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October 26, 2001

Putting the screws to Michigan's workers…

Freeze on jobless benefits still hurts workers

Displays of patriotism in these uncertain times

These colors won't run on Monroe Co. farmhouse

Another helpful effort by Heat's On volunteers



Putting the screws to Michigan's workers…

Back for a return engagement: repeal of prevailing wage

LANSING - It's baaack.

The annual effort to repeal Michigan's Prevailing Wage Act of 1966 has returned to our state's capital, where repeal proponents are making the usual argument that the law is "burdensome" and costs taxpayers money.

Legislation similar to this comes up just about every year - but even with Republicans in control of both houses of state government and the governor's seat over the last several years, the GOP hasn't been able to obtain sufficient support among its own people to repeal prevailing wage.

This year may or may not be different. Republican state Rep. Wayne Kuipers, in an Oct. 12 letter to school board members across the state, stated, "we are close to building a majority to repeal this law and save money for our schools." He called prevailing wage "a wasteful special interest law."

On the other hand, Todd Tennis of Capitol Services Inc., a lobbyist for the IBEW, said he doesn't take the threat lightly, "but the fact that they're coming after us now is a little surprising to me." Both Republicans and Democrats, he said, are concerned about the effects of redistricting and term limits in the coming months - and don't appear to be in the mood to rock the boat with organized labor.

"Nothing is for certain, but in many ways we haven't been as strong with prevailing wage as we are now," Tennis said.

In 2001, the repeal measure comes in the form of House Bills 4329 and 4383, which have been introduced by GOP Rep. Robert Gosselin, who chairs the House Employment Relations Committee. He held the first public hearing on the matter on Oct. 16. The legislation would repeal prevailing wage standards for public school construction and highway and bridge construction.

Usually proponents of repeal will throw out a number that represents how much prevailing wage will save the state's taxpayers: this time, it's $150 million per year in lower construction costs. The usual argument is that contractors will submit lower bids because their labor costs will be lower.

The reality is that study after study - including one that examined the court-ordered repeal of Michigan's law in 1994-96 - has shown that setting aside statewide prevailing wage laws has little effect on the cost of construction.

Moreover, large nonunion contractors have agonized in recent months over making "poor people" out of nonunion workers because of low pay in the industry. It is becoming increasingly difficult to retain and attract workers, especially in the nonunion sector, because of poor pay and lousy working conditions. A prevailing wage law is one of the few ways governments can uphold pay standards in the construction industry.


Freeze on jobless benefits still hurts workers

Have you been laid off and applied for Unemployment Insurance? If so, you know first-hand the reality of the state's jobless benefits system, which limits the amount any jobless worker can receive to $300 per week.

Of course, workers in the up-and-down construction industry are particularly vulnerable to the whims of the economy - more than ever, now that the nation seems to have entered into a downward cycle. That's why building trades unions are fighting to overturn Michigan Public Act 25, which set the $300 benefit maximum in 1995 without any provisions for increasing it due to inflation.

Republican lawmakers who adopted that legislation controlled the entire state government in 1995, and continue to control all of its branches today. That's why it will be difficult to overturn the law.

Even so, earlier this month, IBEW Local 58 Business Rep. Bruce Burton testified in front of the House Democratic Task Force on Labor in support of Democratic-sponsored House Bill 4188, which would restore the benefits that were cut in 1995. Unfortunately, only Democratic lawmakers were in attendance - Burton said "Republicans simply will not hear any bills that have anything to do with being pro-labor." Here are excerpts of his testimony:

"I am here to testify in favor of House Bill 4188, a well-thought-out piece of legislation that would do much to stimulate Michigan's economy while simultaneously easing the suffering of our citizens who find themselves out of work through no fault of their own.

House Bill 4188 would reverse the damage currently being done to Michigan's economy and unemployed workers by Public Act 25. This short-sighted legislation was signed into law in 1995, a time of relative prosperity. It is only now, during this economic downturn, exacerbated by the current national emergency, that the full weight of Public Act 25 has been placed on the shoulders of Michigan's citizens.

Public Act 25 does several things to the unemployment compensation system, all of which hurt those people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. It makes unemployment benefits more difficult to qualify for. For those who do qualify, however, it cuts the weekly benefit amount for those who do not receive the maximum benefit of $300 weekly.

Public Act 25 eliminated indexing and froze the maximum weekly benefit at $300 forever. By the way, if indexing were still in effect, the current maximum would be $414. One part of Public Act 25 seems particularly onerous in that it provides not one, but two separate disincentives to work.

Clearly, Public Act 25 hurts Michigan's unemployed workers. Its effects are particularly insidious to construction workers, as their unemployment rates typically run 2½ times the total unemployment rate. Michigan's current unemployment rate is 5.1 percent.

When Public Act 25 was passed into law in 1995, putting the hurt on construction workers - or any other workers for that matter - was not a concern of the legislature or the governor. Unfortunately, this attitude still holds true today. However, given the deteriorating economic situation, combined with the national emergency, Public Act 25, which initially helped Michigan's employers, may very well begin to hurt them as well.

Unemployment insurance helps protect those businesses that depend on workers to purchase their goods and services. A 1999 economic simulation commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor concluded that over the last five U.S. recessions, unemployment insurance has "mitigated the loss in real gross domestic product by about 15 percent over all quarters in each recession."

The National Employment Law Project further writes, "Unemployment Insurance has always served as the nation's first line of defense in an economic recession. By pumping UI trust fund dollars into a declining economy, UI automatically boosts consumer spending in communities impacted by unemployment, while meeting essential needs of households hit by layoffs."

In speaking to this committee, I realize I am preaching to the choir. My remarks need to be heard by those (Republican) members of the State House Employment Relations, Safety and Training Committee who are not in attendance, especially the chairman. However, we all need to work to get HR 4188 passed, and relegate the effects of PA 25 to the scrap heap of history.

Let's get Michigan back to business and back to work."


Displays of patriotism in these uncertain times

OLD GLORY flaps in the wind above the Winter Garden, the huge glass-enclosed atrium that's being erected on the Detroit River side of the GM Renaissance Center. Standing behind the flag are Pat Curry, Tony Emory and Dennis Woods, members of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1, working for American Seal & Restoration.


These colors won't run on Monroe Co. farmhouse

For more than a century, Jeff and Rebecca Mullins' farmhouse in Erie looked like, well, a farmhouse.

About 15 gallons of red, white and blue paint later, its exterior became a symbol of their patriotism, in the form of a huge American flag.

"After what happened on Sept. 11, my wife and I went out to get an American flag, but it looked so small on this big house," said Mullins, a 38-year-old member of Sheet Metal Workers Local 80. "So we decided to do something a little bigger. It's a like personal therapy, to help us feel a little better about what happened."

Jeff, Rebecca (an artist) and Paul Bussell, a union painter working for Skyline Painting, painted the flag and a likeness of the Statue of Liberty on another side of the Monroe County house in two days of work.

USA Today, the Monroe Evening News, the Toledo Blade and several television stations covered the house's new cover. "Everybody who has seen it has liked it," said Jeff, including the only nearby neighbor, who lives across the street. "Everything is in proportion, and I think it looks great. We've had nothing but positive responses."

The Mullins' home is located at 11758 S. Dixie Hwy. in Erie, about one mile east of Telegraph.

SHEET METAL Worker Jeff Mullins and wife Rebecca transformed the side of their home into a replica of the American flag.


Another helpful effort by Heat's On volunteers

Volunteers from several pipe trades locals put a lot of smiles on a lot of faces this fall, during various Heat's On programs.

Volunteers from Plumbers Local 98, Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 190 and Pipe Fitters, Refrigeration and Service Trades Local 636, along with affiliated contractors and contractor associations, gave their time to perform pre-winter repairs on heating and plumbing in the homes of needy people.

Local 636's event was launched at the local's Training Center in Troy on Saturday, Oct. 13. It was held in conjunction with the Association of Service and Mechanical Contractors of Southeast Michigan (ASAM).

"We had over 200 volunteers and about 70 trucks, and it was a great success," said Local 636 Business Manager Jim Lapham. "We appreciate the efforts of everybody who came out and donated time. They helped a lot of people."

With the goal of keeping homeowners "warm and safe," said ASAM Associate Managing Director Muriel Versagi, "the program is an excellent example of management, labor, government, and the private sector working together to improve and benefit local communities."

In Washtenaw County, Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 190 took part in the 11th annual Heat's On Program, with the usual good response. There were 110 volunteers, who used 48 trucks and made 58 calls throughout the community. Three furnaces that had hazardous faulty heat exchangers were replaced.

"This was our 11th year, so we've got the program down pretty well," said Local 190 Business Manager Ron House. "Our people did a great job and we're glad to perform the service."

Local 190 worked in conjunction with the Greater Michigan Plumbing and Mechanical Contractors, Inc.

More than 90 Plumbers Local 98 and Pipe Fitters Local 636 members worked with the Plumbing and Mechanical Contractors (PMC) of Detroit on Saturday, Oct. 20.

"This effort means a lot to the community, because it helps so many people," said UA International Rep. Joe Sposita. "It means a helluva lot to organized labor, too, because this shows the good we do in the community."

One of the first-time volunteers was Local 98er Tim Lieder, who was organized into the local only a few months ago. "I think it's good to do something like this," he said. "I'm glad to give my time, and help people who may not be able to help themselves with these services."

Over the last decade, the Heat's On effort through the PMC has served approximately 800 homes. The work of the volunteers is valued at an estimated $25,000 each year. Tom Storey, vice president of government affairs for the PMC, said in addition to proving trucks and repair materials, contractors this year will donate $100 in the name of each volunteer to the 911 Disaster Relief Fund.

"Thanks to all of you who came here to help," said PMC President Chris Fitch. "This service wouldn't be possible without you."

PIPE TRADES workers and contractors from UA Local 636, top, Local 190, middle, and Local 98, bottom, helped make the 2001 Heat's On/Water's Off Program another success. Local 98 members Art McCleary and Charles Beranek are in the bottom photo. Thanks to all the participating individuals and contractors for giving their time and resources.



Golden Gate jumpers have unlikely friends
Here's a building trades jurisdictional quick quiz: in San Francisco which trade has the task of talking down potential suicide jumpers from the Golden Gate Bridge?

If you guessed the iron workers, you'd be correct. If you're wondering why the iron workers have anything to do with talking down people who want to kill themselves, read on.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal published an article under the headline, "Ironworker volunteers will go over the rail to save you, but don't expect empathy." The article went on to describe how since the Golden Gate opened in 1937, iron workers have had a hand in talking down suicide jumpers, with a mix of tough love and a practical, no-nonsense approach.

"They may be looked at as unconventional," said bridge manager Kary Witt, "but they're pretty darn successful." Eve Meyer, director of suicide prevention for a counseling hotline in San Francisco, called the iron workers' methods "irregular," adding, "you can't argue with success."

The suicide prevention hotline estimates that about 30 people die jumping off the Golden Gate each year, and the iron workers save about 60 others.

The Wall Street Journal described a case that took place one early March morning in 1993, when a potential jumper wearing a trench coat and brandishing a kitchen knife jumped over a railing onto a catwalk on the bridge, threatening to leap into the Pacific Ocean 220 feet below. Police blocked several lanes of the bridge, backing up traffic for miles.

Glen Sievert, one of about 12 iron worker volunteers who respond to suicide calls, was rousted out of bed via a phone call to handle this incident. He wasn't happy. In fact, many of the bridge-men were said to hold the potential jumpers with contempt - they tie up traffic, distract them from their jobs and give the bridge a bad name.

"I don't like these people, I have my own problems," he told the Journal. "My job is to get them off the bridge. Beyond that, it's up to someone else."

The iron workers have the job in part because neither trained psychologists nor the professionals on the police force are willing to go over the rail onto the bridge's underbelly to talk down potential victims.

The article said the iron workers pitch themselves to potential jumpers as regular folks who know how tough life can be. If the person doesn't respond to casual conversation, the iron workers' goal is to buy time and establish rapport - then inch close enough to grab them.

One strategy is to ask for the person's watch or wallet, "since you're about to jump anyway." Another is to instill fear, describing in gruesome detail how painful it would be to hit that water at more than 100 miles an hour - and possibly come out of it alive.

The iron workers aren't unaffected by what they see - one father dropped his toddler off the bridge, then jumped himself. One iron worker described what he has seen as "pretty devastating."

The man in the trench coat on the catwalk kept Sievert and others at bay for hours with his knife, and never told them why he wanted to jump. He had tied a nylon rope around his neck and fastened the other end to the bridge. Finally, "fed up and exhausted" as the Journal put it, Sievert told the man to give up in 30 seconds or he would come after him.

The man saluted and jumped. But the rope was still around his neck, and Sievert and other workers grabbed it and hoisted him up - unconscious but alive.


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