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May 28, 2004
WASHINGTON (PAI) - Despite efforts at a compromise acceptable to unions and business, talks on legislation to settle asbestos cases collapsed on May 10. The legislation would have established a no-fault trust fund for asbestos victims.
But the talks foundered and died because the asbestos-producing firms and their insurers refused to provide enough money for the fund, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said.
"Throughout this process, we made our position clear that legislation had to provide victims fair compensation and be adequately funded," Sweeney said. "Unfortunately, the level of funding business and insurers were willing to support was inadequate."
Sweeney also said the talks, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), produced no solution for what would happen if the asbestos fund ran out of money.
Last year, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) halted settlement talks between unions, affected businesses and their insurers over aid to the workers. He did so by telling business to pull out. Hatch then produced a pro-business bill with a smaller fund - $114 billion over 27 years - and no guarantees of future cash should that money run out.
But when Hatch and Senate Majority Leader William Frist (R-Tenn.) brought that pro-business bill to the Senate in mid-April, outraged Democrats successfully filibustered it.
The AFL-CIO has sought $154 billion for the asbestos victims. It also sought a legislative guarantee of future funding should the trust fund run out of money.
Meanwhile, Specter worked behind the scenes, aided by retired Philadelphia federal judge Edward Becker as a mediator, to try to settle the differences between the two sides.
In a mid-March report to Specter on those months of talks, Becker said many major issues were solved, but some remained. Differences remained over medical monitoring, timing of payments to victims, and the impact of smoking, among other issues.
"The final, and most difficult, issue is funding," he admitted to Specter. "Labor claims the projected $114 billion is grossly inadequate to pay the needed compensation to injured workers." Becker called labor's figure too high.
Despite the breakdown in talks, both sides said they will
continue to work for a compromise.
LANSING - There aren't many glimmers of good news when it comes to bringing down the high cost of prescription drugs, although purchasing drugs through the mail is one area that is providing savings.
But pharmacists large and small around the state - who see a major threat to their income - are lobbying state lawmakers in an effort to pass legislation that would largely kill the mail-order pharmacy business.
Nothing doing, say the Detroit and Michigan Building Trades Councils and other organizations that are part of a lobbying group called the Economic Alliance of Michigan and a sub-group, the Michigan Health Purchasers Coalition. The Alliance, which includes an unusual mix of chambers of commerce, large corporations and unions, is pushing back at the pharmacists' efforts, demanding that state lawmakers maintain an open, competitive playing field for drug purchasers.
Tom Boensch, Secretary-Treasurer of the Michigan State Building Trades Council, expressed opposition to the pharmacy bills. "The building trades are joint partners with construction companies in managing our health benefits on a day-to-day basis," he said. "These bills are the opposite of cost reduction. It's just a way for retail druggists to make more money. But that will be at the expense of workers and employers, whose bills for prescription drugs will go up. The alleged fixes in the recent versions of the legislation do not change that basic reality."
According to Milliman U.S.A., a national health benefit consultant and actuarial firm, Michigan employers would have to pay an extra $124 million in health insurance if the legislation is adopted.
"Purchaser coalition members agree with one provision in the bills that would allow local retail pharmacies to fill prescriptions by mail," said Rich Studley, senior vice president of government relations for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. "However, protectionist legislation pending in the state House goes far beyond simply leveling the playing field for local pharmacies. The Michigan Chamber is opposed to these bills because they would over-regulate pharmacy benefit managers, discourage competition, and hinder the ability of employers and employees to save money on prescription drugs."
The legislation is in a state House committee, and it has yet to be voted on by the panel. Brian Broderick, the legislative director for the Economic Alliance, said it "boggles my mind" how the pharmacy industry has successfully kept this issue afloat in the face of opposition from the Big Three automakers, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and organized labor.
He said part of the reason is that lobbyists don't have as much pull with term-limited lawmakers. The other part of the equation, Broderick said, is that pharmacists have a sterling reputation among the general public, and lawmakers are hesitant to vote on issues that could adversely affect the drug dispensers.
By Marty Mulcahy
"Just look at this place," enthused Local 324 operating engineer "Big Jake" Jacobs, walking up the front steps of the Wayne County Building. "Look at all the details. Nobody builds them like this any more."
But masonry contractor Chezcore, Inc. and the building trades are putting their considerable skills to work to rebuild and restore the masonry exterior of the tower portion of the Wayne County Building so that it will be a structurally sound architectural gem for years to come.
Completed in 1902, the Wayne County Building is on the list of the National Register of Historic Places, which passed along a description of the landmark as "the most sumptuous building in Michigan." We're not sure what that means exactly, but if it refers to the building's copper-clad steel horses pulling chariots and human figures, the multitude of decorative masonry elements and an interior filled with rich mahogany, mosaic tile and plaster, then sumptuous it is.
According to the Detroit Central Business District Foundation, the Beaux-Arts-style building served as the seat of Wayne County government until the 1950s, when offices were moved to the City-County Building which opened a few blocks away. By the 1970s, with the structure neglected and worn down, the foundation said the only factor that saved the Wayne County Building was the cost of demolition - in excess of $1.5 million.
Eventually, preservationists won the day. The county sold the building to the Old Wayne County Building Limited Partnership in 1984, which then undertook a $25 million interior restoration in 1987. The 250,000-square-foot building is currently leased to the county, and includes a children's day-care center, and other businesses.
While the interior was beautifully restored, Chezcore President David Cieszkowski said the exterior "has never had a full-blown restoration." Granite panels clad the exterior of the first two floors, while the rest of the building is covered with sandstone. Cieszkowski said some sandstone panels on the 275-foot-tall tower have spalled and cracked, and steel anchors have rusted. The sandstone panels that cannot be repaired will be replaced by Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1 members working for Chezcore.
"We're going to be removing about 500 sandstones from the skeleton," Cieszkowski said. "Once we started opening up the exterior we also found a lot of rust in the support steel, and that will need replacing." Up to 20 construction workers in various crafts will toil on this project.
The tower itself is vacant space and is currently open to the weather and the pigeons.
The scaffolding that surrounds the tower has been in place for more than two years, although renovation work has only recently started. The delay in work came after a dispute between the county and the partnership over who would pay for the renovations. Restoration of the tower is expected to be complete in December 2005. Similar work on the exterior of the main portion of the rest of the Wayne County Building may follow the restoration of the tower.
"It's an amazing building, and for me it's a once-in-a-lifetime
opportunity," said Chezcore Project Manager Jim Parrinello.
"I've heard that next to the state Capitol Building in Lansing,
people say this is the most beautiful building in Michigan. I
feel as if we're working on a piece of art."
GOP blocks OT debate. The GOP-run House of Representatives blocked debate on President Bush's plan to cut overtime pay for U.S. workers.
The move by the House earlier this month came several days after the U.S. Senate voted to block Bush's plan, which will go into effect in August without a veto by Congress.
The fight on the overtime issue isn't over yet. Rep. George Miller's proposal to debate the issue was defeated, but he said the Republicans "may have succeeded today, but this fight is not over. It is obvious the House Republican majority is rubber-stamping the orders of the Bush administration."
The AFL-CIO was more pessimistic. It said the May 12 House vote it may be the only chance lawmakers have before Aug. 23 to go on record for or against overtime.
The overtime take-away rules don't affect workers with a collective bargaining contract.
Jobless benefits renewal fails. By one vote on May 11, the Senate failed to take a step towards reinstating an extra 13 weeks of federal jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.
The 59-40 tally was one vote short of approval needed to attach the jobless benefits amendment to a business tax bill.
"The economy is still down 1.5 million jobs since January 2001," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "The share of long-term unemployed, who have been out of work for 27 weeks, is at 22 percent and it has never been as high for so long."
Added AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney: "Many of them have exhausted their unemployment benefits and the Bush administration has callously refused to support an extension."
The benefits extension was designed to help the long-term jobless and would provide 13 weeks of federal benefits to workers who exhausted their 26 weeks of state benefits.
Federal benefits ended Dec. 31 and the GOP-run Congress has refused to extend them. The percentage of long-term jobless has not been this high since 1983, an AFL-CIO analysis said.
With long-term joblessness staying high, labor stepped up its campaign to restore federal unemployment benefits. The federal jobless fund has a $13 billion surplus.
Such a restoration meant breaking special Senate rules limiting the federal budget. Breaking the rules required 60 votes among the 100 senators. They didn't make it, getting 59.
Employer-friendly rules. The House of Representatives, in a series of GOP-led party-line votes, approved measures on May 18 making employer-friendly changes in workplace safety rules.
The Wall Street Journal said one bill would allow a company to miss "by mistake, surprise or excusable neglect: a 15-day deadline to respond to OSHA citations." Democrats said that would allow employers to drag out cases.
The second bill would increase from three to five the number of members on the presidentially appointed Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. Democrats say this will allow the president to "pack" the panel with friendly appointees.
Another bill would require OSHA to pay attorney fees in case it loses. Republicans say the bill would make OSHA think twice before taking a case to court, Democrats say the bill would chill OSHA's enforcement efforts and would encourage employers to litigate.
A Democratic aide said the bills have little chance of passage.
Trades build with humanity. The AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department and union construction workers are teaming up with Habitat for Humanity to address the crisis of unaffordable housing in low-income neighborhoods.
The unions will share resources and skills with the housing
During Labor with Habitat Week, May 16-22, union workers helped
build homes in cities across the country, including Cincinnati,
where BCTD President Edward Sullivan kicked off the national
partnership May 17.
In January 2003, two construction laborers somewhere in the U.S. died when the trench in which they were working caved in. Only teenagers, the brothers were laying conduit in the trench - which was eight feet deep and only two feet wide - when the walls collapsed over them, according to an incident report by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
The young workers had no business being in that unshored trench. But with the pressure on to get work done faster, or due to carelessness, more experienced workers also take chances with trench safety every day.
An opportunity to remind workers about the importance of safety in the trenches came in a report released on April 23 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based on data from NIOSH. The data showed that 542 U.S. construction workers were killed during construction and excavation accidents between 1992 and 2001. Three-quarters of the deaths were caused by cave-ins, and construction laborers comprised more than 75 percent of the fatalities.
Excavation fatalities don't appear among the top three killers of construction workers. However, MIOSHA Construction Safety and Health Division Manager Rick Mee said excavation fatalities are "disproportionately high," given the relatively low number of construction workers who toil in ditches.
"Accidents in trenching can be anticipated and prevented," Mee said. "Certainly complacency and carelessness on the part of workers is one factor. But as construction projects get more complex, better training for workers becomes more important, and training can be expensive, but it's very important. Contractors must commit to including the cost of safety and health training for their workers into their business."
Said Jerry Faber, a former MIOSHA construction safety inspector and now director of safety for the Associated General Contractors, Greater Detroit Chapter: "Sometimes people get lazy, or they're in a hurry or they're pressured and they don't follow the rules and do it right. Accidents happen when people cut corners, and you can't do that working in a trench."
Michigan averaged two excavation fatalities per year from 1992 to 2001, according to MIOSHA, and another two workers were killed in trench accidents in 2003. In the U.S. during that period, annual excavation fatalities ranged from a low of 44 in 1993 to a high of 65 in 1996, for an overall average of 54 deaths per year.
Following are some issues to consider when it comes to trenching, according to the OSHA excavation standard and the Center to Protect Workers' Rights (the safety arm of the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department):
"Cave-ins are perhaps the most feared trenching hazard," OSHA said, "but other potentially fatal hazards exist, including asphyxiation due to lack of oxygen in a confined space, inhalation of toxic fumes, drowning, etc. Electrocution or explosions can occur when workers contact underground utilities."
ENR ranks top U.S. contractors
However, revenues for many Michigan contractors took a hit from the declining construction market in 2003, as most fell in the rankings compared to a year ago.
Michigan's largest contractors continued to be Barton Malow of Southfield (#35, which dropped seven spots on the list from 2003) and Walbridge-Aldinger of Detroit (#37, which gained nine positions). The only other Michigan-based contractor to make the top 100 is Balfour Beatty, Inc. (#66), a British construction firm that has offices in Novi but seems to do most of its work out-of-state.
"What was surprising among the Top 400 was the wide swing in revenue reported by companies between 2002 and 2003," the ENR said. "Of 372 firms on this year's top 400 that submitted survey forms last year, 213 increased total revenue, including 132 that enjoyed double-digit increases; 158 saw revenue drop, 84 by double digits."
Most of the Michigan contractors were in the latter category and saw their rankings drop significantly as a result. Following are Michigan construction contractors that made the ENR list in 2004, as well as their current ranking and the number of positions they improved or dropped on the list from 2003:
John Carlo of Clinton Twp. (#111; +52); The Christman Co., of Lansing (#126; -21); Granger Construction Co. of Lansing (#172; -10); J.M. Olson Corp. of St. Clair Shores (#230; -47); George W. Auch Co. of Pontiac, (#285; -7); Rockford Construction Co. Inc. of Belmont (#316; -75); Roncelli Inc. of Sterling Heights (#331; -31); Pioneer General Contractors Inc. of Grand Rapids (#393; -106); and DeMaria Construction of Detroit (#395, not listed in 2003).
Some of the other non-Michigan-based contractors on the list who do a significant amount of business in our state include the Washington Group (#13), Alberici (#57) and Boldt (#98).
Topping the ENR's nationwide list are Bechtel of San Francisco, Centex of Dallas and KBR of Houston.
School board candidates endorsed
Chippewa Valley Board of Education: Ken Pearl
Warren Consolidated Board of Education: Chris Arnold
Wayne-Westland Board of Education: Steve Becher, Chad Campbell.
Building trades workers across the state are urged to vote for candidates who support the goals of organized labor.