The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index

September 14, 2001

Nonunion contractors agonize over income of their 'poor people'

Trades celebrate Labor's day

Teamsters extend olive branch to Bush during an unusual presidential visit

116-year life-span for a roof? St. Anne's got its money's worth

Labor Legacy arch unveiled

Going up: new sequencing facility



Nonunion contractors agonize over income of their 'poor people'

Tradesman viewpoint

By Marty Mulcahy

"If low pay was a felony, I think most of us would be on death row today."

Over the course of the last few years or so, we've noted the hypocrisy of big-wigs in the nonunion construction industry, who continue to bemoan their inability to attract and retain skilled workers.

Well, the hypocrisy police are on patrol again.

In the Aug. 20 issue of the Engineering News Record was an article that appeared under the headline, "Labor Shortage Provokes More Studies Of Pay and Safety."

"In an industry where 'dead man walking' might refer to any of the four workers that, on average, end up dying each weekday in a construction accident in the U.S.," the article began, "industry leaders see signs of improved safety. But they deplore a (low) wage structure that deters too many laborers from acquiring more skills that result in higher productivity with fewer accidents."

The article cited an Aug. 8-9 Construction Industry Institute conference in San Francisco, that included some of the industry's largest constructors and owners of industrial facilities.

Enter the hypocrisy. "If low pay was a felony, I think most of us would be on death row today," said Franklin J. Yancey, a former senior vice president and now a consultant at Kellogg Brown & Root, Houston, one of the nation's largest nonunion construction employers.

He said that a journeyman trying to support a spouse and two children on $17 per hour ends up with just $29 per week in disposal income, after expenses. "Today, we do not have craftsmen, we do not have apprentices, we have poor people," Yancey said, as quoted in the ENR.

The ENR went on to say that many construction workers leave the industry within two years. The wages aren't going up, the article said, because many facility owners insist on seeing productivity increases before agreeing to higher wages. Many contractors who refuse to offer adequate training put the blame on owners.

"It's like a game of chicken, folks. Somebody had better make the first move," said Daniel J. Bennet, president of the National Center for Construction Education and Research in Gainesville, Fla. Bennet was executive vice president of the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors from 1983 to 1997.

Maybe their first move should be a call to their local building trades unions, but we suspect that anti-union sentiment is so entrenched in the ABC and among large nonunion contractors that they can't believe unions can be good for business.

It's not easy to sugarcoat the construction industry as a way to make a living - the jobs are dangerous and difficult. While unions aren't a cure-all for everything that's wrong with construction industry, they're a good place to start.

A collective bargaining agreement instantly offers both labor and management a pay and benefit package that's equitable to both sides. Unions provide workers a voice in negotiating their working conditions, and allow them to think of their job as a long-term career, with a pension and health care benefits.

In other words, a collective bargaining agreement offers these nonunion contractors what they're looking for - but it's going to cost them.

And there's the rub. Talk is cheap, but higher pay, safety training, maintaining apprenticeship schools and going to the trouble of empowering workers are damned expensive - and the entrenched nonunion tradition of putting profits over people is a hard one to resist.

So don't look for much to come of this wailing and hand-wringing over the situation of nonunion construction workforce. It will likely all dry up once the economy starts to sputter. The tables will turn, and nonunion workers will pound on employers' doors looking for work, grateful to accept that $17 per hour package. And the nonunion employers will do what comes naturally, and forget that they're making their workforce "poor people."


Trades celebrate Labor's day

It was a good day for organized labor in Michigan on Sept. 3, as thousands turned out in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Marquette and Muskegon to celebrate Labor's Day.

"I like the unity, I like the solidarity," said George Price of Roofers Local 149, who attended the Detroit parade. "This is my first time here, and it's really nice."

The building trades and Teamsters marched east along Michigan Ave., and many participated in the growing Labor Fest, which was held near Comerica Park.

Before and after the parade, at IBEW Local 58, 44 pints of blood were donated by participants to the American Red Cross. In addition, another 30 had blood samples placed into the bone marrow donor registry program to aid a cancer-stricken Teamster.

"Those are really great numbers, and I want to thank everyone who helped us by donating," said United Way Labor Coordinator Ray West.

IRON WORKERS LOCAL 25 members, celebrating their 100th anniversary this year, led the building trades portion of the Detroit Labor Day Parade along Michigan Ave.


Teamsters extend olive branch to Bush during an unusual presidential visit

The Sept. 3 Labor Day celebration in Detroit was typical of those that have taken place over the last decade - sort of.

Yes, there were the usual parades, cookouts and banners that have come to mark the annual rite of celebrating labor's day. Turnout for the march along Michigan Avenue appeared strong for the building trades.

Less-than-typical was the appearance of a Republican president. President George Bush accepted an invitation to speak at a barbecue thrown by Michigan Teamsters Joint Council 22. Bush received a lukewarm welcome, getting polite applause during his speech and chants of "hail to the thief" from others during his motorcade.

The issuer of the invitation, Teamsters International President James Hoffa, said his union is pursuing "a bipartisan approach to politics. We are involved in issues that are
important to working families and the Teamsters union. President Bush is the
president of the United States. We are not going to put our policies on hold
for four years. We are working with him on a number of issues, and we have
disagreements with him. But where we agree, we work wholeheartedly with him,
especially the president's energy policy."

Bush himself acknowledged the unusual visit. "You've got a good guy running the Teamsters," he said during his speech. "I don't know whether (this visit) will help him or hurt him in his re-election campaign."

The Detroit Labor Day tradition of presidential visits by Democrat candidates - which has fallen by the wayside in the last few elections - usually took place in years when the candidates were running for office. Actually, this year, it's Hoffa who is running for re-election to Teamsters Union presidency, and he is considered a heavy favorite.

Hoffa's mention of the president's energy policy was a reference to drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. The Teamsters and the building trades support drilling, most other unions and Democrats don't. The Teamsters are also pushing Bush to increase inspections and safety standards for Mexican trucks crossing the border into the U.S.

Aside from those two issues, there's isn't a lot of potential for agreement on most issues between that Bush and organized labor. The Bush Administration has banned union-only construction labor agreements on federally funded projects. Bush's first choice for Labor Secretary was vehemently anti-labor. New ergonomics rules that would ensure good working health for thousands of workers, have been suspended and deemed too costly by the president. Bush continues to push for Fast Track trade authority, giving him alone the power to broker trade deals without review from Congress. Labor has long questioned his commitment to worker health and pay standards in such deals.

"We don't necessarily agree on every single issue, but we agree to listen," Bush told the Detroit audience. Bush kept his remarks focused on his tax cuts, educational reform, pushing faith-based programs, and maintaining a strong military.

The Teamsters have a history of supporting Republican presidential candidates. The union also has a recent history with federal oversight following charges of union corruption during the administration prior to Hoffa's. Hoffa is working to get the union out from under the federal review panel.

Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm said it's no surprise that Bush's visit is controversial.

"Maybe he's willing to raise the minimum wage, maybe he's willing to look at fair trade, or making sure worker safety rules are enforced," she said. "I question his commitment to working families."


116-year life-span for a roof? St. Anne's got its money's worth

A combination of quality construction materials and great craftsmanship helped the slate roof of St. Anne's Church in Detroit last 116 years.

Now the roof is being replaced by a company with roots in Detroit that are nearly as old as that slate.

The Detroit Cornice and Slate Co. is taking care of the work, removing and replacing a slate roof that has kept the St. Anne's high and dry since the church was completed in 1886. Two years later, Detroit Cornice and Slate was established, and it continues to employ union workers and is one of the very few companies with workers who have the skills to do this kind of restoration work.

"I plan on taking my grandkids here and show them this roof," said Detroit Cornice and Slate foreman Wendell Ross, working with a crew of eight at St. Anne's. "This is just like the one we're replacing; it's a 100-year roof."

The project is in its second stage, and eventually, the entire church building will have new slate, including the tricky spires, which are nearly vertical.

Ross said there are only small, but important, differences between the old and the new roof.

  • The heads of the original cut steel nails rusted off, which caused some of the slate tiles to fall off, and was essentially the reason for the "failure" of the old roof. Rust-free copper nails are being used on this project.
  • The old felt paper under the slate had long ago disintegrated. The new 30-lb.felt underlayment and ice shield should last a lifetime.
  • The old copper flashing that was torn out was still in fairly good shape, Ross said, but the old sealant around the flashing was long-gone. The new copper should last as long as the rest of the roof, and the new weatherproofing caulk should provide many decades of service, too.

As for the tongue-in-groove, two-by-six wooden underlayment on the roof, Ross said "we didn't have to replace any of it. It was in perfect condition - we didn't find one bad board."

Over the last several years, about 100 slate tiles had fallen off the St. Anne's roof, and the church had some leaks. None were serious, but after well over a century of service, it was time for a roof replacement.

"One hundred and sixteen years ago, they had money for a slate roof," said the church's facilities manager, Paul Scheffer. "Turns out it was a good investment."

The current section of the roof that's being replaced, plus renovation work on a cupola, alone cost $150,000, Schefer said. "And millions of dollars more in work is needed. We'll do it as we get the money. We started with the roof, obviously because water causes the most problems. And we hired Detroit Cornice because they've done a lot of work for us in the past, and they do nice work."

The old slate roof over St. Anne's weathered a number of storms, as did the parish itself. The parish celebrated its 300th birthday along with the city of Detroit on July 26, two days after Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac arrived and celebrated a mass at the city's fort.

The fort and the parish's first one-room, log cabin church burned down in 1805, along with the rest of the city. Other churches were built, in progressively larger buildings. The Catholic Encyclopedia referred to the parish as "the mother-church of the Northwest," in its early days. The current Gothic Revival church near the Ambassador Bridge in Southwest Detroit is the eighth building in the line of succession at the parish.

"It's a wonderful church, and the slate on this project is so beautiful," said Detroit Cornice and Slate co-owner Doneen Hess, whose company is putting slate on several other churches in Southeast Michigan. "This is the kind of work we get to do when times are good. During the lean times, we go back to the flat roofs. It's nice to be able to do this work."

ROOFERS LOCAL 149 members Mark Wade, Darryl Broussard, Scott Hess, Errol White, Pinkney Chapman and Mark Brantley install slate on the roof of St. Anne's Church in Detroit.

SLATE FROM Vermont is being used to waterproof St. Anne's Church. Two holes are drilled in the middle for ease of nailing. Sections are shown here by (l-r) Detroit Cornice and Slate workers Hugh Hess III, Wendell Ross and Juan Reyes.



Labor Legacy arch unveiled

Plans for the Michigan Labor Legacy Project were released Aug. 28, featuring a stainless-steel open arch standing 60 feet above ground between West Jefferson and Hart Plaza. The art work will include 14 large, natural boulders holding bronze castings that depict labor's story.

The artwork, according to the Metro Detroit Labor News, is labor's gift to the people of the city on Detroit's 300th birthday. The Michigan Labor Legacy Project Inc., a nonprofit group, is raising funds from unions, rank-and-file members and friends of labor to build the monument.

"Our goal," said project president Gerald Banton, "is to honor the working men and women who built our city, describe labor's rich heritage and inspire the public with labor's vision for the future."

One visually interesting feature of the sculpture will be a "spark," created by two lights dancing between the two uppermost points of the arch, which will be left open to represent labor's unfinished work. Inside the arcs are gears, each containing quotations appropriate to labor.

The artwork, by sculptors David Barr and Sergio DeGiusti, was chosen from among 50 proposals submitted in an anonymous national competition.

Barr said the monument will be "a unique icon that is expressive from a great distance, as well as telling an intimate, human story upon closer viewing and experiencing."

Approximately half the money needed to build the landmark has been committed, but more donations are needed. Donors of $25 will be recognized with a certificate. A gift of $100 or more will provide donors with permanent recognition at the landmark site. Donors of $250 or more will receive the above, plus a commemorative tile depicting the landmark. Donors of $500 or more will receive the above, with a special commemorative tile personalized for the donor.

Make checks payable to the Michigan Labor Legacy Project, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, 5401 Cass Ave., Detroit, MI 48202.

TO BE BUILT along West Jefferson in Detroit will be a 60-foot-tall landmark recognizing organized labor.


Going up: new sequencing facility

A $20 million "sequencing" facility for Ai-Genesee, a GM supplier, is going up in Flint, made possible by union labor and union pension dollars.

The 407,500 square-foot facility is being erected near West Maple and Linden roads. It is a project of Corvus International with partial financing by The Build Fund, a real estate fund that uses union pension dollars to build projects 100 percent union while providing competitive returns for investors.

The new building, expected to be complete later this year, will provide a facility for Ai-Genessee to assemble and sequence modules and components for the GMT Medium Duty Truck, which is assembled at the GM Flint Truck Assembly Plant.




New delay for steel standard?
OSHA has delayed implementation of the new standard for steel erection six months until January 2002, and if the Associated General Contractors has its way, the wait will be even longer.

The new steel erection standard was developed with input from the Iron Workers International Union and contractor . It's estimated that the standard will save 30 lives per year.

The AGC wants to re-write several areas of the rule, specifically:

  • Changing the rule's requirement that steel connectors tie off at a height of 15 feet or more. The AGC is pushing for the tie-off to take place at a minimum height of six feet, regardless of the work being performed.
  • The rule that would prevent shear connections from being attached during the fabrication process, allowing the work to be done on the construction site.
  • The rules defining "controlling" contractors - are they "prime," "general contractors" or "construction managers" - controlling steel erection work done by subcontractors.

AGC Chief Executive Officer Stephen E. Sandherr said in a letter to OSHA, "Unless changed, the rule will put workers at an excessive risk of injury and death."
OSHA said the request for a further delay is under review. In the meantime, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association wants an exemption from the new provisions, because OSHA "did not fully consider the safety implications."

Huron Valley voters asked to OK bond
Building trades members who live in the Huron Valley School District in northwest Oakland County are urged to support a $110 million bond issue on the Tuesday, Sept. 25 ballot.

The money will be spent on a major overhaul of the school district's buildings. A coalition including the school district, the teachers' union, administrators, parent groups and construction unions are seeking community support for the bond issue. Building trades unions have contributed $5,000 to promote passage of the bond.

Plumbers Local 98 BA Rich Gaber said the building trades are working on establishing a union-only project labor agreement with the school district, if the bond issue is adopted by voters.

Labor wants Fast Track protections
AFL-CIO leaders worked in areas around the nation on Labor Day to bring attention to "Fast Track," a bill that would give President Bush authority to broker deals and negotiate a North American Free Trade Agreement with every nation in the Western Hemisphere, except Cuba.

NAFTA, the controversial U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade treaty, has cost 756,000 U.S. jobs, according to the liberal Economic Policy Institute, working with federal figures.

Aside from the loss of jobs, organized labor wants language in the agreement that addresses minimum wages, safety and sanctions for child labor violators. The fast track legislation Bush pushes has no labor standards language at all.

Bush's fast track bill faces an uncertain future. President Clinton tried twice to get fast track during the last three years of his second term, but lost to labor lobbying both times.


The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index