The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index

July 8, 2005

Senate panel rejects labor rights in CAFTA, passes bill

New middle school rises in Flushing

Trades, contractors seek pension relief

Family leave backers make pre-emptive strike to defend law

Trades' part of blitz to build Habitat homes

Union reporting rules upheld

News Briefs


Senate panel rejects labor rights in CAFTA, passes bill

WASHINGTON (PAI) - One of organized labor's major problems with NAFTA,- the lack of enforceable foreign worker safety and wage protections - is now coming home to roost with CAFTA.

On a 10-10 tie vote, the key Senate Finance Committee rejected a plan to insert enforceable labor rights into CAFTA legislation that would implement the controversial U.S. trade treaty with six other nations.

The June 14 vote on the labor rights amendment, offered by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), was a major hurdle passed for President George W. Bush, who is pushing for CAFTA without the pro-worker language. CAFTA is the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

The Senate panel then approved the CAFTA bill, 11-8, with nine of the 11 Republicans and two Democrats voting for it and six Democrats and two Republicans voting against it.

The CAFTA bill now heads for the Senate floor, where Bush was trying to push it through before the July 4 recess. The House Ways and Means Committee approved the CAFTA bill on June 15. Congressional prospects are uncertain.

While lawmakers do not vote on the CAFTA treaty itself, their chance to derail the so-called "free trade" treaty with Guatemala, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua comes in the legislation to implement it. Once that bill reaches the floor, it must be voted up or down with no amendments allowed.

CAFTA would repeal all tariffs and trade restrictions on commerce between the U.S. and the Central American six nations. The business community says it can use CAFTA to enter that market unimpaired, but unions, citing NAFTA, respond that firms will use it to exploit Latin America's low wages, bad working conditions, weak labor laws and lax enforcement.

Pointing to the impact of NAFTA, the 10-year-old controversial U.S.-Canada-Mexico North American Free Trade Agreement that labor says has caused a loss of at least 880,000 U.S. factory jobs, unions lobbying against CAFTA predicted more of the same would occur if it passes.

They also said CAFTA would strip Latin American workers of the few protections they have under present rules governing U.S. trade with its nations. Kerry took that tack.

"CAFTA includes two sets of provisions relating to workers: First, it requires that nations uphold their own labor laws, but it makes no stipulation as to what those laws require and includes only token enforcement provisions," Kerry said. "Second, it calls on countries
to 'strive to' achieve the most basic standards, like the 'elimination of the worst forms of child labor,' but includes absolutely no provisions to enforce these negligible standards."

His amendment would have imposed enforcement on those provisions.

"The fundamental question," Kerry said, "is why does CAFTA not provide the same protection for workers' economic rights and interests? There can be no doubt that CAFTA creates a horribly unfair double-standard that punishes workers."

A portion of the agricultural industry, especially sugar producers who fear a glut of the white stuff, oppose CAFTA, and have won support among Republicans in Congress, which means the proposal is hardly a slam-dunk.

"We need a vision of trade that makes moral and economic sense for all workers, but CAFTA is not it," said AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson. "Instead of improving things, CAFTA will further oppress workers, depress wages in the Dominican Republic and Central America and cost jobs in the United States."


New middle school rises in Flushing

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

FLUSHING - Rapid population growth has fueled numerous school building construction boomlets in some parts of Michigan.

In other areas, like Genesee County's Flushing, population growth is stable or slow, but major construction projects are taking place for other reasons. Here, an outmoded middle school, built in 1927, is being replaced with a larger, modern building that's expected to provide an improved learning environment.

A $25 million bond issue will pay for the new school as well as for renovations to the current junior high school. The new middle school is expected to be ready for students in January 2006.

Wolgast Corp. is managing the project. A superintendent on the site said "we're ahead of the game; the workers have done a good job for us." He and the Flushing School District referred questions about the project to Wolgast's field manager, who didn't reply to our request for comment on the project.

According to literature provided by the Flushing Community School District, about 700 seventh and eight-grade students will be served by the new school. The two-story building sits on a 29-acre site, and will have larger classrooms, numerous athletic fields, and space all around the building for parking.

The Flushing Community School District decided to build a new middle school instead of expanding existing facilities. The major portion of the current junior high school was built in 1927, with an addition built in 1965. The new junior high school will be six times larger than the current 75,497 square-foot building.

The 1965 addition to the existing middle school will be renovated to create and early childhood center. The 1927 portion of the existing middle school building will be used for daytime and evening community education classes.

"It's been a pretty straightforward job, and a nice employer for us over the winter," said Doug Heron, a Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 370 foreman for Johnson and Wood Mechanical.

The Flushing Middle School project is one of four new middle schools that are going up in Genesee County. Combined, the projects are fueling more than $100 million in school work in the region.

THE CHILLED WATER system at the new Flushing Middle School is tested by foreman Doug Heron of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 370 and Johnson and Wood Mechanical.

PULLING WIRE at a 480-volt main switchgear at Flushing Middle School are Kirk Thatcher and Mike Mannino of IBEW Local 948 and J. Ranck Electric.


Trades, contractors seek pension relief

Financially, construction industry multi-employer pension plans are doing far better than their brethren on the single-employer side.

But multi-employer plans are hardly the picture of good financial health, and now Congress may be willing to provide help, mainly in the form of changing accounting procedures.

The Associated General Contractors of America is pushing a proposal in the House to allow multi-employer pension plans to change their "maximum deductibility limit" to 140 percent instead of the current 100 percent.

What that means, the AGC said, is that multi-employer pension funds would be better able to create sufficient savings for future retirees and to carry the plans through during market downturns.

Chuck Clark, a member of AGC's Michigan Chapter and president and CEO of Clark Construction in Lansing, told a House committee June 28: "If Congress would raise the maximum deductibility level to 140 percent, many of the funding problems faced by the industry in 2002 could be avoided in the future."

A statement by the AGC said it has been working with the Multi-Employer Plan Coalition, a group made up of employers, unions and trustees on the Taft-Hartley plans, to address the needs of multi-employer plans for the construction industry.

According to the National Electrical Contractors Association, which is part of the coalition, the bill, HR 2830, would also create a structure to identify troubled multi-employer pension plans. It would also provide appropriate triggers for determining when plans are under-funded as well as quantifiable benchmarks for measuring a plan's funding improvement.

The bill would provide a mechanism to assess the financial health of certain multi-employer pension plans, including "yellow zone" and "red zone" designations to indicate degrees of solvency.

The bill would strengthen funding requirements for "red zone" multiemployer plans and require trustees to develop a rehabilitation proposal to exit the red zone within 10 years.

Along with many other provisions, the bill also would change the amortization schedule for multi-employer plan benefit amendments from 30 years to 15 years.

Teamsters President James Hoffa said the coalition would work with lawmakers to make sure the pension plans "meet the retirement promises made to hard-working Americans now and in the future."


Family leave backers make pre-emptive strike to defend law

WASHINGTON (PAI) - Backers of the Family and Medical Leave Act - which labor helped push through Congress - are defending it against strong business lobbying to get GOP President George W. Bush to curb FMLA's benefits and impact.

But whether they will succeed is unknown: The Bush Labor Department says it may rewrite rules implementing FMLA, but has no timetable for that yet. That led FMLA backers to make FMLA's case, before big business wields its clout against family leave.

Supporters argued for FMLA at a June 23 Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee "roundtable" hearing. Since it was enacted in 1993, they noted, FMLA helped 50 million workers spend needed time with newborns, aging and ill parents, or recovering from their own illnesses, without fear of losing their jobs.

"I understand there's an enormous amount of pressure from the White House on the Labor Department to revisit the regulations," said Debra Ness, President of the National Partnership for Women and Families, whose group helped draft FMLA and lead the fight for it. "The proposals from these (business) folks would roll back protections working families need," she added after the roundtable ended.

And when Sen. Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.), the committee chairman, sought suggestions for FMLA's future, supporters argued for its improvement, principally adding pay.

Harvard professor Dr. Jody Heymann noted 164 of 168 nations in the world have paid medical leave, but not the U.S. Ness said FMLA does not cover the 59 million workers whose firms employ fewer than 50 people. Millions more who could use it, she said, do not because they can't afford to take unpaid leave.

By contrast, one business speaker called for exempting firms with fewer than 100 workers, not 50, from FMLA. Others want to make it more difficult for workers to take family or medical leave, especially "intermittent" leave for things such as doctors' appointments.

FMLA, the very first bill President Clinton signed, lets workers take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to be with newborns, for family illnesses, to recover from their own illnesses or to care for their elderly parents. It applies only to workers in businesses with at least 50 employees, and says workers may take "intermittent" leave for such things as doctor's visits, short treatments for chronic ailments and counseling.

But business groups, both at the Senate roundtable and in pressure on the Labor Department, allege workers abuse the law, but offered little evidence. They charge, for example, that some workers use it as a substitute for vacation.

FMLA supporters disputed all those notions. They also said FMLA helps firms by enhancing worker loyalty, creating new training opportunities for other workers who step in and substitute and boosting employee morale, among other virtues.


Trades' part of blitz to build Habitat homes

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

Last year, Habitat for Humanity International leaders selected neighborhoods in Benton Harbor and Detroit to host the group's signature Jimmy Carter Work Project, which took place June 19-24.

Wholly dependent on donated labor, the projects were a success in good part because of the time and effort put forth by scores of building trade union workers, who built houses in partnership with families in need.

"The answer to providing affordable housing in Michigan, and for that matter throughout the world, is not to abandon a community, but where possible to 'rebuild' a community," said President Carter. "I am incredibly pleased that Michigan has agreed to host the Jimmy Carter Work Project in 2005, and I hope this project will generate optimism in people and the rejuvenation of neighborhoods that have incredible potential to contribute positively to their communities."

The 22nd "JCWP" saw 24 houses built in Benton Harbor and another 31 in Detroit during the "blitz build."

Gary Gunberg, business manager of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters & HVAC Service Local 357, said about 50 pipe trades workers roughed in the plumbing on June 22 and 30-40 performed the finish work the next day. Because of sequencing on the jobs, the plumbers started early in the afternoon both days and worked well into the night.

"The homeowners were enthusiastic and grateful and helped out where they could," Gunberg said. "It was well worth it, and I'm sure we'll get involved in future efforts." Gunberg gave kudos to members Sterling Moore, Tom Willson and Ed Hiscock for their organizational efforts.

A nice report in the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor Herald Palladium also gave kudos to 157 IBEW electricians who gave their time to wire homes.

Terry Strunk, an IBEW member and field rep for the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, told the paper, "It's impressive. It's very impressive, even to professional construction workers, how quickly everything is going."

In Southeast Michigan, hundreds of union tradespeople from different crafts volunteered in Detroit and at numerous other sites. There are some 80 Habitat affiliates in Michigan.

Dave Ahrenberg, an out-of-work Local 98 plumber, worked 16-hour days for two weeks during the effort - and said he "somehow" managed to become one of the go-to guys on the project.

"I saw an ad in the paper for the Habitat effort and I thought I'd help out," he said. "Next think you know, Jed's a millionaire, and I'm working from 6 or 7 in the morning 'till 10 at night." The project was scheduled for completion June 24 - but there was plenty of work left the next week.

"I'm into it now, I can't leave," Ahrenberg said. "These are people with good hearts. I've met a lot of nice people here."

Another volunteer in Detroit was Clarence "Sonny" Kotch, a 5th-year IBEW Local 58 apprentice. "This is the first time I've ever volunteered for something like this," he said. "It's work, but it's not work."

Corporate contributions paid for materials, and people from all walks of life donated their time to build the homes. As part of the Habitat program, homeowners must donate their time to build other homes, too.

The Jimmy Carter Work Project is an annual, internationally recognized event in which the former U.S. president and his wife, Rosalynn, join Habitat volunteers to build simple, decent and affordable houses in partnership with people in need. Now in their 80s, the couple still pick tools and lend a hand on Habitat projects.

President Carter's longstanding relationship with Habitat for Humanity began in 1984 when he donated one day of his carpentry skills and manual labor at a work site in Americus, Ga., home to Habitat's international headquarters. Later that same year, the Carters led their first weeklong work project, renovating a six-story, 19-unit building in New York City.

He said Habitat for Humanity "brings hope to people and areas others have abandoned."

Local 98 plumber Dave Ahrenberg worked 16-hour days as part of the Detroit Habitat project. He's plumbing a bathroom along with daughter Nicole.


Union reporting rules upheld

WASHINGTON (PAI) - By a 3-0 vote, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia backed GOP Labor Secretary Elaine Chao in the AFL-CIO's lawsuit against new Labor Department union financial reporting rules.

The rules, which the AFL-CIOcalculates will cost unions, federations and central labor councils from $700 million to $1.1 billion, require any union with at least $200,000 in receipts to itemize all spending over $5,000, employee work time, and other details covering everything from payroll to paper clips.

The AFL-CIO said Chao interpreted the GOP-passed Landrum-Griffin Act's reporting requirements too tightly and that union reports should be like those of corporations and non-profits.

The judges disagreed in their May 31 ruling.


News Briefs
Contractor barred from state jobs

Lanzo Construction LLC is the first Michigan company to be barred from doing business with the state for ignoring safety standards and causing the 1999 trench collapse that killed a worker installing sewer pipe.

According to the Southeast Michigan Council of Occupational Safety and Health, Lanzo was found guilty in October 2004 of ignoring safety standards and causing the 1999 trenching collapse which killed Robert Whiteye.

Then-Attorney General Jennifer Granholm brought criminal charges against the company, which was found guilty in October 2004. The Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth said the judge in the case put the company on two years probation and fined the company the maximum, $10,000.

"Workers have a right to go home healthy and whole every day. This is the basic tenet of the MIOSHA program," said DLEG Director David C. Hollister. "Lanzo Construction Company has habitually and recklessly placed their workers in harm's way. This sentence sends a message to all companies that there are serious consequences for employers who refuse to protect their workers."

SEMCOSH had a harsher view of the sentence. "Given the low penalties for killing workers some corporations conclude it is 'cheaper' to kill workers than to provide safe work places," it said on its website.

Now, SEMCOSH said, under Granholm's 2003 executive order barring "corporate bad actors" from getting state business, Lanzo has been barred from doing business with the State of Michigan for the maximum eight years.

U.S. construction dips, but is 'healthy'
New U.S. construction starts dipped 1 percent in May from the previous month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $591.5 billion, according to McGraw-Hill Construction.

The report said nonresidential building "settled back" after its improved performance during March and April, and nonbuilding construction (public works
and electric utilities) also retreated slightly.

Residential building edged upward in May, helped by a brisk pace for multifamily housing. McGraw-Hill said during the first five months of 2005, total construction on an unadjusted basis was $241.8 billion, a gain of 2% relative to last year's January-May period. By region, the Midwest saw a 6 percent drop in construction during that five-month period compared to a year ago.

"Overall, the construction industry in 2005 continues to show a healthy volume of activity," stated Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction. "Single family housing to this point remains very strong, and multifamily
housing has been boosted by the heightened amount of condominium projects now underway. Public works is being lifted by further growth for its environmental categories.

"After a slow start to 2005, nonresidential building seemed to be regaining upward momentum. At the same time, May's nonresidential decline suggests that renewed expansion for this sector may be hesitant, as developers continue to adjust to higher costs as a result of last year's sharp run-up in materials prices."


The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index