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November 25, 2005
Following is a glimpse into one contractor's experience in an effort to gain work in the days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29,
This Louisiana-based IBEW contractor testified before Congress on Oct. 17, and provided an enlightening report into the hiring practices of one of the largest general contractors doing some of the work.
As you read Al Knight's testimony and that of his general foreman, know that BE & K, and Halliburton/KBR are among the most virulently anti-union construction companies in the nation.
Their testimony took place at "An Oversight Hearing on Gulf Coast Reconstruction Contracting" before the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, at a time when President Bush's waiver of the federal prevailing wage law for the Gulf region was still in effect. Bush reversed himself, and reinstated prevailing wage on Oct. 26.
Excerpts of the testimony by the contractor follows. (Editor)
"Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, my name is Al Knight, and I am the general manager of Knight Enterprises LLC, where I oversee all of the company's contractual obligations. To my left is Mike Moran, my general foreman.
"The company was established in 1998 and is currently headquartered in Lacombe, Louisiana. I personally have been in the electrical construction industry for 30 years.
"On Sept. 9, Knight Enterprises was contacted by BE&K Construction Co. of Birmingham, Alabama, a subcontractor of Halliburton subsidiary KBR. BE&K requested Knight Enterprises to provide 75 qualified electricians to work on a project they had begun at the Naval Air Station in Belle Chase, Louisiana.
"BE&K explained that the project had a total duration of 20 months, and that the first phase involved constructing a 7,500-person "tent city" for military personnel. The project required providing labor force and supervision to distribute power wiring to approximately 900 tents and supporting temporary structures.
"These are metal frame tents, covered in canvas, in a moist environment. Improper wiring could be highly dangerous to the troops living in those tents.
"Our initial understanding and agreement with BE&K was based on the following:
"Based on our understanding and acceptance of these terms, Knight Enterprises agreed to staff-up the project beginning on Sept. 13, and to have the total workforce in place within three days thereafter.
"With an oral agreement in place, on Monday, Sept. 12,
I contacted Mr. Robert
"Work began on Tuesday, Sept. 13, and by week's end Knight Enterprises had a full staff working in Belle Chase. Mr. Mike Moran was hired as general foreman for Knight Enterprises and Mr. Todd Gallé was hired as project superintendent.
"Allow me to turn the microphone over to Mike."
"When we arrived at Belle Chase, BE&K had a staff of approximately 30 to 40 of their own workers and designated to perform electrical work. Almost all of their workers were from out of state, and most did not speak English. Few seemed to me to be qualified electricians. According to the BE&K workers, they were being paid two-thirds our prevailing hourly wage, with no benefits.
"At that time they were living in small tents on the base. Once we began work on the job, BE&K stated their intent to form work crews consisting of one Knight electrician and several BE&K electrical workers. Effectively, we were asked to supervise and train the BE&K workers who would eventually replace us.
"Despite our original, oral agreement, BE&K never provided temporary living quarters for 74 of Knight's 75 workers. The first few nights on the job we slept in the newly erected government tents at the work site, but then we were directed by BE&K not to use the tents. We were thrown out. In contrast, BE&K provided its own out-of-state workers with recreational vehicles and tents, which we were asked to wire for power.
"Most of our workers, some of whom had lost their homes to the two hurricanes, were sleeping in their personal vehicles and showering in a car wash located on base.
"On Sept. 18, we were directed to supply temporary living
quarters for our own
"Before we could get our temporary living quarters constructed, BE&K sent a letter, dated Sept. 30, releasing Knight Enterprises from the job.
"Allow me to pass the microphone back to Al."
"BE&K'S letter stated that the project was substantially complete and that they would finish the job with their own workers. They directed us to cease work by 10 a.m. the next day, and to leave the base by noon. When we contacted BE&K regarding the release letter, they stated that our workers had done a good job, but that the budget wouldn't allow the continued use of local workers earning prevailing hourly wages.
"Our workers, who were local, qualified electricians impacted by Katrina and Rita, were removed from a promised 20-month contract in what I can only believe was a direct result of the Davis-Bacon Act waiver.
"For their part, KBR representatives stated they had no prior knowledge of the release of Knight Enterprises, were surprised that our qualified electricians had been released, and asked if we would be willing to contract directly with them. We told them that we were ready to work, but, as of today, we remain without a contract.
"As an independent contractor who will hire only skilled, qualified workers, I can tell you that local union members form the largest qualified construction workforce in southeastern Louisiana. Waiving the Davis-Bacon Act for federal projects in this area opens the floodgates for out-of-state workers. Those out-of-state workers displace local residents who, more than anything, need a good paying job and a living wage.
"BE&K's representative at Belle Chase told Mike that he would hire all of our electricians if they would work for a pay and benefits package that was half of what they would normally make. It is simply outrageous that the government would allow its contractors to ask people who have lost everything to work for half of what they made two months ago. How are we expected to rebuild our lives on those terms?
"Hire local workers and keep the money in the local economy,
that's where it's needed."
It's impossible to draw long-term conclusions about trends affecting construction workers in the Gulf region, who are rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina hit the area just three months ago.
Early on after the hurricane, the experience of Knight Enterprises detailed nearby is one piece of the puzzle, but there are others. Representatives of both the local Associated General Contractors and the Associated Builders and Contractors maintain that having - or not having - prevailing wage rules in the region hasn't mattered much.
"The issue of prevailing wages under Davis-Bacon really did not mean much because the market was driving wage rates," said Derrell Cohoon, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Louisiana in Baton Rouge, to the Construction Labor Report. A spokeswoman for the ABC said workers' wages have doubled, with general laborers earning $20 per hour plus benefits.
The Engineering News Record reported on the disconnect between
the prevailing wage required by the law - and the higher amounts
that are actually being paid to workers. Louisiana Plumbers Local
60 Business Manager Lance Albin said prevailing wage will be
even more important down the road. "We were worried about
(the suspension of prevailing wage)," he said. "The
real work has not started."
ANN ARBOR - In recent years, the building trades have been involved in the new construction or renovation of numerous medical-related buildings on the University of Michigan campus.
The latest coming out of the ground is the Rachel Upjohn Building - Ambulatory Psychiatry and Depression Center. The $41 million project on the east side of the city will provide space for the nation's first building devoted to research, clinical care, education, and community and public policy programs for depression and related disorders, as well as other ambulatory psychiatry specialty services.
"I envision the building to be what I call the 'antithesis of depression,'" said Dr. John Greden, Rachel Upjohn Professor of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences. "If you're addressing a problem with some remaining stigma, you should have a facility that sends the right signals, so we intend the center to be light, airy, warm and inviting. The Rachel Upjohn Building represents a significant milestone toward achieving the goals we set when we first envisioned the center just a few years ago."
The building process, which is expected to be complete next year. The building will connect with the East Ann Arbor Health Center.
Construction of the three-story, 112,500-square-foot building was made possible by a $10 million gift from Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Meader of Kalamazoo. The gift prompted the U-M Board of Regents to name the building in honor of Mrs. Meader, whose maiden name is Rachel Mary Upjohn.
The new clinical facility will create a warm, bright atmosphere through its use of natural light, open space and an easy-to-navigate layout. The building plans include an auditorium for use by patients, visitors, faculty, staff, and community organizations, as well as a patient education center.
(Information from the U-M)
Early in this decade, the prices of construction "inputs" like sheet rock, cement, lumber, steel, diesel fuel and gasoline were fairly stable. Now, many of those costs are have all spiked higher, and then sometimes lower, inducing headaches all-around for contracting estimators, their bosses, and owners.
"Inflation at the consumer level remained moderate last month, but many construction inputs are going through the proverbial roof," said Ken Simonson, chief economist of The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). "Producer prices showed that nonresidential construction is being hit with a variety of steep price increases. In addition, some materials are in short supply. I'm concerned that price spikes and supply shortages will continue in 2006."
He said the cost of building materials and other "inputs" for highway and street construction leaped 16 percent in the past 12 months. In addition, there were increases of nearly 10 percent for other heavy construction materials and eight percent for building construction goods.
Many materials contributed to this spike, including the price index for copper and brass (up 21 percent); asphalt (up 18 percent); gypsum products, such as wallboard (up 15 percent); plastic construction products (up13 percent) and concrete products (up 10 percent).
"The worst news has been about diesel fuel, Simonson added. The producer price index for diesel jumped 59 percent from October 2004 to October 2005, which increases the cost of operating off-road equipment like tower cranes and bulldozers. Contractors also buy diesel fuel to run dump trucks, concrete mixers, and other vehicles. And the truckers who deliver construction materials are passing through higher diesel costs in the form of fuel surcharges on most deliveries.
There are also tight supplies of cement, PVC pipe, and tires for off-road equipment.
Some rays of good news: lumber and plywood prices have fallen,
and steel prices are mixed. However, the break on wood products
benefit mainly single-family construction, not multi-family or
By Marty Mulcahy
Boilermakers Local 169 is expanding its base of organizing operations, seeking and accepting the resumes of a handful of military veterans into its apprenticeship program.
The organizing effort is taking place under "Helmets to Hardhats," a nationwide program designed to place military veterans into construction careers. In Michigan, Local 169 is one of the first unions to get involved.
Local 169 Business Manager Tony Jacobs said the local began recruiting in the Helmets to Hardhats program at the request of the International Unions' Great Lakes Area leadership.
"This is the kind of program unions should get involved in," Jacobs said. "These veterans don't have much to come home to in this job market, and we're offering them the opportunity to work in a high-paying job with good benefits. It's the right thing to do."
Last month, eight veterans who had recently completed their military obligations signed up to become part of the most recent group of 40 probationary Boilermaker apprentices. If they're willing to stick to it through 6,000 hours and four years of training, the apprentices will go onto to become journeymen and hopefully enjoy a good career with union wages and benefits.
Jacobs said the military experience makes veterans a good candidate for apprenticeship.
The Helmets to Hardhats to program was started three years ago by the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department. The building trades estimate that worker shortages are on the horizon, with more than 40 percent of the construction industry workforce expected to retire in the next decade. Construction unions have a goal of recruiting 1.6 million workers in the next five years.
Robert Eisenmann, 29, a Marine for the last nine years most recently based in Okinawa, Japan, was discharged from his military obligations on Aug. 1. He expressed some frustration in his initial post-military job searches, sending out multiple versions of his resume to different organizations without getting a bite.
"I found out about Helmets to Hardhats, sent them a resume, they contacted me and here I am," the Detroit resident said. "It was pretty quick." Trained by the Marines in warfare and amphibious raids, Eisenmann expected that boilermaker work would be a change of pace. "But I'm ready to go to work," he said. "Once a grunt, always a grunt."
Fellow Marine Nicholas Flint, 22, a four-year military veteran who spent time in Iraq and Okinawa, found out about Helmets to Hardhats through the Veterans Affairs Office.
"I put a resume out and two weeks later the Boilermakers
called," Flint said. "I didn't know what a boilermaker
was, but I found out later that my wife's grandfather was a boilermaker.
From what I've heard, this looks like it's going to be a great
experience, a high-paying job that will keep me on my toes."
By Marty Mulcahy
LANSING - Hardhats who toiled on the Lansing Community College (LCC) Health and Human Service facility, which wrapped up last spring, worked on an award-winning building.
Building designer Ruby & Associates received the 2005 Outstanding Project award by the National Council of Structural Engineering Association (NCSEA) Excellence in Structural Engineering Awards competition.
"For us it's a big award because it came from our peers," said Jay Ruby, a structural engineer. "On any project, you'd like to think you're providing value and quality service, but it's icing on the cake to get this kind of recognition."
The $2.7 million building was designed for three stories, but LCC's wish list included a fourth level, which was originally thought to have to be erected during a future expansion. To address the customer's wish list, Ruby & Associates, working with steel fabricator/erector Douglas Steel, a union contractor, took a second look and together completely redesigned the building's structural steel, saving LCC enough money to add the fourth level and still bring the project in several hundred thousand dollars under budget.
Ruby said in an effort to get LCC their fourth level, they looked carefully at "constructability principles" of the design and came up with a plan to employ 700 fewer pieces of structural steel, but maintaining the strength of the building by beefing up the concrete floor slabs.
"One of the things that allows us to apply constructability principles is to employ a quality fabricator," Ruby said. "We delivered on our end, and then we handed the job over to Douglas Steel and the workers in the field. They brought the job through on schedule and with a high level of quality."
Iron Workers Local 25 BA Art Ellul said the entire job was completed under a project labor agreement. "LCC has been a very good owner for us," he said.