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October 3, 2008

Labor's perspective on Wall Street meltdown

Let's pull nation up by its bootstraps with public works construction

Trades safely land construction at Metro's North Terminal

Energy law to spark billions in power plant construction

Right-to-work Wrong for Michigan? Not for these union busters

Green machine rolls through Michigan

News Briefs


Labor's perspective on Wall Street meltdown

Pay attention to who fights to support U.S. workers

By Edwin Hill
IBEW President

They say the Wall Street billionaires were working way into the night the weekend before the stock market meltdown on September 15, worried about whether their firms would survive.

For once, the tycoons were getting a little taste of the lives of millions of working Americans, men and women whose dreams melted down years ago in an economy driven by greed.

President George Bush was noticeably quiet. With his approval ratings in the 30 percent range, he chose not to make grand pronouncements or spread false hope, leaving that to his party's candidate for president. "The fundamentals of the economy are strong," said Sen. John McCain, as workers and retirees across the nation, many of whom have lost their defined benefit pension plans, wondered if their 401 (k) plans would keep sinking and leave them destitute.

Sen. Barack Obama asked McCain what economy he was talking about. And even TV pundits who had been treating McCain like a beloved uncle said that the Arizona senator appeared to be out of touch and insensitive. So his campaign wound him up and sent him out to attack Obama.

McCain claimed that he was really talking about American workers being the strong "fundamentals" of the economy, and that Senator Obama just doesn't appreciate the American workers like him and his running mate, Sarah Palin.

Since when did John McCain become the champion of American workers? Let's take another look at McCain's record to see just how much he appreciates workers.

McCain voted 19 times against increasing the minimum wage. McCain voted against removing hurdles for workers who want to organize unions to give them some shelter from economic turmoil. McCain voted against repealing tax breaks that encourage American companies to send jobs overseas. Appreciation? Give me a break.

But the greatest outrage came later. McCain and Palin went on to talk about how they would take on the "greed" on Wall St. and pass regulations to protect American workers. They even evoked Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican populist who took on the robber barons of the early 1900's.

Somewhere I see Teddy Roosevelt looking down, tapping a big stick and saying, "Who is this man?"

The disastrous economy that is breathing down the necks of so many working families isn't accidental. This tragic train wreck is the result of policy choices championed by John McCain and George W. Bush. Does McCain really want to talk about "fundamentals?"

A little over one year ago, McCain told the Wall Street Journal, "I am fundamentally a deregulator." His top economic advisor, former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), the guy who said that Americans are "whiners" suffering from a "mental recession" spent most of his career freeing banks from the kinds of regulation and scrutiny that could have prevented many of the scary failures that are shaking the global economy.

Eight years ago, Gramm slid 262 pages of banking deregulation language into a must-pass spending bill. The language, which was authored by industry lobbyists, lifted regulation from some of the new "financial products." So, banks turned precarious loans into shakier securities that could be bundled and sold to other institutions. And the house of cards started falling.

So here we are. Sen. McCain's party, which has always promised lower taxes and less government, is spending billions of dollars of taxpayer's money to bail out banks and insurance companies. The self-proclaimed champions of free market capitalism and of the "trickle-down theory" that says wealth will roll downward and "lift all boats" are now engaged in what is called "socializing" risks.

Have eight years of the politics of greed all been on the side of Sen. McCain's party? Of course not. Members of both parties too often supported risky deregulatory schemes. The IBEW has never been afraid to tell the truth to power, regardless of party. But, we have a critical choice before us in November.

Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama both have established records in their legislative careers that show just where they stand on regulation and deregulation, on trade policy and on the rights and needs of working families.

There's one fundamental in our decision - the truth.



Let's pull nation up by its bootstraps with public works construction

By Harry Kelber

We are all in lots of trouble - and it's not going to end soon.

Think of how many workers have lost their jobs, their homes and their savings in the current economic crisis. And how little attention is being paid in Washington to the plight of America's working families. So how should Labor respond?

Don't let them kid us; we're in a deepening recession. The tell-tale signs are all there. The unemployment rate has jumped from 5.7% to 6.1%, the highest in five years. For eight consecutive months of layoffs, the nation's employers have eliminated more than 600,000 badly-needed jobs - and that's not the end of it.

While the Bush administration has bailed out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it has done precious little to help the tens of thousands of middle class families that have lost their homes. And there is no relief from the exorbitant interest charges of the credit card companies that reap extra billions of dollars from working people who fall into debt.

The nation's financial system is in turmoil. The stock market dropped 504 points in a single day. Lehman Brothers is applying for bankruptcy; Merrill Lynch sold itself to the Bank of America; AIG, the world's top insurer, is asking for a $75 billion loan, and countless banks and financial institutions are worried about how they are going to survive in the chaotic days ahead.

While the government is focused on stabilizing the economy, almost no attention is being paid to the financial losses suffered by millions of workers and retirees, many of whom are seeing much of their life savings disappear and their dreams of a comfortable retirement shattered.

Then there is the daunting problem of what to do about the devastation in Texas caused by the Ike hurricane and the largely incomplete effort to rescue Louisiana from the ravages of Katrina. And let's not forget the $10 billion a month that is costing us for the war in Iraq.

Some 800,000 workers will run out of their unemployment insurance checks by next month, but the House is just now considering an extension of benefits, possibly through a second "stimulus" package, which labor supports but the White House opposes. But what the unemployed really need and want are jobs.

What is most alarming is that the top financial officials in the Bush administration and their Wall Street advisers have not come up with a plan that will guarantee to get the nation out of this mess, nor can they predict how long it will last. Alan Greenspan, long-time Federal Reserve chairman said the current economic climate is "by far" the worst he has ever seen, and added "let's recognize that this is a once-in-a-half-century, probably once-in-a-century type of event."

A job program worked during the Great Depression.

Organized labor should mobilize its 16 million union members to promote a jobs program that proved its worth in the 1930s, during the worst economic crisis in American history, when only about 25% of the nation's workers had full-time jobs and another 25% was on part-time.

Here is a record of what was accomplished by the several million workers employed by the public works agencies of the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt:

In less than two years, they built or improved 225,000 miles of roads, 30,000 schools, nearly 4,000 playgrounds and athletic fields, 1,000 airports and hundreds of hospitals, post offices, court houses, bridges, dams, tunnels and other infrastructure installations. They literally changed the face of America.

Their monumental achievement was the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which produced and sold cheap electric power and fertilizer to communities in a seven-state area, whose inhabitants for the first time had electricity to light their homes and operate their equipment.

If we had a national plan for public works projects, we could rebuild the Texas and Louisiana communities, while repairing our roads, bridges, dams and other infrastructure installations so they are safe and serviceable. At the same time, we would be providing jobs for millions of unemployed workers, who would become taxpayers.

Union leaders and members may suggest other, and possibly better, proposals for defending working families, and we should carefully consider them. But one thing we should not do is to stand silently on the sidelines, while allowing others who do not have our interests at heart to make decisions about our future.



Trades safely land construction at Metro's North Terminal

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

ROMULUS - The North Terminal has flung open its gates - all 27 of them - completing a three-year-long construction project that will burnish the reputation of Metro Airport as one of the finest in the country.

The grand opening of the $431 million terminal took place Sept. 17 after a three-year construction timeline. The North Terminal replaces the outmoded Smith and Berry terminals, which detractors said had all the charm of a concrete bunker. The new terminal follows the wildly successful midfield McNamara Terminal, which was completed by the trades in 2002.

The half-mile long, 826,000 square-foot North terminal is about half the size of the McNamara Terminal, and architecturally, it's a lot more plain, but no less functional, and it opened to very good reviews. Construction of the North Terminal was managed by the joint venture of Walbridge/Barton Malow.

"It was a great experience, a wonderful project," said Barton Malow Project Manager Paul Tantalo. "The subs, the staff, the trades worked seamlessly." Added Walbridge Project Manger Al Stevens: "It was really a straightforward project. About the biggest challenge we had were the change orders, but we took them in stride, and got it finished."

At peak employment - and the peak lasted about six months - about 625 Hardhats worked on the North Terminal project, and they worked very safely. Out of 1.6 million man-hours worked, there was only one lost-time incident, a slip-and-fall on ice. The North Terminal project represents the second and largest collaborative safety effort to date (there are now six) bringing together the owner, contractors, the building trades and MIOSHA to create a safe atmosphere.

The "Partners in Safety" concept sought to ingrain safety into the fabric of the job, utilizing MUST (Management and Unions Serving Together) safety module and drug testing requirements; regular safety meetings; adherence to all safety policies, procedures, and MIOSHA standards; 100 percent fall protection over 6 feet, including steel erection and roof work; 100 percent eye protection; pre-task analyses before the start of critical work; the use of competent/qualified persons where necessary, and uniform enforcement of disciplinary action for employees who work in an unsafe mannger.

"MIOSHA trusted Barton Malow and Walbridge to look out for the safety of workers, but it was a collaborative effort with the building trades that allowed us to achieve our goal of sending everyone home at the end of the work day," said Walbridge Corporate Safety Manager Dennis Jones. He spoke to representatives of the contractors, MIOSHA and the building trades at a luncheon meeting that took place a week before the opening of the terminal.

According to Jones, safety orientations were given to 4,547 tradespeople on the job, who completed 81,828 MUST safety modules, spanning 60,000 hours.

"This job wasn't all about productivity, it was also all about safety," said Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Representative Ed Coffey during the meeting. "Everyone deserves kudos for how this turned out."

MIOSHA Safety Manager Patty Meyer said the intensive safety focus "was a new concept a few years ago, but it has really accelerated. There have been very few injuries in these jobs, and if I can leave you with anything - I know the trades move around a lot - please, take this (training) with you."

The McNamara Terminal serves Northwest Airlines. The new North Terminal will handle all the other airlines that do business at Metro, including Air Canada, American Airlines, AirTran, Frontier, Lufthansa, Royal Jordanian, Southwest, Spirit, United, US Airways, USA 3000 and all charter airlines. Metro Airport now features two new terminals, nearly 150 gates, six jet runways, and two modern federal inspection services facilities for international arrivals.

The airport offers 1,200 non-stop flights per day to more than 160 destinations worldwide. Metro ranks 12th in the nation and 22nd in the world for the number of passengers going though its gates.

"The Airport Authority is excited to open this latest addition to Metro Detroit's premier global gateway on time and on budget," said Wayne County Airport Authority CEO Lester Robinson.

Installing a moving walkway at the now-open Metro Airport North Terminal are Robert Susko and Jesse Copeland of Elevator Constructors Local 36 and Schlinder Elevator.

ADDING ON TO a parking deck adjacent to the North Terminal at Metro Airport are Pat O'Rourke, Rick Venable and Gary Randle of Iron Workers Local 25 and Sova Steel.


Energy law to spark billions in power plant construction

LANSING - Billions of dollars in construction activity is expected to be unleashed in Michigan as the result of the Sept. 18 bipartisan passage of three bills that re-regulate the state's electrical utilities.

The plan has a number of features, according to a state House analysis, including:

  • Requiring Michigan to increase the amount of electricity generated from clean, renewable sources such as wind and solar to 10 percent by 2015. Doing so will make Michigan competitive with nearly 30 other states that already have such a standard.
  • Requiring utilities to establish programs that help residents and businesses use electricity more efficiently, which will save consumers billions of dollars by reducing their usage.
  • Fixes outdated rules to clear the way for construction of power plants needed to meet rising demands for electricity so that businesses will locate and expand in Michigan.
  • An income tax credit for working families and seniors to help with energy costs and tax credits for the purchase of energy-efficient appliances.

"I am extremely pleased the legislature approved the energy package," said Gov. Jennifer Granholm. "Having a Renewable Portfolio Standard is a strong selling point in making a business case for Michigan, and helps us lay the groundwork for investment and job creation in the alternative energy sector. Our skilled workforce and new economic development tools are also powerful in helping to persuade global companies to invest in Michigan."

The Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council and other union groups have been supporting the efforts to toss out Public Act 141, which essentially deregulated Michigan's electrical utility market eight years ago. While that law opened the state's doors to alternative electrical suppliers in the hopes that customer costs would go down, it created tremendous uncertainty for traditional utilities like DTE Energy and Consumers Energy.

Public Act 141 allowed alternative utility providers to cherry pick highly profitable customers, and ignore out-of-the-way or other unattractive power consumers. That and other problems with the law clouded projections about their customer base, said the traditional utilities, and as a result they put the clamps on the construction of new power plants until the rules were changed.

On the day those rules were changed and the three bills were adopted, DTE Energy announced it would start the process of building the first new nuclear plant in Michigan in 20 years - a $10-billion reactor that would be erected in Monroe next to the existing Fermi 2 plant.

Last year, Consumers Energy announced that it would construct a new $1.5 billion coal-burning plant, and possibly a second unit, at its Karn-Weadock plant near Bay City - if the state's electrical regulatory environment were changed.

DTE Energy CEO Anthony Earley said Michigan is not along in repealing utility deregulation, as 34 other states have "repealed, delayed, suspended, or limited their deregulation experiments or are simply maintaining their fully regulated systems."

Right-to-work Wrong for Michigan? Not for these union busters

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

GRAND RAPIDS - The call to make Michigan a right-to-work state pops its ugly head up now and then, and its latest sighting was at the 2008 West Michigan Regional Policy Conference held Sept. 18-19 in Grand Rapids.

Hosted by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, the get-together offered participants "the opportunity to engage in regional and state policy discussions and participate in moving the West Michigan pro-business agenda forward by developing and strengthening regional policy goals and initiatives."

It turned out some of that was business-speak for "Michigan needs a right-to-work law," as the anti-union proposition was front and center on the agenda of the sold-out inaugural conference, which attracted 600 business leaders, lobbyists, politicians - and a tiny union contingent. Many indicated their support for a right-to-work-law in Michigan.

There were three labor representatives at the conference, not including this reporter, but including Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Business Rep. Walt Christopherson, and Bill Black, government affairs director for Michigan Teamsters Joint Council 43. Black likened their presence at the conference of Republican conservatives to being like "a skunk at a garden party."

"We thought we would go and get labor's message out, but we didn't think we would go and get people like Dick Devos to come over to our cause," Black said. "I don't think they were too impressed with us, but I don't think they realize that the middle class was built by unions, that union wages are supporting our ability to buy their businesses' products, or how union wages are supporting our state's finances."

With our state's weak economy and high unemployment, many of Michigan's big business leaders - in all areas of the state - are pursuing the passage of a right to work law in Michigan. They're working in concert with the state Republican Party, which endorsed a statewide right-to-work law earlier this year. With a Democratic governor and a Democratic-led state House, RTW proponents realize they can't get a law passed legislatively, but are expected to undertake an effort next year to put a right-to-work measure on a statewide ballot and lobby voters.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) has called for "someone" to put a right-to-work question on the ballot, even though a RTW ballot measure this year in Colorado has been very divisive.

There are currently 22 right-to-work states in the U.S. Oklahoma was the most recent state to adopt a RTW law, in 2001. The vast majority of state RTW laws were adopted in the 1960s and 1970s. In states with right-to-work laws, workers in a union shop can choose not to pay union dues - yet they still enjoy the benefits of union membership. Such a two-tiered set-up usually guts the clout of unions and eventually leads to their demise.

According to the Michigan AFL-CIO, Michigan workers are paid an average of $7,601 a year more than workers in right-to-work states. Right-to-work states like Mississippi and Arkansas are also known for the poor public schools, higher worker death rates and reduced access to good health care.

The conference in Grand Rapids received quite a bit of news coverage. Conservative Detroit News Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley wrote in a column Sept. 20: "You get the feeling that there are times when the folks in west Michigan would like to draw a line down the middle of the state and say, 'Stay on your side and we'll take care of business over here.' "

Finley added, "Here, the opening session featured an economist who declared Michigan must become a right-to-work state NOW…."

A Michigan Business Review article about the conference quoted Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place, Inc., a Grand Rapids economic development organization as saying: "when we are recruiting, the perception of Michigan as a union state is not a positive one."

Amway co-founder Rich DeVos told the Grand Rapids Press that the climate on the west side of the state "is very different. The people around here are productive and getting things done. People don't spend their time arguing and fighting. Detroit, because of its union mentality, always spends its time arguing and fighting."

Patrick Devlin, CEO of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, said the comments had a familiar ring. "Sure sounds a lot like divide and conquer to me," he said. "This stuff isn't confined to west Michigan, many big business leaders and business organizations and most of their friends in the Republican Party share his philosophy, no matter what part of the state they're in.

"They think if they keep telling us that unions are the bad guy as we struggle through Michigan's poor economic position, then it's going to become accepted and a right-to-work law is going to be easier to pass. We in organized labor have to keep working to set the record straight."

At a conference in Lansing last year that partially highlighted the effect of introducing a right-to-work law in Michigan, Paula Voos, a professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said right to work laws:

  • Reduce revenues for government at all levels.
  • Increase low-wage jobs.
  • Result in governments being less likely to pay for new schools and roads.
  • Are an ineffective job creation policy.

Low-wage policies work - "for a while," Voos said.

"These are known as footloose jobs," Voos added "If jobs move to an area because that area offers low wages and exploits the labor force, is that really a development strategy today in a global economy? I would contend no, it's not. Because there are many other places no matter what you do to lower the wage scale, there are many other places, like in China, that have lower wages."



Green machine rolls through Michigan

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

COOPERSVILLE - A mobile classroom mounted on a truck trailer rolled through Michigan recently, showing off environmentally friendly - or green - construction applications for construction workers and the general public.

The "Mobile Classroom of Sustainable Technologies," or shorter yet, the "Mobile Green Classroom," was built in March, appeared at the United Association's Instructor Training Program in Ypsilanti in August, then moved along I-96 to the Lansing area and then to UA Local 174 Coopersville for a week-long visit, Sept.15-19.

The 40-foot trailer, introduced in March, has been all over the country. Its primary sponsors are the United Association of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Sprinkler Fitters, and their employer associations: the Mechanical Contractors Association of America and the Mechanical Service Contractors of America.

"This is a great way to teach green awareness, and these are all technologies that are available now," said Jerry Hines, training coordinator for Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Service Trades Local 704. "I think people look at these applications from different perspectives. Apprentices may look at the piping and mechanical systems, while the general public can learn fairly simple ways to change things around their home that would lessen their impact on the environment, like reducing their use of water."

In addition to apprentices, the trailer hosted high schoolers, college students and even made a stop at the State Capitol.

Among the applications on the trailer:

  • A gray water (i.e. water from a sink or shower drain) system that can be used to flush toilets, instead of the use of potable water.
  • The use of a dual-handled toilet. Move the handle down for solid waste, and 1.6 gallons of water is flushed into the toilet bowl. Move the handle up for liquid waste, and 0.8 gallons is flushed. Such toilets are on the market now.
  • New energy-efficient furnaces with variable speed fans and modulating gas valves that eliminate the "all or nothing" use of natural gas to fire furnaces, allowing for lower amounts of gas to be used on chilly, but not freezing days. "Those furnaces have become a lot more dependable, and they're costing less too," Hines said.
  • Tidal generators. Put them in a river and the current rotates them to produce electricity. They're fish friendly.
  • Geo-thermal. Heat pumps that take advantage of the earth's constant 52 degree temperatures, combined with a high-efficiency furnace or boiler, combined with lower unit prices and higher dependability - make geo-thermal energy much more attractive these days.
  • Wind energy. The wind off of Michigan's lakes makes us an ideal state to do more ind power generation.
  • Solar power. Michigan isn't the sunniest state in the nation, but solar power does have a limited place in the electric grid.
  • The use of hydrogen fuel cells. NASA uses them in space, but they're still not quite ready for the mass market.
  • Aerobic and anaerobic digesters. It's a technology that's still in its infancy, but an anaerobic system is running in Manistee. How does one work? Combine biological waste material, introduce bacteria in a controlled environment, and voila, methane gas is produced and can be burned to produce electricity.

Hines said some of those applications are farther along than others when it comes to whether the building trades will be installing them anytime soon.

"It's a pretty cool trailer," said Local 174 second-year apprentice Micah Gulba. "Some of the piping is familiar, some of it isn't, but it looks like something we can do."

Al Balcam, who teaches green awareness at Local 174, said the trailer "makes people think, and it also shows the public what our people in organized labor do, and what we're all about." He said green construction "isn't a fad - the public is becoming much more accepting to it."

The promotion of regulations governing green construction such as the LEED Standard, have moved green construction more mainstream. "The green future is here," said Charles Lockwood, in a 2006 article for the Harvard Business Review. "Like the dramatic, occasionally unsettling, and ultimately beneficial transformations wrought by the introduction of electric lights, telephones, elevators, and air-conditioning, green building principles are changing how we construct and use our workplaces, as well as our homes, schools, stores, medical facilities, and civic and cultural institutions."

LOCAL 174 APPRENTICES watch a demonstration of "green" technology in the Mobile Green Classroom in the parking lot of their union hall.



News Briefs

Solidarity march slated for Oct. 18
Building trades union members and their families are invited to a "solidarity march" to protest anti-worker National Labor Relations Board rulings, and to support the Employee Free Choice Act.

The event will take place in Detroit on Saturday, Oct. 18. Staging will take place at 8 a.m., the march will start at 9 a.m. Participants will gather at the IBEW Local 58 union hall, 1358 Abbott St., Detroit, 48226. The march will proceed along Michigan Ave. to the McNamara Federal Building, which houses NLRB offices.

The NLRB - with a majority of board members appointed by President Bush - has earned widespread derision from the labor movement for its inexorable succession of anti-union and anti-worker rulings.

And the Employee Free Choice Act is seen as the single most important legislation affecting organized labor since the Republican Congress adopted the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act over the veto of President Truman in 1947.

The EFCA would simplify union organizing by allowing simple "card check" voting among employees, rather than the use of a formal ballot elections. Labor unions argue that employers are free to coerce and threaten employees to vote against union organizing before the elections are held.

Unions seek to protect pensions
With pension funds battered by the nation's financial crisis, organized labor leaders sought to get union pension protections written into any bailout plan approved by Congress.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the $75 billion Teamsters pension fund has racked up billions of dollars in losses this year, and union President James Hoffa sent a Sept. 23 letter to Congress asking that pension plans be given more time to make up funding shortfalls during the recent market turmoil.

Hoffa wrote in a letter to members, "As I stated in the letter, the failure and weakening of major financial institutions in the last weeks and months has the potential to destroy the foundation of many pension funds."

The 900-page Pension Protection Act of 2006 was intended to shore up the finances of faltering funds. Over time, it was hoped that an improving stock market would improve the plans' funding percentages.
The act imposed new accounting rules, changed funding requirements for plans, and established benchmarks for plans to show they are staying solvent. The act also imposed severe penalties for noncompliance.

"It's really a perfect storm," said John Tesija, a funds attorney for a dozen Michigan-based pension plans. "Construction work is down, so hourly contributions are down. The stock market is down, and we have this meltdown. Plans are really hurting. It would help a lot if they change the rules, and give the plans time to work through this."

The Journal said business groups are pushing to keep pension funding a separate issue.


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