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September 14, 2007

What's good for workers is good for America

Without unions, there's no Labor Day - and no pensions… no 8-hour day… no OT pay…

Two strategies pursue improved safety on jobs

Right to work - wrong for Michigan

'Designed to bust unions'

News Briefs


What's good for workers is good for America

By John Sweeney
AFL-CIO President

Last month, Steve Skvara, a disabled, retired steelworker who can't afford his wife's health care, shook the AFL-CIO's Presidential Candidates Forum by asking tearfully, "What's wrong with America?"

We should all be asking that question today.

We've got six coal miners trapped beneath more than 1,500 feet of Utah coal and rock, three brave men who struggled to rescue them are dead and six more are injured. And it's not because of an act of God. It's because of the acts of man.

The disaster at the Crandall Canyon Mine did not have to happen. It was preventable - as were the deaths of 12 coal miners last year in the Sago Mine in West Virginia. As have been many, many more deaths of workers in America's coal mines and factories, fishing vessels, offices and construction sites.

Safety concerns about the Crandall Canyon Mine surfaced months ago, and safety experts warned of particular dangers in the "retreat mining" technique used there after it was approved by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. In retreat mining, coal miners essentially pull out roof-supporting pillars of coal as they work their way out of the mine.

The retreat mining plan at Crandall Canyon, says Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, "appears to have been flawed, to say the least. In our opinion, that plan should never have been approved."

No one should be surprised it was approved, though. The Bush administration has been systematically dismantling and cutting funding for workplace safety rules and oversight since it came into office.

Every day in 2005, 16 workers died on the job and 12,000 were made sick - and that doesn't include the occupational diseases that kill 50,000 to 60,000 more workers each year. In many if not most of these cases, one of two things occurred: An employer disregarded the law, or the law wasn't strong enough to protect workers.

Something is deeply wrong with America today. Working men and women have lost their value to the people who have been running this country for too long. Ruthless CEOs wring working people dry and the neocon ideologues in the White House help them.

Our wages are stagnant, our benefits are disappearing, the middle class is shrinking and, for the first time, there's a good chance our children will not be better off than our generation. We're the most productive workers in the world but we have to work more hours, more jobs and send more family members into the workforce just to keep up.

The heroes who rushed to Ground Zero to save lives and who dug and sweated and struggled for months after Sept. 11, 2001, are suffering today from neglect and indifference. Neglect and indifference left thousands stranded on rooftops and in a dark convention center after Hurricane Katrina. Neglect and indifference meant deplorable conditions for veterans recovering at Walter Reed. Neglect and indifference kill far too many of us on the job.

There's a reason so many people who never will step foot in a coal mine are riveted by the story of the trapped, dead and injured miners. There's a reason Steve Skvara's comment at our presidential forum moved so many people. There's a reason candidates committed to improving the well-being of working men and women took back Congress last year and will take back the White House next year.

Working men and women - the great majority in this country - want to fix what's wrong with America.


Without unions, there's no Labor Day - and no pensions… no 8-hour day… no OT pay…

By Dick Meister

Day. Time once more for politicians and union adherents to speak of the greatness of organized labor. Time once more for the rest of us to ignore the speechmakers.

The general public indifference is understandable. After all, only 12 percent of the country's working people are in unions these days. But even if you are not a union member - even if you do not approve of unions - there wouldn't be any three-day weekends if it wasn't for those unions. None.

If unions hadn't done what they did - and continue to do - it's highly unlikely that anyone outside the executive ranks would be getting a paid holiday on Labor Day, or on any other day. (Or even, of course, that there would be such a holiday as Labor Day.)

Nor is it likely that those who are required to work on such holidays would be getting the pay of two to three times their regular rate that unions have made the standard for holiday work in most areas - or get premium pay for any other work, at any other time.

Holidays meant very little to most working people in the days before unions became effective. They meant only an unwelcome day off and loss of a day's pay or, at best, a day of work at regular wages.

Those were the days when unions still were struggling primarily for nothing more than legal recognition. It wasn't until World War II that unions were able to go beyond the fundamentals and make negotiation of paid holidays a common practice, a concession employers made in lieu of the pay raises federal wage controls prohibited during the war.

The paid vacations so many working people took this summer also were very rare until unions demanded and won them. So were employer-financed pensions and medical care and other fringe benefits, health and safety standards, job security and other things now commonly granted to most workers, union and nonunion alike.

Without unions, we should not forget, there would be no paid holidays for most people, no premium or overtime pay, no paid vacations, few fringe benefits and little protection against job-related hazards and arbitrary dismissal. Without unions, as a matter of fact, the standard workday might very well still be 10 to 12 hours, the standard workweek six to seven days, and working people would have few of the rights so many now take for granted. That includes the overriding right of having a genuine voice in determining their pay and working conditions.

You doubt it? Consider the recollections of Mark Hawkins, who worked in the warehouses along San Francisco's busy waterfront in the 1930s, before the coming of effective unionization.

Hawkins remembered men wrestling with crates, bundles, cartons, merchandise in all sizes, shapes and weights, 10 hours a day, often every day of the week, for a mere $60 a month. They worked as many hours on as many days as the boss demanded, at whatever pay he offered, lest they be replaced by others clamoring for jobs in those dark days of the Great Depression.

Hawkins especially remembered a fellow worker who failed to raise his hand one Saturday when the boss made his usual Saturday afternoon request for "volunteers" to work Sunday. The reluctant warehouseman pleaded that his wife, undergoing a complicated pregnancy, was seriously ill and would need him at home to comfort her.

"OK," said the boss - "but don't you think she'll feel even worse if you have to tell her you don't have a job anymore?"

The man worked that Sunday. When he got home, his wife was dead.

Very few of today's employers would even consider acting in such a manner. It would be virtually unthinkable, given the firm standing gained for all workers by the country's now solidly entrenched unions. That alone is more than enough reason to honor organized labor on the holiday it won for us all.

(The author is a San Francisco-based journalist. The article is via the AFL-CIO).

IBEW LOCAL 58 members lead the march in the annual Labor Day Parade along Michigan Avenue in Detroit. The Detroit march was the largest of four Labor Day celebrations in Michigan.

ISHPEMING, near Marquette, was the site of another Labor Day celebration in Michigan. Here members of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 111 await the start of the parade.


Two strategies pursue improved safety on jobs

Only about four percent of Michigan's workforce is employed in construction - however, fatalities in the building trades account for more than 40 percent of all fatal workplace accidents.

Responsible contractors are always looking to improve safety on their job sites, but there can be different paths to that goal. Following are examples of two different approaches taken by construction employers that aren't necessarily new ideas, but that deserve recognition for continuing to try to make job sites safer.

Barton Malow, Skanska make their mark for safety

At the Troy Beaumont Hospital expansion, a "top-down" approach to safety is being initiated.

Barton Malow Company and Skanska USA Building Inc. are serving as the design/builder for the first phase of a three-phase expansion project for Beaumont Hospital, Troy. The expansion project includes an emergency center addition, a critical care tower, a comprehensive outpatient services center, and a professional office building.

The two big contractors are the latest to formally sign on to a partnership - the signing event took place Sept. 5 - with MIOSHA, the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth and the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. The stated goal: "enhanced safety and health protection and zero injuries for workers."

"Barton Malow and Skanska are building a cutting edge healthcare facility - with the commitment to send every construction worker home healthy and whole, every day," said DLEG Director Keith Cooley. "We applaud these two premier companies who build world class facilities nationwide. This project is an outstanding example of the work we need to speed Michigan's economic growth."

To try to get to the zero injuries, Barton Malow/Skanska, the partnering trade unions and subcontractors endorsed the elements of the site specific Safety and Health Program for the Beaumont project. Elements include:

  • Adherence to all safety policies, procedures, and MIOSHA standards.
  • 100 percent fall protection over 6 feet, including steel erection and roof work.
  • 00 percent eye protection.
  • All crane operators will be Certified Crane Operators (CCO).
  • Substance abuse testing through M.U.S.T. or equivalent program - adherence by all trade contractors.
  • Pre-Task Safety Plans (PSPs) to be completed and submitted to Barton Malow/Skanska by contractors prior to beginning critical work.
  • PSPs must be posted at the work area, and reviewed with workers prior to beginning work.
  • Contractors shall provide a Competent and/or Qualified Person for work operations as identified by MIOSHA standards and/or Barton Malow/Skanska.
  • Barton Malow/Skanska and the partnering employers on this project will uniformly enforce a disciplinary action plan for employees who fail to work in a safe manner. Rules call for "automatic dismissal" from this project for any "willful or deliberate" violation of safety rules or safety polices and procedures.

"The partnership that we're creating today can only help to further raise awareness about construction worker safety, and that's always a welcome goal," said Patrick Devlin, CEO of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. "Hopefully, in the long term, these kinds of partnerships will become the norm on jobsites across the state of Michigan."

This isn't the first such safety program - Walbridge-Aldinger was the first contractor in the state to sign such an agreement in January 2005 on a sewage overflow project in Dearborn. And Barton Malow signed on with Walbridge at the North Terminal project at Metro Airport in Romulus. With Skanska now aboard, it signals that the safety strategy may be ready to expand.

MIOSHA is pushing such partnerships in an effort to move away from traditional enforcement methods and embrace collaborative safety agreements.
"This joint venture between Barton Malow and Skanska brings together two great organizations with the same philosophy-zero tolerance for unsafe acts and conditions. Partnering with MIOSHA allows us to utilize all the team members in the pursuit of that goal," said Mark S. Klimbal, CSP, Corporate Safety Director, Barton Malow Co.

Said David Reece, Senior Vice President, Skanska USA Building Inc.: The agreement "affirms our commitment to having all workers go home to their families in the same condition they started the day."

Bristol Steel tries the incentive approach

"Rewards programs" are big with frequent flier miles and credit cards, and now Bristol Steel and Conveyor Corp. is trying such an approach in an effort to improve safety.

On select projects, at the end of each month that there are zero safety incidents, a prize drawing will take place for Bristol employees. The employee whose name is drawn will receive a new automatic shotgun, or a gift certificate for $400. If there are zero incidents at the end of the project there will be a drawing for a new ATV-four wheeler.

Bristol Steel initiated its "Safest Workplace Possible" program last spring, and has given away numerous cash prizes and shotguns through drawings on various projects. On Aug. 20 Bristol Steel celebrated zero unsafe incidents upon completion of the steel-work at the Gestamp US Hardtech project in Mason by holding a drawing for one of those new ATVs. The fortunate recipient: iron worker Brent Droscha of Local 25.

This isn't the first time a safety rewards program has been utilized - numerous Hardhats have been involved in such drawings on various jobsites for more than a decade. Nancy Forsyth, Bristol's director of safety/quality assurance, said experience in the industry has shown that the incentives work.

"On jobs where there are these kinds of drawings, worker safety improves and people are a lot more conscious about their surroundings," she said adding that Local 25 members' "safe working habits contributed to making this important project a success."

Ray Oliver, Chairman/CEO, Bristol Steel & Conveyor Corp. said "all the trade persons are true professionals. We look forward to working with Local 25 for many years to come."

IRON WORKERS at Gestamp US Hardtech job in Mason celebrate the topping off the project. The zero accident record for the crew led to a Bristol Steel holding a drawing for a new all-terrain vehicle.


Right to work - wrong for Michigan

By Pat Devlin
Michigan Building & Construction Trades Council

(Organized labor is very carefully watching the behind-the-scenes effort to place a right-to-work measure on the statewide ballot in Michigan next year. To battle that effort, the Michigan AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions are taking the pre-emptive step of educating members about what passage of a right-to-work law would mean to our state).

Every once in a while, every union member should take a minute to reflect on the real advantages of having a union in their workplace. Those advantages have a positive effect for the individual and society in general. Unions raise the standard of living through better wages, affordable health benefits, pensions, and workplace safety standards.

Even basic things like lunch breaks, vacations, sick days and holidays were originally secured through union contracts.

The union advantage in our communities is clear. Union members earn on average 28% more than non-union workers. 81% of union members have job-related health coverage, while only 50% of non-union workers do. 72% of union members have a guaranteed, defined benefit pension, compared to only 15% of non-union workers.

Unfortunately, there are those both in Michigan and from outside our state who want to dismantle all that unions have gained for workers. This past spring, bills were introduced in the State House and Senate that are know as "Right to Work" bills.

These bills are part of a big business plan to break and bankrupt unions. If they can't pass their bills in 2007, they will fund a ballot initiative in 2008. Under so called "Right-to-Work" laws, unions are forced to use their resources and member's dues dollars to represent workers who refuse to pay dues.

You owe it to yourself to get the real facts on Right to Work....

  • Workers in right to work states earn less than workers in other states, about $5900 a year less;
  • The percentage of families without health insurance is 20% higher in right to work states;
  • The maximum weekly workers' compensation benefit is 25% less in right to work states;
  • In 2000, the infant mortality rate in right to work states was 17% higher.

I hope when the time comes, you will stand with your union and oppose anyone who proposes making our great state a "right to work state." We have faced powerful business interests in the past, but when workers band together we will win.


'Designed to bust unions'

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

The following letter was sent to Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 85 Business Representative Bill Hard, who passed it along to us. It is reprinted with the author's permission.

Dear Bill,

I am writing this letter to you and your membership to explain how the Right-To-Work Law has affected the labor movement in New Orleans. Unfortunately, the bill was enacted July 9, 1976 and went into effect Oct. 6, 1976. Before Oct. 6, 1976, our organization controlled at least 95% of the commercial and industrial market. Local 60 had approximately 3,000 members and no less then 2,000 travelers working in our area.

A few years after the bill went into affect our wages were seriously cut from $16.80 to $12.41 per hour. The reason for this was because our contractors could not compete with the non-union sector. Union shops became double breasted and non-union workers had the luxury of union representation without paying one red cent towards union dues.

Non-union workers had a choice to be union or non-union. This made it very difficult for organizing.

To this day, we are still faced with the repercussions of this bill. For example, signatory contractors have the right by law to lay-off union members and keep permit hands employed. Although for the most part, our contractors usually work with us on this issue depending on the circumstances.

Our market share now in the industrial work is less then 1% and steadily declining due to nonunion contractors in our area. We are still maintaining the larger commercial projects, however, this represents only 10% of the work. My opinion of the right-to-work law and how it affects organized labor is that it is a major mechanism in placed designed to bust unions.

Rickey L. Fabra
Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 60
New Orleans, LA


News Briefs

Construction fatality list led by falls
According to preliminary, 2006 data (the most recent available) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 1,226 construction workers lost their lives in on-the-job incidents in the U.S., an increase of three percent from 2005.

"Each day in 2006, we were reminded of how dangerous a construction site can be," said Laborers General President Terence M. O'Sullivan, responding to a Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North America analysis of the most important causes of construction tragedies in 2006. "This is not a pleasant analysis. Yet, it's only by knowing how these workers were hurt that we can focus our prevention activities so that each member can return safely to their home and family at the end of their work shift."

The report found that 27 percent of construction workers killed on the job were laborers.

Also in the report: falls (428 cases), as usual, was the leading cause of death for construction workers. Followed by transportation accidents (322), contact with objects and equipment (215), exposure to harmful substances and environments (189) and electrocutions (124)

Laborers Health and Safety Fund Division Director Scott Schneider said with a combination of stronger safety programs, more consistent implementation, better supervisor and worker awareness, improved OSHA standards and more OSHA enforcement, many of these deaths could have been prevented.

For example, he said fall fatalities could be dramatically reduced by designing fall prevention into projects (to make it easier to tie off) and requiring 100 percent fall protection at heights of six feet or more.

Trades picket over German hires
Detroit Diesel is installing a new assembly line and related equipment at its plant at Telegraph and Plymouth Rds.

It's an "all-union" job employing a number of Michigan-based Hardhats - but many of the workers are German nationals who were brought over here to install equipment.

The building trades picketed the site Aug. 29-31 in an effort to call attention to the situation.

"It's all about local jobs for local people," said Michigan Building and Construction Trades Business Rep. Ed Coffey. "They're taking our market share. You can bet they'd do the same thing in Germany if our people went over there to do their work."

Pete Accica, a business representative for Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1, led the effort to establish the pickets, which included about 150 supporters. He said there is very little information available about the extent of the work inside the Detroit Diesel plant, although the job is was winding down earlier this month.

"They're outsourcing us, they're cutting out local workers and we brought the situation to light," he said. "They pledged that in the future they'll look more closely at who they hire."

No letup for nonresidential work
Washington, D.C. - "Nonresidential construction shrugged off the turmoil in homebuilding and credit markets in July to post another solid gain," Ken Simonson, chief economist for The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) on Sept. 4. He was commenting on that day's construction spending report from the Census Bureau.

"Although total construction spending slipped 0.4 percent in July, seasonally adjusted, and residential fell 1.4 percent, nonresidential spending climbed 0.6 percent, the 10th consecutive monthly gain," Simonson said. "For the first seven months of 2007 combined, total construction was down 3.4 percent and residential plummeted 18 percent compared to the same period in 2006."

However, he said those figures obscure the 15 percent jump in nonresidential spending.

In other sectors noted by the report:

  • Public construction was up 11 percent year-to-date through July.
  • *Highway spending could drop next year," Simonson said, as states are running short of money due to lower gas tax receipts - the result of lower consumption.
  • Commercial construction was up 15 percent year to date.


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