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July 5, 2002
LANSING - With a state budget shortfall approaching $400 million, the Engler Administration has been looking under every rock for revenue sources that will help balance Michigan's books.
In April, Gov. Engler signed a bill requiring state homeowners to move up the payment of their December school taxes to July, which plugged a big hole in the budget by allowing the cash-strapped state to maintain its pledge of keeping school funding at $6,700 per pupil.
Now state Republicans are ready to take $292 million in federally provided money out of the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, and use it to plug other holes in the budget. The unemployment money was appropriated by Congress as part of legislation that extended federal unemployment benefits last March. The Michigan AFL-CIO has appealed to the Labor Department, maintaining that federal guidelines require that the money be used for improved worker benefits or for administration of unemployment benefit programs.
For example, federal rules specifically prohibit the use of that money for job training purposes, yet one state budget measure appropriates $16.8 million for job training grants.
"This is an outrageous use of 'Enron' economics to pervert the unemployment system," said Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney. "Now they're trying to cover the budget shortfall by raiding the UI trust fund. They should be ashamed of themselves. That money should go to laid off workers, not to profitable companies in the form of tax cuts."
Earlier this year, organized labor and state Democratic lawmakers fought long and hard to improve unemployment benefit levels for workers, which had been capped at a maximum of $300 per week since 1995. Republicans, who control all the lawmaking in the state, first proposed an increase to $415 per week, but finally settled on a $365 increase.
While workers had to fight for increases in Unemployment Insurance benefits, Michigan employers enjoyed Unemployment Insurance tax cuts for the last several years - allowing the state's Unemployment Insurance benefit fund to balloon to $2.9 billion.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce doesn't like the shift in
federal money, either. Tricia Kinley, director of tax policy
and economic development at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce,
told Crain's Detroit Business she also thinks the state lacks
authority to use the unemployment money in such a manner.
Somehow, tens of thousands of employers across Michigan and the nation manage to make a fair profit for themselves, while paying their workers a collectively bargained wage.
In our cutthroat global economy, there are successful, profitable U.S. companies who are responsible partners with their community, respect their employees, and exhibit a corporate conscience.
And then there are companies like Wal Mart and Tyson Foods. Both companies were in the news last week, and the reports of their abominable corporate behavior might give all union members reason to appreciate their employers:
'Profits recession' brings move for pork plant
Tyson Foods abruptly closed its Holly Ridge, North Carolina pork processing plant in June, putting nearly 500 employees out of work. The Wall Street Journal said the closing of the plant was "an incredible blow" to the town with a population of less than 700, with almost no other employers in a 20-mile radius.
Many of the laid-off workers lack a high school diploma. Some don't speak English. More than half of the jobless workers are women or men supporting a family by themselves. Many workers had brothers, sisters and other relatives working at the plant - making the workplace like an extended family.
"This closing presents many unbelievable challenges," said Mark Wuntke, the rapid response coordinator for the area.
Why was the plant closed? If you're assuming it was because the facility wasn't making money, you would be wrong. It was profitable. Is the pork industry doing poorly? No, it's "in pretty good shape," the Journal said.
Tyson Foods, the world's largest processor of beef, chicken and pork, said it wanted to shift production of the 34-year-old plant to more modern facilities in the Midwest. The company said it isn't sure how much money it will save, but stock prices often get a boost after a company makes such a move.
We will leave it to the Journal to make sense of the move:
"What is happening in Holly Ridge is symptomatic of the
newly intensified cost-cutting culture that is sweeping across
corporate America. Factory executives, traumatized by the deepest
profits recession in post-World War II history, are finding ways
to save every penny possible - even when there aren't any immediate
signs of trouble and even when the consequences can bring financial
harm to an entire town."
Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee, said "Wal-Mart is driving the race to the bottom" by multinational corporations roaming the globe for lower labor costs. Wal Mart is also building on its legend as a lousy domestic employer.
The New York Times reported last month that the nation's largest retailer is the subject of class-action and individual lawsuits from workers in 28 states, who allege that Wal Mart has cheated employees out of millions of dollars in lost wages.
Forty current and former Wal-Mart workers interviewed by the Times over the last four months say Wal-Mart violated federal law by forcing or pressuring employees to work hours that were not recorded or paid. Although Wal-Mart's policies officially forbid such work, current and former workers and managers said an intense focus on cost cutting had created an unofficial policy that encouraged managers to request or require off-the-clock work from their employees to avoid paying overtime.
Verette Richardson worked for a Kansas City Wal Mart from 1995-2000. According to the Times, after finishing her 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift, Richardson clocked out and was heading to her car when a Wal-Mart manager ordered her to turn around and straighten up the store's apparel department.
She said she was eager to stay on her boss' good side, and she spent the next hour working unpaid, tidying racks of slacks and blouses and picking up hangers and clothes that had fallen to the floor. Other times after clocking out, she was ordered to round up shopping carts in the parking lot.
Some days, as soon as she walked in a manager told her to rush to a cash register and start ringing up purchases, without clocking in. Sometimes, she said, she worked for three hours before clocking in.
"They wanted us to do a lot of work for no pay," said Richardson. "A company that makes billions of dollars doesn't have to do that."
In addition, former employees at stores in California, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Oregon and Washington told the Times that many evenings when their stores closed, managers locked the front door and prevented workers - even those who had clocked out - from leaving until everyone finished straightening the store.
Jon Lehman, a retired Wal Mart store manager from Kentucky, said Wal-Mart warned managers repeatedly against going over budget or paying overtime.
"You got to hit the payroll budget they set for you, but if you're over, they discipline you," Lehman said in an interview. "People get demoted all the time for that. I've seen it happen numerous times to friends of mine. I've also seen store managers demoted for paying overtime."
Wal Mart's alleged stinginess with overtime payments comes at a time when it enjoyed more than $200 billion in sales last year. Most hourly Wal-Mart workers earn less than $8.50 an hour, which amounts to $17,680 a year for a full-time worker.
"You have Wal-Mart, this mammoth retailer, lowering living standards worldwide by busting union efforts, intimidating workers, driving down wages and disobeying worker protection laws," said UFCW President Douglas Dority. "We must make Wal-Mart respect workers and obey the law, or the company will lower living standards for all workers."
By Marty Mulcahy
We don't know how the Detroit Lions will perform at Ford Field this year, but there's little doubt that the performance of the building trades and their employers has brought forth an absolute gem.
With the south side of the stadium built into the façade of the 80-year-old Hudson's warehouse, and with an eight-story glass atrium built into one of the corners, Ford Field will be like no other stadium in the NFL.
Matt Millen, a network football television analyst before he became the Lions team president, said he has been to every NFL football stadium. "I've had a great vantage point over the last 10 years and I've seen them all," he said. "But Detroit's is going to be better than all of them. This stadium will be the model they all try to copy."
The Lions played their final game in the Pontiac Silverdome last year, and that facility was typical of stadiums built during the 1960s and 70s: it was placed in a field or next to a freeway and surrounded by parking lots. The NFL is pushing for teams to do what the Lions are doing: integrate stadiums into downtowns and make them part of their environment.
Roger Goodell, executive vice-president of the NFL in New York, told the Detroit News, "We are getting away from the cookie-cutter approach to new stadiums where you have a bowl of seats and not much else. We want new stadiums to embrace the surrounding neighborhoods, especially in urban areas where you can have a positive impact in terms of new businesses coming in. There is no better example of this than Ford Field."
Construction is progressing rapidly on the new $300 million, 65,000-seat stadium under the direction of general contractor Hunt Jenkins, White/Olson LLC. The team will play its first game on Saturday, Aug. 24 at 12:30 p.m. It will be a preseason contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
According to the Detroit Lions, the stadium will feature:
By Marty Mulcahy
METAMORA -There are always chores to do at a ranch, and the D-Bar-A Boy Scout Ranch isn't any different.
On Saturday, May 11, a lot of those tasks were taken off the to-do list. On that day, the ranch sponsored its annual Mix-Fix, an open house for volunteers who want to help perform repairs and maintenance on the 1,700-acre facility.
This year, nearly 350 volunteers responded, and about 200 of them were from building trades unions. The workers re-glazed about 250 windows, installed 15 new pre-hung doors, repaired about 150 door and window screens, and applied about 100 gallons of red barn paint and another 100 gallons of interior cabin stain. All in all, it was a very productive day.
"Mix-Fix refers to mixing fellowship with work," said D-Bar-A ranger supervisor Dave Morosky, one of only three-full time workers at the camp. "There's just no way we could keep this place as nice as it is without all the help we receive. Having professional, qualified people doing the work makes a big difference."
Owned by the Detroit Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the D-Bar-A Scout Ranch has more than 100 buildings, including 28 cabins that can sleep 750 at a time. Construction started on the camp in 1946, and was completed in 1950. The Mix-Fix has been held every year since, a springtime effort to get the camp ready for Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Webelos, Venturers, Explorers and other groups. All told, some 45,000 campers use the facilities.
"There's always maintenance around here," Morosky said. "Kids can be pretty rough on the place." Morosky said the Mix-Fix consistently draws more than 300 volunteers - and most of them come back year after year.
This was the first year for apprentice glazier Jeff Perkins of Local 357, who spent much of the time hanging doors. "The work was rewarding," he said. "I wasn't in the scouts, but at the end of the day, it felt good to do something nice for the kids."
By Marty Mulcahy
Volunteering on a rescue boat during the Detroit Thunderfest last year, IBEW Local 58 member Pingree Conflitti soaked up the world of powerboat racing.
This year, he's taken the plunge. In less than a year, Conflitti got his power boat license, had a boat assembled for him, took part in three races, and is now ready to race his craft as a rookie driver during this year's Detroit Thunderfest, scheduled July 13-14.
"I've watched the boats for years, and I've been involved in the support team for the Thunderfest, but I never imagined I'd be a driver," Conflitti said. "But a friend let me drive his boat, and after going about 130 miles per hour, I was hooked."
Conflitti's boat was made in Seattle. The red, white and blue craft is named "Union Dooz #58" in honor of his affiliation with Electrical Workers Local 58. "I named it in the interest of brotherhood," the 10-year IBEW member said. "This will help spread the word about Local 58, and I'm doing this for the members, as a member."
Working under the legal name of Hard Hat Racing LLC, Conflitti's boat can qualify in three classes, including Grand Prix and Unlimited Light. His craft has a 468-cubic inch Merlin engine from a Pontiac design. The engine can generate more than 800 horsepower with a top speed of about 165 mph.
Conflitti's best finish this year was third place in the Summer Nationals in Decatur, Ill, driving in the Grand Prix class. He is also planning on racing the boat this summer in Saskatchewan, Quebec, and the "Quake on the Lake" event in Waterford July 26-27. There are 10 races in a season, and he plans on participating in nearly all of them. He is a member of the Marine Prop Riders, the American Powerboat Association and the Unlimited Light Hydroplane Association.
"The only way I'm going to get better as a driver is with experience and seat time," Conflitti said. "And that's why I'm traveling so far, to go against the top competition. You have to pay your dues on the course."
His operation is entirely self-funded, but he's seeking sponsors.
His finances are helped by having a pit crew that includes up
to 12 friends who find the time to take three or four days and
travel to the race events. Conflitti, 47, works at Ford Field.
He is divorced and doesn't have any children. "I know it's
one of the most expensive hobbies you can undertake, but it's
a labor of love," he said.
Feds seek union help for security
In a June 21 White House meeting, Ridge discussed transportation system safety and related issues with Teamsters President James Hoffa, Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger, Operating Engineers President Frank Hanley, and Seafarers President Michael Sacco, among others.
"We talked about the danger Americans are going through, how life has changed since" the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon "and how and what must be done for the safety of the country," Hanley told Press Associates.
The discussion covered a wide variety of safety issues, ranging from having truckers watch for suspicious freight shipments and activity to security at the nation's ports to evacuation of major buildings and stadiums, he added.
In return for help in homeland security, Hanley quoted Ridge as saying: "We absolutely want to work with organized labor" on the issue because, as Hanley put it: "We can deliver the bacon."
Hanley said Ridge promised "continuing meetings to coordinate" how unionists can help homeland security. But Ridge "did not come down with precise decisions on how to give better notice" to unionists about security threats to monitor, he added.
Hanley's Operating Engineers can help combat the impact of terrorist attacks, as they and their heavy equipment did after the World Trade Center collapsed. And stationary operating engineers - who serve in buildings and stadiums - r can plan preventive measures in security and evacuation.
Hoffa told Reuters News Service that 500,000 truckers covered by his union's contracts could be lookouts for suspicious activity on the nation's roads.
The truckers "can be the eyes and ears of the homeland security office," Hoffa added. He said they can use CB radios to report unusual activity and become part of "a basic domestic intelligence service."
Sacco offered to have his union help watch the nation's ports, news reports said. He declined to comment, but Hanley said the group discussed port security, though not money for it.
The GOP-run House Appropriations Committee, responding to concerns by committee Democrats, inserted millions of dollars last week in Bush's budget for port security. Bush had none.
Ridge also pushed Bush's legislation for creation of a new
Department of Homeland Security. The union presidents backed
it. The department could have 170,000-220,000 workers, virtually
all transferred from other agencies.