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March 29, 2002

Three months later, GOP hasn't cleaned up jobless benefits train wreck

Totally wired Wayne State building nears completion

Engler seeks expensive legacy with early-out plan for judges

Congress OKs U.S. campaign finance reform, but ultimate effects unknown

Rokuski laid groundwork for Local 169 training center, now his name's on the wall

NEWS BRIEFS

 

Three months later, GOP hasn't cleaned up jobless benefits train wreck

LANSING - It all seemed like such a simple game plan back in January.

Michigan Republicans, who control the entire legislative process in our state capital, had seemed ready to increase Unemployment Insurance benefits for state jobless workers after benefit levels have remained stagnant for the last seven years. Michigan's unemployed workers now have the lowest maximum benefit level in the Great Lakes region.

Now, the process has turned into a full-scale rugby match, with Republicans backtracking on how much of an increase they're willing to provide, the flare-up of a personal conflict that caused a vehemently anti-union GOP lawmaker to lose his chairmanship of a key committee, and a major rally by organized labor earlier this month urging Republicans to do the right thing.

Despite all that jockeying, as we went to press, Michigan's jobless workers were still waiting for an increase in benefits, and the Michigan legislature was headed into a two-week spring recess.

"With all the baloney that's been going on over the waiting week, workers are going to have to wait two weeks while the Legislature is in recess before they get any relief," said Michigan AFL-CIO Legislative Director Tim Hughes.

On March 15, the Michigan House approved a measure to increase the maximum weekly jobless benefit by $75, to $375 per week. Unemployed workers who receive less than that maximum would get no increase in benefits. House Republicans had been pushing for a waiting week before benefits would be paid, but agreed to eliminate it. The measure was approved 92-11 by the House, and then it went before the Michigan Senate.

"I'll support this bill because we have to do something," said House Democratic Leader Buzz Thomas. "We had an opportunity for months to do better."

In the Senate version, jobless workers would have been required to get a check for their first week of unemployment at the end of the time they're unemployed, rather than at the beginning. The Senate proposal would also have tied benefits to the number of people a jobless worker had to support. In the end, the House and Senate couldn't come to a resolution, which means there is still no increase in benefits coming to Michigan's unemployed.

In January Republican House Speaker Rick Johnson established legislation that would have increased benefits to $415 per week, but it included a waiting week before benefits would be paid. The building trades and other unions argued that for workers who are jobless for three weeks or less, implementing a waiting week would actually result in a decrease in benefits.

Then, on March 5, House Employment Relations and Training Committee Chairman Robert Gosselin, whose legislative record is staunchly anti-union, pulled the rug from under Speaker Johnson's feet by pushing his committee to approve a $362 per week maximum unemployment benefits increase- including the waiting week. Ultimately, in what one political writer "a Republican-led debacle" and "a perfect train wreck," Gosselin was relieved of his chairmanship by Johnson, and the House came up with a plan that's semi-palatable to organized labor.

Making the benefit increase semi-palatable to Republicans and business interests in the state is a well-timed $290 million increase in federal dollars to Michigan to help the state's jobless.

"The use of the $290 million in federal aid to boost unemployment benefits would ensure that the Unemployment Trust Fund does indeed remain solvent," said State Rep. Julie Dennis. "It also would immediately help laid-off workers and their families who are struggling during this downturn in the economy."

Even though there is a whopping $2.9 billion in the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, the state's Chamber of Commerce is clearly pulling the strings on lawmakers in urging them to limit a benefit increase. Some lawmakers listened to big business interests when they cast their vote, others listened to the state's jobless

"We're going to remember in November," Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney told a March 13 gathering of some 5,000 working and unemployed rally attendees, who gathered at the state Capitol.

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Totally wired Wayne State building nears completion

By Marty Mulcahy
Editor

Wayne State University will soon have a 270,000-square-foot, $64 million remedy to address the shortcomings of the crowded and outdated Shapero Hall.

It comes in the form of the building that will house the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, a six-story education and research facility at John R and Mack Avenue. The building, which opens in April, is jam-packed with Internet connectivity and other computer technology, and was referred by one tech writer as "Detroit's most high-tech building."

The project, which began in November 1999, was constructed on budget and on schedule, said Wayne State University Project Manager Fran Ahern. "One of the biggest challenges on this project has been to keep up with the latest technology," she said. "It seems like there's always something new that's coming out, and you come to the point where you can't wait for what's around the corner, you have to build the building."

For example, she said project planners usually waited to the last minute to order computer apparatus in a "just in time" delivery manner, but weren't quite able to wait long enough to install wireless computer technology, although the building is prepped for it.

Serving as construction managers for the project are Turner Construction Co. and Brinker Construction Co./Capital Construction Co.

The building includes scores of research and patient examination labs, occupational and physical therapy labs, a distance learning classroom, computer, wind tunnel and chemistry laboratories.

How high-tech is this building? Let us count the ways:

  • There will be two simulation suites with mannequins that can be programmed to respond as if they were real patients suffering from various diseases or trauma.
  • Two fiber-optic cable feeds provide a secure high-speed Internet connection to all floors. Each lab and classroom will have numerous data ports that students can use to tap into medical and pharmaceutical research.
  • Feeds from two DTE Energy electrical substations will provide power to the building - if one goes down, the other kicks in automatically.
  • Each of the classrooms will allow students to sit at Internet-wired tables in comfortable chairs, instead of the traditional classroom desks.

The building includes three utility corridors per floor on the building's upper floors, to maximize the versatility of the building and allow researchers to be able to change their physical space without much disruption to their own work or their neighbor's.

The dean of the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Beverly J. Schmoll, said the new building will allow expanded curriculum offerings and additional research capacity, along with technological capacity that "anticipates the future."

HEFTING A SECTION of exterior coping at the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences building on the Wayne State campus is Chuck Hemple of Sheet Metal Workers Local 80 and Michigan Metal Wall.

A FIRE-ALARM panel on the first floor of the building is checked by Ed Skotzke of IBEW Local 58.

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Engler seeks expensive legacy with early-out plan for judges

As if John Engler hasn't left enough of an imprint on this state after 12 years as Michigan governor.

Now, the governor has devised a way to stack the judiciary for years to come, through a proposal to increase pension benefits for Michigan judges who choose to opt for early retirement.

If they do take the early retirement offer, Engler is then empowered by the Michigan constitution to make appointments to fill the vacant positions. Nearly one third of the state's 600 judges would be eligible for the early retirement offer.

"For the first time in history, the legislature is offering an early retirement package to elected officials," said Senate Democratic Leader John Cherry (D-Clio). "The governor is offering elected judges a huge gift that the state cannot afford in order to solidify his control before he leaves office."

Engler painted the proposal as an opportunity to encourage judicial support of his plan to reorganize state court boundaries and jurisdictions.

According to Cherry, as part of the incentive to take early retirement, judges would be able to retire at 80% of the their current salary if they have served at least 24 years. Under present law, the maximum is 60% of a judge's final salary after 16 years of service. For district and circuit court judges, that could mean an increase of nearly $28,000 per year.

"Whenever the discussion turns to raising unemployment benefits, Republicans are quick to claim that the state cannot afford to help working families," said Cherry. "But to give the Governor control of the courts before he leaves office, they are willing to give elected officials a $28,000 golden parachute."

The full Michigan Senate voted in favor of the proposal on March 13, but in order for the new law to take effect during Engler's final year in office this year, two-thirds of the Senate would have to vote in favor of it. That means that three Senate Democrats would have to vote in favor of the law, in addition to the entire Republican side. There has been no action on the bill in the House.

 

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Congress OKs U.S. campaign finance reform, but ultimate effects unknown

The U.S. Senate followed the House last week and adopted sweeping campaign finance reforms that will change - but not likely stop - the way money flows to political candidates and parties. President Bush was expected to sign the measure into law.

"With the stroke of the president's pen, we will eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars of unregulated soft money that has caused Americans to question the integrity of their elected representatives," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who championed the bill and guided it through a relatively easy 60-40 Senate victory on March 20.

Earlier this year, lawmakers expected a much closer vote, but reformers were buttressed by news of Enron executives giving millions in political contributions to both parties.

"The status quo is not acceptable and today it will end," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. The status quo will end for now, but lobbyists immediately began looking for loopholes in the law that would allow the continued movement of money to candidates and causes. In addition, the law may not stand up to review in the courts, under the argument that it would limit free speech.

The bill essentially would ban unlimited "soft money" donations to the national political parties, made by corporations, unions and individuals. State and local parties could donate up to $10,000 a year if the money is used to impact federal elections.

The bill would also ban the use of soft money to buy "issue ads" within 60 days of an election or 30 days of a primary. These ads may not expressly endorse a candidate - but they have often portrayed candidates in an extremely negative light.

The new law would allow individuals to donate up to $2,000 to presidential or congressional candidates, a doubling of the present $1,000 limit.

The changes would take effect on Nov. 6, meaning the parties can continue to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in soft money to support candidates in this fall's mid-term elections. It's unclear whether campaign finance reform will have a greater impact on the ability of unions or corporations to raise money. But most observers say interest groups for issues such as abortion, gun rights and the environment will get a bigger pulpit in Washington, at least in the short-term.

Opponents of campaign finance reform argue that fundraising restrictions on the major political parties "will create a political void and merely strengthen outside special interest groups - which are still able to raise soft money," said the Wall Street Journal. "Supporters of campaign finance reform counter that the change could revitalize parties by forcing them to broaden their base of support."

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Rokuski laid groundwork for Local 169 training center, now his name's on the wall

The person who was the driving force in establishing the Boilermakers Local 169 Training Center now has his name on the building.

The "Ed Rokuski Boilermakers Local 169 Training Center" is the same building in Dearborn, Michigan that the local union has used to train journeymen and apprentices since 1989. Only the name has been changed to honor Rokuski, the local's former business manager, who retired Jan. 1 as an International Union representative.

"Before we had this building, we basically did training on the job," said Local 169 Business Manager John Marek. "Now, we're in a different league. Ed initiated the training center. He led the union in negotiating money for the building, he made sure it was equipped, and that instructors were hired. That's why we're honoring Ed. He took the bull by the horns."

Rokuski, 62, has been in the trade for 42 years. He became assistant business manager of Local 169 in 1976, and was business manager from 1984 to 1994. That's when he became an International Union representative, a post he held until he retired Jan. 1.

"It's a great honor to have your name put on a building," Rokuski said. "It feels good, but it's hard to explain why. I guess it's nice knowing that your name will be on something that will be here for a long time - unless they put a for-sale sign on the building," he added with a laugh.

Rokuski's legacy at Local 169 includes more than a name on a building - the son of a boilermaker, Ed's four sons also took up the trade and are journeymen.

The 4,000-square-foot training center operates day and night with three full-time instructors, and is currently serving more than 200 apprentices. On the curriculum are welding certification courses, journeymen upgrading, rigging exercises and safety. Marek said he knew the training program was on the right track in 1999, when then-boilermaker apprentice John Vardon won the Boilermakers' National Apprentice Competition.

"When it comes to training, this building has been a tremendous plus for our organization," Marek said, "and we're grateful to Ed for all he did to make it happen."

LOCAL 169 OFFICERS and instructors stand in front of the re-named Training Center. From (l-r) are instructors Jim Howard and Tom McKinney, honoree Ed Rokuski, Local 169 Business Manager/Sec.-Treas. John Marek, President/BA Tony Jacobs, BA Don Cochran, Data Systems Manager Larry Bittner, Executive Board members Jim McDonnell, John Vardon, Dwight Tobaison, Greg Covetz, Ed Wlodyka, Jr., Doug Erngren and instructor Ed Kowalski.

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NEWS BRIEFS

Slight dip this year in road work spending
As the orange barrels start to come out of storage, Michigan can look forward to a construction season similar to the last few years - which is to say, busy.

"We will be spending about $1.5 billion on road and bridge work this year, which is just slightly less than what we spent last year, $1.54 billion," said Michigan Department of Transportation Director Ari Adler. "This is the first year in quite a while that we've seen a dip in spending." He said road and bridge repair spending ratcheted up to about $1 billion in 1998, and then climbed every year through 2001.

Leading the list of MDOT projects this year include:

  1. Work on 7.5 miles of the new M-6 freeway in Grand Rapids. The $61 million in work will include grading, drainage, wetland creation and several bridge structures.
  2. Along the new US 131 bypass north of Cadillac, $39 million will be spent on repaving.
  3. Large projects in the Detroit area include ongoing work on I-94 on the east side, and reconstruction of the Lodge freeway between I-75 and Griswold.

All-Trades tourney set for May 18-19
For the 13th straight year, the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council will host the All Trades Softball Tournament, to benefit the "Blueprint for a Cure" campaign to fight diabetes.

Last year, the tournament raised $39,000, and since the event began, $265,452 has been raised. In 2001, the tournament ranked in the top 10 in fundraising among fifty cities in the nation as part of the building trades' Blueprint for a Cure effort.

The tournament will be held at Gier Park in Lansing on May 18-19, and is open to any affiliated building trades local union interested in participating.

For more information, contact the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council at (517) 484-8427. The tournament is limited to 24 teams, and the deadline to enter is April 19. The tournament fee is $200 per team.

Petitions support straight-ticket votes
A petition drive to place a referendum on the ballot in November that would allow state voters to decide whether or not their right to vote a straight-party ticket should be eliminated has garnered 250,000 signatures in only 69 days - nearly 100,000 more than the number needed.

Earlier this year, state Republican lawmakers passed a bill into law that eliminates straight-party voting on ballots. Many voters prefer straight-party voting, which eliminates the need to go down the entire ballot and make individual choices. Republican lawmakers voted to oust that method of voting, so it's no surprise that the majority of straight-party ticket ballots were cast by Democrats.

"This is an extraordinary grassroots accomplishment on the part of Michigan citizens within the Democratic family," said Mark Brewer chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, which sponsored the petition drive.

Petitions will be reviewed by the Secretary of State and may face legal challenges before the question appears on the ballot.

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