October 26, 2007
50 years for
the Mackinac Bridge
workers recall the highs and the lows
and tell tall tales
More Mackinac memories
showed what union people can do'
Mighty Mac's chief
engineer: 'Finest, safest, and most beautiful bridge the world
has ever seen'
keeps the Mighty Mac mighty
Men built the
Mackinac Bridge, but money made it happen
weighs local worker, expanded prevailing wage rule
SCHIP is off
the block: OP stops expansion of health care for kids
Held at arm's
length in the past, top Dems now arm-in-arm with labor
years for the Mackinac Bridge
By Marty Mulcahy
At 1:45 p.m. on Nov. 1, 1957, the City of Petoskey car
ferry made its final trip from Mackinaw City, docking in St.
Ignace for an open house and program to mark the end of an era.
At 2 p.m. that day, Michigan Gov. G. Mennen Williams arrived
in St. Ignace at a newly erected toll plaza. Williams' vehicle
would be the first to officially drive over the Mackinac Bridge,
starting a new era that would unite the state's peninsulas by
the opening of Michigan's greatest engineering feat and most
As cars followed the governor over the bridge, "some
motorists continued to arrive at the dock to cross the Straits,
but were told to go to the bridge," wrote Mike Fornes, who
provided the above account in his book Mackinac Bridge, a
50-Year Chronicle. "The ferries were tied up for good,
and the Mackinac Straits Bridge was now open for business. Michigan
was indeed one."
After the bridge opened the bridge gradually became Michigan's
pre-eminent landmark, now appearing our driver's licenses, license
plates, on gift shop coffee mugs as well as travel promotion
materials. And why not? It was one of the greatest engineering
feats of its time, and remains the longest suspension bridge
in the Western Hemisphere and the third longest in the world.
Since Gov. Williams made that five-mile-long passage, a half-century
has gone by and more than 140 million vehicles have crossed the
Mackinac Bridge. Some 3,500 bridge workers, 350 engineers and
7,500 others in various quarries, mills and shops were employed
during the bridge's construction, from 1954 to 1957.
A comparative handful of those original construction workers
re-visited the Mackinac Bridge in July, as part of the official
50-year anniversary celebration of the bridge. As we reported
at the time, parades, fireworks, first-hand accounts from bridge
workers and the unveiling of an iron worker statue marked the
"I was a small part of building the bridge, but it was
heartwarming being on the float (at the 50th anniversary celebration)
with people cheering and waving," said iron worker Joe Oldeck,
who toiled on the bridge for a year and a half. "My dad
always said that that you don't know how lucky you are to have
worked on the Big Mac, and I am."
Many of the workers' comments were quite matter of fact, like
Paul LaFebvre's: "I see the bridge is still up. We must
have done a fair job."
Ten years ago, The Building Tradesman undertook a project
to talk to tradesmen who worked on the bridge in conjunction
with the Mighty Mac's 40th anniversary. We published a special
section at the time with their comments. The 40th anniversary
doesn't have the "golden" impact of the 50th anniversary,
but we wanted to record their memories at the time - as inevitably,
some memories would fail and some of the workers would be unreachable
a decade later. Many of the workers' comments are reprinted here.
The "official" State of Michigan's celebration for
the Mackinac Bridge's 50th anniversary took place in July - a
month that's apt to have better weather for parades and fireworks
than November. But we saved most of our attention for the "real"
anniversary date: Nov. 1. We hope you enjoy this special tribute
to the men who helped build the Mighty Mac.
UNION BUILDING TRADESMEN built the magnificent
Mackinac Bridge from 1954 to 1957. The prime contractors were
the American Bridge division of U.S. Steel (superstructure) and
Merritt-Chapman & Scott (builder of the bridge's 34 piers).
Five tradesmen died during construction. (Photo courtesy MDOT
A WELDING GANG sets the grated metal roadbed
in the middle of the bridge in 1957. The grating was intended
to allow the bridge to be aerodynamically transparent, making
it better able to withstand winds in the Straits of Mackinac.
Mackinac Bridge Authority Chief Engineer Kim Nowack said the
span was built with such a high factor of engineering strength
that a solid deck surface could have been installed instead.
(Photo courtesy MDOT Photography Unit)
MACKINAC BRIDGE painters put the first coat
of rust-colored primer on a main cable in 1957. From the look
of the men, they had a few coats of paint on themselves, too.
(Photo courtesy MDOT Photography Unit)
Bridge workers recall the highs and the lows
and tell tall
By Marty Mulcahy
The following article with comments by Mackinac Bridge
workers was published by The Building Tradesman in 1997 for the
bridge's 40th anniversary, and is reprinted here as we mark the
50th anniversary of the opening of the Mighty Mac.
On the edge
One day in the fall of 1957, as work on the bridge was wrapping
up, 21-year-old iron worker Joe Oldeck went to work the usual
way - a tugboat took him and other workers to the base of the
bridge. Then came an arduous 550-foot walk up the catwalk.
"The fog was blowing down below, and you really couldn't
see much," said Joe. "Then, halfway up the catwalk,
we cleared the fog. It was almost as if you could walk on the
clouds. It was just beautiful, it was really something."
Forty years later, Joe is recently retired and has gained
a new appreciation for what he did in the three months he worked
on the bridge.
"I didn't realize the significance or the value of working
on the bridge at the time, I guess you get a little perspective
with age," he said. "My dad was a pipe fitter, and
he told me at the time, 'you don't know how lucky you are. I
wish I could work on it.' As I look back on that time, it was
exciting and challenging working on the edge. I never worked
tied off. There was danger walking that line but it was extremely
exciting. Now, as I look at it through the eyes of a person who
is 61 years old, I can look back and say...'whew.' "
Oldeck remembers lunch hour 550 feet in the air in the dead
of night. One of his co-workers dropped a thermos to the deck
below. "It just seemed like it took forever to hear the
sound of it hitting," he said. "You have to wait for
it to hit, then you had to wait for the sound to come back up
to you." Apparently, the thermos only hit iron, and not
a hard hat.
Blowin' in the wind
Omar Breyer, now 82, was the first painter to put a coat of
paint on the bridge. He said he didn't particularly want the
work in October 1955, preferring to take a break from a busy
period in his life to fish the Sturgeon River. But the money
was good - $4.50 per hour - and after he thought it over he put
down his fishing pole and picked up his paint brush for contractor
Breyer remembers the first spot he painted with the lead-based
red primer - it was approximately 43 feet up on Pier 18. He used
countless brushes - all with four-inch by four-inch bristles
- before he climbed off the bridge for the last time in 1960.
No sprayers or even rollers were used, Omar said. Today, the
maintenance schedule for the Big Mac calls for it to be painted
almost continuously, from one end to the other and back again.
Breyer was nicknamed "The Dobber," because that's
what he painted on his hard hat. He said the paint came to the
bridge site in 50-gallon drums, and he and other painters carried
it to their work site in five-gallon buckets, one in each hand.
"It got a little difficult walking up the cables,"
he said. "But I was young and pretty strong, and I guess
I had a pretty good sense of balance.
"I fell a couple of times, and I got scared a couple
of times, but I grew to enjoy the work."
Scared? What happened, we asked Omar.
"Well, on the port side of one of the towers, we missed
a section about 400 feet up, so I had to go way up in a block
and tackle with a seat suspended from it. I didn't like going
up in that seat, and it got worse when the wind started blowing.
The wind got ahold of me and blew me out from the tower about
15 feet, then it spun me around and around. Oh, I was afraid.
"My biggest fear was that it would blow me back against
the tower against my back, but I was lucky, I went back in feet
first, and I was able to hang on. I remember that I smoked an
entire three-inch cigar while I was trying to get my line unraveled.
I eventually got the job done."
A friend dies
Working on the caissons was the first Mackinac Bridge-related
job of iron worker Ellsworth "Elly" Stewart, 74. He
started working in the straits in 1954, and says he was the first
certified welder to work on the bridge. He struck up a friendship
and ate lunch every day with his best friend on the project,
On Oct. 10, 1954, "I talked to him 15 minutes before
he died," Elly said.
He explained that he was part of a welding crew, while LeSarge
was in a "fitting gang." Fitting gangs picked up 21-ton
sections of caissons off of barges. LeSarge was using a ratchet
while aligning a stationary section and a new section, when an
inch-and-a-quarter bolt snapped. He fell 40 feet off the platform
he was working on, and his head hit several steel braces before
he hit the water.
"I went to his funeral, and I realized that I was working
on that bridge when three people were killed," Elly said.
"I could have gone back to work, but after Jim's death,
I lost all interest." He went on to a long career in iron
working, but never again on the Mackinac Bridge.
'It was a job'
Some people have fond memories of their work on the Mackinac
Bridge. To others, it was just a job. Iron worker Robert Williams,
69, worked on the span from 1954-56. He worked as a riveter,
on the caissons, and on assembling wire.
"It was very interesting work, and I am proud to have
worked on it," he said. "But I'm not very sentimental
about it; it was a job. I don't think about it too often, or
go to Mackinac to look at it. About the only time I go near the
bridge is to go over it."
Riveting punk impressed
John Guertin, 65, is retired out of Boilermakers Local 169.
But in April 1956, he had gained a pretty good welding elbow
and went to work on the bridge as an iron worker.
"I was a punk on a riveting gang," he said. "I
needed the money, that's why I went to work on the bridge."
He recalls that he made good money in those days, working five-nines,
and his W-2 makes it official: the U.S Steel, American Bridge
Division paid him $1,972.18 in 1956.
Guertin said he has fond memories of working on the bridge,
despite the fact that he previously had never worked higher than
30 feet off the ground. On the Big Mac, he grew accustomed to
getting rivets where they needed to go while working on a scaffold
250 feet above sea level. Only once does he remember dropping
any rivets. "They were brought up in 50 gallon barrels,
and one time, there were too many rivets, and about 50 were dumped
on the men below. Boy were they mad."
He acknowledges being highly impressed with the Big Mac. "In
the beginning, there was just nothing there, three years later
there was a bridge," Guertin said. "You look at the
bridge today and realize the enormity of the job."
"One thing about the Mackinac Bridge," said Mike
Gleason, 68, who worked on the bridge from 1954-55, "there
were nothing but top-notch men on the job, If they weren't doing
the job, they were gone the next day. I made some life-long friends
on that job. And American Bridge really took care of us. They
got us all the top-notch equipment that we needed.
Gleason bolted iron on the north and south approaches to the
bridge. He remembers taking his young son Shorty out onto a girder
near the Mackinaw City shore, and taking a picture of the lad
about 20 feet in the air. "I took a little chance, but he
hung on," his dad said. "He couldn't have been too
scared, he followed in my footsteps."
One of seven American Bridge superintendents on the Mackinac
Bridge job was John "Reds" Kelly, 78, who started as
a rigger in the East Coast shipyards in 1939 and got his Iron
Workers book out of Wilmington, Del. in 1947.
Just before he came to the Mackinac, Kelly worked on the Walt
Whitman Bridge in Philadelphia.
"American Bridge was a very good company to work for,"
he said. "They came out with all the safety equipment before
any other company, and they came out with it before OSHA even
existed. They supplied the men with hard hats, safety belts,
and tools that were designed to improve safety."
One of those tools, he said, was a spud wrench that had a
tapered point on the back end. The point allowed iron workers
to align iron by sticking the end into bolt holes. With the other
end of the wrench, of course, they tightened bolts. This was
in an era when the term "ergonomics" hadn't been invented.
On the Mac, one of the seven bridges he worked on during his
career, Kelly was the erection superintendent of cable and stiffening
trusses. He said there was pressure in his possession, which
rolled downhill from Art Drilling, American Bridge's senior superintendent.
"He caught all the flak from the home office and passed
it on to us," Kelly remembered.
He brings a superintendent's perspective to another memory.
While he expressed regret at the death of two workers who were
killed as they were setting up the catwalk, Kelly said that it
was striking how cautious workers became afterward.
"People got to thinking," he said, "and they
started pussyfooting around. It was a couple of weeks before
they would go flat out again."
Kelly looks back fondly on his days working the Mackinac.
"Every bridge has its share of problems, but I would
have to say that the Mackinac was my favorite bridge to work
on," said Kelly. "It was a very interesting job, and
oh, the characters who worked on that bridge, they were something.
Plus it was such beautiful country."
Paving the way
For all the people who worked with danger as a constant companion
on the bridge, probably just as many had mundane jobs. One of
those jobs was performed by William Tembreull, now 68, of Operating
Engineers Local 324. A month before the bridge opened in the
fall of 1957, Bob worked as a blacktop paver for the approach
roads on either side of the bridge. He worked for long-defunct
"It didn't make much difference to me that we were working
near the bridge, I just went where they sent me," Tembruell
said. "They sent myself and three rollers to get the job
done, and it was just that, it was a job."
Tembruell became a crane operator after that, and retired
An ill wind
Retired iron worker Bill Babinchak, 66, still remembers the
wind that howled through the Straits of Mackinac.
"I ran rivet crews, and I was a supervisor," he
said. "I worked on the bridge from 1954-56. It was all tough
work. I worked handrail detail on the top of the towers. The
heights either bother you or they don't, and working up there
never really bothered me.
"The one thing I seem to remember most is the wind. After
you go up so high it was just constant. Sometimes you could lean
into it, and that helped a little. But that wind screwed up a
lot of schedules."
On windy days, some crews were delayed 45 minutes or longer
waiting for a ferry boat to take them off the bridge. "We'd
have 60 or 70 men coming off the towers waiting for the waves
to settle down so they could get the boat close enough,"
Babinchak said. "Those times in particular the men and I
didn't like that wind."
A helpful tug
Iron worker Richard Brown went on vacation in June, 1956,
camping with his pregnant wife and two children in a trailer
at Mackinac State Park, and didn't go home until the fall.
"I knew the bridge was being built nearby and I figured
I'd stop by the union hall to learn about the job," Brown
said. "Well, the guy at the union hall was on the phone
with the contractor, who told him he needed a man. I had my iron
worker card on me, and right then and there they sent me out
to the south end of the first pier sticking bolts.
"I stayed until school started for the kids. My wife
and kids didn't mind, it was a long vacation for them."
Brown, 69, tells the story of a fellow worker who "was
trying to get out of someone else's way," when he lost his
balance and fell from the deck of the bridge.
"He was only three or four feet from me when he fell,
and we weren't tied off at that time," said Brown. "I
saw an air hose that supplied a pneumatic gun looped right below
us, and I saw he was falling toward a diagonal (a piece of iron).
So I pulled on that air hose, and he fell into it and it changed
his direction just enough so that he only brushed the iron, and
he fell maybe 80 feet into the water."
Brown said the worker drifted in the Straits for a while before
being picked up by a nearby boat. He escaped the ordeal with
only a broken leg.
"I don't know, I may have saved the man's life,"
Brown said. "Everything happened so fast. No one else was
looking at me, and I never talked to anybody about what happened.
I never met the worker who fell."
After that mishap, the contractor had rescue boats permanently
stationed below the bridge, Brown said.
Iron worker Ray Daley, 74, did a little bit of everything
in working "all the way through" construction of the
He was on crews that assembled caissons in Alpena, and then
help sink the 200-foot deep anchors until they hit bedrock below
90 feet of mud and 90 feet of water. Daley connected iron on
Tower 20 then spun cable.
"The money was good and there was plenty of overtime,"
he said. "It was a beautiful job. The were lots of good
men from all over he country. Working on that bridge was the
highlight of my life as an iron worker."
The first and last
Tens of thousands of rivets are stuck in the Mackinac Bridge.
Here are the stories of the first and the last.
Jim Sweeney, now 72, was boss of a rivet gang - the first
rivet gang to work on the bridge. And when it came time to drive
the first rivet on the bridge, he acknowledges pulling rank.
"The rivet boss has an argument that he should be the first,"
he said with a smile. And first he was. "I wasn't about
to let anybody else have the honor."
In August 1956, iron worker John Tisron drove the last rivet
on the south side.
"I was working on the bridge, and just about everybody
else and all the tools had been sent back," Tisron said,
when a call came over the radio to place 28 rivets on some expansion
joints. He went out to take care of the job, and when they got
to the last rivet, a fellow worker said "let John do it."
Forty years later, with a gleam in his eye, Tisron said, "I
knew that bridge, and I knew it was the last rivet. Hell yeah,
I enjoyed driving that last one."
Water under bridge
According to iron worker Jim Burwell, 71, working on the bridge
"was probably the best experience I ever had." And
one of the stories he related, about water under the bridge at
the Straits of Mackinac, was one of the best we heard.
He said the water in the Straits in 1957 "tasted fine,"
and he and his fellow workers were aware of this, because it
was a primary, albeit distant, source of refreshment. Carrying
drinking water up to the bridge was just another burden for workers,
so some got in the habit of tying lines to buckets and dipping
them into the water far below.
Men dipped their buckets, even if fog obscured their view
of the water. On more than one occasion, Burwell said, "you'd
hear 'bang, bang,' and you knew the bucket hit a ship below.
Sound traveled really good. Oh, the cussing and swearing you
heard down below - you couldn't print what they said. One time,
a bucket broke out a ship's pilot house windows, and they wrote
to American Bridge, complaining about it."
American Bridge, Burwell said, directed workers not to use
this method to get drinking water any more. No doubt, that directive
was thereafter obeyed to the letter.
Pizza and history
J.C. Stillwell, 69, long ago gave up his spud wrench in favor
of a spatula. He owns the Mama Mia restaurant in Mackinaw City
and also operates the Mackinac Bridge Museum upstairs in his
"I thought it would be a good idea to preserve the heritage
of the bridge," he said. The museum boasts air wrenches,
air guns, spud wrenches, a diving suit and a ceiling full of
hard hats of the men who worked on the bridge.
"I'm proud to be a union iron worker, and I'm very proud
to have worked on the bridge," he said. "I figured
if someone doesn't do something, people are going to forget what
it took to build the bridge."
On the parts of the Mackinac Bridge where iron worker Stanley
Jacher and his welding crew worked, he can certify that the job
was done right.
He was a welding foreman on a crew of 60. "I went to
school to learn to weld - that's why I was the welding boss,"
Jacher said. "When we were finished with an area, and the
state inspectors came over, they'd look at the welds and ask
me questions about how things were done. They knew everything
out of a book, but not out in the real world."
Jacher worked on the bridge from 1954-57.
"We had people from every local in the country,"
he said. "My crew had to do good work. If I had somebody
on my crew who was no good, we'd shift 'em someplace else."
'Touch the stars'
Ron Zielke spent a grand total of four months as an iron worker.
They were spent working on the Mackinac Bridge in the summer
and fall of 1956. "It was the best job I ever had in my
life," he said. "It was certainly the one with the
most fresh air."
Zielke worked as a punk, or the equivalent of an apprentice.
Much of his time was spent spinning wire, a job which turned
.197 inch diameter wire into the 2 1/2 foot main cables that
support the deck of the span. "It was a tricky job,"
he said. "As the wheel was going up and down the towers,
it had to be straight, and you had to maintain the proper tension.
We were always fighting the wind."
Working 10-hour shifts meant that Zielke and other iron workers
were sometimes up on the bridge in the black of night. He said
he will never forget some of those nights.
"When I was on top of a tower on a clear night, it was
almost as if you could touch the stars," he said. "The
sky was so beautiful."
Zielke also worked as a communications man, passing along telephone
messages from the land-based crews to foremen on the job. His
wooden shack was perched between the east and west main cables
about 200 feet above the water.
"I remember my last day on the job very clearly,"
he said. "One day in the fall, it was either October 5th
or 6th, a strong, cold wind came out of the northwest. The snow
felt like somebody had thrown bunch of needles in my face. I
felt the catwalk swinging wide, and I thought, 'I'm getting out
of here.' I headed home to see my wife and kids in Battle Creek."
Before he became an iron worker, Zielke had worked on the
Grand Trunk Railroad, but was let go due to a steel strike at
the time. "I heard they needed people at the bridge, and
I had to feed my family," he said.
A perfect fit
The Mackinac Bridge was built without the aid of today's laser
sites and computers. Construction proceeded from both the St.
Ignace and Mackinaw City ends of the bridge, and met in the middle
of the straits. Iron worker Jim Parker, who was on the crew that
bolted in the section that connected the center ends of the bridge,
said it's amazing how well Steinman's engineers did their work.
"When we got to the last section in the middle, no one
could believe it," he said. "We figured it would be
close, but it was perfect. They put the last section into place,
and they just stuck the pins in there, there was no adjustment
necessary. It just showed how sharp those engineers were."
Adjustment, Parker said, came from 500-ton water jacks that
were used to keep the span plumb.
Now 64, Parker said he worked on the bridge for two years
pulling wire in Sault Ste. Marie and as a bolter until the iron
workers' work was complete.
"The main thing people ask you when they find out you
worked on the bridge was how you got along with the heights,"
Parker said. "They don't understand that when you're working,
you're concentrating on your job, not on how high you are."
Ups and downs
Most iron workers got used to taking the catwalk up to 552-foot
towers when they started their shift. But not everybody had to
take the walk.
Dan Horan of Fenton, now 72, was an apprentice working on
the bridge and was given the job of working the construction
elevator on Tower 19. The elevator started just about 12 feet
above the water line and went all the way to the top.
"I took workers to and from their jobs, and in between,
I transported equipment," Horan said. "I served people
all and up and down the tower. It was a helluva way to break
in, but I got to know all kinds of people that I wouldn't have
Horan said his elevator was suspended below a cable, which
was moved up and down by an operating engineer. "I didn't
want the job, but I got comfortable with it," he said.
"The one guy who sticks out in my mind was an old man
in a rivet gang," Horan added. "I had regular places
where I would stop, but this old man had me stop at his platform.
He told me to open the cage, move out of the way, then he jumped
in! It was only a three or four foot jump between his platform
and the cab, but I couldn't believe it. I told him, 'you scared
the hell out of me!' because I didn't know what he was going
Horan said the old riveter took the risk in order to save
a 40-foot walk up a ladder.
He operated the elevator for about a year - "I had enough
of it" - and went on to work on a riveting gang.
There are legendary stories about how Mackinac Bridge workers
could gratify their vices, especially in St. Ignace. There are
tales of all-night card games, drinking away paychecks and the
ready availability of women of ill-repute.
There is truth to many of the tales - but iron worker Clifford
Mumby suggests that much if it is myth that gets better with
the telling and re-telling. He worked on the bridge in 1956-57.
"People who have written about the bridge have used the
most colorful people to make their point that iron workers were
hell-raisers," said Mumby. "They talked to the hardest
drinkers and gamblers, and people come away with the impression
that that's how everybody was. It made good copy, but most of
us just did our job, and went home at the end of the day."
Mumby wrapped wire, worked on the approaches, and helped install
the catwalk during his time on the bridge. The Grand Blanc resident
sounds like a classic "boomer" - moving from job to
job for American Bridge all over the country. "We've moved
41 times during the 46 years we've been married," he said.
"We raised three daughters out of a trailer. And you know
what? I'd go back in a minute if it weren't for my wife. She
wants me home."
The 69-year-old retiree said all iron workers aren't created
"There's a difference between and iron worker and a bridge-man,"
he said. "There's a certain cameraderie among bridge-men.
You know your life depends on the other people who are up there
with you every day. They truly are your brothers, and I've stayed
close with a lot of them."
Mumby said there's an unspoken bond among bridge-men. "It
was dangerous work, and some days you just had the feeling that
it wasn't your day. You could walk off and no one would say anything.
It happened to me once: One morning I got that feeling, and I
told the boss that today wasn't the day. He said 'OK' and that
was the end of it."
Operator and sailor
Fred Thompson, 72, operated his share of machinery as an operating
engineer, working atop good old Mother Earth. During his stint
working on the bridge, he also got his sea legs back.
Operators needed a platform for their cranes, and barges provided
the base during a portion of the construction process. Thompson
operated deck winches on the corners of the barges that tightened
and slackened cable, which stabilized the barges. "We were
sailors," the Afton resident said. "But I was used
to it, because I was a sailor in World War II."
The barges were big and inherently stable, he said, "but
when the seas got rough, we would let loose and ride it out.
Even when the water was calm, we had to constantly keep on the
controls. You had to stay on the ball; you couldn't goof off."
Thompson, a Local 324 retiree, remembers working on the construction
of the first of the two massive caissons that were constructed
in Alpena. "I worked on it most of the summer, and I guess
because I was pretty familiar with it, they asked me and another
guy to ride it to the straits."
He explained that the metal caissons were hollow, double-walled
cylinders that were about 116 feet from side to side and 40 feet
long. They floated - and he and his co-worker spent two and a
half days "aboard the caisson" being towed to the bridge
site, ever alert with flashlights on the inside of the shell,
looking for leaks.
"No it never leaked," Thompson said. The first caisson,
tapered at the lower end, was sunk and filled with concrete.
It was rocked back and forth so it sunk deeper and deeper into
the bedrock. The main towers were eventually placed atop the
From an operator who knows the structure inside out comes
this assessment: "It's a great bridge - very well designed."
Moon over Mackinac
There were hundreds of talented machinery operators who worked
on the bridge - and there were dozens of other talented tug boat
operators who worked under it.
The tugs brought men and supplies to and from the bridge site
from St. Ignace and Mackinaw City. One of the men who took the
tugs every day was iron worker Dick DeMara, now 68, who worked
on the bridge from 1956-57.
"I have a lot of respect for those tug captains,"
DeMara said, who took the tug to the bridge on 15-20 minute cruises
from St. Ignace. "We had our share of rough water, and lake
freighters were always coming through, but I never remember any
DeMara remembers that workers needed a little coordination
when they jumped off the bobbing boats onto a level area of concrete
at the base of the bridge's anchor piers. Bad weather, he said,
often meant that the tugs couldn't safely dock at the south pier,
so workers would have to make the long walk up and down the catwalk
in order to get to the north pier. The straits in that area were
more stable because of the presence of a causeway that jutted
out from the shore.
Nature, or more accurately the call of nature, also affected
the day-to-day behavior of the bridge-men. For many months, there
were no bathrooms or porta-johns available to workers as the
bridge was being assembled.
"When I think back in it, this was probably the funniest
thing I remember," DeMara said. "Before we had porta-johns,
guys who had to go would just let their ass hang out over the
rail. You were out on the bridge, what were you going to do?
There were getting to be a lot of sightseeing boats around down
below, who didn't like a little poop in the eye, and we were
getting a lot of complaints about all that mooning.
"You had to think before you went. You had to be looking
all the time, and you had to go with the wind, and it could get
really cold in the winter."
Eventually, as the superstructure went up, American Bridge
brought up some porta-johns, and the workers could go about their
business in private.
A heavy lifter
Some 42,000 miles of wire were woven into the 24.5-inch main
cables that support the Mackinac Bridge. Total weight: 11,840
"And I was there for every inch," said Bob Lynch,
66, an operating engineer who worked on the bridge in 1956. Lynch
operated a stiff leg derrick on the south anchorage pier, picking
up 25-ton reels of cable off of barges.
After Lynch placed the reels atop the anchor piers, iron workers
used turnbuckles to splice the ends of the wire together as they
formed the cables. Lynch also spent a period of time running
a derrick on the south tower to set up the catwalk.
"I wanted to go work on the bridge because I thought it
would be a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part
of history," Lynch said. "You knew they were only going
to build one Mackinac Bridge. The work was certainly different
than work on land, and it was very interesting."
Thank God & Local 324
Dean Cote read about our intention to publish this section,
and asked us to mention his father Ray Cote, who died 13 years
ago, and uncle Lezore Cote.
All worked as operating engineers.
"My dad worked from start to finish on the bridge,"
said Dean, 56, "and he worked as a master mechanic doing
repair work on all the equipment. Building the bridge was the
first really large union job in the U.P., and my dad was really
happy about that. He was very proud of being a union member.
When we said grace, we would thank Jesus Christ and Local 324,
and I can't remember which one came first."
A native of St. Ignace, and himself a Local 324 member, Cote
said when the bridge workers first came to town, "they weren't
welcome. After all, the bridge was going to lay people off. A
lot of people depended on the ferries to make a living. But they
turned around when they saw him much money the workers were putting
into the community. If you couldn't get a job when the bridge
was being built, you were lazy."
End of the road
News accounts say that delays due to the weather put the construction
of the bridge behind schedule toward the end of the project.
Bridge operators said even if it meant installation of a temporary
wood deck, that bridge was going to be open Nov. 1.
Iron worker Bill Nichols worked on the Mackinac Bridge in
1957, the year that the span opened. He was part of crews that
performed the final projects, including the installation of the
guardrails and the steel road grating. He was around when the
last section of road was put into place, and wood was never used.
"Toward the end, there really wasn't a lot of pressure
to get it done," said Nichols, 71. "I can honestly
say that I loved every minute of working on the bridge. I first
got my card as an iron worker on the bridge, and I worked around
a lot of hard workers. And it was there that I decided that that's
what I wanted to do with the rest of my life."
Nichols said there was a fair element of danger installing
the guard rails - "there was nothing there to keep you from
going over" - but all in all, his last few months on the
bridge "was a gravy job."
"I remember setting the last piece of grating,"
he said, "and we didn't do much to mark the occasion, except
we topped it out by going to the bar."
Hairy first day
Iron worker Don Horne's first day working on the Mackinac
Bridge featured a not-so-fine how-do-you-do.
"My first day on the job there were about 20 of us who
were in an elevator going up the north tower to our worksites,"
said Horn, 67. "When we were about 300 feet up, the wind
got ahold of us and blew the cab out of the guide pullies. There
were guide pullies on each side and, one suspended in the center
which moved it up and down. We were swinging like a pendulum.
"We grabbed for the cables and finally got us back in
the cable and we all got safely onto the tower. People who say
they weren't scared working on that bridge are lying. One guy
who was in that elevator wanted down. He had it."
Horn worked on the job for four months as an iron worker,
mostly spinning cable.
"I never fooled around, you had to watch yourself and
your partner," Horn said. "It really was a safe job,
and I'm proud to have been a part of it. It's so majestic - it
looks as good today as the day they finished."
Meet Norman Kirchoff, the self-proclaimed highest man on the
Mackinac Bridge. He explained that he also cheated death four
On Nov. 26, 1956, a storm was brewing in the straits, and
American Bridge decided to pack it in for the season, said Kirchoff,
67. But someone had to secure the boom on the derrick attached
552 feet at the top of Tower 19, then place an airplane beacon
light at the very top, more than 600 feet above the straits.
Kirchoff, an iron worker, volunteered for the duty, and took
the hazardous climb up the derrick's mast. He got the job done,
made it down in one piece, and today figures no one has ever
been higher on the bridge.
On another occasion, the iron worker found himself at the
top of the tower, throwing heavy rope down the catwalk. The catwalk
was connected to the top of the tower, but there was a temporary
four-foot gap in between, and a big drop awaited anyone who made
a miss-step. Part of the rope caught on his bullpin (a metal
rod used to adjust iron that was in his toolbelt) and he fell
forward toward the four-foot gap. His forward momentum barely
placed his toes on the top edge of the catwalk, and he tumbled
head over heels into the fencing.
"If I had leaned backward, I would have fallen 552 feet,"
he said. "I got up off the catwalk and I immediately threw
that bullpin into the straits. I hated that thing."
On yet another occasion, when the catwalk was unsecured below,
a strong gust of wind blew the walkway out at a 45-degree angle.
Kirchoff slid towards the edge, and grabbed for the lower wire
guardrail. Unfortunately, there was slack in the wire cable,
and Kirchoff dangled below the catwalk, holding on by one, gloved
"How did I get up? Very carefully," said Kirchoff.
"I hooked my foot up and caught the edge of the catwalk,
and pulled myself up.
"Sure, those incidents scared the hell out of me. But
I was young, I was only 26 at the time. I figured there was a
job that needed to be done and I was going to do it."
Helpful hard hat
Hard hats were a required piece of safety equipment on the
Mackinac Bridge project. Looking back, iron worker Clarence Kraft
was glad he wore one when he worked on the bridge in 1955.
Kraft was working on Pier 19 when he reached into a 55-gallon
drum for a rivet. Then, as Kraft put it, "something almost
erased my mind." Someone above had dropped a rivet, and
it fell about 250 feet, striking him on his hard hat at the back
of his head.
"I was headfirst in the drum, up to my armpits, and that
rivet knocked me out cold," Kraft said. "My hard hat
shattered like a windshield, and it put me in the hospital for
two weeks." He was then given light duty for a while, working
on the boats. Later, he worked on the structural steel under
Kraft still has the hard hat that probably saved his life.
"I have no lasting effects from getting hit," he said.
"And I still have wonderful, great memories of working on
'Some good men'
For operating engineer Duane MacGregor, 74, working on the
Mackinac Bridge meant terrific heights, which "I wasn't
crazy about." It also meant working in the wind - "sometimes
it blew so hard, and you just had to lean into it. To be honest,
sometimes I was scared."
MacGregor started on the project in June 1955 and stayed until
the project was complete in 1957. He worked on deck engines and
winches on the barges, and also ran a hoist and set suspension
cable. After working on the Mighty Mac, he spent the rest of
his career as an operator working on dry land. Besides the heights,
he said, "there never was any dust in the middle of the
"I took the walk over the bridge on Labor Day this year,
and one thing that I was thinking about was the beautiful view.
The other thing I thought about were the guys I worked with.
There were some characters, they could make you laugh and they
could make you cry. There were some good men who worked on that
AN IRON WORKER truly walks the path of the
straight and narrow. (Photo courtesy MDOT Photography Unit)
RIVERTERS EMERGE from an opening in a tower.
(Photo courtesy MDOT Photography Unit)
'They showed what union people can do'
Following are comments made this year by workers about
their experiences building the Mackinac Bridge. These first-hand
accounts originally were published in a booklet handed out at
the 50th anniversary celebration in July 2007. Thanks to Allied
Union Services and local union staff for compiling the comments.
Dick Sterk: I was very fortunate to have a chance to
work with some of the best and most skilled Iron Workers and
Bridgemen in the world. I was almost a casualty on that job.
I was in the riveting gang and I got hit in the head with a bull
pin. I was out for 16 days. I was fortunate that it didn't kill
me. I was off work for about 40 days, but they hired me back.
One thing about American Bridge was they taught you how
to work. If you didn't work, you didn't stay.
Russell Tolan: It was alright. I worked on towers and
barges all day long. I had a great time. I met a lot of good
people. They were all Iron Workers so surely they were all good
Glenn Nash: It was the job that started my Iron Worker
career. I graduated high school on June 9th. June 10th I went
to the hall to sign up. June 11th I went up to the Mac and saw
the Steward Ray Himbaugh. American Bridge wouldn't let me go
to work because I was only 17. So I got my parents to sign a
My first day on the job two men went in the hole installing
the catwalk. They both died. We knocked off early that day and
went back to work the next. Harold Moore was my foreman. We worked
on tower 20 on the St. Ignace side in the Guy Derrick gang.
I was there for all of 1956. We took up the lower platform
on Nov. 28, 1956. It was the last day we worked on the bridge
for the year. It was so windy and the ice was everywhere. The
spray went up 50 to 60 feet and froze on contact. They had a
really hard time getting us off the job on the tug boats. It
was all in all a great memory.
Gerald Kennelly: I worked on tower 19 in 1956. I was
in the riveting gang. I made about
$3.00 an hour back then. When you looked down from the top, those
barges and tugs looked like canoes. It was a treacherous job,
a good job, but treacherous.
Basil Miller: I wish they'd put another Mackinac Bridge
up. I'd go back to work. And I hope I'd have as much fun now
as I did then. It was really an experience.
Glen Hanson: It was an awesome job. I was just a kid
out of High School at 18. Just awesome, a fantastic experience.
It was the start of my Iron Worker career. It took a while to
believe I was working on the bridge.
Kirk Kirkpatrick: I was there 3 or 4 times if you know
what I mean. Sophy's was a great place to hang out. When I was
at work, it was with some of the best people I ever knew. I'll
never forget it. Young and strong with a good back. This work
surely doesn't leave much of you for your later years. It's real
But I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm really proud of
all of the beautiful monuments and structures that this Iron
Worker Union has built over the years. And I'm even prouder to
have been a part of that.
James Clements: I worked in 1954 on the caissons for
CB&I. Then for American Bridge
driving rivets in the towers in 1956. Then I put the cable on
the reels. Then they sent them out to be spun. It was nothin'
but hard work. After the day was over, I went home and to bed.
Beatin' those 1" rivets sure took it out of you.
Leo Harrigan: Those personnel boats they built in Toledo were
something else. That was the experience of a lifetime. Just the
boat ride out there was enough. We couldn't hardly get off the
damn boat. It went up 10 feet then down 10 feet. I worked in
gang setting caissons. We set all the segments except for the
makeup section in one shift. That must be some kind of record.
Maurice Gauthier: To me the Mackinac Bridge is one
of the wonders of the world. The
workers were the best too. When all the trades from across the
country get together, the job is done correctly and on time.
I'm proud to be an Operatorand I'm proud of all the other trades
because they show what Union people can do.
George Carriveau: It was so dangerous, but I was very
proud to be on the job.
Robert Carriveau: It was all work and no play. I'm
glad to have been one of the men to help build it.
E.J. Porter: This thing about the bridge is pretty
interesting. I remember when they blew up the coffer dam. It
blew out all the windshields in the cars in the parking lot.
We had some really good times at the Nicholay Hotel too. We had
a great group of guys when we built that bridge. I lost some
really good friends on that job.
Mac's chief engineer: 'Finest, safest, and most beautiful bridge
the world has ever seen'
The following is a condensed article written by D.B. Steinman,
the chief engineer of the Mackinac Bridge. It originally appeared
in Lawrence A. Rubin's book Mighty Mac, The Official Picture
History of the Mackinac Bridge, published in 1958. It is reprinted
here with Mr. Rubin's permission.
The Mackinac Bridge is the greatest bridge in the world. Its
cost is more than that of the George Washington Bridge and the
Golden Gate Bridge combined. The record cost of $99,800,000 is
a measure of the magnitude and the difficulty of the project.
Both artistically and scientifically it is outstanding. No effort
has been spared to make it the finest, safest, and most beautiful
bridge the world has ever seen.
The bridge is five miles long. In the middle of the bridge,
in the deepest water, spanning a submerged glacial gorge, we
have a suspension bridge bigger than the George Washington Bridge.
With a length of 8,614 feet from anchorage to anchorage, Mackinac
is the longest suspension bridge in the world.
Before construction, people said that the rock underlying
the Straits, because of the unusual geological formation, could
not possibly support the weight of a bridge. To resolve any doubts,
outstanding geologists and soil-mechanics authorities were consulted.
Exhaustive geological studies, laboratory tests, and "in-place"
load tests on the rock under water at the site established, without
a doubt, that even the weakest rock under the Straits could safely
support more than 60 tons per square foot. This is four or more
times greater than the greatest possible load that would be imposed
on the rock by the structure.
The foundations were made large enough and massive enough
to keep the maximum resultant pressure under 15 tons per square
foot on the underlying rock. The foundations of the Mackinac
Bridge contain more than a million tons of concrete and steel
to form massive piers and anchorages. Three-quarters of this
mass is under water, to provide enduring stability. These foundations
will be more enduring than the pyramids.
Because the public has been alarmed by unscientific claims
that no structure built by man could withstand ice pressure in
the Straits, I added a further generous margin of safety. According
to the most recent engineering literature on the subject, the
maximum ice pressure ever obtained in the field is 21,000 pounds
per lineal foot of pier width. In the laboratory, under specially
controlled conditions for maximum pressure, the greatest ice
pressure producible is slightly greater, 23,000 pounds per lineal
foot. I multiplied this higher figure by five and designed the
piers to be ultra-safe for a hypothetical, impossible ice pressure
of 115,000 pounds per lineal foot.
The maximum pull of the two cables on the anchorage is 30,000
tons. Each anchorage has a mass of 180,000 tons of concrete and
steel, providing a generous safety factor of six against the
maximum cable pull.
The public has been irresponsibly told that no structure could
resist the force of storms in the Straits. So I made the design
ultra-safe against wind pressure, too. The greatest wind velocity
ever recorded in the vicinity was 78 miles per hour; this represents
a wind of 20 pounds per square foot. I multiplied this force
by two and a half, and I designed the bridge to be ultra-safe
against a hypothetical, unprecedented wind pressure of 50 pounds
per square foot.
The main span at the Mackinac is a suspension bridge, which
is inherently the safest possible type of bridge. In fact, by
utilizing all of the new knowledge of suspension bridge dynamics,
particularly my own mathematical and scientific discoveries and
inventions, I have made the Mackinac Bridge the most stable suspension
bridge, aerodynamically, that has ever been designed.
This result has been achieved not by spending millions of dollars
to build up the structure in weight and stiffness to resist the
effects, but by designing the cross-section of the span to eliminate
the cause of aerodynamic instability. The basic feature of this
high degree of aerodynamic stability is the provision of wide
open spaces between the stiffening trusses and the outer edges
of the roadway. The trusses are spaced 68 feet apart, but the
roadway is only 48 feet wide.
These open areas constitute the scientific design. They eliminate
the closed corners in which pressure concentrations are producible
by wind, and they also eliminate the solid areas on which such
pressure differences would otherwise act to produce oscillations
of the span.
By this feature alone, (the open spaces between the roadway
and stiffening trusses) the critical wind velocity was increased
from 40 miles per hour to 632 miles per hour!
But I was not satisfied with raising the critical velocity
to this fabulous figure. For still further perfection of the
aerodynamic stability, I provided the equivalent of a wide opening
in the middle of the roadway on the suspension spans. The two
outer lanes, each 12 feet wide, are made solid, and the two inner
lanes and the central mall, 24 feet wide together, are made of
open-grid construction of the safest, most improved type.
By this additional feature of aerodynamic design - adding
the central opening to the lateral openings previously described,
I achieved a further increase in aerodynamic stability and raised
the critical wind velocity from 632 miles per hour to a critical
wind velocity of infinity!
Michigan's bridge is not only a scientific and economic triumph.
It is also an artistic achievement.
Devoted thought and study were applied to the development
of forms, lines, and proportions to produce a structure of outstanding
beauty. A suspension bridge is a naturally artistic composition,
with the graceful cable curves and the symmetry of the three
spans, punctuated by the dominant soaring towers and framed between
the two massive, powerful anchorages. There is a symmetry about
each tower and overall symmetry of the three-span ensemble. The
suspension span framed by the two lofty towers is "a harp
outstretched against the sky," a net outspread to hold the
stars. The bridge as a whole is a "symphony in steel and
stone," a "poem stretched across the Straits."
For the painting of the bridge, I chose a two-color combination
- foliage green for the span and cables and ivory for the towers
- to express the difference of function. (I may be joshed about
the "ivory towers.")
During the cable stringing, lights were strung along the catwalk
for the night work. My suggestion that such illumination of the
cables, necessary for construction, be made a permanent installation
was enthusiastically adopted.
The Mackinac Bridge is my crowning achievement - the consummation
of a lifetime dedicated to my chosen profession of bridge engineering.
As far back as 1893, when I was a newsboy selling papers near
the Brooklyn Bridge, I told the other newsboys that someday I
was going to build bridges like the famous structure that towered
majestically above us. They laughed at me. Now I can point to
400 bridges I have built around the world, and to my masterwork
- the Mackinac Bridge - the greatest of them all.
The Mackinac Bridge represents a triumph over staggering obstacles
and difficulties - some man-made and others imposed by nature.
We had to overcome the difficulties of legislation and financing
in the face of ignorance, skepticism and prejudice. The structure
has been made generously safe t defy all these natural forces
with an unprecedented high margin of safety.
Aerodynamically, it is the safest bridge in the world; in
fact, it is the first long-span bridge ever designed and built
to have perfect assured aerodynamic stability for all wind velocities
up to infinity. This result has never before been approached
Finally, my staff and I are proud of our record of building
the Mackinac Bridge within our estimate or cost and within our
estimate of time. We have generously fulfilled our promises and
commitments. We have kept faith with the Mackinac Bridge Authority
and the people of Michigan. The Mackinac Bridge may well be called
the bridge that faith has built.
THE CHIEF ENGINEER of the Mackinac Bridge,
Dr. David Steinman, had the utmost confidence in his massive
bridge - and perhaps an outsized ego to match. (Photo courtesy
MDOT Photography Unit)
maintenance keeps the Mighty Mac mighty
By Marty Mulcahy
ST. IGNACE - We should all be as healthy as the Mackinac Bridge
at age 50.
A steady regimen of parts replacement, painting, lubrication,
and a form of exercise has left the span in "very good shape,"
with a healthy future, said Mackinac Bridge Authority Chief Engineer
"It's always amazing to me that even with the massive
amount of steel and concrete, the bridge deck and the towers
flex like a living thing with the changes in temperature and
wind," she said.
Credit the nonstop maintenance on the bridge for its good
health. This fall featured some replacement of open grating sections,
as well as steel beam repairs underneath the deck. In recent
years, trades workers have replaced hanger lengths and transition
pieces, performed electrical upgrades, and of course, have undertaken
the never-ending process of painting. Nowack said it took three
years to paint the area between the towers.
"You might be able to assign a lifespan to the bridge
if there had been no maintenance over the last 50 years,"
said Nowack. "But the bridge has had regular, ongoing inspections
and maintenance. Some materials on the bridge are a day old,
some are 50 years old."
The bridge has a number of parts that allow movement and flexibility.
For instance, the span can rotate east and west up to 25 feet
under sustained high wind conditions. And workers who use the
motorized traveller (a moving platform under the bridge used
to perform maintenance) feel bounces when traffic passes above.
One of the notable design elements in the Mackinac Bridge
is the steel grating in the middle of the road deck. The bridge's
chief engineer during its construction, David Steinman, sought
to mitigate the occasional high wind forces experienced in the
Straits of Mackinac region by allowing the wind to blow through
the bridge deck.
From a structural standpoint, it was an unnecessary choice,
the bridge was already designed with a sufficiently high wind
If a suspension bridge were built in the same place today,
it could look like the Mighty Mac, but engineers could take advantage
of lighter-weight and more rust-resistant materials. One innovation
that has come along for suspension bridges, Nowack said, is the
use of orthotropic technology.
The Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, for example, switched
their deck to an orthotropic system in the early 1980s, which
reduced the deck's weight by 12,300 tons. An orthotropic system,
according to Public Roads magazine, is a collage of steel plates
welded together, stiffened by a grid of ribs, and integrated
with the driving surface. It can increase the life span of the
deck to 100 years.
But even without that newer technology, the good work of building
trades workers 50 years ago got the Mackinac a half-century of
service - and we're still counting.
"The workers then did a tremendous job of building the
bridge, and we're very appreciative of their efforts," Nowack
said. "Today we're doing our best to keep it in good shape."
CONSTRUCTION GROUNDBREAKING on the Mackinac
Bridge took place on May 7, 1954 in St. Ignace and the next day
in Mackinaw City. Construction workers had the bridge built three-and-a-half
years later, on time and on budget.
built the Mackinac Bridge, but money made it happen
By Marty Mulcahy
ST. IGNACE - The biggest obstacle to building the Mackinac
Bridge wasn't necessarily about politics, engineering, logistics
or finding good manpower.
No, the biggest obstacle was convincing skeptical financiers
in New York City that a $100 million bridge between two communities
with a combined population of 3,000 would eventually pay for
So said Lawrence Rubin, 94, the oldest person alive who was
directly involved at the highest level in the effort to obtain
financing to build the bridge. He was appointed Executive Secretary
of the Mackinac Bridge Authority on June 24, 1950, and supervised
the operation and maintenance of the Mackinac Bridge from its
opening on November 1, 1957, until his retirement on December
"The decision to build the bridge was made by financiers
in New York who had probably never been west of Buffalo, and
who heard stories that Mackinac was in the middle of a wild area,"
Rubin said in a telephone interview this month. "And it
was a risk, but they were convinced by some pretty talented investment
advisors that they would make money."
And they did make money. Funded by tolls, the last of the
Mackinac Bridge bonds were retired July 1, 1986. Fare revenues
are now used to operate and maintain the Bridge and repay the
State of Michigan for monies advanced to the Authority since
the facility opened to traffic in 1957.
Rubin said the hiring of Dr. David Steinman as the Mackinac
Bridge's chief engineer was one of the best moves made by the
Mackinac Bridge Authority.
"He was an absolutely brilliant man, an absolute genius,"
Rubin said. "He made very convincing presentations, where
he was very self-assured and he always had answers to questions.
Indeed, he had an ego, but it went with his personna."
For example, Steinman was once asked what would happen if
an ore carrier crashed into the bridge. "The boat would
sink with serious loss of life," he answered.
Steinman, Rubin said, was one of the foremost critics of the
engineering that went into the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge,
nicknamed "Galloping Gertie," which famously swung
from side to side before it collapsed on camera in 1940 because
of its poor aerodynamic qualities. The collapse of that span
was front and center in Steinman's thoughts when the Mackinac
Bridge was being designed.
"He did not want to be a party to a bridge that was susceptible
to wind," Rubin said. "He designed it so that a wind
would move Mackinac Island before it would move that bridge."
Rubin, who can see the bridge from his home in St. Ignace,
paid tribute to the men who went up and down the bridge every
day, risking their lives to build the Mighty Mac.
"I think the workforce out here was fabulous," he
said. "If they had to come down after it started raining,
they'd be soaked by the time they got back. And of course it
gets pretty cold here, and it could be dangerous work. But when
you talk to them, you get the sense that they were really a proud
crew, and enjoyed the satisfaction of building one of the greatest
structures ever built."
council weighs local worker, expanded prevailing wage rule
By Marty Mulcahy
LANSING - The city's lawmakers are reviewing a proposal that
would establish a preferred local worker rule as well as what
would probably be the broadest prevailing wage rule ever established
by a municipality in Michigan.
At the Oct. 11 meeting of the Lansing City Council's Committee
of the Whole, a large group of supporters and detractors of the
law gathered to show how they stood. A number of union members
in the audience wore green "We build Lansing" T-shirts
indicating their support for the proposed law.
John Canzano, a union attorney who drafted the measure and
spoke on behalf of supporters, said the first part of the law
would require contractors who undertake projects that involve
city taxpayer money to first hire local workers. "That's
not unusual," he said.
The other portion of the proposal would require those same contractors
to pay a prevailing wage to their construction workforce on potentially
a broader-than-usual variety of projects.
For example, Canzano said municipally sponsored prevailing wage
laws usually are applied to city or township construction projects
that are directly funded, in whole or in part, by the municipality.
The proposal in Lansing, however, would have prevailing wage
rules apply to projects beyond those that are not owned by the
city, which have the involvement of peripheral city funding like
tax abatements, loan guarantees or subsidies in the financing
of the project.
"That's pretty groundbreaking here in Michigan,"
Canzano said. "I don't know anywhere else in Michigan where
this has been attempted."
The council voted unanimously to set a public hearing on the
issue without sending it to a committee, which was a positive
development for supporters of the ordinance. The ordinance is
expected to be officially introduced before the entire council
on Oct. 29.
Standing against the ordinance are the anti-union Associated
Builders and Contractors and various business groups, including
the the Lansing Economic Development Corp. Reflecting their point
of view, that group's president, Bob Trezise, said in a published
report that the law would be "a job killer and a developer's
Patrick "Shorty" Gleason, president of the Michigan
Building and Construction Trades Council, said "there's
some work to do" with city lawmakers before the measure
comes up for a vote, "but the law would be wonderful for
workers. Prevailing wage laws are a plus in any community."
is off the block: OP stops expansionof health care for kids
WASHINGTON - Some 4 million children lost a chance to have
health care coverage when the House voted on Oct. 18 and failed
to overturn President Bush's veto of the State Children's Health
Insurance Program (SCHIP) renewal. It would have taken 13 more
"yes" votes to gain a two-thirds majority to override
Bush's veto. The House vote was 273-156 in favor of expanding
The bill - passed by large majorities with bi-partisan in
the U.S. House and Senate - would have funded the program for
five years and covered the 6 million children already enrolled,
plus an additional 4 million uninsured children whose families
cannot afford the skyrocketing cost of private health insurance.
Basically the bill came down to money. Labor, its allies and
the Democrats wanted to add $35 billion to the program. Bush
wanted to add $5 billion.
The Republicans' anti-SCHIP campaign was marked by "misconceptions,
half truths and down right lies," says Rep. John Dingell
(D-Mich.). Bush and his backers painted the vetoed bill as a
step toward "socialized medicine" and "government-run"
health care that would undermine the private insurance industry
and even allow families making as much as $83,000 a year to enroll
their children in SCHIP.
But as a fact sheet from the nonprofit, non-partisan organization
Families USA said: "Claims by the president that this bill
raises the SCHIP eligibility level to $83,000 (400 percent of
the federal poverty level) in annual income is unambiguously
false. There isn't a single state in the country with such a
high eligibility level."
In a letter to the House urging an override, AFL-CIO Legislative
Director Bill Samuel said more than 75 percent of the children
expected to gain coverage under the bill have family incomes
below twice the poverty level.
"In the richest country in the world, nearly 10 million
of our children can't see a doctor when they need one. Prevention
is a proven money-saver and yet 10 million kids can't even see
a doctor for a check-up," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.
"Bush's veto comes at a time when America's health care
system is clearly broken. Fewer and fewer employers are offering
health coverage to their workers. And many of the workers who
are offered health insurance at work can't afford to buy coverage
for their families."
"No" votes, upholding Bush, came from 154 Republicans
and two Democrats.
Greg Tarpinian, executive director of the Change to Win union
coalition, said "in failing to approve SCHIP, Bush and his
Republican allies callously placed ideology over the health and
well-being of millions of children. Those members of Congress
who voted to deny health coverage to poor children will face
another override vote next
November, except this time working families will have the vote."
(From the AFL-CIO and Press Associates)
at arm's length in the past,top Dems now arm-in-arm with labor
By Dick Meister
Don't make the mistake of judging organized labor's strength
by numbers alone - by the fact that unions now represent only
about 12 percent of the country's workforce. Certainly those
who are seeking the Democratic Party's presidential nomination
The Democratic candidates are waging extraordinary campaigns
to try to win union endorsements - campaigns that are at least
as big as any such labor-wooing campaigns ever waged. And in
years past, mind you, unions represented a much greater share
of the workforce.
The candidates are quite aware that whatever their membership
numbers, whatever the proportion of workers they represent, unions
have developed political muscle that can very well mean the difference
between victory and defeat for many candidates.
Unions proved that decisively in helping Democrats regain
control of Congress in last year's midterm elections. It was
by far the most extensive, most expensive and most successful
political campaign in labor
history. Unions spent more than $66 million, and put more than
100,000 members to work registering and turning out voters.
One-fourth of all voters were union members, and they favored
Democratic candidates - all of them union-endorsed - by a margin
of three-to-one. The Democratic majority in congressional races
overall was nearly seven million votes, and union households
provided 80 percent of that margin.
Unions are gearing up to spend even more money on the presidential
race next year than they did on the congressional races and put
twice as many volunteers to work.
"Our members are building an army to make more calls,
knock on more doors, and turn out more voters than ever,"
declared Gerald McEntee, head of the AFL-CIO's political committee.
The Democratic candidates obviously believe that labor will
do what it promises to do, and each of the candidates obviously
wants labor to do it for them. That could cinch a victory for
the Democratic nominee, whoever it may be.
In presidential elections over the past several decades, Democratic
candidates tended to remain a bit distant from unions, which
were frequently branded as 'special interests' or as being too
far to the left of popular centrist Democrats such as Bill Clinton.
It was relatively rare, in fact, for candidates to talk directly
about unions or about the labor movement at all. They talked
about 'workers' and 'employees,' but not very often - if at all
- about their unions.
But now it's Hilary Clinton, for example, telling a recent
union meeting that "it is absolutely essential to the way
America works that people be given the right to organize and
The Democratic candidates have been walking with striking
union members on picket lines, as well as addressing union meetings
and stressing that their voting records and other previous political
activities have been
Some of the candidates already have won endorsements from
particular unions within the AFL-CIO, but the key endorsements
from the big labor federation itself and from its largest affiliates
will come later. And the campaigning for the endorsements will
continue to be among the most active political campaigning in
That labor is being so steadfastly wooed is an extremely important
political development. It could benefit millions of Americans
- union and non-union members alike - by helping elect a president
who, unlike the virulently anti-labor George Bush, undoubtedly
would be sympathetic to the unions that helped elect him or her
and support at least part of their progressive agenda.
(Meister is a San Francisco-based journalist who has covered
labor and political issues for a half-century. The article is
via the International Labor Communications Association).
Lower increases for wages, bennies
Collectively bargained wage and benefit increases in the U.S.
construction industry for the first nine months of 2007 took
a slight dip compared to the same period a year ago.
According to the Construction Labor Research Council and the
Construction Labor Report, average wage and benefit levels for
the first year of contracts rose $1.81 (4.4 percent) from January
to September 2007. That compares to $1.87 per hour (up 4.8 percent)
in 2006, but was up substantially from the $1.68 per hour hike
(4.2 percent) in 2005.
The information represents the average of 164 negotiated collective
bargaining agreements settled so far in 2007. For the second
year of the contracts, wage-benefit hikes averaged $1.90 or 4.3
Wage-benefit increases in the East-North Central Region, which
includes Michigan, were below the national average. The first-year
average for contracts was $1.64 (3.9 percent) and $1.65 in the
second year (3.7 percent).
Construction workis a little safer
The construction industry was a little safer for workers in 2006,
according to a report issued Oct. 16 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor
While the number of hours worked in construction increased
by 6 percent from 2005 to 2006, the number of injuries and illnesses
for workers was essentially the same. As a result, the total
recordable case rate in construction declined from 6.3 cases
to 5.9 cases per 100 full-time workers in 2006.
The BLS reported that the number of construction injuries
and illnesses totaled 412,900 in 2006, down from 414,900 in 2005.
Construction workers experienced 10.4% of the 3.9 million
total non-fatal workplace injuries in 2006. The service sector
led the way, with 67.6 percent. When it comes to occupational
illnesses, construction had 4.6% of the total, compared to 36%
for manufacturing and 20.7% for the health care workers.
Among all U.S. workplaces, nonfatal workplace injuries and
illnesses among private industry employers in 2006 occurred at
a rate of 4.4 cases per 100 equivalent full-time workers - a
decline from 4.6 cases in 2005.