The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index

November 28, 2003

Plenty of second opinions over Medicare overhaul

Down on the farm? Not this silo

Most of labor keeps powder dry during presidential primary

Construction forecast calls for a slightly better 2004

The Gangbox

New look for Northern's east campus



Plenty of second opinions over Medicare overhaul

The massive federal Medicare system may be set for the biggest overhaul in the program's 38-year history. Whether or not it's a good overhaul depends upon who you talk to.

The centerpiece of the changes being discussed by leaders in Congress is adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. The proposal is being pushed by Republicans in Congress, and enough conservative-leaning Democrats have expressed interest in the plan to make passage feasible.

The Wall Street Journal boiled the argument down to this: "How big a role should competition among profit-seeking companies play in the Great Society program that insures one out of seven Americans?"

The compromise plan, announced earlier this month, would cost U.S. taxpayers $400 billion over 10 years. A bruising showdown is expected between Republicans, who want even more private competition for Medicare dollars and services than the bill allows; and Democrats, who feel that existing law doesn't provide a sufficient safety net for the program, which insures 40 million Americans.

The Republican plan would include public subsidies for private insurance plans that work in the Medicare market, and an ambitious project that would force Medicare to compete directly with private plans. Drug importation from Canada would be outlawed.

Republican and Democratic legislators who have signed onto the plan explained that the bill would give the elderly a prescription drug benefit beginning in 2006. The plan would require individuals to pay an extra premium of $35 a month plus a $275 deductible per year. In exchange, the elderly would pay about 25 percent of their drug tab and the federal government would pay the rest, until the tab reaches $2,200 per year.

Then, the recipient would pay everything until racking up $3,600 in out-of-pocket prescription expenses. After that, the federal government would step in again, and pick up about 95 percent of the rest of the costs. Low-income people would get extra aid.

Seniors who stay in traditional fee-for-service Medicare would buy drug coverage from private companies. Those who switch to private health plans, such as HMOs or PPOs, would get drug coverage as part of their benefits.

The Journal said the deal "represents a big win for the drug industry: it's almost certain to increase prescription drug use with taxpayers picking up some of the tab." Health insurers and HMOs will also gain with new subsidies. The Journal also said for the elderly with no drug insurance and for those with very high drug bills, "the legislation is clearly a big plus."

Perhaps the biggest boost that this bill could receive came from the powerful American Association of Retired People. "Though far from perfect," read an AARP statement, "the bill represents an historic breakthrough and an important milestone in the nation's commitment to strengthen and expand health security for current and future beneficiaries."

AARP said the plan provides "significant protections" for those in traditional Medicare, with the federal government providing coverage in areas where private plans fail to offer coverage. The group said an unprecedented $88 billion will be allocated to encourage employers to maintain existing health retiree benefits.

But not everyone has signed onto the bill. Not even close. The AFL-CIO and others are pointing out that the bill:

  • Moves Medicare toward privatization and steer seniors and people with disabilities to private HMOs.
  • Forces 32.5 million beneficiaries to pay higher premiums and other Medicare costs.
  • Open the doors to a whopping $139 billion in profits for the pharmaceutical industry.
  • Does nothing to rein in soaring prescription drug costs.
  • Threatens the employer-provided drug benefits of millions of retirees.

"This is a social experiment and we are using our seniors as guinea pigs," said U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, who is fighting for better benefits.

Added Edward Coyle, executive director for the 2.7 million-member Alliance for Retired Americans: "Under the proposed bill, Medicare as we know it will cease to exist. They may say they are looking out for seniors, but they are really protecting the profits of the big pharmaceutical companies and insuring increased profits for the insurance industry.

"(This) is not the answer seniors have been waiting for. They are waiting for Congress to add a prescription drug benefit to the most effective, most successful, most efficient health insurance program in the nation - Medicare."

Stay tuned.


Down on the farm? Not this silo

By Marty Mulcahy

The building trades and general contractor Graycor are moving towards completing a massive 106-foot diameter, 185-foot-tall silo in Detroit that purportedly has the largest capacity in North America.

The silo and related structures, which are owned by cement manufacturer LaFarge Midwest, are located just off the Detroit River in a heavily industrialized area near Zug Island. The new facility will replace a cement plant that's being demolished east of the Renaissance Center as part of a renovation/beautification plan for the City of Detroit.

The new silo went up after a round-the-clock, 14-day concrete pour by the building trades that wrapped up Nov. 4. With the use of slip-form jacking process at a slow-but steady rate of 25-30 yards of concrete per hour, more than 6,700 yards of concrete were poured to create the walls of the silo.

"It was a continuous pouring and jacking process all the way up, and we had to optimize the concrete mixture so that it didn't set to fast or too slow," said Graycor Project Manager Brian Feckler. The process was completed one day ahead of schedule.

"The safety was excellent, we had no incidents," Feckler added. "Everyone wanted it to be a success, and that's what happened." At peak employment, about 150 Hardhats were on the project.

Inside the 46,000-ton silo are 10 separate chambers, which the plant can use to hold raw materials like fly ash and slag. The plant will be capable of bagging and palletizing cement products for transport via trains, ships or trucks.

Phase One of the project is expected to be complete in January.

SERVICING THE lifting needs of the tradespeople erecting the 18-story cement silo is Dean Hart of Operating Enginers Local 324, along with oiler Dan Watson. The crane is a Manitowac 777.

A SCAFFOLD SUPPORT section from the interior of the silo is disassembled by Bill Little of Laborers Local 334.


Most of labor keeps powder dry during presidential primary

When it comes to endorsing a candidate for U.S. president in 2004, unions and their members are all over the map.

One thing is clear: Organized labor will not, under any present circumstances, back the current occupant of the White House, Republican George W. Bush. Bush's list of anti-worker actions is so long, his economic record is so bad and his dislike of unions is so pervasive that he cannot win their endorsement.

But the endorsements for the Democratic candidates have been slow to trickle in, reflecting the large, nine-person field of hopefuls, and the fact that none of whom have yet taken a consistent, commanding lead in the polls. But the lack of endorsements also reflects a tremendous amount of indecision by voters, who, polling indicates, still haven't come close to making up their mind about who should run the country.

Less than a year before the presidential election, but less than two months before the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses and Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary, here's a summary of where some unions stand when it comes to picking the next Democratic candidate for president:

Former Democratic Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has the initial lead in union endorsements, most recently getting the nod from the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades after internal polling made Dean the overwhelming choice. "The IUPAT was the first international union to make an endorsement for president, and we did it because you, the members, asked us to," said IUPAT President James Williams said in a message to his members.

Williams credited Dean with doing the best job among the candidates of campaigning directly to IUPAT members.

In terms of union membership, Dean's biggest coup to date was getting the endorsement earlier this month of two of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union (1.6 million members) and the American Federation of State, Municipal and County Employees (1.4 million members).

Also at the top of the list for union endorsements is Missouri U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri), who entered the race with the strongest ties to organized labor. The son of a Teamster, he has been endorsed by 20 international unions with more than five million members, including a coveted nod from the Teamsters (1.4 million members). The Boilermakers International Union has also endorsed Gephardt. But losing the SEIU and AFSCME this month was a setback to his campaign.

"I've got huge unions for me, I've got little unions," Gephardt said. "It's not just the leadership, it's the rank-and-file worker that's excited about my campaign."

Actually, except for the hard-core political watchers and pundits, the vast majority of Americans are not yet excited about the presidential race, and that includes a lot of union members.

Without a strong mandate for any candidate, the umbrella group for organized labor, the AFL-CIO, has opted to sit out the primary, and won't endorse any candidate until the political picture becomes clearer. The same is true with the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department as well as the UAW, who have also not issued an endorsement on behalf of their affiliates.

Much of the reason has to do with conserving money and volunteer effort until the general election. The AFL-CIO has about $35 million budgeted in the 2004 election cycle, which is $7 million less than was spent in 2000. "Our strength is not really our financial resources," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney "Our strength is our membership and the people power."

"People power" had better come into play for Democrats - because the money disparity between Democrats and Republicans is expected to be huge in 2004. The leading Democratic moneymaker, Dean, expects to take in about $18 million in contributions by the end of this year. By contrast, without any primary opposition, President Bush's campaign has already taken in nearly $100 million, and he's expected to reach his goal of about $170 million - and possibly as much as $200 million - in the next 12 months.

Bush's campaign, said the New York Times, is raising money "at a rate never before seen in presidential politics."

In this election cycle, the goal of the AFL-CIO is to increase union voter registration by at least 10 percent, and to raise union voter turnout even more. In the 2000 and 2002 cycles, unionists and their allies made up just over 25 percent of the electorate, even though unions represent only 13 percent of workers.

The field of Democratic contenders includes Dean, Gephardt, U.S. Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.), the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, and retired General Wesley Clark of Arkansas.

For the AFL-CIO, it won't matter too much which presidential hopeful gets the nod. "They all cleared the bar," Sweeney said after the AFL-CIO candidates' forum in Chicago in August, although Clark hadn't declared his candidacy at the time.


Construction forecast calls for a slightly better 2004

We have no idea about weather trends for the next 12 months, but the clouds should break up slightly over the U.S. construction industry in 2004, according to the Engineering News Record and others at the North American Construction Forecast Conference.

"After a year of gloomy construction market statistics, economists are cautiously closing their umbrellas in anticipation of a fairly sunny 2004," the ENR said.

The ENR added, "economists are optimistic that the market will strike a balance, as slowly accelerating office and manufacturing construction sectors make up for slowdowns in traditionally dominant housing and public works arenas."

Construction activity is expected to increase by 1 percent in 2003 over 2002, and the ENR/McGraw-Hill Construction Dodge forecast calls for the same one percent increase in 2004, as we reported in our last issue. The chief of the Portland Cement Association, however, predicted that construction growth would be flat through 2005.

Union construction workers may be wondering why the one percent increase in construction didn't translate into more work in 2003. The lack of union trades workers in the residential market hasn't helped.

The ENR said, "homebuilding almost single-handedly fueled overall construction growth this year, but rising interest rates will put the brakes on the industry's main growth engine in 2004." Residential construction is expected to drop 1 percent in 2004, while office buildings (+9.6 percent) hotels/motels (+14.6 percent) and manufacturing (+9.6 percent) are expected to increase


The Gangbox

Assorted news and notes

Associated Builders and Contractors President Kirk Pickerel couldn't refute or defend the fact that ABC's apprenticeship programs in 37 states have an abysmal record of producing apprenticeship graduates.

As we reported in our last issue, in 37 states from 1995-2003, only 4,896 ABC journeymen graduates were produced from the 21,286 who registered into programs sponsored by the anti-union group - a record of less than 25 percent. By contrast, union programs in those 37 states graduated 45,580 journeymen, or 75 percent of those who registered. The AFL-CIO Building Trades Department, which conducted the study, asked the Department of Labor for an investigation of the ABC's lousy education record.

In the Construction Labor Report, Pickerel called the numbers "misleading," but didn't say why. He instead chose to attack the U.S. DOL for a perceived bias in favor of union apprenticeship programs, and said the Building Trades Department president "fears competition in the apprenticeship arena…."

He calls a 25 percent graduation rate - competition?

The Consumers Energy Karn-Weadock Generating Complex in Essexville near Bay City is gearing up for another outage beginning in January. The work will focus on the coal-fired plant's Unit 1. Consumers spokesman Kelly Farr said the outage, which will run through April, is expected to consistently employ about 400 construction workers - which is extremely welcome news to the building trades.

The Book-Cadillac hotel renovation project - which we reported last month had begun - has been placed on hold. A complicated financing deal for the project left little room for unanticipated costs, which have come in to play on the initial hazardous materials removal portion of the project. Union sources say contractors woefully underestimated the costs involved with the hazardous materials abatement.

The Greater Detroit Building Trades Council sends its thanks to the Walbridge-Aldinger Co. for the donation of 12 computers for use in the Safe-2-Work Program.

"Helmets to Hardhats" received a $5.5 million grant from President Bush to fund the second year of operation for the program, which was set to facilitate the ability of military veterans to employment opportunities in the construction industry. Building trades unions and eight contractor associations developed the program in 2002.

Levi-Strauss and Co. is not exactly riveting itself to the Americans who want to buy North American-made goods. "At a time when 10 million Americans are looking for work, these plant closings are yet another indictment of a failed trade policy that is destroying entire industries." So said Bruce Raynor, president of the needle trades union UNITE, about Levi Strauss & Co.'s North American plant closings.

Levi-Strauss closed its last North American plants this summer - one in San Antonio and three in Canada - in favor of moving its operations offshore. Their move put 2,000 workers out of a job.

Want to take the sweat(shop) out of holiday shopping? The AFL-CIO has a couple of websites to visit if you're tired of scouring racks of clothing looking
for the union label or "Made in U.S.A." Visit the Union Mall at

The AFL-CIO said the stores in this online shopping mall sell only union-made items, including clothing - "your guarantee the clothes weren't made under
sweatshop conditions." Other union-made purchases can be made at The Union Shop at

"Hand-arm vibration syndrome" is a construction worker malady that is just entering the radar screen. NIOSH - the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health - estimates that 500,000 construction workers who use vibrating hand tools are at risk of developing the syndrome.

The syndrome is a progressive disorder that involves poor circulation and neural effects in the hands. Tools associated with the malady include chain saws, jackhammers and drills. Symptoms include numbness, pain and blanching in the fingers.

The use of anti-vibration gloves can help reduce harm to construction workers' hands, and NIOSH is continuing to study the syndrome.



New look for Northern's east campus

By Marty Mulcahy

MARQUETTE - A collection of projects at Northern Michigan University is adding fresh new space to the campus, while helping sustain employment for the building trades.

Three major construction projects are part of $36 million in ongoing campus renovations, one of the largest booms in recent years at NMU. "The university work, especially at Northern, is really helping us," said Tony Retaskie, executive director of the Upper Peninsula Labor-Management Council.

The three projects are all close together on the east side of the campus, and utilize three different general contractors. They include:

  • Adaptive re-use of the 130,000 square-foot Hedgecock Fieldhouse into a multi-story student services building and 350-seat recital hall to accommodate musicians and lecturers. General contractor Devere Construction is undertaking the $11 million project. Hedgecock was constructed in 1956 and has been used for hockey, basketball and special events, but has been abandoned over the years.
  • The 64,405-square-foot Russell Thomas Fine Arts Facility is being upgraded to meet current construction codes and technologies. Space will include administrative and faculty offices, as well as classroom and studio/labs. The renovated space will include some real pluses, including acoustically engineered music teaching areas, a 1,500-seat auditorium, and 14 practice rooms. Menze Construction is the general contractor on the $5 million project.
  • The 67,734-square-foot Art and Design Addition North project will include an office suite, faculty studios, drawing/painting and print making studios, photo lab, 100-person lecture hall, screening room, construction and work room, three critique rooms, computer labs, digital/green room, studios, and museum. The $10.4 million project is being supervised by Boldt Construction

"We've been fortunate, and the area construction industry is fortunate that we were able to get state funding lined up to make these projects possible," said Kathy Richards, NMU's director of engineering and planning "Everything that we're doing should be done by July 2004,"



Military money migrates to Michigan
Michigan is set to receive $31 million in federal money for military construction projects around the state.

U.S. Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow made the announcement on Nov. 12. The money will be directed to state National Guard and Reserve units. "Because Guard and Reserve units play an increasingly active role in America's defense, top-notch training facilities and equipment are more important than ever," Stabenow said.

$9.6 million for the construction of a Joint Medical Training Facility at Selfridge Air National Guard Base.

$8.5 million to replace the dining facility at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center in Alpena.

$5.591 million for a new Army National Guard Readiness Center in Jackson.

$3.370 million for a new Single Unit Armory in Calumet.

$3.508 for an new Army National Guard Readiness Center in Shiawassee County.

$1.114 million for upgrades of the Army National Guard Readiness Center in Pontiac.

Probe of EPA sought for World Trade response
Thousands of construction workers and other first-responders developed breathing difficulties after they worked at the site of the collapsed World Trade center towers.

But the first response of the federal government to questions about potential toxins in the dust from the fallout of the buildings was that the air was safe to breathe. Since then, workers have developed a number of breathing ailments, but the federal government has yet to acknowledge - much less provide treatment for - the dangers that were in the air.

Now a group of U.S. House Democrats are weighing in on the matter, with a letter to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) encouraging him to launch an investigation into the Environmental Protection Agency's response to the collapse of the World Trade Center.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats said that a week after the terrorist attack, the EPA assured New Yorkers that the air was safe to breathe even though the agency had taken no indoor air samples, and outdoor tests showed unsafe levels of asbestos. According to a report by the U.S. inspector general, the EPA also did not test for PCBs, dioxins, volatile organic compounds and fine particles.

According to the Construction Labor Report, the inspector general report found that the EPA "prematurely assured the public on the safety of the air at the World Trade Center site. The report also criticized the close involvement of the White House in communicating risks to the public, saying the Council on Environmental Quality pressed the EPA to make the early assurances."

University of California professor Thomas Cahill said the burning pile of debris was like "a chemical factory" similar to an "uncontrolled, oxygen-poor municipal incinerator." He said conditions were "brutal" at the site for people working without respirators, and "only slightly less so" for those who worked or lived in immediately adjacent buildings.

He said for four classes of fine and very fine metal pollutant, "we recorded the highest levels we have ever seen in over 7,000 measurements" of polluted sites throughout the world.

The New York City Health Department has set up a registry to survey people with health problems who worked at the World Trade Center site. As of September of this year, more than 6,500 people from 45 states and eight nations had signed up for the registry, according to the Construction Labor Report.


The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index