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October 31, 2003

Congress goes to work on more unemployment money

Poor jobless numbers are tip of the iceberg for President Bush

First chapter opens in Book-Cadillac renovation

Too much overtime can be too much of a good thing

Heat's On/Water's Off: Another helpful effort by pipe trades volunteers



Congress goes to work on more unemployment money

Here comes yet another round in what has become an unending fight to secure additional jobless benefits for laid-off workers.

Both House Democrats and Republicans are looking into approving the extension of unemployment benefits to provide more help to the nation's unemployed. U.S. Rep. Sander Levin (D-Southfield) said on Oct. 20 that Dems have proposed granting an additional 13 weeks of jobless benefits to the 1.4 million unemployed Americans who have exhausted state and federal benefits.

Levin said a bill by Republicans that would extend benefits is inadequate because it doesn't offer any monetary relief to the long-term unemployed who have exhausted unemployment compensation.

"We need to make sure their plight isn't invisible," Levin said.

The Republican bill, introduced by a Washington representative, would renew the 13-weeks of benefits and provide 26 weeks of benefits in five high unemployment states, which includes Michigan. However, the bill doesn't offer additional benefits to workers who have exhausted theirs.

The Democratic bill would add 13-20 weeks of federal help for workers who have exhausted their benefits. Their bill would also extend regular benefits by 26 weeks, with an additional seven weeks provided in 18 high unemployment states.

Michigan has had a 7.4 percent jobless rate for the past three months, the national average is currently at 6.1 percent. As of September, the maximum unemployment benefit in Michigan was 52 weeks, including 26 weeks of federal benefits, 13 weeks of state benefits and 13 weeks paid for by the state and federal governments.

Federal lawmakers must take some action to extend benefits - the existing 13-week window of U.S. benefits ends at the end of December. Since March 2002, Congress has extended unemployment benefits three times.

Since March 2001, the U.S. economy has lost 2.7 million jobs - the longest period of declining jobs during a recession since the Great Depression.


Poor jobless numbers are tip of the iceberg for President Bush

As of the end of October, the U.S. stock market had risen 30 percent since March, consumers were spending more, industrial activity was on the rise, and 57,000 jobs had been added to the U.S. economy in September.

"Things are getting better," said President Bush. "But there's still work to do."

Work to do, indeed.

The fact that the 6.1 percent national unemployment rate remained the same from August to September was actually seen as a small victory by the Bush Administration, which began in early 2001 with a 3.9 percent jobless rate, a number which has steadily worsened.

The unemployment numbers are of little comfort to the nearly 600,000 Americans who lost their job from February to August - the longest losing streak for jobs during an "economic expansion" in U.S. history. Job losses are just the start of the poor economic record of the Bush Administration, which has been in place during three years of some remarkably bad economic years.

  • Three million jobs have been lost during Bush's presidency.
  • The national news was filled with reports this month that the number of Americans without health care benefits rose in 2002 by more than half a percent to 43.6 million.
  • Average hourly wages fell 1 cent in August to $15.45, the federal government reported, the first decline in wages since May 1989.
  • In Michigan since Bush took office, 174,600 jobs have been lost, resulting in the current 7.4 percent jobless rate. In early 2001, the unemployment rate in our state was 4.6 percent.
  • And looming over everything is the federal budget deficit. According to CBS News, "The federal budget deficit hit a record $374.2 billion in 2003, more than double last year's imbalance of $157.8 billion, "as the costs of the war in Iraq, a new round of tax cuts and economic weakness pushed the government's red ink to the highest level in history."

And the president's Office of Management and Budget predicted the 2004 deficit would top $500 billion. "Today's budget numbers reinforce the indications we have seen for some months now: that the economy is well on the path to recovery," Treasury Secretary John Snow said in October.

White House budget director Joshua Bolten said spending restraint and policies aimed at bolstering the economy can wrench the budget onto a course to halve deficits - but not until 2009. Democrats mocked the administration's spin on the budget numbers, noting that the current red ink surpassed the $290 billion record set in 1992.

"I'm somewhat amused to see them say they thought that was good news," said Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee.

There's at least one bright spot in all of this - things are looking up for temporary workers. One business columnist said that ManPower, the nation's largest temp agency, "reports that employers are rapidly ramping up their temp hiring plans."


First chapter opens in Book-Cadillac renovation

By Marty Mulcahy

The building trades are finally checking into the Book-Cadillac hotel.

Three months after the City of Detroit announced that the 33-story building would undergo $146.8 million in renovations, the first visible signs of progress on the project are taking place. Hardhats are performing façade wall masonry removal and stabilization to allow for the installation of two exterior elevator systems that will be used by demolition crews.

Meanwhile, inside the building, members of Asbestos Abatement Regional Local 207 on Oct. 20 began the months-long process of removing hazardous materials from the building. They're clearing the way for the rest of the building trades, who will be working hard to get the building ready for the Super Bowl, which will be coming to Detroit's Ford Field on Feb. 5, 2006.

Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1 members working for Chezcore are removing and saving exterior brick and stone fascia materials, which will be palletized, saved, and stored for re-installation after the elevators are removed. A whole strip of exterior wall on the west side of the building has been removed to make way for the elevators.

"We are glad to be a part of such an important project," said Chezcore's Vice President, John Stapleton. "Restoring old buildings such as these, can only add to an already exciting restoration atmosphere within the city."

At peak employment, some 60 workers from Local 207 and employed by A & F Environmental will work the Book Cadillac project, removing asbestos, lead, mold and PCBs.

"There's a lot of nasty stuff in there, but our people know what they're doing," said Dan Somenauer, business manager of Local 207. "This is easily the biggest project we have going right now. It's a long-awaited job during poor economic times."

The new Book will be called the Renaissance Book-Cadillac Hotel and will be an upscale brand of Marriot International. It will feature 483 guest rooms, 76 high-end apartments and a 186-car parking deck.

At the time it was constructed by the Book Brothers in 1924, the 33-story Book-Cadillac was the tallest hotel in the world - and one of the most opulent. It had 1,035 guestrooms and five floors of ballrooms, restaurants and shops. Notable people who spent the night at the Book include Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Henry Ford, and Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon. After falling into disrepair in the mid-1980s, however, the hotel closed.

It has been shuttered since 1984.

WHEN IT OPENED in 1924, the $14 million Book-Cadillac was the most opulently decorated hotel in Detroit, with the finest marble, plaster, chandeliers and fixtures. Urban scavengers laid waste to the building after it was closed in 1984. Here a vertical section has been dismantled to make room for construction elevators.

THE BOOK-CADILLAC is structurally sound - but there are few other bright spots to point to as the renovation begins. This is the present state of the former grand ballroom, damaged mostly by urban miners looking for copper and iron piping.


Too much overtime can be too much of a good thing

Nearly all construction projects these days have one thing in common: the owners want the work done yesterday. Unless their project has a spring running through where they're trying to build a basement, virtually every construction manager that we've ever talked to claims that the number one challenge on their project is the aggressive schedule.

That being the case, tight construction timetables often prompts contractors to resort to overtime to get their work done. Today's Hardhats only wish that work opportunities would allow for the potential of too much overtime, as was the case in the late 1990s. But if it ever becomes available at a jobsite near you, there is some new information available on the effects of excessive overtime..

OT may sound like a cure-all for the contractor who stands to get a tidy bonus for early completion, or a penalty for late work. But there are still heavy-duty concerns about whether overly-worked workers are working as efficiently - or as safely - as they were during the first 40 hours of their week.

"If you keep doing that (overtime) for a year, instead of a month or two, you're bound to have bad thing happen," said John Langford of Chicago-based McHugh Construction. He studied construction overtime and tracked worker experience to determine how employers can maintain safety when faced with extended overtime schedules.

Langford made a presentation before a Sept. 10 meeting of the National Safety Congress in Chicago, and detailed several findings about the effects of construction worker overtime. He related how owners are increasingly demanding shorter timelines for project completion, without taking variables like weather into account. In addition, engineering drawings are often incomplete at the start of the project, and change orders are rampant.

In that environment, owners are demanding contracts that enforce tight schedules. This rolls downhill from the contractors to workers, and sets up a situation where safety can be compromised. Following are a few points to ponder regarding the use of overtime:

  • The Business Roundtable, an association of big business leaders, found that scheduled construction overtime "disrupts the economy of the affected area, magnifies any apparent labor shortage, reduces labor productivity, and creates excessive inflation of construction labor costs without material benefit to the completion schedule."
    Moreover, the Roundtable found that where a work schedule of 60 or more hours per week is continued longer than about two months, the "cumulative effect of decreased productivity" will cause a delay in the project's completion date beyond that which could have been realized with the same crew size on a 40-hour week. The results for 50-hour weeks aren't that much different, Langford said.
  • A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health utilized interviews of construction workers in five cities who had been doing overtime work for a long duration. They reported sleep deprivation, increased injury rates, fatigue that led to errors, and stress at home and at work.
  • Another large study suggested that if overtime is a key factor on a project, employers must be prepared to spend money on safety programs to minimize risk.
  • Winter work has added to the hazards. Langford pointed out that construction companies used to call it quits in the colder months, "but now we're not only working the guys overtime to make schedule, we're working them in the worst possible conditions."
  • In order to improve safety on jobs that utilize a good deal of overtime, Langford said daily safety meetings should be held among workers and contractor reps. Safety plans should be developed as a project is being planned. Supervisors' responsibilities should be limited to smaller groups of workers, and they should be providing safety assistance, as opposed to enforcement.

The bottom line: Langford found that working a schedule with 10 percent or less of overtime has little or no effect on a company's injury and illness rate. Move that number over 15 percent, and incident rates increase.


Heat's On/Water's Off: Another helpful effort by pipe trades volunteers

About 120 volunteers gave their time and talents on Saturday, Oct. 18 for the Southeast Michigan Heat's On/Water's Off Program, performing plumbing and heating service work for disadvantaged people.

It was the 12th year for the program, which features Plumbers Local 98 and Pipe Fitters Local 636 members fixing leaks, repairing furnaces, replacing smoke detectors, and doing other minor repairs for 72 homeowners who couldn't otherwise afford the work.

"This is my sixth year of volunteering," said Tim Neuenfeldt, a Local 98 plumber. "I enjoy helping people in the community, and the camaraderie with the other guys is great, too."

Contractors affiliated with the Plumbing and Mechanical Contractors of Detroit donated trucks, supplies and equipment to the effort. Much of the preliminary set-up work was done by Greg Sievert of Local 636, Mike McIlroy of Plumbers Local 98 and Molly Forward of PMC Detroit.

"Year after year, we get people who go above and beyond the call of duty," said host Local 98 Business Manager Gary Young. "We appreciate the efforts of everyone involved," Over the course of the program, more than 1,000 homes have been serviced.

Added Local 636 Business Manager Jim Lapham, "It's a great program that has really grown with fitters and plumbers coming together to help the disadvantage. My only advice to you is, 'remember, no callbacks!' "

Dignitaries who attended included U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, and Detroit Councilman Kenneth Cockrel.

"You represent the best we have to offer," Levin said. "Times are tough - and I won't get into a political speech about why times are tough - but it's more important than ever to help people who can't help themselves."

Volunteers from Pipe Fitters Local 636 and Plumbers Local 98 gather in the Local 98 parking lot before doing their good deeds for the day.

More than 100 Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 190 volunteers gave part of their Saturday, Oct. 4 to help low-income homeowners in Washtenaw and Livingston counties, during the annual Heat's On/Water's Off Program. The work was performed in conjunction with Local 190's affiliated employers at the Greater Michigan Plumbing and Mechanical Contractors Association. The recipients of the help were taken from lists provided by the county social service agencies. This was the 13th year for the Heat's On Program in Washtenaw County. Thanks to all those who volunteered their time, they're shown at right.



Small rise seen for U.S. construction
Total U.S. construction is likely to rise 1 percent in 2003 vs. 2002, according to Mcgraw-Hill Construction.

Unfortunately, home-building, which is hardly a bastion for union construction, is leading the way in making the positive numbers. There are expected to be declines in everything from office construction to schools to power plants, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The total value of construction starts is expected to be $506 billion, up from $501.7 billion in 2002. This would be the second year in a row for a 1 percent increase in U.S. construction activity. Construction activity grew at an average rate of 10 percent annually from 1996 through 1999.

McGraw-Hill is forecasting another 1 percent increase in 2004, led by hotel and store construction.

"The only category I'm optimistic about for the near term is retail construction," said Kenneth Simonson, chief economist with the Associated General Contractors of America, to the Journal. "But in general, offices, warehouses, hotels, and apartments are going to have a rough time, at least until the middle of 2004."

Symphony, Auch say thanks to trades
Construction workers who helped renovate Detroit's Orchestra Hall and build the new Max M. Fisher Music Center were given an unusual token of appreciation on Oct. 10 - the opportunity to hear the orchestra, and hear some nice words about their work before and during the show.

General contractor George W. Auch sprung for the tickets to the "Hardhat Concert," which were made available to any Hardhat who worked on the $60 million project, which took place over a two-year period. Auch and the building trades installed a new ventilation system in the 83-year-old hall, and re-built the lobby, constructed a new backstage area, and built space for smaller concerts and banquets.

"I believe I speak for all of us at Auch, our subcontractors and our tradespeople, when I say thank you for this opportunity," said George W. Auch President Dave Hamilton, before the concert. "This is a marvelous, world-class facility for a world-class orchestra, that we are all proud to be part of. I want to thank all of the trades people and project partners for your expertise, you persistence and your commitment to this project."

Trades people were invited to stand before the concert for a round of applause from their family and friends who attended.

Emil Kang, president and executive director of the DSO, told the concert-goers, "most importantly on this evening, on behalf of our orchestra, board, and staff, I thank you, the construction workers, trades, site staff, and project consultants whose expertise, hard work and commitment brought the Max M. Fisher Music Center to life. This is what you have built, with your hands and with your hearts."


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