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June 13, 2003
By Marty Mulcahy
Sometimes the organized labor movement isn't very organized. Other times, such as what happened earlier this month, look out.
"Labor unions are working this very, very hard," said Rep. Jack Quinn, R-N.Y. "It's a core issue for them, just like collective bargaining, like minimum wage."
Quinn was referring to a piece of legislation that has really raised the hackles of the labor movement, the so-called "Family Time Flexibility Act." House Resolution 1119 would allow employers to give workers compensatory time off in place of time-and-a-half pay for every overtime hour worked. The resolution was scheduled for a vote on June 5, but was placed on the shelf the day before by Republican leaders because they didn't have enough votes.
"After pushing this bill for months, the Republican leadership finally realized that not all of their members would blindly go along with unraveling the basic right to overtime pay, which could literally take billions out of the paychecks of working families," says AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. "I commend the Republicans who stood up to their leadership on this issue and stood with working families."
Organized labor and its supporters have called this measure "the comp-time bill." The AFL-CIO said the proposal would give employers more control over time spent on the job by their workers, undermine the 40-hour work-week and could result in pay cuts for working families that depend on overtime pay to meet expenses.
Since March 27, working families have sent their representatives 226,517 letters and made more than 12,000 phone calls to members of Congress explaining their opposition to the comp time bills, the AFL-CIO said.
Republican wondered what all the fuss was about, saying the measure would allow employees who work more than 40 hours in a week to choose between premium pay or compensatory time off scheduled at a later date, both at the time-and-a-half hourly rate. It is now illegal for private companies to offer comp time as an option to millions of workers covered by the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.
But labor leaders say the current overtime law acts as a protection to the 40-hour work week because companies wanting more work from their employees now must provide premium pay - and often think twice about it. They also think that if the bill becomes law, employers will assign overtime only to workers who agree to choose comp time.
In addition, the legislation provides no meaningful protection that would prevent employers from requiring workers to take compensatory time off instead of receiving their salary. And, employers would also have the last word as to when employee comp time could be taken.
"The bottom line is that President George W. Bush and the GOP leadership could not secure the votes needed to pass this outrageous attempt to roll back the 40-hour work-week and overtime pay," House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) said of the Republican decision to pull H.R. 1119 from consideration. "This bill - derisively known by working men and women as the 'comp time' bill - is a dagger pointed at the heart of the 40-hour workweek, and the Republican leadership has been licking its chops to bring it up for a vote on the House Floor."
This is the second time in recent weeks that House Republicans
have pulled H.R. 1119 from a vote. Following protests from union
activists, women and family groups, Republicans also pulled the
bill in May. At press time, it wasn't clear when or if the bill
would be re-introduced.
By Marty Mulcahy
The building trades have taken center stage in the process of constructing the Fine, Performing and Communication Arts High School for the Detroit Public Schools.
Structural iron on the new 280,000 square-foot school was topped out during a May 29 ceremony, a milestone in the construction process which is expected to be complete in January 2005.
As high schools go, this one's a whopper. The $100 million, six-story building, which sits just west of Woodward and Orchestra Hall - takes up 250,000 square feet on a very tight site.
The building will have a capacity for 1,200 students, and features an 800-seat performing arts auditorium, a recital hall, cafeteria, media center, and television studios.
Managing the project is a joint venture of Skanska/Brinker. Project Director Bill Stewart said the project should reach peak employment in the late fall of this year.
"We're very happy with the building trades, we've had no real issues," he said. "Overall, we've had no major problems at all. The major challenge is that we're building on a small, enclosed site, but we're basically on schedule and the budget is under control. We're in good shape."
Leading the installation of iron are Iron Workers Local 25's foreman Kevin O'Keefe and steward Julius (Juice) Norman, Jr., working for McGuire Steel. They said about 2,750 tons of steel is framing the building.
"We've had to work through a difficult winter, and it still hasn't really warmed up, O'Keefe said. "But it's been a good job; it's been a safe job."
The "FPCA" school, being built in Detroit's Cultural Center, will train students in all manner of the arts. Professional staff from the local PBS affiliate and a local radio station will have active members on the school's staff. Students studying music will benefit from a partnering relationship with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, whose musicians provide mentoring.
Last month's extension of federal unemployment benefits means about 95,000 additional jobless workers in Michigan will qualify for federal benefits as they use up their state benefits from June through the end of 2003.
On May 28, President Bush signed legislation extending the federal Temporary Extended Unemployment Compensation (TEUC) program for another seven months. He approved the bill only after Democrats in Congress pressured Republicans to extend the benefits to help alleviate the hardships of the nation's 8 million jobless - 2.4 million more than when Bush took office.
"TEUC will now continue through Dec. 31, 2003," said David Plawecki, deputy director for the state's Department of Consumer and Industry Services. "We have made the application process as easy as possible. The aim is to move the unemployed worker from the state program to the federal program without a disruption in benefit payments."
Workers who claim their first week of TEUC by the last full week in December will be able to collect their entitlement. No payments will be made for any week of unemployment after March 27, 2004.
Plawecki said this legislation "does not provide any new benefits for those who drew and exhausted TEUC benefits earlier." The TEUC program originally began in March 2002 and was continued in January 2003. Since the program's start, the Michigan Bureau of Workers and Unemployment Compensation has paid out $662.7 million in temporary benefits to some 228,600 jobless workers across Michigan.
Eligible jobless workers are mailed their TEUC applications as they reach their final weeks of their state unemployment claims.
Potentially, there's more good news for Michigan. According
to the National Law Employment Law Project and confirmed by the
state Unemployment Agency, Michigan could get another 13 weeks
of federal extension benefits under the TEUC program that would
extend benefits into the first quarter of 2004 if state legislators
make a few changes in state law, and if unemployment rates remain
MARQUETTE - While it's almost always sad to see an elementary school close, Whitman Elementary is getting new life in the service of Northern Michigan University.
NMU purchased the 40,000 square-foot building from the Marquette Area Public Schools in May 2001, but the school district continued its operations there until a year ago. In January, Miron Construction and the building trades began a $5 million renovation project in the building for NMU, creating new classrooms, faculty offices, student lounge areas and a resource room for the School of Education.
Originally named after a Marquette School superintendent when it opened in 1954, the building will be renamed Whitman Hall. Along with another school, Whitman was closed due to declining enrollment.
Gerald David, who is supervising the job for Miron said the project is a "pretty straightforward renovation of office space."
"The tradespeople here are hard working and are doing a very good job," he added.
NMU will need additional classrooms and faculty offices because it expects an influx of new students between now and 2005, under a university initiative to increase its overall enrollment.
WASHINGTON - More than four months of talks between the labor movement, affected businesses and the insurance industry over a solution to asbestos illness lawsuits - through creation of a trust fund for the estimated 1.8 million victims - collapsed in late May when a key GOP lawmaker introduced his own legislation.
The deal-breaking bill by Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) "is merely a vehicle to relieve business and insurers of hundreds of billions of dollars of liability while significantly short-changing the asbestos victims of the fair compensation they are due," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.
Organized labor sought a no-fault system and a larger trust fund for the asbestos victims with fair compensation "based on sound medical criteria," Sweeney and federation General Counsel Jon Hiatt said.
The Hatch bill (S.1125), which was introduced on May 22, would set up a $108 billion trust fund to pay the claims of some of the workers who have been injured by asbestos. Under the Hatch plan, asbestos-injured workers would no longer be able to file a lawsuit to obtain compensation for an asbestos injury. Instead they would apply to the trust fund for compensation, which would be awarded according to a schedule of payments and medical criteria.
"Many recognize that it may not be the perfect solution," Hatch testified, "but it is close to being one of the best workable solutions. It establishes a system to pay victims faster, ensures that it is the truly sick getting paid and provides the business community with the stability it needs to protect jobs and pensions."
In a prepared statement, Hiatt said "in substance, the Hatch bill is a step backward. On appropriate medical criteria, exposure definition and compensation the Hatch bill's positions are more restrictive than those contained in the Manville and other existing bankruptcy asbestos trust funds, and even more begrudging than the position taken by the business groups and insurers in these negotiations four months ago."
There are an estimated 1.8 million victims of asbestos-related disease in the U.S.
"The story of asbestos is one of the most shameful in
the annals of the American workplace. Long after manufacturers,
their insurance companies and the government knew asbestos was
a deadly poison, millions of workers were and still are being
exposed to asbestos on the job," Sweeney said.
PORT HURON TWP. - Patience, perseverance and political action by the building trades helped foster the pending construction of one of the largest construction projects ever in St. Clair County, the new $32 million Detention and Intervention Center.
A ceremonial groundbreaking took place on May 22, which included law enforcement, politicians and building trades representatives, who worked with local officials to ensure the usage of a project labor agreement requiring contractors to pay union scale and fringes.
"The construction process is just starting, but this project has been going on for five years," said Lee Masters, chairman of the St. Clair County Board of Commissioners. "There have been untold hours of planning to make this facility a model of efficiency and effectiveness."
Much of the planning was done by an active group of building trades representatives who live in St. Clair County. Not wanting such a significant project built in the community by an ABC contractor, the union reps attended planning commit tee meetings, met with commissioners and spoke out at public hearings in favor of the project - and in favor of a project labor agreement.
The Associated Builders and Contractors also put the pressure on lawmakers and the community with newspaper ads and brochures, but the building trades had done their homework and countered the ABC's offensive.
Mike Moran of IBEW Local 58, Craig Kirchner of the Detroit Building Trades and Steve Ellery of Painters Local 1474 sat on the county's Construction Committee, and Ben Cloutens of Local 58 sat on the county's Criminal Justice Advisory Board. "We deluged the community with the merits of a PLA," Cloutens said.
In June 2001, the St. Clair County Board of Commissioners voted 7-0 to approve the project labor agreement with building trade unions. Despite a number of those commissioners being replaced by Republicans in last November's election, the new commissioners never canceled the project labor agreement and voted to use one on an added portion of the facility.
"We've been championing the benefits of a PLA since day one," said painter Ellery, one of those commissioners voted out of office last November. "We had the help of a lot of tradespeople showing up at public hearings. There were 11 meetings over the years, and a lot of times, union members were the only ones at some of these meetings, so their input meant a lot."
The 200,180 square-foot complex will include a 448-bed jail, a 70-bed juvenile facility and sheriff's department offices. The complex will replace the operations of two small and outmoded facilities - Sheriff Dan Lane told attendees at the groundbreaking that the county has been forced to send 70 inmates to jail facilities around the state.
After discussing the exhausting planning process, Lane said what emerged was a desire by the county to assess mentally ill people before they become inmates. This lead to the planned intervention center, which will include a mental and physical health assessment center staffed by mental health professionals.
Construction of the detention and intervention center is a
significant step for unions in the community, Moran said, but
not the only one. He said six years ago, 1.2 percent of all electrical
permits in Huron, Sanilac and St. Clair counties that were pulled
by contractors were by nonunion contractors. Today, that number
is 20 percent, and on competitively bid jobs, it's closer to
Support sought for sprinkler bill
The major impediment to having fire sprinklers installed more often in public and private buildings is the cost - but a bill in Congress will attempt to free up more money to install sprinklers.
House Resolution 1824 would amend IRS tax provisions to improve the tax advantages of installing automatic fire sprinkler systems. The bill, introduced by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pennsylvania), points out that fires caused $8.9 billion in property damage in the U.S. in 1991, and the use of sprinklers brought about a 43-70 percent reduction in property damages.
The bill also pointed out that there is actually a financial disincentive for most homeowners and building owners to install fire suppression systems because of the low rate of return on investment.
The solution in HR 1824 would shorten the period of time it would take a building owner to depreciate the cost of installing a sprinkler system. The owner would thus get a bigger tax break over a shorter period of time - increasing the incentive to install sprinklers.
For more information and to write a letter to your representative encouraging passage of H.R. 1824, go to www.nfsa.org and click on the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act in the upper right corner.
Nine willful violations in Ford Field death
Painter Gjon Gojcaj was killed when his man-lift fell into the stadium's lower ring of seats as he was painting stadium trusses. One of the man-lift's outriggers collapsed, causing his 120-foot fall.
A total of 24 violations, including nine willful, are alleged against the two companies.
"It became apparent from our MIOSHA investigation that each of these two companies abrogated (its) own safety and health responsibilities and relied on the other company to protect the workers," said Michigan Department of Consumer and Industry Services Director David Hollister.
Construction future hinges on economy
"It's true that the construction industry lost momentum during the early months of 2003, but so far the retreat can be characterized as a measured pullback," said Robert A. Murray, vice president of construction affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction Dodge. "April's stability is a good sign that the slowdown will continue to be mild."
Whether an "up and down pattern" for various construction sectors "can turn into a more sustained upward trend will depend upon how much strengthening the economy is able to show over the next couple of quarters," Murray said.
Regionally, the Midwest's construction activity was down 11
percent from levels a year ago, according to McGraw-Hill.