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May 13, 2005

Trades raise the roof on two concert venues

Big top covers Phoenix Center

Labor begins new push for Employee Free Choice Act

Rebuild structure of unionized construction, organizing guru suggests

Consensus lacking among plans to revamp AFL-CIO

Battle Creek Oks prevailing wage law

News Briefs

 

Trades raise the roof on two concert venues

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

File this under "construction coincidences."

The building trades last month were wrapping up the construction of roof structures over two significant open air concert venues. Both projects followed a similar construction schedule. Both covered a similar seating area. And the venues are only 20 minutes apart. The roofs themselves, however, couldn't have been more different.

We paid a visit to both projects, and the reports follow:

Freedom Hill patrons to go under cover

Seated concert-goers at Freedom Hill in Sterling Heights will have a roof - a very, very big roof - over their heads when the open-air entertainment venue opens for business in June.

Over the past few months, construction manager Roncelli, its subcontractors and the building trades have been hard at work, building a roof that will protect some 4,200 fixed seats from the elements. The venue has lawn seating for approximately another 3,000 patrons.

The 49,000-square-foot roof is supported by only six columns - and only two of those posts will affect patrons' sight lines to the stage. With so much weight riding on those columns, it was imperative that they be placed properly and supported by sufficiently deep foundations.

"It's rare that you find an amphitheater with only two columns in the audience's sight lines," said Dennis Bishop, senior project manager for Roncelli. "This system requires heavier support girders, but this structure was also unique because we had to go deeper with the piles to find a suitable bearing depth."

That's because the ground immediately below Freedom Hill is less than stable for construction purposes: it was used as a 1960s-era refuse landfill, and then as a depository for soil taken from the excavation of I-696 in the 1970s. Piles had to be driven as deep as 85-90 feet to find "suitable bearing material," for the foundation system, Bishop said.

Mike Hines, risk manager for the Whaley Steel, said the length and weight of the roof trusses - they were as long as 190 feet - required modifications on the ground-level, too. He said instability in the top soil required the trades to dig down seven feet around the location of the crane, dump gravel, and then place two layers of wooden railroad-tie mats under the Manitowac 2250 to keep it level.

"Just by looking at it, it looks like a pretty straightforward job," Hines said. "But there was actually quite a bit of engineering that went into this project because of the weight of the trusses and the soil conditions."

The venue's official name is the Jerome-Duncan Ford Theatre at Freedom Hill. It is managed by a cooperative agreement between Palace Sports and Entertainment and Hillside Productions. The theatre's management said since 2000, the facility has seen more than $20 million in "venue enhancements," not including the new roof for the pavilion.

As Freedom Hill has become an increasingly popular venue, some residential neighbors have complained about noise from the shows. Bishop said this project will include a sound absorbing containment wall and the installation of perforated and insulated metal panels on the perimeter of the amphitheater to absorb sound.

"With its many significant enhancements in recent years, it is essentially a brand new facility," said Tom Wilson, president and CEO of the Palace/Hillside management group. "Combining this with all the services and amenities people have grown to expect over the years at our venues, we are looking to take the experience to a new level." He said 30-40 shows are being targeted for the amphitheater's schedule in 2005, with the first three acts being the Moody Blues, the Beach Boys and Tom Jones.

The roof and sound-absorption project began Jan. 4, employing an average of 50-60 construction workers. While the job has employed primarily iron workers and carpenters, electricians have also been on the job wiring for sound and lights, new concrete has been placed, plumbers have installed roof drains and conductors, and roofers will be installing a rubber membrane cover over the top deck.

The men and women wearing hard hats will be complete with their work by June 1.

"The project will involve about 50,000 man-hours, employing a wide spectrum of tradespeople," Bishop said. "They've been fantastic."

CONNECTING IRON in the superstructure of the new 49,000-squre-foot roof at Freedom Hill in Sterling Heights is Brad Schwanbeck of Iron Workers Local 25 and Whaley Steel.

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Big top covers Phoenix Center

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

The new roof over the Phoenix Plaza Amphitheater in Pontiac is similar in material to the one covering the nearby Silverdome - but with a circus-tent theme.

The 38,000-square-foot roof, made of Teflon-coated fiberglass, is strong, lightweight, rated to withstand 90-mile-per hour winds, and was the material of choice to keep some 3,000 seated patrons dry at the new amphitheater. The new roof is expected to allow Phoenix Plaza to bring in major acts after being used in recent years in conjunction with free events like the Dream Cruise.

"You don't see these kinds of roofs very often, but I've been putting them up around the country for the last 10 years," said Lyle Konz, an iron worker out of Denver and site superintendent for Graboplan, the company in charge of erecting the support beams and roof. "On every job, the weather is always the big question mark. You can't have snow, rain, ice or high winds when you're putting these up."

The project began six months ago. The tensile membrane roof was fabricated in Hungary and installed in two sections over the pavilion by iron workers and operating engineers.

The advantages of the teflon-coated roof: it's strong, lasts a long time, goes up relatively quickly, lets in natural light in and requires a minimal amount of support columns. The cost, Konz said, is similar to that of a traditionally framed roof structure.

The major disadvantage: sustained high winds could have torn the roof apart during the three-week period when the roof was being put into place, but not finally secured with steel cables. If the roof does tear, Konz said individual panels can be cut out and replaced on site.

The $11 million amphitheater will also have new dressing rooms, a new sound system and lighting. According to the Oakland Press, budgetary constraints have put a hold on the installation of the permanent seats. A lawn area at the back of the venue will hold another 3,000 patrons.

The $11 million amphitheater and plaza renovations were part of a $22 million project that also repaired the nearby parking structure and added five staircases around the venue for ease and safety in entering and exiting. It also features new dressing rooms and modern sound, electrical and lighting facilities.

The Press said festival concert events at the Phoenix Plaza such as the Dream Cruise and the Arts, Beats and Eats festival will likely remain free at the plaza. But city officials expect major concerts to generate revenue in ticket sales and the Downtown Development Authority is soliciting bids now for a professional firm to operate the amphitheater for this season.

A TEFLON-COATED roof, similar to the cover over the Pontiac Silverdome, will keep patrons dry at a new outdoor concert venue, the Phoenix Center. The seats have yet to be installed.

A SUPPORT BEAM connection for the roof above the Pontiac Phoenix Center amphitheatre is welded by Jimmy Nash of Iron Workers Local 25.


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Labor begins new push for Employee Free Choice Act

WASHINGTON (PAI) - A bill that is probably more symbol than substance will attempt to promote a few union objectives in our nation's anti-union capitol.

Flanked by workers harassed or fired for trying to form unions, labor leaders and key lawmakers reintroduced the Employee Free Choice Act on April 19. The measure, unveiled at a Capitol Hill press conference, would outlaw "captive audience" meetings by employers to berate unions, increase penalties for labor law-breaking and order binding arbitration when unions and management cannot agree on a first contract.

It would also legalize a simpler card-check recognition of unions, said AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney and key lawmakers. That's in contrast to the cumbersome, delay-ridden, pro-business National Labor Relations Board elections process.

The bill, by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) - top Democrats on committees dealing with worker issues - has bipartisan support, led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). It's based on a bill written by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.).

The GOP-run Congress is expected to strongly resist it, and Sweeney implied any lawmaker's stand on the legislation will be key to labor's support in coming elections. "I cannot think of any greater barometer to judge an elected leader's commitment to workers' rights than whether or not they will stand with workers on this fundamental human right," he explained.

"America's workers want to form unions. They know unions bring better wages, benefits and a voice on the job. But workers are under attack by employers - like Wal-Mart - that break the rules and intimidate or even fire employees who say they want a union," Sweeney said.

Backers of the legislation again advanced data showing the intimidation, threats and illegal actions workers face when they try to organize - data most of the country does not know, and data that polls show most of the country does not agree with:

  • More than 20,000 workers fired in 2004 were illegally fired or discriminated against for union activity.
  • One-fourth of private employers fire workers - again illegally - during organizing drives.More than three-fourths of firms require their workers to sit through anti-union "captive audience" meetings, often under threat of discipline or firing of those who refuse or protest.
  • "Half of employers threaten to shut down if employees join together to form a union," Sweeney said. The NLRB's GOP majority recently voted that such threats could sometimes be legal.
  • Even after the workers vote the union in, one-third of employers "never negotiate a first contract," Sweeney said.

"At a time when the middle class is shrinking, when the gap between rich and poor is growing, workers deserve the right to form unions to win a real voice on the job through collective bargaining," which betters them economically, he added.

"This legislation is about social justice and economic progress," Kennedy declared. "Too often, rights of workers are ignored and abused. Right now, hundreds of politicians are talking about freedom. That's what this is all about."

The pro-union legislation garnered more than 200 co-sponsors in the GOP-run 435-member House, but did not get a hearing. Lead House GOP sponsor Peter King (R-N.Y.) pledged to help get a bipartisan majority. But King did not promise that the bill would move, even with a majority.

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Rebuild structure of unionized construction, organizing guru suggests

After unionized construction in the U.S. has "failed to turn the proverbial corner" toward increased market share after steady declines over the last half century - are the nation's building trades union locals, councils and international unions structured properly for future growth?

Jeff Grabelsky, an IBEW member and director of the Construction Industry Program at Cornell University, said in a recently released report that it's time to start talking about changing the structure of Hardhat unions in order to better address the changing direction of owners and contractors in the building industry.

"Mismatches" abound in Grabelsky's view of the U.S. construction industry, which are impairing the ability of unions to grow and compete. Among the most glaring mismatches: while local unions continue to be predominately guided by decisions made on a local level, construction employers, he said, are "increasingly dominated by regional and national contractors operating in regional and national markets."

For unions, Grabelsky said the mismatches start at the bottom and work their way up the organizational chart. While there is increasing consolidation in the business world, construction unions have been operating under essentially the same organizational model for the last century, with 15 international unions running the show.

"There is a mismatch between the structure of the unionized sector of the industry, in which 15 separate affiliates represent different but increasingly overlapping craft jurisdictions," Grabelsky said, "and the dynamics of nonunion construction work, which now accounts for 80% of the industry and where traditional jurisdictional lines are neither reflected nor respected."

In addition, he said, there are 300 constituent building trades councils across the nation - which are voluntary associations that lack the power and authority to conduct coordinated organizing campaigns - and the enormous challenge of unionizing a multi-billion dollar industry with over 5 million unrepresented workers.

Grablesky said with the overwhelming majority of the industry's workforce unionized throughout the 1950's and 60's, building trades unions once enjoyed "formidable bargaining power."

"But in the last 50 years," he said, "the building trades endured a precipitous decline, as union density in the construction industry fell from a high of over 80% immediately after World War II to less than 18% today. The diminished power and presence of unions in the industry have meant that all construction workers - union and nonunion, alike - work harder, for less, under harsher conditions. In the last 30 years, wages have declined by about 25% in real dollars."

Union initiatives developed in the late 1980s designed to challenge the open shop have failed to recapture lost markets. Unions are not even "in the game" in important work segments, like residential, and in huge areas, like the South and Southwest, he said.

"Building trades unionists cannot merely do what they have been doing - just harder and better," Grabelsky said. "To organize at a pace and scale necessary to definitively reverse the long-term trend of declining union density, they must conduct multi-union, coordinated campaigns that are massive in scope."

Construction unions, he said, now typically work with "regional, national and even global contractors whose operations are no longer confined to local markets. Virtually every local union confronts contractors who operate in multiple local jurisdictions; few locals possess the resources, capacity or strategic leverage to organize and bargain with the corporate builders who now dominate the industry."

There have been a number of varying responses to this trend by unions. Grabelsky said local contracts have been adjusted, and national negotiated agreements have been developed to deal with the reality of regional and national contracts. Others unions have merged "into larger, better-resourced locals whose expanded geographic jurisdictions conform more closely to actual construction markets," he said.

The actions taken have had varying degrees of success. Grabelsky pointed to the Iron Workers, Painters and Carpenters, which created regional councils to correspond to regional construction markets. When this has happened, some areas have seen organizing gains; while in other areas, members resent the loss of local control.

But sometimes long-term local control can be a detriment to the long-term success of a local. He said some locals continue to impede organizing with high initiation fees, restrictive entrance exams and referral procedures that are a disadvantage to newly organized members.

In response, international unions have brought in innovative tools like the Construction Organizing Membership Education Training (COMET) program to persuade both local leaders and members of the need to organize.

"But when local leaders lacked the will or desire, they relied on the tradition of local autonomy to avoid the difficult challenge of organizing," Grabelsky wrote, and improving the situation isn't made easier by the current organizational structure of most unions.

"How can (an international) leader drive a national organizing program, when the union's internal structure is built on and deferential to the tradition of the local autonomy?" Grabelsky wrote. "How can a union conduct a national program in a disciplined and effective way without establishing and enforcing standards of accountability for its constituent local affiliates?"

The situation is even more difficult for building trades councils, where he said affiliate unions "would probably concede that they cannot individually organize their own craft in the nonunion industry and expect to survive as an island of strength in a sea of weakness."

He added: "Building trades councils - like the AFL-CIO department to which they are affiliated - are voluntary associations that have not generally been able to achieve the level of unity and discipline required for such multi-union campaigns."

The report didn't offer any bold proposals - but Grabelsky did suggest that union leaders in the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department establish a "Futures Committee" of leaders from local unions, building trades councils and international unions "who believe dramatic change is needed" and make recommendations about improvements in organizing, structure, and use of resources.

"Any course of action designed to re-establish the power and presence of unions in the construction industry will be fraught with risk," Grabelsky wrote. "But the risk of inaction is far greater."

(This report was excerpted from an article written for socialpolicy.org. Mr. Grabelsky helped create the COMET program and is formerly the national organizing director for the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO. He thanked seven international union presidents for "sharing their time and insights" in preparing his article).

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Consensus lacking among plans to revamp AFL-CIO

WASHINGTON (PAI) - An AFL-CIO revamp plan, issued by its top three leaders, calls for more money for organizing and mobilizing, year-round issues campaigns, more coordinated strategic organizing and voluntary union mergers.

The 27-page plan, released April 28, will go before federation leaders at the Executive Council in June, spokeswoman Suzanne Folkes said.

The plan keeps the Executive Council intact but lodges more power over daily AFL-CIO operations in a smaller Executive Committee of 18: leaders of the 15 largest unions, the president and two others.

And the new plan also reiterates a prior federation standard that each union should spend at least 30 percent of its budget on organizing. That would produce spending of $500 million per year by international unions alone, it said.

The plan builds on debates that began last June after Service Employees President Andrew Stern called the AFL-CIO outmoded and too loose. He said it should be revamped or junked. The new plan is designed to revamp the federation and counter current anti-worker political realities, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said in its introduction.

"The narrow losses of Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 made it plain the labor movement's growing political effectiveness could not compensate for its loss of membership density," Sweeney said,

Stern later said in a statement that the new plan has holes, and that he and his allies wanted more than Sweeney offered. They lost a bid for more radical change - including rebates of half of any union's AFL-CIO dues to those unions that conduct strategic organizing - at the council meeting in Las Vegas in early March. They also wanted forced union mergers.

Stern and his allies - Presidents James Hoffa of the Teamsters, Joe Hansen of UFCW, Terry O'Sullivan of the Laborers and Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm of UNITE HERE - were not satisfied with the latest plan, either. Stern's union, the federation's largest, has a committee studying disaffiliation with the AFL-CIO.

"Uniting workers who are not yet in unions must be at the top of labor's agenda and is the key to once again realizing a vital union movement," Stern's group said in a statement, continuing their push to put organizing ahead of politics.

But Sweeney responded at the press conference that "we have managed to rearrange some programs and expenses to provide more resources for organizing and field mobilization."
Sweeney repeatedly refused to say how many of the AFL-CIO's 420 staffers would be let go, how the budget would be rearranged and which functions would be downgraded or dumped. He said the budget is not finalized.

Plans call for the AFL-CIO to rebate two-thirds of union dues to unions that create strategic organizing drives. A good chunk of money would also be allocated for national campaigns against large anti-union employers, such as Wal-Mart, Comcast, FedEx and Toyota.

Stern and his allies, whose unions said there are still many "unanswered questions," said "we continue to call on the Sweeney administration to provide complete information regarding its programming and operational budget."

Teamsters President James Hoffa previously said the federation has a $176 million budget, and the rebate to member-unions for enhanced organizing would cut its budget in half.

A key point in the federation's blueprint is to mobilize members year-round around political issues, such as the current campaign to defeat President Bush's Social Security privatization plan. The AFL-CIO also wants to install full-time political directors in key states, and target "consolidating and expanding our strength in union-dense states." Sweeney said other initiatives would be tried in the overwhelmingly non-union South, but the plan is silent on that point.

Other key points of the leaders' revamp plan include:

  • Creating industry coordinating committees "in employment sectors where AFL-CIO unions have significant membership," to support organizing and bargaining.
  • Encouraging and actively facilitating the voluntary mergers of unions, especially those with common core jurisdictions, in order to increase union bargaining power.
  • Working to build coalitions with the Latino community.
  • Restructuring state federations and Central Labor Councils with integrated budgets and planning and consolidation into larger, regional bodies. The plan also says the AFL-CIO would "set performance benchmarks and standards for state and local labor movements, and step in to enforce these standards as needed to ensure effective performance." It did not say how.

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Battle Creek Oks prevailing wage law

BATTLE CREEK - City Commissioners on April 12 lowered the level by which prevailing wages must be paid on taxpayer-funded construction projects. The previous level was $500,000; now, prevailing wages are applied to city-sponsored projects with a value of $50,000 or more.

In an era when such pro-worker legislation is very much a rarity, the measure was adopted, 9-0.

"I didn't think it had a snowball's chance in hell when we started," said Steve Franklin, business manager of IBEW Local 445 and a Battle Creek city commissioner for the last 18 months. "But this just highlights the importance of having an open dialogue with elected officials."

Franklin said during the last election cycle, commission candidates were asked during an AFL-CIO candidate forum whether they would be willing to support a prevailing wage ordinance in the city. None balked at the idea, and Commissioner Ryan Hirsha kept that in mind when he later approached Franklin about lowering the prevailing wage level. After some lobbying and education efforts, the other commissions came on board.

Prevailing wage laws establish a baseline for wages that contractors must pay construction workers on taxpayer-funded contractors. The State of Michigan and federal government also have prevailing wage laws, which uphold wage standards and worker quality by preventing unscrupulous contractors from winning bids by paying their workers a lower wage.

Franklin estimates that as much as $2.5 million worth of city-sponsored construction work will fall under the prevailing wage law.

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News Briefs
Construction advances in 2005

New construction starts in March advanced 4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $594.1 billion, according to McGraw-Hill Construction, a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Nonresidential building showed signs of strengthening after a weak February, and modest growth was reported for housing and public works. During the first three months of 2005, total construction on an unadjusted basis came to $131.6 billion, up 2 percent relative to the same period a year ago.

"The construction industry continues to be supported by a robust volume of
homebuilding, and the early months of 2005 have seen an improved amount of public works construction," stated Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction. "In contrast, new starts for nonresidential building have been weaker than expected, but the March upturn may be the initial step for this sector to resume the upward trend that was established last year."

Murray said one factor that may be contributing to the slower pace for nonresidential building in recent months is last year's jump in the price of building materials.

Detroit casino expansion OK'd
The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals gave Detroit's three casino operators the green light on April 29 to construct hotel-gambling complexes that could result in nearly $1 billion in new construction.

The court lifted an injunction resulting from a lawsuit by the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, who claimed that the initial selection process for awarding casino licenses was unfair.

Published reports say construction costs could be as much as $300 million for each casino - if plans for new casino-hotel complexes materialize as expected. Work could begin as early as this fall at the Greektown Casino, MGM-Grand and Motor City Casino to build new, "permanent" casino-hotel complexes.

The casinos originally opened in 1999-2000 as "temporary" establishments - the MGM casino was built in an old government building and the Motor City was placed in a converted bakery.

"This is a big day for Detroiters," a jubilant Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said at a news conference. "This means a lot for Detroiters, but people that work in the building trades, people that are plumbers and electricians and carpenters, those folks have been waiting for this announcement for a long time."

According to the Detroit Free Press, MotorCity Casino, at the Lodge Freeway and Grand River, is awaiting city approval to build a permanent facility at its current location, including a 400-room hotel, expanded gaming area, an entertainment theater, spa, ballroom and meeting room space for conventions, a new restaurant and a coffee shop.

MGM Grand Detroit Casino plans to build several blocks from its current site at the Lodge freeway and Abbott, near the DTE Energy headquarters.

The Greektown Casino has bought land for its new site at Gratiot and St. Antoine, across from the Frank Murphy courthouse.

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