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February 8, 2008

Nation's union membership sees rare, slight jump

The Silent Majority waits for slackers to get their lumps

Chilly building trades ramp up work on Gerald Ford airport parking deck

Union volunteers stand up against a right-to-work effort that hasn't shown up - yet

Radio program lets labor step up to the mike

There are signs of life in nonresidential, AGC says

News Briefs


Nation's union membership sees rare, slight jump

The nation's labor movement received a glimmer of good news on Jan. 25, as the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that union membership experienced a rare increase in membership in 2007.

It wasn't much of a hike: there were 15.7 million union members in the U.S. in 2007 - 311,000 more than in 2006. That translates into unions representing 12.1 percent of workers last year, vs. 12.0 percent in 2006.

The increase is so small that the BLS said the union numbers are "essentially unchanged." But, in three of the last four years, organized labor has arrested a steady year-to-year drop in the nation's union members. Union penetration was flat in both 2004 and 2005 at 12.5 percent.

Contrast today's numbers with those from 1983, when 20 percent of workers in the U.S. belonged to a union.

"I don't think the number means we've turned the corner," said Tom Woodruff, executive vice president in charge of organizing at the Service Employees International Union, to the Washington Post. "I think it's significant the labor movement is growing. But it's not nearly enough."

In Michigan, the trend moved in the other direction. Led by employment losses in the auto industry, our state now has 879,000 union members - a loss of 23,000, or 2.6 percent, from 2006. In fellow rust-belt state Illinois, union rolls dropped by 89,000 workers, or 1.9 percent.

Michigan (19.5 percent) still has the fifth highest union workforce penetration in the nation, behind New York (25.2 percent) Alaska (23.8 percent); Hawaii (23.4 percent) and Washington (20.2 percent).

The BLS reported that North Carolina posted the nation's lowest unionization rate (3.0 percent), followed by Virginia (3.7 percent), South Carolina (4.1 percent), Georgia (4.4 percent), and Texas (4.7 percent).

BLS said 7.5% of private-sector workers (up 0.1 percent from 2006) were union members last year, compared to 35.9% of public-sector workers. The most-unionized occupations were in education, training and libraries (37.2%) and protective services - fire fighters, police and their colleagues - at 35.2%.
In the U.S. construction industry, the unionized sector represented 1.2 million workers, or 13.9 percent of the workforce in 2007 (up from 13.6 percent in 2006).

*Some other trends in the numbers: beside construction, unionization among U.S. health care workers was another growth area in 2007, up 1 percent to 13.5 percent.

*The number of unionized factory workers in the U.S. declined from 1.82 million (11.7% of all factory workers) to 1.73 million (11.3%).

The union worker's median weekly wage last year hit a significant milestone: it is exactly $200 per week ahead of the nonunion worker's median wage: $863-$663. The gap became a chasm in the construction industry: ($1,000-$624).

(From Press Associates and the Bureau of Labor Statistics).


The Silent Majority waits for slackers to get their lumps

By Mark Breslin
(Fourth in a series)

They are out there. Quiet and yet resolute. We know they are there, but who and how many we cannot be sure. Looking out for themselves. Going about their business. Doing the job and heading home. One more day. P---ed off. Resentful. And waiting.

The silent majority is waiting. This majority is 80+ % of the guys on the construction projects around North America who bring the right skills, attitudes and behaviors to the jobsite every day. The silence is the sound of their unwillingness to confront and challenge the remaining problematic workers; who tend to be louder and sometimes more influential.

And so, instead of speaking out, they quietly tolerate another day, week, year,
and career of working alongside some of their union "brothers" who do nothing to deserve the same pay and respect that they have struggled for their entire careers to
obtain. As a result they have become resentful or simply apathetic and do not know
where to turn for help. And that is what they are waiting for.

This is completely our fault, since the unions and the employers are surely sending mixed messages. Until quite recently, the unions have been unwilling to deal in any constructive manner with sub-par performers. What message has that sent to the field about quality, commitment and professionalism?

After decades of status quo, why would an average rank-and-file guy care if his union and its leaders don't seem to? And why would the marginal performer change? His peer group does not confront him. His union backs him up, rain or shine. And the wheel turns but the workplace culture stays the same.

On the contractor side it is worse. Bad apples are rarely terminated. Letters are rarely written. They are laid off or "reduced in force" to be recycled a hundred times to a
hundred job sites in a career. By avoiding conflict the contractors avoid their responsibility and share in the consequences of inaction. They complain but do not do
what must be done. And the Silent Majority watches and tells themselves that it doesn't
really matter.

Yes, the Silent Majority is waiting for us. They are just waiting for the signal that the free ride is over and that they are empowered to take a role. The coaches need to make the high sign for the players to respond. The stewards need to back the play 100%. The foremen and contractors need to swing for the fences. And then, and only then, will the peer-to-peer relationships on the job create the pressure of conformance to professional craft standards.

This peer-to-peer accountability needs to be bred early, at the training centers. The apprentices have to be given a message of non-compromise for individual and team
performance. If the cycle of institutionalized acceptance of substandard performance is
to be broken, it will have to come from the apprenticeship and supervisory training

Several ideas to breed this value system might include:

  • Apprentice awards, granted by each class via anonymous vote, for Leadership and Attitude.
  • Apprenticeship peer review board for disciplinary actions.
  • Mandatory attitudes and behaviors curriculum, instruction and role playing.
  • Break the class into crews and have every person responsible and evaluated on
    their crew's performance, appearance and attendance for a defined period.

These are just several examples of what can be done. What must be done. We should not underestimate the power of the Silent Majority - but they need our help. They have waited long enough. Now its time to deliver.

Mark Breslin is the author of the Survival of the Fittest apprentice training curriculum and a nationally prominent speaker and trainer. More information on tools and resources for training programs and instructors can be found at


Chilly building trades ramp up work on Gerald Ford airport parking deck

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

GRAND RAPIDS - Things are looking up at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, where reinforced concrete columns poking up from frozen ground marks the first stage of construction of a massive new parking deck and terminal improvements.

Ground was broken Sept. 6 on the $138 million "Ramp Up" parking project. Construction will include a new 4,900-space, four-story, covered parking ramp and pedestrian sky bridges connecting the ramp to the terminal. Work will also include a covered canopy for passenger drop-offs, new utilities and roadway infrastructure.

The airport calls this construction a "capstone piece" in a continuous improvement plan going back to 1992. Past improvements have included runway extensions and rebuilding, an extensive renovation of the passenger terminal building, and construction of a new runway, air cargo center, and a shuttle parking facility.

"We're excited about getting started with this truly significant project in the
airport's history," said Jim Koslosky, Kent County aeronautics director, at the groundbreaking. "We are committed to offering a higher level of customer service, improving convenience, and expanding our ability to meet the increasing demands of travelers now and into the future. We look forward to supporting the many economic development efforts and investments being made in our region."

The project will be completed in 2009. It is currently dominated by dozens of 35-foot-tall reinforced concrete columns that will support the parking deck. Christman Construction is managing the entire project, and Bee Steel is performing reinforced iron work.

"There are so many I've stopped keeping track of the number of columns," said rod foreman Todd Foreman (no that's not a typo). "It's been a really fast pace out here. With all this work I'm thankful that there haven't been any safety incidents or accidents."

Kraig Kloostra, who owns Bee Steel, said about 30 percent of the 1,448 columns have been erected. About 5,000 tons of re-bar encased in the concrete columns, will support the cast-in-place parking structure.

"We're off to a good start, and when spring arrives we'll get started on the deck," Kloostra said. "It's a lot of repetitive work, but we're staying on top of it."

The Gerald R. Ford International Airport currently serves more than two million
passengers annually. It is the second busiest airport in Michigan and ranks
among the top 15 percent of busiest airports nationwide. It facilitates 112,000 takeoffs and landings each year - an average of more than 300 per day.

Among carriers providing service to the airport include Northwest (44 percent of traffic) as well as American Eagle, United/United Express, Continental Express and Midwest Connect. The airport is served by eight carriers with 120 daily scheduled non-stops to 15 major market destinations.

According to the Grand Rapids Business Journal, supporters of the new parking ramp hope it will make the airport more attractive to carriers seeking to expand operations.

RE-BAR FOR A "COLUMN PAD" - one of 1,448 column bases that will be erected to support a massive parking structure at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport - are set by Matt Wilk and Ray Masselink of Iron Workers Local 340 and Bee Steel.

HERE'S A RENDERING of the completed Gerald R. Ford International Airport parking deck, sky ramps and terminal canopy.


Union volunteers stand up against a right-to-work effort that hasn't shown up - yet

(From the Michigan AFL-CIO)

Over 3,500 union activists monitored Michigan's presidential primary polls to warn voters against a potential Right to Work petition drive on Primary Election Day, Jan. 15.

Sensing the impending union onslaught, the Right to Work forces failed to show up.

"We have proved that if and when the Right to Work campaign comes, they will have a much bigger battle than they had been originally thinking," said AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney. "We found that rank-and-file members responded to this issue with much more excitement than you find for a candidate."

Demonstrating a mighty show of unity, labor unions including the Michigan Education Association, the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Coalition combined their talent and resources to recruit and train volunteers to work the polls statewide. In addition, volunteers were also educating voters on how to vote and the need for healthcare reform.

"Michigan labor showed its strength. Working families know that Right to Work is about working for less pay and they know it's bad for Michigan's families," observed Ed Leary a member of the United Steelworkers and one of the organizers of the anti-Right to Work effort.

Brent Gillette, the National Political Director for the Michigan State AFL-CIO who coordinated the campaign, was also pleased, "This was a true unified solidarity movement in the state of Michigan with all internationals, labor councils and all locals on board with the same message: Right to Work is toxic for Michigan."

State union officials consider this the first battle in the Right to Work war since there may still be ballot initiative petitions this spring or at election time in 2010.

Saundra Williams, President of the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO, said: "The Right to Work - Decline-to-Sign Petition Program was a success because of volunteers who realize the value of organized labor. I am most proud of how, with very little notice, and over the holiday season, organized labor was able to mobilize and train over 3,500 volunteers from unions across the state. In a war that is being bought to us by forces that want to destroy the middle class, this was just the first battle."

The labor community, along with other allies of Michigan's working families, sent a very powerful message to special interests that "Right to Work" isn't going to happen in Michigan.

"Although there doesn't seem to be a Right to Work campaign for now, we intend to continue educating people on the importance of a good job to our state's economy. We're not going to bring the economy back by cutting wages," said Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney. "We want to thank our union affiliates - the Michigan Education Association and the Change to Win unions - who worked alongside the AFL-CIO during this huge effort.

"Michigan Labor is united in our efforts to protect living standards of all union and non-union Michigan workers."



Radio program lets labor step up to the mike

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

GRAND RAPIDS - Regular workers finally have a voice on the airwaves in West Michigan.

Introduced as a radio program for workers by workers, "Working West Michigan" made its debut on WTKG radio in Grand Rapids last month, providing a change of pace from other radio shows that are often dominated by strictly conservative talkers.

The show is broadcast live from 8-9 a.m. on Tuesdays on 1230-AM. Hosted by WTKG radio personality Bennie Covington, the show features a regular panel of guest from the West Michigan Friends of Labor Committee, as well as special guests each week.

"This show is a great opportunity for working families in the Grand Rapids area to keep up to date on news and issues related to their everyday lives," said UAW CAP Coordinator Sue Levy, one of the show's regular panelists. "Each week, we talk about local and national current events and how they affect working families' lives, whether it's at home or at the workplace."

The West Michigan Friends of Labor Committee is composed of union representatives from throughout the Grand Rapids and West Michigan area.

"We touch on issues that every working family should be concerned about, whether they happen to be a Democrat or Republican, union or nonunion," said Buck Geno, committee director for Friends of Labor. Geno is also business manager of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Service Trades Local 174.

The hosts of "Working West Michigan" encourage listener participation. Guests can call into the show by dialing (616) 456-1230.

"Concerned about decreasing property values? Call the show. Having problems at work and need advice? Call the show. It doesn't matter what the topic is, we'll tackle it as long as it's related to the everyday lives of West Michigan workers and their families," Geno said.

In addition to everyday workers, call-in segments on the show feature prominent leaders in Michigan's political, labor and business communities.

Last month, one of the shows was dubbed "building trades day," and included guests like Bruce Hawley, business manager of Iron Workers Local 340 and president of the West Michigan Building Trades Council; Ed Haynor, consultant for the West Michigan Construction Alliance; Mark Mangione from Local 174; Doug Adams from Sheet Metal Workers Local 7; and Walt Christopherson from the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council.

The building trades representatives discussed issues that affect union and non-union workers alike, particularly the importance of job safety. The unionized construction industry "works together to promote safety and training," Haynor said on the show, which was broadcast Jan. 22.

Hawley said the building trades offer a wide array of careers with lots of options and extremely specialized training programs. "With our apprenticeship programs, we try to give people a shot to make construction a career," Hawley said.

Through a regular segment dubbed "Legislative Update," the show provides information for workers interested in learning more about how governmental policies at the local, state and national levels can shape the lives of themselves and their families.

"Workers often don't get enough information on how political decisions can touch their lives - all they hear are stories about horse races between politicians," said Levy, who serves as the show's resident government expert. "One of the aims we have with the program is getting everyday workers more interested in what's going on in the world of politics and government, whether it's in Grand Rapids, Lansing or Washington."

Geno said he and Levy developed the idea for the show, and sponsorship money for the program came from their unions and others. He said the show is scheduled to be on the air for 26 weeks.

"It's a little early to judge how well we're doing in the ratings, but I know we've spurred discussion on other radio shows," Geno said. "I think we're doing something that you don't find anywhere else in the country: putting on a show made specifically for people who punch the clock every day."

For more information on "Working West Michigan" or to listen to past shows, go to and enter the keyword "labor."

"WORKING WEST MICHIGAN" is a radio program on WTGK in Grand Rapids, hosted by (l-r) Sue Levy of the UAW, Buck Geno of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Service Trades Local 174, and Jay Egan of the Communication Workers.


There are signs of life in nonresidential, AGC says

The latest economic indicators say that the slump in the U.S. housing market has not spread to the nonresidential construction sector.

"Total construction employment fell by 27,000 in January, seasonally adjusted, but all of those losses occurred in residential building and specialty trades," said Associated General Contractors of America Chief Economist Ken Simonson. "Employment in the three nonresidential categories - nonresidential building, specialty trades, plus heavy and civil engineering - edged up 1,300."

It wasn't much growth in jobs, but it was growth. And Simonson said analysis of U.S. Census numbers show more growth through this year, mostly at double-digit rates, in 15 of 16 nonresidential categories.

Census figures for December show nonresidential construction spending jumped almost 16 percent from a year earlier, Simonson said while residential spending in December fell 20 percent from a year before.
For 2008, Simonson said he expects "modest" growth in nonresidential construction.


News Briefs

Construction pay remains steady
Pay and benefit levels in the U.S. construction industry flattened out in 2007 - but at a pretty high level - according to the Construction Labor Research Council and the Construction Labor Report.

Overall, nationwide settlements for first-year construction industry labor agreements averaged $1.75 or 4.4 percent for the first year, virtually unchanged from the $1.73 or 4.5 percent hike reported in 2006.

Measuring data back to 1999, 2007's first-year wage hikes were at the top of the chart. And the second and third years of the contracts settled last year will still rise, but at a smaller percentage: $1.90 or 4.3 percent in the second year and $1.97 or 4.2 percent in the third year.

The data covered 300,568 workers and 314 contracts.

The East North Central region, which includes Michigan, saw significantly lower increases. Average first-year wage/benefit settlements in this region were $1.65 or 4.0 percent. The second year went up to $1.68 or 3.8 percent, and the third year, $1.70 or 3.7 percent.

For individual crafts, there was a wide swing in first-year 2007 settlement amounts in the U.S.:

Laborers: $1.37or 4.4 percent; Iron Workers, $2.17 or 4.6 percent; Carpenters, $1.65 or 4.4 percent; Sheet Metal Workers, $1.96 or 4.5 percent; Bricklayers, $1.52 or 3.7 percent; Crane Operators, $2.00 or 4.8 percent; Cement Masons, $1.55 or 4.4 percent; Electricains, $1.19 or 2.9 percent; and Plumbers and Pipe Fitters, $1.99 or 4.9 percent.

Sheet Metal, UTU merger on hold
A federal district judge halted the proposed merger of the United Transportation Union and the Sheet Metal Workers International Union until Feb. 13. The judge extended a previous restraining order by 30 days.

UTU members sought to halt the merger, which was to have taken effect Jan. 1, 2008, claiming they don't have enough information about the merger, the Construction Labor Report said.

The UTU has 80,000 active members. The Sheet Metal Workers have 150,000. SMWIA President Michael Sullivan would lead the new union.


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