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November 14, 2003
By Marty Mulcahy
One of the few consistent bright spots in the Michigan construction industry over the past decade has been a robust market for school construction and renovation.
While there aren't any statistics on how much of that work is going union or nonunion, a number of building trades leaders have looked at the school construction process and decided that there's plenty of room for improvement when it comes to selling union construction.
In order to win a greater share of work, the nonprofit West Michigan Construction Alliance has hired an ex-school administrator to approach local school districts - especially those about to embark on construction projects - on behalf of building trades unions and their contractors. His name is Ed Haynor, and this summer he was hired primarily to promote "responsible contracting" as a way of doing business for local school districts.
Haynor is recently retired from the Newaygo County Intermediate School District after running its school-to-work program. He was hired, said Bruce Hawley, business manager of Iron Workers Local 340 and president of the West Michigan Construction Alliance, because he "speaks the language" of school officials and won't come off as "a union guy" trying to find work for his members.
"We wanted to take a professional approach to presenting union labor and contractors to local school districts," Hawley said. "After a lot of discussion, we decided that the best way to do that wasn't to push union labor, but to promote responsible contracting."
Currently, there is easily more than a billion dollars in construction work taking place on behalf of Michigan schools, and according to a 2000 report by the National Education Association, our state's school buildings need an additional $9.9 billion in school renovations.
With all that money being spent on school buildings, it would be reasonable to assume that school districts have policies in place for hiring contractors. After all, Haynor said, school districts already have three-inch-thick policy books that address everything from student apparel to textbook purchases.
But there are no policies regarding school construction, mainly because the Michigan Association of School Boards - which sets the pace for policy for the state's 555 K-12th grade public school districts - has never formulated any such rules for the local districts to copy.
The MASB has shown interest in adopting responsible school construction policies after being contacted by Haynor, and he is now working with the statewide group to develop contractor responsibility rules. Last month, the Muskegon School District became the first in the state to adopt such a policy.
The West Michigan alliance is the first group in the state to actually hire a representative; other building trades councils, individual unions and contractor groups around the state are also in the process of finding funds and hiring personnel for similar work. Contractor groups associated with the effort are the Michigan Chapter of the Associated General Contractors, Michigan Chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association, and the Michigan Mechanical Contractors Association. They are working under the umbrella of the parent group, the Michigan Association of Responsible Contracting.
"About one in five school board members I've talked to at various meetings said they're not pleased with some aspect of construction in their district," Haynor said. "But a lot of it involves good planning. Maybe people in the district aren't knowledgeable about building, or maybe they depend on input from a board member who has some experience, or maybe they hire an unqualified construction manager to supervise the work. Whatever the reason for bad hiring, the school district is left behind to sweep up the mess when the project is complete, and that's not a good way to do business."
Haynor added, "I don't talk to school people talking about union or nonunion, because that creates winners and losers. I only want to create winners, so I talk to them about quality construction."
Responsible contracting is a set of guidelines that would tend to steer school administrators away from, well, irresponsible contractors. Following up on a model created by other labor-management groups in Ohio, school administrators and boards of education are asked to adopt some or all of a three-page set of rules that spell out qualifications that construction contractors should possess before they're hired.
Hawley said the rules, when adopted, will help level the playing field for union contractors to win work from school districts. The playing field has tilted in favor of nonunion contractors for a number of reasons, including the ties between architects and designers with the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors, the hiring of single-source non-union construction managers, and the perception of higher costs and potential labor strife in hiring union.
Hawley said even before bond issues for construction projects are approved by school district voters, it is common for construction consultants to be talking to school officials about how to avoid paying prevailing wage and cut costs on their project. It is hoped Haynor's work will help change that.
Tom Boensch, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building Trades Council, learned about the responsible contractor concept at a building trades seminar and passed the information along to affiliate unions last spring. He said a number of union/contractor groups are on board around the state, and DVDs, binder materials and handouts explaining the concept are being made available for distribution to school boards and others. The responsible marketing program can easily be geared to other users of construction, like home builders or commercial property owners.
"The thing that gives this some punch is Governor Granholm's executive order that demanded responsible contracting from companies that do business with the state," Boensch said. "It shows school boards and other organizations that responsible contracting is good for business and good public policy."
Responsible contracting guidelines, which building trades unions are proposing for adoption by the Michigan Association of School Boards and local boards of education, provide a foundation for good, common-sense hiring that would at least weed out borderline and fly-by-night contractors.
Among the 18 "primary criteria" suggestions for hiring responsible contractors:
By Marty Mulcahy
LANSING - The city's skyline will get a little more crowded by July 2005, when a new nine-story office tower and parking deck will be completed by the building trades and Clark Construction Co.
Less than a month on the job, building trades workers are moving dirt and drilling holes for foundations for the $51 million project, located across the street from the western side of the state Capitol Building.
"Right now we're involved in earth retention, drilling down to about 60 feet to limestone, and pouring concrete caissons," said Ken Stephenson, project superintendent for Clark. "So far, the weather has been good, and we've had no problems."
At one time the site of a YMCA, and then a parking lot for state senators at Capitol and Allegan streets, the Boji Complex is another symbol of an increasingly revitalized downtown area. The downtown area hasn't looked this good in years, business is pretty good, and additional parking is needed. The new parking structure will provide space for approximately 1,450 vehicles.
The first floor of the new office building, with approximately 18,000 square feet of the building's 150,000 square foot total area, will be devoted to retail development. The building is expected to accommodate more than 500 downtown Lansing workers.
The Boji Complex will include high-tech amenities like fiber optic cabling, broadband high speed internet access and teleconferencing rooms available to all tenants. The ground floor will include retail, a coffee shop, drug store and restaurant.
"This new building and parking facility is the first of many great things that will be happening in downtown Lansing over the next several years," said Ron Boji, member of the Boji Group L.L.C.
A six-month investigation into the nation's construction apprenticeship programs found "startling" flaws and failures in the standards and completion rates of nonunion apprenticeship programs sponsored by the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors.
Conducted by the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department using U.S. Department of Labor data and released Oct. 28, the study is called A Preliminary Report on Associated Builders and Contractors Apprenticeship Training: Flawed and Failing Initiatives. The report contrasts union apprenticeship systems in many states with those of the ABC.
"The numbers speak for themselves," said Building Trades Department President Edward Sullivan. "Something is wrong and the ABC's failing programs clearly warrant further scrutiny and investigation."
The study found that the Associated Builders and Contractors
apprenticeship programs in this report produced overall twice
as many cancellations as graduations.
Moreover, the overall number of graduated ABC apprentices in Michigan over all crafts is astoundingly low, totaling only 120 from 1995 to 2002, according to the building trades study.
Numerous individual ABC apprenticeship programs produced three to four times as many cancellations as graduations. In some individual crafts, the cancellation to graduation ratio was even higher.
From 1997 to 2001, Labor Department numbers indicate the union apprenticeship programs in 36 states that participate in its database graduated 75 percent of enrollees, or 45,580 apprentices. That's three times the numbers graduated by non-union programs.
"Apprenticeship programs allow sponsors to employ apprentices at lower rates of pay than fully-trained workers, but only in exchange for providing substantive training," Sullivan wrote in a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, calling for an investigation. "Any misuse of the apprenticeship system undermines the industry's future, and potentially defrauds construction workers."
The Building and Construction Trades Department is calling on Secretary Chao and the Department of Labor: to initiate a thorough investigation of ABC's programs to determine the cause for the high cancellation rates; to establish minimum graduation rates for all apprenticeship programs, with the rates established by craft; to create a monitoring process, based both on on-site inspection and on the use of the existing Office of Apprenticeship Training, Employer and Labor Services database of apprenticeship registrations, cancellations, and graduations; and, to terminate the registration of programs that fail to meet these new standards.
Why does any of this matter? Of course it's an indication of lousy ABC training. The ABC's poor training record is one of the contractor group's best-kept secrets, because it does an excellent job of marketing. But the greatest marketing program in the world can't overcome the damage their poorly skilled workers do in bringing down skill levels, pay standards and safety for all construction workers.
Beyond that, while the ABC is constantly touting its free-market
philosophy, its chapters are highly dependant on taxpayers to
fund their programs - but any school system that only graduates
one-third to one-half of its students deserves to have its methods
LANSING - Tom Boensch, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building Trades Council, was one of three new appointees who will serve on the state Construction Safety Standards Commission.
The appointments were made in September by Gov. Jennfier Granholm. The nine-member commission administers rules and establishes safety standards for construction operations to protect the lives and safety of building trades workers in Michigan.
Boensch was appointed to represent construction operations on the employee level for a term expiring March 18, 2004. "I'm certainly looking forward to providing more input from organized labor into the commission," Boensch said.
Besides Boensch, Granholm appointed to the commission Larry Redfearn, a Local 98 plumber and district skilled trades manager for Detroit Public Schools, and Timothy Wise, vice president of operations for Dumas Construction Services, a union contractor.
These were the first positions on the panel to expire and be filled by Granholm. The commission is set up so that members are supposed to represent various groups, including public employers, management and labor.
Incredibly, building trades unions have not had their own representative on the commission in a decade, when Gov. Engler replaced former Michigan Building Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Tim Nichols with a "labor" representative who was a project superintendent for a company associated with the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors.
"My replacement may have represented workers, but he
sure didn't represent organized labor," Nichols said last
About 120 volunteers gave their time and talents on Saturday, Oct. 18 for the Southeast Michigan Heat's On/Water's Off Program, performing plumbing and heating service work for disadvantaged people.
It was the 12th year for the program, which features Plumbers Local 98 and Pipe Fitters Local 636 members fixing leaks, repairing furnaces, replacing smoke detectors, and doing other minor repairs for 72 homeowners who couldn't otherwise afford the work.
"This is my sixth year of volunteering," said Tim Neuenfeldt, a Local 98 plumber. "I enjoy helping people in the community, and the camaraderie with the other guys is great, too."
Contractors affiliated with the Plumbing and Mechanical Contractors of Detroit donated trucks, supplies and equipment to the effort. Much of the preliminary set-up work was done by Greg Sievert of Local 636, Mike McIlroy of Plumbers Local 98 and Molly Forward of PMC Detroit.
"Year after year, we get people who go above and beyond the call of duty," said host Local 98 Business Manager Gary Young. "We appreciate the efforts of everyone involved," Over the course of the program, more than 1,000 homes have been serviced.
Added Local 636 Business Manager Jim Lapham, "It's a great program that has really grown with fitters and plumbers coming together to help the disadvantage. My only advice to you is, 'remember, no callbacks!' "
Dignitaries who attended included U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, and Detroit Councilman Kenneth Cockrel.
"You represent the best we have to offer," Levin said. "Times are tough - and I won't get into a political speech about why times are tough - but it's more important than ever to help people who can't help themselves."
By Marty Mulcahy
ANN ARBOR - A class of 22 students from five Michigan-based plumbers and pipe fitters locals were the first group of what will be thousands of journeymen and apprentices to utilize the newly opened UA Regional Training Facility.
Located on the campus of Washtenaw Community College, the $4.2 million, 22,000 square-foot building opened in September and will act as the "center of operations" for the United Association of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Sprinkler Fitters' four other Regional Training Centers around the country. These training centers distribute basic and specialized training to the 300-plus UA local union training programs already in existence.
On Oct. 21, the 22 UA members from around Michigan were the first to utilize the building, taking the UA STAR HVACR certification exam. A review class was held before the exam. The instructors for the class came from Ann Arbor Local 190 Business Manager Ron House's HVACR training program. Successful completion of the test earns applicants 30 hours of college credit toward an Associate's Degree in Construction Supervision from Washtenaw Community College.
Successful completion of the test is part of the STAR marketing program by the UA, which assures employers that these journeymen have had the training necessary to excel in heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration service.
"Passage of the test assures owners and employers that they have a certified, trained worker," said Steve Allen, director of the Great Lakes Regional Training Center. "Developing the test was a real challenge, it was developed from a detailed task analysis of each trade. An analysis at this level allows you to further refine your curriculum. You can say, 'if these are the skills we use, then these are the skills we should be teaching.' All that had to be taken into consideration."
The contents of the four-hour test were developed by United Association trainers in conjunction with contractors, owners, and test construction experts from Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. The test can be taken at any of the five regional training centers around the country, or at local unions and training centers. Members can prepare for the exam via remote video-conferencing and the UA's web-based training program.
The comprehensive UA STAR exam can be taken by apprentices completing their five-year training program, or by veteran piping and HVACR service professionals in the field who want to further their careers. UA STAR certification exams are available for HVACR, Plumbing, Pipefitting, and Sprinklerfitting. Testing for the STAR program is administered by a third party, and the entire process is ANSI and ISO 9000 accredited.
"There are a lot of fly-by-night contractors out there, especially in the service industry," said Michigan Pipe Trades Association President Jim Davis, who is also business manager of UA Local 333. "Someday, if state licensing for service technicians ever comes to pass, we're going to be ready."
The STAR testing is only part of what's going on at the Great Lakes Regional Training Center. The building will serve as a magnet in the Midwest for pipe trades training, with both permanent classes as well as courses geared toward the needs of individual journeymen for specific jobs.
The training center has classrooms wired for distance learning capability and Internet access, two general purpose labs, one with special features for training HVACR service technicians, a 24-station computer classroom and two oversized classrooms to accommodate up to 40 students in each.
There is also a 48-seat auditorium-styled distance learning classroom, expandable to 72 students. It includes an instructional stage and three-projection set-up capable of broadcasting instruction to UA training sites around North America. The building will also be used during the union's annual Instructor Training Program every August.
"These training centers aren't state of the art, we're beyond that," said UA General President Martin Maddaloni during the building's dedication in August. "We're well beyond any training offered anywhere in the world."
Internet jobless claims open to all
On Oct. 27, David Plawecki, deputy director of Michigan's Department of Consumer and Industry Services, announced "we have completed the major unfinished piece of our Internet-based system for accepting unemployment benefit claims." The state had been phasing in the system according to geographic area over the past several months.
The state has eliminated the requirement that unemployed workers must have filed an unemployment claim within the previous 10 years in order to file a claim over the Internet. Unemployed workers can file a new unemployment claim or reopen an established claim by visiting the state Bureau of Workers and Unemployment Compensation web site at www.michigan.gov/bwuc.
To file a claim online, unemployed workers must:
*Live in and have worked only in Michigan during the past 18 months; and
*Have no wages from the federal government.
The bureau's website accepts online claims applications Monday
through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., including holidays that
fall on weekdays. The bureau also operates a general question
toll-free customer service answer line at (800) 638-3995 during
The study by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity of more than 70 U.S. companies and individual contractors turned up more than $500,000 in donations to the president's 2000 campaign, more than they gave collectively to any other politician over the past 12 years.
The study concluded that most of the 10 largest contracts went to companies that employed former high-ranking government officials, or executives with close ties to members of Congress and ties even to the government agencies awarding their contracts.
Major contracts were awarded without competitive bid. The top contract recipient was the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root, with more than $2.3 billion awarded to support the U.S. military and restore Iraq's oil industry. Halliburton/KBR, with major Associated Builders and Contractors ties, was headed by Vice President Dick Cheney before he resigned to run with Bush in 2000.
Bechtel was the second-largest recipient, with a $1 billion contract to repair Iraq's roads and infrastructure.
Unions, strikes Are few in Iraq
Still, it is telling that the U.S.-named Coalitional Provisional Authority that now runs Iraq will not change Iraqi labor law - which severely curtails unions - for at least two years, and on Oct. 16, banned strikes.
Two unionists who visited Iraq said that "already low wages have been frozen" and profit-sharing and bonuses were eliminated. Refinery workers earn $60 a month.
Another small step ahead for construction
McGraw-Hill Construction Dodge reported Nov. 7 that new construction starts in September increased 1 percent from the month before to a rate of $518.3 billion. The company said the construction industry is also up 1 percent over the first nine months of the year compared to the same period in 2002.
McGraw-Hill and others have predicted that construction would increase 1 percent for all of 2003, and then increase another 1 percent in 2004.
"The improved contracting for stores and hotels in the
first nine months of 2003 is a good sign that commercial building
is finally turning the corner, following the declines of 2001
and 2002," said Robert A. Murray, McGraw-Hill's vice president
of economic affairs.