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
new designs on revamped Argonaut Building
could bolster EFCA, other labor causes
states aren't on right track, either
Weren't low wages
supposed to curb high unemployment? Not in South Carolina
now is the right time to pass reforms to labor law
By John Sweeney
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
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
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.
good for passage of PLA in Ingham County, Board chair says
By Marty Mulcahy
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
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
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
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
"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.
has new designs on revamped Argonaut Building
By Marty Mulcahy
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
move could bolster EFCA, other labor causes
By Marty Mulcahy
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
"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
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).
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
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
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."
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
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
"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."
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 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