The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index

October 29, 2004

Hurry up and wait - 1st part of Michigan wage survey complete

The presidential election: Labor's greatest challenge?

Trades operate at expanded medical center

More than a century later, labor's political mission hasn't changed much

Who pays for personal protective equipment? Maybe workers should, OSHA suggests

News Briefs

 

Hurry up and wait - 1st part of Michigan wage survey complete

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

Now we wait.

After undertaking an extensive 18-month project to help the U.S. Labor Department update Michigan's prevailing wage rates, unions and their contractors have submitted thousands of wage survey forms to the federal government.

Unfortunately, it will take two years or more for the Labor Department to process the information and issue new prevailing wage rates for Michigan. The Construction Industry Survey Action Team (CISAT), backed by organized labor and their contractors, used mailings, phone calls and friendly nudges to get contractors to fill out forms in an effort to make sure that union wage rates "prevail" in all of Michigan's counties.

"It was a lot of work but it was worth it," said Don Mustonen, CISAT's program manager. "We've shown what can happen when the trades and their contractors work together."

The stakes are high for Michigan's construction workers, both union and nonunion. In some Michigan counties, prevailing wage rates for some crafts haven't been updated for two decades and stand as low as $7.50 per hour in some remote counties.

Furthermore, low prevailing wage rates put union contractors at a decided disadvantage when it comes time bid. On projects where federal money is involved - such as road and school work - nonunion contractors who bid on jobs in jurisdictions with low prevailing wage rates gain an advantage in winning work.

The effort to gather the wage information began in early 2003, after the federal Department of Labor announced that an extensive prevailing wage survey would be taken in Michigan. Knowing that another survey may not take place for another 20 years, unions and their contractors decided early on to attempt to get strong participation for the survey. Contractors were asked to fill out forms to provide wage information for various crafts they employed, as well as the location of their jobs, during calendar year 2003.

Mustonen said after a slow start, CISAT had an 85 percent response rate from contractors in filling out the forms.

"It was a struggle all the way through," Mustonen said. "The DOL changed the survey period twice which raised the question of whether there would even be a survey. People don't like filling out extra paperwork, and it does take some effort to dig up the records. Plus it was an education process with the employers, to get them to understand that getting accurate information to the Department of Labor benefits them, too."

Michigan isn't the only state that has undergone a prevailing wage survey. Iowa and Minnesota have completed such surveys in the past two years and are still waiting for the new wage rates to be published, Mustonen said.

The flood of new information - and the government's lousy record in updating the federal Davis-Bacon prevailing wage law - prompted the U.S. Labor Department to announce in September that it will soon release recommendations on how to improve the accuracy and timeliness of prevailing wage data.

The "credibility of wage determinations remains questionable due to continued concerns over the reliability of survey data on which they are based," the Labor Department's Office of the Inspector General, an review independent agency, said this summer. The recommendations are expected to be released soon, the Construction Labor Report said.

TOP

The presidential election: Labor's greatest challenge?

By Dick Meister

American unions are facing nothing less than what their top leaders describe as virtually a threat to their very existence. The leaders may be exaggerating - but not much. For there's no disputing that the labor movement is facing a very serious threat and that the challenge of meeting it is as great - or greater -- than any labor has had to meet during its long, challenge-filled history.

The threat comes in the person of George W. Bush, who's already done severe
damage to unions and the working people they champion. Bush, the most virulently anti-labor president in modern history, is certain to inflict even worse damage if he's re-elected in November.

"A second term Bush will slash and burn workers without ever having to worry
about another election," says President Jim Spinosa of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. "Working people haven't faced so grim a reality since the Great Depression of the 1930s."

Understandably, the core message of Spinosa and other union leaders and
activists can be summed up in but four words: "Beat Bush, elect Kerry."

For four months they've been waging the most extensive - and most expensive
- election campaign ever mounted by organized labor. Thousands of union staffers and volunteers, backed by more than $150 million in union political funds, have been working with the Democratic Party and other organizations to line up votes for John Kerry, with a stress on the so-called battleground states where he and President Bush have been running neck and neck.

Bush has spurred labor's troops into unprecedented action - and given them
plenty of ammunition - by his extraordinary record of dealing one heavy blow after another to unions and working people throughout his tenure in the White House.

He's done it through executive orders, through his appointees to regulatory
agencies and through his allies in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Using the excuse that unionization somehow threatens national security, Bush
has denied union rights to more than a quarter-million employees of agencies concerned with security. He's cut back raises that were due other federal workers, while granting bonuses of up to $25,000 to several thousand political appointees, and is attempting to shift as many as 850,000 jobs to private non-union contractors.

He's already rescinded the regulation that had limited the award of contracts to companies that repeatedly violate labor or environmental laws and has abolished or crippled programs designed to foster cooperation between contractors and unions.

Although the Labor Department's legal mandate is to further the interests of
working people, employers are the main concern of Bush's secretary of labor, Elaine Chao. She has drastically curtailed the development and enforcement of job safety and anti-discrimination regulations and the enforcement of the laws governing minimum wages, overtime pay, child labor and other worker protections. Despite continued heavy unemployment caused in part by Bush's trade policies, Chao also has curtailed programs that train the jobless in skills they need to find new work.

Although slashing the funding for such programs, the secretary has sharply
increased funding for auditing and investigating unions. Chao is trying as well to impose regulations that would force unions to report their expenditures in great and seemingly unnecessary detail and make it difficult for them to finance political activities and even routine day-to-day operations.

Bush's National Labor Relations Board and its staff also are quite employer-friendly. They've done almost nothing to carry out their legal obligation to block employers from interfering in union organizing drives - a chief cause of the steady decline in union membership.

Congress has done its bit by agreeing with Bush that the minimum wage should
remain at a pitifully inadequate $5.15 an hour and that unemployment benefits should not be extended to those who remain jobless after the basic 26-week payout period. At Bush's urging, his congressional allies also repealed regulations enacted by the Clinton administration that required employers to protect workers from the repetitive motion injuries that hurt
or disable more than 12 million of them a year.

This is not to mention Congress' granting huge tax cuts to Bush's wealthy
friends at the expense of vital services and job creation badly needed by millions of the non-affluent, unionists and non-union members alike.

Union leaders cite John Kerry's overwhelmingly pro-labor voting record in
the Senate as sure evidence that as president he would be as friendly to labor as he has promised to be. He's pledged to restore and expand the protections for workers that Bush has undermined, if not destroyed, and to back most other major issues on labor's agenda, such as providing affordable health care for everyone, shoring up the Social Security and Medicare programs, and reversing Bush's huge tax cuts for the wealthy.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says Kerry "would help us tremendously." It's
certain, in any case, that the 13 million-member federation and its 60 member unions are helping Kerry and Democratic congressional candidates tremendously. They've provided thousands of campaign workers to register and turn out voters, circulated millions of leaflets, made hundreds of thousands of direct contacts with voters, held innumerable rallies and demonstrations, and more.

If it works, election day should be the happiest in many years for unions
and most ordinary Americans.

(Mr. Meister, an International Labor Communications Association member, has covered labor and political issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator).

TOP

Trades operate at expanded medical center

MARQUETTE - The business of doctoring is alive and well in the Upper Peninsula's largest city.

General contractor Closner Construction and the building trades are in the process of expanding the Upper Peninsula Medical Center with another 66,000 square feet of flexible space to allow for more examining rooms, laboratory space, offices and common areas.

Work began this summer and is expected to be complete early next year.

"We're basically building a shell," said Dick Goodney, president and project manager for Closner Construction. "They have done really well up here and the new space will allow them to be able to move things around as they bring more doctors in."

Established in 1965, this is the fourth major expansion for the medical center. The facility provides private offices and space for outpatient surgery for 120 physicians and other health care professionals. The physicians are housed together and work within a corporation which they own equally, but they retain their individual and unique private practices. The center treats more than 500,000 patients annually.

THE ADDITION to the Upper Peninsula Medical Center.

OPERATOR Randy Gilbertsen of Local 324 positions a precast wall at the U.P. Medical Center. (Photos by Jerry Bielicki)

TOP

More than a century later, labor's political mission hasn't changed much

By Patrick Devlin
Secretary-Treasurer
Greater Detroit Building and Construction Trades Council

Whether George W. Bush or John F. Kerry wins the Nov. 2 election for president, one thing is clear: we live in a divided nation.

We're constantly reminded about the red and blue states, and the handful of tossup states. I've seen plenty of Bush and Kerry lawn signs at homes next to each other. It's a form of civil war, with brother pitted against brother, neighbor against neighbor - one supporting Bush, the other, Kerry.

I'm sure the same thing has been played out at construction job sites across Michigan, with Bush and Kerry partisans stating their case during lunch and coffee breaks.

The Detroit and Michigan Building Trades Councils have gone on record in support of John Kerry for president. Nearly every construction union in the state operates under the umbrella of the building trades councils, so the choice of Kerry for president reflects the views of local union leadership as well.

No doubt there are some members who wonder why unions get involved in politics especially if their union doesn't support the candidate they support. In my view, the answer is simple: unions are like any other special interest group that supports politicians who can further their interests.

In the case of construction unions, we support candidates who we feel will best support workers in our areas of interest: job safety, health care, pensions and good wages. More than a century ago, workers joined unions because they wanted fair wages, they wanted an eight-hour day and more for overtime, and they wanted to come home unhurt at the end of the day. Those things are basic to the union movement then and today.

Michigan's men and women in the building trades can choose to work union or nonunion. We think the smarter ones - meaning the readers of this paper - choose to work union when they began their career because they wanted the best pay, the best training, access to health care insurance, a pension, and a voice in their working conditions.

When you made the decision to join and pay dues to your union, you made a career decision to invest in your future. But many of us take for granted that the things that we hold near and dear will always be there for us. As the song goes, it ain't necessarily so.

The political landscape is changing for the worse for union members and other working Americans. We know that with the new overtime provisions that were so strongly pushed by President Bush will take away overtime rights for up to six million Americans. And there's little doubt that down the road, union employers will use that loss of overtime as a bargaining chip against us during negotiations.

Earlier this year, President Bush also signed legislation that helped give pension plans time to reorganize financially after years of losses - but expressly excluded construction union pension plans. President Bush threw out President Clinton's policy of using labor agreements on federal construction projects. Bush has made it clear that he would eliminate the federal prevailing wage act, if he could muster the votes in Congress.

OSHA's funding has stagnated under the Bush Administration. OSHA has become less of an advocate for workers in favor of being more of a patron for employers. Early in the Bush Administration he tossed aside a comprehensive plan to improve worker ergonomics that had been years in the making.

In the wake of numerous Enron-like corporate scandals, the president supported rules that place burdensome and costly accounting rules on unions, without placing similar rules on corporations.

In contrast, Sen. Kerry has a near perfect AFL-CIO voting record on issues of importance to unions and working people. Kerry has consistently voted with organized labor on our core issues.

Of course those and other issues that union leaders believe are important may not be as important to our members. Our nation was attacked three years ago and is involved in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of our members may believe that Bush would do a better job of keeping the nation safe. Others may support the president based on his stance on abortion, stem cell research, the right to bear arms, gay marriage, or any number of other issues.

Some of those members wonder why organized labor overwhelmingly supports Democrats over Republicans. My response is that we should start supporting Republicans when they start supporting organized labor's issues.

The best illustration of organized labor's support for John Kerry is to look at the endorsement of another special interest group, the Associated Builders and Contractors. The ABC is a nationwide, anti-union group of contractors whose members are consistently underbidding union contractors because of their use of underpaid labor.

It's not an understatement to say that ABC's sole purpose is to undermine nearly everything that union construction workers hold dear: wage levels, prevailing wages laws, pensions, training standards and project labor agreements so that their contractors can maximize profits.

This summer the ABC announced that their "number one priority" this year is to help re-elect President George W. Bush.

Aside from pointing out the candidates' stances on Second Amendment guns rights matters - which has increasingly been a core issue for construction workers - building trades unions must continue to keep focused on which candidates will support our members on health and safety, wages and pensions. Those are the issues our unions were founded upon. And while the world has changed over the last 100 years, some things have remained the same.

TOP

Who pays for personal protective equipment? Maybe workers should, OSHA suggests

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

OSHA is considering a new rule which would require construction workers to pay for many types of personal protective equipment (PPE). The new rule under consideration would shift the burden of cost from employers - who currently pay for most types of PPE - to employees.

The federal safety agency said it wants to clear up questions of who should pay for required PPE - a matter which OSHA says has been subject to varying interpretation and application by the federal safety agency itself, employers and the courts. But some are wondering if OSHA is creating a problem where none exists.

"Here's a rulemaking that has gone seriously awry," wrote Jerry Laws, editor of Occupational Health & Safety. "With its 'limited reopening of the rulemaking record' in the Employer Payment for Personal Protective Equipment rule, OSHA this year did much worse than nothing. It turned a well-settled safety topic into a cauldron."

Laws added, "out of the blue, OSHA asked whether PPE that is personal (for reasons of hygiene and personal fit) and taken from job to job could be considered 'tools of the trade' and not paid for by employers."

It is understood that construction workers pay for and bring their own hard hats and steel-toed boots to the workplace, since they are considered safety equipment that involve personal fit which can be worn from job site to job site. Now OSHA is asking whether items like safety harnesses, respirators, fall arrestors, and welding masks should also be owned and paid for by employees rather than employers.

The first round of public comments came mostly from employers - who were of course overwhelmingly in favor of shifting the costs.

One of the trades that would be most affected by such a rule would be Michigan-based Asbestos Abatement Local 207 members, who are at the bottom of the wage scale in the union trades but wear the most expensive equipment.

"Passing that kind of a rule would have a great financial impact on our members," said Local 207 Business Manager Dan Somenauer. "I think our contractors realize that the greater costs would chase workers out of the business."

Somenauer said depending on the hazardous material workers are removing, a worker could be wearing $500 worth of equipment. On a typical day, it costs about $25 per worker for items like disposable suits and respirator cartridges.

Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO director of health and safety, told the Hill News that OSHA's decision is "a matter of looking like they are doing something" and is not "a serious effort to bring people together" because of the lack of input for safety and health and immigration groups. The AFL-CIO has maintained that requiring PPE would have the greatest negative impact on low-paid immigrant workers.

According to the Occupational Hazards.com web site, the AFL-CIO cited OSHA's own figures that the existing rule requiring employers to pay for virtually all forms of personal protective equipment prevents more than 47,000 injuries annually. The labor federation said the existing rulemaking record indicates that workers' health and safety suffer when workers pay for their own PPE, because they often cannot afford it, or use their PPE beyond its effective life.

OSHA is evaluating the responses to its public query and has not said when it will make a final decision.

HAZARDOUS materials workers would be severely impacted by the increased costs of paying for their own personal protective equipment.

TOP

News Briefs
Wage hikes don't move too much

Building trades labor agreements among all crafts so far in 2004 are about the same as last year - averaging $1.44 per hour, or 4.1 percent, according to the Construction Labor Research Council (CLRC) and the Construction Labor Report.

Wage and benefit increases for the second year of new labor agreements averaged 3.9 percent or $1.48 per hour. For the third year, increases dipped to 3.7 percent or $1.43 per hour. All the figures were similar to last year's, and Construction Labor Research Council Executive Director Robert Gasperow told the labor report that the size of increases "was essentially unchanged" from 2003.

The research covered 186,235 union workers. The CLRC said the preference for three-year contracts continued, but some contracts were longer.

In a look to the future construction wage picture, "the labor market may finally be regaining some of the strength it lost over the past few years, and wage increases should start to accelerate early in 2005, according to the "wage trend indicator" put out by the Bureau of National Affairs.

In the realm of nonunion construction, Personnel Administrative Services (PAS) reports that workers received average hourly wage increases of 3.66 percent through June 2004, which represents the lowest average increase since 1993.

Michigan's 2004 average hourly rate for nonunion construction workers is $18.86 - down 12 cents per hour from 2003. According to PAS, the highest nonunion wage rate among all crafts in Michigan is for electricians, who earn an average of $21.30 per hour.

Carpenters seek AFL-CIO reform
United Brotherhood of Carpenters President Douglas McCarron told a group of construction industry executives that his union will not re-affiliate with the AFL-CIO unless there is significant reform in the structure of the labor federation.

On Sept. 27, McCarron criticized the AFL-CIO for maintaining what he called a bloated payroll and providing little accountability to affiliated unions. According to the Construction Labor Report, McCarron told the Builders Association of Chicago that the AFL-CIO's strategies "lacked vigor and creativity" in response to union density declines.

The Carpenters broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2001 primarily over a dispute in how the federation spends dues money on organizing. However, the Carpenters have maintained their ties with the rest of the building trades on a national level.

Yup, Cheney was in the IBEW
Vice President Dick Cheney did indeed carry an IBEW union card, as he said in his debate with John Edwards.

IBEW President Ed Hill said Cheney was an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers member "during his stint on a utility line crew in Wyoming."

Hill added that "we suspect he likes to raise his old connection with us because he knows the workers who stood together as part of the IBEW and other unions have done more to raise the standard of living in this nation than any other movement in our nation's history.

"We wish we had done a better job instilling these union values and principles in the young Dick Cheney when we had the chance. Perhaps then he would not so relent-lessly pursue policies that have caused catastrophic job losses and inflicted tremendous pain on countless working families."

TOP

The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index