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March 30, 2001

U.S. construction pay barely beats inflation during 1990s

Asbestos claim date looms; do you know your rights?

Labor Ready hounded by building trades

Silverdome still a great facility, but that probably won't save it

Unions welcome Aaron workers




U.S. construction pay barely beats inflation during 1990s

The case for raising construction industry wages was made a little more strenuously last month in an analysis of nationwide pay trends from 1991-2000.

Information released by the Construction Labor Research Council shows that with inflation taken into account, wages and fringe benefits in the nation's unionized construction rose just $1.12 an hour during that 10-year period.

In 1991 in the U.S, the average unionized construction workers' wages and fringes amounted to $24.51 per hour. Fast forward to 2000, where the actual average wage and fringe level had risen to $32.33 per hour. However, when you factor in an average annual increase of 2.6 percent in the cost of living during that decade, the average construction union member earned only slightly more than Hardhats earned in 1991.

"All the data presented in this article leads to one conclusion: construction pay falls behind industries with which it competes for badly needed workers," said Cockshaw's Newsletter, an impartial industry observer. "That's why both the union and open shop sectors must urgently address a critical question: How do you expect to attract and retain qualified workers when pay and benefits neither match key competitive industries - nor adequately compensate for difficult working conditions?"

Workers in the U.S. manufacturing industry are paid an average of 69 cents more per hour than construction workers - and those employees enjoy paid vacation, sick time and holidays.

Michigan's unionized construction workers are ahead of the game when it comes to pay increases. According to the research council, the first year of collectively bargained contracts covering Michigan's unionized construction workers averaged an increase of 4.3 percent, or $1.39 per hour in 2000 - 6 cents per hour more than any other state. On top of that, Michigan's unionized Hardhats also received second-year average wage increases of $1.45 per hour, or 4.2 percent, again tops in the nation.

On average, Michigan construction workers' collective bargaining contracts beat out the national averages by two-tenths of a percent for both 2000 and 2001.


Asbestos claim date looms; do you know your rights?

Editor's note: Mr. Clack was invited to speak to the Michigan Building Trades Council Legislative Conference last month about workers' asbestosis legal rights. We asked him to write a column so he could inform a wider audience.

By Lane A. Clack
Goldberg, Persky, Jennings & White, P.C.

Most building tradesmen who worked in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s were exposed to toxic and cancer-causing asbestos dust from numerous building products which contained asbestos fibers. Pipecovering, cement, refractory brick, refractory mortar, spray-on fireproofing, joint compound, spray-on plasters, gaskets, packing, cloth and protective clothing are only a few examples of the asbestos-containing products which were widely used in the construction industry.

As more working people are diagnosed with asbestos injuries, most notably mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis (it can take as long as 30-40 years after being exposed to asbestos before an injury is diagnosable), more and more companies that manufactured or sold products with asbestos in them have sought the protection of the bankruptcy courts.

Babcock & Wilcox, one of the largest manufacturers of commercial and industrial boilers, is the most immediate example. Babcock & Wilcox declared bankruptcy back in May, 2000 due to its asbestos liabilities. Under the rules of the court overseeing Babcock & Wilcox's bankruptcy, all claimants with diagnosed asbestos disease must file a claim before July 30, 2001 or be forever barred from seeking compensation from Babcock & Wilcox for asbestos disease.

Last year alone, as the anti-labor, anti-consumer Republican onslaught continued, six corporations which manufactured, sold or installed products containing asbestos in the past sought the protection of the bankruptcy courts. They include Babcock & Wilcox, Pittsburgh Corning, Owens-Corning, Armstrong World Industries, GAF, and National Gypsum.

Additional bankruptcies are sure to follow as more working people are diagnosed with asbestos injury from exposures to asbestos they were subjected to years ago. It is likely that the bankruptcies from last year and the bankruptcies on the horizon will follow the example of the Babcock & Wilcox bankruptcy. Specifically, an arbitrary but final bar date will be established, forcing every working person who might ever have a claim for asbestos disease to file that claim - or be forever barred from pursuing a claim in the future.

We know more about asbestos today than we did even five or ten years ago. Diseases which were not commonly thought to be due to asbestos - lung cancer in a cigarette smoker, for example - have been more clearly linked to asbestos than ever before. Many people may have already been diagnosed with a disease that was caused by asbestos but were never informed that asbestos was the cause or that they have legal rights against the asbestos companies.

More tragic yet is the widow or widower whose spouse died of a cancer that was caused or contributed to by asbestos but who does not have enough information now to even know that he or she has a right to seek compensation from the asbestos companies.

The best way to address the situation is to aggressively educate all working people about the perils of having been exposed to asbestos in the past.

Asbestos causes mesothelioma, an always-fatal rare cancer that arises in the lining of the lung or the stomach. Asbestos causes lung cancer, even in cigarette smokers, and has been linked to a variety of other cancers as well.

Lastly, asbestos causes non-cancerous scarring of the lungs called asbestosis, which, if it progresses, can cause disabling shortness of breath and even death. Our law firm has always done its best to get the word out to the working people through their unions regarding the hazards of asbestos, the necessity for periodic medical examination and chest x-rays, the importance of quitting smoking for a person who has been exposed to asbestos and the need for a prompt and reliable diagnosis of any asbestos-related disease so it can be managed appropriately by the medical community.

Another way to address this tragic situation is to conduct a careful ongoing review by union locals or the international of all deceased members' death certificates to determine the cause of death and, more specifically, to determine whether that cause should be investigated to determine whether asbestos caused or contributed to the condition causing death. Goldberg, Persky, Jennings & White, P.C. will be happy to assist any interested construction or building trade union in the review of death certificates and will provide a free legal consultation. Compensation may be available to families whose loves ones died as long ago as 1996.

Obviously, time is of the essence. After July 30, 2001, anyone who has not yet filed a claim with Babcock & Wilcox for asbestos disease will be forever barred from doing so in the future, regardless of the circumstances. This situation is likely to be repeated in the bankruptcies of Pittsburgh Corning, Owens-Corning, Armstrong World Industries, GAF and others.

Information, communication and organization are the only tools we have to fight the asbestos industry, secure compensation for victims of asbestos disease, and to make sure that everyone who has a right to make a claim for such compensation makes it before they are forever barred by an arbitrary filing date. Please get the word out to your brother and sister members and retirees. Feel free to call on us, as we will gladly speak to interested groups, no matter how large or small and we can arrange NIOSH certified chest x-ray reviews.

The Goldberg, Persky, Jennings & White, P.C. toll-free asbestos information hotline in Saginaw, MI is 1-800-799-2234.



Labor Ready hounded by building trades

The AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department is hot on the trail of Labor Ready - a nationwide temporary employer that puts to work thousands of low-paid, nonunion construction workers every day.

The Department is urging every state workers' compensation agency in the nation to investigate abuses by Labor Ready. In Ohio and Washington, investigations by state agents found that Labor Ready misclassified thousands of workers so it could pay lower workers' comp premiums.

Labor Ready operates 839 "stores" in 50 states and placed 700,000 workers in 6.5 million work orders for 254,000 employers in 1999, most of them in the construction industry. In Washington, where the company is based, Labor Ready laborers were paid $11 an hour, compared to $15 for union labor, plus benefits.

"They are No. 1 in sending workers into our industry in ways that undermine the standards of the industry," said BCTD Organizing Director Jeff Grabelsky said. Labor Ready has been referred to as "the day-labor equivalent of a fast-food chain." They are being sued for not paying workers travel time to and from the temp firm to the clients' work sites. They're also being sued over the use of worker-optional cash-dispensing machines - a worker who earns $38.57 takes away $37 when using Labor Ready's cash machines. In many cases, the workers have no choice because they don't have checking accounts.


Silverdome still a great facility, but that probably won't save it

In 1975, The Engineering News Record called it "one of the greatest design and construction achievements of our time."

The same year, The National Society of Professional Engineers called it "one of the 10 outstanding engineering feats in the U.S. in 1975."

They were talking about the new Pontiac Silverdome, a $55.7 million stadium that provided a new home for the Detroit Lions. Construction manager Barton Malow and the building trades worked hard to complete the stadium in 23 months, in time for the Lions' first preseason home game in August against the Kansas City Chiefs (the Lions won, 27-24).

"There were a lot of unique things about the Silverdome," said Dan Feliks of Barton Malow, who acted as project superintendent during construction. "It's still one of the largest stadiums in the country, and at the time, it was one of the first of its kind. I know I learned a lot as it was being built."

It was the first stadium ever constructed with a roof - 10 acres of Teflon-coated Fiberglass - that was kept inflated with air pressure. The project's architects called the stadium's roof "the first successful example of a fiberglass fabric system for enclosing vast amounts of space at a comparative low cost." The roof has stood up well, with one glaring exception: a snow and ice storm collapsed the roof in March 1995.

At first, the Silverdome was actually a partially open-air stadium. Feliks recalled that having the roof in place would have been helpful before the Chiefs game, but it wasn't ready. Tremendous rains had swept the area a few days before the contest, and it took two helicopters hovering over the field to sufficiently dry the field's carpet to allow the yard markers to be painted on the morning of the game.

The roof was finally completed in October 1975, just before a Monday night game against Dallas.

With construction of Ford Field in downtown Detroit moving along, the 2001 season is slated to be the last for the Detroit Lions at the Silverdome. The decision by the Ford family, which owns the Lions, to move their team out of the Silverdome and back to Detroit had little to do with the viability of the Pontiac stadium. It's still an excellent venue to see a football game - but the Ford expressed a desire to get in on the action of revitalizing downtown Detroit.

So what's to become of the Silverdome? Owned by the City of Pontiac Stadium Building Authority, it sits on a prime piece of real estate in Oakland County. In the past the stadium has hosted Pope John Paul II, the Rolling Stones and Elvis, but minus the Lions, there aren't enough concerts and tractor pulls to keep the facility utilized and profitable. Odds are it will be demolished.

"It doesn't seem like it was built that long ago, but it has been 26 years," Feliks said. "It'll be a shame to see it go, because it's still a good building and there really isn't a bad seat in the house."

THE PONTIAC SILVERDOME is shown under construction on May 29, 1975. Several Detroit Lions football games were played that year before the Teflon-coated fiberglass dome was complete. The stadium seats 80,325.

The Silverdome will be replaced by Ford Field.



Unions welcome Aaron workers

One of the largest nonunion mechanical contractors in the state has been forced to get along with a significant reduction in their workforce.

At the same time, a number of pipe trades unions are welcoming new members into their ranks.

Last month, 22 pipe trades workers left the employment of Aaron Mechanical and were sworn in to Plumbers Local 98, Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 190, Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 370, Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Service Trades Local 636 and Sprinkler Fitters Local 704 with the prospect of better wages, benefits and training.

"We welcome the new workers and we're glad to have them," said organizer Joe Andrews. "Aaron is a big mechanical contractor and this puts a hurt on them. Hopefully, we'll be able to convince more of their workers that we're on their side and are trying to improve their living standard. Most of these guys are getting a $4-6 and hour pay raise plus a great fringe package."

IN ADDITION to the Aaron Mechanical workers who were sworn in, others present at Local 636 included Ben Ranger of Local 370, Greg Sievet of Local 636, International Rep. Joe Sposita, Dan Hall of Local 704, Mike McElroy of Local 98, Mark Johnson of Local 370, Joe Andrews of Local 636 and Mark Bott of Local 98.




Hunter safety program scheduled
Make plans to attend the fifth annual hunter safety program, hosted by state Sen. John Cherry and the Flint Area Building Trades.

The free Michigan Department of Natural Resources-certified program includes two classroom sessions and a shooting range lesson. The classroom sessions will place Tuesday, May 8 and Thursday, May 10 from 6-9:30 p.m. at Kearsley High School Auditorium. The shooting range lesson will take place from 8:30 a.m. to noon at the Grand Blanc Huntsman's Club. Refreshments follow the range lesson.

To register, call (800) 551-1636 or (810) 606-0737. All supplies and safety equipment will be provided. Gifts will be provided for all program graduates.

Health care costs eat at bottom line
Average wage and benefit settlements in the construction industry have moved over 4 percent per year in Michigan - a welcome change from when wages barely kept up with inflation - but there's a big, fat fly in the ointment.

Eating away at workers' wage packages are the still-skyrocketing costs of health care insurance, pegged at no less than 10 percent across the nation.

There's "no magic bullet" to bring down annual premium increases, said McLaughlin Co. President Theodore Pappas, whose firm represents about 2,300 labor unions worldwide. Speaking to a Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association labor seminar last month in Arizona, Pappas said this year marks the third consecutive year that companies have been hit with significant health care cost increases.

The Construction Labor Report said the average health care plan is projected to cost $4,707 per employee in 2001 - up from $4,222 in 2000. Some companies have been forced to pass along that cost to their employees, who will pay an average $125 more for their health coverage.

Saving money on health insurance is difficult, Pappas said. The number of health insurers has declined, reducing competition. In the area of managed care, he said plans "probably have realized about all that we are going to achieve" in cost savings.

So what is an employer to do? "There is no simple answer," Pappas said in the Construction Labor Report. "You may want to reduce your health care costs, but your Number 1 goal should be in providing quality. If quality is not perceived among the unions and your employees, then your true goals will be suspect. Quality is easier said than done."

Mike McCormick, executive vice president of Associated Third Party Administrators of Alameda, Calif., told seminar attendees that a firm can try to save costs by looking at its benefit design to see what areas can be tightened up - like reducing unlimited visits to chiropractors.

William Ecklund, a trust fund attorney, said mergers are one way health and welfare funds can achieve savings. Also, he also said if no co-pays are in place, "studies have shown that implementing a $10 or $15 co-pay (results in) anywhere from a third to a half of that in cost savings, as opposed to cost-shifting."


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