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March 27, 2009

'Hire Michigan First' passes House; reception may be 'frosty' in Senate

Biden pledges Obama accord on key labor movement goals

Gallup poll: majority support Employee Free Choice Act, but most are clueless about it

Trades help Madonna expansion to go green

As new turbine turns, more power comes from Consumers' Hardy Dam

News Briefs


'Hire Michigan First' passes House; reception may be 'frosty' in Senate

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

LANSING - The Michigan House of Representatives on March 12 adopted the "Hire Michigan First" plan, which rewards companies that employ 100 percent Michigan workers with state economic development incentives.

The legislation also cracks down on companies that hire undocumented workers by creating penalties that include requiring them to pay back their state incentives and barring them from future state contracts.

"This plan puts a laser-like focus on using Michigan tax dollars to create jobs for Michigan residents," said State Representative Fred Miller (D-Mount Clemens), the architect of the "Hire Michigan First" plan. "The highly skilled, hard-working residents of Michigan… deserve to be first in line for these jobs. It's our responsibility to make sure that our tax dollars benefit our working families, not people from out of state or even from other countries."

Voted in mostly along party lines in the Democratic-controlled House, the "Hire Michigan First" plan:

  • Rewards companies that hire the most Michigan residents in the pursuit of state tax breaks and other economic development incentives. This rule would apply to projects handled by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and certain state-funded programs, including the Michigan Economic Growth Authority and the Renaissance Zone Act.
  • Encourages transparency and accountability by requiring companies that accept incentives to report on who they hire to ensure that Michigan residents are put first.
  • Cracks down on companies that hire undocumented workers by creating penalties that include requiring them to pay back their tax incentives and barring them from future state contracts.

State Representative Barb Byrum (D-Onondaga), who owns a small business, said:

"Companies should not be allowed to accept tax breaks or state contracts and then turn around and give those jobs to undocumented workers so they can save money on wages and benefits. To improve Michigan's business climate, we have to protect companies that play by the rules, and this plan does that."

The legislation goes to the Republican-controlled Michigan Senate. There, said Todd Tennis, an IBEW lobbyist for Capitol Services, the Hire Michigan First legislation will probably have some bipartisan support. "But there's two pieces that will probably get a frosty reception from Republicans," he said, "and they both involve the building trades."

First, he said the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors "went ballistic" when they saw language that would have allowed the state to permanently bar a construction company from bidding on state-funded projects if a company was caught not paying workers the prevailing wage. Changing the language to allow a company caught not paying prevailing wage a little wiggle room by inserting the language "knowingly and repeatedly" did not pass muster with the ABC, but was retained.

The other aspect of the legislation that upset the ABC, Tennis said, is language that allows the employment of out-of-state workers on state-financed projects if certain collective bargaining agreements come into play. For example, IBEW local unions based in South Bend, Indiana and Toledo, Ohio have for decades had jurisdiction in a few Michigan border counties. In the House version of the legislation, the out-of-state workers would continue to be employed on that state-funded work, per the local union agreements.

That's an exception to the legislation, which otherwise would require that on state-funded construction projects, "100 percent of the persons working on the project and employed by the contractor and subcontractors be Michigan residents for one year before beginning work." The current requirement is 50 percent. The language in the state legislation analysis says: "The requirement does not apply to employers who are parties to collective bargaining agreements that allow for the portability of employees on an interstate basis."

State Republicans have said they oppose some portions of the legislation because it would make Michigan less business-friendly.

State Rep. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, said on the House floor that "while there are parts of this legislation I support," in reality these bills create additional burdens that make it harder for companies to hire new employees, make it harder for our state to attract new investment, and will make Michigan a less competitive place to do business."

But State House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford Township) said the people of Michigan want to see action on behalf of Michigan's workers.

"I urge my colleagues in the Senate to act quickly on this plan, because the Legislature's top priority should be creating good-paying jobs for our residents," Dillon said. "I commend Representative Miller and everyone else who has worked to shape this common-sense job-creation plan. Now it is time for the Senate to do its part to support Michigan workers and protect our middle-class families."


Biden pledges Obama accord on key labor movement goals

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

MIAMI (PAI) - Interrupted frequently by applause and occasional ovations, Vice President Joseph Biden reiterated the Obama Administrations agreement with the nation's union movement on key goals, including health care reform, industrial revitalization and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.

"I have a simple and basic belief: If a union is what you want, a union is what you're entitled to have," he declared to the AFL-CIO - to a standing ovation.

In his almost hour-long, wide-ranging speech, plus answers to two questions, at the packed AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Miami on March 5, the vice president built on themes that President Barack Obama briefly addressed in videotaped remarks to the union leaders two days before.

Then, Obama said that "we've got to level the playing field" between workers and bosses. "We've got to rebuild our infrastructure, fix health care and pass the Employee Free Choice Act," Obama added. In his administration, Obama promised, "labor will always have a seat at the table."

Biden elaborated: "We can't fix the economy by hurting workers. But when you're in a deep hole, you need a long ladder."

Biden first extensively thanked the nation's unionists for putting Obama and himself in the nation's top offices, along with larger pro-worker majorities in Congress. He said the two would not forget it. "I joke with the president that 'You go home with who brought you to the dance,' and you brought us the dance a long time ago," Biden said. Then he filled in some details Obama touched on before. Key points included:

"The National Labor Relations Act said this nation's policy is to encourage - encourage - collective bargaining. That's not John Sweeney saying it" he added of the AFL-CIO president. "That's the law saying it."

"But what the news is here is that you have an American president, vice president, Speaker of the House and Senate majority leader who agree with everything John Sweeney says. President Obama said, and he means it, that you can't have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement. We will judge this administration's success or failure on whether there is a strong middle class," he stated. But it can't get better without unions getting stronger. One way is to pass the Employee Free Choice Act," Biden declared.

Biden did not, however, say what the administration would do to help labor get Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, and nobody asked. In a brief press conference afterwards, Sweeney - who introduced Biden - said "there have been discussions for it as soon as possible" but not on strategy or presidential action for the Employee Free Choice Act. Those have occurred with congressional leaders, he said.

"Our economy isn't based on corporations selling complicated fiscal products. It's based on people who go to work every day," Biden said. That meant Obama's key goal would be to help workers, led by those hurt by the current crash. He singled out factory workers. "You can't be a leader of the 21st century (economically) if all there is, is a service industry," Biden told Steelworkers President Leo Gerard in answer to a question. "The reason (industrial) capacity is down is in large part because the banks won't extend credit" to let employers meet payroll or people buy cars, for example.

"For too many years, we failed to have a White House that puts our families front and center. Bankers, financiers and a functioning credit system are necessary. But they are not our spine. Those days are over, folks," he stated.

Instead, there must be a restoration of "the basic bargain" that rising worker productivity goes hand-in-hand with rising worker wages, Biden said. To restore that link, the administration is combining its stimulus law moves - including $28 billion in infrastructure construction announced the day before - with other pro-worker actions.


The moves Biden ticked off included Obama's late-January executive order for project labor agreements on all federally funded construction, his executive order "to ensure that taxpayer dollars go to something other than union-busting activities," and the Lilly Ledbetter act to restore workers' right to sue firms for pay discrimination.

"Second, you can't just save old industries, like autos, but (you have to be) creating new industries. You need an awful lot of steel for those windmills" to generate electricity - part of the stimulus act - "and for those high-tension electric lines, and you need linemen to string them up," he told Gerard. The transportation projects "will need rebar, cement - and engineers," Biden added.

"In the process, we're looking to lay the groundwork for a stronger and fairer economy for the 21st century with $630 billion for health care" reform, included in Obama's budget plan sent to Congress in late February, Biden said.

"We'll pay for it by going line by line in this budget" looking to eliminate wasteful spending, and "by ending tax breaks for U.S. corporations that ship jobs overseas, and by asking the wealthiest to pay more," Biden added, to another standing ovation.

Biden did not lay out a specific Obama administration health care plan. Indeed, he spoke the same day the president convened a health care summit in D.C. But he told Building Trades President Mark Ayers, who asked, that its general principles would be "there must be choice of your physician, portability and affordability."

Those are the same principles the federation is pushing, according to both Sweeney and to a statement the council issued at the meeting.

Biden's somber note about economic ills included a warning "it would take a year or more to get all of" the nation's workers on "that long ladder" back to economic health. "But it will happen. We've got a ladder long enough to climb out of this hole, and to put ourselves in the position where we can do in the 21st century what we did in the 20th," he predicted.

"We've got a shot here, folks - the best shot in 30 years. And shame on us if we squander it. With your help, we'll make a better, stronger America," he concluded, to another long ovation.


Gallup poll: majority support Employee Free Choice Act, but most are clueless about it

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

(PAI) - By a 53%-39% margin, Americans support the key concept of the Employee Free Choice Act -- making it easier for unions to organize - but 65% follow the issue very little or not at all, a new poll shows.

The survey, of 1,024 adults nationwide, conducted by the Gallup Organization March 14-15, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3%. The survey is important because it is independent and not commissioned by the AFL-CIO, whose polls show higher public support for the right to organize.

The Gallup survey is also important because while it shows support for the concept, it reveals the Employee Free Choice Act is still very much an inside-the-Beltway issue - and that labor has a big education campaign to do.

That's because among the 12% of respondents who told the surveyors they follow the issue "very closely," it loses by a 40%-58% margin. The largest support for unions is among the 39% who "are not following the issue at all," the Gallup poll adds.

The Employee Free Choice Act would help level the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing and bargaining. Its key section would make organizing easier by writing majority sign-up into labor law: Workers, not bosses, would choose whether to use that or a National Labor Relations Board-run election in deciding if the union will represent them. Majority signup is when the union collects election authorization cards from an NLRB-verified majority of workers.

"The current findings could bode well for the pro-union side of the issue as it ramps up the public-information component of its lobbying efforts, particularly at a time when corporate America has serious image problems. Americans appear to be a sympathetic audience for a basic argument behind the law if it is described simply as making it easier for unions to organize," the Gallup survey said.

"At the same time, Americans have barely begun to pay attention to the issue. The 12% who are following it 'very closely' is exceptionally low relative to attention to other news issues Gallup measured over the last two decades…With arguments against card check" - business' name for the bill - "yet to be fully aired and debated, it could be a troubling sign for unions that no more than 53% immediately support this fundamental aspect" of the legislation.

Gallup added that Democrats (70%) and independents (52%-41%) back making it easier to unionize. Republicans (40%) do not.


Trades help Madonna expansion to go green

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

LIVONIA - Madonna University's new Science and Media Building is approaching completion, and it will be the school's first standalone building erected on campus in 40 years.

Construction Manager Clark Construction, its subcontractors and the building trades are putting the finishing touches on the 60,000 square-foot building, which will house instructional laboratories in the physical and biological sciences, classrooms, seminar rooms, a lecture hall and a high-definition media studio.

"In the new building, our broadcast and cinema arts students will create movies and commercials with the latest digital production equipment, so that as graduates they are well-equipped to make their mark on Michigan's burgeoning film industry and beyond," said Sr. Rose Marie Kujawa, Madonna University president. "In addition, the science laboratories will facilitate undergraduate student/faculty research and prepare our nursing, education, pre-med and other pre-professional students to meet employers' requirements for graduates with strong science backgrounds."

The building comes with a $20 million price tag, and numerous green building features, big and small. Completion is expected next month.

Recycled materials, energy efficient windows and lighting, a "green" roof and other environmentally-friendly construction elements will enable Madonna to qualify the building for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The 60,000-square foot standalone building will be made from recycled and other environmentally-friendly materials such as cork and bamboo. It will use motion-detecting lights to automatically turn lights on and off in rooms, as well as waterless urinals and low-flush toilets.

Theodore Biermann, Ph.D., Madonna University's dean of science and mathematics, told the Michigan Catholic that the laboratories in the new facility will accommodate a wide array of courses, from forensic science to chemistry to emergency management.

"Basically, we're going to have a flexible, modern (building) with good lighting, good ventilation - and it's going to be a safer environment, too," said Biermann. "We're really excited about that. We're going to have more laboratories than we have now, too. So for the sciences, it's a big deal."

Chris Rau, project manager for Clark Construction, said the building trades "have done very well for us. I think the biggest challenge has been the comfort level of the LEED process, not everyone is familiar with it. It's a certification, but it's also a mindset for workers."

OUTSIDE THE NEW Science and Media Building at Madonna University in Livonia, (l-r) Brad Nester, Ed Ignatoski and Jim Pavlich finish preliminary work on a stack of foam panel soffits, at right. The Sheet Metal Workers Local 80 members were working for Universal Wall Systems.

COLOR-COORDINATED THHN wire serving the new Science and Media Building's TV station control room is installed by Joe Lovalvo of IBEW Local 58 and LaBelle Electric.


As new turbine turns, more power comes from Consumers' Hardy Dam

OXBOW, Mich. - Installation of a new water turbine on Unit 3 of Consumers Energy's Hardy Dam on the Muskegon River was completed this month, resulting in a 600-kilowatt upgrade in energy from the unit.

Downstream from the plant, the fish will be happier, too.

Consumers Energy and the building trades replaced the original 1930 water turbine at Hardy Dam in Unit 3 and also re-wound the generator. The new turbine is capable of producing 11,400 kilowatts of electricity, up from 10,800 kilowatts previously. The upgrade enables Hardy to generate a total of 33,000 kilowatts.

"Renewable hydro power remains one of Michigan's most important homegrown energy sources to serve the needs of customers," said Bill Schoenlein, Consumers Energy's manager of hydro generation. "We've demonstrated that here at Hardy by investing in a new turbine that produces more energy from the same water flow while also benefiting fish by improving oxygen content in the water downstream of the plant."

The new turbine installation project began in May 2008. The total cost of the project was about $5 million. As part of its Balanced Energy Initiative announced in 2007, Consumers Energy is working to double the amount of renewable power that it supplies to customers from about 5 percent today to 10 percent by 2015. The 10 percent level also is part of the state's 2008 energy law. The utility is studying potential upgrades at its other hydro units as part of its overall plan to reach the ten percent renewable level.

The original turbine is on public display at the Operators Village Park next to the roadway crossing Hardy Dam.

Hardy Dam is the largest energy producer in the 13-plant Consumers Energy hydro fleet. It generates an average of 95 million kilowatt-hours of electricity each year, enough to meet the annual power needs of about 12,200 residential customers. At the same time, its 4,000-acre Hardy Pond reservoir serves as a recreation destination for thousands of visitors and area residents each year.

Consumers Energy's 13 hydroelectric dams have the capacity to generate 132 megawatts of renewable electricity at facilities on the Au Sable, Manistee, Muskegon, Grand and Kalamazoo rivers. The reservoirs created by the dams provide recreational opportunities.

Consumers Energy provides natural gas and electricity to nearly 6.5 million of Michigan's 10 million residents in all 68 Lower Peninsula counties.


THE SETTING of the new turbine.
Photos courtesy of Consumers Energy, by Harry Sabourin




News Briefs

Construction trends continue to drop
New U.S. construction starts in February dropped 8% from the previous month to $376.2 billion, it was reported March 16 by McGraw-Hill Construction.

Nonresidential building continued the downward slide that's been underway over the past year, and public works slipped back once again after rebounding in January. Meanwhile, residential building in February posted a rare gain, showing some improvement after its very weak January performance.

"The extended decline for construction starts has now continued through the first two months of 2009," said Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction. "The housing correction has been joined by mounting weakness for nonresidential building, as well as some loss of momentum for public works. The early 2009 erosion for public works should be reversed later this spring by the boost coming from the federal stimulus bill,
especially for transportation work.

"The near-term prospects for nonresidential building are not as hopeful - the stimulus bill does not provide as much funding for buildings as it does for infrastructure, and it will take more time for funding directed at buildings to have a positive impact at the construction site. In
addition, the deepening recession and tight lending conditions will further depress overall levels of nonresidential building this year."

Comparing the 12 months before February 2009 with the same period before February 2008, total construction was down 20 percent. Broken down, the numbers reveal that nonresidential building was 14 percent lower, while the residential construction sector was down 41 percent.

Regionally during the 12 months before February 2009,, the Midwest led the nation by experiencing "only" a 9 percent decline in total construction compared to the previous year. The South Atlantic (down 29 percent) and the West (down 28 percent) were the hardest hit.

Construction wage hikes still healthy
Construction union wage and benefit increases are expected to average 4.4 percent in 2009, the same level as 2008.

So says the Construction Labor Research Council, via the Construction Labor Report, in a report issued last month. The wage and benefit rates are based on numbers from multi-year collective bargaining agreements. The downturn in the building economy is not yet reflected in the numbers, the report said.

The CLRC reported that the average wage/benefit rate for all union trade workers in the U.S. was $46.65 an hour in 2009, a 22.9 percent increase from 2004.

Through 2010, the report said, the average increase would continue at the same 4.4 percent, but by then, contracts run their term and the number U.S. construction workers covered drops by about half.


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