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October 17, 2008

Election 2008: An end and a beginning

Employee Free Choice Act should be part of the solution

Here come the judges: A vital part of voting, at the bottom of ballots

Plenty of action at FireKeepers casino

Governor signs off on renewable energy plan

Michigan electricians help restore power to flooded Cedar Rapids

News Briefs

 

Election 2008: An end and a beginning

By Mark Ayers
President
Building and Construction Trades Department

October is that time of year when most of us begin to feel the sharp chill in the air that says that winter is just around the corner. For some folks, October represents the beginning of the end…the threshold to the end of another year.

And as October 2008 begins, I can certainly agree with that sentiment. Because we - and by "we" I mean America in general, and America's Building Trades Unions in particular - are on the cusp of truly experiencing the beginning of an end.

For our beloved country, we are fast approaching what many of us believe is the most important and historic presidential election in our lifetimes. Not in the sense that we may very well elect an African American as president, which is, indeed, historic in and of itself.

Perhaps more importantly, this election is so important and historic because I truly believe that the results of this election will demonstrate a seismic political shift away from a political majority and its accompanying governing philosophy that has thrown our nation wildly off-course over the last eight years, and has put the lives of American working families in complete disarray and imbalance.

On March 16, 2008, the U.S. Federal Reserve, by nature a prudent and cautious institution, rewrote its own rule-book by rescuing Bear Stearns, the country's fifth-largest investment bank, and agreeing to lend directly to other brokers. A couple of days later the Fed cut short-term interest rates-again-to 2.25%, marking the fastest loosening of monetary policy in a generation.

It was a Herculean effort, and it staved off the outright catastrophe of a bank failure that had threatened to split Wall Street asunder. At that time, I applauded the actions of the Fed andconcluded in my own mind that we were close to reaching the peak of the crisis.

Boy, was I wrong!

In mid-September, the federal government had to step in and provide immediate infusions of cash and credit to stave off the collapse of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. And hot on the heels of that action came the news that Wall Street banking conglomerates Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, along with the world's largest insurance company - American International Group (AIG) - was also on the verge of bankruptcy.
Like most Americans, I digested this news with a healthy dose of wonder, asking myself, "What the Hell is going on…how did we get to this point…and who was asleep at the switch?"

Well, many would say (and I would agree) that it all began in the 1980s with an historic and sustained bull market in stocks and bonds, propelled by falling interest rates, new information technology corporate restructuring, and a new conservative government led by Ronald Reagan's siren call to eliminate any and all forms of government regulation and get government out of the way of capitalism.

When this historic boom ran out, shortly after 2000, the finance houses that had grown rich on the back of it set about in search for new profits. Thanks to cheap money, and the aforementioned obliteration of government securities regulation, they could take on more debt-which makes investments more profitable and more risky. And thanks to new information technology, they could design an endless myriad of complex derivatives, some of them linked to suspect mortgages. By combining debt and derivatives, the banks created a new money-making machine that could originate and distribute prodigious quantities of risk to a baffling array of counterparties.

And while all this was going on, there was no oversight from any government regulatory body to ensure against any potential catastrophe.

Over the past decade this entangled system fed on itself. And the financial system, or a big part of it, began to lose touch with its primary purpose; which was, and is, to write, manage and trade claims on future cash-flows for the rest of the economy. Instead, Wall Street increasingly got caught up in a game built upon fees and speculation.

And its favorite pastime was to "beat the regulator." And in this game, billions of dollars were diverted off of balance sheets and into more dubious, and incomprehensible, schemes. All the while, thanks to what, in hindsight, has proven to be disastrously lax regulation, banks did not have to lay aside sufficient capital in case something went wrong.

And boy, did it go wrong. The game is now up. You can think of lots of ways to describe the pain-debt is unwinding, investors are writing down assets, liquidity is short. But the harshest pain has been reserved for middle American families - like the men and women who comprise our skilled trades - whose very lives and careers are dependent upon companies and businesses and developers having access to capital in order to expand and grow their businesses, and in the process provide the jobs and the income stability that fuels the American economic engine.

It is a sad and compelling tragedy. But it is not devoid of meaning, because something important happened on Wall Street this year. Not only have financiers discovered that they had created a series of monumental risks that the market could not cope with, and which will never, ever be allowed to prosper again; but the American people are finally waking up to the fact that a conservative governing philosophy predicated on a completely unregulated free market is not in our nation's best interests.

The debacle continues to unfold on Wall Street today is not a reason to condemn our entire democratic/capitalistic system…for in its true form it remains the best approach, and the greatest hope, for ensuring equal opportunity and sustained economic prosperity for all Americans.

On the other hand, the lessons that we, as a nation, have learned through this painful ordeal will be incredibly useful as we work to replace a flawed, conservative political and governing system with a more tempered and sensible approach that is rooted in the basic premise that government ought to function in the interests of the greater good…and not the privileged few.

So, in that vein, the events of this year on Wall Street are a sign that the rules need changing. And change they will.

But, first, we have to stop the rot.

And that begins on Election Day 2008.

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Employee Free Choice Act should be part of the solution

By Joe Wantz
America Rights At Work

The national conversation has been focused squarely on the economy in the last several weeks, with pundits and experts breathlessly declaring a financial catastrophe of epic scale.

Of course, those of us who live in the real world knew the economy has been in trouble far before Wall Street failed. We know people who had their house lost to foreclosure. We know people who have had their jobs outsourced or eliminated. We know people who work more than one job to pay the bills and support their families. And we know that something needs to change.

Change, however, cannot simply come from the top down. The financial market bailout may help to restore confidence on Wall Street, but does little to cure the many problems on Main Street. The average American worker needs more than assurances that once the financial markets are "fixed" that they will be taken care of.

Workers truly need to have their own voice and determine their own economic destiny. One of the best ways to do that, of course, is through forming a union at work. Unfortunately, over the last thirty years, employers across the United States have cracked down on organizing, resulting in a decline of union membership. It comes as no surprise that during that time wages have stagnated, 47 million Americans have no health insurance, and foreclosures have skyrocketed out of control.

The Employee Free Choice Act is an important part of the fight to regain the American dream for millions of workers. It will level the playing field by giving employees a free and direct path to form unions, toughen penalties against employers who break the law, and help restore balance to our obsolete federal labor laws. Union members earn 30% more, have better access to health care and other benefits, and have greater job security. Let's get the conversation back to where it belongs, on the well-being and strength of the American worker.

It's time our economy worked for everyone again.

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Here come the judges: A vital part of voting, at the bottom of ballots

You might have heard there's a state and national election that's going to take place on Nov. 4.

There are two guys competing for the U.S. presidency, and they're getting most of the ink and airtime. But another branch of government bears watching: the judiciary.

"It's kind of a sleeper issue in this election, with so much else going on," said Wendy Long , counsel for the Judicial Confirmation Network, to the McClatchy Newspapers. Added People for the American Way President Kathryn Kolbert: "The Supreme Court is on the ballot this fall, and the stakes could not be higher for Americans."

The Supreme Court isn't actually on the ballot, but either John McCain or Barack Obama is expected to be able pick either two or three justices in the coming term. A McCain presidency would likely mean the Supreme Court, currently split 5-4 with a deciding justice that leans conservative, would become more conservative. An Obama presidency would likely only maintain the status quo. Six of the nine sitting justices, who are appointed for life, will be at least age 70 in September. Liberal Justice John Paul Stevens is 88.

Michigan has its own set of black-robed candidates on the ballot, Hundreds of district court, circuit court, probate and other varieties of judge will be on local ballots this general election. It matters who is chosen: the right judge can mean the right ruling on numerous cases involving worker issues likes wages and safety and health. On most ballots in Michigan, those races are going to be at the end of the ballot - in the (supposedly) nonpartisan section) where they are sometimes ignored by voters.

"We're out encouraging people to remember the bottom of the ballot, because that's where the judicial candidates are," said Michigan Supreme Court Justice candidate Diane Marie Hathaway, who is facing off against incumbent Justice Cliff Taylor.

Hathaway, endorsed by the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, is seeking to unseat Taylor, whose rulings are part of a five-member conservative bloc of state Supreme Court justices who have issued numerous pro-business, anti-worker rulings over the years.

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Plenty of action at FireKeepers casino

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

BATTLE CREEK - The FireKeepers Casino will be Michigan's next, newest gaming facility, scheduled to open on or about Aug. 20, 2009.

Until that happens there's a lot of work to be done by the building trades. Construction began on May 12 on the site of a former cornfield on Michigan Avenue near exit 104 off of I-94. Some 200 Hardhats are plying their trade on the project, and that number will ramp up to 400 or so after the New Year.

"There's quality workmanship, good coordination, everything is on schedule, and we've had no surprises so far," said Ken Stephenson, general superintendent for Clark Construction Co., the construction manager. "Even the weather has been great."

Under construction is a 236,000 square-foot Las Vegas-style casino that will have room for 3,000 slot machines, 90 table games and 20 poker tables. An adjacent 2,500-car parking deck will also be constructed. Construction of a hotel, while not part of this project, is expected to follow.

The $300 million FireKeepers Casino is being built by the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Tribe, and represents their first venture into gaming in Michigan. The casino will create about 1,500 permanent jobs. Litigation has held up construction of the casino for years.

"The Tribe is very pleased with the progress that we are making in the construction of FireKeepers Casino," said Huron Band Chairperson Laura Spurr. "We have waited a long time to bring economic development and jobs to not only tribal members but also to the greater Calhoun County region."

The site will include five restaurants, including a 70-seat fine dining signature restaurant, a 300-seat buffet, and a 150-seat, 24- hour coffee shop.

The single-level casino will feature a granite and limestone exterior, and that masonry is expected to be complete in mid-November. The interior, Stephenson said, will have nice finishes and "lots of low voltage lighting," to the tune of an $8 million lighting package. And an upgraded ventilation system will expedite the movement of cigarette smoke out of the facility, while bringing fresh air in.

Stephenson said the utilization of safety audits on the job and an enhanced focus on safety have led to zero lost-time accidents on the job as of Oct. 7. "The tribe have done walk-throughs and there have been nothing but accolades for the work that's being done," he said. "Our biggest challenge will be the really aggressive schedule. We're right on schedule, and we'll be enclosed and warm and dry by the end of October and ready for winter."

THE GRAND ENTRANCE - complete with this porte-cochere, or portico - at the FireKeepers Casino in Battle Creek resembles a bird's beak. Fabricator and erector Douglas Steel reports that the beak is part of 1,300 tons of structural and miscellaneous iron that will go into the building. On the lifts in this photo are Iron Workers Local 340 members Mike Gangley and Bruce Murray, who are employed by Douglas.

PANEL STUBS at the casino are installed by Tod Rocco and Derek Bannister of IBEW Local 445 and Swan Electric.

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Governor signs off on renewable energy plan

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

DETROIT - A three-bill package intended to better position Michigan for green energy production and related manufacturing was signed into law Oct. 7 by Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

"This is the first step toward a significant transformation of Michigan, from an industrial economy, into a lean, green economy," Granholm told a crowd of about 150 union, business and political representatives. She signed off on the new law in the lobby of NextEnergy, an "incubator" facility near the Wayne State campus that provides space for firms to work with alternative energies.

The legislation goes a long way toward re-regulating Michigan's utility industry. The bipartisan legislation signed by Granholm includes a renewable portfolio standard that mandates 10 percent of the state's energy come from renewable sources by 2015. In addition, the law requires utilities to meet an additional 5.5 percent of Michigan's annual electrical demands through energy efficiency by 2015.

The reforms also have protections for ratepayers, although electrical rates are expected to rise over the next few years. Under the new laws, no longer will alternative energy suppliers be allowed to come into Michigan and cherry pick the best customers, while ignoring those customers that are costliest to service.

The energy package is expected to unleash more than $10 billion in power plant construction, including a new nuclear plant on the grounds of the Fermi II plant near Monroe by Detroit Edison, a new $2.3 billion coal-burner at the Consumers Energy Karn-Weadock plant near Saginaw, and more than $2 billion in new construction by Mid-Michigan Energy near Midland, among several other projects.

Consumers Energy essentially said the new restructured utility policy is a springboard to implementing its Balanced Energy Initiative, which will lead to new construction in Michigan of renewable energy, and developing new power plants, along with utilizing existing generation.

"Thanks to historic action by state lawmakers, Michigan now has the energy policy it needs to allow for a balance of energy sources and strategies, including energy efficiency and renewable energy," said John Russell, Consumers Energy's president and chief operating officer.

The Michigan Public Service Commission estimates that Michigan currently spends $26 billion every year to import fossil fuels. Granholm has argued that a renewable portfolio standard will drive investment in several different areas. The nationwide hunger for silicon (solar) panel production, for one, is pushing expansion of the Dow Corning plant in Midland. As one of the windier states, Michigan can take advantage of wind generation, since it's much more economical for manufacturers of wind turbines to build them close to where they will be installed.

Michigan already has existing tool and die and manufacturing facilities to do the work - and the people with the know-how to do it. The U.S. Department of Energy, according to Granholm, said Michigan is one of only four states with the potential to create more than 30,000 manufacturing jobs by investing in wind, solar, bio-fuels and energy efficiency.

Granholm said aggressively moving Michigan into the renewable energy arena will bring more jobs in research and development, manufacturing, and construction. "This legislation means all kinds of jobs, for all kinds of people," the governor said.

MICHIGAN GOV. Jennifer Granholm shows that she signed into law an energy package that requires Michigan utilities to obtain 10 percent of the state's energy from renewable sources by 2015. The result: billions of dollars in work for the building trades. Behind Granholm are organized labor representatives.

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Michigan electricians help restore power to flooded Cedar Rapids

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

Nearly forgotten in this year of horrific financial news, presidential politics and Hurricane Ike, is the devastation wrought by flooding in Iowa in June.

Nearly 4,000 homes in Cedar Rapids were evacuated when the rain-swollen Cedar River washed over its banks. The flood placed an estimated 100 city bocks blocks underwater.

Enter about 130 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers members from Michigan, who traveled to Cedar Rapids in the summer-long effort to get the corn milling operations of one of the area's major employers, Cargill, back up and running. The Michigan wiremen comprised about half of the total crew of electricians on the job.

"It was amazing, there were electricians from every IBEW local in the Lower Peninsula," said Eric Kane, a 13-year member of IBEW Local 252, who spent six weeks this summer at the Cargill plant. "There were so many hands out there because of the high levels of unemployment in Michigan. But the people in Iowa seemed very appreciative that we were able to get out there and help them rebuild. It was phenomenal, they gave us solid gold treatment."

Along with the Cargill plant, a Quaker Oats plant was also flooded, together taking jobs away from some 3,000 workers. The Cargill plant provides cornstarch, corn syrup and other corn-related products to the food industry. The floods also caused the shutdown of two power plants in Cedar Rapids and closed hundreds of businesses. All told, Kane said about 1,000 wiremen were in town last summer to help rebuild the city. He said electricians comprised the vast majority of trades who traveled to Cedar Rapids

Kane said he arrived in Cedar Rapids on July 7 and stayed through mid-August. He said the electricians did tests on the Cargill plant's wire and insulation, replacing them as needed, and replaced panels and motor control centers, among other tasks. The water, he said, rose about 15 feet in the plant before receding. Electrician crews worked mind-numbing 7-12s to get the plant back up to speed.

"It was a real mess," Kane said, "and it was really hot. It's a huge plant so we must have walked five to 10 miles a day. But I give them credit. They really tried to make it as easy on us as possible."

Cargill took care of them with daily free catered lunches and dinners and air-conditioned limo-bus rides from the parking lot. "They were very concerned about jobsite safety, and there were daily safety meetings," Kane said. "They were a lot of thanks and atta-boys, and sometimes I wanted to remind them that we weren't doing this as volunteers, we were getting paid."

Kane said 52 members of Cedar Rapids IBEW Local 405 were affected by the flood, and 14 lost their home. The local union was overwhelmed with work at the Cargill plant alone, which usually hires a union workforce. Kane expressed amazement at the ability of the IBEW members and the entire community to attempt to bounce back from the flood.

"It was the most rewarding experience of my career," Kane said. "It was seriously depressing to see the housing, which was devastated, to say the least. There was still garbage everywhere when I got there, but by the time we left, their yards were clean and a lot of the debris was gone, although it still looked like a flood zone. But those were people who didn't wait for help from FEMA or anybody else to restart their lives."

Kane said until he found a room at a local Cedar Rapids hotel, he had to commute an hour from Camp Courageous, a facility for the mentally and physically handicapped, which had rooms available and only charged them $12 a night.

He was joined in his travels by fellow Local 252 member Erik Machleit, who said the area "was just devastated. You don't appreciate what you have in life until you lose it. For me, going there just brought about a sense of appreciation for life in general."

Both wiremen decided to drag up in August when there was a mass layoff at Cargill. They returned home to their families around Labor Day.

"There was unbelievable camaraderie, it was true unionism," Machleit said. "Everybody was out for everybody."

PART OF THE GROUP of electricians - all from Michigan - who helped restore power this summer to the flooded Cargill plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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News Briefs

Tight money may choke construction
Washington, D.C. - "The drop in construction employment accelerated in September and will get much worse unless credit markets reopen," Ken Simonson, Chief Economist for The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), said Oct. 3 following a Bureau of Labor Statistics report that showed construction lost 35,000 jobs in September. "State governments from California to Maine have been shut out of the bond market, while developers have had bank credit windows slammed shut on their fingers as they reached for their loans.

"All types of construction shed workers in September, following an uptick in nonresidential hiring in August," Simonson noted. "Another ominous sign is that architectural and engineering services employment - a harbinger of demand for future construction - rose until recently but stalled this summer and fell in September."

Simonson said the news is actually worse, because the government numbers only reflect payrolls as of Sept. 12, before the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac triggered the current freeze in bank lending.

"The bad news on employment comes on the heels of a report from the Census Bureau on Oct. 1 that private nonresidential construction spending fell by nearly 1 percent in both July and August," Simonson said. "State and local construction spending was up, but I fear that will change as more states each week announce budget shortfalls. Highways and schools - 60 percent of public construction spending - are in particular jeopardy, because of drops in fuel and property taxes.

"Even the private categories with the best chance of growth in 2009, such as power plants, refineries, hospitals and higher education, have slowed and risk losing access to affordable loans," Simonson concluded. "The 2009 construction employment and spending outlook will be very bleak unless credit markets revive promptly."


60 Dem seats in Senate seems unlikely
(PAI) - In August, at the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting, federation President John J. Sweeney set a lofty election goal for 2008, second only to winning back the White House for workers: "60 in '08."

What he meant, is even if Democratic nominee Barack Obama won the presidency, pro-worker causes are hamstrung in Congress unless labor allies muster 60 votes in the 100-member U.S. Senate to halt Republican filibusters. The current split in the Senate is 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one dem-leaning Independent.

At that same council meeting, AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, offered what now looks like a more-realistic projection. The Democrats, he said, would win "five or six" of the targeted seats, meaning they would still fall about five short of the 60 needed. Two weeks before the election, polls show it looks like McEntee might be right.

But it's been a strange election season.

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