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June 23, 2000

Prevailing wage clout depends on dwindling resource: enforcement

Road workers still need a brake

Trades power construction of new gas-fired power plant

In the swamp or on an ice floe, zoo animals will feel right at home

Working safely…Don't take your work home with you

Kowynia puts his mind to it, wins sheet metal competition




Prevailing wage clout depends on dwindling resource: enforcement

By Marty Mulcahy

Governmental red tape, the lack of money for enforcement and the complete absence of political will to enforce state and federal laws are taking money out of pockets of Michigan construction workers, and work away from union contractors.

"I know of no other industry whose workers' wages are subject to drop every year because of the lack of enforcement of the law," said Greg Sudderth, executive director of the Michigan Fair Contracting Center.

The laws in question are the federal Davis-Bacon Act and the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act, which are the single most important statutes upholding the financial well-being of the state and the nation's construction workers. On taxpayer funded projects, the laws assure a wage standard for workers, so that contractors cannot bid and win work by undercutting the competition based on wages.

Prevailing wage laws maintain community standards by allowing workers to afford to stay off public assistance and buy a new car, or pay taxes on a home. However, while state and federal laws have survived amid near-constant political attacks, the effectiveness of prevailing wage has withered under the increasingly popular tactic for killing laws: choking off funding for enforcement.

Michigan's Hardhats work under separate state and federal prevailing wage laws, depending on which entity is paying for the project. Michigan Laborers Secretary-Treasurer Jerry Hall said the State of Michigan does a terrific job of keeping prevailing wage information up to date - and in our state, union scale is typically the prevailing rate - but under the Engler Administration and with Republican control of state government, funding for enforcement has become nonexistent.

On the other hand, he said there is enforcement of prevailing wage available under federal law, but "the feds do a horrible job of updating information - we call and harp on them over and over, but it doesn't do any good."

Sudderth said the obvious result of an ineffective prevailing wage law is less money in workers' pockets. But the cut goes deeper, especially on federally funded projects and in areas where union scale isn't so prevalent.

For example, if surveys of construction worker wages aren't performed regularly and don't reflect the prevailing wage for a given area, then contractors who can get away with paying their workers the two-year-old prevailing rate of $25 per hour have an immediate advantage in the bidding process over contractors whose current collective bargaining agreements require them to pay $30 per hour.

And with construction wages starting to make some big gains in recent contract settlements it doesn't take very long before an out-of-date survey starts to have a negative impact contractors placing bids and on workers' paychecks.

"If prevailing rates aren't current, it just erodes the base of the industry, for both labor and contractors," Sudderth said.

The U.S. Department of Labor is trying to improve record-keeping. Results of a recent test program to overhaul how prevailing wages are determined for a locality was found to be "pretty accurate," labor and contractor reps said. But there was still dissatisfaction with the overall system

The Construction Labor Report said the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. DOL has spent the last three years studying how best to improve the way it sets prevailing wages. One of the four test areas of the country was in Toledo.

Unions and contractors confirmed that the main problem with the federal prevailing wage is that it's not calculated often enough to reflect wage increases. There is no automatic increase every year, even to adjust for inflation, as there is with Social Security pensions. Even the program instituted by the DOL was using two-year-old wage figures.

Old data can lead to some wild misreporting of wage levels: Carpenter wages in the Rocky Mountain area were as low as $7 per hour under the prevailing wage - set eight years ago - that was still being used until last year. In 20 counties in southeast Georgia, a new prevailing rate hasn't been determined since 1980.

In order to provide the most updated prevailing wage information, the Laborers and Operating Engineers in Michigan have contracted with a group called Construction Industry Resources to basically do the government's job. The firm compiles reliable wage data, gets labor and management to sign off on the numbers, then presents them to state and federal governments, which both accept the figures.

But the work of the CIR is hardly a cure-all. The handy information helps maintain worker wage levels, but it's an added expense. It can still take six months to get updated numbers put into the federal system, because a total of one government employee is assigned to input prevailing wage information for every craft for each of Michigan's 73 counties, plus do the same thing for the states of California, Wisconsin and a southern state.

"The woman who compiles the information does a great job, but there's literally always a four-foot-tall stack of records next to her desk that needs processing," Sudderth said. "They need more staff."

Beyond that, Hall said unions in Michigan ask the U.S. Department of Labor to take about 20 prevailing wage surveys in jurisdictions around the state every year, but the government only has resources for two or three surveys. As a result, old wage rates are being paid, and workers are having money taken out of their pocket.

"Enforcement is bad for both the state Prevailing Wage Act and the Davis Act," Hall said. "But both are still a lot better than nothing."


Road workers still need a brake

How can the rate of death and injury in highway traffic zones be reduced?

Forcing motorists to slow down in work zones is the most popular answer, and it's probably the best answer. In Michigan over the last few years, in order to bring about lower speeds in work zones, speed limits have been reduced, traffic fines have been doubled, police patrols have been added, and a high-profile public relations campaign has been in effect.

The efforts may be increasing awareness for how dangerous road construction can be, but the "Give 'em a Brake - Slower Speeds Save Lives," campaign started in 1996 so far had a mixed effect on construction site safety.

According to the state Department of Transportation, crashes in Michigan work zones increased from 5,434 in 1995 to 7,291 in 1999. There were 2,226 work zone injuries in 1999, a 12.7 percent decrease from 1997. But work zone deaths have skyrocketed from 16 in 1995 to 26 in 1999. The vast majority of the injured and killed have been motorists.

Hundreds of Laborers Local 1191 members know they can be victims of a crash, injury, or worse when they go to work every day. Local 1191 Business Manager Jimmy Cooper said there's nothing wrong with the "Brake" campaign that a little enforcement wouldn't cure.

"You put a police car just before a construction site, drivers slow down, and lives are saved," he said. "It's that simple. And the police don't have to be put at all sites, just the big ones. Those are where we have the most problems."

According to Michigan Road Builders Association spokesman Gary Naeyaert, the state has authorized the spending of $350,000 this year - double the amount spent a year ago - and $500,000 next year to have state troopers work voluntary overtime and patrol construction sites. This year, that expenditure amounts to about 7,700 hours worth of policing.

"Statistics show that the presence of law enforcement leads to a reduction in accidents and injuries," said Michigan State Police Lieutenant Colonel Madden. "The Michigan State Police is pleased to expand this highly successful team effort with MDOT. Speeding is the biggest danger workers and motorists face."

Nationwide, 772 people were killed and 39,000 were injured in construction work zones in 1998, the last year for which data is available. On average, 760 people are killed in work zones every year.

"There is no such thing as an acceptable number of fatalities; our goal is zero fatalities," Naeyaert said. "But you can see by the numbers that motorists are causing their own problems, they're the ones who usually get hurt or injured in in construction site crashes. They could do themselves and the workers a big favor by slowing down."

The Engineering News Record said this month that "contractors, contracting agencies and government policy makers finally are coming together to declare war on this carnage."

The federal government established the Highway Work Zone Safety Awareness Week during the first week of April to publicize the hazards of work zones. In addition, the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse has been established by the Federal Highway Administration.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is about to release a report on work zone safety that will contain recommendations on what roadbuilders, maintainers, contracting agencies and policy makers can do to save lives.

The ENR said the report will contain the following highlights:

  • The cost of safety needs to be incorporated into bidding specifications, so that contractors won't be able to skimp on barriers, equipment or procedures.
  • "Contrary to the view of many contractors," the ENR said, NIOSH believes that a much greater emphasis needs to be placed on control of construction traffic and equipment in the work zone, rather than on the motoring public. The agency said that nearly half of work zone fatalities are inside the work area and do not involve motorists. Many of these fatalities are workers on foot in the zone who are killed by backing construction vehicles.
  • OSHA should place the use of high-visibility clothing as high-priority personal protection equipment.

The findings didn't convince Cooper. "We've already got good barriers in Michigan, and our people already wear the proper clothing," he said "None of what they're talking about is going to stop the speeding driver or the drunk from crashing through the barriers. But if drivers see a police car, I guarantee they're going to slow down."


Trades power construction of new gas-fired power plant

By Marty Mulcahy

Some sorely needed electrical generating capacity is on the way in Michigan, in the form of the 710-megawatt Dearborn Industrial Generation plant across the street from the Ford-Rouge and Rouge Steel complex.

CMS Energy and DTE Energy Services formed a new company to operate the natural-gas-fired plant, known as Dearborn Industrial Generation, L.L.C., which will build, own and operate the facility. The plant's construction cost is $300 million, and more than 500 Hardhats are consistently on the project.

When it is completed, Ford Motor Co. and Rouge Steel operations will have access to 400 megawatts of electricity and 1.7 million pounds per hour of steam from the plant. The remaining 310 megawatts of electricity can be put into the power grid and available for public use. That much electricity could power a city with a population of about 130,000.

Much, much work needs to be done before the power plant comes on line, which could happen in September. Duke-Fluor-Daniel is handling the powerhouse construction, Ideal Construction and subs Conti Electric and Hatzel-Buehler are handing the underground work, and Triangle Electric will be pulling cable, setting up the two substations, installing reactors and performing the tie-ins.

"This is the most complex job I've ever seen in 15 years in the trade," said Triangle Project Manager Steve Strauch. "The amount of coordination for this project is astronomical."

The new powerhouse that's under construction sits on the east side of Miller Road, while the Rouge complex it feeds is on the west side. The first major effort to link the two sites took place last September, when the trades placed a 120-foot, 340-ton trestle over Miller Road. The span was lifted complete with two 96-inch-diameter circulating water lines and a single 84-inch diameter blast furnace gas line.

In recent weeks underneath and on either side of Miller Road, the trades have been excavating and placing a total of 48 sections of six-inch conduit from the powerhouse to feed the Rouge complex. Ian Stewart of IBEW 58 and general foreman for Hatzel-Buehler, Inc. said electricians are placing conduit banks extending for a quarter mile that will contain 15 k.v., 750 mcm cable.

Strauch said the process of pulling 30,000 feet of the four-inch-diameter cable is less than a month away. He said in other parts of the electrical system serving the Rouge complex, electricians will be tying into underground wire that's at least 70 years old. "Believe it or not, it's still good," he said. "We'll be doing more testing, but so far it's help up."

The Dearborn Industrial Generation project will be fueled by approximately 100 million cubic feet per day of natural gas and blast furnace gas, a by-product of the steel-making process at nearby Rouge Steel.

The plant will utilize two high-efficiency natural gas combined cycle units with heat recovery steam generators, three blast furnace gas/natural gas boilers and one steam turbine. The addition of a 160-megawatt gas combustion turbine last year bumped up the plant's capacity from an original configuration of 550 megawatts to 710 megawatts The new facility is expected to significantly reduce air emissions compared to the output of the old powerhouse.

The 75-year old now-dead powerhouse that fed the Rouge facility caught fire and experienced a devastating explosion on Feb. 1, 1999. This replacement power plant had already been under construction for a few months when the fire occurred.

"Dearborn Industrial Generation is a major new co-generation project which represents the first significant addition of power in Michigan since 1990 and we are pleased to provide service to Rouge Steel Co. and Ford Motor Co.," said William T. McCormick, Jr., CMS Energy's chairman and chief executive officer. "The power generated in excess of Ford and Rouge Steel's needs will be available to serve Michigan's growing need for electricity and provide additional contract or merchant power on a competitive basis."

AN ORDERLY BANK of conduit is set into place across from the new CMS Energy Powerhouse in Dearborn by Local 58 electricians Chuck McDonald (foreman), Omar Stewart, Willie Sanders, Greg Ross, general foreman Ian Stewart, and Milton Swann.


In the swamp or on an ice floe, zoo animals will feel right at home

It's a good time to be a polar bear or a frog at the Detroit Zoo.

The contracting team of Turner/White and the building trades are in the process of building two separate, major upgrades at the zoo that will put Arctic wildlife and amphibians into enhanced habitats, while giving human visitors views of the animals that they've never had before.

"This is fantastically interesting work," said Robert Sanders, project superintendent for Turner. "We've been introduced to a new way of constructing."

The larger of the two projects is the "Arctic Ring of Life" exhibit, a $13.6 million interactive facility that will include more than four acres of outdoor and indoor displays. In addition to a variety of flora and fauna, the exhibit, set to open in the fall, will explore the relationship between Arctic people (Inuits) and wildlife.

"This has some pretty extreme mechanical work, and the job has pretty close to the biggest chillers we've even installed," said Mike Johnson, a pipe fitter and owner of Johnson Mechanical. "We're constantly testing the lines to make sure we don't have any leaks, because if we find any after we're done, the tear-out would just be tremendous."

The display recreates an open tundra setting, where visitors will encounter arctic foxes, snowy owls, and polar bears. In the Nunavut gallery, an indoor viewing area, displays will include Inuit art and artifacts. Visitors will be able to walk a 70-foot long, 12-foot wide clear tunnel that will allow views underneath diving and swimming polar bears and seals.

So that the seals don't become an instant breakfast for the polar bears, the two species will be separated by a transparent barrier. Visitors will then arrive in an "ice world," passing a frigid ice cave, igloo, and an exploration station featuring real icebergs made for bears.

From the building trades' standpoint, recreating the arctic environment is the biggest challenge.

It's become second-nature to keep most homes or office buildings at a constant 72 degrees for optimum human comfort - but it's a whole other world to make a varied environment comfortable for polar bears. A huge icemaker provides the animals with small icebergs in the water. Sand filter de-ionizers and ultraviolet sterilizers are part of an ultra-sophisticated water filtration system. And pumps will circulate the system's 294,000 gallons of salt water and 30,000 gallons of fresh water.

"I'm used to traditional plumbing, but what we're doing here is a little different," said Plumbers Local 98 foremen Richard Junod. Creating a natural environment for polar bears "is not something we do every day," he said.

Complicating the entire project is the use of saltwater throughout the Arctic Ring of Life. All plumbing fixtures have to be noncorrosive, so that means the trades are installing stainless steel, plastic pipe and fiberglass fixtures.

Conditions will be a little warmer a quarter-mile away in the National Amphibian Conservation Center. The 12,000-square-foot, $6.3 million gallery will house about 100 species and 1,000 specimens of amphibians from around the earth - the largest group of amphibians in captivity.

The center "will be unlike anything anywhere," said Herpetology Curator Andy Snider. "No other zoological institution has a major facility dedicated entirely to amphibians. Scientists will have the ability to come here from all over the world to help study and save amphibians. We hope this center will serve as a model."

The exhibit will include rarities like the world's largest salamanders (reaching five feet and 50 lbs.) and the most unusual frogs and toads.

The trades are creating an immersion gallery featuring the Peruvian Amazon, with free-ranging birds, turtles and amphibians. In later years, the gallery will be changed to another ecosystem like the Florida Everglades. The gallery will be able to recreate rainfalls, wind, fog, and lightning.

THE AMPHIBIAN exhibit is designed to look like a lily pad.

IN THE PUMP ROOM of the Detroit Zoo's Arctic Ring of Life are (l-r) foreman Richard Junod and Chuck Olesak of Plumbers Local 98, Johnson Mechanical owner Mike Johnson, and Business Agent Chuck Inman of Pipe Fitters, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Local 636. The filtration pumps can move 90,000 gallons of very chilled water in 67 minutes.


Working safely…Don't take your work home with you

At a time when the health hazards of all kinds of construction industry substances are being called into question - substances like drywall dust, lead, silica, and most recently, sawdust - health experts are reminding Hardhats to take extra caution before they give the spouse and kids a hug upon returning home.

"Parents wouldn't take their children to a dangerous workplace, it's equally important that they do not bring the hazards of the workplace home to their families," said National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Director Dr. Linda Rosenstock.

In the first comprehensive study of home lead contamination among construction workers, researchers at NIOSH found that children of lead-exposed construction workers were six times more likely to have blood lead levels over the recommended limit than children whose parents did not work in lead-related industries.

Exposure to toxic materials in the workplace is a concern for families of workers in several industries. Lead is of particular concern for workers with young children since it has been shown to cause a variety of health problems in children, ranging from behavioral disorders to brain damage. The risk to children is particularly high because they frequently put their hands in their mouth thereby increasing their exposure and because their bodies quickly absorb lead into their systems.

The study found that most workers (79%) wore at least some street clothes at work and almost all (91%) washed these clothes at home. The good news was that for whatever reason, 50% of workers reported changing out of work clothes prior to leaving work. In addition, only 18% reported always showering before leaving work.

Here are a few tips to prevent bringing home contaminants:

  • OSHA has rules for workers who toil in areas that have hazardous substances over the permissible exposure limit, including protective clothing, mandatory showers, and a change of clothes. But in the vast majority of workplaces, workers are on their own, and should be cognizant about hazardous substances.
  • Wash up before leaving work, if possible. Change clothes before heading home, or change them at home away from the rest of the family.
  • Wash work clothing separately from the rest of the laundry.
  • You might take a shower when you get home after work to clean off the dirt and sweat. Consider showering for another reason: good health.


Kowynia puts his mind to it, wins sheet metal competition

Phil Kowynia, Jr. didn't think he could beat out a national pool of talent in the Sheet Metal Workers National Apprenticeship Contest as a second-year apprentice in 1999 - and he was right.

"I went in there thinking, 'how can I beat these guys?'" he said. "So I beat myself. I finished in fifth place last year. But as a third-year apprentice, I went in with a different attitude, and I thought if I put forth my best effort, I'd do well."

This year, Kowynia was right again. The Sheet Metal Workers Local 292 apprentice first won his local union's contest, then was tops in the regional contest for third-year apprentices in March, then he won the 2000 Sheet Metal Workers International Union's Apprenticeship Contest held last month in Philadelphia.

He said he entered for the "friendly competition," but the prestige of being on top again, plus the $2,000 in cash and the $5,000 annuity he won in the International competition, are major motivators for his plans to enter the 2001 contest as a fourth-year apprentice. Phil and his wife Tracy plan on using the annuity to start college funds for daughters Elizabeth, 2, and Heidi, 7 months.

The contest requires apprentices to show their skills in a written test, in drafting, plans and specifications, and shop fittings.

"For me the plans and specifications were the toughest part, but the fitting can make or break you," he said. "We had to make a Y-branch in Philadelphia, and I knew it wouldn't be a problem."

At the banquet where the winners are announced, Kowynia said the order that the winners were announced starts with third place and ends with first place. He said he felt both relieved and nervous when his name wasn't called for third or second place, "but then you start to think, 'what if they don't call me at all?'"

Kowynia said his Local 292 instructors, George Livingston and Fred Engleman "are the finest instructors around. They run a great school." He also thanked his employers at Durr Industries, "who bent over backward to make sure I had time to study and to provide me with everything I needed."

Engelman said Kowynia is the first Local 292 member to secure a place, much less win, the national competition. "Phil is a hard worker who is extremely self-motivated. I was ecstatic when they called his name, and George and I are very proud of him."

Local 292 Business Manager Robert Donaldson said he is always impressed with the amount of extra study and preparation put forth by the apprentice-contestants. "It takes a lot of dedication to compete and win the competition at that level," Donaldson said. "But I've known Phil for quite a while, and he's good worker and he's very bright. I fully expect that he will be running a company in a few years or achieving any goal that he wants to achieve."

ON HAND AT the banquet honoring Sheet Metal Workers apprentice contestants last month were (l-r) Dean Carlson, Local 292 JAC labor representative; International Union President Mike Sullivan, Local 292 Business Manager Robert Donaldson, Third Year Contest winner Phil Kowynia, and Local 292 Apprenticeship Coordinator Fred Engelman.



Leno against union busting
Jay Leno is a pretty stand-up guy.

The Tonight Show host showed his union colors when he was willing to forgo a lucrative corporate gig and refused to appear before a June 5 Society for Human Resources Management meeting until the group dropped two planned seminars on union busting.

Birds of a feather flock together
It figures that Wal-Mart, which continues to stonewall any union activity in its stores, would embrace a company like Overnite Transportation.

The giant retailer named Overnite as its less-than-truckload Carrier of the Year. Overnite is battling the Teamsters on many fronts - in the courts, before the NLRB and at terminals across the nation as some 1,800 Overnite employees have been carrying on an unfair labor practice strike since last October.

There's proxy power in S&P 500 Fund
If you're going to invest in a Standard and Poor 500 Index Fund, why not help union clout while you're at it?

That was what the United Association of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Sprinkler Fitters were thinking on March 1, 2000, when they launched their own S & P 500 Index Fund, designed to reflect the price and performance of 500 large, publicly traded companies. Already, the UA reports the fund has $600 million in assets.

The fund, available to any investor, would fit into the portfolios of many workers looking for long-term growth. More than that, stocks held by the fund gives proxy voting rights to shareholders, and the bigger the fund gets, the more clout fund managers will have. Proxy votes made on behalf of a group of shareholders give them a collective say in how a company is operated.

Most shareholders hold comparatively miniscule amounts of stock and ignore their voting rights, but there's strength in numbers.

"The proxy voting process is an increasingly significant way for the UA to express the needs of the membership to the corporations and their management," said UA Secretary-Treasurer Thomas Patchell. "Virtually every day, we are able to use our position as stockholders in major corporations to get our voices heard in corporate boardrooms across America."

To get information about investing in the fund, call (800) 766-8043 or visit the fund's site at

Comfort station open for business
Huron Valley Council Girl Scouts no longer have to walk 40 minutes to use a restroom at Camp Linden.

Thanks in good part to building trades union members and their contractors, a new comfort station was built in the remote meadows area of the camp, providing toilets, running water and a shower house for the girls who use the facility.

More than 45 area organizations and businesses joined forces to build the structure. A luncheon was held last week to mark the opening of the shower house.

The Girl Scouts of the Huron Valley Council serve more than 15,000 girls between the ages of 5 and 17 years.


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