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September 16, 2005
By Marty Mulcahy
"The first responders of today live in a world transformed by the attacks on 9/11. Because no one believes that every conceivable form of attack can be prevented, civilians and first responders will again find themselves on the front lines. We must plan for that eventuality."
HOWELL - With 9-11 hardly a distant memory, and the affects of Hurricane Katrina still on the front pages, Operating Engineers Local 324 hosted an event on Sept. 7 that highlighted Michigan's leading-edge training program to deal with disasters.
Held at the Local 324 Education Center, the event unveiled the formal partnership between the union's Joint Apprenticeship Training Fund and MUSAR - Michigan Urban Search and Rescue Training Foundation. The first responder training program is one of only three in the nation.
MUSAR works in cooperation with fire service, local emergency management, State Police and private sector agencies to provide a statewide capability for specialized response to structural collapse emergencies and search and rescue.
"The Operating Engineers should be proud that they're contributing to homeland security in our state and our nation," said Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who addressed a group of about 300 who attended the event. "I'm privileged to share the stage with people who understand the importance of preparation, especially now, after what happened in the Gulf. The ability to train first responders is phenomenally important."
MUSAR has two ultimate goals: the attainment of a statewide, functional taskforce capable of effective actions and immediate response after a disaster; as well as the enhancement of local fire department response capabilities for those departments that choose to participate.
The dedication ceremony took place at the 225,000-square-foot outdoor disaster training facility on the grounds of the Local 324 Education Center. Different stations have chunks of heavy concrete, tangled steel, practice areas for rescue dogs, and cranes with operating engineers practicing the ability to "surgically" remove debris.
The event drew a cross-section of statewide and local public safety officials, as well as scores of firefighters and emergency medical technicians from participating fire departments who have been training at the Local 324 training site.
"We can't expect the response from the federal government to be there when it's needed, we saw what happened after the hurricane," said Local 324 Business Manager John Hamilton. "We need an effective, local response. I'm proud of our facility, and we're proud that it's funded by our members."
Local 324 Training Director Gregg Newsom said the Local 324 training site is a good fit for the first responder training. Union operators and their heavy equipment are able to work with emergency personnel on rigging loads and learning to work together. Plus, there is plenty of room at the training site for practice in shoring, simulations of collapsed concrete, and cutting through twisted steel.
"We have 515 acres here and over 70 pieces of equipment at the site," Newsom said. "The reason we believe in this program is that we want first responders in the state to be able to do the best job possible."
Having the training site in Michigan means that first responders won't have to go to Texas or Virginia for training. Firefighters from various communities across Michigan have played significant roles in the development of the program, which can involve as many as 200 hours of training.
The training curriculum was developed in conjunction with standards set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency,
Grand Rapids Fire Dept. Lt. Dave Van Holstyn said with budget constraints common in municipalities, many firefighters take part in the training on their own time. In his department alone, 35 firefighters have been trained to respond to structural collapses.
"We're able to do so much more here that we can't do
locally," Van Holstyn said. "This has been a tremendous
"Marching to protect health care, pensions, and Social Security" was the theme of Labor Day celebrations around the state, as thousands of union members showed up to show their solidarity in Detroit, Ishpeming near Marquette and Muskegon.
"The last time I looked, union members had better benefits, better pensions and better health care than anyone in the country," said AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney, to a post-parade gathering in Detroit's Hart Plaza. "The labor movement in this country is pulling up all workers. We're the ones who lift wages in this country. We're the ones fighting Wal Mart around the country. We're fighting for all the workers in America."
In recent weeks there has also been in-fighting among present and former AFL-CIO member-unions, with the United Food and Commercial Workers, Service Employees, and Teamsters dropping out of the labor federation to start their own "Change to Win Coalition."
"Yes we have challenges," Metro Detroit AFL-CIO President Donald Boggs told the same crowd. "But at the end of the day we're one big family."
U.S. construction industry observers said the first seven months of building activity in 2005 showed robust growth over the same period last year, and the effects of Hurricane Katrina will bring "varied impacts" in the future.
McGraw-Hill Construction said new construction starts increased 1 percent in July over the previous month, and overall spending was pegged at $370 billion for the first seven months of the year - 6 percent over the same period in 2004. The Midwest was the only region which declined, dropping 2 percent this year.
"The most recent two months have been especially strong, supported by the highest levels so far in 2005 for housing, public works, and nonresidential building," stated Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction. "Single-family housing is on track to set a new record this year, but there's the growing sense that this market may be nearing a peak as mortgage rates are beginning to move upward. For total construction to show further growth next year, it will need public works and nonresidential building to increasingly become the source of expansion."
Meanwhile, the chief economist of The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), citing U.S. Census figures, agreed that construction activity through July showed "widespread improvement" compared to the first seven months of 2004, but the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina will have "varied impacts on construction markets for the rest of 2005 and into 2006."
Simonson said multi-family construction jumped 20 percent through the first seven months of 2005, nearly twice the growth rate for single-family and improvements. Manufacturing construction continued to lead the private nonresidential category with a 27 percent year-to-date advance, followed by "multi-retail" (general merchandise stores, shopping centers and shopping malls), 23 percent, communications, 12 percent and lodging, 9.4 percent.
He said the leading public categories - educational and highways and streets - were up 5.9 and 7.2 percent, respectively.
"These figures overstate 'real' growth because they don't adjust for a large run-up that has occurred in the cost of cement, steel, copper, gypsum, and petroleum-based inputs," Simonson said. "Unfortunately, Katrina will push many of these costs much higher. Contractors use a lot of diesel fuel for off-road equipment, their own trucks, and the multitude of deliveries of materials and equipment. Petroleum or natural gas is a key ingredient in asphalt, roofing materials, plastic pipe and insulation.
"Cement was already in short supply in 32 states and
the District of Columbia last month," Simonson continued.
"The disruption to ocean, barge and rail transport from
Katrina, and the loss of power to cement plants in the storm's
path, will cut further into cement supplies. At the same time,
the urgent need to stabilize and rebuild roads, other infrastructure
and buildings will increase demand for cement and other materials."
By Mark Gruenberg
WASHINGTON (PAI) - Apparently nothing, not even the greatest natural disaster in the history of the U.S., is allowed to get in the way of GOP President George W. Bush's anti-worker and anti-union crusade. His latest move: To cut construction workers' wages for reconstruction projects in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Bush's Sept. 8 ruling came in an executive order, eliminating the prevailing wage provisions of the Davis-Bacon Act on the grounds of the "national emergency" caused by the hurricane's devastation.
AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney was mad.
"At a time when Hurricane Katrina exposed the gaping hole of economic inequality and the shortcomings of our nation's infrastructure, it is unbelievable and outrageous that the White House would lift the time-tested standard for insuring quality work and decent living standards for taxpayer-financed reconstruction," he declared.
"Employers are all too eager to exploit workers. This is no time to make that easier. What a double tragedy it would be to allow the destruction of Hurricane Katrina to depress living standards even further," he added.
Though Sweeney did not say so, Louisiana, Alabama and especially Mississippi are at or near the bottom of national income figures. And the poverty rate in New Orleans is close to 30 percent - double the national average. The poor, most of them minorities, were the hardest-hit and suffered the most losses in the hurricane.
"Taking advantage of a national tragedy to get rid of a protection for workers the corporate backers of the White House have long wanted to remove is nothing less than profiteering," Sweeney said. "Congress must reverse this short-sighted action."
AFL-CIO Building Trades Department President Edward Sullivan said suspending Davis-Bacon protections for financially distressed workers in Gulf states "amounts to legalized looting of these workers who will be cleaning up toxic sites and struggling to rebuild their communities while favored contractors rake in huge profits from FEMA reconstruction contracts."
Sullivan added: "This is a shameful action and a national disgrace."
Rebuilding New Orleans, Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., and other areas of the Gulf Coast stretching from Louisiana through the western edge of the Florida Panhandle is expected to take years and cost billions of dollars. Congress has already approved at least $60 billion for immediate needs.
The Port of New Orleans and three U.S. shipyards--which are unionized--need reconstruction, as does Interstate 10, other major highways, sewers, the Mississippi River levees and other infrastructure.
Section 6 of the Davis-Bacon Act permits such waivers, according
to the Radical Right so-called Americans for Tax Reform.
WASHINGTON (PAI) - The AFL-CIO Executive Council approved offering "Solidarity Charters" to locals from non-AFL-CIO unions that want to participate in local Central Labor Committees (CLCs) and state feds, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said.
The decision responded to "hundreds" of locals from four unions that have left the federation - the Teamsters, the Service Employees, the Carpenters and the United Food and Commercial Workers - who contacted the AFL-CIO about staying in the state and local bodies, Sweeney said in brief comments after an Aug. 30 press conference.
The charters were designed so that the state AFL-CIOs and CLCs could recoup some of the people and funds they lost with the exit of those unions.
Departure of the Teamsters, SEIU and UFCW, with almost 4 million members combined, left some state feds and CLCs with drastic cuts - 40 percent or more - in money and people to enlist for causes. But at the same time, leaders of the three big departing unions said they wanted their locals to stay in the state feds and CLCs.
The charters respond to those needs, with payments from the incoming locals set at what they would have paid had their international unions remained in the AFL-CIO, plus 10 percent for mobilization costs. The charters also limit the role the incoming locals can play in the state feds and CLCs, including their political role.
Even though the charters were approved and are now being offered to the locals, "We're still in discussions with the various unions and with those unions who are still affiliated with the AFL-CIO about this," Sweeney added. Some details still need to be worked out to respond to locals' concerns, he noted. "But we want to have a united labor movement at the local level and the national level," he emphasized.
And he asked the state feds and CLCs to reach out themselves to the locals from the departed unions, to see if they want to get charters.
Despite their differences, "I'll continue to talk with
the principal officers of the unions that have split" from
the AFL-CIO, Sweeney said. The presidents of three that left
in July are Joseph Hansen of UFCW, Andy Stern of SEIU and James
Hoffa of the Teamsters. Douglas McCarron is president of the
Carpenters. "Whatever it takes, we are committed to building
the strength that workers need," Sweeney said.
The region that includes Michigan enjoyed even higher wage and benefit settlements during that period, averaging $2.08 per hour or 4.9 percent. That compares favorably to last year, when new first-year construction contracts averaged $1.47 per hour or 4.2 percent.
U.S. contract settlements in 2005 for the second and third years are also positive for construction workers. Second-year wage and benefit packages will rise 4.3 percent, compared to 4.0 percent last year. Third-year increases in new contracts also provide an average increase of 4.3 percent, compared to 3.7 percent last year, the CLRC said.
Three-year construction contract lengths continue to be the
That was the question asked by a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, which reported that a federal court in Cleveland indicated that it would allow lawsuits to go forward alleging that breathing welding fumes caused Parkinson's disease in welders.
Similar to the ongoing arguments in Congress over setting up a fund to aid workers harmed by asbestos, welding fume exposure may be the next major area for worker litigation.
The Journal said there are 10,000 current lawsuits in the U.S. alleging neurological injuries from welding fumes. Now more may be on the way.
"It is definitely a significant ruling," said Sigurd Sorenson, a lawyer who has represented companies in asbestos cases, to the Journal. "Plaintiffs can make the argument that there is a connection between fumes and Parkinson's, and that gives plaintiffs a lot of leverage."
Labor sets up Katrina fund
Late last week, the AFL-CIO said contributions from union members put them half-way to that goal.
"All across the labor movement," said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka, "unions and union members are rushing to get urgently needed assistance to the victims of Hurricane Katrina - providing front-line rescue efforts, meeting emergency construction needs, stepping in to teach children and giving funds and items.
"We are the first to pitch in and put our union values to work, and we are the ones who will keep doing it long after the TV cameras are gone."
To contribute, log on to www.afl-cio.org or call AFL-CIO Hurricane Relief, toll-tree: 1-877-AFLCIO9.
The AFL-CIO said in Baton Rouge, five building trades locals are using their halls as "processing centers" to connect displaced workers in shelters with new jobs. In addition, many building trades unions have set up their own funds to aid in relief efforts.