of workers represented by unions are South Carolina (4.0 percent) and North Carolina (3.6 percent).
Government workers across the nation are 40 percent unionized - the highest rate among any occupational group. Among private, nonagricultural industries, the highest unionization rate occurred in transportation and public utilities (24.0 percent). The unionization rate in construction (18.3 percent) was next highest.
Some other notable numbers:
Improved on-the-job safeguards for the nation's iron workers and other Hardhats are on the way under new rules adopted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The new rule on steel erection, developed in concert with industry and union groups, is expected to prevent 30 fatalities and 1,142 injuries annually and save employers nearly $40 million a year. The rule was published last month.
The 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.
"The new steel erection rule proves that cooperation and hard work have their rewards," said outgoing Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman. "When industry and labor work together, we can save lives." The rule was developed by members of the Steel Erection Negotiated Rulemaking Advisory Committee, representing employers and employees who had significant input on the standard.
"Every year, an average of 35 iron workers die during steel erection activities and 2,300 more suffer lost workday injuries," said OSHA Administrator Charles N. Jeffress. "This standard will help prevent many of those fatalities and injuries. I commend business and labor interests for working together to develop this standard."
Specifically, the new rules require:
By Marty Mulcahy
The 77-story Marriot Hotel at the GM Renaissance Center may the tallest building in the state, but the cylindrical smoked-glass tower is a little short on character.
The same can't be said of the Penobscot Building, located about a quarter-mile to the west in the heart of Downtown Detroit. Completed in 1928, the stately 45-story office building was the tallest building in Michigan for half a century, and thanks to some major renovations in the last few years and ongoing maintenance work performed by the building trades, most of the structure probably looks as good today as it did when it first opened.
"This is an interesting building, and it's built like a rock," said Brian Moran of Elevator Constructors Local 36, who has serviced the skyscraper's 30 operational elevators since 1985. "Until they renovated the place a few years ago, this place really had a seventies looks to it, but now that they've redone it, it looks like it did at the turn of the century."
The 45-story tower was completed in 1928, but the Penobscot has a history that goes a little farther back. A 13-story office building was constructed in 1905 on Fort Street, and then a 24-story addition was built on Congress Street in 1913.
The Detroit Area Art Deco Society's Board of Directors recognized the building last year as "Detroit's image-defining skyscraper. Comparable to those of New York and Chicago, it really brought the city into the 20th century world of skyscrapers."
A 1928 promotional brochure stated: "A graceful tower of steel and brick and stone...its lofty facades stand as a worthy monument of man's progress upward from his primitive state. This towering structure typifies the confidence in a great destiny that is present-day Detroit. Every factor of fine materials, and the highest constructive ability that unstinted expenditure of capital may command, has gone into the building in an effort to make it the perfect expression of an ideal." Ornamenting the building are American Indian figures and motifs, which are also in the entrance archway and metalwork.
The Detroit Area Art Deco Society Award was given to the building last year as a project that has "completed a significant restoration to a 20th century building in the art deco, moderne or streamline style." The Penobscot Building was chosen because of the renovation work performed by the building's owners, Capstone Advisors.
The Art Deco society had high praise for the $1 million exterior work done by Ohio Building Restoration, whose workers from Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1 power-washed the exterior limestone with a solution of baking soda and water. Fifty years of residue from diesel bus fumes and other contaminants were lifted off, in an effort that was "phenomenally successful and made a dramatic difference to all of the building exteriors," the society said.
The building looks as good as ever, and good maintenance has kept the mechanical systems in good working order, too. Most of the elevators cabs and the mechanical systems were extensively overhauled in the 1970s, although five of the original cars are still in service. Simplicity of design in the lift system, Moran said, made the difference. He said the old systems weren't encumbered with sensitive electronics and extensive safety features of modern systems - "it's like an old car, the less stuff you put on the engine, the less trouble you have," he said.
Full-time painters and electricians also perform regular maintenance on the building. John Kasperek of Painters Local 675, who has worked in the skyscraper for 19 years, said, "this is just a grand old structure. You're working on good quality materials, not just drywall and metal studs. There are a lot of good materials in this building, and when you finish a job you take pride in what you've done."
Much of the electrical work in the skyscraper is original, said Marty Williams of IBEW Local 58, but much of it is being gradually being modernized as tenants move in and out and have different needs for their office space.
"There's certainly a combination of old and new in the building, but we've pretty much go on the theory that if it's not broke, don't fix it," Williams said.
The construction of Detroit's skyscrapers began after World
War I, and came to a grinding halt as the Great Depression hit
home. Hudson's department store, the tallest in the world, was
completed in 1924, the same year as the 29-story Book-Cadillac
Hotel, the city's most exclusive and then the world's tallest
hotel. The Buhl Building was completed in 1925; the Penobscot
followed in 1928, and the Guardian Building opened for business,
along with the David Stott Building, in 1929.
It seems as if organized labor has a Labor Department secretary it can live with.
President George W. Bush selected former Deputy Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to be Secretary of Labor. Bush announced his choice on Jan. 11, just two days after his initial selection, commentator Linda Chavez, said she was dropping her candidacy for the position. Chavez cited a flap over disclosure that she had housed an illegal immigrant, whom she had paid to perform various household chores.
Chao served in the administrations of Presidents Reagan and Bush in a variety of posts. From 1989 to 1991, she was Deputy DOT Secretary, and then director of the Peace Corps. After leaving government service, from 1992 to 1996, she was president and CEO of the United Way of America. She is the wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
After Bush had introduced her, Chao noted that while at the United Way, she had worked with labor union leaders, including AFL-CIO's President John Sweeney. Sweeney cautiously said he wants "to meet with her to discuss the many challenges facing the new secretary and learn more about her goals."
Communications Workers President Morton Bahr, vice-chair of the United Way board when Chao cleaned up the then-troubled non-profit group, gave her the strongest support. He called her "responsive to the needs of working families," and cited "her leadership skills, integrity and ability to bring together diverse interests."
Building trades workers and Pointe Jewelry pitched in during the holiday season to raise $10,010 for "The House" at St. Rita, an inner-city Detroit parish that provides food and a quiet place to study after school for neighborhood young people.
Pointe Jewelry owner Daniel LaLonde, an Operating Engineers Local 324 member who is also a gemologist, donated an $8,000 14-karat ladies diamond tennis bracelet for a drawing among Detroit-area building trades workers. Hardhats snapped up the $10 tickets and raised $10,010.
"It was easy to donate the bracelet, but a lot of guys did a lot of hard work selling the tickets," LaLonde said. "We're very happy to help the good people at St. Rita."
Rev. Timothy Kane, the pastor at St. Rita, said in a letter to the Greater Detroit Building Trades Council, "Wow! This is such a tremendous boost to all our efforts here at St. Rita parish.
"As you may know, 'the House' is a neighborhood youth and family empowerment center located in the old convent of our parish. This large facility is becoming the hub of after-school activities for the at-risk youth of our parish neighborhood. Our after-school study/snack table has grown to be a big success, serving over 250 youths each week. Over 41 percent of the neighborhood youth are 'food insecure.' Your donation is going directly to providing the assistance these youngsters need in stabilizing their lives and restoring the sense of community or 'family.'
Again, thank you for your help, you are truly the 'friends we need.' "
Daniel LaLonde and wife Cynthia Thomas LaLonde own Pointe
Jewelry, 20100 Mack Ave. in Grosse Pointe. Woods.
Local 98's Barnhart enters retirement
He served as Local 98's financial secretary-treasurer for the last 15 years, and before that, as business agent for six years.
"Jim took care of the local's financial business, be he also did all the little things that most members wouldn't see," said Local 98 Business Manager Gary Young. "He never wanted any credit for all the work that he did, he just wanted things done the right way. He had a real compassion for the membership."
Some 300 friends and well-wishers came from around Detroit and Michigan and across the country to honor Barnhart. Among them were wife Linda, daughter Amy and son Joe. The 59-year-old retiree plans on spending more time on the golf course, and fixing a cabin he has in northern Michigan.
Barnhart's successor is Tom Delehant, formerly a Local 98 business agent.
"I guess what I liked best about the job was that it was like a big family," Barnhart said. "I really enjoyed the friendships that I made in the office with the members. It was a big satisfaction watching the apprentices come through and become journeymen, and they would become second- or third-generation plumbers. I made a lot of friends in the local and in the building trades, and I was really proud to serve."
Trades appeal: hands off PLAs
"In the spirit of civility he espouses, the president should sit down with the 15 heads of our unions before he issues an order affecting hundreds of thousands of workers and their families," said Edward C. Sullivan, president of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department. "To unilaterally destroy agreements validated 9-0 by the U.S. Supreme Court is nothing short of a declaration of war on construction workers."
PLAs, widely used in the public sector, are also used on many
federally funded construction projects. They establish common
work rules, wages and benefits and prohibit strikes. The Supreme
Court upheld PLAs in 1993.