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June 21, 2002

Opposites attract? Not the building trades and the ABC

All trades urged to use caution around high (or low) wires

Covert operation: Bog power plant a big employer for trades

Nation's steel difficulties remain

Roofers navigate a sea of PVC atop Ford Field



Opposites attract? Not the building trades and the ABC

Tradesman Viewpoint

It's hard to imagine that there could be two rival groups that are farther apart philosophically than the Associated Builders and Contractors and building trades unions.

The anti-union ABC and the building trades agree on virtually nothing. An inside peek at the annual ABC Legislative Conference June 4-5 in Washington D.C. offers a lesson on just how far apart the anti-union contractor group is from and building trades unions.

The ABC's "common theme" of the conference was to elect "a free-enterprise majority" in both chambers of Congress, according to the ABC's web site. "The strength of ABC is free enterprise itself," said ABC National Chairman Ken Adams. "And it will benefit the entire industry if we stand steadfast on our principals, policies and practices."

The Associated Builders and Contractors started in 1950 as a group of seven Baltimore contractors. It is now a national organization devoted exclusively to the open shop philosophy - in other words, they are oriented towards keeping unions and collective bargaining away from their businesses and projects. But the ABC has long been regarded by unions and other observers as more of a marketing and lobbying force than one that is involved in the nuts and bolts of improving construction industry training, quality and safety.

Only in recent years, when construction workers were scarce on many major projects across the country, did the ABC start giving lip-service to the needs of its under-paid workforce.
"If low pay was a felony, I think most of us would be on death row today," said Franklin J. Yancey, a former senior vice president and now a consultant at Kellogg Brown & Root, Houston, one of the nation's largest nonunion construction employers. "Today, we do not have craftsmen, we do not have apprentices, we have poor people," Yancey said 18 months ago, as quoted in the Engineering News Record.

About the same time, Henry G. Kelly, the national president of the ABC, said recognizing the value of skilled craftworkers would be a priority of the contractors group. "We need to be paying them a competitive wage and we need to offer them a competitive benefit package," he said.

Maybe everyone at the ABC didn't get that memo. At the group's convention earlier this month, leaders and their political allies were still hammering away at the need for repealing prevailing wage laws - which are the single most important laws for sustaining both union - and nonunion - construction workers' wages.

There seemed to be little talk about improving worker training, wages or quality at the ABC conference. What they did talk about, and who did the talking, revealed much about where the ABC stands, and why it pays for construction unions to keep a constant watch on their old nemesis.

*"Elections are coming Nov. 5," Adams said. "And President Bush is doing his part. But his administration faces a roadblock in Washington called the U.S. Senate. ABC's number one goal this year is to elect a Senate that believes in free enterprise and open competition." Currently, the U.S. House is Republican-controlled, while Democrats hold sway in the U.S. Senate by a 51-49 margin.

*Political speakers at the ABC's convention were a who's who of anti-union Republican leaders. The ABC's "Free Enterprise Legislator of the Year" award went to GOP House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, whom Adams called "an immeasurable ally on behalf of ABC issues."
For his part, Delay described a House GOP initiative with an aggressive acronym: STOMP - the Strategic Taskforce to Organize and Mobilize People - which is designed to rally volunteers to focus on "critical areas that will decide the upcoming elections" and keep the slim five-vote Republican majority in the House.

*ABC presented its first Lifetime Achievement award to retiring GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. "Every (legislative) fight I've been in these past 18 years, I've been in (the trenches) with ABC. I don't think we've missed a beat," he said.

*Addressing issues near and dear to the building trades was Republican Sen. Hutchinson of Arkansas. He said regaining the Senate for Republicans would allow them to set the agenda on items like ergonomics, project labor agreements and health plan legislation. And that agenda would most assuredly not be pro-labor.

Finally, we were once again amused to read about the ABC's stance on training. For all their talk about open competition and free enterprise, the ABC takes a curiously liberal approach to funding for worker training. They have never been shy about approaching the federal government to help fund their craft training program - but at the same time the ABC has had a miserable time of getting their inadequate training programs approved by the federal Department of Labor.

At their legislative conference, the ABC met with a federal education representative "to discuss the importance of federal funding for craft training," said the ABC's web site.

In contrast, building trades unions and their contractors spend millions of dollars on craft training every year, and have developed an industry-standard reputation for quality - without soliciting or spending a single dollar of taxpayer money. Now that's free enterprise.


All trades urged to use caution around high (or low) wires

Even veteran electricians can benefit from a few safety reminders when it comes to working around high-voltage. For that matter, non-electricians can benefit, too.

About 140 construction workers are killed by contact with electricity every year, and in about 90 of those deaths the victims are non-electricians. The vast majority of all those fatalities are due to contact with overhead lines.

Many construction workers, especially those who work with heavy equipment, are not oriented toward potential dangers associated with power lines, said Gary Coleman, a program coordinator with the Construction Safety Council. And the lack of safety respect for overhead power lines can be a fatal error.

"On a construction site, there are power lines everywhere, above ground and underground," Coleman said, as quoted in the Construction Labor Report. "This is a constant hazard, and unfortunately and all to often there are contacts. In many cases, the effects are devastating."

Talking to a group at the 12th annual meeting of the Annual Construction Safety and Health Conference in Chicago, Coleman added, "it may not be human nature to look up for hazards, but you need to. Avoid contacts at all costs."

Following are some facts and figures about electrocutions that can help you become more aware of your surroundings:

  • About half of all power line contacts occur while construction workers are operating heavy equipment. About 20 percent take place in material handling situations, about 13 percent involve ladders.
  • Overhead lines are visible if you look up - but if you're not sure if your employer has contacted your local utility about buried cable, remind them to get an area marked with flags before you excavate.
  • "The number of people who believe that normal household current is not lethal or that powerlines are insulated and do not pose a hazard is alarming," said researcher Virgil Casini, in a report for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. "Electrocutions may result from contact with an object as seemingly innocuous as a broken light bulb or as lethal as an overhead powerline, and have affected workers since the first electrical fatality was recorded in France in 1879 when a stage carpenter was killed by an alternating current of 250 volts."
  • For an electrocution death to occur, Casini said, the human body must become part of an active electrical circuit having a current capable of over-stimulating the nervous system or causing damage to internal organs. The extent of injuries received depends on the current's magnitude (measured in amps), the pathway of the current through the body, and the duration of current flow through the body. The resulting damage to the human body and the emergency medical treatment ultimately determine the outcome of the energy exchange
  • According to the Center to Protect Workers Rights, OSHA regulations call for workers to keep their equipment at least 10 feet away from 50 kilovolt overhead lines - and more than 35 feet from lines carrying a greater voltage. Of course, workers also have to be aware of the maximum boom of their equipment in order to stay clear of the lines.
  • There are high- and low-tech devices available to keep equipment out of contact with power lines. Proximity devices can be attached to booms and make audible warnings when they're too close. Booms can be insulated. Flags can be attached to wires to increase visibility. And wires can and should be de-energized or moved when there's a risk of electrocution.
  • Electrical arc flashes were a special topic at the safety and health conference. A panel discussion entitled "Electrical Arc Flashes and Unexpected Explosions" described the power of electrical explosions and the risk electricians take each day on the job.

Many electricians, the panelists said, are satisfied to work without adequate safety protections. One IBEW instructor said many electricians have adopted a "cowboy mentality" that embraces dangers like working on live wires and dismissing safety precautions.

"There's a perception out in the electrical field that suggests if you haven't been shocked today you're not working," said IBEW instructor William Habel, as quoted in the Construction Labor Report. "But this is absurd. Let's do away with these unsafe assumptions and work together to create safer working conditions."


Covert operation: Bog power plant a big employer for trades

By Marty Mulcahy

COVERT TWP. - Way off the beaten track near this southwest Michigan community, the building trades are hard at work erecting a project that will soon be the largest employer of construction workers in the state.

Under construction is the Covert Generating Plant, a 1,170-megawatt, combined-cycle, natural gas-fired power plant that will employ about 1,000 building trades workers by the end of this summer. The merchant power plant, a wholly owned subsidiary of PG & E National Energy Group, will sell its output wholesale in the competitive open market, and become among the largest electrical power producers in Michigan.

Stone and Webster is the construction manager, architect and engineer for the plant, which is designed to work as a "baseload" operation. Unlike lower megawatt peaker plants -which kick on only during peak electrical demands - baseload plants are in operation around the clock. However, the Covert plant's design allows operators to reduce power output by turning off one or two of the plant's three generating units during periods of lower demand, such as on weekends.

"We're in a 26-month construction cycle, and getting the work done in that amount of time is a tall order," said Hugh Bourque, senior site manager for Stone and Webster. "The tradespeople have generally been very good out here, and they've done quality work. We've had excellent support from the Kalamazoo Building Trades; they've done an excellent job for us."

Construction began on the Covert plant in March 2001 on land about a mile from the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant, about 48 miles west of Kalamazoo. The location of the plant takes advantage of the existing electrical distribution grid, as well as an existing nearby natural gas line which will feed the new plant.

The project also involves building a water intake system extending into Lake Michigan, which will serve the plant and have the capability of meeting the future water needs of several neighboring communities.

The 29-acre construction site was chosen for its proximity to the Palisades plant, but the soil conditions left a lot to be desired. "The site has wet, sandy soil, and de-watering it was a tremendous challenge," Bourque said. "In some areas, the water table is only two or three feet down." A slurry wall all the way around the site, as well as deep pilings, solved that challenge.

Construction of the PG & E plant, which will cost an estimated $500 million, is part of a welcome, growing trend of power plant construction.

Until the late 1990s, power plant production across the country lagged behind the boom in demand. As a result, many areas of the country have been threatened with brownouts. And two years ago, a lack of electricity caused Californians to suffer through waves of rolling blackouts.

The market responded. "Since 1998, the U.S. has experienced an unprecedented and largely unexpected boom in new power plant construction," the Engineering News Record reported last December. "Between 1999 and 2001, about 83,000 megawatts of new capacity has come on line, adding nearly 10% to the generation base. Another 300,000 megawatt to 400,000 megawatts of new capacity is in the pipeline, virtually all proposed by independent 'merchant' developers who have replaced traditional utilities as the industry's driving force."

The ENR said few expect that all the projected capacity will actually be built. Market forces, constraints on available fuel, transmission capacity and financial resources are expected to be detriments.

"The construction of the Covert Generating Plant is an important step in meeting the growing need for electricity throughout the Midwest," said Chris Iribe, president and chief operating officer of the National Energy Group's East Region. "We look forward to the opportunity to provide efficient power at competitive costs."

According to the Michigan Public Service Commission, among power plants in our state that are still in the planning stages, another 6,100 megawatts of power could be brought on line. The commission said ongoing power plant construction of baseload and peaker plants in our state will result in the additional production capacity of 3,650 megawatt of electricity in the next two years. The PG & E plant is the largest of that group.

"It's a remote site, but it's not a very big site, so all the trades are all on top of each other," said Jim Roper, a foreman from Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 357, working for Morrison Construction. "But we're doing OK, and I think things have gone pretty well out here."

RIGGING AN AMMONIA header adjacent to one of the Covert Generating Plant's generators are Jerry Weiler of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 85, right, and Jack Smith of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 357 in the green jacket, above. They were working for Morrison Construction.

JACKING A STEEL SECTION on Unit 1 of the Covert Generating Plant are (l-r) boilermakers Eric Jones (Local 374), Oscar Greer (Local 37) and Jay Weurtz (Local 169). Ready to weld behind them is John Cox of Local 169.


Nation's steel difficulties remain

The crisis of cheap, imported steel in the U.S. has not eased.

The American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) reported last month that total steel imports through the end of April totaled 10.1 million net tons, 6.9 percent higher than the same period a year ago. And foreign steel manufacturers are continuing to try to work around U.S. law to keep up the flow of cheap steel.

Last year President Bush pledged to help the financially troubled American steel industry with the imposition of Sections 201/203 of the U.S. trade law. Bush agreed to impose tariffs of up to 30 percent on certain steel imports for a period of three years. The tariffs are intended to level the playing field for U.S. steel manufacturers, who are forced to compete against cheap foreign steel whose production is subsidized by their government.

More than 20 U.S. steel manufacturers have gone out of business in the last several years, which has put a big hurt into the American job market. In Michigan, the construction industry has lost work at the mines in the U.P. and at steel mills downstate.

"Unfortunately, there is an ongoing campaign to try to undermine the effectiveness of the president's 201 remedy," said Andrew G. Sharkey, III, president of the American Iron and Steel Institute. "It is ironic that while foreign governments are threatening immediate retaliation because the United States has taken necessary action on steel in the U.S. national interest, many steel markets abroad have become ever more tightly protected against imports since March; steel prices have risen significantly in many foreign steel markets, and profits are up for most offshore steel producers."

Sharkey said America's steel industry "has a chance to adjust, consolidate and thrive" - if the 201 rule is enforced.


Roofers navigate a sea of PVC atop Ford Field

By Marty Mulcahy

A gridiron of another sort is being installed some 120 feet over Ford Field, the new home of the Detroit Lions.

Roofers Local 149 members and Schreiber Roofing are in the monotonous process of installing 4x10-foot sections of dens-deck decking sheets atop the 18-guage sheet metal deck - along with foam insulation sections, and topped by a sea of PVC membrane to make it all watertight. All told, 320,000 square-feet of roof will be covered, keeping Ford Field and its players and patrons high and dry.

"This type of roofing system has been out for 25 years, so it's proven itself, and it's nothing special," said Darrell Wiegert, a foreman for Schreiber. "We put it on the Ren Cen, on the Jefferson North assembly plant, and on a bunch of other buildings. They're not going to have a problem with it."

Many people with a casual interest in the stadium still wonder whether the roof will be retractable, or whether any of it will be open to the weather, such as the Dallas Cowboys' stadium. The answer on both counts is no - it will be a conventional, fixed roof. But the roof is interesting from a design standpoint: it has a sloped 30-degree pitch up from the center of the stadium down to the northern edge.

"The closer you get to the edge, the steeper it gets," Wiegert said. "And the roof can get pretty slick when it's raining, so we have to be careful." He said if there were any more pitch in the roof, safety harnesses would have to be worn. A four-foot high "gutter" barrier on the edge of the stadium provides a welcome margin of safety.

The crew of roofers has been as high as 35, but lately has been about 25. Whether permitting, the roof is scheduled for completion on July 8, and the $500 million stadium itself is scheduled to open Aug. 24 for a Lions pre-season football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"We have a good crew, and they're doing very good work," said Schreiber General Foreman Dave Lafferty. He said bringing materials up to the roof is difficult because of an awkward access design, "but overall, we're happy. It's been an interesting

A CREW OF ROOFERS from Local 149 and Schreiber Roofer apply the PVC membrane atop the Ford Field roof - the membrane is similar in form and function to a pool liner.



Nonunion workers at Clinton library
The Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO said it would not oppose a project labor agreement negotiated by local construction unions covering the building of the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock.

But BCTD President Edward C. Sullivan said it is "outrageous" that the library will not be built 100 percent union and that he expects most of the nation's construction unions will return the snub by withholding contributions to the Democratic National Committee.

"The sad part about this agreement is that it also sends a terrible message to our politically active rank-and-file members who worked so hard across America to help elect President Clinton," Sullivan said. "Our affiliated unions are furious at being treated this way by former allies, and most of them will continue their ban on contributions to the Democratic National Committee.

"It's ironic that the presidential library dedicated to Ronald Reagan - an ardent foe of our unions - was built 100 percent union."

Sullivan said the national building trades won't oppose the local project labor agreement in Little Rock, in deference to the negotiation work of the local building trades. The $150 million library is expected to be built with 75 percent union labor.

"Our goal all along has been to ensure all workers on this very symbolic project receive decent wages and benefits and the protection of a union contract, and its outrageous that the library board insisted on undercutting that goal."

Enron Workers win money battle
After a battle with corporate executives and their former employer that lasted several months, more than 4,200 former Enron workers, supported by the AFL-CIO and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, won fairer severance payments in an historic agreement between the workers, the Enron Corporation and its creditors' committee.

The agreement, announced June 11, ends a months-long campaign by the laid-off workers and the union movement to pressure Enron and its creditors to pay fair severance packages previously denied to laid-off workers.

The agreement gives the court-appointed Employee Committee the right to attempt to "claw back" more than $80 million in so-called retention bonuses paid to Enron executives on the eve of bankruptcy. Any money recaptured will go to workers whose severance and other benefits were frozen when Enron declared bankruptcy.

The agreement in total is worth at least an additional $34 million because of the efforts of the workers and their supporters. The total settlement is now three times greater than it was in February before the campaign began.

The agreement gives Enron workers who wish to accept the settlement their entire severance owed under the Enron severance plan up to a cap of $13,500 per person. Before the workers' campaign began, severance had been capped at $4,500

"This is an important milestone for former Enron workers," commented former Enron employee Dennis Vegas. "Many families have had a difficult time meeting their financial obligations and if the agreement is approved, it will provide much needed relief. The process has not been easy and we owe a great deal of gratitude to many for reaching this accord, but in particular, the AFL-CIO for their leadership and willingness to cover the legal fees."

All legal fees were paid by the AFL-CIO at no cost to the laid-off workers and with no compensation from the agreement going to the AFL-CIO or for legal services.

"The AFL-CIO is pleased the former Enron workers have emerged victorious in a difficult and lengthy fight to win severance payments," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.


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