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October 13, 2006

Landmark case could dump union rights for 8 million workers

Enough is enough? At the ballot box, unions can change our nation's course

U-M's Mosher-Jordan hall gets much-needed facelift inside

Chamber's plan to kill SBT shifts burden to taxpayers

Building trades' signs say 'Granholm'

Kennecott Mine clears hurdle

News Briefs


Landmark case could dump union rights for 8 million workers

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI) - By a 3-2 vote along party lines, the Bush-appointed GOP majority on the National Labor Relations Board expanded the definition of who is a "supervisor," throwing millions of workers out from under labor law coverage.

The rulings in the so-called Kentucky River cases, announced Oct. 3, were widely awaited by unions and management. The construction industry could be affected by the important ruling.

AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney and other leaders blasted the rulings, while the California Nurses Association said 30,000 of its members had signed strike authorization cards should their hospitals try to impose the rulings on them, stripping their right to unionize and declaring them supervisors.

"While the Supreme Court's (Kentucky River) decision cracks open the door to a redefinition of who is a supervisor, the decision by the NLRB virtually kicks it in," Sweeney said of the main ruling, Oakwood Healthcare Inc. vs. UAW. Eight million workers or more could be affected.

Quoting the NLRB's dissenters, Sweeney added the Bush-named majority's rulings "threaten to create a new class of workers under labor law: Workers who have neither genuine prerogatives of management, nor the statutory rights of ordinary employees.

Many union leaders blamed not just the board, but the anti-worker GOP president himself.

David Cohen, an AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees attorney who worked on the cases, told Press Associates: "Professionals usually vote. When they vote this November, they should remember who appointed the people who made this decision," Bush and the GOP.

The NLRB's Republican majority broadened who is a supervisor by writing new definitions for several terms labor law uses to define "supervisors."

One was to "assign" other workers to various tasks. The NLRB majority said the duty of assigning had to be more than intermittent. The two dissenters said the board left the word so open that virtually any worker who gave an assignment to another at any time could be a supervisor. This "threatens to sweep almost all staff nurses outside the (National Labor Relations) act's protection," the dissenters said.

The second definition the board majority broadened said a supervisor was a worker with the duty to "responsibly to direct" others. That meant, in plain English, the worker who directed the others could be held responsible for their actions.

The third expanded definition said more workers who exercise "independent judgment" on the job are now supervisors and thus outside labor law. It was that definition, Department for Professional Employees President Paul Almeida told Press Associates, that would evict most professionals from labor law coverage and union protection.
Almeida, a Professional and Technical Engineer, explained that in many professions - including his own but also including construction - even lower-level workers instruct and monitor apprentices. "In the trades, an electrician can be a foreman on one job and a journeyman (worker) on another," he noted. The board did not say what would happen to building trades workers who shuttle between being foremen and regular posts.

The board majority went to some lengths to rebut charges it is throwing millions of workers out from under labor law coverage, leaving them open to management whims. It said, for example, that nurses exercising "independent judgment" could be supervisors only if their decisions "were not of a routine nature." And it said workers who are supervisors "part of the time" would still be employees, protected by labor law. But it then noted that past rulings said a worker who manages others as little as 10 percent-15 percent of the time is a "supervisor" and not protected by labor law.


Enough is enough? At the ballot box, unions can change our nation's course

By Dick Meister

Politics, politics and almost nothing but politics. That's what we're hearing from America's unions these days. For they're waging one of the biggest and most expensive political campaigns in labor history.

More than $40 million - the most unions have ever spent on a midterm election - is helping labor-friendly Democrats in some 200 House, Senate, gubernatorial and state legislative races.

Above all, unions need their allies to wrest control of Congress from the decidedly unfriendly Republicans who've been in charge far too long for the good of unions or anyone else - save perhaps for the very wealthy. A change in Congressional leadership undoubtedly would lead to enactment of at least some of the badly needed legal reforms sought by labor and provide a check on the blatantly anti-labor actions of President Bush.

It's true enough that unions represent only about 12.5 percent of the country's workers, but those workers and their unions are extremely effective politically. They represent a serious threat to the GOP: especially now, with polls showing a steady decline in public support for Bush and his congressional allies.

The AFL-CIO and its 53 affiliated unions, the recently formed Change to Win federation of seven major unions and the independent National Education Association are working closely together, putting hundreds of thousands of their 18 million members to work on election campaigns. They're registering voters, circulating millions of leaflets, contacting millions of voters directly, holding rallies and demonstrations, and more.

Union members and their families alone should have a significant impact. More than 12 million are registered to vote - one-fourth of the total of all voters in the 2004 presidential election. Only about 60 percent supported Democrat John Kerry in that contest, but this year Democratic candidates are almost certain to get much stronger support from unionists - perhaps decisive support that could set the tone for the 2008 presidential race.

"Union members feel 'enough is enough'," says AFL-CIO Political Director Karen Ackerman. "This is a moment unlike any we've seen in a long, long time.... We have to change the direction of this country."

As the AFL-CIO noted in a Labor Day message, "Our nation is at a tipping point. People are working harder and making less. We're in a health care crisis that's deeper than any of us ever imagined. We all worry about how we'll retire with dignity. A good middle-class life is increasingly out of reach. Whoever thought that in America our children might not be better off than their parents?"

Labor's agenda forcefully addresses those concerns and others of obvious importance to most Americans, union members or not. Raising the pitifully inadequate minimum wage is high on the agenda. So is the creation of a
federally-sponsored universal health care system and a pension system that would guarantee all workers decent retirement benefits financed jointly by government and employers.

Unions also are seeking "more corporate accountability, such as limits on CEO pay and lavish pensions" and fair trade laws that "hold nations accountable when they violate workers' rights."

Labor is especially seeking much tighter enforcement of the basic labor laws that are openly undermined by the Bush administration. The administration has done almost nothing to carry out its legal obligation to block employers from interfering in union organizing drives - a major cause for the decline in union membership.

Nor has the administration done anything to curb the steady increase in on-the-job accidents that maim and kill more than 1.5 million workers every year. It has instead severely weakened federal safety regulations and their
enforcement. President Bush, for instance, got Congress to repeal regulations enacted by the Clinton administration that required employers to protect workers from the repetitive motion injuries that alone account for more than 60 percent of all workplace injuries, some of them permanently disabling.

Even if only a small part of labor's agenda is enacted, if unions could help elect enough of their Democratic allies to do that - and hopefully more - Election Day could truly be a day of celebration.

(The author is a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor and political issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator. The article comes via the International Labor Communications Association).


U-M's Mosher-Jordan hall gets much-needed facelift inside

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

ANN ARBOR - Like so many other aged buildings on the University of Michigan campus, now it's the turn for a creaky old dormitory to be given new life by the building trades.

Walbridge-Aldinger is supervising the $65.1 million renovation of the Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall, which will include adding air conditioning, a new hot water heating system, new paint on the interior, high-speed Internet access, and the integration of a new 35,000-square-foot dining center on the first floor. The dorm rooms still won't have integrated bathrooms, but the community bathrooms "will be reconfigured for privacy and accessibility," according to the university.

"This project is responsive to the many needs expressed by our students, and I believe they will be excited about the transformation of Mosher-Jordan once the renovations are complete," says E. Royster Harper, vice president for student affairs, in the University Record. "Our challenge is to maintain the character of this lovely building, while providing the types of modern spaces and technology that will enhance both the comfort and the learning opportunities for students in their living environment."

U-M students lived in Mosher-Jordan hall up until renovations began last spring. Maintaining the character of the building won't be too difficult - the interior wood finishes and tile don't appear to have changed much since the building was completed in 1930.

"The university made it very clear to us that we're not to mess with the walls, the wood trim or anything else, and put everything back where we found it," said Steve Fielder, general foremen for Westside Mechanical. There's one exception: he said the building will be converted from steam to hot-water heating - meaning all of the radiators in the dorm rooms will be taken out.

The electrical service will be upgraded in the building as needed. The building will also get new elevators, and fire detection and suppression systems. "The electric in here is old, but it seems to be in pretty decent shape," said journeyman Tom Levier of JG Squared Electric.

The six-story, 145,000-square-foot hall houses about 500 students. The renovation will include a 12,000-square-foot mechanical building to accommodate air conditioning for the entire building, and to house other mechanical and electrical equipment.

A new, multi-level lobby and entrance will be created to provide a single point of entry for residents and visitors, as well as centralized services for students in both houses of Mosher-Jordan. The renovation plan includes spaces that will allow for more socializing and for group projects between faculty and staff - the first such design on campus that's part of the university's Residential Life Initiatives Program.

"We want the building to be restored to its original grandeur," said U-M Director of Housing Public Affairs Alan Levy to the Michigan Daily. "When the students come back (after the renovations), they will be wowed."

BUILT IN 1930, the Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall on the University of Michigan campus still looks great on the exterior. But the student dormitory is undergoing a major interior renovation.

WRESTLING AN OLD circuit panel into place at Mosher-Jordan hall are (l-r) Steve Kuhl and Tom Levier of IBEW Local 252 and JG Squared Electric.

WORKING NEAR a utility tunnel that connects the Mosher-Jordan hall's mechanical systems with the rest of U-M's nearby buildings is Steve Fielder of UA Local 190, general foreman for Westside Mechanical.


Chamber's plan to kill SBT shifts burden to taxpayers

LANSING - If you think the pending elimination of the Michigan Single Business Tax (SBT) couldn't affect you - you've got another thing coming.

That other thing could take the form of elimination of the prevailing wage for construction workers on school-related projects, increased co-payments for Medicaid recipients, moving public school employees away from defined benefit retirement plans into 401k's, and adopting legislation to prevent local units of government from adopting living wage ordinances.

All those proposal are rolled into a plan recently released by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, one of the first groups to come up with suggestions for how the state can cut costs in conjunction with the elimination of the Single Business Tax. They're also among the first groups to formally call for making up part of the business tax shortfall by imposing increased costs on individuals.

"Governor Granholm has been clear from the beginning that any replacement for the SBT needs to fill the hole in the state budget," said Michigan Treasury Dept. spokesman Terry Stanton. "And she has called on the legislature to make sure that any cut in tax should not fall on the shoulders of individual taxpayers."

But shifting the costs from businesses to individual taxpayers is exactly what organized labor feared would happen with the repeal of the SBT. And the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce's plan provides the first indication of how the state's businesses will lobby their Republican benefactors, although it was short on specific numbers. The tax funds a whopping 23 percent of the state's general fund budget.

For his part, Republican gubernatorial challenger Richard Devos hasn't provided specifics, but he has stated that he doesn't believe the entire $1.9 billion reduction in state tax income has to be made up through a business tax shift. "I'm not going to get pinned down on a number," he told the Detroit News. He added: "What I'm saying is that there will be no business tax increase to this state. And the goal is a reduction, and as much of a reduction as possible." He also pledged not to increase fees or taxes to make up for the revenue shortfall.

The Single Business Tax was enacted in 1976 to replace several business taxes. The problem isn't that it's an overall excessive tax - in fact, as we noted in our last issue, several studies have shown that Michigan's tax rate is about average compared with other states. The problem detractors have with the tax is that it's inequitable for some businesses.

During this election year, state Republicans are highlighting the tax as a major impediment to job growth in Michigan. They're taking this position even though the plan was originally signed off by a Republican governor, and was never repealed during half a decade of complete Republican rule in Lansing under the Engler Administration.

"Would people like (the SBT) to be simpler?" Granholm asked. "Yes. Would people like to have it more fair? Absolutely. But is that what's causing our manufacturers to leave? Absolutely not. It wasn't the Single Business Tax that caused Electrolux to leave for Mexico. It was that fact they could pay a buck fifty-seven an hour."

The SBT was set to expire at the end of 2009 - but in August, state Republicans moved the expiration date up to December 2007, with no plan for making up the tax shortfall.

"It's clear that the business and Republican agenda includes saving money for the business community by shifting it onto the backs of workers and their families," said Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney. "This is nothing but a blatant tax shift from corporations to workers. And it's safe to say that this is the kind of agenda we can expect if Dick Devos and state Republicans are elected."


Building trades' signs say 'Granholm'

MARQUETTE - At some bees, old ladies make quilts.

At others, middle-aged men get together and assemble political signs. Such was the case at a "work-bee" sponsored last month by the Marquette County Democratic Party, which brought together 16 tradesman to the Carpenters Apprenticeship School, who put together 50 four-by-eight-foot signs for placement along roadsides in Marquette, Delta and Alger counties.

The recipient of that sweat equity was Gov. Jennifer Granholm, whose name adorned all the signs.

"We're always willing to go to do our part for pro-worker candidates like Governor Granholm," said Marquette County Democratic Party Chairman Jack LaSalle, who again organized the effort after retiring this year as a business representative with the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. "We have quite a system set up to do this kind of thing every election cycle to support candidates who support us."

The signs were printed at a union print shop in Detroit, Sawicki and Sons, and shipped north. The volunteers mount the signs on the same wooden frames that have been used in every election cycle for the last eight years. The signs are glued to a 5/8-inch exterior grade plywood backing. Duct tape around the edges keeps rainwater out and the plywood and signs cohesive.

A database of willing home and business owners who live along major thoroughfares is again contacted and asked if they are willing to host a sign. After the signs are constructed, another team of construction workers plants them in the ground, making sure that Miss Dig is consulted, if necessary, and that local ordinances for signs are observed.

Shortly after Election Day, Nov. 7, volunteers will be out again, collecting the signs and storing them for use in another year or two.

"If we don't pick the signs up soon after the election, they're going to be fair game for somebody to use in a hunting blind," LaSalle said. "So we move pretty quick."

VOLUNTEERS from the trades in Marquette assemble signs on behalf of Gov. Jennifer Granholm. If a sign from a previous campaign has a good bond to the plywood backing, the new sign can be glued atop the old sign. (Photo by Jack LaSalle)


Kennecott Mine clears hurdle

The Michigan Court of Appeals last month overturned a lower court ruling, clearing the way for the state Department of Environmental Quality to decide whether to issue a permit for a nickel and copper mine in northern Marquette County.

The 73-acre mine would involve a $100 million investment and create more than 300 pre-operation construction, truck driver and indirect jobs.

The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve and the Huron Mountain Club challenged the DEQ when it OK'd the Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company's mining application, which meant the agency was ready to begin considering whether to approve it. The appeals court failed to show they'd been harmed by the DEQ's finding that the application was complete.

The next step is for Kennecott to submit its responses to questions and concerns the DEQ raised earlier about the planned mine.


News Briefs

Wage levels take a hike
A revised estimate of U.S. wage and benefit levels in the unionized construction industry predicts that first-year labor agreements in 2006 will increase 4.8 percent, or $1.87 per hour, according to the Construction Labor Research Council. Collectively bargained wages and benefits increased 4.2 percent a year ago, which was also revised upward from earlier estimates.

Increases in the first year of contracts, which are typically three years, accounted for the spike in wages and benefits. Second and third year increases were "quite close" to the levels negotiated last year, the CLRC's Robert Gasperow told the Construction Labor Report.

That 4.8 increase amounts to the largest percentage increase in recent years for the unionized building trades. By area, the "East North Central Region," which includes Michigan, has 2006 settlements less than average, at 4.3 percent, or $1.73 per hour for the first year of contracts.

Material costs till plague construction
The building industry is continuing to have a difficult time getting a handle on rising construction material costs.

Earlier this month the Associated General Contractors warned of a 6-8 percent inflation rate for construction materials, with 10 percent hikes possible. Construction segments like highways, that are most dependent on volatile prices for petroleum products, are particularly vulnerable to such price increases.

"Private owners, public agencies that do budgeting and design, and contractors should all be aware that construction materials prices are likely to keep rising at a much faster rate than the three-to-four percent increase in the consumer price index or broad producer price index for finished goods," said AGC's Chief Economist Ken Simonson. "If these increases continue, I'm concerned that the inflation rate for construction materials could be double the rate of overall inflation."

Simonson continued, "The extreme cost increases or volatility of some construction inputs are proving troublesome to contractors because they have been sudden, extreme and unexpected."

For instance, the price of steel soared 50-to-60 percent in the first half of 2004 after years of flat or falling prices. Steel prices declined slightly in late 2004 and most of 2005 but have risen again in 2006. Meanwhile, other metals costs, particularly copper, have jumped even more than steel mill products.

The AGC said two factors make construction vulnerable to above-average cost increases. Contractors are generally locked into fixed quantities of materials, and construction costs are vulnerable to transportation costs and bottlenecks. Unlike consumer electronics makers, for example, contractors cannot generally make a building or a highway smaller or lighter. Contractors also require physical delivery of large quantities of goods to a specific location, in many cases from around the world and any number of influences can drive up delivered costs.


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