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May 8, 2009

Right now is the right time to pass reforms to labor law

Looks good for passage of PLA in Ingham County, Board chair says

College has new designs on revamped Argonaut Building

Specter's move could bolster EFCA, other labor causes

Right-to-work states aren't on right track, either

Weren't low wages supposed to curb high unemployment? Not in South Carolina

News Briefs

 

Right now is the right time to pass reforms to labor law

By John Sweeney
AFL-CIO President

Labor law reform will pass in 2009. The time is right.

The Employee Free Choice Act is the most significant labor law reform in our generation. It is critical to bringing America's economic system back into balance and freeing us from the modern-day era of the Robber Baron.

For three decades, we've valued corporate profit over people and CEO pay over people's pocketbooks. The results of this absurdity are clear: 8.5 percent unemployment (and still rising). Investors who asked us to bend the regulatory rules and then drove the banks and housing market into the ground. We haven't seen this level of income disparity since the Great Depression.

Our labor laws are broken, and people have lost the freedom to improve their lives through unions. When working people lose collective power, there is no real counterweight to corporate greed.

Today's economic crisis for working families, the perverse imbalance that caused it and the demands of the people and our leaders all tell us the time is now to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, take back America's economy and make it work for everyone. Seventy-three percent of the public supports it, as do President Obama, Vice President Biden and the leadership in Congress.

Change of this magnitude is not going to be easy. We've seen a multimillion-dollar ad blitz by corporate front groups hell-bent on maintaining the unfair status quo and derailing the Employee Free Choice Act. We've seen their despicable lies, distortions and political attacks.

Of course passing the Employee Free Choice Act will be hard. It is and will continue to be hard for members of Congress to stand up to corporate deep-pocket lobbyists and do the right thing. Our job is to make sure enough of them have the backing - and the backbone - to do it.

Across the country, thousands of working people are calling and writing personal letters to their U.S. senators and representatives - thanking those who have co-sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act, urging others to support the bill and telling still others - Sen. Arlen Specter comes to mind - that they can't claim to be friends of working families if they oppose this legislation.

As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the coyly named front groups engage in the fight of their lives, our toughest work is yet to come. You've read about at least one so-called compromise proposal, written by corporations and for corporations in an attempt to take real labor law reform off the table. We're about to see more compromises put on the table and they all must be judged by whether they adhere to these three basic, nonnegotiable principles. Labor law reform must:

  • Provide workers a real choice to form unions and bargain for a better life, free from intimidation;
  • Stop the endless delays in negotiating a first contract;
  • Create real penalties for violating the law.

It won't be easy - but this is the right time to restore the democratic right of working people to build a better life through collective bargaining and create an economy that works for everyone.

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Looks good for passage of PLA in Ingham County, Board chair says

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

MASON - Despite a lobbying campaign by the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors, "it appears that there is support" by a majority of the Ingham County Board of Commissioners for passage of a project labor agreement governing construction work sponsored by the county.

So said Board of Commissioners Chairperson Debbie De Leon on April 29, who added, "I do believe a PLA will be approved in the end."

The commission talked about a PLA policy at its meeting on April 21, and heard from representatives supporting both sides of the issue. Union members filled the seats in the audience to support a PLA policy. The matter was referred to the County Services Committee. De Leon said commissioners are working on details for a PLA policy, including setting a project cost level to determine when a PLA would be instituted.

"We need to strengthen and better define our contracting policy," De Leon said. "We need more oversight and control over projects."

De Leon said the county has had its share of difficulty with contractors. Most prominently, she said a county fairgrounds electrical project started last July "still might not be completed," adding that there were problems with quality of materials, among others. Shepherding a PLA policy into law in Ingham County has been a project of IBEW Local 665 Assistant Business Manager Tom Eastwood. "What started off as a simple concern regarding one particular contractor turned into the county drafting a new procurement policy for construction," he said.

He has been working on getting a PLA adopted with IBEW Local 665 President Ray Michaels and Local 665 Business Manager Scott Clark. "The county is looking for value-added benefits to their contracting," said Michaels. "A project labor agreement is a tool that will allow the Board of Commissioners to set standards for the contractors they hire. It's a smart business decision."

Michaels pointed out that in recent years, Michigan State University, Lansing Community College, Sparrow Hospital and the ongoing Accident Fund Headquarters renovation project in downtown Lansing have all implemented project labor agreements.

Anytime a PLA comes up for review before a public body, the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors are not far behind. Afraid of having nonunion contractors shut out of work, the ABC usually claims project labor agreements discriminate against nonunion contractors and lead to higher costs for taxpayers.

"We don't think it's appropriate to establish a bias one way or the other," said Chris Fisher, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan, to the Lansing State Journal.

The ABC might not think it's "appropriate," but numerous companies, large and small, as well as state and local governments across the nation have adopted PLAs. And the U.S. Supreme Court has validated the use of PLAs by federal, state and local governments.

Project labor agreements vary, but they generally set rules and standards governing worker training, wages, working conditions, and drug and alcohol testing. Basically PLAs give an employer or purchaser of construction services a set of standards for the contractors they hire, and they give themselves a reasonable assurance of a quality workforce that will add value to their job by doing it on time and on budget - the first time.

In return, workers are generally assured a prevailing wage and contractually approved working conditions, usually with no-strike language.

"Big users of construction, pretty smart people, have looked at PLAs and decided that they add value, and it gives them bang for the buck," Michaels said. "The ABC is just a small special interest group. I don't think they have any interest in standards, oversight or accountability."

Eastwood credited Dan Stuart of Construction Industry Consultants, Ed Haynor from the West Michigan Construction Alliance and Todd McCastle of the Carpenters for their contributions to the effort.

De Leon said that a petition submitted by the ABC urging the Ingham County Commission to reject the project labor agreement policy had little effect on the commission - especially after staffers did some research. "Many of the vendors didn't even have a construction component," De Leon said. One of the signers of the ABC petition, she said, represented a moving company. Only a handful of those companies, she said, had ever placed bids on county construction work.

 

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College has new designs on revamped Argonaut Building

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

DETROIT - Walbridge and the building trades have made a veritable blank slate out of the massive Argonaut Building, and are ready to transform it into modern space for the College for Creative Studies.

General Motors built the 760,000-square-foot Argonaut Building as its first research facility. Constructed in two phases in 1928 and 1936, the building is located behind its original headquarters building in the New Center area. GM left the building when it moved to the Renaissance Center in 1999, and later donated it to the CCS. The college is upgrading the building and its main campus at a cost of $145 million.

CCS will redevelop the Argonaut Building as a second campus site and reorganize and upgrade its existing campus, about a mile away in the Cultural Center district. The Argonaut Building will house undergraduate and graduate programs in design, community outreach activities, student housing, research and professional activities in the design fields.

"In making its offer, GM really presented a great opportunity to the college," said Matt Robertson, project manager representing the owner for the Larson Realty Group. "The college was running out of room to grow on its existing campus, and this building met their immediate and future needs."

To punctuate how much room is in the building, it will include a charter middle school and high school with a special focus on art and design. There will be several floors occupying the College's undergraduate and graduate design programs and space on five floors of student/graduate housing, with room for 300 beds. A conference center with a 400-seat auditorium, as well as a 360-seat dining hall will be included.

The building is scheduled to open in time for the fall semester this year.

The Argonaut Building's classic exterior masonry is being completely restored to its original appearance. Inside, Robertson said the interior will feature "raw, honest finishes" with an industrial look, including exposed steel columns and mechanical systems, and polished concrete floors.

"This project offers a new and dramatic vision for the college," said College for Creative Studies President Richard Rogers. "The expansion of facilities and programs will place CCS in the forefront of international art and design education. Moreover, it will enhance the college's value as a significant community resource, a provider of career opportunity, and an engine for the development of a creative economy in the region and the continuing renewal of the city."

Robertson said when the CCS first walked into the former GM-owned property, they found décor and office layouts that were "typical 1970s," with drop ceilings, carpet and meeting rooms. Each of the 11 floors was subsequently stripped to the building's bones, and some lead and asbestos remediation was necessary.

Currently many of the trades are in the process of installing the new walls that are part of the new floor plan, as well as the mechanical systems.

Nils Vitso, senior project manager for construction manager Walbridge, said the project started April 1, 2008 with interior demolition. He said a substantial task early on was simply "discovery of existing conditions," to understand what needed to be reinforced, repaired or removed.

Ultimately, Vitso said, the building proved to be "in very good shape." The Argonaut was so well-built, Robertson said, that when it came time to tear down a vehicle ramp, a demolition crew found "the re-steel was as big as your head."

The building's original designer, Albert Kahn, was a big believer in natural light, and that's why there are some 1,900 windows in the building. All are being replaced, and the configuration of the new windows will allow in 30 percent more light. Albert Kahn Associates is the project architect on the renovation.

Vitso said there was very little insulation in the walls of the old building, and expandable spray foam was used to coat the interior walls during this renovation, which together with the new windows will add tremendously to the building's energy efficiency.

One of Argonaut's two freight elevators will be retained, the other will be converted into a stairwell. As a design headquarters for GM, the elevators were used to move cars up and down through the building. A turntable big enough to turn a car is being retained on the 11th floor, a feature that will be incorporated into a conference area.

"I can't say enough about the great work of the trades and the contractors here," Robertson said. "The quality, the speed, the adaptability to change. "We've really had no issues."

Vitso said the safety record on the job "has been very good," reinforced by a full-time job safety manager and daily "tool box talks" and safety meetings. "Safety is our number one priority," he said, adding that there are more than 300 Hardhats on the project.

"The tradespeople have performed exceptionally well and the quality of the work is very good," Vitso said. "It's been exciting to be part of the process of bringing back the original character of the building while fitting out the building with state of the art building systems."

THE 760,000 square-foot Argonaut Building - the former design headquarters for General Motors - is being redeveloped for re-use by the College for Creative Studies. An argonaut is defined by Webster's as "an adventurer engaged in a quest."

INSTALLING CABLE for Motor City Electric on the 8th Floor of the revamped Argonaut Building are Rob Garber and John Bell of IBEW Local 58. Most of the renovated floors in the building look like this one, which will become studio space for the College for Creative Studies.

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Specter's move could bolster EFCA, other labor causes

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

The defection of a Republican Pennsylvania senator to the Democratic Party could have profound implications for the labor movement in the U.S. Or not.

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, 79, announced April 28 that he would run next year as a Democrat. He acknowledged that his own polling indicated that he could not win his Pennsylvania primary against the leading Republican challenger.

"As the Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself to be more and more at odds with the Republican Party and more in tune with the Democratic Party," Specter said.

In March, Specter announced that he would not support the Employee Free Choice Act, which is probably the most important labor legislation in the last 50 years. The EFCA is expected to make it much more easier for unions to organize. But on the same day he defected, Specter said he would not change his position against the EFCA.

Nevertheless, his party switch elated AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel, who held out hope Specter would change his mind on that issue, too, and provide the needed 60th vote to halt the planned Republican filibuster against labor's top legislative priority.

"This is a new day for the Employee Free Choice Act and labor law reform. Specter has said all along he recognizes the need to reform our broken labor law system and we will continue to work with Congress to give workers back the freedom to form and join unions and pass legislation that stays true to the principles of the Employee Free Choice Act," said Samuel.

Specter's switch, combined with an eventual victory by Democrat Al Franken to gain Minnesota's open Senate seat - a race now tied up in court - would give Democrats and other labor allies the ability to stop filibusters on a wide range of pro-worker laws, including the EFCA. A moderate Republican who had been a Democrat decades ago, Specter said his votes as a Democrat would not always follow party lines.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research told Politico, "this could breath new life into the Employee Free Choice Act. Specter may still opt to vote against the bill itself, but as a Democrat he can at least vote against a filibuster, allowing a vote to take place."

If you could know a piece of legislation by its enemies, the Employee Free Choice Act has many in the Big Business community. Wal Mart hates it, as does the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. As we've reported, Home Depot CEO Bernie Marcus famously said passage of the bill would be the "demise of civilization." The business community spent $70 million last year in television ads opposing the EFCA.

Beyond Specter, unions have to keep wavering Democratic lawmakers in line from all that political pressure - especially those who hail from conservative states.

Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is expected to make it easier for unions to organize. The act would allow workers to choose a secret ballot or majority sign-up when deciding whether to join a union. Under majority sign-up, workers could join a union if most of them sign cards saying that they want to join a union.

But the current system allows employers, not workers, to choose whether secret ballots or majority card sign-up is used. Employers usually choose the more formal secret ballot system, and are able to delay the ballots for months or years, while taking the time to coerce workers not to choose union representation.

"Workers who support unions are threatened, intimidated, and fired," said Teamsters President James Hoffa.

(PAI contributed to this report).

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Right-to-work states aren't on right track, either

In theory, right-to-work states should be doing better - but reality bites them, too

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

Economically, Michigan is as sick as they come. So would instituting a union-killing, wage-lowering right-to-work law open the door to new businesses and return the state to fiscal prosperity?

Yes, according to many conservatives. At last year's Michigan Republican Convention, delegates voted on Item No. 3 in favor of a pro-right-to-work platform. Republican Jack Hoogendyck, who unsuccessfully ran against Democrat Carl Levin last year for U.S. Senate, issued mailings in support of right-to-work. And the leading conservative think-tank in Michigan, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, is constantly issuing pro-RTW literature that media in Michigan quickly regurgitates, often without rebuttal.

But the economic "Great Recession," as it's being called, is exposing the difference between conservative economic theory and reality. Jobless numbers show the economic downturn is hardly playing favorites between the 22 right-to-work states and all the other states, especially in the construction industry. It's an equal opportunity recession.

"Michigan is a basket case for a number of reasons, but it's not because of high wages," said Jim Rudicil, a Muskegon native from IBEW Local 275 who has spent much of his time over the last several years for the International Union organizing electrical workers and contractors in Southern right to work states. "There are a lot of plants in the South that employed nonunion, low-wage labor that have been closing up shop and have gone overseas for wages that are even lower. Low wages aren't necessarily keeping employers here."

Rudicil spoke to us on the road during an IBEW organizing effort that includes Corinth, Mississippi and other areas, where he said there's a surprisingly hard-core group of union electricians. "These guys are definitely union guys because they want to be," Rudicil said. "There's a pretty large group of nonunion employers here. I thought they played hardball in Michigan, but they really play hardball here. The employers are very well-connected politically."

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for March released in mid-April, Michigan led the nation with the highest jobless rate, 12.6 percent. And other non-right-to-work states like Oregon (12.1 percent) California (11.2 percent) and Rhode Island (10.5 percent) were suffering high unemployment. Relatively high unemployment could also be found in nearby heavily unionized states like Ohio (9.7 percent), Illinois (9.1 percent) and Pennsylvania (7.8 percent).

In theory, the lower-wage, "business friendly" right-to-work states would have relatively low jobless rates during this recession. Some do, like sparsely populated South Dakota (4.9 percent). But the March unemployment rates in right-to-work states like South Carolina (11.4 percent), North Carolina (10.8 percent), Nevada (10.4 percent), Mississippi (9.4 percent), Florida (9.7 percent) and Tennessee (9.6 percent) help show that an anti-union right-to-work law isn't the ticket to prosperity many conservatives claim it is.

The conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy has for years provided the "intellectual" case in favor of right-to-work in Michigan. One of their reports issued in January by Paul Kersey, their director of labor policy, cited unemployment figures from December that showed states with right-to-work laws had an average unemployment rate of 6.2 percent, compared to 7.0 percent for states without right-to-work.

He failed to point out that right to work states with little industry, small populations, and fewer jobs to lose like the Dakotas, Wyoming and Nebraska were being compared with states that had major manufacturing operations - and major job losses.

Kersey weakly concluded: "A right-to-work law by itself doesn't guarantee prosperity, but it does seem to help."

Countered Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney: The average difference in pay for workers in right-to-work states and non-right-to-work states is about $6,000. I don't think the average Michigan family can afford that."

Rudicil pointed out that electricians and other building trades workers in right-to-work states can't afford that lower pay, either. For example, a handout using federal wage statistics that the IBEW gives out during organizing efforts in the South shows that Mississippi electricians earned a median hourly wage of $17.38 in 2007, ranking that state No. 49 in the nation. No. 50 was North Carolina, where electricians earned a median wage of $16.86. (Michigan was ranked No. 7 in 2007, with a median wage for electrical workers, union and nonunion, of $27.99).

Proportionally, virtually all the rest of the building trades crafts would be comparable, Rudicil said. And he also produces numbers that show the cost of living isn't that much different between right to work and non-right-to-work states.

"Look at the wage rates for electricians in Florida ($17.51 per hour)," Rudicil said. "During the boom times, workers were building homes left and right, but they can't afford to buy a decent home. At those wage rates, they have no disposable income. They can't afford to buy a new car.

"It was like Henry Ford said, you're doomed to fail if you don't pay your people enough to buy what you make."


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Weren't low wages supposed to curb high unemployment? Not in South Carolina

By Isaiah J. Poole
Campaign for American's Future

Since 2003, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has turned the state into a petri dish for what hard-core conservatism - slashed taxes, shrunken government, cut regulations - would look like. With a Republican-controlled legislature, he's had pretty much free rein to enact the basic policies conservatives argue would make an economy thrive.

If conservatives are right, South Carolina and its residents should be weathering the recession better than most. But they are not. They are doing worse.

"In South Carolina, we're falling off a cliff," said Donna DeWitt, the president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO and co-chair of the South Carolina Progressive Network.

Her assessment is backed up by reporting by The Washington Post and by The State in Columbia, S.C.

"South Carolina has the fastest growing unemployment rate in the country, and economists do not see an end to the cycle of job losses spreading across the state," The State reported. "Between January 2008 and January 2009, the state's unemployment rate increased 4.7 percentage points, which was the largest jobless rate increase in the country, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics." (The state's unemployment rate is now 11.4 percent.)

Gov. Sanford has made a name for himself most recently for saying he would refuse to accept money from the economic recovery bill passed by Congress. He said that he wanted the federal government to issue a waiver that would allow him to use $700 million of the funds to pay down state debt - a debt fueled by corporate tax cuts and tax giveaways - rather than for actions that would stimulate the state's economy.

Meanwhile, as The Post reports, "The Salvation Army gets so many calls from people desperate for help with overdue utility bills that, one morning, its phone system crashed. The Family Service Center of South Carolina is deluged with clients seeking free counseling for delinquent mortgages. And the shelves at the Life Force food pantry run out of rice, canned stew meat and black-eyed peas in less than an hour."

The story cites the political decisions that set the stage for this crisis:

Sanford and the Republican-led General Assembly have cut the state's budget three times since last summer by a total of $871 million, or 13 percent - among the deepest reductions in the nation.

The cuts have limited state agencies' ability to help the growing numbers of people in need. The state's Medicaid program, for instance, is reducing mental health counseling, cancer screening and dental coverage.

The reductions are constricting the private sector's capacity, too. The Department of Social Services has pared its contracts to nonprofit groups by an average of 10 percent, reducing funding for emergency shelters and employment training programs.

The State's Comptroller General late last year found that state corporate income tax collections are down 57 percent, sales tax collections are down by 18 percent, and individual income tax collections are down nearly 3 percent since July, according to the Tax Justice Digest. State agencies have reportedly reduced their own budgets by $600 million to take into account reduced revenues. Gov. Sanford responded to the shortfall, the Digest said, with "a budget-busting list of tax changes that include eliminating the state's progressive corporate income tax and introducing an optional single rate personal income tax."

DeWitt said that while Sanford keeps saying that the private sector has to step up to the plate so that citizens are less dependent on government, "I see the opposite happening": firms taking advantage of tax breaks copiously handed out by conservative lawmakers in flush times and "spending millions of dollars fighting laws that would make it easier for workers" but not actually producing jobs.

As in other states, decisions by conservative South Carolina lawmakers to refuse to maintain a progressive tax structure that allows essential social services to be adequately funded is now forcing county and local governments to make painful, and downright dangerous decisions. In Columbia, that could mean closing three fire stations that serve an area that was the scene of two major fires in the past month, DeWitt said.

Asked what she fears will happen, the state AFL-CIO's DeWitt warned, "We are recreating a Jim Crow society in South Carolina with the conservative viewpoints of many of the legislators," where people of color are disproportionately represented among the economically dispossessed.

But there are hopeful signs, DeWitt said. People are seeing the real consequences of conservative government, and even a growing number of Republicans are turning their backs on the extreme right.

"The average South Carolinian does recognize that we are going to have to do something different," DeWitt said. "There are too many of us are out of work, there are not enough jobs, the very rural areas are suffering, the schools are suffering, the infrastructure is suffering."

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News Briefs

UFCW re-starts anti-Wal-Mart effort
WASHINGTON (PAI) - After a five-year break to take stock and launch a consumer revolt against anti-worker retailer Wal-Mart and its treatment of employees and customers, the United Food and Commercial Workers is starting a new organizing drive at the company.

The union is emboldened by several factors. One is its recent win in Canada, where provincial labor laws forced Wal-Mart to accept an arbitrator's two-year contract settlement in the Wal-Mart store in Ste. Hyacinthe, Quebec. Similar cases are pending elsewhere north of the border.

Another is the election of Democrat Barack Obama to the White House, with strong labor support and over strenuous Wal-Mart opposition. The firm even went so far as to order its managers to warn workers to vote against Obama or suffer dire consequences if Obama won.

The pro-UFCW workers went to Washington, D.C., calling themselves Wal-Mart Workers for Change, and detailed in stories to congressional staffers and in a new video both working conditions at the retailer and its often-illegal tactics against union supporters. The D.C. trip by workers from 17 states followed UFCW's decision to send more than 60 organizers to 15 states to begin its new campaign.

In the video, Cynthia Murray, a Wal-Mart associate from Maryland, said the workers are "intimidated, and they are afraid. My family and other families have paid the price for freedom. And when you tell me I can't talk about a union, you're taking my freedom from me."

Vikki Gill, a former Wal-Mart manager in St. Louis, said in the video, "Wal-Mart's slogan is 'Save Money, Live Better.' Wal-Mart is saving money and living better at the associates' expense." The film and the workers also point out that Wal-Mart made $13.4 billion in profits last year.

Organizing Wal-Mart is important for several reasons. It is the largest private company in the U.S., with more than one million workers. Its economic power is such that it can dictate terms to its suppliers, forcing them to sell it goods at such low prices they have to cut their own workers' wages.

And Wal-Mart's unionized competitors have cited the threat of the giant retailer in arguing for their own wage and benefit cuts.

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