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March 3, 2006

Union departures rock building trades - Six unions start new federation

Time will tell: Labor splits may forge a 'new and more powerful' union movement

Trades operate at BC Health System

Union pay advantage grows

Senate sidetracks asbestos trust fund bill - for now

Michigan's minimum wage needs a raise; here's how you can help

News Briefs

 

Union departures rock building trades - Six unions start new federation

(PAI) - The AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department was stunned Feb. 14 when six unions - the Laborers, Operating Engineers, Carpenters, Teamsters, Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers and Iron Workers - announced they would establish a new labor federation, the National Construction Alliance, effective March 1

The presidents of the Laborers and Operating Engineers made the announcement on Feb. 14. The departure is due to dissatisfaction with the Building Trades Department's current structure and because it sometimes did not concentrate on bread-and-butter issues of interest to rank-and-file construction workers, Operating Engineers President Vincent Giblin and Laborers President Terry O'Sullivan said in a telephone press conference.

While O'Sullivan and Giblin discussed their own unions' reasons, they made it clear the other four international unions are joining them. However, International union reps from the Bricklayers and Allied Crafts and the Iron Workers told local union officials in Michigan that those unions would remain in the Building Trades Department - and join the National Construction Alliance. More information is expected at a March 1 press conference - which was after The Building Tradesman's press deadline.

Some Laborers and Operating Engineers locals "will selectively remain" in local building trades councils, Giblin said, assuming the councils are effective. "When the Carpenters and the Teamsters withdrew from the AFL-CIO, a whole host of local building trades councils let them stay to participate and our speculation is that they would continue to do so," O'Sullivan added.

Giblin and O'Sullivan said BCTD's lack of response to continued decline in construction unionization also pushed their unions out. O'Sullivan said unions represented 40 percent of construction workers in 1973 and 13.1 percent now.

"Our unions must change and adapt to today's construction industry," the Laborers' O'Sullivan said. "Indeed, the current model for construction trades unions is rooted in a market and economy of the previous century. We must build a movement that does effectively address the construction industry as it is today…."

Before their decision to leave, the six unions tried to push changes through the BCTD, but did not succeed, the two presidents said.

The breakaway action brought the following response from Building Trades Department President Edward Sullivan.

"Their stated reasons for leaving do not ring true. It goes without saying that the general presidents of the Building Trades do not respond well to ultimatums. Their 'demands' (for reorganizing the Building Trades Department) were eerily similar to the unilateral demands made by the Carpenters almost five years ago. Those demands were considered at the time and unanimously rejected by the Governing Board of Presidents, including the presidents of the Laborers and Operating Engineers."

Giblin of the Operating Engineers said the BCTD's structure - basically a federation of what was once 15 union presidents, and support staff - can't handle the unionization decline and often focuses on issues not of interest to construction workers.

"Efforts to remedy some of the inequities in the BCTD were met with reluctance, ineffectiveness and outright rejection," said Giblin, who has been Operating Engineers president for approximately a year. "As a newcomer," he said he found the department "indecisive, ineffective, with no goals, and a bloated operational budget" and had disappearing respect on Capitol Hill.

He also said the department's present structure gave little help in organizing and increasing market share in the construction industry.

"It's time to go back to kitchen-table issues that made the labor movement," Giblin said. "Issues here in D.C. - such as who is the next Supreme Court justice - are not the issues that workers standing in two or three feet of mud" on a construction site "are talking about."

In a statement released Feb. 15, Sullivan challenged the breakaway unions' assertions, "noting the progress the Building Trades Department has been making toward increasing market share." Quoting Sullivan: "We are working in collaboration with major owners in the United States and Canada and national contractors' associations on several joint programs to improve market share and construction productivity, including a manpower strategy for the next 10 years."

Building Trades Department Secretary-Treasurer Sean McGarvey said the department continues to offer strategic research capabilities to assist affiliates and state and local councils with organizing. "And as for lobbying on Capitol Hill, we had a terrific year legislatively with our task force getting action on highway, energy, pensions and a reversal on the President's Davis-Bacon repeal."

The two presidents also said the new federation would help create organizing strategies both to maintain construction union density in high-density states and metro areas - such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco - and increase it in low-density areas.

But the exact measures the NCA will use to help its member unions achieve those goals are still being worked out, though O'Sullivan provided an example, citing creation of "composite crews" of Laborers and Carpenters at the same job site.

Departure of the six unions is another split in the labor movement, at least at the top. Last summer, the Change to Win federation was created by a group of unions dissatisfied with the direction of the AFL-CIO. The Laborers are part of Change to Win and O'Sullivan reiterated last month that "it is only a matter of when, not if" they leave the AFL-CIO. The Carpenters and Teamsters, also part of Change to Win, have already left the AFL-CIO. Giblin said "the jury is still out" on his union's decision.

(By Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer)


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Time will tell: Labor splits may forge a 'new and more powerful' union movement

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

One of the monumental junctures in U.S. labor history was when two enormous union groups, the American Federation of Labor and the Council of Industrial Organizations, merged at the zenith of organized labor's 20th Century influence in 1955.

Last summer, in another pivotal event, two of the AFL-CIO's largest member unions and a host of smaller unions broke off to form another union federation, the Change-to-Win Coalition, which wanted to adopt different strategies to increase market share and influence for unions. Now the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department is experiencing its first major split in nearly a century.

Scholars who study the history of organized labor suggest that unions may have the reputation for being stagnant and slow to change - but the reality is much different, and what's going on in the labor movement is fairly normal.

"History is filled with labor unions and labor federations that have had their day in the sun, and then disappeared," said Dr. Dale Belman, associate professor with Michigan State University's School of Labor and Industrial Relations. "People said last year that they couldn't believe the AFL-CIO was coming apart. The real story is how they held together for 50 years, which is a remarkable run."

The Knights of Labor. The Conductors Protective Association. The Cigarmakers Union. Those are just a few of the hundreds of American labor organizations that have fallen by the wayside over the years, and they reflect the rise and fall of American industries like cigar-making and train travel.

The jury is still out on what role the Change-to-Win Coalition, which now includes the Service Employees, United Food and Commercial Workers the Teamsters, Carpenters and Laborers, will play in U.S. labor history. Those unions formed that alliance after breaking from AFL-CIO last summer. Now the formation of the National Construction Alliance, splitting off from the Building Trades Department last month, is the latest upheaval for organized labor, altering the traditional structure of the nation's construction unions.

Belman said the new coalition by the Bricklayers and Allied Crafts, Carpenters, Iron Workers, Laborers, Operating Engineers and Teamsters roughly mirrors how the building trades
first organized themselves a century ago. He said he wouldn't be surprised if forming the coalition finally brings long-simmering jurisdictional issues to the surface for resolution - and that it raises the odds that union mergers are in the offing.

However, fixing the split in the building trades, and even in the AFL-CIO, is hardly out of the question in next three to five years, Belman said, although the structures may be different than they have been in the past.

"I think in the end, there are just too many common issues out there for everybody to be going in different directions," Belman said. "I mean, how many owners are going to want to go to two different building trades councils to initiate a project labor agreement?"

Robert Reich, President Clinton's first Labor Department secretary and now a professor of public policy at the University of California, suggested after the Change-to-Win Coalition broke away from the AFL-CIO that, "at first glance, the walkout looks like a major blow to organized labor, whose watchwords have always been 'in unity there is strength.'

"Yet the union movement may be stronger disunited. The dissidents are pushing a different strategy and mission for organized labor. If they're right, their walkout could mark the start of a new and more powerful union movement. After all, the history of organized labor in America has been one of upheaval and rebirth, reflecting changes in the structure of the American economy…"

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Trades operate at BC Health System

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

BATTLE CREEK - A bigger and better Battle Creek Health System campus is on the way, in the form of a $29 million expansion project highlighted by a new lobby and new surgical areas and patient rooms.

The expansion will include an eight-suite surgical center, a new patient tower with 30 additional private beds and a new patient/visitor lobby. Ground was broken on the project in the fall of 2004, with completion targeted for 2007.

"This project will improve patient flow, offer more private rooms and increase our capacity to build on our own world-class technology - all to better meet the needs of our growing number of customers and the physicians who practice at BCHS," said Patrick Garrett, president and CEO. The CSM Group is managing the project.

The project is proceeding in three phases. During Phase 1, the building trades built a new patient/visitor lobby to address a significant shortcoming - the facility never had a real lobby in the past. A new mobile imaging dock was also relocated.

During Phases 2 and 3, which are ongoing, a current loading dock on Emmett Street was moved to North Avenue to allow for the construction of the new 35,000-square-foot surgery addition. Also, new pre-and post-operative treatment areas will be created, plus two floors of private patient rooms.

"The contractors and tradespeople have really done a nice job," said Paul Ratliff, BCHS director of engineering and the hospital's project manager. "We already have our beautiful new lobby complete, and it came in on schedule and under budget."

This isn't the largest improvement project the hospital has undertaken - in fact, Ratliff said most of the physical plant is less than 10-15 years old. Now it's time to renovate the existing 35-year-old surgical area, which is too small and outmoded for present-day needs. "We need a more state-of-the-art surgical center to provide for the needs of our patients and staff," he said. The new patient rooms will all be private, a desire of patients that hospitals around the nation are addressing during new construction and renovations.

One of the most difficult aspects of the project, Ratliff said, will be tying in the new construction with the existing building, a task slated for December. "The challenge will be to tie in the new surgical center, while mitigating the issues of noise, dust and smell," he said. "We will have everything sealed off, and I'm confident that will go well."

MOVING MATERIALS in front of the Battle Creek Health System expansion is Bill Lawson of Operating Engineers Local 324.

INSULATING A HOT WATER pipe at the Battle Creek Health system expansion project, left, is Derek Heerlyn of Heat and Frost Insulators Local 47 and Ticon.

DOWN THE SAME corridor, Adam Bunce of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 333 and Mall City Mechanical installs a 1 1/2-inch copper pipe.

 

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Union pay advantage grows

Union members continue to earn substantially higher wages and receive superior benefits at work than nonunion workers, according to recently released data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

In fact, union wages are increasing faster than nonunion wages, giving union members and their families a better chance of maintaining a middle-class standard of living.

A typical union worker made $179 a week more in 2005 than a nonunion worker did, a gap that widened by $10 from the year before, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Construction workers earn $343 a week more if they're union.

Full-time union workers had a median weekly income of $801 in 2005, BLS says - 28.8 percent higher than the $622 median that nonunion workers earned.

The union advantage translates into more than $9,300 a year in extra pay for union households.

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Senate sidetracks asbestos trust fund bill - for now

WASHINGTON (PAI) - By a 58-41 vote, the Senate on Feb. 14 sidetracked a controversial asbestos trust fund bill, at least for now.

Though most senators backed the measure, S. 852, it needed 60 votes to overcome objections by senators who, citing studies, said the $140 billion trust fund for asbestos victims would run out of money, forcing future funding from the U.S. Treasury.

"This bill effectively creates an entitlement for asbestos victims and obligates the government to provide compensation" to them, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. "The government is obligated to pay regardless of the actual amount raised through company contributions...Experts conclude the amount will outpace the contributions to the fund not just in the near term but in the long term as well."

The trust fund would come from payments from asbestos manufacturers and their insurers and would pay the medical bills to suffers of mesothelioma (a form of cancer), asbestosis and other asbestos-caused job diseases over 30-50 years. Construction workers have been hit particularly hard by asbestos-related diseases.

In return for such guaranteed payments, the hundreds of thousands of asbestos-harmed workers who met tough medical criteria for getting a claim, and their families, would be barred from suing for damages in court.

Backers of the bill said it would help 200,000 workers, but a Public Citizen study found 681,756 claims against just eight big asbestos manufacturers alone.

Congress has struggled with establishing a trust fund for years, and this proposal reflects that difficulty. The AFL-CIO and most of their unions, as well as Change-to-Win, lobbied against the bill. The UAW was a notable exception. The White House supported the bill, although it said it has "serious concerns" about certain provisions.

The AFL-CIO bargained for years on the legislation, but walked out over a year ago, when business cut a backroom deal with its plan to bar the worker/victims from court.

Asbestos victims groups also lobbied hard against the bill. They said it short-changes their loved ones and that victims now in court against the manufacturers would be thrown out of it. They also noted new victims - such as those exposed to asbestos from the destroyed World Trade Center and from old buildings smashed by Hurricane Katrina - would be left with no way to get their medical bills paid.

To overcome the budget objection, the measure's backers - a coalition of the largest asbestos manufacturers and their insurers - needed a super-majority of senators, but did not get it. That failure sent S. 852 back to the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Senate Majority Leader William Frist (R-Tenn.), switched his vote to "no" - the winning side in this case - at the last minute so he could later seek to recall the asbestos bill.

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Michigan's minimum wage needs a raise; here's how you can help

LANSING - The Michigan AFL-CIO is leading an effort that requires people power more than anything else - a push to gather at least 320,000 petition signatures aimed at getting a minimum wage increase on the Nov. 7, 2006 statewide ballot.

The state minimum wage is $5.15 per hour - an amount that hasn't changed since 1996. The ballot proposal would raise the minimum wage to $6.85 per hour, and would index future wage increases to the inflation rate, increase fines for employers who violate the wage law, and prevent employers from firing workers who file a claim against employers for violating the minimum wage law.

Six pending Democrat-sponsored bills would do all that legislatively, but state Republicans lawmakers, who control the state House and Senate, have shown no inclination to adopt any of them.

The state AFL-CIO is asking workers to go online to www.mineedsaraise.org or call (800) 684-1262 and order the petitions. Then during "Take Your Petition to Work Week" from March 6-10, take them to work sites and ask co-workers to fill them out during breaks.

John Freeman, a former Democratic state representative, is heading the Michigan Needs a Raise Committee.

"With the minimum wage now at $5.15 per hour, some people would make more money being on welfare," he said. "Raising the minimum wage sends the right message - we value hard work. This proposal allows people to choose work over welfare and be productive members of society."

According to the state AFL-CIO, Michigan voters by nearly a 3-to-1 margin support a $2.00 per hour raise in the minimum wage over the next two of years, citing a recent Inside Michigan Politics poll.

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News Briefs

'Deadbeat boss' lawheads to court
The Retail Industry Leaders Association are fighting back against Maryland legislators, who in January adopted a law requiring companies employing more than 10,000 workers to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health care for employees - or pay any shortfall into a special state fund.

The law, the so-called "Deadbeat Boss" bill, was aimed squarely at Wal-Mart - the only company with that many employees in the state - because the retailing giant's lousy health care plan force many of its workers to fall back on taxpayer-funded state Medicare system. As we reported in our last issue, a Michigan lawmaker introduced similar legislation last month in Lansing.

The retail association has filed two federal lawsuits - against the State of Maryland and Suffolk County, New York, which also adopted such a law - seeking to overturn the rules. According to the Wall Street Journal, the laws are seen as discriminatory because they only target a few employers.

A Feb. 16 editorial by the conservative Journal points the finger at unions for backing this movement. The Journal opined that the lawsuit suggests "more companies are figuring out that organized labor's campaign against Wal-Mart is merely a warm-up to a broader assault. Thanks to the exhortations of the AFL-CIO, some 30 states are now considering so-called "fair-share" health-care laws that force companies to devote a certain percentage of their payroll to health care. The common denominator is that all of these laws largely single out non-union employers."

Paul Blank, campaign director for WakeUpWalMart.com responded to the legal action: "Today's lawsuit is just another attempt by Wal-Mart and its allies not to pay its fair share for health care in the state of Maryland and elsewhere. The Maryland Attorney General has already said Fair Share Health Care legislation is in compliance with the law.

"Wal-Mart would be better off changing its behavior and living up to its responsibilities. States should be applauded, not sued, for trying to address the fact that in every state where we have data, Wal-Mart is costing taxpayers millions by having more employees on taxpayer-funded health care than any other employer."

Michigan gets OK mark for pension funding
While multi-employer pension plans held by unionized building trades workers continue to be relatively solid, the fiscal difficulties of single-employer pension administered by companies like airlines and auto manufacturers have been well reported.

Now comes word that pension plans held by employees in many of the 50 states are also in fiscal trouble. However, even with our state's ongoing fiscal crisis, Michigan's public employee pension system is in fairly good shape.

According to a study released last month by Standard and Poor, public employee pensions in individual states have dropped, on average, from 100 percent funding in the 1990s to an average of 85.4 percent today. Michigan's 83.9 percent funding rate for public employee pensions ranks us at No. 28 among the states.

"Pension liabilities," said the report, must be managed so as not to adversely affect the employer's credit profile. Higher pension liabilities make it costlier for a state to borrow money.

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