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January 20, 2006

Michigan construction outlook, 2006 State emerging from long hibernation

22 Michigan Hardhats die on-the-job in 2004

Numbers reveal the state of Michigan construction

U-M modernizes LS&A Building

Noise associated with high blood pressure, stroke

Wal-Mart's P.R. effort can't mask lousy deal for taxpayers

News Briefs

 

Michigan construction outlook, 2006
State emerging from long hibernation

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

Happy New Year indeed.

Every year in January, we put together an informal roundup of work prospects around Michigan for the upcoming year. For the past two years - and for some areas, the past three - the forecast called for pain. In many areas of the state and the country, the bottom dropped out on work opportunities in the construction industry.

But much of that is changing.

We're delighted to report that our completely unscientific survey of expected construction activity around Michigan reveals a much brighter work picture. Work won't necessarily be booming in every corner of the state, in fact, the slows will persist in some areas. But our group of contacts from various regions of Michigan indicates that the trades' unemployment benches should be considerably shorter this year.

Here's what's happening:

Ann Arbor - Ho hum, it was another great year in Washtenaw County, and 2006 looks to have more of the same.

Around 1990, construction work in this area took off, and it hasn't stopped. Once again, full employment is typical for local union trades, with work coming from a variety of sources.

"We're still going to be extremely busy," said Ron House, business manager of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 190. "In 2005, we had everybody employed, and we took on about 100 travelers. They were just about always from around Michigan; we look to take in our brothers and sisters from around the state whenever possible."

Perhaps the area's diversified economy is the key to its success. A new $500 million C.S. Mott Children's Hospital will begin late in the year - it's expected to be the largest University of Michigan construction project ever. Additionally, the U of M is spending an estimated $900 million on at least 20 projects this year on campus.

There's a new student center going up on the Eastern Michigan University campus. The Ann Arbor School District will be spending a portion of a voter-approved $205 million bond issue on a new high school and other building improvements.

While home-building work has leveled off - Local 190 has 142 Hardhats working residential - four major loft projects are expected to go up in 2006.

St. Joseph Hospital is in the midst of a huge expansion, with the mechanical portion alone valued at $20 million.

Separate research and development facilities by Toyota ($150 million) and Hyundai ($94 million) are in the works.

An outage at the D.C. Cook Nuclear Power Plant in Bridgeman, in Local 190's jurisdiction, will bring in about 80 pipe trades workers this year.

Down the road, perhaps not this year, General Motors is looking at expanding its Hydramatic plant in Ypsilanti. "We don't mind spreading things out a little," House said.

Bay City/ Saginaw/ Midland area - "The year 2005 picked up for us, and was a lot better than 2004," said Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 85 Business Manager Scott Garrison. "Now we're looking to do a little better for 2006."

Garrison said a number of Local 85 members spent time on the road in 2005 - many at the Marathon refinery project in Detroit. In 2006, he said members will be able to work closer to home, with several projects on the books.

The largest among them is a $300 million expansion of Hemlock Semiconductor's plant, which is expected to double the size of the plant where computer chips and solar panels are made.

In Saginaw, ground has broken on a new elementary school, and bids are going out on a $27 million middle school. Small-scale renovations are ongoing at three other schools in the city.

At Central Michigan University, construction of a pair of five-story dorms will take place in 2006.

Health Source Hospital in Saginaw Twp. will be undergoing a $35 million renovation. Bids are expected in June for a $25-30 million addition to Bay Medical Center in Bay City.

In the heavy industrial area, small projects will employ tradespeople at the Karn-Weadock plant and the Midland Co-Generation Venture.

"We've been getting by with a lot of little jobs, and with people traveling," Garrison said. "Now things are looking up a bit."

Flint area - The General is leading the charge to construction projects in Genesee County, at least for now.

"We've been fortunate to have a fair amount of GM work," said IBEW Local 948 Business Manager Charlie Marshall. "We still have some unemployment, but the GM work helped make 2005 much better than 2004."

General Motors is spending $300 million for its Flint Engine South Plant Expansion project. The plant is the sole producer of the company's Vortec 4200 six-cylinder engine.

A few hundred yards away, another $150 million is being spent to refurbish the automaker's truck assembly plant in preparation for future full-size truck manufacturing.

School work has kept the trades busy in the area. A $25 million bond issue to pay for a new middle school and renovations to the junior high school was wrapping up this month in Flushing.

The Grand Blanc Community School District's passage of a $94 million bond issue paid off for the building trades in 2005 and into the first half of this year, with the construction of two new middle schools, and a host of upgrades at the district's high school.

In addition, a $36.1 million bond issue brought about construction of a new middle school in the Linden Community School District, and renovations/additions to the district's two elementary schools and high school.

One bright spot in the commercial sector in 2005: the bulk of work on the construction of a Wal-Mart, Kohl's and Sam's Club in Grand Blanc went union.

The GM project and the bulk of the school projects are slated to wind down later this year, and when they do, Marshall said construction workers in the area "may be in for a rough time" toward the end of 2006.

Detroit/Southeast Michigan - Every December, the area's construction outlook is detailed at the Detroit Economic Club in a speech by the chairman of the Associated General Contractors, Greater Detroit Chapter. This year's speech was given by Odell Jones, III, president of JOMAR Building Co. Here are some excerpts:

"About a year ago, the news was that the economy was improving and that we'd all be returning to some level of prosperity. And today, if you can believe the reports coming out of Washington and Wall Street, and despite international conflicts and natural disasters, our economy is just rolling along at a healthy clip and everyone is enjoying the benefits.

"In fact, the U.S. Department of Commerce recently reported that construction spending set another record high as, and I'm quoting, 'the building industry continued to enjoy boom times.'

"And while we celebrate the fortunes of others, unfortunately, despite some pockets of progress, construction in Michigan continues to experience one of its most difficult periods in recent memory. We continue to wait for that economic train of prosperity to come rolling through our state.

"However, despite the difficult economic conditions, we continue to remain optimistic and here's why."

Jones said construction activity in Detroit has started on the MGM Grand, Motor City and Greektown casinos. The price tag on the casino projects alone will exceed $1 billion.

The $176 million Book-Cadillac hotel renovation is finally expected to re-start in the next two months. The FBI has announced a new $65 million downtown area location for its new regional headquarters. With a set of eyesore cement silos demolished, new housing, retail and entertainment venues are expected to go up over the next several years on the riverfront east of the Renaissance Center.

"Construction here in Southeast Michigan," Jones predicted, "while lagging behind the national picture, will see a rebound… over the dismal past few years."

Here is what Jones and the Southeast Michigan AGC see for 2006 in various sectors of the economy:

Manufacturing: "There are many doomsayers who only have a negative outlook for the manufacturing sector," Jones said. "I am not one of them."

He said "austerity measures" that are being put in place by the automotive sector "will only make manufacturers in our state stronger and more competitive worldwide."

He cited a recent report by Ernst & Young in its First Annual U.S. Investment Monitor which said that Michigan is second only behind Texas in new capital investment. Two-thirds of that is auto-related, and most of that investment is going toward expansion and upgrades of existing facilities. Evidence of this is the recent announcement by Bosch Automotive to build a 225,000 square-foot research and development facility in Plymouth Township.

Public sector construction, Jones predicted, will be flat in Southeast Michigan. However, he pointed out that more than $500 million will be invested in projects at Metro Airport including work on concourses B and C as well as the new North Terminal, which is just under way.

Since 1990, public school construction in Southeast Michigan has roller-coastered, but has averaged about $1 billion per year - which is what will be spend in 2006. Last year, he said area schools districts bonded about $570 million, down from the $1.6 billion in bonds passed in 2004.

Highway: The Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association predicts the level of funding in 2006 to be about $3.6 billion for state, county and local roads, which is up over last year, creating 171,000 statewide jobs.

Public works: Spending for water and sewerage projects is expected to be upwards of $1 billion for state, county and local projects. Work will continue on major upgrades to water and sewer treatment facilities throughout the region and the expansion of storm water control systems.

Office market: The news is mixed regarding office construction. Other than the Visteon Building under construction in downtown Detroit and some smaller buildings built for specific owners, the office market did not see any significant new construction this year, Jones said. A report by Signature Associates, however, states that "Although some areas remain soft, all indications point toward a slow, steady rebound."

Health care: All told there are more than 70 projects under way or planned in Southeast Michigan that total more than $1.5 billion. These projects include the new Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield, the Providence Park Hospital in Novi, and the C. S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan. Major renovations of existing facilities, such as the $156 million renovation of St. John's Hospital in Detroit, continue as well.

Retail: On the retail front, construction continues throughout southeast Michigan to accommodate anchors such as Nordstrom's, Wal-Mart, Target, Meijer, Kohl's, Home Depot and Lowe's. And the demand for grocery anchored new developments continues, but at a slower pace.

"As we approach 2006," Jones concluded, "the outlook for construction in our region is mixed, but with a positive upswing on the horizon. According to the analysts, we will experience some growth - a prediction many were afraid to make in recent years."

Grand Rapids/Muskegon - "This year looks promising," said Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Service Trades Local 174 Business Manager Kirk Stevenson. "And it's about time."

Stevenson said Local 174 members did their share of traveling for work in 2005, which was a better situation than in 2004, when there were scant work opportunities anywhere in the country.

He said the region should be in "pretty decent shape" by the end of summer, and "who knows, maybe full employment by the fall."

Bruce Hawley, president of the West Michigan Building Trades Council and business manager of Iron Workers Local 340, said school work in the region has provided the trades with the greatest amount of work opportunities in the last two years. "Now," he said. "health care and office buildings are really taking off."

"Work has been up and down here the past couple years," Hawley said. "It's been slow in the first half of the year in 2004 and 2005, but things have picked up in the second half of both years. For 2006, I think we're looking at a really good year."

Downtown Grand Rapids is expected to boom this year. Some $450 million in construction projects has been started or is on the drawing board, including a $190 million Children's Hospital at Spectrum Health, the $100 million, 340-room Alticor/Marriott hotel, the $60 million Icon on Bond condominium project, and the $60 million River House at Bridgewater Place condo development.

The trades will also be working on no less than three water treatment plants: new facilities will be erected in Grand Rapids and Wyoming and a third, in West Olive, will be getting an addition.

In September, Hardhats will be descending on Consumers Energy's J.H. Campbell Power Plant in September for a major, four-month outage. Hawley said the Boilermakers alone would have about 400 members employed on the Unit 3 retrofit project in West Olive.

"Grand Rapids is going to be busy, busy busy, but they're really struggling getting much going in downtown Muskegon," Hawley said. "Maybe things will turn around there by the time we finish up in Grand Rapids."

Kalamazoo/Battle Creek - It took a while to get rolling, said Southwest Building Trades Council President Hugh Coward, but "2005 ended up being a fairly good year for the building trades. And there's a lot of work going into 2006."

One of the largest ongoing projects is the ongoing expansion of the Battle Creek Health System. The trades are undertaking a $29 million surgery/bed expansion project on the main campus. The plan includes a new 8-suite surgery center, a new patient tower with 30 additional private beds, and a new patient/visitor lobby.

Also in BC, the trades will be working on a remodeling project at Kellogg Community College. A line changeout and warehouse addition are taking place at auto parts manufacturer Nippondenso. Johnson Controls is expanding and remodeling office space.

In Kalamazoo, Bronson Hospital is undertaking a major remodeling project. The trades are also putting up a $25 million Rave Theatre complex and parking deck. Western Michigan University is erecting a new 95,000-square-foot Chemistry Building. Kohrman Hall is undergoing a 75,000-square-foot expansion.

Coward, of Iron Workers Local 340, said long-term, the building trades will be focusing their attention on "the work that's out there, rather than the work that was out there." While there are some large projects now, consistently good employment among large companies and manufacturers in the region has mostly has dried up. He said the bulk of future work in the area is going to be at jobs like strip malls, schools and maintenance work.

Lansing area - Construction of the new GM Assembly Plant in Delta Township is one elephant that local trades and contractors don't mind having in their living room

"Obviously, that's the biggest employer in the area," said Michael West, Executive Director Mid-Michigan Mechanical Contractors Association. "As that winds down this year, the next phase of work will be the renovation of supplier plants."

The $800 million project along Interstate 69 consists of a three-building, 2.2-million square-foot manufacturing vehicle assembly center, including a body shop, paint shop and general assembly facility. Also under construction is a 500,000 square-foot regional metal center and a central utilities complex to serve the site.

The GM plant is expected to provide a solid baseline for construction employment throughout 2006, but there are other good-sized jobs going on, especially in the area of school renovations. The Lansing School District is spending some $85 million in bond money on a new middle school and high school renovations. A new Howell High School is under construction, and there are significant projects in Mason and Dansville.

"You get a $20 million job here and a $30 million project there, and it adds up," said Mike Crawford, secretary-manager of the Lansing-based Michigan Chapter National Electrical Contractors Association, and area representative.

This year is expected to see significant infrastructure work at Michigan State University.

Health care work is expected to be strong in the Lansing area. The trades are also working on the $67 million, four-story West Wing expansion at Sparrow Hospital, and a $45 million expansion of Ingham Medical.

"Our contractors expect that 2006 is going to be as good or better than 2005," West said. Crawford concurred, but cautioned that the region faces an uncertain 2007 after work at GM dries up.

Monroe - With work in the southeast corner of Michigan slow, many Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 671 members were fortunate to be able to travel to jobs in Toledo and Ann Arbor in 2005. Local 671 Business Manager Ron Sweat said "it wasn't all that great a year" for employment.

However, 2006 looks to hold a turnaround, with major utility jobs on the horizon.

The DTE Energy Fermi II Nuclear Power Plant in Newport will host "in terms of manpower for us, the biggest outage ever," Sweat said. The 38-day outage beginning in the end of March will employ 500 plumbers/fitters alone. The project involves the change-out of main steam re-heat separators (MSRs).

Also, at DTE Energy's Monroe Power Plant the trades will install the last of three selective catalytic reducer in a project that will start soon. Also, pollution-control scrubbers will be installed on each boiler at the plant this year.

The other major project in the area that's now winding down is the second engine plant being constructed by Daimler-Chrysler in Dundee.

Traverse City area - "After a couple of really slow years, employment started to pick up in the last quarter of 2005," said IBEW Local 498 Business Manager Jeff Bush. "And this year we have some pretty good-sized projects on the horizon."

The expansion of a Weyerhauser plywood plant in Grayling is wrapping up, and improvements to the Merritt Energy plant in Kalkaska, with new compressors and high-voltage gear, will continue into this year.

But some of the best news involves casino construction. The expansion of the Manistee Little River Casino will continue into this year, and bids for a new casino and hotel are expected to go out in February near Petoskey for the Little Traverse Band of Odawa Indians. Cost: $197 million.

Bush said Local 498 has been helped by service and light commercial work, and a significant amount of residential opportunities. "There are a lot of vacation homes going up, and some of these houses are huge," he said. "Last year was good for us. We have about 40 working residential and there were very few layoffs."

Upper Peninsula - "The trend is up," said Tony Restaskie, executive director of the U.P. Construction Council. "I'm really optimistic about construction activity in the U.P. in 2006."

From a moribund period early in this decade, Retaskie said construction opportunities steadily increased from 2003 through 2005. Last year, work at colleges and universities and paper mills were significant employers for Hardhats, and 2006 looks to offer an even greater variety of work opportunities.

Following are some projects on the docket for Michigan's Upper Peninsula in 2006:

Two major casino expansions will continue, at St. Ignace and in Hannaville. Both are in the $40 million range. NewPage Paper in Escanaba (the former Mead plant) is expecting to host $30 million-plus in construction activity, including a precipitator re-build. Significant work is also planned at the International Paper's Quinnesec paper mill.

In the realm of upper education, construction of a new Bay West Campus at Bay de Noc Community College in Iron Mountain will provide numerous employment opportunities, late in the year. So will the renovation of 58,000 square feet of Northern Michigan's Meyland Hall, as well as $7.4 million in upgrades to NMU's Ripley Heating Plant.

In health care, a new emergency department was completed last year at Marquette General Hospital. New hospitals are being planned in Manistique and Ishpeming.

More work is expected to be available at the U.P.'s two iron ore mines, and the infusion of federal money should make jobs available working on water supply and wastewater projects.

Work opportunities are spread over many parts of the economy. "We're pretty fortunate here," Retaskie said.

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22 Michigan Hardhats die on-the-job in 2004

There were 17 construction worker fatalities in Michigan in 2005 - a welcome reduction from the 22 Hardhats who were killed on the job in 2004.

The perennial leading category for worker deaths was once again falls - there were nine in 2005, followed by four electrocutions, three during excavation and one struck-by. It was the lowest fatality count for construction workers in Michigan since 17 workers lost their lives on the job in 1995.

"If there's a good thing about this news," said MIOSHA Construction Safety and Health Supervisor Tony Allam, "it's that there is a fairly large drop in fatalities from 2004 to 2005, even though one worker death is significant and too many. Hopefully this is a trend that will continue."

MIOSHA holds regular construction education and training seminars for contractors and interested parties, and last year focused efforts on excavation and fall protection.

The highest number of fatalities in recent years was 37 Hardhats who died on the job in 1997. In the 1960s, before MIOSHA was instituted, an average of 44 Michigan construction workers were killed on the job every year.

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Numbers reveal the state of Michigan construction

Following are some facts and figures about the construction industry in the State of Michigan, brought to light by Odell Jones III, chairman of the Associated General Contractors, Greater Detroit Chapter, and president of JOMAR Building Co.

  • In 2004, statewide gross construction revenue was nearly $17 billion - or 4.5 % of the gross state product in Michigan.
  • In 2004, there were about 30,000 construction companies in our state, with a monthly average employment of nearly 200,000 men and women working on job sites.

Plus there were more than 70,000 self-employed construction contractors.

  • Of the 30,000 construction companies in our state, nearly half are in southeast Michigan.
  • Over the next ten years, the industry expects a 15% growth in the construction workforce - over and above the number of workers replacing the current workforce.
  • U.S. construction is the only sector in the economy that is predicted to have any labor growth between now and 2015. Nationally 250,000-plus new workers will be needed annually for each of the next five years due to retirements and attrition alone.
  • For construction in the State of Michigan, McGraw-Hill Construction predicts that non-residential construction will be up 2% in 2006 in Michigan. That compares with a decline of 6 percent in 2005.
  • The average annual earnings in Michigan for all employees is $40,400. For construction, the average annual earnings is $43,700.

Total construction wages in Michigan in 2003 exceeded $10 billion.

 

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U-M modernizes LS&A Building

ANN ARBOR - The University of Michigan's Literature Science and the Arts (LS& A) Building was built in 1948. Since then, technology, knowledge and educational techniques have advanced by leaps and bounds, but the building hasn't.

That's about to change.

DeMaria Building Co., its subcontractors and the building trades are in the midst of pulling the Central Campus building into the 21st Century with a $25 million renovation project.

According to the University of Michigan, the project will involve the total renovation of the 126,000-square-foot building. Mechanical and electrical systems will be updated, including heating and ventilation.

In order to upgrade the building's mechanical systems and provide air-conditioning, the project will require the installation of large fan units, ductwork, and other significant mechanical devices. Air-conditioning will be added to the building and accessibility throughout the building will be improved to meet current codes. Fire detection and fire suppression systems will also be installed.

When the project is complete next summer, "the building will generally function as it has in the past," the U-M said, "housing core functions of the of the College of LS&A administration and some of the college's academic and support functions. Selected general University functions, such as the University Registrar's Office, will continue to provide service from the LS&A Building.
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THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN is undertaking nearly $1 billion in construction activity. A portion of that is being spent on the ongoing renovation of the Literature, Science & Arts Building.

READYING a 2 1/2-inch copper pipe for cutting are (l-r) Craig Underwood (UA Local 190) and Chad Strickrodt (UA Local 190). They're working in a mechanical room at the U-M Literature, Science and Arts Building.

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Noise associated with high blood pressure, stroke

"If losing your hearing isn't enough of a reason to use hearing protection, a new study provides additional motivation. The study shows that on-the-job noise contributes to high blood pressure which, in turn, can cause heart disease or stroke."

So said Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North America Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. The study, performed in a Midwest auto plant, found a link between heightened noise levels and higher heart rate and blood pressure measurements. The study was promoted as a safety message for construction workers by the Laborers after being published in the Archives of Environmental Health.

Researchers, led by the study's author, Sally Lusk of the University of Michigan School of Nursing, found that blood pressure is affected by overall noise exposure while heart rate is affected by spikes in instantaneous loud noises. Systolic blood pressure rose two millimeters when average noise exposure rose ten decibels or when the difference between average and maximum noise exposure increased by more than five decibels

A 13-decibel increase in average noise exposure produced a two-millimeter increase in diastolic blood pressure.

Researchers said exposure to higher noise levels is "worrisome" because it moves heart rates in the wrong direction. Research has shown that a long-term reduction of six millimeters in diastolic blood pressure is associated with a 35-40 percent drop in strokes and a 20-25 percent reduction in coronary disease.

Lusk stressed that hearing protection needs to be worn all the time because even a 30-minute gap in protection can reduce by half the overall effect of wearing protection.

She urged companies to mandate and enforce use of protection, provide appropriate training in its use and post reminders in lunchrooms and elsewhere that explain why hearing protection matters.

"We all know retirees who suffer with hearing loss because, back in the old days, a lot of Laborers didn't wear hearing protection," Sabitoni recalls. "We've worked hard to change that habit, but some of us are inconsistent. Here we have new evidence of another way that noise exposure is harmful. It's more proof that we always need to protect ourselves."
(From the Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North America).

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Wal-Mart's P.R. effort can't mask lousy deal for taxpayers

By Andrew Korfhage

The documentary "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" premiered last month (on PBS). It was only the latest in a steady stream of public commentary on how the business model of America's biggest company and largest employer is bad for America.

Beginning almost a year earlier, Wal-Mart felt so pressured by its critics that it featured CEO Lee Scott in public relations ads in major newspapers, on television and on National Public Radio, insisting that Wal-Mart couldn't be as bad as its critics claim.

Don't believe it. Internal Wal-Mart documents published in The New York Times just before release of the Wal-Mart documentary showed that not even Wal-Mart's own analysts could buy wholesale into the idea of the company as a responsible employer. Wal-Mart's own memos warned that Wal-Mart risks damage to its "overall reputation" as consumers learn more about its costs. "Our critics are correct in some of their observations," stated one memo.

"Specifically, our (healthcare) coverage is expensive for low-income families, and Wal-Mart has a significant percentage of Associates on public assistance." The memo went on to explain how 46 percent of the children of Wal-Mart workers depend on Medicaid or go uninsured.

Unfortunately, the cost to society of the Wal-Mart business plan doesn't end with its unaffordable employee healthcare plan. It starts on the factory floor in countries where workers allege sweatshop abuses by Wal-Mart suppliers. It continues into American communities where Wal-Mart builds stores financed by taxpayer subsidies that put local companies out of business. That's the Wal-Mart way.

In order to sell ever-cheaper products and seize ever-larger market shares, its business model shifts the costs of low prices elsewhere. This is at odds with the history of business in America since the Industrial Revolution. Until Wal-Mart, American companies had increasingly accepted the responsibility to internalize all the real costs associated with their businesses. They paid decent wages, offered healthcare benefits and vacations, limited the workweek to 40 hours, reduced their environmental impact, and more. Wal-Mart turns that trend around, and externalizes its costs however it can - pushing its costs of doing business onto you, me, our communities, and the environment. We pick up the price tag while Wal-Mart picks up billions in profit.

Wal-Mart externalizes the cost of acquiring its products by insisting that suppliers lower their prices year after year. This sends suppliers scrambling for cheaper labor, as detailed in a Pulitzer-winning 2003 series in The Los Angeles Times. Its constant pressure to lower prices not only exports American jobs, but also promotes abuses at the beginning of the supply chain in factories overseas.

Last September, workers from five different countries filed the most recent lawsuit to allege workplace mistreatment by company suppliers, including charges of beatings, forced overtime without pay, denial of maternity leave, and payment below minimum wage.

Wal-Mart externalizes the cost of its new-store construction by soliciting taxpayer subsidies for perks like low-cost land, road construction, and tax credits - accumulating at least $1 billion by the end of 2004. It promises to bring jobs and low prices to town in return, and yet a 2002 University of Missouri study found that a new Wal-Mart provides a mere 50 net-new jobs on average, after it drives other local retail jobs out.

Communities have also suffered from violations of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and from driving down of local wages and encouragement of sprawl.

Finally, as admitted in its internal memo, Wal-Mart externalizes its employee healthcare costs, relying on state-supported public health insurance programs to pick up its slack. In states where this cost to taxpayers has been measured, it has not been insignificant - $6.6 million in Georgia in 2002 and $4.75 million in Wisconsin in 2004, for example.

Wal-Mart's dirty secret is that it can't really lower its costs as far is it would like consumers to believe; after a point, those costs are simply distributed onto someone else. When shoppers are paying taxes for roads, land deals, health care, and more - for a company that made $10 billion in profits in 2004 - those low prices start to look less and less like a good deal.

(The author is an editor at Co-op America, a nonprofit consumer education organization for socially and environmentally wise purchasing and investing. Distributed by minutemanmedia.org)

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News Briefs

Bush: no limits on Chinese pipe
President George W. Bush "turned his back" on several thousand U.S. workers who make steel pipes when he refused Dec. 30 to place limits on Chinese-made steel pipe imports flooding the U.S. market.

Steel pipe products are used primarily in plumbing, fencing and other construction.

"Our pipe workers and their families were delivered a stunning blow by President Bush in his refusal to enforce America's trade laws following our government's own investigation that showed China's imports are unfairly surging into the U.S. market. It's clear that President Bush has told American workers that he's not on their side when it comes to advocating a message of fair trade with China," said United Steelworkers (USW) President Leo W. Gerard.

China's currency manipulation, export rebate programs and subsidies to its nation's steel pipe manufacturers, along with the lack of workers' rights and environmental regulations, enable China to export the pipe at prices below the cost of raw materials, according to USW and seven steel pipe manufacturers. Sheet Metal Workers union members also make steel pipe in the U.S.

In August, the USW and their employers filed what is called a Section 421 petition asking the Bush Administration to curb the Chinese pipe imports. Such a petition allows businesses or other groups harmed by imports from nations that engage in unfair trade practices to ask the federal government to limit imports of the products.

As Chinese imports have grown, U.S.-made pipe prices have fallen, threatening U.S. manufacturers and jobs. The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) projects the imports will grow by at least 60 percent this year.

The White House countered that reducing Chinese imports would increase costs for consumers. Bush also said the restrictions wouldn't work because imports from other countries would simply replace the Chinese imports.

"We will be raising our voices in the 2006 election to send the message that America's fair trade laws must be enforced," Gerard said.

No free lunch at Wal-Mart
(PAI) - An Oakland, California jury has told Wal-Mart that there's no such thing as a free lunch (hour).

In a Dec. 22 decision in Alameda County Superior Court, jurors ordered the world's largest retailer to pay 116,000 present and former workers $57 million in back wages they lost, plus $115 million in damages, because it refused to give them paid time for lunch, as California law requires. The workers toiled there from 2003-2005.

"The size of this verdict speaks loudly to the disdain Americans have for multi-billion dollar companies needlessly exploiting their workers," said Paul Blank, of WakeUp WalMart.com.

The jurors decided Wal-Mart broke a 5-year-old state law that requires employers to give 30-minute unpaid lunch breaks to workers who work at least six hours a day. But if they missed lunch-as they often were forced to do-they were supposed to get a full hour's pay. They never got it. Wal-Mart claimed they had to ask for it, first, and didn't. Wal-Mart settled a similar suit in Colorado last year, paying workers $50 million

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