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February 6, 2004

Construction fatalities level in 2003, but more safety inspectors added

Pressure from Bush ends overtime for 8 million Americans

To pour salt into workers' wounds, Bush issues ideas for keeping pay low

Trades return to Karn-Weadock for 'major, major modifications'

Responsible contracting seen as a 'building block' for unions, contractors

How you can help stop potholes and employ Hardhats

NEWS BRIEFS

 

Construction fatalities level in 2003, but more safety inspectors added

By Marty Mulcahy
Editor

There were 24 construction worker fatalities in Michigan in 2003 - the same number as in 2002.

Those numbers were down from the 28 fatalities that took place in 2001, and were significantly lower than the 37 Hardhats who died on the job in 1997 - the highest number in recent years.

"Falls are traditionally the greatest cause of fatalities, followed by electrocutions," said MIOSHA Construction Safety and Health Division Chief Rick Mee. "But the caught-between category has been increasingly significant in recent years, and within that category the cause of the fatalities was all over the map."

The "caught-between" category raised a red flag with MIOSHA by claiming eight lives in 2003, while three fatalities were placed in the "struck-by" category.

One of the areas MIOSHA is focusing on - where caught-betweens and struck-bys are particularly prevalent - is in narrow right-of-way areas, especially along roadways. Trucks backing up and workers pinned by concrete barriers are two major hazards in these areas. Mee said four out of 10 construction fatalities occur in right-of-ways, but only about six percent of building trades workers toil in those areas.

There were seven construction deaths by electrocution in Michigan in 2003, followed by six falls that proved fatal, ranking those fatalities at two and three.

Other focus areas for MIOSHA are improving safety in the areas of falls, excavations more than five feet deep, and tall masonry walls.

A bit of good news: there were 16 construction state construction safety inspectors at the start of the Granholm Administration. Now, there are 19, plus three industrial hygienists as well as four hygienists to study asbestos cases. The former MIOSHA Construction Safety Division added "Health" to its moniker, and the hygienists were added as part of that realignment.

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Pressure from Bush ends overtime for 8 million Americans

The U.S. Senate caved in to pressure from President George W. Bush and approved his plan to cut U.S. workers' overtime pay on Jan. 22.

Bush had threatened to veto a massive $373 billion spending bill if it included an overtime pay protection guarantee for some eight million of the nation's workers. In December, Senate Democrats launched a filibuster to protest the lack of an overtime pay guarantee in the bill.

But the 61-32 Senate vote on Jan. 22 that ended the filibuster against the omnibus appropriations bill was one vote more than needed to meet the 60-vote threshold to shut off debate. The House had previously approved the bill.

"The president and Republicans in Congress have refused to extend unemployment benefits," said Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, to a crowd of a few hundred union members at the IBEW Local 58 hall in Detroit on Jan. 28. "That's bad enough, but now the cruelest cut of all may be banning overtime for eight million workers. People like nurses, firefighters and police officers are on the frontline of homeland security, but they're the ones who are targeted for losing overtime pay. What in the world is wrong with the Bush Administration?"

Congressional backers of the overtime pay guarantee say they will try to find another legislative avenue to block the Bush administration's changes in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

"Today's vote will galvanize workers who are appalled by the administration's attempts to deprive them of fair compensation for extra hours on the job," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. "Such hostility to the needs of working families cannot be tolerated." Sweeney pledged to use "every vehicle" to block the rules.

Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, who voted against the omnibus bill for a number of reasons, said the bill contains a regulation "to end overtime pay for millions of working men and women. Although the House and Senate both voted to oppose this regulation, their will was ignored because of White House pressure and the language was dropped in conference. This omission will negatively impact such public servants as police officers and firefighters.

"I cannot support this legislation as it has been brought to the floor on a 'take it or leave it' basis, violating procedures which assure the Senate's input."

Since the proposal was announced last year, workers have sent more than 1.5 million e-mails, letters, faxes and made phone calls to the White House.

The labor-backed Economic Policy Institute calculated the overtime pay eligibility ban would cost an average worker who now gets overtime $161 per week - and could affect eight million workers.

The ban on overtime isn't expected to affect workers who toil under collective bargaining agreements - yet. But employers are expected to use the rules to their advantage in future rounds of bargaining.

Business lobbyists backed the overtime pay plan, saying the present rules cause confusion and lawsuits.

Under the new Labor Department rules, anyone making over $22,100 could be classified as an "administrator" or some type of supervisor - even if administration was only a small share of their job time - and can thus be banned from earning overtime.

GREETING SEN. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass., third from left) during a swing through Michigan last week were (l-r) Iron Workers 25 Business Manager Shorty Gleason, IBEW 58 Business Manager Jeff Radjewski, and Greater Detroit Building Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Devlin.

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To pour salt into workers' wounds, Bush issues ideas for keeping pay low

If you think it's bad enough that President Bush has put the screws to American workers by ramming through a plan that substitutes comp time for overtime… whoops, he did it again.

Under Bush's plan, which has passed the Republican Congress, workers who make more than $22,100 per year would receive compensatory time off instead of overtime pay, but that time off could only be taken at the discretion of the employer.

That's bad enough - but Bush wasn't satisfied. On Jan. 7, Bush's Labor Department had the gall to issue suggestions to employers on how they can keep labor costs from increasing under the federal government's new overtime wage eligibility rules.

The focus of those suggestions affects workers who make an annual salary around the $22,100 threshold. For workers who earn below that amount, Bush's new rules would guarantee them overtime pay (although the AFL-CIO maintains that existing laws guarantee them OT pay).

Workers who earn above that amount wouldn't necessarily lose overtime pay, but employers in many job areas would be able to arbitrarily classify them as "administrators" who work in a supervisory capacity and thus could be forced to take comp time instead of overtime. An example is a registered nurse could be called an "administrator" because she supervises a nurse's aide, but conceivably, these new classifications could be extended to just about any line of work.

Here are two of the Labor Department's cost-cutting suggestions for employers who have employees earning a salary at or near the $22,100 threshold:

*Cut workers' hourly wages (say, to $20,000 per year). Then, add in the $2,100 in overtime pay to equal the original salary. (Of course, that set-up would allow employers to take away the $2,100 when the "overtime" is no longer needed).

*Or, the Labor Department suggested, employees' salaries that are just below the $22,100 level could be raised to $21,100, thus making the workers ineligible to make more than $21,100 if overtime is ever required. Of course, if the worker had been regularly making more than $21,000 per year with overtime - too bad.

"Clearly, Mr. President, your party's not with you on this," said Service Employees Local 2000 President Grant Williams, whose union members could be most affected by this rule. "We need to protect overtime pay - not jeopardize it. Pull the plug on this mindless policy. You can't justify rule changes that take hard-earned dollars away from workers in order to build corporate treasuries."

Unions have maintained that the changes are illegal, and lawsuits are no doubt on the horizon.

The Associated Press reported that the Labor Department said it is merely listing well-known choices available to employers. "We're not saying anybody should do any of this," said Labor Department spokesman Ed Frank.

Then why say anything at all?

Tammy McCutchen, who helped write the plan for the government, told the AP that "we had a lot of lawyers look at this rule. Unless you have a contract, there is no legal rule ... prohibiting an employer from either raising your salary or cutting your salary," she said, adding, "We do not anticipate employers will cut people's pay."

Oh, OK. Everyone feel better?

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Trades return to Karn-Weadock for 'major, major modifications'

By Marty Mulcahy
Editor

ESSEXVILLE - The building trades have once again returned in droves to the Consumers Energy's Karn-Weadock Generating Complex, this time taking part in an 86-day facility shutdown that will encompass the most extensive renovation project in the plant's history.

The outage began Jan. 24 and focuses on the coal-fired Karn Unit 1. The project is broken down into two major areas: preventative maintenance on plant components, and tying in the newly constructed Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) unit. The SCR was constructed by the building trades and was built to put the plant in compliance with new federal clean air requirements.

"We're looking for every opportunity to put power on the grid at the lowest cost possible," said Calvin Talley, Karn-Weadock's general manager. "And the work that will be performed during this outage will help us do that. We work side by side with the building trades on these projects, and the work that they do is very important. We're committed to building our relationship with the building trades."

The Karn-Weadock plant regularly employs about 370 workers, but during this outage, an additional 800 workers wearing hard hats will work at the facility at peak employment. Crews will work two 10-hour shifts a day, seven days a week. Some of the major items on the to-do list:

  • Replacement of the boiler economizer and other equipment used to re-heat steam. Steam passes through one turbine and then is re-heated for maximum efficiency.
  • Open up, inspect and make any necessary repairs on the unit's two electric generators.
  • Overhaul the unit's high-pressure, intermediate-pressure and low-pressure turbines.
  • Replace nearly 40 lineal miles of steel water-wall boiler tube. Richard Kirch, the project's outage manager for Consumers Energy, said that means about 20 percent of the tubing in Unit 1 will be replaced. "And all this is going on while Karn Unit 2 is still in operation," Kirch said.
  • Tying in the SCR is alone a $120 million project. During this outage work will include replacement of the unit's induced draft fans and modifications to the economizer dust removal and air handling systems. Modifications will also be made to the unit's electrical systems to handle the increased electrical load and connecting the SCR to a new digital control system.

"The site planning for this outage began more than two years ago," said John Gose, project manager for the SCR construction. "There's a ton of people here because there's a lot of work to do. The entire project is going to involve some major, major boiler modifications."

Primary contractors include Babcock and Wilcox for the SCR project, Duke and Duke for turbine work, Alstom-ABB for boiler repair, Monarch Engineering and Welding for condenser re-tubing duct work and feed-water heater replacement, and Newkirk Electric for electrical work.

"This is the largest project the plant has experienced since the Karn 1 unit came on line in the late 1950s," said Ken DesJardins, business manager, base-load production. "So with all the work going on, the real challenge is making sure we have a safe working environment and good coordination between our own employees and the trades."

The Karn-Weadock Generating Complex is Consumers Energy's largest power production complex and consists of three separate plants: the 310-megawatt coal-fueled Weadock plant; the 511-megawatt coal-fueled Karn 1 & 2 plant; and the 1276-megawatt natural gas- and oil-fueled Karn 3 & 4 plant.

Together, Karn/Weadock and associated combustion turbines can generate up to 2,526 megawatts, enough to meet the electric needs of Bay City, Saginaw, Midland and Flint combined.

A BLANKET FOR a circulating water valve is cut to size and assembled by (l-r) Dale Noykos and Grant Glazer of Heat and Frost Insulators Local 47, who were working at the Consumers Energy Karn-Weadock Generating Complex.

THE SEAM ON A four-inch pipe for moving blower air is ground by John Brink of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 85 and Babcock and Wilcox.

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Responsible contracting seen as a 'building block' for unions, contractors

LANSING - One of the most potentially lucrative building markets in Michigan - new school construction and renovation - is getting wider attention from building trades unions and their contractors.

Last November, we explained how the union-backed West Michigan Construction Alliance hired a full-time representative to pitch the concept of "responsible contracting" to local school districts that are on course to sponsor major construction projects.

Two other building trades councils in Michigan have since hired similar advocates. And on Jan. 22, a number of building trades union reps and contractors attended a seminar held by the Michigan Association for Responsible Contracting (MARC), which explained the financial, legal, technical and moral aspects of promoting a responsible contracting policy.

"I believe that responsible contracting will be one of the building blocks that building trades unions in Michigan and other states use to take back their market," said John Beck, associate professor, Michigan State University School of Labor and Industrial Relations, who moderated the event.

And that potential market is huge. Whenever we conduct our informal survey of construction activity in Michigan at the beginning of each year, school work is invariably mentioned as a major source of employment for the trades. The National Education Association estimates that in addition to the billions of dollars in ongoing Michigan school work, there is an additional $9.9 billion in building renovation that needs to be done.

Formed last year by a coalition of union labor and management groups, the nonprofit Michigan Association for Responsible Contracting is an advocate for urging local school districts to take greater care when it comes to hiring construction contractors to work on school buildings.

Too often, local school board members - with scant construction knowledge - make decisions about multi-million dollar building projects without any policy in place for hiring a qualified contractor. School districts have reams of rules concerning educational standards and dress codes, but only one, Muskegon, has formally approved a policy on hiring responsible contractors.

At the seminar, attendees learned that the MARC is seeking to hire former/retired school district employees who have knowledge of school construction, so they can promote responsible contracting and speak the language of the board of education trustees and administrators. The advocates' salaries would be paid for by unions, building trades councils and union contractor groups.

The first of those hires is Ed Haynor, who retired from the Newaygo County Intermediate School District after running its school-to-work program. He now works for the West Michigan Construction Alliance, talking to school administrators and school board trustees who are in the beginning process of a building or renovation project. Haynor worked with the Muskegon School District in getting its responsible contractor policy adopted.

Getting more school districts on board "will pave the way for future work," Haynor said. School board trustees are notorious copycats when it comes to adopting new policies and the MARC is working with the Michigan Association of School Boards to develop a boilerplate policy that school districts around the state can adopt.

"There are more than 600 school districts in Michigan, so there are a lot of people we need to talk to," said Dick Brunvand, executive director of the Michigan Chapter of the Associated General Contractors. "We want to raise the bar. If you hire quality workers who do quality work, you'll have quality schools. We need to educate people who are making the decisions."

Also on board with the MARC are the Greater Michigan Plumbing & Mechanical Contractors Association, the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) Michigan chapter, the Great Lakes Construction Alliance, and the Michigan State Building and Construction Trades Council.

Brunvand said there is a tendency for school officials to ask the MARC "what's in it for you," but he said it's important to "stay on-message," like any good politician. That message means not promoting responsible contracting as a union vs. nonunion contractor issue and that having such a policy in place simply helps local school districts to weed out bad eggs in the construction contracting community. And to point out that the lowest bid isn't always the best bid.

With more than 600 local and intermediate school districts around the state, approaching all school districts that have construction activity on the horizon may prove difficult, especially in the absence of professional advocates for responsible contracting. So the job is usually left to building trades officers or trained union members, who need to have their act together before approaching a school board or administrators, said responsible contracting advocates.

Organizers said threats, unsubstantiated statements, and lack of knowledge by presenters will only hurt the cause of responsible contracting.

"Professional presenters talk the same language as the school people, and that gives them instant credibility," said Pat Mancino, a public relations professional who helped put together responsible contracting DVDs and other promotional materials for school officials.

Hugh Coward, a business representative for Iron Workers Local 340 in Battle Creek, has been involved in six responsible contracting presentations.

"My message is that you have to get to a school district early," Coward said. "If you wait until the job shows up on the Dodge Report, you're going to be too late. And if you get members involved, you have to be careful to go in like a professional."

Mike Crawford, executive director of the NECA-Michigan Chapter, said approaching a school district and pledging help before it goes to the voters to approve a bond issue for construction can be helpful. He said two out of every three school bond issues fail, but labor and contractors can help themselves by pledging resources to help assure passage of the bond issue.

He said the issues of using local workers, following state guidelines and emphasizing the construction of quality schools and having a policy in place to help assure that takes place are all important to any local school board.

"When you put those issues before the public, responsible contracting is a very powerful message," Crawford said.

Having a responsible contracting program in place offers school districts a checklist of "critical factors" to consider before hiring a construction contractor:

Some of those factors include:

  • Experience.
  • References. Experience of past clients is a good barometer of future performance.
  • A warranty covering labor and materials.
  • Financial condition of the company. A good financial rating means stability on thejob.
  • Safety and accident record. Construction professionals with a good safety record are most productive.
  • The resume of supervisory personnel. They should have pertinent experience and adequate education and training for the project.
  • Insurance and surety bonding. Construction professionals must show proof of adequate and relevant insurance coverage and must prove their compliance with workers' compensation statutes.
  • Use of a training local workforce. Use of local workers should be an attractive goal for school boards, since local workers pay taxes to the school district.
  • Prevailing wage. Since state money is nearly always used on school projects because of bonding issues, payment of prevailing wage is nearly always a state mandate. Paying prevailing wage also assures that fairly paid craftworkers toil on the project, and that contractors bid on projects based on management practices, not by paying substandard wages.
  • Employee health insurance and pension benefits. Construction companies demonstrate a commitment to the community by paying these benefits.
  • Proper classification of employees and workforce source. Construction contractors who hire workers from help wanted ads or unemployment agencies might not be getting a workforce with sufficient competence.
  • Hiring of workers who have graduated from of U.S. Department of Labor-approved apprenticeship program. School districts should know the value of a good education.
  • Licensed workers. State law establishes licensing requirements for electrical, mechanical, plumbing, boiler and elevator workers. All responsible contractors should easily be able to provide documented proof of licensing and certification.
  • Civil lawsuits/arbitration history. It is desirable for a school board to hire contractors with a "clean" legal history, and to use that history as a basis for disqualifying that contractor.

PUBLIC RELATIONS professional Pat Mancino outlines the Michigan Association for Responsible Contracting program to building trades union officers and contractors.

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How you can help stop potholes and employ Hardhats

LANSING -Michigan is in the unenviable position of being a "donor" state when it comes to funding for federal transportation spending on our state's highways. That means we send more than we receive in tax dollars to lawmakers Washington, D.C. for funding road repairs.

In fact, as we've been reporting, our state currently ranks 47th in the nation in terms of rate of return for highway funding, getting back only 88 cents for every dollar contributed.

A coalition of labor, management politicians and business groups have formed the Michigan Transportation Team in an effort to get more bang for the buck when it comes to highway spending in Michigan.

According to the Transportation Road Information Program, Michigan faces an estimated $16 billion projected shortfall from 2003 to 2025 in needed highway, road and bridge funding to improve the condition of the system, expand key routes to relieve traffic congestion and improve key highway links to support economic development.

Construction workers can help themselves by logging on to www.fundingfairness.com, click on "contact your member of Congress," and enter your zip code. You can then send an e-mail to your member of Congress, urging them to restore funding fairness for Michigan.

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NEWS BRIEFS

Jobless benefits are taxable
With tax season in full swing, and to help the unemployed get ready, the State of Michigan has completed the mailing of year-end statements to anyone who received unemployment benefits in 2003.

"Unemployment benefits are taxable, and those who received benefits will need these statements in order to do their taxes," said David Plawecki, deputy director for the Michigan Department of Labor and Growth.

The statements, called 1099-G or "State for Recipients of Unemployment Compensation Payments," reports how much individuals received in jobless benefits last year. The final batch of forms was mailed Jan. 26.

Plawecki said the state Unemployment Agency has set up special extended hours to handle questions about the 1099-G statements. The extended hours are on Saturdays, Feb. 14 and 21 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The toll-free number is (800) 638-3995. The agency will also open its eight full-service offices on the same two Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. to work exclusively on questions about the 1099-G statements.

One frequently asked question the agency receives, Plawecki said, deals with the amount of compensation reported on the 1099-G statements. Because of any court-ordered deductions like any restitution or payments to Friend of the Court, what jobless workers actually receive in unemployment benefits may be less than what is reported on the 1099.

Anti-union financial rules delayed
A federal judged delayed until at least July 1 the effective date of the Bush administration's burdensome new financial reporting rules for unions.

The rules originally were due to go into effect Jan. 1, but the AFL-CIO
filed suit to block them. On Jan. 22, U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled the Bush administration was arbitrary and capricious in choosing the Jan. 1 effective date. Judge Kessler enjoined the new rules until the later of July 1 or 90 days after the Bush administration provides unions with fully tested computer software required to comply with the new rules.

The rules, which are expected to cost unions millions in new accounting costs, order unions to itemize their spending of at least $5,000 per transaction and split it into categories such as bargaining, organizing and politics.

New jobs, lower wages
Not only has America lost 2.4 million jobs since George W. Bush took over the presidency in 2001, but the new jobs being created pay lower wages than the ones disappearing, according to a new study by the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute.

The study found the average pay in industries where jobs are declining, such as manufacturing and information technology, is 26 percent more than the average pay in expanding industries such as leisure and hospitality: $44,570-a-year jobs are being replaced by $35,410-a-year jobs.

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