The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index

January 5, 2001

Tradesman survives, thrives when others haven't in labor press

Huge Cobo Center remains a vital, but undersized asset

Double deckers twice as nice for trades at auto show

Most of Michigan expect good times to continue in 2001

Record work for now, but 'a bump in the road'could await Motor City'

Unions end newspaper boycott

Election show labor's 'unmatched power'



Tradesman survives, thrives when others haven't in labor press

By Marty Mulcahy

Labor publications have come and gone over the course of the last century, reflecting the ups and downs of an ever-changing economy.

This month, The Building Tradesman begins its 50th year of publication. Not a bad run compared to some publications that date back two centuries, terrific when you consider the track record of labor union papers that have started up and have run out of gas over the years.

The Building Tradesman has managed to survive our state's economic peaks and valleys to give Michigan's unionized construction workers a unique voice in the industry. Unique because there is virtually no other publication that has been doing what we've been doing, as well, or as long, as we have.

I talked to a public relations representative from the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department a couple years ago, and told him that besides our paper, I had only seen two other building trades union publications come across my desk during my 11-year stint at the Tradesman. One based in San Francisco; the other in Minnesota. "That's about right," he said, "as far as I know, you guys are about it."

If you think the construction industry is cyclical, consider the business of public relations publications. They're nearly always the first target in an organization when it comes to cutbacks following an economic downturn. But somehow, in Detroit and Michigan, union leaders have been doggedly determined to keep the Tradesman in business.

There have been cutbacks - the most serious of which came in 1992, when the weekly paper was reduced to being published on a bi-weekly basis. But even in the depths of serious financial difficulties, union members and leaders have appreciated and supported the voice provided by the paper.

This paper was planted and took root thanks to the foresight of The Greater Detroit Building and Construction Trades Council. The paper has always been the council's official publication, and we also provide space for our 45 subscribing local unions to place articles of interest to their membership.

At last count, our subscriber count was 46,424 - many of them construction workers who live and work outside of the Detroit area. We attempt to make the content of the paper reflect the statewide readership of the Tradesman. In fact, we also serve as the official publication of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council.

We think we're doing something right. In 1997, The Building Tradesman won two first-place awards in the annual International Labor Communications Association (ILCA) awards contest for "Best Front Page" and the top spot in "Labor History, Best Use of Graphics" categories, competing with 1,682 entries submitted by 167 member publications nationwide.

Judges commented, "Perhaps the best traditional newspaper front page format in the labor movement, The Building Tradesman has evolved over the years into a lively dispenser of labor and industry news…."

In the first edition of The Building Tradesman, published Friday, Jan. 11, 1952, Building Trades Department President Richard J. Gray wrote, "to us as union building tradesmen it is doubly important that our story be told - it is folly to expect our daily newspapers owned by anti-labor big business enterprises to put our views before the public."

This paper has indeed evolved over the years, but its basic mission hasn't changed. Local unions use their space to bring information to their membership, and we use our space to inform, occasionally amuse, and otherwise benefit our "Hardhats."

If you have been around for all or part of the last 50 years, we hope you have enjoyed the paper, and we look forward to serving you in the new Millenium.


Huge Cobo Center remains a vital, but undersized asset

As we enter our 50th year of publishing, The Building Tradesman takes a look back at historic construction projects that have helped shaped Michigan. This begins a series that will last throughout 2001.

By Marty Mulcahy

Detroit's new and gleaming Cobo Hall and adjacent Cobo Arena gave the city a huge, sorely needed facility for attracting conventions, sporting events and concerts.

The construction process yielded a 400,000-square-foot convention center, which opened Aug. 15, 1960, and a 12,191-seat arena, which opened June 16, 1961. It all cost $54 million, and combined they were the largest such facility in the world.

"Cobo Hall and Cobo Arena are capable of housing any convention or exhibition of current size," said press materials of the day.

But times change. In 1989 the exhibition hall was expanded to include 700,000 square feet of exhibit space, which kept the facility as the nation's third-largest.

Since then, however, Cobo Center has dropped to No. 12, and when it comes to attracting the big players in the convention business, size matters. Sites like Chicago's McCormack Place (2.2 million square feet) and Orlando's County Center (1.1 million square feet) have surpassed Cobo, spurring talk of expanding the riverfront property once again.

Named for Detroit Mayor Albert Cobo (1950-57), the facility has 80 meeting rooms, two large banquet rooms, and rooftop and indoor parking for more than 2,200 vehicles. Cobo Hall was the destination for rock concerts in Detroit and was the home of the Detroit Pistons until 1978.

Today, the annual North American International Auto Show and the Society of Automotive Engineers Show are two of the largest users of floor space at Cobo - and they could use more room. The multitude of double-deck displays at the last few auto shows is evidence of this. And if the city has any hope of attracting additional users of the hall, more room is needed. "There is no question that we need to expand," said Louis Pavledes, director of Cobo.

Bringing the facility up to 1 million square feet would cost an estimated $350 million in construction alone, but first the room has to be found. The building is surrounded by water, streets or other buildings, none of which can be built upon or over without significant additional cost and planning.

It remains to be seen whether that expansion work will ever take place,but the work that was done 40 years ago stands as a testament to the skill of building trades.

COBO ARENA and Cobo Hall on Detroit's riverfront - shown here brand new in 1961.


Double deckers twice as nice for trades at auto show

The North American International Auto Show over the last few years has spread over every nook and cranny of the 700,000 square feet of exhibit space available at Detroit's Cobo Center.

Over the last few years, exhibitors have wanted more area, but the only space left to build in the hall is up - in the form of double-deck displays. The two-story displays were a novelty a few years ago, but now, as the saying goes, everybody's doing it.

"We love the double decks, we're seeing more of them and putting them up provides us with a lot of work," said Mark Schwartz of IBEW Local 58 and superintendent for Trade Show Electric. "They talk about expanding Cobo, but I'd kind of like to see them keep it the same size - and keep building up."

Reflecting a booming auto industry - which has started to falter in recent months - automakers have poured millions of dollars into auto show displays. Schwartz said in order to get the show ready on time for the press and the public, the set-up time has been extended to the point where building trades workers were on site this year the last week of October, a few weeks earlier than usual.

The auto show consistently employs more than 500 union electricans, iron workers, riggers, stagehands and teamsters. The show opens with a press preview on Jan. 8, and is open to the public Jan. 13.

PONTIAC BUILDS excitement, and Ken Kenny and Andrew Towns of IBEW Local 58 and Trade Show Electric help build the Pontiac display at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center. Cobo Hall's first public event was the 1960 auto show.


Most of Michigan expect good times to continue in 2001

By Marty Mulcahy

The economic forecast for Michigan's construction industry calls for continued sunny skies in the Lower Peninsula in 2001, but storm clouds may be starting to form in the U.P.

That's our assessment in a nutshell of our annual, and admittedly unscientific survey of the state of the state's construction industry. The current construction boom in Michigan was born in 1992 - and in nearly every corner of the state the building economy has improved steadily since then.

But as we reported in our last issue, there are a few early warning signs that the nation's economic engine may be running out of gas. The Wall Street Journal predicted a "bumpy landing" for the economy in the Midwest, with auto sales weakening, oil prices remaining high, and companies beginning to lay off workers.

For most of Michigan, though, the construction industry still looks terrific for 2001. There are numerous large projects that have started or are on the table. Travelers are still expected to help with the workload in much of the state. And local unions are continuing to be successful in organizing and winning better-paying contracts.

Here's a wrap-up of what's going on in various regions of the state:

Ann Arbor - "For us, 2000 was an unprecedented year for work. 2001 looks like it will be just as good. I'm very optimistic about the next 12 to 18 months." So said IBEW Local 252 Business Manager Greg Stephens, who said his local union was averaging about 100 travelers during the busy months last year.

The University of Michigan Life Sciences Building, a new forensic center in Ypsilanti Twp., new construction by Pfiser, and a new high-rise in downtown Ann Arbor are some of the bigger projects that add up to nearly $1 billion worth of work going on in Washtenaw County and its environs.

Flint - Work at the recently completed GM L-6 Engine Plant and a massive modernization project at the Chevrolet Truck and Bus plant here helped make 2000 a good year with full employment for IBEW Local 948 members, said Business Manager Charlie Marshall.

The prognosis for 2001: "good, but not as good as 2000," Marshall said.

New work at Mott Community College, a new technical center at U-M Flint, plus a good deal of other school and residential work will be employing Flint area tradespeople in 2001, Marshall said.

Grand Rapids/Muskegon - Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 174 Business Manager Doug Bennett said "we've been fortunate in 2000, with over 200 travelers, an abundance of work, plus we've organized 200 members." Full employment has continued into January, Bennett said, with major projects ongoing at two Consumers Power Plants, B.C. Cobb and Campbell, at the Sappi paper mill in Muskegon, and at the Zeeland Powerhouse.

"One thing we're pretty concerned about is having George Bush in office," Bennett said. "His dad issued executive orders outlawing Davis-Bacon and project labor agreements, and Clinton overturned them. Now we're wondering if George W. is going to do the same thing. If the Republicans don't get their way, 2001 is shaping up to be another excellent year for us."

Kalamazoo - "We never really cleared the bench in 2000, but if they were willing to travel, just about everybody who wanted to work, worked," said Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 357 Business Manager Bob Williams. "I guess you'd say last year was a pretty good year."

The year 2001, Williams said, "should be good, and could be great" if all the work that is on the table goes union. Those projects include a new 1,000 megawatt co-generation powerhouse in Covert, a new casino in New Buffalo, and a new powerhouse and science facility at Western Michigan University.

Lansing/Jackson - Start with ongoing construction at the $800 million GM Grand River assembly plant and the $1 billion-plus Delta Twp. platinum plant, "and we've had a tremendous year in 2000," said Laborers Local 998 Secretary-Treasurer Joe Gunther.

He the plethora of work has helped their local union membership to increase 10 percent to more than 600. Other jobs in the area include construction of the state Supreme Court building, a $68 million high school in Holt, and a great deal of school work.

In Jackson, the trades will be working on the $300 million K & M power plant and a new headquarters building for Consumers Energy.

"There's a lot going on in Lansing and in Jackson," said Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 313 Business Manager Jimmy Davis. "In 2000, work was excellent; we had full employment and put work about 250 travelers. Things look even better in 2001."

Saginaw Bay & areas north and west - A powerhouse expansion at the Midland Co-Generation Venture, a new powerhouse in West Branch, and a huge expansion at the Boyne Highlands make up some of the "real nice-size projects" that should keep Plumbers and SteamFitters Local 85 members busy in 2001, said Business Manager Mark Lee.

"2000 went fairly well, it wasn't a bad year," Lee said. "Most of our members were working somewhere around the state. For us, 2001 looks to be a better year."

Traverse City - "We stayed pretty busy in 2000, but it's looking like things are going to be a bit skinny until we get a few months into 2001," said IBEW Local 498 Business Manager Bernie Mailloux. "We should have a pretty good summer next year."

He said Munson Medical Center, the Manistee Casino, school projects and work at Medusa Cement in Charlevoix should help employment at Local 498 this year.

The Upper Peninsula - Upper Peninsula Construction Labor-Management Council Executive Director Tom Hogan said the last thing he wants to be is the bearer of bad tidings. "The year 2000 was a good year for us, and we held our own," he said, "but for 2001, prospects for work are slim at this time across the U.P." He said the U.P. is usually the first region in the state to feel a tightening economy, "and now, we're feeling it."

"There are some fairly good size projects coming up," Hogan said, "but nowhere near what we've seen in the past few years." Two large projects at Northern Michigan University and border crossing work in Sault Ste. Marie could be among the biggest employers for construction workers.

Michigan Building Trades Upper Peninsula Rep. Jack LaSalle said he expects 2001 "to be slower than it has been in the last four or five years." He said 2001 may turn out to be better than predicted if a few large projects start earlier than expected.


Record work for now, but 'a bump in the road'could await Motor City'

Detroit - For the Detroit area's construction forecast, we turn to David B. Hanson, president of the Associated General Contractors, Greater Detroit Chapter. The Walbridge-Aldinger executive vice president spoke at the Dec. 11, 2000 Outlook luncheon at the Detroit Economic Club, starting with a little bit of history on the building market.

He said construction activity hit a peak in 1987, then slid for the next four years to "historic lows" in 1991. "The market came back with a slight uptick in 1992," Hanson said, surpassed the 1987 peak in 1996 and today activity is nearly 20 percent above that 1987 high point. Our industry is experiencing one of the best runs ever."

Citing The Engineering News Record, Hanson said in constant dollars, the volume of the nation's construction activity in 2000 will be nearly 40 percent more than in 1991.

"I will start off with the good news," Hanson said, "by predicting that that trend will continue in 2001 in both the nation and in the greater Detroit region and the amount of construction put in place will continue to grow, albeit slightly." He said for the majority of southeast Michigan contractors, there are work backlogs "at record or near-record levels."

He said that while new orders for construction may creep up 1 percent nationally, there may be a slight decrease in orders in Southeast Michigan in 2001. But, "a flat year for new construction sales does not mean that construction is drying up," he said, pointing to work about to begin on the Compuware headquarters, continuing work at the GM Renaissance Center, the Midfield Terminal, and school projects for the City of Detroit.

Other major ongoing projects include work at the GM Vehicle Test Facilities in Milford, the GM Tech Center in Warren, and the Daimler-Chrysler headquarters in Auburn Hills.

"The specter of softening auto sales casts some doubt as to the near-term future of many other projects currently in the planning stages in our area," Hanson said. "The continuing uncertainty on how hard the soft landing will be places uncertainty on third and fourth quarter new orders and therefore the direction of the industry in 2002. However, I remain optimistic that we are hitting a bump in the road rather than falling off the cliff."


Unions end newspaper boycott

The bitter Detroit newspaper dispute is over, and newspaper unions have called off the boycott of the Detroit News and Free Press.

After five and a half years of battling the papers with picket lines, with boycotts and in the courts, the Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions officially called off the boycott of the papers on Dec. 20. The announcement came after the remaining unions involved in the labor dispute ratified contracts with their employers.

"We thank you for standing strong with us for such a long time," said Al Derey, president of the Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions. "We will never forget your kindness and support."

Teamsters President James P. Hoffa said, "It's time for the healing process to begin," and said he would help support union members at the papers by subscribing to the paper.

The boycott hurt the papers, especially initially, but they became profitable again. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the newspapers' combined daily sales fell from about 900,000 before the strike to an average of 603,097 in the six months ending in September.

Under the agreement with the unions, cash bonuses of $1,000 per worker will be paid if newspaper sales rise by 100,000 copies and up to $3,000 per worker if the increase is 200,000 copies or more. The papers will remain an open shop, with union participation voluntary.

"One of the lessons of the last five-and-a-half years is that it's far better to be partners with our unions than to be adversaries," said Heath Meriwether, publisher of the Free Press. "This is an important signal that we're going to develop a new relationship that will benefit everyone - the people at the Free Press and the people we serve every day with our newspaper."


Election show labor's 'unmatched power'

By John Sweeney
President, AFL-CIO

Union families have a tremendous amount to be proud of from their participation in Labor 2000. America's working families played a critical role in this election.

From the first union volunteers who rallied voters for Iowa's January caucuses to the last AFL-CIO Labor 2000 volunteers making Election Day get-out-the-vote phone calls, working families mobilized the biggest "people-powered" election campaign in our history. An estimated 100,000 union members volunteered their time at work sites, phone banks and precinct walks.

The union vote on Nov. 7 comprised 26 percent of the total electorate, up from 23 percent in the last presidential election and 19 percent in 1992.

Union members voted overwhelmingly for labor-endorsed candidates, making the critical difference in state after state. In Michigan, for example, 43 percent of all voters were members of union households. One out of every three votes cast in Pennsylvania was made by a voter living in a union household.

I was out there in city after city over the last several weeks and I was so proud of what I saw. Union members put their hearts into this election. I walked with many of them as they visited their neighbors, knocked on doors, talked to one another about leaflets, and made phone call after phone call to get the word out.

Union households turned out in unprecedented numbers around the nation and they voted for Al Gore by a margin of 63 percent. Union members stood behind Gore because he is on the right side of the issues that are central to our lives; issues like children's future, a financially secure old-age, health care for the sick, and a free and fair voice at work.

Union voters supported key victorious Senate and House candidates while defeating anti-labor office-holders, won the state Senate in Colorado, defeated two "paycheck deception" ballot initiatives that attacked the voice of working families in politics in Oregon, and defeated voucher initiatives in California and Michigan.

Clearly, labor has reestablished credibility with our members. Unions see their union as a trustworthy source of information to help them make sense of where the candidates stand on issues of importance to them.

For union members, working family issues were paramount in their voting decisions. In fact, post-election polls show that a majority of Americans agree with a working families agenda. They want Social Security protected and Medicare strengthened, not turned over to HMOs. They want prescription drug benefits for seniors, as well as investments in education, health care and infrastructure.

Nov. 7 made clear that union members exercised the unmatched power we hold as a united political force in this nation. This incredibly ambitious mobilization effort during this election cycle gives us a glimpse of what we can do in the future through sustained grassroots mobilization and organizing, and by continuing to bring people together to rebuild their communities and improve their lives.


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