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February 7, 2003

Prevailing wage paper chase could stabilize pay rates for trades

New leader: no quick fix for state's unemployment compensation mess

A few points to ponder regarding jobless comp

Roofers provide cover for landmark water tower

Asbestos litigation overwhelms courts

Old library spiffs up for new neighbors



Prevailing wage paper chase could stabilize pay rates for trades

By Marty Mulcahy

There is no law more important to the take-home pay of construction workers than the federal Davis-Bacon Prevailing Wage Act.

And there's a major opportunity on the radar screen for all of the building trades to fortify the benefits of the law in Michigan for years to come.

The opportunity comes in the form of a scheduled prevailing wage survey by the U.S. Department of Labor. DOL representatives met with hundreds of building trades union reps, as well as a few contractors, contractor associations and vendors, during two meetings last month in Livonia and Perry to explain how the survey works and what interested parties can do to improve the collection of information.

The goal of construction unions is simple, but getting there will take money and effort. Leading the charge is the Operating Engineers Local 324 Labor-Management Education Committee and the Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust Fund.

"If we can't demonstrate that 51 percent of work performed in a (county) jurisdiction is union, than the open shop rate prevails," said Ed Hartfield, who moderated the meetings on behalf of the Local 324 committee. "And whether the wages are open shop or union will have a direct effect on your contractors' ability to win bids, and your members' ability to get work."

Prevailing wage evens the playing field: without it nonunion contractors have an easier time winning bids by paying their help less than the prevailing wage.

"If there was ever an issue labor and management could rally around, this is it," Hartfield said. "But it will take a huge amount of cooperation and effort, and that's why we decided early on to get a leg up and get this process started."

The federal DOL selected Michigan for a year-long prevailing wage survey in 2004. But wage information for the survey will be taken from 2003 - and as anyone who pays income taxes knows, the process is easier when the paperwork has been accumulated during the course of the year.

"If we wait until 2004, contractors will have to go back to 2003 for the wage information, and they have enough to do," said Don Mistonen of the Local 324 Labor-Management Education Committee.

And collecting the information will be no small task. Davis-Bacon prevailing wage rates are collected for four major types of construction: building, heavy, highway and residential. But within those four types are dozens of subcategories that reflect the diversity of the building trades.

For example, prevailing wage only applies to some types of service work performed by the pipe trades. Electrical workers have different classifications for industrial, residential, and sound and communication work. Operators have different pay scales depending on the equipment that's being run. There's usually a category for everybody, but there are plenty of gray areas to complicate matters.

Beyond the wage rates for the various job classifications, Davis-Bacon Wage Survey Form WD-10 requires contractors to provide the number of employees for a given project, the number of days they worked on the project, and breakdowns of health and welfare, pension and fringe benefits payments.

Knowing that many contractors are going to balk at the paperwork - especially when there is no legal requirement for them to fill it out - the preliminary plan is for the unions and their vendors to compile as much of the information as possible. Ultimately, the contractors are responsible for, and sign the survey form.

It all amounts to a potential mountain of information, but the DOL reps said they'd rather have it than not have it. They will be sending out letters to all contractors, both union and nonunion, informing them about the pending survey. Essentially, whether union rates or nonunion rates prevail in a given area depends upon who does the best job of legally stuffing the ballot box, so to speak, with those WD-10 forms.

"If you don't take the time to fill out the forms, we cannot issue the new rates," DOL representative Clara Tate told the building trades group in Livonia. She expressed frustration about "working hard to do a survey and not having enough information."

One tool that should ease the way is the relatively new use of computer forms - paper can still be used, but the DOL is now set up to process information electronically. The building trades will be relying on vendors like benefits administrator TIC to set up a system that will compile and regulate the flow of information. Before any of that information is submitted, however, participating unions will need to designate and train people how to go about gathering the information, and coordinate with contractors and other trades so that there isn't a duplication of effort.

"It's important that we're successful," said Local 324 Business Manager Sam T. Hart. "And the only way to be successful is to be coordinated with our affiliated contractors."


New leader: no quick fix for state's unemployment compensation mess

By Marty Mulcahy

You know the system is in trouble when the acting director of the Michigan Bureau of Workers' and Unemployment Compensation (BWUC), David Plawecki, asked a group of labor leaders, "Is there anyone here not having problems with us?" No hands were raised.

Plawecki was invited to speak during a break at the Livonia prevailing wage meeting earlier this month. The Gov. Granholm-appointee pledged to do everything in his power to make the system work for Michigan's unemployed workers - but he said it's going to take time.

"It's not a pleasant scenario," Plawecki said Jan. 22. "It's nearly impossible for people to get through on our 800 number, and I can't even answer or make a phone call out of my own office. That's how bad the system was left by the previous administration. There's no excuse for that. People are suffering, they need their unemployment money to buy groceries."

Steve Franklin, business manager of IBEW Local 445 in Battle Creek, and his office manager Tina Southern, said a high unemployment rate at that local and having to deal with the state BWUC has brought about a great deal of frustration from members.

"For a lot of people, the unemployment process is something they haven't been through before," Franklin said. "They want someone to say, 'now you do this, now you do that, and now you wait for your check.' This is an agency that's supposed to give a helping hand, but that's not what our people are getting."

Added Southern, who has helped a lot of members through the process: "A lot of people just want to be able to talk to someone to see if they're doing things the right way. Most of the time they can't even get through. There's only one person in the Battle Creek office."

Plawecki said the problems in the department can be traced to one factor: lack of staffing. Four years ago, he said manpower in the department was 1,300 employees. About 200 were lost during a statewide hiring freeze over the last three years, and another 400 good, experienced workers went out the door on Nov. 1 in an early retirement program.

"We're down to 700 employees to handle a higher claims load," Plawecki said. "We're in the process of hiring 150 temporary employees, but they're inexperienced. Often they're just there to hand out claim forms. At some offices, often it's just the janitor. Only a few offices have staff who know what they're doing."

Plawecki said some workers who retired Nov. 1 are being coaxed back to work on a temporary basis and to get the system moving in the right direction again. "We're bending the rules to make it happen," he said. "Gov. Granholm wants to make sure this is done right."


A few points to ponder regarding jobless comp

"We know how bad the problems are," BWUC Acting Director David Plawecki said of the situation at the Bureau of Workers and Unemployment Compensation. Following are some of the things that may prove helpful to you if you're unemployed.

  • The toll-free help line set up by the state's Unemployment Agency has been swamped by up to 100,000 calls a day, Plawecki said, and only a fraction of the calls get through. Here's a little secret: The line is staffed evenings, and there's a little better chance that you can get through between 7-9 p.m. The number: (800) 638-3995.
  • Three help centers have been established in the Detroit area for walk-ins. Northwest Detroit: 4321 Oakman. Dearborn: 2901 Gulley Rd. Madison Hts.: 401 E. 13 Mile. All are open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Three more walk-in only locations are expected to open soon in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Saginaw. We'll keep you posted.

  • As of Jan. 28, workers can go online to file claims for unemployment benefits. Go to: The web site is accepting new and additional unemployment claims, but there are some conditions that must be met, including the jobless worker must have worked for only one employer for the last 18 months.
  • Michigan estimates that some 75,000 workers will exhaust their state jobless benefits during the first half of this year. All potential recipients of federal unemployment benefits will have been notified by mail by Jan. 28. Applicants who still believe they are eligible can pick up an application at their local Bureau of Workers and Unemployment Compensation or from the state website,
  • If you live north of Cadillac, and you're filing for additional state jobless money, call this number for help: (866) 500-0017.


Roofers provide cover for landmark water tower

By Marty Mulcahy

YPSILANTI - The city's most famous landmark is getting a new skin and a slightly new look, as roofers are wrapping up a tricky project to install new cedar shingles over the city's historic water tower.

Built in 1890 on the highest ground in the city, the 250,000-gallon water tower on Cross Street and Washtenaw Ave. continues to serve as an emergency reservoir to help maintain water pressure for the Ypsilanti City Utilities Authority during fire emergencies.

"When I first saw it, of course the first thing that I thought is what everybody says, that it's a big phallic symbol," laughed Roofers Local 149 member Kurt Hesse, who is running the job for Detroit Cornice and Slate. "The next thing I thought, was how are we going to get a scaffold up here to do the work?"

Hesse worked with a scaffolding company to devise a platform that wraps around half the structure. Masts were bolted into the water tower at numerous points up the 147-foot-tall structure, and a pair of motors smoothly lift the cut-to-form plywood platform. The scaffolding and platform accounts for nearly half of the $180,000 project cost.

The surface area to be re-shingled is only 7,000 squares - but of course, access to the top is the major issue. Hesse and his crew have already torn off the 20-year-old cedar shingle roof, which wore out prematurely because of improper installation. Nails were placed too high on the shingles and the wood wasn't staggered properly.

The tear-off was tricky because the water tower sits on a narrow island of a busy, divided street. And the new cedar roof, Hesse said, "is tedious to install," because the shingles aren't a consistent size as are asphalt shingles.

With heavy 30-lb. felt as an underlayment, as well as a plastic web of "cedar breather" underneath the shingles, this roof should provide about 50 years of service, Hesse said. The new shingles will make the top of the tower brown, but they will eventually turn to gray like the old shingles did. A new copper cupola will top the dome.

In 1975 the tower was designated by the American Water Works Association as an American Water Landmark. It was restored in 1976. The Ypsilanti Community Utilities Authority has operated and maintained the structure since 1974.

WORK IS NEARLY complete on re-roofing the Ypsilanti Water Tower. The tower's base is 85 feet in circumference. The Joliet limestone walls taper from a thickness of 40 inches at the bottom to 24 inches at the top. A steel tank holds the water at the top. Inside, there's access to the top of the tower via a stairway. Remarkably, it was built without a construction contract in 1891- day laborers did the work.

A CEDAR SHINGLE is nailed on the Ypsilanti Water Tower by Kurt Hesse of Roofers 149 and Detroit Cornice & Slate.


Asbestos litigation overwhelms courts

Thousands of active and retired building trades workers in Michigan are interested in the status of asbestos litigation in our nation.

They won't like the headline "Asbestos quagmire" that appeared in the Jan. 27 edition of the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper pointed out that across the U.S., there are 67 asbestos-related bankruptcies, 750,000 claimants, and 8,000 companies involved in litigation accused of making, selling or supplying asbestos-containing materials.

The gist of their two articles was that the nation's courts have been swamped with a new wave of cases brought against companies that are on the periphery of the asbestos market by plaintiffs who are not currently sick due to asbestos-related exposure. Most of the original defendant-companies are in bankruptcy because over the past two decades, courts have found them liable for the exposure and subsequent sickness of workers.

"Plaintiffs' attorneys are turning to companies once considered too small to sue," the Journal reported. "Many of the smaller fry lack resources to defend thousands of lawsuits or pay huge verdicts. But the companies do have one thing in common: plentiful insurance."

The Journal said the court system is so bogged down in asbestos litigation, that one judge in Baltimore used a simple test to determine how a claimant's case would be handled. "Is he sick?" the judge asked a plaintiff's attorney. The response was negative, so the case was put in a pile that would be unearthed only if medical evidence proved that his injuries are incapacitating.

Cases are being handled like a triage room in a hospital after a disaster: judges are putting the cases of people who are the sickest at the top of their docket.

The Journal reports that the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, a trade group, says its 1,300 members are seeing triple the number of claims they had a few years ago. The result: more legal battles between the company-policyholders and the insurance companies.

The bottom line: It can take two or three decades after exposure for symptoms of asbestos exposure to occur. These days, it can also take that long for such a case to be heard before a court.


Old library spiffs up for new neighbors

Nestled in the shadow of the glittering, nearly completed Compuware headquarters tower and parking structure in downtown Detroit is a tarnished little gem called the Rose and Robert Skillman Branch Library.

Formerly the Downtown Library, the 38,000-square-foot, wedge-shaped building had seen better days, with outdated plumbing, ventilation and electrical systems and numerous cosmetic updates needed in the interior. Thanks to a generous grant from the Skillman Foundation, the library is in the midst of a two-year renovation project that will clean up the building and make it nice for its surroundings.

"We decided that we really wanted to bring that branch back up at a level that would be comparable to what was going on around it," said Maurice Wheeler, then-director of the Detroit Public Library, when plans for the renovation were announced in 2000.

The two-level building opened on Jan. 4, 1932. Typical of buildings from that era, it was built like a rock, with nice ornamental plaster, huge windows for lots of natural light, and copious use of finely crafted marble and woodwork.

Of course, it wasn't built for effortless renovation or the easy installation of modern mechanical equipment. There were numerous holes to cut in concrete floors and surprises around many corners. We found Roy Cordovado of Sheet Metal Workers Local 80 and Thermal Engineering installing a return-air shaft in a first-floor wall. "There's some extra work in these old buildings, but I love it," he said. "Craftsmen built this place in 1931 with a lot of nice details, and it just about became forgotten. Now we're going to preserve that craftsmanship, and it will be a state-of-the-art building for inner-city youth to learn."

Plans call for the renovation work to include new unobtrusive air conditioning, heating and telecommunication systems, a sprinkler system, a cyber café, a business center with faxes and computers, a children's library and new landscaping.

Christman Co. is acting as construction manager on the project, and there are 30-40 Hardhats putting their skills to work. "It's a nice old building, with a lot of nice details," said Site Manager Darrell Bond, who is working with Site Supt. Jim Briegel. "Working next to Compuware, there's a lot of issues with parking and space to work, but we're managing."

OPERATING HIS RIG behind the Skillman Branch library is Scott Redlin of Operating Engineers 324.



Anti-union PLA decision upheld
It appears as if the discretion to use project labor agreements (PLAs) on federally funded construction projects will solely be in the hands of whomever is sitting in the Oval Office.

In a setback for the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department and the thousands of workers it represents, the U.S. Supreme Court has essentially upheld President Bush's order prohibiting project labor agreements on federally funded construction projects. On Jan. 27, the Supreme Court announced without additional comment that it would refuse to hear the building trades' appeal of a lower court ruling, which also upheld Bush's position.

State and local jobs that use federal money are apparently also barred from entering into project labor agreements. "We will be evaluating alternative strategies for enabling these entities, their construction managers and our building and construction trades councils to continue to reap the benefits of project labor agreements on major public works projects that receive federal funds," said Building Trades Department President Edward Sullivan

One of President Bush's first executive orders after he took office in 2000 was to prohibit the use of PLAs on federal projects. That overturned an executive order by President Clinton which required the use of PLAs on federal projects. The Building Trades Department sued to block the ruling, and won in U.S. District Court. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned that ruling, and the Supreme Court, in opting not to take the case, agreed.

Project labor agreements have been used on hundreds of public and private construction projects for the past 50 years. For workers, the project is guaranteed to use signatory contractors paying prevailing wage rates, while contractors and owners get a stable, reliable workforce that will toil under a common set of work rules, including no strike/no lockout clauses.

U.S. construction starts tripartite group
For the first time, construction union presidents, owners and contractors have come together to address construction cost-effectiveness on a national level.

On Jan. 18, a group of the industry's top leaders announced that they have begun a tripartite initiative to seek "attainable, measurable and meaningful" ways to improve the North American construction industry. The goals of the group sound a lot like the goals of the Labor-Owner-Contractor summit here in Michigan, which was formed 10 years ago and evolved into the Great Lakes Construction Alliance.

"The construction industry historically has been compartmentalized into different interest groups, with different agendas for success," said Edward Sullivan, president of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department. "There is little doubt we have taken the first positive step toward real tripartite collaboration in our industry."

The group agreed to focus initially on the elimination of jurisdictional disputes, making productivity improvements, and bettering safety performance.

"There are tremendous untapped opportunities for owners, contractors and labor to collaborate," said Bill Tibbitt of Johnson and Johnson, and president of the Construction Users Roundtable. "I am very encouraged at this first step to do so."

Added Robert Fitzgerald, president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America: "We look for some very positive results over the months and years to come."


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