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September 3, 1999

'Americans owe working families and their unions a great debt'

On track to build Millenium Park

Come help labor celebrate its day Monday, Sept. 6

Time to start making a stink about sanitary conditions


Construction continues to shape up WSU campus

More workers connect with IBEW


'Americans owe working families and their unions a great debt'

By Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

As families across the country enjoy this end-of-summer holiday and prepare for the start of a new school year, it is important to remember what Labor Day represents: our annual opportunity to honor the achievements of working women and men in communities across America.

The labor movement stands for the best in our workers and our nation. Americans owe working families and their unions a great debt, and Labor Day is our chance to acknowledge it.

These families are working hard and contributing immensely to the remarkable growth and prosperity the nation now enjoys. They have a right to expect Congress and governments at every level to listen to their needs and represent their interests.

Working families, especially those at the low end of the income scale, deserve their fair share of the current record economic prosperity. Many of us in Congress are fighting hard to see they get it. One of the best ways to help is by raising the minimum wage.

Congressman David Bonior of Michigan and I have introduced legislation to do just that. It calls for two annual increases of 50 cents this year and next year, to bring the minimum wage to $6.15 an hour in the year 2000. Without this increase, the minimum wage will fall in real value by more than $2.50 an hour from its all-time high in 1968. In fact, our proposal is modest. It's a catch-up increase that would only raise the value of the minimum wage over the past 30 years. It speaks volumes about the income gap in our society today, and we must do more to close it.

We are also waging a battle for working families on another important front: to end the abuses by HMOs and guarantee that their health insurance will be there when they need it. Too often, managed care is mismanaged care. Doctors are being overruled by insurance company accountants who put profits ahead of patients. Too many patients are denied medical care that their doctors recommend and that they have paid for with their premiums.

That's wrong. Democrats in Congress introduced the Patients' Bill of Rights to provide important protections to all patients. Our legislation is supported by the AFL-CIO and more than 200 other leading organizations representing patients, doctors, nurses, working families, small business and many others. Unfortunately, our bill is opposed by the Republican leadership and their allies in the insurance industry and business community. But, with the support of the American people, I am optimistic that patients will prevail.

We also need to be vigilant to protect other past gains against current assaults. Surprisingly, even the 40-hour work week has been under recent attack in Congress. We must act to protect safety and health in the workplace, and keep the National Labor Relations Act from being undermined. We must safeguard union organizing rights, and the right of the government to choose safe, fair employers as contractors.

With the help of working Americans and their unions, we can continue the nation's extraordinary history of labor achievement. Protecting past gains and building a brighter future for union members and all workers are the twin goals of the labor movement.

On Labor Day 1999, we honor these goals best by reflecting on what they mean and by rededicating ourselves to their achievement.


On track to build Millenium Park

By Marty Mulcahy

And they're off.

On a plot of land in Livonia where horses have raced since 1950, the building trades are cranking up construction of Millenium Park, a 197-acre project that will include a mix of retail and industrial tenants.

The $200 million project would be considered large just about anywhere, but it's especially noteworthy because assembling that amount of developable land anywhere in densely populated Southeast Michigan is nearly impossible without a good deal of demolition. The land is located south of I-96 and east Middlebelt.

ON A ROLL to prepare the earth around one of the Livonia Milenium Park buildings is Randy Lefleche of Operating Engineers Local 324. Following him is Ross Fredrick.

There was some demolition necessary at the old Detroit Race Course. The trades brought down the clubhouse, grandstands and horse stables to make room for the two confirmed tenants, Meijers and Home Depot. Five large retail stores, a coffee shop and three or four restaurants may also move into the site.

"Even though most of the site was a green field, it wasn't easy to prepare," said developer Marvin Walkon. "Now that the demolition is out of the way, things are going to progress rapidly. This project is on a very fast track." Tenants are expected to start moving in a year from now.

Walkon, an attorney who formerly represented the iron workers and the riggers, said there's an agreement in place with the Greater Detroit Building Trades Council to use all-union labor on the project. "That's where my roots are - building union is a given," he said.

Acting as general contractors on the project are F & L Construction and Oliver/Hatcher. Project Manager Ted Miller said steel erection on a 752,000-square-foot building on the site is indeed progressing rapidly, and last week, foundations were started on another large building.

In its heydey in the early 1950s, the race track's average daily attendance was 11,481. That dwindled to about a third that number in recent years. In fact, Ladbroke lost $18 million during the 14 years it owned the track. The onset of casino gambling in Detroit sealed its fate.

A TEMPORARY SUPPORT column for the precast exterior of a building at Millenium Park is tied up by Ray Hicks of Iron Workers Local 25.


Come help labor celebrate its day Monday, Sept. 6

See you later, summer.

This weekend marks the traditional end of the line for vacation season and the warmest months of the year, and reminds us that autumn is just around the corner.

On Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 6, thousands of Michiganians mark the occasion by taking part in parades and celebrations that honor the efforts of working men and women.

In Detroit, the theme of this year's parade is "Union pride is a rising tide." As usual, the building trades will line up along Trumbull Avenue and at 10:30 a.m. will proceed east along Michigan Avenue, joining Woodward marchers at the expanded Laborfest held in the Kern Block following the parade.

In Grand Rapids, the United Labor Day parade and picnic kicks off with a march at 10 a.m. at Market and Fulton streets. Opening ceremonies for the celebration after the parade begin at noon in John Ball Park. The day's events include a picnic, children's rides and games, and arts and crafts.

In Marquette, the 1999 Labor Day festival will start with an 11 a.m. parade beginning at the north end of Third St. at Fair Street. It will be followed by a picnic and other activities at Mattson Lower Harbor Park. The event, which usually attracts 2,500, is sponsored by the Marquette County Labor Council.

The celebration of Labor Day was first suggested by Peter J. McGuire, founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. It was initiated in the U.S. in 1882 by the Knights of Labor, which held a large parade in New York City.

"Labor Day differs in every essential from the other holidays of the year in any country," said Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, earlier in this century. "All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation."

In 1894 the U.S. Congress and President Grover Cleveland made the day a legal holiday, but it was by no means an uncomplicated process.

It was an election year, and it was a time when labor laws were virtually nonexistent. There was trouble brewing in Pullman, Illinois, where people who worked for the Pullman Sleeping Car Co. had struck the company because of layoffs at the plant and lower wages imposed by their employer. It was a company town, and Pullman also refused to lower the rent for workers, despite the lower wages.

Violence erupted, and workers walked out in sympathy on railroads across the nation, demanding better wages and lower rent for the Pullman workers.

On Aug. 3, 1894, the strike ended when 12,000 federal troops were sent in by President Cleveland, who was looking to get federal mail trains running again and to appease railroad owners.

But Cleveland had another problem - appeasing the nation's working class, who didn't approve of his harsh methods. Legislation for the Labor Day holiday was rushed through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on Cleveland's desk less than a week after the Pullman strike had been busted.

Labor Day was born, but Cleveland was not re-elected.

So it went with the first Labor Day - a day when labor annually remembers that its fortunes are inextricably linked with the effort to put friendly political leaders into office.


Time to start making a stink about sanitary conditions

Tradesman Viewpoint

By Marty Mulcahy

Some bright minds found a way to put decent toilets and hot running water on the space shuttles and in Winnebagos.

Yes folks, it can be done: clean toilets and hot running water can be made available just about anywhere. Except, of course, on construction sites.

We say "of course" because it has become a generally accepted norm in this industry that the only sanitary facilities a construction worker needs during an eight-hour shift are a few portable toilets lined up along the back fence.

When you gotta go, you gotta go. But let's face it: your typical portable toilet is the last place you want to go to take care of your business, especially if you're suffering from diarrhea or you're a woman having her period.

Mark Erlich, a New England carpenter and an author on labor issues, said comparing bathroom conditions on today's construction sites to general sanitation in the era of King Arthur isn't accurate. "That's medieval," he said. "You're talking construction. We're in the Stone Age."

Can't we do better?

As we've reported earlier this year, OSHA is finally expected to come out with a standard requiring toilets and hand washing facilities on all construction sites, hopefully by the end of next year.

The issue came up again last month in the Construction Occupational Health Project (COHP), a newsletter published by a group out of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. The project began in 1992 and is one of 15 research centers around the country funded by the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOSH) and the Building Trades Department, AFL-CIO.

"We are amazed," wrote carpenter union steward Al Peciaro, "that construction workers are forced to use the same so-called sanitary facilities that have been around for hundreds of years. In this day of infectious diseases and flesh-eating viruses, the idea that we do not have flushing toilets and hot and cold running water to wash with is incomprehensible."

Of course, it's about time for improved sanitation - but shame on the entire industry, workers, contractors and owners, for allowing this "modern" century to go by without demanding changes.

There's plenty of blame to go around, and we can start by looking in the mirror. When contract time comes around, the items at the top of any agenda for both labor and management are monetary issues.

Very rarely do union negotiators consider, much less demand, that contractors provide even the most basic sanitary upgrade: attaching a germicidal hand gel dispenser onto the side of portable toilets.

If unions wanted to get serious about sanitation, then there are plenty of other fixtures that could easily be brought on to job sites, at relatively low cost, to improve the health and welfare of workers.

This issue came to the forefront in Massachusetts, were the local Water Resources Authority supplied trailers with toilets and running water on an island job site. Workers and contractor representatives spoke frequently of the high quality of sanitary facilities on the island, and it made them realize what they could be enjoying on other construction projects.

But such facilities are almost nonexistent elsewhere. "The reasons contractors usually give," said the COHP, "come down to these three: 1. It's not possible. 2. It's too expensive. 3. OSHA doesn't require it."

Building trades unions should respond accordingly:

  1. We can build the Mackinac Bridge and the Renaissance Center - but we can't bring in or construct temporary toilet buildings with battery or propane-powered hot and cold running water?
    Besides, it's possible for toilets to be put in the contractor's trailers - why are the trades workers being treated as second class citizens?
  2. Don't consider the upfront cost of a $35,000 portable trailer with flush toilets and hot water. Consider all the lost employee time over the long haul because of the spread of infectious diseases. The Center for Disease Control has concluded, "hand washing is the single most important means of preventing the spread of infection."
  3. As written, OSHA's current standard does create a gray area, but who cares if OSHA does or doesn't require it? Improving sanitation is simply the right thing to do.

One contractor told the COHP, "we just don't think about it," referring to bathroom sanitation. "We all know that only the cutting edge contractors will spend money over and above that required to complete the job unless forced to by external forces," another worker said.

The owners have to shoulder their share of the blame, too. After we publish articles in the past addressing the lack of proper bathroom facilities on construction sites, workers have called our office complaining about another irritant: being required to continue using portable toilets outside of buildings, when bathrooms are ready to use inside.

Owners could also help by changing bid specifications that call for adequate facilities. This would level the playing field for contractors and make them accountable to the owner for the conditions on site.

It's time for union members, officers and negotiators to start speaking up and insisting on putting sanitary toilet conditions in contract language. Aren't you tired of living in the Stone Age?




It's election time -- endorsements listed

Once again, it's time to exercise your franchise.

Communities across Michigan are holding primary elections on Tuesday, Sept. 14. Building trades workers and their families are urged to go to the polls and elect candidates who support organized labor.

On Page 12 of this issue is a list of candidates who have been endorsed by The Greater Detroit Building Trades Council's Political Action Committee. The list only includes candidates who have requested the PAC's endorsement.

This is also a good opportunity to remind our readers to register to vote for the Tuesday, Nov. 2 primary. You can register at any city, township or county clerk's office, or at your local Secretary of State's Office.

'Wonderful news'…But not for workers

The state Unemployment Agency last week reported that the average unemployment tax rate for employers in Michigan was 2.8 percent - the lowest since the rate was 2.74 percent in 1975.

"The drop in last year's average unemployment tax rate to 2.8 percent is wonderful news for Michigan's employers, but it only hints at the savings they have realized over the past three years," said Kathy Wilbur, director of the Michigan Department of Consumer and Industry Services. "From 1996 to 1998, employers have saved more than $400 million in taxes because of cuts we have made in unemployment insurance.

"And if we add in the 1999 tax cuts, the savings exceed $600 million."
Michigan's Unemployment Insurance tax rate has been dropping steadily since 1994, when it peaked at 4.46 percent.

This all may be "wonderful news" for the state's employers, but much of it is coming at the expense of Michigan's unemployed workers. Three years ago, Gov. Engler and Michigan's Republican-dominated legislature imposed a permanent 3 percent rate cut for Unemployment Insurance benefits for all workers, and eliminated all cost of living increases by capping maximum weekly benefits at $300.

There is no adjustment for inflation - and unless the Michigan legislature passes a law to increase that benefit level, the state's jobless workers could be earning that $300 maximum for the next 10 years.

Employers pay state unemployment taxes on the first $9,500 of each employees' wages. In 1998, the tax rate ranged from 0.1 to 8.1 percent. The tax dollars paid per employee varied from $9.50 to $769.50 annually. The average Unemployment Insurance tax bill per employee for Michigan employers is $22 per month.

Anti-labor bills surface again

The U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee approved a bill that would make it easier for employers to refuse to hire union salts.

Another bill passed by the committee would allow small businesses and labor unions to recoup attorney fees if they prevail in judicial or administrative proceedings brought by OSHA or the NLRB.

The so-called "Truth in Employment Act" was approved along party lines. Republican committee Chairman William Goodling (R-Pa.) said "these proposals are not designed to hurt workers or unions…"

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that when companies hire workers, cannot discriminate against a worker because he or she may be a union member.

Democrats on the committee, said the Construction Labor Report, "generally expressed impatience with Republicans for wasting the committee's time on what they considered an anti-worker bill" when issues like increasing the minimum wage could be addressed.

If the bill reaches President Clinton's desk, it will be vetoed.


Construction continues to shape up WSU campus

The men and women wearing hard hats are about to re-visit Wayne State University en masse for another round of construction activity.

Earlier this year the school's Board of Governors approved a bond issue of up to $132 million to finance new construction, repair and maintenance on the campus. This work comes on top of the $150 million WSU spent in the mid-1990s on 250 large and small projects that took great strides in modernizing the look and infrastructure of the campus.

First on the latest to-do list is a 75,000 square-foot, $14 million fitness center in the middle of the campus. The building will feature a two-court gymnasium, a suspended walking/jogging track, a rock-climbing wall and a leisure pool. Students, faculty and staff will be able to take advantage of the new facility when it opens a year from now.

The fitness center is part of a plan by WSU President Irvin Reid to "establish better working relationships on campus and create more of a sense of community" at what is essentially a commuter school.

The project is being handled by Turner Construction. Last week, the project was a big hole in the ground, with re-rod being installed, footings being trenched, and forms going up.

Other projects on deck on the Wayne State campus: a $15 million Welcome Center, a parking deck and a $15.6 million, 51,000 square-foot addition to the Law School, various repair and renovation projects, and upgrades in telecommunications.

A LENGTH OF CONDUIT that will protect the main power feed for the Wayne State University Fitness Center is ready to be lowered into a pit by Ron Gearing and foreman Ian Stewart of IBEW Local 58.



More workers connect with IBEW

SAGINAW - Another fair-sized nonunion electrical contractor has grudgingly taken a step toward going union.

Helm Electric Inc., after a majority of their 15 electricians had been established as pro-union, agreed to explore union representation for its workers. Negotiations began last week.

The process started when a core group of Helm electricians approached the IBEW about joining the union. They went so far as to wear orange T-shirts to work, with "union organizer" written on them to show where they stood.

"I can't say enough about those seven workers who wore those shirts to work," said IBEW International Rep. John Briston, who sat in on the negotiations with Helm. "It's like putting a target on your back. When you go to organize these shops, you can't offer the workers a job in writing; what you give them is information on what a union can do for them and a handshake. Wearing those shirts and taking a stand took a lot of guts. They're an exceptional group of workers."

The company's owner, who went through a union apprenticeship program, and his ABC attorney put an offer on the table during the first round of negotiations. "They put in their wish list, we've got ours," Briston said. "Hopefully we can agree somewhere in the middle. That's the trick. It won't be easy."

Organizers from three IBEW unions, John Ruppel and formerly Maynard Whitman of Saginaw Local 557, Mark Bauer of Bay City Local 692, and Jim Dodson of Flint Local 948, have been talking to the workers, who live in a widely scattered area.

The campaign to organize Helm didn't involve a certified NLRB election, but included a "card check," where workers sign a card or document that authorizes the union to bargain for them. Seven of the 11 workers employed at the time wanted union representation. A federal mediator looked at the signatures, compared them to an employee list provided by Helm, and then indicated that bargaining should proceed.

Under a card check, bargaining must take place for "a reasonable period of time," usually three months to a year.

"We got together, talked to some of the other employees, and soon we were meeting with them on a weekly basis," said Bay City Local 692 Organizer Mark Bauer. "You've got to get them credit. They put their jobs on the line. But they can also see the benefits of working union."

Helm Electric is one several mid-size and large electrical contractors that have gone union in the last two years, as the IBEW has ratcheted up organizing efforts. Organizing Detroit's LaBelle Electric in 1997 and McSweeney Electric in 1998 brought in in nearly 100 electricians for Local 58.

Earlier this year, another 24 Western Michigan electricians were organized into Great Lakes Energy-Electrical Services after working for Rigozzi Electrical Services, a nonunion shop. And in April, IBEW Local 692 announced that France Electric, Inc. of Midland became a union-signatory employer with 24 employees.

As we reported in June, the IBEW has been highly successful in organizing Michigan's electricians. Our state now has more than 8,300 union electricians, up 9.8 percent from 1998 and up 18.4 percent over 1991.