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March 15, 2002
By Marty Mulcahy
LANSING - The debacle over how much of an increase in benefits Michigan's unemployed workers should receive (see related story) was the ideal exclamation point to illustrate how much workers need a change in leadership in state government.
That was the major message at the 44th Michigan Building Trades Council Legislative Conference held March 5-6. The building trades and the rest of organized labor are seeking some balance in state government, which has been dominated over the last 12 years by the administration of Republican Gov. John Engler.
"From Day One John Engler has tried to dilute the power of organized labor in Michigan," said MBTC Secretary-Treasurer Tom Boensch. "He would not appoint labor reps to state boards and commissions. He led the attack on prevailing wage and workers comp. He used his bully pulpit to take care of his friends, and he does not place any value on the contributions of working men and women."
The race for governor tops the list of key statewide elections that will take place in the August primary and November general election. Also up for grabs are one U.S. Senate seat (Carl Levin's), 15 U.S. House of Representatives seats, Secretary of State, Attorney General, two seats on the Michigan Supreme Court, 38 Michigan state Senate positions and two Michigan State Board of Education spots.
The building trades and affiliated local unions will continue with efforts to get members registered to vote and out to the polls this year. The trades will be building on the lessons and successes of the 2000 presidential campaign, which saw a record number of union household members go to the polls.
Speakers at the conference included leading gubernatorial candidates David Bonior, Alma Wheeler-Smith, and Jennifer Granholm. Jim Blanchard had a previous commitment and could not attend. Also speaking was Melvin Hollowell, democratic candidate for Michigan secretary of state.
In the past, the building trades have primarily supported Democratic candidates, because they usually support issues of importance to organized labor. But the reality is that Republicans have had nearly a stranglehold on the Michigan House and Senate over the past several years. Rather than continuing to fight them, the building trades are at the forefront of organized labor in Michigan in trying to find common ground with GOP lawmakers.
"You should be proud of your leadership's efforts to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans," said Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney. "Republicans think better of the building trades, and they listen to you, because of the relationships you have built."
One of those Republican lawmakers who was asked to speak to delegates at the conference was State Rep. Gene DeRossett (R-Washtenaw Co.). He said his 55th District was re-shaped into an odd L-shape during the re-apportionment process last year, which he said is punishment by the Republican Party for his independent voting record. DeRossett, the owner of a construction company, said his re-shaped district now has 73.4 percent new constituents.
"When you become a lawmaker, there are challenges, and when you step up to the plate to do what's right, there are consequences," he said. "You and I won't always agree on every issue. But I've knocked on a lot of doors to get where I am, and I know about workers comp and unemployment insurance and the importance of having good workers around me."
There were internal building trades politics on the agenda, also. Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of The Greater Detroit Building Trades Council, addressed the issue of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters' separation from the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department, and Carpenters President Doug McCarron's demand that the current building trades leadership resign before his union would re-affiliate.
"Our parent organization, quite frankly, is in turmoil,"
Devlin told delegates. "At this point in time, my position
with the Carpenters is that we wait a while longer for a final
resolution of what's going on in Washington."
LANSING - Every now and then, Republican lawmakers like to pound home the point that they're calling all the shots in the state legislative process. Last week, they struck another blow at Michigan's jobless workers.
In the last several weeks, Republicans have recognized the growing unemployment in the state, and apparently were moving in the direction of raising the maximum unemployment benefit from $300 per week to $415 per week.
Then, on March 5, things changed. A new proposal was placed on the table, which would lower the new maximum benefit to $362 per week. And, Republicans continued to insist that newly unemployed workers must submit to a waiting week before their benefits kick in.
State Rep. Julie Dennis (D-Muskegon), the ranking Democrat on the Employment Relations, Training and Safety Committee, walked in and delivered the news about the downward benefit adjustment to delegates on March 5 at the Michigan Building Trades Council Legislative Conference, which was taking place at a hotel ballroom near the Capitol Building.
"This is not a good bill, this is economic terrorism on the unemployed," Dennis told the delegates. She said Republicans are touting this election-year legislation as good for the state's jobless - but even with the $415 per week increase, half of the state's new jobless would actually experience a reduction in benefits compared to the current plan.
And, under the $362 per week increase, Dennis said 70-75 percent of newly jobless in the state would see reduced benefits compared to the current plan.
Democratic legislators would probably support any reasonable increase in unemployment benefits, if there were no strings attached. But all Republican proposals to date have insisted on implementing a waiting week before workers' start collecting benefits.
As we've mentioned in prior articles, implementing a waiting week creates a reduction in benefits for the short-term unemployed. Under the existing plan, a worker who is unemployed for three weeks would receive $300 a week, for a total of $900 in benefits. Even if the benefit is increased to $415 per week, a worker unemployed for three weeks would only receive a total of $830.
The bad guy in all this appears to be Rep. Robert Gosslyn (R-Troy), who chairs the Employment Relations, Training and Safety Committee, the panel which currently controls the bill in the House.
"I'm open to suggestion," he said in a published report, "but an immediate increase above the rate of inflation (or $362) is bad public policy."
Gosslyn's committee approved the $362 benefit maximum, but in the full House of Representatives, leaders were unable to come to terms on the amount of an increase. Labor and Democratic leaders attacked the lower benefit maximum because it was not enough and because it would penalize short-term unemployed workers. Under the Republican plan, lower-wage workers, such as some building trades apprentices, would be ineligible for any benefits.
Michigan's current $300 benefit maximum for unemployment compensation
is the lowest among states in the Upper Midwest region. That
amount hasn't changed since 1995. This comes at a time when Michigan
employers have enjoyed UI tax breaks for the last several years
- allowing the state's Unemployment Insurance benefit fund to
balloon to $2.9 billion.
Not a bad eight months of work for the building trades and general contractor Walbridge-Aldinger at the Compuware Headquarters building under construction in Detroit.
Since last July, more than 8,700 tons of steel have been set. No significant injuries have been recorded after 300,000 man-hours have been worked. And it's a job that's progressing at light speed and under-budget.
On March 7, iron workers, operating engineers, Bristol Steel and Walbridge-Aldinger celebrated the topping-out of the 15-story, $350 million building at Woodward and Monroe. It was one of the better topping out programs - there was the usual fir tree and the flag, plus a stirring rendition of the national anthem, speeches from dignitaries that actually recognized the work of the building trades, and best of all, an explanation of the tradition of the topping out ceremony.
"On behalf of Local 25, I'd like to thank Compuware for their vision in helping to rebuild the City of Detroit," said Iron Workers Local 25 President Shorty Gleason, "and using the expertise of iron workers and all the greater Detroit building trades."
Compuware is moving its corporate headquarters to Detroit from Farmington Hills, along with some 3,000 of their employees from various office locations.
"On behalf of the people who will work here, I would like to thank the people who helped build this building over the last eight months, from 30 feet under ground to 15 stories up," said Compuware CEO Peter Karmanos. "It's an incredible achievement, built on-time and under budget."
Hardhats have been particularly struck by the fast pace of the project. The first iron went up last July, and two shifts of trades workers moving the job along has helped make it so that employees of the computer services firm are expected to clacking on keyboards by the end of this year. As they work on lower floors, construction will be ongoing on upper floors until the project is complete in 2003.
"I'm happy to report that with the work of all the tradespeople, we're ahead of schedule," said Walbridge-Aldinger CEO John Rakolta, Jr. "The Detroit Building Trades have done a marvelous job. This building is a symbol of strength for Compuware and the City of Detroit."
The Compuware headquarters building will stand atop the old Kern Block, just south of the old Hudson's building. It will include nearly one million square feet of office space, nearly 60,000 of which will be retail.
"It's absolutely a monumental occasion in Detroit,"
said Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. "This building will change
the face of Detroit."
Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm on March 1 cautioned Michigan legislators that selling or privatizing the financially troubled Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) would violate current state law and would jeopardize the integrity of the public health system in Michigan.
In his January 2002 State of the State message, Gov. Engler proposed "a new act to create a Community Health Trust Fund to protect our citizens and capture the public benefit should Blue Cross ever follow the path of more than 20 other state plans by becoming a private company."
In a letter to the newly created Michigan House Committee on Health Insurance, Granholm said the Michigan legislature established BCBSM as a nonprofit, charitable, and benevolent institution expressly for the purpose of fulfilling the health care needs of Michigan residents.
"Blue Cross was never intended to function as a for-profit insurer," Granholm said. "The company's legislatively established mission is to promote reasonably priced health care services for all residents of Michigan. It is difficult to comprehend how turning BCBSM over to for-profit insurers would lower the cost or improve the availability of health care in Michigan.
"The citizens of this state struck a bargain with BCBSM
more than 50 years ago. The citizens agreed to give BCBSM tax-free
status and in return, BCBSM agreed to take on responsibility
for providing health care services at fair prices to all citizens
who apply for coverage. That's the deal. By selling BCBSM off,
the state would be breaking the deal it made with its own citizens."
President Bush earlier this month offered a middle-of-the road solution to aid the ailing U.S. steel industry, imposing tariffs of 8-30 percent on several types of imported steel, as well as import quotas on steel.
He didn't impose the across-the-board 40 percent tariffs requested by American steelmakers, but he didn't completely ignore the needs of the domestic producers, who have complained that the governments of nations like China and Korea are subsidizing the manufacture of cheap steel, which is being "dumped" on the U.S. market.
Still, Congressman Bart Stupak, whose Upper Peninsula district includes the Empire and Tilden iron ore mines, said the tariffs would do little to help the mining industry. He said the tariff on imported slab steel hasn't changed from previous levels - and it's the same level that has caused the Empire mine to be shut down since November, although it's expected to re-open this month. If imported slab steel is sufficiently cheap, steel manufacturers can use it instead of iron ore pellets mined in the U.P. and other areas.
"Now the president has responded by setting an import quota for slab steel - 5.4 million tons - that matches the level already being imported from countries subject to these penalties," Stupak said. "Because this import level for slab steel has already caused mine shutdowns and layoffs in northern Michigan, it appears we have won nothing."
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin agreed that the president's tariff levels on most imported steel are too low to help the U.S. steel and iron ore industries, although the Steelworkers Union and steel manufacturing executives expressed optimism that the tariffs would help them.
"The president's decision today does not go far enough to assure survival of our devastated steel industry, which has already suffered 31 bankruptcies and the loss of over 35,000 jobs in less than three years," Levin said. "The remedies recommended by the president are seriously deficient in stopping the surge of cheap imports - including steel slab imports, which displace the iron ore mined in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Slab steel dumped in our market is particularly injurious to our domestic iron ore industry."
Bush's decision on tariff levels is the culmination of the efforts of a coalition of unions, steel manufacturers and iron ore producers, who have urged the president to "Stand Up for Steel and Iron Ore."
The most recent U.S. steelmaker bankruptcy took place the day after Bush imposed the tariffs: Indiana-based National Steel, Michigan's largest steel producer, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 6, but is expected to continue to operate for now without layoffs after they secured a $450 million line of credit. Of National Steel's 8,400-member workforce, 3,000 work in the steelmaker's Detroit-area facilities.
The fortunes of the domestic steel and iron ore industries have a tremendous affect on Michigan's construction workers. There are 30-40 operating engineers who work at the Empire and Tilden mines full-time - when they are open - as well as scores more construction Hardhats who regularly perform maintenance and renovation work.
Downstate, thousands of construction workers over the past
several decades have built and renovated steel mills - the permanent
loss of Rouge Steel or the Great Lakes Steel division of National
Steel would be a tremendous blow to long-term construction industry
EAST LANSING - Spartan Stadium is returning to agrarian roots.
Gone is the astroturf that has covered the field since 1969. The most recent carpet was eight years old, and it was torn out at the end of the last football season.
Coming this summer, thanks to the work of the building trades and Hausmann Construction, is a playing surface that's much more in line with the university's agricultural tradition: a blend of nine varieties of Kentucky bluegrass, which is currently being grown on-campus at the MSU Hancock Turfgrass Center.
The new grass field is expected to be in place and ready for the Spartans' first home game of the season, Aug. 31 against Eastern Michigan University.
MSU Associate Athletic Director Greg Ianni said construction workers will be working on lowering the playing field 11 inches, building a perimeter concrete wall to contain the new playing surface, as well as installing an irrigation and drainage system.
"The carpet had reached the end of its useful life, and we had a decision to make," Ianni said. "It was an athletic department decision, and it was a university decision. Coach (Bobby) Williams was strongly in favor of going to grass. But the other reason was that the university has a strong turf growing program, and this is an opportunity to showcase it."
The total cost of the project is about $2 million. An interesting feature about the project, Ianni said, is the installation of duct banks at ground level that will blow warm air on the field. No, not to keep the players warm during games in November - the warm air will be used to extend the growing season of the grass, keeping the field in good shape late into the fall.
The seeds for the grass were planted last May in 4,800 individual
plastic modules, which will be loaded onto trucks and transported
to Spartan Stadium. A similar system was used to place natural
turf at the Pontiac Silverdome when the World Cup Soccer championships
were held in 1994.
More patrol money for work zones
MDOT will be using at least $350,000 to cover the overtime costs of state police troopers, sheriff's deputies and local police officers patrolling work zones. They will watch for speeding, reckless driving and other dangerous habits that put drivers and workers at risk.
"When I leave for work in the morning, I'm reasonably assured that I will be going home at night," said state Transportation Director Gregory Rosine. "We can't always say the same for road workers, and that is truly sad. By teaming with road workers, police and motorists, we hope to make 2002 the safest season ever."
This is the first year that county and local law enforcement agencies are eligible to receive the funding.
In recent years, MDOT and the State Police have worked together to increase law enforcement in work zones. In addition, the Michigan legislature has increased fines and penalties for traffic violations in work zones, and for injuring or killing a highway worker.
"It's great to expand our partnership to include all
law enforcement agencies this year," said State Police Chief
Operations Officer Larry E. Tibbets. "All the flashing orange
lights in our work zones are helpful but nothing compares to
one red light atop a police car."
The Pipeline Utilization Mobilization Project (PUMP) involves the Laborers, the Operating Engineers, the Plumbers and the Teamsters, with AFL-CIO technical aid and some money.
PUMP's objective is to re-organize the industry, which employs between 25,000 and 50,000 workers, depending on the season and economic conditions.
Before 1970, the pipeline construction industry was almost 100 percent union, but it is now approximately 40 percent, Laborers President Terence M. O'Sullivan said in an interview with Press Associates on Feb. 26 during the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in New Orleans.
He said the decline in union pipeline work was accelerated in part by pipeline companies being purchased by anti-union multi-national companies.
Now, the unions want to reclaim market share in pipeline construction, to better wages and working conditions during a two-year campaign, he said.
They'll provide the organizers, the money and the reasons in a campaign to organize the Sundland company - the first joint organizing target - while the AFL-CIO may add money to the proposed $2.5 million campaign, plus research and strategy options, O'Sullivan said.
"Our operating committee has representatives from all four unions, and each of us provides organizers based on the work involved" in any particular pipeline segment, he explained.
In Michigan, unions have a good handle on pipeline work. Between
500 and 1,000 building trades workers toil full-time on installing
and maintaining the state's pipelines. Michigan Consolidated
Gas Co. alone supplies fuel through 15,000 miles of smaller distribution
mains and 2,500 miles of high-pressure mains in Michigan.