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May 30, 2008

Toilet legislation for construction sites starts to move

Special interest group? History shows unions are good for America

Unions good for American wages, too, study reveals

A column about safety training on the job, or 'When I Was an Idiot'

Union Industries show gone, probably for good

Young welders get an elbow up during Boilermakers competition

News Briefs


Toilet legislation for construction sites starts to move

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

LANSING - With a little pressure from the building trades, this may be the best chance yet to improve the sanitary conditions on Michigan's construction sites.

In past years this paper has championed the cause of getting more well-maintained portable toilets on construction sites, and just as importantly, requiring the placement of hand washing stations or at least hand sanitizers close to portable toilets on jobsites. There has been little action on the matter - until now - and our state's lawmakers are going to need a push from our readers to do the right thing.

"Frankly, this effort is being driven by the portable toilet industry," said Todd Tennis of Capitol Services, a lobbyist for the IBEW and Mid-Michigan Construction Alliance. "We saw the legislation, put it on our watch list, and we didn't think it would be controversial. But the ABC (the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors) and the home builders weighed in and squawked that it's unnecessary regulation and is going to increase costs. But the added costs are actually very small."

House Bill 5064 - Sanitary Facilities on Construction Sites - would increase the quantity and quality of toilet facilities on construction sites. The bill would increase the number of toilets to one for every 10 workers. Current state regulations call for a minimum requirement of one toilet for a jobsite with 1-20 workers, two toilets for sites with 21-40 workers, and an additional toilet for each 40 workers after that.

One advantage to having a higher ratio of toilets is that they're likely to remain cleaner, longer.

The bill's sponsor is Rep. Mark Meadows (D-East Lansing). He introduced the measure after having a garage built on his property Up North last year.

"At one point I asked how things were going, and the workers said 'other than having to go to the bathroom in the woods, pretty good,' " Meadows said. "A light bulb went off. The subcontractor eventually got a porta-potty on the site, but it got me to thinking that it wasn't right for workers, and it must be affecting productivity when workers are wandering around looking for a bathroom. Plus there are gender issues, when you stop to consider the severe disadvantage women in the trades have under those circumstances."

Tennis wrote in a position paper that an often-used loophole in state regulations allows a contractor to classify a work crew as "mobile," negating the requirement for any jobsite toilets. Thus a group of homebuilding construction workers in a subdivision who need to relieve themselves usually must find the nearest fast food outlet, or some nearby tall bushes, because a portable toilet isn't required.

"They designate crews as 'mobile' even if they're in the same place for three months," Tennis said.

There are currently very limited state requirements for the placement of alcohol-based hand sanitizers or hand washing stations near portable toilets on construction sites. The existing statewide rule only requires washing facilities be available to employees engaged in the application of paint, coatings, herbicides, or insecticides or in other operations where contaminants may be harmful to employees.

And the sanitary condition of many portable toilets is often simply ignored, and sometimes toilet paper can't be found.

"What's really important about this legislation is that it puts penalties into the law for contractors if they don't have hand washing facilities, or if they don't maintain their toilets," Tennis said.

According the Michigan House legislative analysis on the bill, the typical monthly rental cost for a standard portable toilet runs between $85-$95. Sink stations are about $185 a month, hand sanitizers, $100. On the high end, a 16-foot restroom trailer costs about $1,250 a month.

Meadows said one homebuilder testified before the state Regulatory Reform Committee that not having a portable toilet on site could cost $2,400 a week in lost productivity, with workers leaving the jobsite, looking for a place to go.

Still, the vote on that committee to improve the portable toilet situation was only adopted along party lines, with majority Democrats in favor and minority Republicans opposed. "There's a different viewpoint from that side of the aisle," Meadows said, adding that he expects the measure to pass the full House, perhaps by the end of May, with some Republican support.

A stronger standard for portable toilets on jobsites was almost adopted by federal OSHA earlier this decade. The effort began under the Clinton Administration, but withered away when President Bush's appointees moved in. The argument that OSHA had more important life-and-death issues to consider won the day, and a better portable toilet standard has fallen by the wayside.

Scott Schneider, Director of Occupational Safety and Health for the Laborers' Health and Safety Fund of North America, said "improving sanitation on construction sites is a critical issue for members. It is important to help prevent illnesses among workers as well as an issue of treating them with dignity. It is also hard to recruit people into the trades and it is even harder if the conditions they have to work under include unclean toilets and no place to clean up before lunch or after work."

A fitting quote from earlier this decade came from Mark Erlich, a New England carpenter and an author on labor issues. He said comparing bathroom conditions on today's construction sites to general sanitation in the era of King Arthur isn't accurate. "That's medieval," he said. "You're talking construction. We're in the Stone Age."

Get ready to make calls, send messages for better toilet standard

LANSING - House Bill 5064 - "Sanitary Facilities on Construction Sites" - has been OK'd in committee and is currently on the House floor, where it looks good for passage by majority Democrats.

But…the bill faces a less certain future in the Republican-controlled Senate. "We send so much legislation related to labor over there, and nothing moves," said State Rep. Mark Meadows (D-East Lansing). "The Senate doesn't seem to take up anything that might be considered pro-labor."

When the bill does make it to the Michigan Senate, we will be back with information to contact your state senator.

At least two Republican lawmakers are treating this legislation as a joke. One suggested that football schedules be posted on the inside of portable toilets. Another actually took the time to write this amendment to the bill, slamming unions at the same time.

The amendment by Rep. Ken Horn, R-Saginaw Twp., reads: "Amend page 2, following line 13, by inserting: "A collective bargaining unit must provide its members with instruction on the sanitary use of a toilet facility. These instructional classes are to be administered by the collective bargaining unit in cooperation with the Department of Community Health."

If you would like to personally comment on Rep. Horn's amendment, his office phone number is (517) 373-0837. His e-mail address is


Special interest group? History shows unions are good for America

Editor's note: Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is seen as the single most important issue for organized labor after the November elections. Passage of the Act is expected to even the playing field during union organizing efforts.

By David Brody

In a rights-conscious society like ours, the regulation of labor-management relations is bound to be defined in terms of rights. That's how our labor law is written, and that's how the looming debate on the Employee Free Choice Act will go. (Every member of the next Congress, pro or con, will be rising in defense of labor's rights.)

But attend more closely, and you'll hear talk (from Republicans) about job growth and global competitiveness, and (from Democrats) about the plight of the middle class. Collective bargaining, that's what they're talking about. The Employee Free Choice Act will mean more collective bargaining - maybe a lot more collective bargaining - and for employers, collective bargaining is not about rights, but about power or, more precisely, a surrender of power. If you're curious about why this particular bill elicits so much fury, that's why.

But there is one big question that, however hard we listen, we're unlikely to hear addressed: What's at stake for America's public life?

Conservatives have had a grand time over many years tearing down the union movement. Even good reporters routinely refer to "Big Labor." And right up there with union corruption and labor bosses is the suggestion that unions are just - to use our esteemed secretary of labor's words - "special interest groups." Unions have members; they pay dues; and they expect results. So in that sense, yes, unions are interest groups, just like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) or the National Rifle Association.

But organized labor is a special interest with a difference. When the stakes are high, it puts the public welfare ahead of its own.

We can trace this strange behavior back a hundred years to the Progressive era when, having started out viscerally against an interventionist state - unions would be stronger, argued AFL President Samuel Gompers, if workers depended on their own collective power - the AFL grudgingly sided with middle-class reformers after they demonstrated that decent social legislation was actually achievable.

In the Depression, the union movement jettisoned Gompers's voluntarism entirely and steadfastly backed the New Deal. And when civil rights became a big issue in the 1960s, there the AFL-CIO was, in the thick of the fight.

As a special interest, labor should have been somewhere else. Why alienate racist members? Or make trouble for discriminatory affiliates? Or, more fundamentally, undercut labor's work by fostering a parallel civil-rights enforcement system? Yet it was the AFL-CIO that pushed for Title VII (prohibiting job discrimination), and the AFL-CIO, thanks to its clout on Capitol Hill, that got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through.

Or consider, finally, this thundering might-have-been. Forty-seven million Americans currently lack medical insurance, and our health delivery system is a shambles. The last best chance for something better came after World War II, in a simpler medical age when universal health care stood high on the Fair Deal agenda, only to be met by the reactionary American Medical Association, the insurance companies (who knew a profit center when they saw one) and the organized health care industry.

And who led the charge? You guessed it: General Motors and other once-fat corporations now sinking under their legacy costs.

The union movement should have laughed out loud, because if health coverage came from companies, then unions could - and quickly did - enfold it within collective bargaining. Instead, the unions fought for national health insurance, and lost. At the time, after World War II, a third of the labor force was organized, and pundits talked about union power (which was why in 1947 the Republicans got the Taft-Hartley evisceration of the labor law).

Organized labor too strong? Not strong enough when it came to health care.

That was then. Today, the labor movement represents 7.5 percent of private-sector employees. Union density hasn't been so low since Gompers rolled cigars for a living. No one really knows how much impact the Employee Free Choice Act might have. That depends on how American workers respond to the real freedom to choose that the Act offers them. But we can be sure that without that freedom, labor's decline will continue. Just think what American politics would be like operating-to use a favorite National Association of Manufacturing expression - in a union-free environment.

Is that good for America?

David Brody is a professor emeritus at the University of California-Davis and the author, most recently, of Labor Embattled: History, Power, Rights (2005). Via the AFL-CIO



Unions good for American wages, too, study reveals

WASHINGTON - "Economic data have long demonstrated a substantial wage premium for unionized workers" - on the order of 10 to 20 percent - for average U.S. workers, said a new study by the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research.

The report said for the typical U.S. worker - the earner right in the middle of the national pay scale - unionization raises wages about 13.7 percent. For high wage earners, in the top 10 percent, unionization raises incomes by 6.1 percent.

But the focus of their study was on the affects of unionization on low-wage workers, where the news is even better.

"Unionization raises wages for all workers, but unions have by far the biggest impact on the wages of the lowest-paid workers," said John Schmitt, a Senior Economist at CEPR and the author of the study. The report, "The Union Advantage for Low-Wage Workers," finds that unionization raises the wages of the typical low-wage worker by 20.6 percent.

"Unions give the biggest boost to low-wage workers because these are the workers that have the least bargaining power in the labor market," Schmitt said. "Unionization has a large and measurable impact on the bargaining power, and therefore the wages, of low-wage workers."

Over the period covered in the report, 13.8 percent of American workers were either members of a union or covered by a union contract at their workplace. Over the same period, the unionization rate varied widely across the United States, from 3.9 percent in North Carolina to 26.4 percent in New York.

Michigan's 21.8 percent unionization rate brought a union premium of 13.9 percent for the lowest paid workers, and 4.1 percent for the highest paid.

Commenting on the study, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said "For millions of workers who work hard and take home less to show for it, being part of a union that provides a say on the job is all the more important. This study proves that for workers on the bottom rungs of the pay scale, bargaining power is the best, and often only, means to gain a leg up to the middle class."


A column about safety training on the job, or 'When I Was an Idiot'

By Mark Breslin
Twelfth in a Series

I'm sure that some people will disagree with the past tense in the title of this article…but in recognition of my previous sins, omissions and stupidity in the area of safety, I will confirm my idiot status. Years later, I did finally figure it out, proving that even the dumbest horse can be led to water and made to drink. But the stories noted below are true. They are from a two-year period (many years ago) when I put myself through school working construction in downtown San Francisco. The company is long out of business. Big surprise.

I was 20, immortal and clueless. I hefted the Sawzall again and began cutting the tenth pipe that day. The pipe wrapping exploded in a cloud of white dust and powder. It covered me as the blade bit into the steel. Sweating in the crawl space, in my paper dust mask, I cut those pipes for weeks on end as we did the demo and conversion on an old San Francisco tenement hotel.

And at the end of those days, I looked like Casper the Ghost covered head to toe in white dust and powder. Just another construction guy doing his job. Except that the dust I was wearing and breathing was mostly asbestos. Know what? If someone had told me that, I probably would have kept doing it anyway.

Safety in the field is not about company rules, programs, training or OSHA. Safety in the field is fundamentally about influencing BEHAVIORS. Safety, when it comes down to it, is mostly about the individual worker selecting the appropriate behaviors in concert with his or her own interests as well as the company's. You can give workers the information and tools all day long but if you can't shape behavior, then you cannot create a safe jobsite. In my experience, you have to craft these behaviors; they do not appear on their own.

I dipped the steel wool in a canister of industrial JASCO paint stripper. Nasty stuff, thick and poisonous as napalm. Cloth gloves soaking through. Respirator with two-month old filters, foam dust mask or sometimes just a bandanna. Stripping three coats of paint off 50 old hardwood doors. Stuff stank up an entire floor of the job. Just another construction guy doing his job. I knew it couldn't be good for me but why do something different if no one tells me why?

There are many barriers to effective safety and injury prevention. The macho construction image. Poor pre-job planning. Employee denial. The "It won't happen to me mentality." No employer-driven rewards or consequences. Every year scores of workers die in our industry and many more are injured. Some of these are flukes but many more of them are workers who made a bad judgment call, engaged in risky behaviors and ended paying the consequences.

So who then is the person most able to influence these jobsite behaviors? The individual worker and his or her foreman.

I was stripping lath and plaster off of a ceiling that was just out of reach. I used the second to-the-top step on the ladder; the one that is labeled "This is Not a Step." I believe the term to describe me at that time would definitely be "idiot." With a 12- foot fall I only bounced once but the crew got a laugh out of it. I was both an idiot and a construction crew foreman doing his job. Setting a great example.

In the 1990s I taught many safety courses for construction field personnel. Over 3,000 students in all. In each class, I would ask them to anonymously write down the stupidest, most unsafe thing they ever did on a jobsite and put it in a box. The responses were very scary. After lunch I would read the worst and finally nominate The Stupidest Guy in the Class. They loved it.

But what I learned, after talking to hundreds of students, was that they KNEW they were not doing the right thing but THEY DID IT ANYWAY and that EVERY STUDENT HAD DONE IT AT ONE TIME OR ANOTHER. It wasn't ignorance or lack of training or anything else. There was just no compelling reason to do it differently, so they didn't.

Mike could not get the exact cut he wanted on his saw. So he pulled up the safety guard. Again. Like lots of guys did. Like I did. I was standing right there. Didn't say a thing. Dull blades kick back. I knew it. He knew it. Combined with the open guard it was no wonder that after it kicked, it sliced right through his thigh. The wound was deep and nasty. But you know, guys still had their safety guards up the same week. I changed my blade; but that's about all.

Training and apprenticeship programs can only do so much for influencing key behaviors. There is a difference between having a safety program and implementing one. There is a difference between having a set of rules and policies and enforcing them. There is a difference between telling the hands that safety is a competitive issue and rewarding them for it. To create safety as a profit center takes proactive contractor involvement in providing clear rewards and consequences. It takes setting up safety as a non-negotiable value system for a company and thus an industry.

All this is just fluff without the tools and resources to make it happen. But more importantly, the coordinated determination, willpower and discipline to change the values and behaviors that will dictate results. Everything begins and ends with attitudes and behaviors. The training centers and instructors do an outstanding job at forming the values and standards, but the contractors need to implement and reinforce effectively.

Otherwise we'll just end up with a bunch of boys (and girls) behaving badly; at our industry's expense and their own. Take it from me. A reformed idiot.

Mark Breslin is a trainer and author specializing in labor-management challenges and solutions. He is the author of the recently published Attitudes and Behaviors: Survival of the Fittest curriculum for apprentice training centers. The curriculum is now being used by union training centers, and has been established as standard course programming by other International Unions and apprenticeship programs. Instructional material including books, CDs, workbooks, instructor guides and support media information is available at



Union Industries show gone, probably for good

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

DETROIT - The three-day Union Industry Show made a return engagement to Cobo Center May 16-18, showcasing services and products by organized labor.

It was a bittersweet event: scores of displays showcased union-made cars, clothing, glasses, and the good work of union Hardhats. But the event - which has taken place every year since it began in Cincinnati in 1938 (except during World War II) - likely ended its run with its visit to the Motor City this year.

"The 2009 show has been postponed, and I sincerely doubt that it will come back," Charlie Mercer, president of the AFL-CIO Union Label and Service Trades Department, told us on the show floor. "We have fewer exhibitors. So much of our work has gone offshore, and there have been so many mergers among unions. That has reduced the number of booths. Ending the show isn't definite, but it seems as if our board is going to look at better ways to promote union products."

Displays by building trades unions were a significant part of this year's show, as virtually all the crafts had a presence. Visitors to the free show also saw displays for a diverse number of products and services, from union-made knives, to the U.S. Postal Service, to Harley-Davison motorcycles, Kohler plumbing products, and SVS Vision.

This show was significantly smaller than the last time it came to Detroit, in 1995, when an estimated 300,000 visitors walked through Cobo's doors. Mercer said this show probably welcomed about 50,000 visitors, and featured about 125 vendors.

Mercer said the Executive Board which governs the show had some major beefs in 1995 with Cobo and its contractors over high costs associated with setting up the show - but not this time.

"Things have changed 180 degrees," Mercer said. "Detroit has gone out of its way to help us. Today the International Union wouldn't hesitate to consider Detroit for a convention. Everyone has gone out of their way to make sure it's a success."

THE 2008 UNION INDUSTRIES SHOW in Detroit attracted about 50,000 visitors. The Sheet Metal Workers Local 80 display in the foreground took up quite a bit of real estate at Cobo Center.

HEAT AND FROST Insulators Local 25 JATC Coordinator Steve Boyd and instructor Robert Ducker talk to visitors to their booth.


Young welders get an elbow up during Boilermakers competition

Anticipated power plant construction, as well as maintenance and expansion of existing boilers around Michigan, is expected to bring about a boom in the need for welders during the next decade.

Enter the annual Boilermakers Local 169 "High School Welding Invitational," a competition that took place this year on May 2 at the local's Training Center in Dearborn. The competition brought in 60 high schoolers from 14 schools statewide, allowing them to learn who the boilermakers are and what they do, display their welding skills, and perhaps get a leg up when it comes time to get hired.

This is the sixth year that Tony Najor, an instructor from the Lapeer County Education Technical Center, has brought his students to the boilermakers competition.

"I like everything they do here," he said. "What they're offering is employment, and it offers a great opportunity for our kids. I wish more places offered these kinds of opportunities."

Najor and other instructors said the Boilermakers' program offers a career path that veers from the traditional course suggested by high school counselors and curricula - that is, getting a college degree. "Half the students we have aren't going to college," said Michael Schmidt, an instructor with the Mecosta-Oceola Intermediate Career Center. "This gives them something to work toward."

The students were reminded that they would be drug- and alcohol-tested, the job can involve extensive traveling, and that their skills and work ethic would determine whether they could stay in a career as a boilermaker.

Boilermakers Local 169 Business Manager Tony Jacobs said in the next five to six years, he anticipates that the local will draw about one-third of its workforce from vocational education schools.

"We are busy and we are going to be busy," he told the group of assembled students. "Your teachers have done a great job of teaching you welding. We offer a career, but it's not a kid's game. We have to keep owners and contractors happy by getting jobs done right, on time and on budget."

The students displayed their welding skills and had their work judged to give them an idea of how they can improve their skill. They also took a written test to show their knowledge.

Chris Lanzon, president of Detroit Boiler Co., told the students that entry into the Boilermakers apprenticeship program "is one of the best opportunities you can be given in the building trades. There are situations in the country where employers don't know where they're going to find people to do their work."

BOILERMAKERS LOCAL 169'S Rob Theisen, right, talks to high schooler Demarco Hunt after he put down his "welding elbow" during the Local 169 High School Welding Invitational. Theisen won the first annual Local 169 Invitational. He also competed in the Great Lakes Area Boilermaker Apprentice of the Year Competition earlier this month, and will find out how he placed on June 11.


News Briefs

ENR ranks nation's top contractors
One barometer of our state's building climate is the revenue ranking of Michigan's largest construction contractors.

The rankings (by earnings) for all U.S.-based general contractors are listed every May by the Engineering News Record. This year, most Michigan-based general contractors dropped a little in the rankings, but nothing that would indicate a trend - yet.

"For large contractors, 2007 was close to the best of times," the ENR said. "While the housing market was collapsing, most other markets continued to show strength. But contractors now are seeing signs of a downturn and are bracing for tougher times ahead."

The ENR called 2007 "an exceptional year" for its Top 400 contractors. The Top 400 generated $304 billion in revenue, up 15.8 percent from 2006.

But, "the view in the rearview mirror looks a lot better than what we are seeing through the windshield," said Douglas Barnhart, CEO of Douglas E. Barnhart Inc., and this year's president of the Associated General Contractors, Arlington, Va., to the ENR.

Year after year, Southfield-based Barton Malow is consistently Michigan's biggest revenue earning contractor on ENR's list. This year Barton Malow dropped to #43 on the list from #39. Detroit's Walbridge (formerly Walbridge-Aldinger) was #51 in 2007, a drop of five positions from 2007.

The rest of the top Michigan-based contractors for revenue on ENR's Top-400 list include: Angelo Iafrate Co., Warren, (#139, -21 from 2007); The Christman Co., Lansing (#164, -15); Rockford Construction Co., Grand Rapids (#195, +32); Granger Construction Co., Lansing (#254, -41); Roncelli, Sterling Heights (#298, -2); Owens-Ames-Kimball Co., Grand Rapids (#305, +47); Aristeo Construction Co., Livonia #323, unranked in 2007); Commercial Contracting Corp., Auburn Hills (#337, unchanged); Clark Construction, Lansing (#351, -23), and Pioneer General Contractors (#358, unchanged).

Nationwide, the three largest general contractors were unchanged from 2007 to 2008: Bechtel, Flour Corp. and The Turner Corp.

Other construction contractors (and their 2008 rankings) that do a significant amount of business in Michigan include: Skanska (#6); Alberici Corp. (#51); The Boldt Co. (#85); Graycor (#91); Miron Construction (#152); Rudolph/Libbe (#213), and Lunda Construction (#231).

Ex-NLRB chairman's stripes never change
The President-Bush appointed majority of the National Labor Relations Board is widely seen by organized labor as the most anti-union panels in its 80-year history.

Their anti-union bias culminated last year in the "September massacre," a series of rulings that seriously weakened union protections and workers' rights.

The three-member majority of the NLRB was led by Robert Battista of Michigan. On May 6, the Bush Administration withdrew his re-nomination, because Battista decided to move on to greener pastures. His new employer: the law firm of Littler Mendelson, a notorious union-buster. Battista was also a management attorney during the Detroit newspaper strike.


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