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At the bottom of the employment food chain, McDonald's has hiked the pay of experienced burger flippers from $5 to $8 per hour over the past few years in order to attract and retain workers.
So why can't construction workers, who may be the most in-demand segment in the U.S. job market, get similar pay increase percentages that reflect the law of supply and demand?
The latest information on wages suggests that for the bottom-feeders in the construction industry - nonunion trades workers, especially in right-to-work states -- hikes in pay, benefits and incentives are substantially raising standards of living and providing pay increase ratios on par with the Big Mac assemblers. And pay increases for union crafts are starting to lumber ahead, too.
"After years of stagnant wages, organized labor is aggressively seeking - and sometimes winning - high pay gains, raising the prospect that tight labor markets may finally be leading to wage inflation," reported The Wall Street Journal last week.
According to the Construction Labor Research Council, Michigan's union trades workers enjoyed the second-highest percentage increase in pay in the nation in 1998 - 3.7 percent. And during the last five years in the U.S., construction union wages have increased annually at an average 3.12 percent clip for all crafts.
That percentage is above the inflation rate, which is historically very low and has ranged from 1 to 2 percent over the last few years. But in real earning power, construction pay hikes have barely kept workers' heads above water over the last decade. The low wage increases have been one of the major reasons construction has had trouble attracting and retaining workers, and why this industry has such a lousy image.
But wage scales are increasing dramatically. In the second quarter of this year, U.S. labor costs rose 4.5 percent. A University of California labor relations professor told the Journal it should surprise no one that workers are demanding higher pay. "If times are so good, workers expect something more in their paychecks, he said."
Over the last two years, nonunion construction workers, especially in the South, have become wildly successful in demanding higher wage packages, and their employers have been coughing up big-time. Not with traditional pay increases, reports Cockshaw's Newsletter, but with all kinds of inducements like "per diem" bonuses, better benefit packages, hefty incentives to travel and guaranteed overtime.
Why should you care whether nearly 80 percent of all nonunion employers are paying recruiting incentives averaging 41 cents per hour, or that more than half of them are offering "completion pay" bonuses of up to $1 per hour?
Because even though it's happening in a backward manner - as things often happen in the nonunion sector of construction - employers are finally being forced to pay their workers better wages. Right now, nonunion workers won't be so willing to work for less.
Their higher wage packages will make it more difficult for employers, from Alabama or Florida, for example, to underbid local contractors for work here in Michigan who are willing to pay prevailing wages for this area.
Of course, those incentives will dry up when the work dries up, so any union organizer would suggest that nonunion workers forget about those incentives and get a wage package in writing in the form of a standardized labor contract.
"Paying craft workers a fair and competitive wage for
their labor is a much better prescription - one that will help
contribute to construction's long-term health," said Cockshaw's.
From top to bottom, Ford Motor Co. wants its Glass House to shine. And you can't take care of what they've wanted done with just a bottle of Windex.
Ford is nearing the end of a 22-month project to renovate its renowned 14-story World Headquarters building along Michigan Avenue in Dearborn.
Much of the work has been up on the building's roof, where a crew from Schena Roofing removed two layers of the old roof and installed 10,200 square-feet of two-ply waterproofing and two-ply thermal protection board in its place. It took about two months to replace the roof, with one that should keep Ford's HQ high and dry for the next two decades.
The project was unique in several respects. The building itself, built in 1956, serves as the world headquarters for the one of the largest companies in the world. The structure may have an all-glass exterior, but it was built like a rock. In addition to the other roofing materials, the Roofers Local 149 crew also had to tear off a thick layer of concrete on the roof. And, paver bricks were set to be installed as a heat deflector on top of the new roof, instead of the traditional stone.
"There is a lot of weight up there," said Schena foreman Wayne Bradford, who supervised the project along with Schena Supt. Joe Fisher. "But it looks to me like the building's holding up fine."
The roofers worked night shifts, which kept them out of the way of Ford employees. Because this is the Glass House - there are 3,000 windows in the building - it was considered to risky to discard the torn-off roofing materials off the side of the building.
So, old and new materials had to be moved up and down through the building via the laborious process of using containers and freight elevators.
"Overall the job went fantastic," said Bradford,
on the last night of the project. "Ford seems happy, and
Labor Day marchers across Michigan took to the streets on Sept. 5, using the 105-year-old holiday to remind the public that organized labor is very much alive and kicking.
"Unions give you job protection, and uphold your rights as a worker," said a boilermaker, when asked what his union means to him. "Unions give you a collective feeling of power, not over the contractor, but with the contractor."
Across Michigan, union members marched in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Marquette, in a show of solidarity and pride.
Of all unions, the building trades have more reason than most to stand up for their rights. That's because Hardhats have to continually fight for bread and butter issues, like laws that protect worker safety and wages.
Fighting that fight is continually on the agenda of the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department. Following are Labor Day comments by the department's Secretary-Treasurer, Robert Georgine.
As we observe Labor Day 1999, America's economy is in the longest sustained recovery in our nation's history. For most building and construction trade union members, work is plentiful and life for their families is beginning to get better after nearly 20 years of income depression.
But for the millions of nonunion construction workers who make up 82 percent of the industry workforce, our economic boom is a distant echo. On average, they make 29 percent less than unionized workers. Few have pensions or health insurance. And none have the advantages of a union hiring hall to provide steady work, a union training program, to help them get better jobs, or a union contract to protect them from capricious employers.
Why aren't more construction workers members of unions? Our research indicates that most of them would like to join a union and improve their lives. But it also shows that even more of them understand that the minute they indicate union sympathies, they are likely to be fired from their jobs.
Isn't that illegal? Sure it is, but our labor laws are so weak, our enforcement process so slow and the penalties for breaking the law so slight that harassing, intimidating and firing workers for union activities is a percentage play for employers.
This Labor Day let us as a nation resolve to support the rights of workers to come together in unions and collectively bargain with their employers - not only because it is right, because it is the American way.
And let us remember that but for unions, many of us would
still be following our fathers into unsafe mines, deathtrap factories
and killer construction sites.
LAS VEGAS - Billed by AFL-CIO Building Trades Department President Robert Georgine as "the largest organizing campaign ever to be launched in the labor movement," the Building Trades Organizing Project (BTOP) launched here was tremendously successful at attaining its goal - bringing more construction workers into unions.
But the 24-month campaign, which quietly shut its doors in May, also provided some eye-opening lessons on just how difficult it can be to conduct a campaign that attempts to change the way workers - both union and nonunion - approach the process of organizing.
"One of the things that we knew but that was reinforced for us in Las Vegas is that all organizing is local," said Jim Rudicil, an IBEW International Union representative from Muskegon who directed the BTOP project for 18 months. "The international unions have committed to organizing, but we know that organizing efforts won't be successful without a commitment from local unions - the officers and the members have to embrace the idea of bringing in nonunion workers and treating them with dignity."
In Las Vegas and anywhere else, Rudicil said, "the success of organizing gets down to the hard work and the credibility of the local union. The locals that are willing to make the commitment will be the most successful."
The BTOP project began in January 1997, after all of the 15 international union presidents in the Building Trades Department signed on to the new organizing strategy. The idea was to throw all available resources at the project and coordinate among the trades like never before in an attempt to organize nonunion construction workers in a single jurisdiction.
Las Vegas was chosen for three major reasons: work was booming, unions already had a significant presence, and the local unions and their leadership were committed to making the idea work. As many 60 organizers were working the area at the peak of the BTOP.
The result: 7,000 members signed union cards over the last two years in Las Vegas unions, a 35-percent increase. The Carpenters alone saw an increase of 2,000 members. The Bricklayers went from 496 to 1,454 members, and the Roofers went from 80 to 800 members.
Stephen Lerner, assistant to the Building Trades Department's president for organizing, told the Construction Labor Report that such gains brought the locals from having a "marginal presence" to being "active, vibrant local unions. The entire labor movement is much stronger now."
The campaign provided a number of benefits to the community, too. Nonunion contractors were forced to dramatically increase pay scales in order to keep their workforce. Part of the drive involved developing links with churches and community groups. They saw how unions raise living standards not only through higher pay, but by insisting on decent working conditions with fresh water and toilet facilities on job sites - items that are not always a given.
Unions realized benefits from the campaign, both tangible and intangible. Of course there were the additional members, and the additional clout with contractors. But unions also learned the importance of cooperation. They learned the importance of credibility; of not making promises to nonunion workers that couldn't be kept.
And the experiment in Las Vegas also showed the burdensome commitments that need to be made by local unions if the BTOP program is to be successfully employed in another city in the future. "Initiating a program like this requires commitment and a lot of hard work," said Rudicil.
Guidelines set up by an "Internal Barriers Committee" for any future BTOP agenda will require local building trades union leadership to "conduct an open and critical evaluation of internal policies and procedures to determine which ones, are in fact, barriers to organizing new members."
The barriers include: high initiation fees, job referral procedures which discriminate against newly organized workers, apprenticeship which does not allow slotting new members into programs, inability to offer health and welfare coverage to new members in an expedited way, the inability to honestly assess the skills of new workers, and membership opposition to the newly organized workers.
In Las Vegas, Rudicil said, one of the major hurdles to overcome was worker apathy toward organizing. With workers getting all the overtime they want and earning $80,000, $100,000 or more per year, few in Las Vegas had time to even think about organizing, much less participate in salting campaigns or handbilling.
But organizing nonunion workers is especially important during boom times. Now is the time to organize, and get workers accustomed to higher wages and the benefits of working union. If unions can level the playing field by raising the wage standard for all workers, nonunion contractors won't be able to undercut union contractors by lowering wages.
"Maybe the most important lesson of the Building Trades Organizing Project is that it reminds us all what we have to do to be successful organizers," Rudicil said. "Here in Michigan, we're doing very well, and much of our success comes from our credibility. Twelve years ago, nonunion workers didn't have a reason to trust us. Today, we tell nonunion workers what will happen when they join, and it comes true. Then they tell their family, friends and co-workers.
"Today, in many of our locals, 35 percent of the entire
membership, and in some cases, 50 percent, is made up of former
nonunion workers. That says a lot."
Tradesman's website is up and running
The Building Tradesman is on the web.
Yes, your faithful labor newspaper, which has covered the goings-on of the construction industry for the last 47 years, can now be accessed electronically.
On the Internet, our address is www.detroitbuildingtrades.org. The site has information about the Greater Detroit Building Trades Council, as well as links of interest to other organizations.
On it, we've also posted the front page articles and photos from the last few editions, and plan to update the site every other week. We will also be regularly updating the site with new links and other information.
Construction still most hazardous
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last month that 1,171 construction workers died on the job in 1998, compared to 1,034 in 1997.
Construction lead all industries in worker deaths - building trades workers comprised 19 percent of all the 6,026 on-the-job deaths in the U.S. in 1998.
More electricians - 124 - than any other trade were killed on the job in the U.S. in 1998, followed by 90 carpenters, 52 iron workers. 50 roofers, and 41 painters. By far, the largest percentage of accidents resulted from falls, 38 percent for the construction trades.
The number of Americans who died on the job in 1998 was 3
percent below 1997's number.
Local 58 activist Lennon dies
Bernie Lennon, a well-known and well-connected IBEW Local 58 member, died Aug. 23 at age 69.
Bernie was an electrician by trade, but his occupation took him into the world of politics. He had served terms as the mayor of the City of Ferndale and as an Oakland County Commissioner. During the administration of Gov. Jim Blanchard, Bernie served as deputy director of the state Department of Labor and was director of the Michigan State Fair.
A 45-year member of the IBEW, he worked out of local unions in Hollywood and Oregon before settling in with Local 58 for the last 22 years.
"Bernie Lennon was a great guy, he didn't sugarcoat anything, he always told you the way it was," said Local 58 Business Manager Jeff Radjewski. "He was extremely well-connected in the Democratic Party, and after his family, I think politics was his true passion. He contributed a lot to improve the lives of working men and women, and he will be missed."
Bernie is survived by his wife Nancy and seven children.
Is anything about the work you do getting under your skin?
Maybe you should pay some attention to what's getting on your skin.
Some construction materials can cause serious problems if you come in contact with them - they can annoy you, cause you to become allergic, burn you, or otherwise infect you.
The construction industry is filled with materials that truly won't treat your skin the way Dove soap can. Wet cement, cement dust, lime, epoxy resins, turpentine, adhesives, metal working fluids, coal tar and pitch are just some of the materials that have the potential to do harm to your skin, the body's largest organ.
Some materials will only give you red, itchy skin or rashes. At the other end of the spectrum, others can give you skin cancer.
According to the Center to Protect Workers Rights, if your skin is affected by foreign material, oftentimes good old soap and water is the best way to clean up and fix the problem. The center suggests never using a solvent like mineral spirits to clean your hands - mineral oil or vegetable oil often works well with soap and water. Don't use soaps containing lanolin or perfumes.
Some other suggestions:
Make sure you use the right gloves for the job. Some gloves will not protect you from some of the materials. Or the gloves may not protect you for a whole work shift.
Put on sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more before you work outdoors, even on cloudy days. Do this even if you have dark skin. Make sure your hands and skin are clean before you put on sunscreen.
If you have a skin problem that won't go away, see a doctor. Tell your doctor what materials you use at work.
When you get home, do not wash your work clothes with other clothes. You want to keep any harmful materials from work off your and your family's clothes.
You can use these liquid soaps:
Congress threw a bone to older construction workers in a $792 billion, 10-year tax-cut bill approved last month.
In the bill is language that would allow more generous benefits for building trades workers who often cannot continue working until age 65 in the industry's demanding physical environment.
AFL-CIO Building Trades Department President Robert Georgine said the department has been working to change the 1986 tax law, which "unfairly penalizes all multi-employer plan beneficiaries. It discriminates, especially against those construction workers who, because of the physical nature of their work, need to retire at 52 or 55 after putting 30 years into their jobs."
According to the Construction Labor Report, under Section 415 of the Internal Revenue Code, the maximum annual benefit payable under a defined benefit plan is generally 100 percent of the average compensation for the highest three consecutive years, or $130,000.
However, the dollar limit is reduced in the case of retirement before the Social Security retirement age of 65 - which can hit construction workers particularly hard.
Former Sen. Bob Packwood, who the building trades employed as a lobbyist on this issue, said that, again, because of the difficult nature of the work, it would be unlikely that a construction worker would have his three last years of employment be his three highest consecutive years of compensation.
The language that was adopted removes the discriminatory language - the 100 percent of average compensation for the highest three years does not apply to multi-employer plans, effective for years beginning after Dec. 31, 2000.
President Clinton will probably veto the entire spending bill
- but the break for construction workers should survive future
versions of the package.