The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index

February 3, 2006

Steady as she goes for U.S. union membership

Trades get ready for some football

Pre-game efforts help Cass Activity Center

NFL Theatre here today, gone tomorrow

The future of U.S. construction...It's about demographics

It's the Masonic Center all right

Unions are looking for a few good public office candidates

Granholm promotes health plan, construction, instruction

News Briefs


Steady as she goes for U.S. union membership

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

WASHINGTON (PAI) - Union membership held steady at 12.5 percent in 2005, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Jan. 20.

BLS said the nation had 15.685 million unionists last year, the same percentage as 2005, but 213,000 more in numbers. The bureau also said almost 1.5 million more people were represented by unions, but were not members.

The flat percentage is a small victory for the U.S. union movement, which has been in steady decline since the early 1980s. "In a political climate that's hostile to worker's rights," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, "these numbers illustrate the extraordinary will of workers to gain a voice on the job despite enormous obstacles."

Just over half, 7.9 million, of all U.S. union members lived in six states. Among them, five states had union membership rates over 20 percent in 2005: New York (26.1 percent), Hawaii (25.8 percent), Alaska (22.8 percent), and Michigan and New Jersey (20.5 percent each).

Teamsters President James Hoffa cited those figures on union concentration as a reason unions must organize and grow.

"A worker's right to a union has continually been eroded by a corporate takeover of our government," he said. "The labor movement must change if it is to remain relevant to workers under constant assault who want economic and job security. The 2004 presidential election was a painful lesson that all the money and mobilizing in the world are not enough to make a difference when you have too few members."

Five states reported union membership rates below 5.0 percent in 2005. South Carolina and North Carolina continued to record the lowest union membership rates, 2.3 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively. Arkansas and Virginia had the next lowest union membership rates in 2005, 4.8 percent each, followed closely by Utah, at 4.9 percent.

The membership numbers for construction industry were not rosy. According to the BLS, U.S. construction union membership dropped from 14.7 percent in 2004 to 13.1 percent last year. More than 1.1 million construction workers in the U.S. are represented by unions.

BLS also reported that unionists had a substantial advantage in wages over their non-union colleagues in the same occupations. The median weekly wage for unionists was $801 last year. For non-unionists, it was $622.

Union membership has steadily declined from its peak in the 1950s. For a more modern yardstick, BLS figures, using "comparable union data," said the nation's workforce was 20.1 unionized in 1983.


Trades get ready for some football

While no one knew that the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks would be squaring off in Detroit on Feb. 5, many building trades workers have had their backfields in motion for months prior to Super Bowl Sunday, getting Downtown Detroit ready for the big game.

Façade improvements along Woodward Avenue have dramatically improved the look of storefronts. Washington Boulevard's new streetscape and improvements to Campus Martius were completed last fall in preparation for the influx of visitors.

At Detroit's Cobo Center, construction crews worked quickly to tear out the North American International Auto Show, then setting up NFL Experience, which is taking place the week before Super Sunday.

And of course at Ford Field over the last two weeks, the building trades have been super busy setting up scaffolding, running electric and heat to party tents, while wrapping up construction of a large parking deck and office complex adjacent to the stadium.

But the trades have also been busy elsewhere in two venues that have less to do with football and partying more to do with helping others. Below are those stories.

BUILDING TRADES union workers built the $375 million Ford Field - which is the site of Super Bowl XL on Feb. 5 between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks.


Pre-game efforts help Cass Activity Center

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

Cass Activity Center in Detroit was chosen for the National Football League's annual "Kickoff to Rebuild" program that takes place in the Super Bowl's host city.

The NFL is funneling about $200,000 to help fund repairs to the center on Cass and Seldon, which provides a haven for developmentally disabled adults. The clients learn life skills such as cooking, safety and money management.

The money will pay for many, but certainly not all of the materials needed to upgrade the 7,300-square-foot Cass Activity Center building, which is about a century old and very much in need of renovation. But no labor costs were in the budget - and that's where building trades unions stepped in, big time.

"The vast majority of the work that we've have needed isn't the glamour stuff," said Ed Hingelberg, director of operations for Cass Community Social Services. "It involves tearing out walls and doing wiring and plumbing. I give kudos to the building trades people for all the work they're doing every single day."

Union electricians, plumbers, roofers, tile masons and carpenters stepped in to lend a hand. Some of them, like laid-off IBEW Local 58 journeyman Jackie Malewicz, have nearly worked full days at the center throughout December and January. There were 25-30 volunteers working on the project on any given day.

"I'm here as long as it takes," Malewicz said. "It's important for us to do things in the community. We met some of the clients and they were cheering and clapping. That was really nice." Fellow electrician Stacie Reeves said: "I just wanted to do something to help. This is definitely a good cause."

The building will be getting a new kitchen, renovated bathrooms, more efficient lighting, new flooring and walls and a new roof.

Prior to becoming NFL Commissioner, Paul Tagliabue and his wife, Chandler, got involved with the non-profit agency "Rebuilding Together" when it was founded more than 20 years ago in Washington,D.C. When he became commissioner several years later, they decided that the NFL should be rehabbing houses or non-profit facilities in conjunction with the Super Bowl to help raise awareness of the need that exists across the country and also to give the NFL an opportunity to make a difference in the Super Bowl city, said Patty Johnson, president and CEO of Rebuilding Together.

This effort is being coordinated by Jay Eldridge, president of the Rebuilding Together Oakland County chapter, a United Way agency.

As part of the Super Bowl pre-game activities, Tagliabue, Miss America, some players and other dignitaries are expected to tour the renovated building and hold a press conference on Friday, Feb. 3.

"Having this kind of attention means this work is getting done," Eldridge said. "A lot of it has been necessary, but we haven't had the money. The amount of work being done by the volunteers from the building trades and the UAW is phenomenal. We've made some new friends."

IBEW LOCAL 58 volunteers who helped re-work the wiring at the Cass Activity Center include (l-r): Jackie Malewicz, Leslie Grammatico, Mary Johnson, Chaterine Hefke, and Stacie Reeves. There were numerous other volunteers from the IBEW and the rest of the trades who weren't present that day.

IBEW Local 58's Leslie Grammatico measures a wall for placement of an electrical box in the Cass Activity Center.



NFL Theatre here today, gone tomorrow

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

The Cadillac Theatre inside the Somerset Collection's Grand Court in Troy must be the most well-built, stadium-within-a-mall ever erected.

Too bad its presence is only fleeting, much like Super Bowl XL in Detroit.

Various contractors and building trades union members helped build the theatre, which was placed inside a miniature stadium that resembles Ford Field. Mall-goers are asked to pay $2 per ticket - the proceeds go to the NFL and NFL Alumni Association's "Caring for Kids" charity - to watch a 15-minute film, "Defining Moments," which will include highlights from the first 39 Super Bowls.

The theatre seats 42 and holds 75 people. The goal is to raise $200,000.

"I cannot tell you how wonderful the trades have been," said Somerset Collection Marketing Director Linda McIntosh. IBEW Local 58, Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1 and the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters participated in the construction.

The feature attraction will be displayed on a 120-foot plasma screen with surround sound. "It's going to look and sound like a modern movie theatre," said Matt Almashy of IBEW Local 58 and Cinder Electric. "Everything that we're putting in is high-end."

The labor and materials were donated. Work on the 900-square-foot stadium-theatre started in the mall the day after Santa's castle was torn down, and it will be disassembled soon after the Super Bowl is played.

"Most of my work has been torn down anyway," joked BAC Local 1 apprenticeship coordinator Jack Love.

THE CADILLAC Theatre, which roughly replicates Ford Field, under construction inside the Somerset Collection in Troy.

Matthew Stefann and Demond Johnson of BAC Local 1 apply mortar to the brick-work on the Cadillac Theatre project at the Somerset Collection in Troy.


The future of U.S. construction...It's about demographics

Demographics will drive long-term work opportunities in the nation's construction economy - a factor which offers mixed news for Michigan and other cold-weather states in the Midwest and Northeast.

That's the word from FMI Corp., a management consulting and investment banking company, which annually offers its exhaustively documented "U.S. markets construction overview."

For 2006 and beyond, the report said construction is expected to increase by a greater percentage in Sunbelt states, which are expected to benefit from the population shift from the Midwest and the Northeast, as well as an infusion of immigrants from Mexico and other warm-weather nations.

"Demographic shifts pertaining to U.S. population are proving to be significant drivers of growth markets," the report said. "While the population growth statistics indicate an increase of 30 percent from 2000 to 2030, approximately 88 percent of the growth will occur in the South and the West… primarily in California, Texas and Florida."

The impact of this population shift, the report said, "will present huge opportunities in the construction industry for residential, commercial, and health care construction, as well as transportation segments and infrastructure investment." The report also pointed out what goes hand-in-hand with demographic shifts: the accompanying tilt in political power to the Sunbelt states.

The pending population shift isn't good news for Michigan and its regional neighbors, but there are some positives in the report. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that between 2002 and 2012, 1.4 million U.S. workers will leave construction jobs for retirement or other work - however, with anticipated growth factored in, the industry will need 2.5 million workers during that period. That's boon to job security for today's younger construction workers.

In addition, the report said there are numerous near-term growth areas for construction all over the country. U.S. power consumption jumped 13 percent in 2005 from the year before, and with that trend growing, there is increasing pressure to build more power plants. One Michigan utility executive told a building trades conference last year that our state needs three power plants to keep up with anticipated demand.

The FMI report said that substantial U.S. gains are anticipated in nonresidential construction, health care, office construction, transportation, and infrastructure. "In almost every sector, demand is strong," the FMI report said.

…It's about people

The annual FMI Corp. U.S. Markets Construction Overview is seen as a major source for examining the nation's construction industry. Coming from a management consulting company, there was a refreshing lack of anti-worker rhetoric in what it suggested in their "labor trends to watch."

Here's a sampling:

"Modest pay increases… and that's a shame."

"How we got here is completely understandable. When workers were plentiful and jobs were not, wage increases were easy to hold down. As the pendulum swung toward an open-shop industry, collective bargaining lost its leverage to push for higher wages.

"Employers are cautious about pay increases in boom times. Nevertheless, in construction, the general theme seems to be, keep wages low so that our prices will be low enough to grow our business even if that means lower productivity because our human resource tank does not contain high-octane talent."

Training will be the watchword.

"Certified training might be an even better watchword. The promise to 'learn a life trade' still holds an appeal to some, but that promise requires significant industry commitment to crafts training, certification and career path development. The demise of organized labor has severely eroded the wherewithal of the U.S. construction industry.

"The investment by most construction industry companies in training is less per capita than the per item spending on equipment maintenance. Given most of the draft choices available to labor-intensive contractors, their failure to provide deep and wide crafts training is a spending choice unwisely made."

Organized labor's role.

"Some would argue that a certified workforce exists in the form of organized labor. However, other issues surrounding organized labor have clouded the real value of union-trained labor. With the demand for skilled labor continuing to grow, one would expect a parallel resurgence in organized labor to follow.

"So far that has proven to be theory not grounded in reality. If construction truly is the hostile workplace envisioned by some, workers should be clamoring for representation of some type to deal with the issues of low pay, high risk and minimal benefits provided by many industry employers.

"This representation may come in the form of something that looks and feels a bit different than the labor unions of old. Some union leaders are emerging as more business focused. They understand that to survive they must change. As progressive leaders become more proactive in the recruiting effort and better target today's labor force, including Hispanics; modify work rules, become more marketing savvy and more of a true partner with the employers, the pendulum is likely to swing."


It's the Masonic Center all right

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

MARQUETTE - With "Masonic Center" on the nameplate, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the masons who built the downtown Masonic Lodge No. 101 in the 1930s went a little overboard on the masonry.

An ongoing renovation of the two-story, 42,000-square-foot building required significant interior demolition - a long, difficult, drill-bit-dulling process.

"Inside, everything is concrete, and they must have used a mix that made it really, really hard," said Dusty Ferguson, vice president of Menze Construction, which is managing the project. "The concrete walls are 16 inches thick - we had to drill holes before we brought in the jackhammers. Then they put in re-bar that's four inches on center. It was built like a brick ----house."

The Masonic Lodge will keep its office and meeting area on the second floor, but the first floor and basement are being transformed into retail and office space. At one time, the building housed a Montgomery Wards, but there were only two tenants when renovations began.

Renovations include a new elevator and a new entrance to face the back parking lot. There are 30 construction workers on the project, which began in August and is scheduled for completion in early March. Dressler Mechanical and JP Electric are also principal contractors on the project.

There has always been a bit of mystery about the Masons, the largest and oldest fraternal group in the world. The website of the Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Michigan said "Freemasonry is first and foremost a fraternity." Its activities, the site said, "should always be designed to promote friendship, morality and brotherly love."

The term "lodge" itself comes from the structures which the stonemasons built against the sides of the cathedrals during construction in the Middle Ages. In winter, when building had to stop, they lived in these lodges and worked at carving stone.

A NEW FRONT AND a renovated interior will welcome new tenants of the revamped Masonic Lodge building. Apparently a temporary batch plant was erected at the site when it was built in the 1930s, which would help account for the building's incredibly hard and thick concrete.

TIGHTENING A union on a steam valve is Steve Ravanelli of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 506 and Dressler Mechanical. Photos by Jerry Bielicki


Unions are looking for a few good public office candidates

Michigan school districts spent $16 billion on school construction from 1996 to 2004, according to the Michigan Land Use Institute.

There are no statistics available on how much of that work went union - but it's a safe assumption that many billions of dollars went into the coffers of nonunion contractors and into the bank accounts of nonunion tradespeople.

This article is another reminder that the unionized building trades could use a few good men and women to run for school board positions and other public offices. Having friendly people in those public positions provides a platform to steer more of those billions toward qualified union contractors.

"Too often people think it's the other person's job to be on the school board," said Ed Haynor, a consultant for the West Michigan Public Alliance and a 22-year trustee on the Newaygo School Board. "But if we're to believe that completion of a unionized apprenticeship program is equivalent to a four-year degree, don't tell me that people in the trades aren't qualified to sit on a school board or city council."

Haynor said school boards often first look to each other, then to outside consultants like construction managers and architects, to make decisions on how to spend bond issue funds or even building maintenance money.

"School board are made up of people from a variety of backgrounds: pharmacists, bankers, housewives," Haynor said. "It is almost always seen as very helpful to have someone on that board with a background in issues that come before them. A construction worker could offer expertise on who to look for when it comes time to hire and help steer everyone in the right direction."

School district and local municipal bond issues for renovations and new construction are rare occurrences these days. Still, on Feb. 28, voters in seven school districts across Michigan will be asked to approve nine school bond issues totaling $368 million for facility renovations, improvements, and new construction.

The 2006 deadline for filing to participate in most school board elections in Michigan is Feb. 7 for the May 2 election, but some elections are held later in the year. Local city commission and city council offices may also be on your ballot.

Pulling the trigger on making the decision to run this year or a in future year probably won't be easy, but winning a seat has its rewards. "There are so many things you learn, sitting on a school board is a real eye-opener," Haynor said.


Granholm promotes health plan, construction, instruction

LANSING - In her fourth and final State of the State address of her first term, Gov. Jennifer Granholm on Jan. 25 outlined the next steps in her plan to get Michigan's economy moving again.

"Tonight," she said, "I want to talk to the everyday people of Michigan, the people who built Michigan's schools and churches, its little leagues and Kiwanis Clubs. The people who power its economy and who only expect for themselves a fair opportunity to build a good life for their families.

"Michigan, I am here to tell you: We have a detailed and comprehensive plan to grow this economy. We are working that plan. And everything in that plan will secure the opportunity for a good life for you and your family. In Michigan."

Saddled with one of the highest statewide jobless rates in the nation, a declining tax base and with an auto industry that has been rocked to the core with layoffs and bad financial numbers, Granholm and state lawmakers have struggled to find solutions.

Late in 2005 the Democratic governor and Republican legislature came to terms on the "Jobs Today, Jobs Tomorrow" plan. For the building trades, the highlight of the plan was the acceleration of $3 billion in infrastructure projects over the next three years, instead of over a decade. A total package of $6 billion, the plan also includes a $600 million in business tax cuts.

In addition, Granholm touted how the state has resolved $4 billion in budget deficits without a general tax increase, and the passage of 51 tax cuts for both businesses and individual taxpayers.

Responding to Granholm's speech, Michigan Speaker of the House Craig DeRoche, R-Novi said: " There are stark differences in philosophies for turning this once-mighty economic powerhouse back into high gear, but I believe a true debate on our differences can lead to creative solutions and bold ideas that are sorely in need.

"We've got to get back to the basics that made Michigan a leader in innovation and economic growth: Lower taxes, less regulations, high standards in education and an infrastructure that makes Michigan a logical center for the manufacturing and distribution of goods and services around the world."

The governor also offered some new initiatives:

  • A new health care plan to provide access to affordable health insurance to more than 500,000 uninsured citizens. The Michigan First Health Care Plan would make affordable private health plans available to small business employees, the self-employed, and the working poor without access to traditional employer-based health insurance or government-run programs. Granholm said that cutting the state's uninsured population by half would create significant savings for businesses and citizens who subsidize uninsured health care.
  • She called for quick action on her proposal for a tough core curriculum and a new $4,000 Merit Award scholarship for students to continue their education beyond high school. Granholm said she would call for significant new investments in education, after school programs, and early childhood education in her upcoming budget.
  • She called on the legislature to allocate an additional $25 million to help provide home heating assistance, to raise the minimum wage, to cut insurance rates by 20 percent, to pass tough new ethics standards and demand corporate responsibility and provide workers access to pension savings plans. "We have been working the plan," said Granholm. "We have been consistent, disciplined, and unwavering in executing it. And tonight, we will move this plan - and our state - forward. We must protect the everyday way of life that Michigan citizens have worked so hard to build."


News Briefs

State pushes back at Wal-Mart
In what could prove to be a landmark case, the Democrat-controlled Maryland state legislature overrode a veto by the state's Republican governor last month, passing a law aimed at Wal-Mart that requires companies employing more than 10,000 workers to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health care - or pay any shortfall into a special state fund.

Sponsors of the bill said the legislation was not aimed at Wal-Mart - but with 15,000 employees in Maryland, the retailer is the only business affected.

"Maryland is not a shrinking violet - no, far from it," said Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah (D), a lead sponsor of the legislation, to the Washington Post. "Maryland is a leader. Let us light the torch today. Let us lead."

Wal-Mart earned more than $10 billion in profits in 2005, but has long been criticized for offering employees health insurance that is too expensive and inadequate.

According to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, in Alabama, Wal-Mart employees with children on Medicaid cost the state between $5.8 million and $8.2 million to cover 3,864 children. And Wal-Mart workers in California rely on state taxpayers for about $32 million annually in health-related services.

The Wal-Mart push-back is spreading. During his state-of-the-state speech on Jan. 17, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) took another shot across the bow of the retailing giant when he said: "I want to make this very clear to Wal-Mart and any other company that might be thinking of shifting its health-care responsibility to taxpayers: BadgerCare (Wisconsin's program to provide health care coverage for uninsured families) is intended to help working families, not multibillion dollar corporations."

The Maryland vote drew applause from Wal-Mart Watch, one of several groups that have been pushing the company to improve wages and benefits.

"The eyes of the nation were on Annapolis (Maryland) today," said a statement by the group. "And the override votes will generate important momentum in many other state legislatures that are considering similar health care bills."

Congress takes aim at executive pensions
With the health of pension plans for American workers increasingly at risk, Congress is making rumblings toward blocking companies from funding lavish pension payouts to executives at troubled companies.

The Wall Street Journal reported Jan. 25 that a provision in a bill would "keep financially troubled companies from setting aside any special pension benefits for top executives if their pension plans for rank-and-file employees weren't adequately funded."

The Journal article added that a bankruptcy proof supplemental retirement benefit program for executives in the troubled airline industry rankled Congress.

"…a $45 million fund set up a few years ago for 35 top officials by Delta Air Lines Inc. have galvanized support for reining in such perks at other beleaguered companies."

Congress continues to work on a plan to shore up the finances of the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp., a federal agency which underwrites pension obligations of financially troubled companies. The PGBC is under-funded by $22.8 billion.

Jobless benefits are taxable
With the coming of tax season comes a reminder from the Michigan Unemployment Agency that jobless benefits are taxable.

The State of Michigan has begun mailing out year-end statements to anyone who received unemployment benefits in 2005. The 1099-G statements report how much individuals received in unemployment benefits last year.

Those who have questions about their 1099-G statements or who did not receive a statement have several options to contact the Unemployment Agency.

  • *For telephone filed-claims, call (866) 500-0017. Select the "inquiry" option. This number is staffed from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., M-F.
  • *The customer relations hotline is (800) 638-3995. It is staffed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. M-F.
  • *Unemployment Agency Resolution Offices are open M-F from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. They are located in Gaylord, 400 W. Main St; in Grand Rapids, 3391 Plainfield Ave., NE; Lansing, 5015 S. Cedar St.; Livonia, 33523 W. Eight Mile Rd.; Marquette, 2833 US 41 West; and Saginaw, 614 Johnson St.


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