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October 27, 2006

Get out the vote effort is job one for unions on Election Day, Nov. 7

Help wanted: We share responsibility for our political future

It's (union-backed) Granholm vs. (business-backed) DeVos on Nov. 7

High scrap iron prices create new value for old cement kiln

Jury still out on effect of NLRB's anti-union supervisor decision

8.2% rise in drug costs is (don't gag) a good thing

News Briefs


Get out the vote effort is job one for unions on Election Day, Nov. 7

WASHINGTON (PAI) - Almost four million phone calls, and counting. Between two-to-three million informational mailings. And unionists by the tens of thousands, from international presidents to unaffiliated members, walking neighborhoods in 21 states, driving rural roads and contacting friends and allies.

All with one objective in mind: To try to boost turnout for pro-worker candidates on Election Day, Nov. 7, to reverse the anti-worker actions of the last six years and more.

"We have an incredible opportunity to change the direction this nation is headed in by electing leaders who will fight for working families instead of big corporations," said Iron Workers General President Joseph Hunt, in a letter to members. "The issues at stake in the 2006 election impact all working Americans: skyrocketing job loss, health care costs and gas prices, plus the decimation of pensions and worker safety protections. We can win this year by mobilizing union members to vote - we cannot afford to let anyone sit this election out."

In Michigan, the two most-watched statewide races will be for governor, where the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council has endorsed Jennifer Granholm, and U.S. senator, where Debbie Stabenow has been endorsed.

Scores of other candidates are on ballots in communities across Michigan. Voters will also elect U.S. House members, state Senate and House members, state attorney general and secretary of state, as well as county commissioners and judges.

Organized labor and anyone else who watches national politics have their focus on the U.S. House, which has the greatest chance of swinging into Democratic control. Currently, Republican lawmakers hold a 230-201 edge among lawmakers in the House, with one independent and three vacancies. Dems need to have a net win in 15 districts in order to re-take control of the House.

In the Senate, there are 55 Republicans, 45 Democrats and a Democratic-leaning Independent who is retiring. Analysts say it would be a stretch, but Democrats could swing six seats and earn a Senate majority, too.

The union vote will be crucial. Membership in unions may be diminished in the U.S. - but one constant in elections over the years is that union members vote. About 25 percent of all voters in each of the last two national elections came from a union household, up from 19 percent in 1992. In Michigan, the union vote in 2004 was even higher: 44 percent.

Still, less than 40 percent of all voters in the U.S. turn out at the polls in the last three non-presidential federal elections.

"Come Election Day apathy will engulf well over half the American electorate," said International Union of Operating Engineers President Vincent Giblin, in his own letter to members. "The excuses for not voting will be illogical, unreasonable and just plain stupid: I don't like any of the candidates, my one vote doesn't matter, I could care less who wins."

It matters. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney pointed out that wages and salaries make up the smallest part of the economy since the government began keeping records in 1947. America's workers have suffered a generation-long stagnation in wages - but productivity has risen steadily. Real median earnings for men working full-time and year-round were lower in 2005 than in 1973. The typical family's real income today is nearly $1,300 less than in 2000.

Five million people have lost health insurance coverage since 2005. And last year, 46.6 million people had no health insurance.

"The Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress have created an economy that is strangling working families and squeezing the life out of America's middle class," Sweeney said.


Help wanted: We share responsibility for our political future

By John Sweeney
AFL-CIO President

Look at the problems working families are facing in this country - at the challenges to our values, to a middle-class life, to our national community. Yet, too many of our elected leaders have done nothing when confronted with obvious failures in our national policies and decisions.

Too many tried to hide the Foley scandal. Too many have ignored the realities of Iraq. Too many have done nothing to relieve the suffering of job loss, low wages, unaffordable health care, retirement insecurity, soaring debt, inequality and more. Too many of them, in fact, are making the problems worse.

Responsibility for fighting the crises among working families doesn't rest only on the shoulders of elected officials. We share it - and when our national leaders are not fulfilling that responsibility, working men and women must assume it.

We are just weeks away from a crucial election that will determine whether America continues in the wrong direction or gets back on course. It's time for each of us to do a self-assessment - a check-up on whether we're doing all we can. Let's each ask ourselves these questions:

Have I educated myself about the positions of my state's candidates for the U.S. House and Senate, the governor's seat, the state legislature and local offices? Do I know whether they favor or oppose increasing the minimum wage? Stopping unfair trade deals that send U.S. jobs overseas and exploit workers in developing countries? Restoring workers' freedom to form unions? Strengthening rather than privatizing Social Security?

Have I shared what I know about candidates' positions with co-workers, friends, relatives and neighbors? Have I spent enough evenings or Saturdays on precinct walks? At phone banks? Have I donated enough to the campaigns of candidates who pledge to support working families rather than wealthy and corporate donors?

As a parent or grandparent, an aunt or uncle, godmother or godfather, can I look into the eyes of the children in my life and honestly say: "I'm doing everything I can to leave to you a better country, a better world"?

This year, voting alone isn't enough. Corporations outspend unions 24 to 1 on politics. We have to cut through the high-priced, self-serving advertising and media spin that corporate-backed candidates can afford. We have to help build people-power that is more powerful and more effective than dollar-power.

At a moment when our nation's leaders are filling the public with the kind of frustration and disgust that can breed voter apathy, we have to build voter hope. To energize the people around us with our conviction that by working together we can make a world of difference.
Register to vote, find candidates' positions, volunteer for political action, get candidate comparison fliers to share. Be part of the movement that is going to take back America for working families on Nov. 7.


It's (union-backed) Granholm vs. (business-backed) DeVos on Nov. 7

LANSING - Michigan Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and her challenger, Republican Richard DeVos live in the same state, but are a world away from each other when it comes to issues of importance to Michigan's working people.

Michigan's voters will go to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 7 and decide who they want to lead the state for the next four years. Following are some positions the candidates have taken on various issues of importance to workers, as well as actions they have taken while leading the state (Granholm) or leading a business in the private sector (DeVos).

One of the most drastic steps any candidate could take against organized labor would be to make Michigan a right-to-work state - where workers in companies are given the choice of whether they want to pay union dues - even though they would still enjoy the benefits of the union contract.

Granholm - She has pledged to be organized labor's "backstop" against anti-union legislation in a legislature dominated by Republicans. Legislation to make Michigan a right-to-work state is introduced every year by one GOP lawmaker or another.

DeVos - Has said that he would not support a right-to-work law in Michigan, although there was some nuance to his response when asked about his stance in a Sept. 28 radio interview. "I would not lead an effort and I don't believe that that discussion and effort are going to be helpful in this state…" DeVos said. "We don't need to go there and I won't take us there."

However, A Detroit News article earlier this year said Richard's wife, Betsy DeVos, herself the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, "struck a raw nerve a couple of times when she said the state's economic woes stemmed from workers earning too much. She suggested Michigan would be better off as a right-to-work state, which means labor unions could not compel workers to join. Dick DeVos has distanced himself from those statements, and says he will not back right-to-work legislation."

One of the most important laws that uphold the wages of Michigan's construction workers is the Prevailing Wage Act of 1965. Repeal of the law would be devastating to the incomes of Michigan's construction workers.

Granholm - See the "backstop" reference above. Every year, a Republican lawmaker in Lansing introduces a measure to repeal the state's prevailing wage law, but everyone knows it would receive a certain veto from Granholm.

Granholm has also increased enforcement of the state's prevailing wage law. At the end of July, the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth reported that prevailing wage complaint completions were up 37% over the previous fiscal year, and there was a 189% increase in monies collected for workers - $117, 953.

DeVos: Has apparently not taken a public position on prevailing wage. But follow the money and ideology trail from DeVos to the conservative think-tank Mackinac Center for Public Policy, where he was a former board member and monetary sponsor.

"It is time to repeal the wasteful prevailing wage law," said a Mackinac Center researcher in 2000, one of several papers in the same vein released by the think-tank.

The candidates' education policies…

Granholm: While the state has made cuts in the last four years to deal with $4 billion in budget shortfalls, Granholm increased the state's funding for K-12 public education to record levels. (

DeVos: He said during a debate, "the people of Michigan will not see a stronger advocate for public education than me." However, he was the main financial backer and chair of a failed 2000 anti-public school voucher ballot initiative that would cut funding for public education. While on the State Board of Education, DeVos advocated giving public education resources to private corporations. He personally financed the Education Freedom Fund, an organization of school voucher advocates. (Booth Newspapers, Center for Media and Democracy, AP).

On jobs creation:

Granholm: Michigan has lost 340,000 jobs since statewide employment peaked in 2000. Michigan's jobless rate is second worst in the nation.

In his latest assessment of Michigan's economy, Comerica Bank chief economist Dana Johnson said the state's job situation is bad out there, but not "bleak." He wrote in August that the auto manufacturing sector, "which now only accounts for about 5 percent of Michigan's jobs, will be directly responsible for about 75 percent of the job losses this year, and indirectly responsible for the rest."

"That means that the economic climate in Michigan will improve dramatically as soon as the local car companies are able to stabilize their market share," Johnson said. (M-Live, Oct. 1, 2006).

Granholm has touted her $3.8 billion "Jobs Today Initiative" which has accelerated 10 years of road and bridge construction work and pollution clean-up projects that have been a major boon to the building trades.

DeVos: The Republican challenger stands on his record as CEO of Amway. Between 1998 and 2000, he laid off nearly 1,400 Michigan workers. Three years later, his company invested an additional $120 million in its operations in China, bringing DeVos' company's investment there to $220 million. (Detroit Free Press, Grand Rapids Business Journal)

Beyond that, the hairs start to get split. Democrats point fingers at DeVos for moving jobs to China. DeVos claims the products built by the plant in China stay in China, and that no Michigan jobs were lost as a result.

DeVos pins turning around Michigan's job situation on cutting taxes and improving education. He says cutting taxes will make Michigan a more attractive place to do business. His primary target is elimination of the state Single Business Tax, which funds about $1.9 billion - nearly a quarter of the entire state general fund operating budget.

State Republicans led the drive to push up the elimination of the state Single Business Tax at the end of 2007 - without a plan to replace the business taxes which make up 23 percent of the state's general fund operating budget. The complicated SBT is unpopular with some businesses, but several studies have shown that Michigan's business tax rate is about average compared to other states.

As we reported in our last issue, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce floated a trial balloon that called for elimination of the prevailing wage, increased co-pays for Medicare participants and preventing local governments from approving living wage ordinances as a way to save the state government money when it comes time replace the SBT.

Granholm: Would support elimination of the SBT as long as the replacement tax scheme fully funds the missing tax revenue and doesn't place more of a burden on individual taxpayers.

DeVos: Has consistently refused to tell voters how the SBT would be replaced, although he has said that he doesn't believe that the entire $1.9 billion has to be made up with a new tax.

GOV. JENNIFER GRANHOLM addresses an audience at Plumbers Local 98 in Madison Heights. Granholm has been endorsed for Michigan governor by the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council.


High scrap iron prices create new value for old cement kiln

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

It's a sign of the times when the high price of scrap metal contributes to employment in the building trades.

St. Mary's Cement is sponsoring a project to dismantle a 40-year-old cement kiln on its property in Southwest Detroit. The motivation for the demolition project is the high cost of scrap - and when the crew of iron workers and operating engineers finish the project, more than five million pounds of iron will be placed on the recycled metals market.

"Cleaning up Detroit is what you call this, and I imagine St. Mary's Cement will make a few bucks off the scrap, too," said Eric Hutchinson, who is the superintendent of the project for the Local 25 iron workers on the project. They were working for K & K Recycling. The 10-week demolition project was expected to wrap up toward the end of this month.

St. Mary's continues to operate a cement manufacturing plant at the site, but the cement kiln under demolition on the property next to I-75 hasn't been operable for 15 years. The site is dominated by a 650-foot-long, 16-foot-diameter cylindrical kiln, whose exterior is made of iron. Resting on a 50-foot tall platform, motors rotated the kiln, mixing the cement products. Concrete and brick that lined the kiln had been taken out before the demolition process.

The kiln and motors were dismantled using propane torches. The cut-up iron kiln sections were as much as four inches thick and weighed up to 290,000 lbs. The sections were rigged for the cranes and their trip to the ground using existing rigging points on the kiln, or through the use of Kevlar slings, which saddled the sections.

"There are a couple of ways to rig the sections, but the slings take the guesswork out of it," Hutchinson said. "The most important part of our job is to get the pieces safely to the ground."

GETTING READY to torch, rig and remove a motor that used to rotate the tube-like kiln at St. Mary's Cement in Detroit are crew Foreman Bill Perry, left, and Supt. Eric Hutchinson of Iron Workers Local 25, working for K & K Recycling.

SOME OF THE KILN sections - and one is at left - weigh nearly 300,000 lbs. Doing some of the heavy lifting is Aaron Parsons of Operating Engineers Local 324.


Jury still out on effect of NLRB's anti-union supervisor decision

WASHINGTON - The Oct. 3 NLRB ruling that could deny union rights to eight million U.S. workers "may have far-reaching and adverse effects" on unionized construction workers, according to a letter sent to affiliates by AFL-CIO Building Trades Department Edward Sullivan.

Or, maybe not.

Legal eagles among the unionized trades, nonunion Associated Builders and Contractors and the Associated General Contractors have all looked at the NLRB rulings and have come up with differing, tentative opinions as to how they could impact the building industry.

As we reported in our last issue, the National Labor Relations Board on Oct. 3 voted along party lines (three Republican appointees, two Democrats) to change federal labor laws as they pertain to the term "supervisor."

The NLRB ruled on three cases, collectively known as "Kentucky River." But it's the ruling on the lead case, Oakwood Healthcare Inc., that essentially invites U.S. employers to make a supervisor out of any nurse who has the authority to assign or direct another and who uses independent judgment. Reclassifying workers as supervisors essentially takes away their right to union representation.

Nurses are the targets in the case, but there has been a debate for months over what other classifications of workers could be affected. The construction industry - which employs a similar informal supervisory structure to nurses - has been seen as a prime target for extending the new legal precedent.

"It's too soon to say how this will impact employers in the construction industry," said Associated Builders and Contractors attorney Maurice Baskin, to the Construction Labor Report.

Mechanical Contractors Association Executive Director of Labor Relations and Government Affairs John McNerney said they expect the NLRB decisions to be "largely benign" to their collective bargaining agreements.

But an attorney for the Associated General Contractors, which represents union and nonunion contractors, told the labor report that the NLRB's rulings have a "potentially significant impact" on the construction industry.

Sullivan said the Building Trades Department will review the matter and develop a "comprehensive strategy" for the future. A legal memo from the department said the ruling may have more of an impact legal processes in relation to organizing campaigns than in affecting current rank-and-file workers.


8.2% rise in drug costs is (don't gag) a good thing

In an era of seemingly never-ending health care cost increases, there's some good news from an annual survey of prescription drug prices.

But don't get the impression that your medicine is going to get cheaper or even level off - the news isn't that good.

A new survey said for the first time in several years, drug costs are expected to rise in 2007 at about the same rate as other health care costs, about 8.2 percent. In the recent past drug costs have been rising about twice as fast as other health care costs.

"The new data is encouraging," said Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North America Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni, referring to the 2007 Segal Health Plan Cost Trend Survey. He said health care costs "are still rising, but the rate of increase has declined, especially in the area of prescription drug costs."

The U.S. inflation rate is at about 4.1 percent, which, coincidentally, is roughly equal to the increase in real average weekly earnings in the U.S. The numbers mean workers are treading water when it comes to keeping up with inflation, and the high drug and other health care costs aren't helping.

The Laborers Health and Safety Fund said much of the improvement in the drug cost trend can be traced to the increased use of generic medicine, both at retail outlets and through mail order purchases. In part, they said this is due to the availability of more medicines in generic form and it also results from successful efforts by health plans to encourage doctors and patients to use generics.

"The battle to reduce all health care costs," says Sabitoni, "remains critical to our nation, our union, our signatory employers and our members. The fact that total health costs continue to rise faster than average earnings is evidence that the health care market now compels workers to forego wage increases in order to sustain their health care."

The Laborers say members can lower health care costs by leading a healthy lifestyle, becoming more conscientious heath-care consumers, working safely, and avoiding unnecessary trips to the emergency room. Nationally, their health care program is promoting wellness, joining health care coalitions and weeding out expensive health care providers.

"Soaring health care costs are a national catastrophe," says Sabitoni, "but until political solutions are found, we have to rely on ourselves and our own organizations."


News Briefs

Michigan hit by high cost of free trade
"Corporations, politicians and economists frequently claim that trade and U.S. investment in China create jobs and many other benefits for our economy. They are wrong. In fact, imports from China eliminated 54,000 jobs in Michigan alone between 1989 and 2003 and surging imports of Chinese auto parts now threaten the manufacturing backbone of Michigan's economy."

So says Robert Scott, senior economist for the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute, in a report issued this month.

In 2005, the report said, imports from China were $244 billion, while our exports were only $42 billion, generating a $202 billion trade deficit. This deficit has cost about 1.5 million jobs nationwide through 2003. In the past two years alone, the deficit increased 43 percent, and job losses increased, too.

"If U.S. companies invest in China, for example, by building assembly plants supplied by U.S.-produced parts, jobs could be created here at home," Scott said. "But little of that is happening. So what are U.S. companies doing in China? They are mostly buying billions of dollars worth of goods from Chinese and other foreign-owned companies and shipping them to the United States.

He cited a Business Week report which said that Wal-Mart was responsible for one-eighth of U.S. imports from China in 2003, worth about $15 billion.

"The worst part of this story is that Chinese goods have been made artificially cheaper and more competitive by the Chinese government's currency manipulation," Scott added. "The U.S. companies that import those goods are taking advantage of unfair trade practices at the expense of U.S. workers. The next wave of imports from China is already hitting the United States. Auto parts imports totaled $4.3 billion in 2005, and they are on pace to increase 30 percent in 2006. These increases will hit Michigan and surrounding states especially hard and painfully bring to light that U.S. investment in China is not helping us at home."

Scott concluded that "in theory, trade should benefit the economy, but the international trading system's rules favor multinational corporations at the expense of working people, so the costs of trade with China far outweigh the benefits. Exports support jobs in the United States while imports displace domestic production and jobs."

Material costs till plague construction
January through September 2006 value of U.S. construction starts jumped about 3 percent compared to the first nine months of 2005, adjusting for inflation, according to Reed Construction Data.

Hotels and hospitals continue to be the fastest-growing construction markets. The figures exclude the residential sector, which has been down 20 percent since the beginning of the year.

The weakening of the housing market has caused slower inflation for construction materials, especially lumber, and has provided a small amount of skilled construction labor to non-residential contractors.


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