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November 10, 2000
By Marty Mulcahy
Building trades unions say black. The Associated Builders and Contractors say white. Trade unions are oil. The ABC is water. The sky is blue in the unionized world, but in the ABC's realm, we suspect it may be chartreuse.
The ABC was set up to fight unions and their contractors on just about every front in the construction industry, and there is little in common in the way either side conducts their business.
Once in a while - and it happened again last week - an article crosses our desk that perfectly illustrates this disparity, and leaves us scratching our head in amazement.
The article appeared in one of the publications we frequently cite, the nonpartisan Construction Labor Report, which is published by the Bureau of National Affairs. The article said Roger Liska, chairman of the Clemson University (South Carolina) Department of Construction Science and Management, spoke to about 125 members of the ABC's 2000 Electrical Contractors' Conference in late September.
He was obviously preaching to an anti-worker, anti-union choir, but it was still amazing to see the ABC's fundamental strategy spelled out in black and white: how to improve company profits, keep valuable workers from fleeing the company, all the while keeping wages as low as possible.
It was published under the heading, "Contractors told to focus on safety, training to attract, retain skilled workers." Hmm notice anything about improving worker wages and benefits in that heading? No, we didn't either, and it will become obvious how low on the scale of importance those items are to the ABC.
According to the article, Liska mentioned several studies that showed turnover among construction workers directly affects a company's bottom line. He said every 10 percent change in a company's turnover rate results in a 2.5 percent increase in overall labor costs.
So what is a nonunion electrical contractor to do about retaining workers? Should they bring wages up to union standards? Look into providing better insurance health insurance plans for workers? Start up employee pension plans or 401k programs? Institute a quality, federally approved training program? Start a system of collective bargaining so that workers and management can express their desires, assess their differences and come to a mutual decision on wages, working conditions?
Liska said the contractors with good worker retention rates:
Believe it or not, folks, that's the latest in nonunion workforce retention and recruitment in the electrical industry.
Maybe that's why the Electrical Workers have been one of the
top unions for organizing nonunion workers over the last several
By Marty Mulcahy
It's a tribute to how well the Mackinac Bridge was built that the span's most expensive renovation project in its 43-year history - scheduled to wrap up this week for the season - has little to do with the integrity or deterioration of the bridge structure itself.
"All in all the structure of the bridge continues to be in excellent shape," said Jim Ecker, chief engineer for the Mackinac Bridge Authority. "It was a very good design." Still, the five-mile long span is constantly exposed to Mother Nature, and maintenance of the bridge is constant, too. That's why prime contractor American Bridge and about 50 iron workers spent a good portion of this year tearing out and replacing the bridge's "travelers," which are essentially moving platforms under various areas of the bridge deck that are used by maintenance workers.
"Basically, the old travelers are shot," Ecker said. "They get stuck, they don't work half the time, and we've been moving parts from one to another to keep them working."
The new, heavier travelers will be powered by diesel engines and will move the platforms along newly installed, beefed-up rails about 15 feet below the bridge deck. "The bridge is going to weigh 800 tons more than when we started," said Dallas Campeau, foreman for the iron workers, who have worked 85,000 man-hours on the project without an injury.
New scissor-lifts and spider stages will be installed in conjunction with the travelers, allowing maintenance workers access to all nooks and crannies of the span.
The $14 million project will be re-started next April and completion could happen as soon as the fall of 2001. Installing the traveler isn't the only project that is going on at Michigan's most famous landmark. Electricians are also re-wiring the bridge, and replacing virtually the entire electrical system, which is original and is starting to fail.
As an apprentice electrician, "Ducky" Nelson of IBEW Local 1070 helped wire the bridge when it was being built, and now he's back over the Straits of Mackinac in 2000 with J. Ranck Electric, helping replace cable, lighting fixtures and related gear.
"It's time," he said. "This stuff is just worn out. The only problem is that you need wings to get at it, everything is underneath the bridge."
Indeed, motorists crossing the Straits don't realize it, but there is a hidden colony of activity going on underneath the bridge deck. The only clues are the yellow access ladders used by tied-off trades workers, who get to them by clambering over the three-foot high guard rail when they go down to work. There are also small cranes on the bridge deck that transport materials to the sub-deck.
There, iron workers toil atop metal mesh staging that has been placed on the bridge's horizontal support beams. When this visitor first got off the ladder and stood on the mesh, there was an assault on the senses. The beautiful view was the first thing I noticed. Looking down through the mesh, the Straits of Mackinac flows by, challenging your sense of balance. Above, traffic can be seen and heard rumbling over the metal road bed in the center of the bridge deck, and heavy vehicles surprisingly make the bridge bounce.
"You get used to it," said iron worker steward Wayne Kirchoff, whose dad worked on the bridge when it was being built. "We're in a pretty exposed position, but we're very conscious about safety on this job. With the wind and the elements you get a good appreciation for what the old-timers had to go through when they built this bridge."
American Bridge was also the prime contractor for the bridge's superstructure when it was built from 1954-57. Five men died during the construction process, but thousands of others lived to tell the tale of how they helped build North America's longest suspension bridge.
"I've been on this bridge a number of times and to me, there's an inspiring sense of history associated with it," said Local 25 Business Agent Larry Sedrowski. "It's a tremendous feeling to be a part of one of the greatest construction projects the world has ever seen."
Throughout the lifetime of the bridge, Ecker said the Mighty Mac has benefited from getting sufficient resources from the state to maintain the span. The structure is constantly being painted from end to end, and inspections for structural integrity are regular and thorough. Two years ago, for the first time in the bridge's history, finger joints and bearings were replaced on the bridge. They allow the bridge to move with the stresses of the wind and traffic.
The structural steel on the bridge is going to have to be replaced, someday, but the regular maintenance performed on the bridge means that won't happen anytime soon. In fact, serious steel replacement isn't scheduled until 2017, when the Mackinac Bridge Authority anticipates replacing the steel grating in the middle of the road and replacement of the underlying deck.
Ecker said the design of the span has withstood the test of time. "There are a few things that could have been done different, but for decades after it was built, builders of suspension bridges copied the design of the Mackinac Bridge."
Pipe Fitters, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Local 636 has changed addresses only a few times since it was chartered in 1914, but its new location looks to be the best one yet.
On Oct. 20, the local union had a dedication ceremony to mark the opening of its new office, a 10,200-square-foot building that will allow the local union to take care of business more efficiently.
"Congratulations on a beautiful facility," said United Association of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Sprinkler Fitters General President Martin Maddaloni, on hand at the building's dedication. "You've had hard times in the past and you'll have hard times in the future, but we're thankful that we can reap the benefit today of a strong economy. It takes strong leadership and commitment by the members to attain such a fine facility."
The single-story building has a burnished concrete base, copper siding, and plenty of windows. Inside, nicely appointed common areas, offices and a conference room will provide a classy space for taking care of local union business.
The new $2.5 million building, located at 30100 Northwestern Hwy. in Farmington Hills, is triple the size of the old union hall in Detroit. The building's office, conference and meeting rooms are expected to help meet the needs of the local union, which has grown 17 percent in the last four years.
In his remarks, Local 636 Business Manager Jim Lapham alluded to the local's Irish tradition, with leaders over the years named McNamara, McCarthy and Kelly. And the local itself was given its charter on St. Patrick's Day of 1914.
"We seem to have an Irish tradition in the local, but
we also have a tradition of looking out for our retirees, and
fighting for our members. We are proud to have been part of the
progress that helped our industry emerge from the Dark Ages of
50-hour work-weeks and $3 a day."
The grand opening of the new Local 636 offices allowed the local union to pay tribute to one of its old friends.
Boaz Siegel, an attorney for more than 50 years, was honored by Local 636 for all his efforts on behalf of working people. Over the years, "Buzz" Siegel hasn't only acted as legal counsel for local union pension funds and SUB funds, he actually wrote the plans and guided them through the first legal and legislative hurdles. Siegel, 86, has been a lawyer since 1941.
"With everyone gathered here for the dedication of our new building, I thought it would be appropriate to express to Buzz our deep appreciation for all that he's done for Local 636 and the labor movement," said Local 636 Business Manager Jim Lapham.
Congressman Sander Levin, who worked as a labor attorney three decades ago under Siegel's tutelage, said his old boss' contributions "are immense." He recalled how Siegel was given the task of setting the first Supplemental Unemployment Benefit Fund for Pipe Fitters Local 636 and Plumbers Local 98 - the first such fund for any building trades local in the nation.
There were no suitable plans to follow in other local unions, so Levin, and then Siegel, made things up as they went along. Through trial and error, they worked together to formulate a suitable plan, one that passed muster with the all the agencies that regulate union funds. It was no small task.
"I can't think of anyone in the legal profession in which you can have more pride," Levin said. "Buzz frequently was asked to take a look at cases that involved injured workers or widows, who wondered about their benefits. Buzz wanted to follow the law, but he also followed his heart, and hundreds of individual union members benefited."
Siegel taught contracts, labor law and administrative law at Wayne State University from 1941 to 1972. He was Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg's appointee on the first U.S. Advisory Council on Employee Welfare and Pension Plans, and has served on the National Academy of Arbitrators since 1964. Buzz entered into private practice in the 1970s, serving as legal counsel to trustees of pension, health and other fringe benefit funds.
United Association General President Martin Maddaloni made Siegel an honorary member of the union "for all you've done for the labor movement."
The recognition was a surprise for Siegel, who said "it's the kind of reward that doesn't have a dollar amount attached to it. The reward has been in helping working people. As I look back on my career I can say it was substantially devoted to that purpose."
Who spent what on politics
And it was the Republicans - mostly backed by big business - who spent the lion's share on political spending when expenditures are examined nationwide.
According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the business community contributed $841.8 million to political candidates and parties from the start of 1999 through Sept. 30. Union campaign finance committees contributed $56.3 million.
That's an incredible amount of money, but must people who watch television or listen to the radio - especially in the swing state of Michigan - would say there's no doubt that a record amount was spend on campaigning this year.
All told, the business community outspent labor 15-1 in political contributions, compared to 11-1 in the last presidential election.
Most of the business spending was in so-called "soft money" - unlimited donations direct from business and lobbies for issue ads or to political parties, which then use it for candidates.
That's why the only chance labor-friendly candidates have to win elections is through grass-roots campaigning.
Native tribes have right to work (for less?)
By a 2-1 vote in a case involving the Pueblo of San Juan, N.M., and a timber company from Idaho, a three-judge panel of the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said tribal sovereignty overrode the National Labor Relations Act because both the law and Congress were silent on NLRA's application to tribes.
The National Labor Relations Board, joined by Local 1385 of the Western Council of Industrial Workers, part of the Carpenters, sued to uphold the federal law. The tribe drew support from the anti-worker National Right-to-Work Legal Defense Foundation.
"I think the potential impact of this is enormous," says Mike Pieti, WCIW Executive Secretary-Treasurer. "What if you have a lot of tribal land and GE or some company like that wants to move there and not worry about union security?
"We're unable to bargain on something that was supposed to be bargained. They (the opponents) have added another layer of right-to-work. We'll take this to the Supreme Court if we have to," he added. "This is not a big case in terms of members - we represented 80 - but morally, it's huge."
NLRB spokesman David Parker said the board "is considering seeking review" of the ruling by the full Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
It's Labor vs. Labor Ready
"We rally to shine a bright spotlight on a company that still hasn't learned that its most valuable asset is the people who do the work," said AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. "Even in this new survival-of-the-fittest economy, you won't succeed for long by exploiting workers."
Labor actions in the construction industry are becoming increasingly common against temporary agencies. Nationwide, construction work now rivals temporary work as the number one industry for temps. Each day nearly 250,000 workers are on the job as temps.
Sweeney pointed out that Labor Ready's temps make the "minimum wage and nothing more - no health care, no sick days, no vacation time, no life insurance or disability coverage, no retirement plans or 401ks."
And, unions charge, the company not only exploits its workers, but also cheats the states.
At the shareholders meeting, unions, which own over 500 shares of Labor Ready, questioned whether the company is paying its required share into state worker compensation systems.
Edward Sullivan, AFL-CIO Building and Trades Department President, said that in some states Labor Ready, whose temps work in predominantly manual labor, classified large numbers of their temps as "clerical office employees." In state compensation systems, clerical or white-collar work requires employers to contribute much smaller amounts, mainly because of the low risk of job-related injuries.
"We're calling on Labor Ready to tell us, 'Are you playing
by the rules?' " Sullivan said. "Are you paying your
share, or are you trying to make an end-run around your responsibilites?"
The September rebound brings the nation's construction contracting spending to a level slightly above the 1999 average, depicting an industry that continues to see expansion, but at a more gradual pace than last year.
All told, during the first six months of 2000, construction spending was up 1 percent over a year ago. However, the Midwest region experienced the deepest decline in construction activity compared to a year ago, down 10 percent.
Meanwhile, despite the downtick in spending the construction
added 34,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
Welding fumes are hardly a breath of fresh air.
That's why welders in the building trades workers are reminded to make sure the area in which they're working is well-ventilated - even if the area is outdoors.
"It is well known that fumes generated from arc welding operations expose welders and those around them to serious respiratory hazards," said a report from the Construction Occupational Health Program, out of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. "This is pretty easy to see when a welding job is done in a shop or other indoor setting. If there is not adequate ventilation, the whole area quickly fills up with the familiar bluish gray fumes.
"However it is much harder to know when outdoor welders on construction projects are being exposed to fume hazards."
The reason: just because a welder is outdoors doesn't mean that ventilation is adequate. There are numerous instances where a welder could be working outdoors in a confined space, where fumes can easily accumulate.
Following are some safety tips welders should be aware of:
Offsite rules sought for prevailing wage
The Labor Department, which is controlled by the Clinton Administration, is proposing to expand Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements to workers at off-site locations where a "significant" part of a construction project is being built.
The reason: with changes in construction technology, more and more building work is going to off-site shops that pay their workers substandard wages. Unions argue that those shops and their tens of thousands of workers should be included in Davis-Bacon provisions, while contractor groups argue that work performed away from a project's location shouldn't be subject to prevailing wage.
In terms of setting a precedent, the ramifications in this argument over pay standards for construction workers is huge. Prevailing wage is the single most important law on the nation's books that affect construction workers' wages. Without a rule that protects workers' wages on all facets of a construction project, the nonunion prefabrication industry will grow without checks and balances on wages and benefits.
An AFL-CIO Building Trades Department attorney told the Construction Labor Report that he is "generally pleased" with the Labor Department's proposal, but would like it to be expanded to temporary batch and fabrication plants established specifically to support a project.
Prisoners look to unions for a voice
No, not for the guards, for the inmates. The Wall Street Journal reports that Missouri State Prison inmate Jerome White Bey, serving a 50-year sentence for murder and robbery, claims 500 prisoners in his state belong to the Missouri Prison Labor Union.
Prisons don't recognize prisoner unions and the unions in the joint have no bargaining rights. Bey said prisoners are looking for minimum wage instead of the lower pay prisoners receive.
In an economy in which many states and federal lawmakers are increasingly looking to put more workers into the economy, prison labor is becoming more and more targeted. The Journal reports that about 35 percent of the nation's prisoners are already in some kind of work program.
Sam T. Hart's name missing from list
The name of Operating Engineers Local 324 Business Manager
Sam T. Hart was omitted, and we regret the oversight.