The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index

March 31, 2006

Law would bar workers with criminal history from MI schools…But building industry seeks exemption from poorly written rules

Building trades get to work modernizing Bronson Hospital

Strike actions decline, but past work stoppages hold useful lessons, author says

Right-to-work returns to Lansing

Big Mac Bridge Museum to return

Hockey ref calls the shots at state high school finals

News Briefs


Law would bar workers with criminal history from MI schools…

…But building industry seeks exemption from poorly written rules

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

LANSING - Last December's passage of the "School Safety Initiative" by Michigan lawmakers had the noble goal of protecting school children from any potentially dangerous contract workers who may have business in school buildings.

The new amendments to state law, enacted Jan. 1, 2006, may indeed help protect the state's school children. But as the law was written, it could also prevent people like construction workers and delivery drivers from making a living by denying them access to school buildings - even if the buildings are empty during the summertime.

"The School Safety Initiative's purpose is to minimize opportunities for certain criminals, particularly registered sex offenders, to contact students at school," said attorney Patrick Higdon, who issued a memorandum to the Michigan School Business Officials (MSBO). But he said the new laws "produce uncertain and unexpected results."

Complaints by the construction industry, delivery services, food preparation and other individuals or contractors who may have reason to go into school buildings prompted the Michigan House and Senate to take another look at the law they passed. Michigan Building Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Devlin said the building trades don't have a problem with the spirit of the new law, as long the rules are sensibly laid out.

"If a construction worker does have a criminal past," he said, "why should that prevent that worker from doing his or her job in a school building under new construction, or in a renovated building that's empty, or even in an active building doing renovations or repairs in the summertime, or at night? If there's no contact with kids, what's the problem?"

At this time, a number of groups inside and outside of the educational community think the new rules were poorly written, and need fixing. The state House and Senate are attempting to do just that.

The School Safety Initiative was a response to a series of Detroit News articles last year which reported that more than 200 school employees with criminal records were working in state schools. Of those, only 44 had personnel records that indicated information from their criminal past. Five of those 200 were sex offenders.

Under the new law, school districts are required to conduct criminal checks for all new full- and part-time school employees and any individuals assigned to "regularly and continuously work under contract" in any school," Higdon wrote. The current legislation only requires the checks upon initial employment.

In addition, the law requires individuals who have been found guilty of a felony, sex offense less than a felony, and other misdemeanor offenses like crimes against minors, or even breaking and entering, to report that information to the school district. Failure to make such a report is itself a crime and could result in discharge.

The law allows a school district's board of education and superintendent to sign off on the hiring of such an individual.

An informational meeting by the school board officials brought up a number of requirements raised by the new state law that were adopted late last year that could affect building trades workers. "The legislation moved rapidly, and was not written very well," said a memo by Sandra Miller (president of the Greater Michigan Plumbing and Mechanical Contractors) and Walt Miner (Executive Director of the Michigan Mechanical Contractors Association).

"One thing is definite," they wrote, "contractors who are currently bidding school work are having included in their bid documents an affidavit or specification that they (the contractor) must verify that everyone they are putting on their project has cleared the fingerprinting process and they have clear criminal histories. This is not possible under the current rules and regulations."

With such a broadly worded law, legal opinions on how to apply it vary among school districts. For instance, one definition open to interpretation is that criminal background checks are required for any individuals assigned to "regularly and continuously work under contract" in any school. Does that apply to construction workers?

There are a number of other problems with the School Safety Initiative. Miller and Miner said that school district employees are currently fingerprinted by the Michigan State Police, who check their record for a criminal history. Contractors do not have access to that information for their employees, and without that knowledge, have no way of knowing not to send such an employee on a school job.

In addition, there is no definition for a "school" building. Is it OK for convicted workers to toil in school administrative offices or bus garages?

Also, there are numerous questions about the accuracy of the information. An attorney for 75 school districts who worked on criminal checks said only one district's information was correct. One person produced state data that showed he was convicted of a crime before he was born, information by Miller and Miner said.

Those arguments seems to have sunk in. Earlier this month, the Michigan Senate passed another bill intended to repair some of those problems. The Senate legislation would also exempt construction workers from some of the onerous portions of the legislation adopted last year. However, some state House members had some problems with the new amendments, and hadn't resolved them at the time we went to press.

"Many members of the Michigan legislature understand that changes have to be made and this is on the front burner," Miller and Miner wrote.


Building trades get to work modernizing Bronson Hospital

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

KALAMAZOO - Bronson Methodist Hospital and the building trades are moving dirt, performing demolition and getting started on a $50 million campus expansion program that will accommodate a 34 percent increase in inpatient growth in recent years at the hospital.

"We're just getting started," said Mall City Mechanical Project Manager Mike Conway. "We have about 32 people out here from Mall City alone, and it looks like it's going to be a real nice job."

According to information provided by the hospital, the first phase of the expansion project will be the $38.1 million North Pavilion development. The six-floor Center Building on Bronson's North Campus between Walnut and Lovell streets is being redeveloped into a patient care pavilion.

Moving into the fourth, fifth and a portion of the third floor of the new "North Pavilion" will be the Bronson BirthPlace and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The birthplace area will expand from 31 to 40 rooms, allowing it to accommodate 4,000 obstetric patients per year as compared to 3,600 in 2004.

The NICU, which treated 678 infants last year, will convert from a 45-bed nursery design, with 85 square feet per infant, to all-private rooms of 140 square feet per infant. This will create more privacy and space for each patient and family.

The area currently occupied by the Bronson BirthPlace and NICU in the West Pavilion will subsequently be developed into 40 additional private rooms for adult patients. The new North Pavilion will have medical offices. Support services, such as laboratory and diagnostics, will also be incorporated, along with a café and other amenities.

The project involves about 243,000 square feet, and is expected to wrap up in March 2007. Bronson expects to add about 70 employees in a variety of patient care and support positions as a result of the North Pavilion development.

A separate $8.8 million South Campus development will create 40 new adult inpatient rooms on the third floor of the West Pavilion and is the second phase of campus expansion. It will take about one year to construct. Construction will begin soon after the Bronson BirthPlace and NICU move to the North Pavilion in 2007 and should be completed by March 2008. At least 80 new jobs are predicted for this phase of development.

"This plan to develop a new patient care pavilion on the North Campus and add more adult inpatient rooms on the South Campus will allow us to continue to grow to keep pace with their needs," said Bronson President & CEO Frank Sardone. "It also reflects our continued commitment to downtown Kalamazoo and to reinvesting in services that need to be sustained and accessible to the community."

Mall City Mechanical Supt. Chris Schipper said the area the building trades are currently renovating was erected in the late 1960s and then in the late 1970s. "It gets a little tricky around here, because the hospital is still treating patients nearby," he said. "But it's going well, the people here are doing a really good job."

A new two-story 4,500-kilowatt electrical substation is being built on hospital grounds to feed the new development. In part to address needs of modern equipment at the hospital, the voltage will be changed at Bronson from a 4,800-volt system to an 8,320-volt system.

"We're just gearing up and getting our hands dirty out here," said Moore Electric General Foreman Bill Cook. "But we're going to move quickly; they want this substation done by July."

The project will bring Bronson's total investment in the development of its downtown facilities to $250 million since 1995.

ASSEMBLING A FIELD of support brackets for conduit of various sizes that will feed a new substation at Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo are Chad Luptowski and Joe Stanislawski of IBEW Local 131 and Moore Electric.

WELDING A SCHEDULE 40 carbon steel hydronic heating line at Bronson Hospital is Brody Kent of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 357 and Mall City Mechanical.


Strike actions decline, but past work stoppages hold useful lessons, author says

By Steve Early

Three years ago in Boston, downtown streets and office buildings were the scene of inspiring immigrant worker activism during an unprecedented strike by local janitors. Their walkout was backed by other union members, community activists, students and professors, public officials, religious leaders and even a few "socially-minded" businessmen.

The janitors had long been invisible, mistreated by management and, until recently, ignored by their own SEIU local union. Simply by making their strike such a popular social cause, they achieved what many regarded as a major victory.

On the same day in 2002 that the janitors' dispute was settled, a much larger strike - at Overnite Transportation - ended quite differently. Faced with mounting legal setbacks and dwindling picket line support, the Teamsters were forced to call off their nationwide walkout against America's leading non-union trucker.

The 4,000 Overnite workers involved were not able to win a first contract. And since their three-year strike was suspended, all have lost their bargaining rights in a series of "de-certification" elections.

The intersecting trajectory of these two struggles - one hopeful and high-profile, the other tragic and now-almost-forgotten - raises important questions about the state of the strike and the future of labor in America. Maintaining "strike capacity" is no less important than shifting greater resources into organizing new members and is just as essential to union revitalization and growth.

Unfortunately, developing new ways to walk out and win has not been a big part of recent debates about "changing to win."

Labor's strike effectiveness and organizational strength have long been connected. Throughout history, work stoppages have been used for economic and political purposes, to alter the balance of power between labor and capital within single workplaces, entire industries or nationwide.

Strikes have won shorter hours and safer conditions, through legislation or contract negotiation. They've fostered new forms of worker organization - like industrial unions - that were badly needed because of corporate restructuring and the reorganization of production. Strikes have acted as incubators for class consciousness, rank-and-file leadership development and political activism.

In other countries, strikers have challenged - and changed - governments that were dictatorial and oppressive.

In some nations (including Korea, South Africa, France and Spain) where strike action helped democratize society, general strikes are still being used for mass mobilization and protest.

In the U.S., on the other hand, "major" work stoppages have become a statistical blip on the radar screen of industrial relations. As the recent experience of transit workers in New York City and mechanics at Northwest Airlines has shown, striking continues to be a high-stakes venture as well.

Considerable legal and financial risks are involved, particularly in the public sector, where walk-outs are severely restricted and, as in New York, subject to draconian penalties. Since 1992, walk-outs by 1,000 workers or more have averaged fewer than 40 annually. In 2003, there were only 14, with just 129,000 union members participating. In contrast, at the peak of labor's post-World War II strike wave in 1952, there were 470 major strikes, affecting nearly three million workers nationwide.

As strike activity continues to decline in the U.S., the pool of union members and leaders with actual strike experience shrinks as well. That's why union activists need to analyze, collectively and individually, their strike victories and defeats, summing up and sharing the lessons of these battles so they can become the basis for future success, rather than a recurring pattern of failure.

Attorney Bob Schwartz's new book, "Strikes, Picketing, and Inside Campaigns: A Legal Guide For Unions," makes a valuable contribution to this educational process. It's the latest in a series of easy-to-read guides from Work Rights Press, which also publishes the author's best-seller, "The Legal Rights of Union Stewards."

As in his previous books, Schwartz provides useful sample letters, legal notices and answers to commonly-asked questions-in this case, about the many different types of union picketing and strike activity. There are also relevant case citations, tracking the development of labor law in this area over the past 25 years.

Beginning with the PATCO disaster in 1981, when thousands of striking air traffic controllers were fired and replaced, the U.S. labor movement entered a dark decade of lost strikes and lock-outs. Many anti-concession battles ended badly: at Phelps-Dodge, Greyhound, Hormel, Eastern, Continental Airlines, International Paper and other firms.

The lost-strike trend discouraged many unions from using labor's traditional weapon. Among those that did, setbacks continued into the mid-'90s, at firms like Caterpillar, Bridgestone/Firestone and A. E. Staley.

Yet even during this difficult period, there were contract campaigns that bucked the tide of concession bargaining, and Schwartz's book discusses some of the tactics and strategies they used. In 1989, for example, 60,000 members of the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers waged an effective four-month strike in New York and New England over threatened medical benefit cuts at NYNEX. Telephone workers made extensive use of mobile picketing tactics and targeted top officials of the company and their allies in places where they least expected it. (See chapter 8, "Follow That Truck," and chapter 6, "Making It Personal.")

At the same time, the United Mine Workers succeeded in making their 12-month walk-out against Pittston - in geographically isolated Appalachian mountain communities - into a national labor cause. The union mobilized its members for sympathy strikes at other companies, linked arms with Jesse Jackson, used civil disobedience tactics, staged the first plant occupation since the 1930s and created an encampment in southwest Virginia (Camp Solidarity) that hosted strike supporters from around the country. Even an avalanche of injunctions, fines and damage suits did not deter the miners and their families.

In 1997, the contract strike made its biggest come-back in recent years with the now-famous walk-out by 190,000 United Parcel Service workers. The backing of Teamster drivers has long been appreciated by other strikers. As Schwartz notes (in chapter 9, "Honor Thy Line"), IBT contract language has been "a boon to other unions who count on Teamster drivers to respect their picket lines."

In 1997, it was time for the rest of labor to return the favor, which unions did in a tremendous outpouring of support for UPS drivers and package handlers.

As these and numerous other examples illustrate, creativity, careful planning and membership involvement are essential to success, whether a union chooses to stop work or pursue a non-strike strategy. Bob Schwartz's new book is a unique tool to hone such skills and should be used in membership education, leadership training and union strategy discussions about what to do when a contract expires. In situations where striking is a necessary and viable worker response, Schwartz's book outlines what it takes to make a walkout effective, while helping unions anticipate likely employer counter-measures at the bargaining table, in court and at the NLRB.

The author has pulled together an enormous amount of material that has not been readily accessible to non-lawyers in the past, even to activists relying on the official strike manuals of the few unions that have them. Union members who fail to consult Schwartz's book while preparing for a contract fight will not be as ready as they could be to deal with the many legal and organizational problems that may arise. Any union bargaining team that doesn't have a copy of "Strikes, Picketing and Inside Campaigns" is missing out on information and advice that will make the hard job of winning good contracts just a little bit easier.

"Strikes, Picketing, and Inside Campaigns: A Legal Guide For Unions" by Robert Schwartz (Work Rights Press, December, 2005, 165 pp.) Available in paperback for $24 from or by calling 1 (800) 576-4552.

This article's author, Steve Early, is a Boston-based Communication Workers Association representative and the author of a NYNEX strike history, "Holding The Line in '89: How Telephone Workers Can Fight Even More Effectively Next Time." He also wrote the foreword to Schwartz's book.


Right-to-work returns to Lansing

LANSING - There always seem to be a state lawmaker or two willing to make the perennial push to make Michigan a right-to-work state.

The Michigan AFL-CIO reports that state representatives Robert Gosselin (R- Troy) and Leon Drolet (R-Clinton Twp.) have introduced a two-bill legislative package that do just that. Gosselin's bill, HB 5771 would impact public employees. Drolet's bill, HB 5772, would hit private sector workers. The right-to-work bills have been referred to the Commerce Committee.

Right-to-work and anti-prevailing wage legislation pop up every now and then in Lansing, but organized labor has always had sufficient influence to knock them down - even when Republican John Engler was in the governor's position and the GOP controlled both houses of state government.

In right-to-work states - there are 22 of them - workers are allowed to opt out of paying dues to their union, but still receive the workplace benefits the union provides. Historically, union influence erodes quickly after right-to-work laws are adopted.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm has consistently vowed to be a "backstop" for organized labor, and would veto any right-to-work legislation that hits her desk. However, the Michigan AFL-CIO points out that Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos and his wife Betsy "are already on record as believing that Michigan workers make too much money and support making Michigan a right-to-work state."


Big Mac Bridge Museum to return

Recovering from a devastating fire, a popular Mackinaw City pizzeria which also served as home to a private museum dedicated to those who built the famous Mackinac Bridge is expected to reopen in July.

J.C. Stilwell said his Mama Mia's Pizzeria and Mackinac Bridge Museum will look very similar to his old facility. Missing will be hundreds of historical artifacts consumed in the fire but donations of more have started coming in from all around the country.

A web site has been established for donations for the museum. It can be accessed at Stilwell says he's already received donations from American Bridge Company, which built much of the bridge, as well as from many ironworkers.

Stilwell, who also was an ironworker on the bridge, opened his museum in 1980, which was dedicated to the construction workers who built the third longest suspension bridge in the world. It kept open from May to October at no charge to the public.

Starting in 1982 he helped create and run the International Ironworkers Festival. Despite the fire the festival is scheduled to continue this year, running from August 11-13.

More than seven different fire departments with over 80 firefighters worked to contain the blaze at the old pizzeria and museum, which caught fire on Aug. 28, 2005. The cause was not identified but electrical or natural gas source is suspected.



Hockey ref calls the shots at state high school finals

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

Refereeing a hockey game, it turns out, is a bit like plumbing a building.

When the hockey game is over, and when construction on a building is complete, referees and plumbers know they've done their job when people don't notice the work they've done.

Paul Edington, 34, knows this better than anyone. He's a member of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters Local and Service Trades Local 174 in Coopersville, and is also a referee who officiated earlier this month at the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) hockey finals.

"It's a real honor to be asked to work the finals," Edington said. "You get great satisfaction from stepping on the ice, doing a good job and hopefully being part of a competitive game."

The state finals were held this year in Plymouth on March 11 at the Compuware Arena. A preliminary field of about 200 on-ice hockey officials from around the state is selected by team coaches to be in the running to officiate at the finals, and nine are selected by the MHSAA. Edington was one of those nine, working as a linesman as part of a three-person officiating crew on the Division III game: a matchup in which Cranbrook Kingswood defeated Grand Rapids Catholic Central, 4-0.

A referee at the high school level for the last 10 years, this was the second time Edington has officiated at the finals.

"It's fun to work at the finals, but for me it's all about kids enjoying the game," Edington said. "If the players and the fans didn't know we as officials were in the building, that's great for us."

Throughout a given year, which generally includes about 200 games for Edington, games are officiated by a two-person referee system without a linesman. In addition to refereeing for high school teams, he officiates for USA Hockey, which consists of leagues of teams with players under 18 years of age.

Edington works hockey games around his work for Andy J. Egan Co. He is currently their project superintendent on the 28-story Marriott Hotel going up in Grand Rapids. He doesn't get much verbal abuse there, but as a referee, verbal abuse on the job is, of course, inevitable.

"I think the key to holding any position of authority is to maintain control, do your best to be fair, and when the abuse comes, not to take it personally," he said. "I think treating it as 'water off a duck's back' is a pretty good analogy."

Edington said over the years, he's seen a few trends regarding players, parents and fans. With high school players, "they're teenagers, you're dealing with hormones, and stuff happens during the heat of a game. It's usually no problem." He said high school players and coaches are generally the best-behaved group he comes in contact with, because they're representing their school and there are rules governing their behavior.

"Parents," he said, "are another matter. They're supposed to set an example for their kids, and when they don't, it bothers me."

Edington said the ugly image of parents who are too wrapped up in their kids' sporting lives is alive and well. He said he's known of parents who have come over the glass to try to assault an official. Parents have threatened him and have come to the officials' locker room to make their case. One father confronted him after a game, "cussing up and down" about a perceived bad call on the ice - while holding the hand of a three-year-old child.

Another parent, using foul language, could be heard shouting from the stands just before a face-off. One of the young players looked up at and muttered, "that's my dad," Edington related.

Edington said anyone wanting to get their feet wet in refereeing in Michigan usually starts where he started: in the low-pressure hockey games of the mini-mites, which involve five- and six-year-olds. That's the level where his 13-year-old son also started refereeing, and his son has stuck with it, now officiating at games with kids his own age. But he said most young referees drop out after the second year of mentoring/training, often because of a bad experience with coach or parent.

"I've been to games where my son is refereeing and when I hear the abuse, I just cringe," Edington said. "But you know, depending on how you deal with it, this job can be a real character-builder, and can give a kid a lot of confidence."

He said he doesn't play hockey much, but he is a Detroit Red Wings fan. When he watches NHL games, he often finds himself looking more at the work of the officials than the players.

Referees, Edington said, owe it to the players to stay in good physical condition. He and his peers, he said, have no problem with critiquing each other's calls or non-calls in-between periods. The pay is pretty good, he said, but the hours are long and there's a significant amount of travel and commuting. He said at age 34, he's about at the upper age limit for advancing to college hockey or higher up into junior hockey.

"If I stopped reffing, I'd be totally satisfied," Edington said. "I have been able to work a couple of finals games, and I have really enjoyed my involvement in the sport."

LOCAL 174 MEMBER Paul Edington referees a game two weeks before the state high school finals. Photo by RobertCarr


News Briefs

Welcome aboard, Iron Workers 340
The Welcome Wagon goes out to Iron Workers Local 340, a Battle Creek-based local union that is subscribing to The Building Tradesman for the first time.

Our paper has been publishing local union articles, union and labor news, as well as construction-related articles since 1952.

Local 340 members have joined the rest of the 48,000 or so unionized construction workers around Michigan who get the paper. We're glad to have you with us.

Construction material prices up - and may stay
Construction materials prices have moved to a higher plateau - and may stay there for a while.

"Two years of relentless materials price escalation has pushed construction costs into new territory," said a report in March by the Engineering News Record. "Contractors and owners are dealing with the reality of a permanently higher cost structure, especially for steel, concrete and petroleum-based products. Materials with a high-end use in the residential market, such as lumber and plywood, may get some price relief later in the year with the expected slowdown in housing. But this will be countered by higher energy costs that will prop up a broad range of prices and a weak dollar that is cutting off cheap imports."

According to the Turner Corp. Building Cost Index, construction materials costs in the first quarter of this year are projected to increase 10.85 percent over the same period in 2005.

"Construction materials costs are outpacing overall consumer and producer prices by a wide margin," said Ken Simonson, chief economist for The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC).

According to Karl F. Almstead, the Turner vice president responsible for the Cost Index: "The volume of construction activity, cost pressure on materials associated with global demand and the availability of skilled labor are the primary elements driving the cost escalation in the domestic construction market."

For all of 2006, he forecasts that construction materials costs will go up between 8 and 10%, after increasing 9.7% last year.

Road workers' week approaches
Road construction workers have their own national day of recognition, of sorts, with National Work Zone Awareness Week, scheduled April 3-9.

"Safety is a daily concern in work zones," said Laborers International Union General President Terence O'Sullivan. "But many injuries and fatalities are caused by outside agents, that is, by the driving public. Indeed, many of the victims are the drivers, themselves. National Work Zone Awareness Week is a concerted, national effort to raise public awareness of this danger. We need the public's help in making our work zones safer."

The idea of Work Zone Awareness Week came from Allan Sumpter, an engineer in the Virginia Department of Transportation. Virginia tried his idea in April 1997, at the start of the construction season. It went nationwide in 1999, and a public relations campaign is held every year during the first week in April in the effort to get drivers to slow down and be aware of their surroundings in construction road work zones.

Despite the PR effort, work zone fatalities have increased 48 percent since 1997. In 2003, work zone accidents claimed 1,028 lives, rising from 872 killed in 1999. Four out of five people killed in work zones are either drivers or passengers.


The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index