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July 11, 2008

Right-to-work effort heats up in Michigan

Anti-union survey aimed squarely at trades

AFL-CIO endorses Obama

U-M Flint residence hall seen as an economic catalyst

Take the bull by the horns: Construction's risks need to be understood

News Briefs


Right-to-work effort heats up in Michigan

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

The ugly effort to introduce a right-to-work law in Michigan now has a formally named sponsor, a big-pocketed, notorious advocate, and perhaps a new strategy.

Last year, speculation was rampant in organized labor about the intentions of right-to-work (RTW) proponents in Michigan, who appeared poised to begin a ballot effort to get a RTW law instituted via petition signatures and then a vote of the people.

Labor went to work, and proactively used radio and TV ads and volunteers to foil any petition effort during January's primary election to get RTW on the ballot. Now, petitions under the name of Steve Forbes (remember him? - the magazine magnate and Republican presidential candidate from a few years ago who ran on the flat tax platform) are being circulated to some voters, with a place for a recipient's signature under an appeal to our state's U.S. senators and local U.S. Representatives to support a RTW law.

A postage-paid envelope would send the petitions to Forbes at the National Right to Work Committee in Virginia, no doubt for use as a political weapon.

And that's not all. The "Michigan Right to Work Committee" has come out of its shell with a street address on its letterhead (that's still a post office box) and a new anti-union survey of its own signed by an executive director, Dimitri Kesari. One of the survey letters we got our hands on was sent to the residence of a retired trade union official and staunch Democrat.

Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney acknowledged that "right to work zealots are flooding mailboxes" with pro-right-to-work materials.

"Organized labor continues to fight back with our efforts to educate members and candidates, and extending this issue into our campaign efforts," Gaffney said. While Michigan labor leaders had thought that a petition drive might be the avenue of choice to get a right-to-work law adopted in Michigan, Gaffney said he now suspects the strategy will be to lobby present and future lawmakers - and these surveys are among the first salvos.

Forwarded to us was a letter dated June 17 to a Democratic state house candidate, from the Michigan Right to Work Committee's Kesari. With it was a "2008 Candidate Survey" with five questions, which were obviously worded to plant seeds of an anti-union, pro-right-to-work sentiment.

"Your views on the forced unionism issue are very important," Kesari wrote in the cover letter, although he didn't make it clear how the "survey" will be used.

Question No. 5 directly impacts the unionized construction industry: "If elected will you support a ban on all 'Project Labor Agreements,' which would allow contractors to bid on state construction projects regardless of whether or not their employees pay dues to a union official?"

In between slanted, anti-union explanations of the issues below, other questions on the survey ask: "Will you support legislation ensuring employers can hire permanent replacement workers during economic strikes?"

"Will you support legislation terminating forced-dues privileges for public sector union officials?" "Will you support legislation that ends monopoly bargaining over public employees by union officials?"

The coming out of the Michigan Right to Work Committee comes on the heels of a "personal opinion survey" letter written this spring by state Rep. Jacob Hoogendyk (R-Kalamazoo County) to Michigan businesses.

"You see, what Michigan's economy needs more than anything else is to pass a Right to Work law that would end forced unionism in the Wolverine State," Hoogendyk wrote in the letter. Hoogendyk is expected to be the Republican challenger to Carl Levin for his U.S. Senate seat.

Hoogendyk added that he hopes to "work with Right-to-Work allies to: "Rollback union boss power grabs in the Michigan state legislature;" and "Guarantee freedom from union violence and compulsion for every Michigan worker," as well as "provide the jobs, economic growth and tax relief that Right to Work will help bring about."

Todd Tennis, of Capitol Services, a lobbyist for the IBEW and the Mid-Michigan Construction Alliance, said: "It wasn't this year, but they're going to go after getting a right-to-work law passed in Michigan at some point. The worse the economy gets, the more they're going to blame it on unions with this kind of misinformation."

Under right-to-work laws, workers in a union shop can choose not to pay union dues - yet they still enjoy the benefits of union membership. Such a two-tiered set-up usually guts the clout of unions and eventually leads to their demise. There are currently 22 right-to-work states in the U.S. Oklahoma was the most recent state to adopt a RTW law, in 2001. The vast majority of state RTW laws were adopted in the 1960s and 1970s.

According to the Michigan AFL-CIO, Michigan workers are paid an average of $7,601 a year more than workers in right-to-work states.

"This provides another opportunity to remind your readers that Barack Obama opposes right to work and John McCain is a right-to-work supporter," Gaffney added.


Anti-union survey aimed squarely at trades

The Michigan Right to Work Committee, Steve Forbes and Republican Rep. Jacob Hoogendyk aren't the only ones filling mailboxes with anti-union literature these days. (See the above article).

Bruce Hawley of Iron Workers Local 340, a candidate for state representative, reports that he's been receiving all manner of questionnaires from a variety of special interest groups. One came from the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan Political Action Committee.

The "questionnaire" from the anti-union ABC reads like a position paper on their issues. They state their position, and then ask the candidate to check off whether or not they support, oppose or are unsure of their position.

The issues brought up by the ABC in the survey are near and dear to the state's building trades unions: they propose ending union-only project labor agreements, killing "responsible contracting" rules that provide a contractor hiring guidelines for public hiring, repealing right to work and prevailing wage rules, and opposing union-friendly "card check" voting rules during union organizing campaigns.

"You hope these surveys are going into the recycling bin" said Patrick Devlin, CEO of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. "But you never know, and that's why it's important for building trades union leaders and members to stay in contact with our lawmakers, and let them know where we stand on these issues."



AFL-CIO endorses Obama

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI) - As expected, it just took time for emotions to cool and to round up the needed votes, and the AFL-CIO on the afternoon of June 26 announced it endorsed Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for the presidency.

Federation President John J. Sweeney said Obama got the votes of members of the federation's General Board representing unions with more than two-thirds of the AFL-CIO's 9.5 million members. He polled board members by fax and conference call.

"In so many ways - on jobs, health care, gas prices and the war in Iraq - our country is headed in the wrong direction," Sweeney said. "Obama has proven from his days as an organizer, to his time in the Senate and his historic run for the presidency, that he's leading the fight to turn around America."

Sweeney called Obama "a champion for working families who knows what it's going to take to create an economy that works for everyone, not just Big Oil, Big Pharma, insurance companies, giant mortgage lenders, speculators" and the rich.

In announcing that AFL-CIO Building Trades Department has unanimously endorsed Obama, department President Mark Ayers said the trades would attempt to show to members "the stark differences between (Obama's) view of America and that of Senator John McCain - whose candidacy, in our minds, is simply a warmed-over version of the anti-worker, anti union tenure of George W. Bush."

The AFL-CIO endorsement was not unanimous. The Machinists voted "present" and IAM President Thomas Buffenbarger and Transportation Communications Union/IAM President Robert Scardelletti still have questions for Obama. The Machinists and other industrial unions have large segments of blue-collar lower-income male voters who favored Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) over Obama in the Democratic primaries.

"Blue-collar Democrats are born skeptics," Buffenbarger said. "Their skepticism grew during this campaign. And to turn skeptics into supporters takes more than a perfunctory knock on the door of the House of Labor." Scardelletti and Buffenbarger said "now is not the right time for an endorsement."

"We look forward to a productive conversation with Obama about policies that can resonate with blue-collar Democrats," Buffenbarger added. "As they demonstrated in state after state, blue-collar Democrats respond overwhelmingly to a candidate who will fight to improve their lives. And they are just not there yet. Nor are we."

Even without IAM, major hurdles to the Obama endorsement were overcome within the prior week when AFSCME, the AFL-CIO's largest union with 1.4 million members, endorsed Obama, followed by the 700,000-member Communications Workers on June 24. AFSCME previously backed Clinton and CWA was neutral. IBEW, the Bakery and Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTG&M) and the California Nurses Association also issued separate Obama endorsements.

The AFL-CIO endorsement is significant because it lets member unions - who split their endorsements between Obama, Clinton and Edwards before switching to Obama - mobilize their get-out-the-vote and voter information campaigns for Obama. And the AFL-CIO endorsement paves the way for the federations and NEA to coordinate their efforts.

The AFL-CIO said its top-tier states this year will be Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But its drive will also cover 60 U.S. House races, "every viable Senate race" and 510 races overall in 24 states. The federation aims to put 250,000 volunteers in the field, make 300,000 home visits even before Labor Day, make over 300,000 phone calls and distribute more than 2 million fliers. It already distributed 1.5 million worksite fliers and 500,000 mailers criticizing McCain's economic record.

It also launched a new website,, to go with its "McCain exposed" website.

The federation estimated individual unions will spend approximately $200 million on politics this year, besides its own $54 million get-out-the-vote, voter registration, voter protection and non-partisan information campaigns, presenting the positions of Obama and McCain on a wide range of issues of interest to workers.

It will emphasize four issues in its drive this fall: Universal, affordable, comprehensive health care with government as regulator and backup provider, fair trade not free trade, retirement security, and the Employee Free Choice Act. EFCA will be labor's top priority in the next 111th Congress.

"Leadership can re-engage disenfranchised Americans and bring our country together," the AFL-CIO board's statement said. "Obama has advocated a change of direction for our nation that mirrors the priorities of the labor movement."

The Employee Free Choice Act, which Obama - a former organizer - strongly supports and McCain opposes, would help level the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing campaigns and in bargaining for initial contracts. It would do so by writing "card-check recognition" - automatic recognition of the union when it achieves a majority of signed election authorization cards in a workplace - into law.


U-M Flint residence hall seen as an economic catalyst

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

FLINT - Construction of a new student residence hall at the University of Michigan-Flint campus is hoped to be the first step in changing the personality of the commuter college.

The 311-bed facility may also be one of the catalysts in the transformation of downtown Flint, as the city seeks to evolve from its industrial past into a more education-centered future.

"In 2006 our campus became 50 years old, and all that time we have been a commuter college," said U-M Flint Public Affairs Officer Mel Serow. "So for us, construction of these apartments is a very big deal. These rooms will have everything kids look for, and it will be a far cry from your dad's dorm."

Serow said the 100,000 square-foot building is the first dedicated to student housing on the campus. About 7,000 students attend the U-M Flint, with a relative handful living near campus scattered at apartments and other residences.

Sorenson-Gross is managing construction of the $21.3 million project, which is being erected on a former parking lot on the southeast side of the campus. About 30-35 construction workers are currently working at the site. The building will be complete in August in time for the fall semester.

Bill Webb, U-M Flint's assistant vice chancellor for administration, said the majority of the suites will have four student-residents, with most units being four single bedrooms and some double bedrooms. Student lounges will be placed on every floor. The suites will have all the comforts and amenities today's students expect.

"Our focus isn't on warehousing students in an apartment setting," Webb said. "We realize we're in a competitive environment, so we're focusing on living and learning outside of the classroom."

The location of the apartments "is intended to put us in synergy with downtown Flint and local businesses, which the city strongly needs," Webb said. "We're trying to accommodate each other's needs."

In the effort to improve that "synergy," a portion of Third Avenue will be realigned to connect the campus with the rest of downtown Flint, and get renamed "University Boulevard." And together with Mott Community College and Kettering University, the region hopes the educational facilities and other developments will be the basis for future economic growth for downtown Flint and the rest of the region.

"While the U-M-Flint already is doing an excellent job serving its existing regional student base, I expect the addition of on-campus housing to contribute to enrollment growth and expansion," said C.S. Mott Foundation President William White. The foundation is a major charitable contributor to the region. "And this also should increase the momentum in the redevelopment of downtown Flint by adding several hundred young residents to other nearby apartment, loft and housing developments."

ASSEMBLING CIRCUIT BREAKER panels in the new U-M student residence hall are Jordan Vincke and Keith Lane of IBEW Local 948 and Walker Electric.

SETTING UP THE heating and cooling unit in a residence dorm are Matt Domby and Rick Gibbons of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 370 and Goyette Mechanical.

THE NEW FOUR-STORY, 311-bed University of Michigan-Flint residence hall is nearing completion at First Street and Willson Park.



Take the bull by the horns: Construction's risks need to be understood

By Mark Breslin

The bull lowers his head and charges. I try to dodge but it's too late. Somewhere people are happy and carefree. Somewhere people are drinking a beer in a recliner. Some are living lives free of risk and stress. But in Pamplona Spain, for the Running of the Bulls, these people are far, far away - as a thousand pounds of angry beef begins pile driving me into the ground.

Construction is a business that is simply based on an assessment of risk. In order for the contractor to be successful, he or she must generally expose themselves to higher levels of risk than one's competitors. It is voluntary. It is strategic. It is addictive. It is a team sport.

I should have listened to Alfredo the bellman. He met us at hotel reception, eyeing the gringos in white and red clothes. "Señor Breslin you come to run with the bulls, No?" 'Yes," I replied. "This is a very bad thing." he said gravely. " I've been here 30 years. Many people die. Many hurt badly. The bull bloodlines have been bred for hundreds of year to kill. I say, do not do this thing."

The risk one is willing to accept depends upon the reward sought. The elements influencing the risk / reward assessment include: environment, resources, skills, rules, consequences, alternatives and the Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry Factor, "the question you have to ask yourself is, do you feel lucky? Well do you punk?"

The competition in our industry generally drives the contractor to the absolute edge of risk acceptance, where the greatest rewards (or worst consequences) can be found. It's not a place to go alone. In fact there is a team that goes there every time. The contractor, the union and the rank and file. But in this team threesome, the experience, perceptions and risks are not commonly understood or shared.

The Running of the Bulls occurs in Pamplona Spain each year. A tradition for 400 years. For eight days, at 8 a.m. 2,000 men and 12 bulls run. The bulls weigh 1500-1700 lbs. and have razor sharp horns. They are not happy. They run 15 miles per hour. Heavy barricades keep the bulls and runners in. The macho locals will push you back over the barricades if you lose courage and try to get out. There are 800 first aid personnel on the course. Local papers have box scores with the daily number of injuries and hospitalizations. I am standing with my running partner inside the barricades. It is 7:59.

Risk is always more acceptable if it is shared with a partner. But sharing means one thing to some people and something else to others; even on our team. In our industry, to a great degree, most of the rank and file members do not understand the critical financial and operational risks of the construction enterprise. The contractors don't do a great job at educating them either; not a high priority when they are on the clock.

Perhaps the team (contractor, union and rank and file) would perform more effectively if there was a common understanding of the connections between risk and quality. Risk and schedule. Risk and client satisfaction. Risk and absenteeism. Risk and productivity. Risk and profit.

Millions of union craftspeople work a full career with no more understanding of the risks and challenges of the construction business than their dispatch to the next job. It is time to take the bull by the horns and teach apprentices (and journeymen too) more than skills and a craft, but also their critical position in the risk-reward equation.

The 8 a.m. rocket is fired. Everyone looks nervous. We jog at first, then suddenly the crowd roars and everyone takes off. My partner disappears. In a full sprint everything is a blur. Jumping over fallen runners with their hands over their heads, I look over my shoulder. The bulls are bearing down.

Down the streets and through the stadium tunnel into the bullring comes the stampede- mass confusion. Bulls zig-zag wildly through the runners, scraping the side rail and dozens dive up into the stands. I turn to look but it's too late. A bull lowers his head. A slow motion impact and I am knocked into the air. Now I'm sprawled in the arena dirt. I roll over to see a giant, black, frothing face mashing down on me. I reach up and grab a horn.

To understand and share risk, when possible and realistic, creates synergy and mutual accountability. It creates momentum, focus and pressure to perform. When one or another of any partnership suffers from an imbalance of "risk responsibility" there will be strife, ranging from conflict to indifference. For us to train the apprentices and workers of the future to both understand their role in the risk formula and act upon it; this is the task at hand. Thus this formula for success; striving to combine team objectives and strategies for achievement - or even, as an industry, collectively taking directions that may seem difficult or futile…it is worth sharing the risk to share the reward. But first you have to see and understand the risk to believe in it.

I hold that horn for dear life. Finally, a dozen Spaniard runners drive him off. I lay in the dirt with a circle of faces above. Laughing, they lift me up, my clothes filthy, camera smashed, dazed and bruised. Slowly 25,000 arena spectators rise and roar their approval. I raise my hand above my head, glad to be alive. It is quite a moment. A minute later my "partner" walks up. "Can you believe it? Did you see that!!?" I ask excitedly. He looks at me puzzled, "see what?"

Mark Breslin is a trainer and author specializing in labor-management challenges and solutions. He is the author of the recently published Attitudes and Behaviors: Survival of the Fittest curriculum for apprentice training centers. The curriculum is now being used by union training centers, and has been established as standard course programming by other International Unions and apprenticeship programs. Instructional material including books, CDs, workbooks, instructor guides and support media information is available at

As a consequence of the above, Mark now prefers beer and a recliner.


News Briefs

Toilet, sanitizer bill put on hold
LANSING - House Bill 5064, which would increase the number of portable toilets on construction sites and require the use of hand sanitizers or washing stations, has likely gone on hiatus along with the rest of the lawmaking process until state legislators reconvene in September.

"(Lawmakers) come back in mid-July to clean up a few budget bills, but I don't see it coming up again until the fall," said Todd Tennis, of Capitol Services, a lobbyist for the IBEW and the Mid-Michigan Construction Alliance.

Prospects for passage of the bill looked good in the House in early May, according to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Mark Meadows (D-East Lansing). However, a bloc of Democrats ran for cover after getting pressure from editorials in Detroit-area publications that said there was too much "anti-business" legislation being brewed up in the House, including this bill.

And without pressure from the public, there probably will only be a handful of Republicans, if any, supporting this bill.

In our last issue, we urged our readers to contact their lawmakers and urge them to support HB 5064, which would have a minimal cost impact on contractors. That advice still applies. On the web, go to to get e-mail and mailing addresses and phone numbers of your House lawmaker.

"Keep after them," Tennis said. "You know, nothing made me madder than when I heard a bunch of Republican staffers snickering about this bill, saying what a waste of time it was. I don't think they'd feel this bill is a waste of time if they worked in construction."

Chamber warns of union gains
The potential for a gain in union clout after the elections in November is getting the attention of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is no friend of the union movement.

Stephen Law, chief legal officer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wailed in a June 28 opinion piece that union leaders have "chosen politicsand coercion" to push their agenda, which includes the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act - or EFCA.

Law's commentary was part of a recent public relations effort on the part of the national business community, to forestall what just about every political pundit sees: major gains for Democrats in Congress and their supporters (often unions) following the Nov. 4 general election.

The Construction Labor Report noted that U.S. Chamber officials told reporters on June 5 that there are dozens of "anti-employer" bills awaiting action in Congress.

The EFCA is seen as the most important pro-labor bill. It would allow union organizing elections to proceed with workers only signing a card, rather than participating in a full-blown election. Union leaders frequently say in the lead-up to secret ballot elections, employers are free to coerce and fire union sympathizers.

Law told reporters that the pro-union bills would be a "radical re-write of labor laws."


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