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September 19, 2003
By Marty Mulcahy
LANSING - The Michigan Prevailing Wage Act survived another assault by the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors, as a state Court of Appeals panel ruled last month that the law is not "impermissibly vague" nor "an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority," as the ABC contended.
The ABC's Saginaw Valley Area Chapter brought the lawsuit before what it considered a friendly Midland County Circuit Court in 2000, which issued a semi-victory for the ABC. But the new state appeals court ruling dismissed the "vague" contention by the ABC, and then reversed a victory for the ABC provided by the circuit court, which allowed further "discovery" of the nonunion contractors group's claim that the act was unconstitutional under state law.
"There is no actual controversy," the appeals court said in its ruling, adding that the injuries sought by the ABC "are at this point merely hypothetical."
The ABC claimed that its member-contractors have been injured by instances of misclassification of workers. The ABC also said that union targeting programs - where union funds are used to help union contractors win bids - result in lower pay rates, thus allowing union contractors to underbid nonunion contractors.
Furthermore, the ABC said the state Department of Consumer and Industry Services, in charge of determining what constitutes overtime and fringe benefit rates for construction workers, has no authority to do so from the Michigan legislature.
"The ABC is digging up and recycling similar legal arguments that were used in states like California and Nevada, and they're using them here," said building trades attorney Doug Korney. "But the results have been the same. They've lost."
As we have pointed out numerous times, The Michigan Prevailing Wage Act of 1966 is the single most important law that upholds all construction worker wages in the state.
Except for a 19-month period beginning in 1994 when the act was suspended by a conservative federal judge, the law has been extremely important in maintaining construction wage levels. Research by Stanford University released last year found that in nine states that repealed their prevailing wage law during the 1980s, construction workers' wages fell 17.5 percent.
But the court victory for both union and nonunion construction workers is tempered by the knowledge that the case is probably headed for review by the Michigan Supreme Court - a panel which is dominated by conservative judges who have a reputation for throwing out legal precedent, especially when those precedents don't favor the business community.
"I see absolutely no reason why the Michigan Supreme Court should accept this case," Korney said. "But if they do decide to accept arguments, look out, we have a problem. They are a very predictable court - if they take the case, they're going to rule in favor of the business community."
By Marty Mulcahy
GRAND RAPIDS - The new $220 million De Vos Place Convention Center, a one million square-foot complex expansion that will include an exhibition hall, flexible-use ballroom and a "grand gallery," is currently a job magnet for about 300 building trades workers.
Set for completion in January 2005, the complex is being built on a 13-acre riverfront site that involves re-use and renovation of some existing areas as well as new construction. The focal point will be a 75-foot-high glass-enclosed "Grand Gallery" which will link the Grand River to Monroe Avenue, offices, government buildings and the nearby Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.
The De Vos Place Convention Center fills a major void in Grand Rapids - a lack of sufficient convention space. That void will be filled by a new 160,000 square-foot "Class A" exhibit hall. The project also includes a 40,000-square-foot flexible-use ballroom, with theatre seating capacity for 5,600, and a 35,000-square-foot space with sub-dividable meeting rooms. Also part of the project is a 25,000-square-foot banquet kitchen, a 700-space underground garage and a new glass-enclosed lobby for the adjacent 2,446-seat De Vos performance auditorium.
"Our work has gone very well, and it's been a very interesting project," said Mike Phillips, a West Michigan Plumbers, Fitters and Service Trades Local 174 member who is superintendent on the job for mechanical contractor Andy J. Egan Co. "We have the usual scheduling challenges, but we're also working in and around an operating center, and one of the challenges we've had is where to store materials. It's getting better, but this has been a tight site."
The project is being managed by a joint venture of Erhardt/Hunt and is one of the largest in the area. It has been mixed bag of union and nonunion workers, which is typical for Michigan's second-largest city, which is actually a union-friendly town with some big corporate players that are anti-union.
Egan has placed up to 30 plumbers and pipe fitters out of Local 174 on the project, and iron workers from Local 340 performed the steel erection. There is also a mixture of union masons and laborers on the project, and a small number of operating engineers.
There are a few Sheet Metal Workers Local 7 members at the convention center - but most of their activity has been restricted to leafleting and picketing on the project. Local 7 Organizer Tim Caron said the union has conducted informational picketing since January, protesting the wage levels of Target Construction, a nonunion sheet metal company which he said is paying its workforce 30 percent less in wages and benefits than their union counterparts.
"It's tough to compete against that wage difference," Caron said. "But that's the way it is in Grand Rapids." He said major conservative corporate contributors like De Vos and Van Andel families "and the rest of the corporate structure in Grand Rapids and their friends in the ABC" (the Associated Builders and Contractors) have done their best to get rid of union influence in the region.
But construction unions are continuing to win some battles. Through their steel erection contractor Azco Steel, Iron Workers Local 340 also placed a significant number of members on the convention center project - about 50 - although their work is now done. "We thought a company out of Texas was going to set the iron," said Bruce Hawley, business manager of Local 340. "When lo and behold, Azco got it, somehow. We got lucky."
And Local 174 Assistant Business Manager Kirk Stevenson said their mechanical contractors continue to get a fair share of work in the area.
"We've made some major strides in the downtown area in new construction," Stevenson said, "and we're also getting a significant portion of work in the service industry. You'll see a lot our contractors' trucks doing service work, and that's been a really positive thing for us. There's no question, it's been a tough market here. But for our union, at least, we are growing our market share in Grand Rapids."
Area building trades unions are hampered by the fact that the largest general contractors in Grand Rapids are nonunion. They lack a dependable pool of general contractors, which removes a dependable hiring structure for union crafts. But unions still work collectively with their contractors to maintain and gain market share, especially on school work and to some extent, manufacturing.
The one major effort the unions have undertaken in recent months through the Western Michigan Construction Alliance is to hire a retired school superintendent to approach and educate local boards of education about the importance of having a responsible contractor policy in order to avoid shoddy work.
But sometimes shoddy work can't be avoided - especially when union crafts aren't on the job. Looking from the back of the De Vos Place Convention Center, Local 174's Phillips pointed to a nearby decade-old high-rise building and said tenants are leaving the building in droves because of inferior workmanship. The building was built 100 percent nonunion.
"I've heard it's falling apart," Phillips said. "Now maybe they'll have us back in there to do the job right."
WASHINGTON - A strong push by organized labor won over a handful of Republican senators on Sept. 10, who voted with Democrats to bar the Bush Administration from issuing new overtime rules that would be detrimental to millions of American workers.
The Senate voted 54-45 to block the overtime rules, setting up forced negotiations with House lawmakers, who narrowly passed the bill in July.
Sen. Tom Harkin, (D-Iowa), who led the effort to overturn the proposed rules, said the Department of Labor had acted in a "very heavy-handed manner" in crafting a proposal that would "wipe away the overtime protections" enjoyed by millions.
Workers who earn more than $65,000 per year in a number of occupations are most vulnerable to losing their right to overtime pay. With President Bush's blessing, the Labor Department's plan would update job classifications and make up to six million workers ineligible for overtime pay early next year, getting that time paid as straight time.
Six Republicans voted with Democrats to block the rules, which would become effective early next year with Congressional approval.
The issue is very complex. The Bush Administration defends the regulations as a step forward from decades-old wage rules that no longer protect lower-income white-collar workers. According to the Wall Street Journal, the salary under which all white-collar workers are assured overtime pay would be raised from $155 to $425 per week, or $22,100 per year. The government said that extends wage protections to 1.3 million workers.
But, a new salary test would be imposed - $65,000/year - above which Democrats and organized labor says workers are vulnerable to losing protections.
Between the $22,100 and $65,000 wage limits is the battleground area: the Bush Administration has proposed new "duties" tests to define whether a worker meets certain administrative, professional or executive criteria. If workers can meet those tests - and employers will have some latitude in deciding how to categorize a worker - then they can be made ineligible for overtime pay.
For example, the Bush proposal would allow hospitals to impose the new rules on nurses, and call them "administrators" because they might have the authority to tell an orderly to change a bedpan. The rules could be applied across a spectrum of job descriptions. For jobs that are under collective bargaining agreements, the new rules would be subject to negotiations.
The business community says nowhere near six million workers would be affected, and that the new rules are needed to spell out murky job rules and the application of federal law in the U.S. workplace.
Organized labor and their friends in Congress wouldn't mind seeing new rules passed, either, but not these.
"Let's say the real number (affected by the new rules) is between 500,000 and 1.5 million who may have their overtime taken away," said Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee Chairman Jim Gregg , a Republican senator who opposed this measure. "You just can't change their lives with the stroke of a pen, in my opinion, because overtime is critical."
By Marty Mulcahy
VAN BUREN TWP. - With last month's topping out of the five major buildings that make up Visteon Village, the site is beginning to look a little more like a corporate headquarters campus and less like the abandoned gravel quarry at the 265-acre site.
On Aug. 25, iron workers from American Erectors topped out the village's "Building G," one of a series of structures at the site with a town center at the heart of the $300 million complex totaling about one million square feet. As many as 4,000 Visteon employees, currently housed in 15 scattered facilities, will be transferred to the new village.
Being built on a site east of I-275 and south of Ecorse Rd. under general construction contractor Walbridge-Aldinger, the new village "will centralize customer support functions, research and development, and some business operations," according to Visteon, the world's second-largest automotive supplier.
The buildings will reflect the feel of a village, with the building exteriors a mix of stone, brick and glass. The "village" will include a central square, cafeteria and a customer welcome center. No building will be more than four stories high and they will feature pitched roofs, dormers, chimneys and terraces. The structures are being constructed next to a 40-acre lake near woodlands and wetlands.
"We just felt a 10-story building wasn't the right look, or the right identity for us," said Stacy Fox, Visteon's senior vice president and general counsel.
The iron framework on the structures was erected in a very-fast 10-week period. "The people out here did a tremendous job," said iron workers general foreman John McGuire.
Available space will be dedicated to customer meetings and events, with additional facilities for training and product displays. Each customer will have a confidential area within the campus dedicated to developing systems and technologies to meet its requirements.
"We will gain by having essential customer and business activities co-located, and we are able to do it at less cost than we are spending on those activities today," said Mike Johnston, Visteon President and Chief Operating Officer.
Visteon Village is expected to open in mid-2004.
Thousands of building trades workers who volunteered to look for victims immediately after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers two years ago this month are among the event's "forgotten responders" - unnamed and untrained for the formidable work at hand.
For months after Sept. 11, 2001, building trades workers from the New York City area and from around the nation gave their time, blood, sweat and tears in cutting and lifting rubble away from the disaster area. Many were completely unprepared for the task, both emotionally and in terms of training and safety equipment.
Now, in an effort to make sure that future responders to the nation's disasters are at least basically prepared for what they're getting into, some of what construction workers need to know to get ready for disaster response is being formalized into union training programs.
Public and private groups, including the National Clearinghouse for Worker Safety and Health Training, federal OSHA and the Center to Protect Workers' Rights (CPWR) announced on Sept. 10 they will promote the efforts of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to protect construction workers who respond to disasters.
"On the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in our nation's history, we want to make sure we're well-prepared to provide help safety in any emergency, whether it's a terrorist attack, earthquake or deadly storm," said Edward Sullivan, president of the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO.
OSHA is developing a comprehensive train-the-trainer program to be offered through all of its regional training centers, and the CPWR, an arm of the Building Trades Department, is working closely with OSHA to expand the use of this training.
"NIEHS and OSHA are forging closer ties in the important work of protecting construction workers who get called to help with rescue and recovery operations," said Dr. Bruce Lippy, Director of the National Clearinghouse. "Despite the concerns with biological and chemical threats, the overwhelming majority of terrorist actions have been explosive devices, which means heavy equipment operators, iron workers, carpenters, laborers, and other skilled trades are often needed immediately to move debris to free survivors.
"We need to be sure these critical responders - often the forgotten responders - are adequately protected in their efforts."
CPWR's DVD-based course, Disaster Response: Safety and Health Training for Construction Workers, was introduced to 50 master building trades' union trainers from around the country on Sept. 11 and 12. CPWR developed the course in cooperation with unions, employers, and government partners. In October, the master trainers will begin to train 4,000 OSHA-authorized outreach instructors, who, in turn, will train thousands of construction workers nationwide.
The curriculum will include hazard recognition, personal protective equipment, decontamination, and incident command. The training was developed after consulting with construction workers who worked at the World Trade Center site after 9-11.
Lippy said this population of workers "deserves timely
training, which was not the case at the World Trade Center cleanup
where the construction workers received three hours of awareness
training three months after the attacks."
The state's telephone system for accepting unemployment claims is now open for business in the south-central Michigan region served by 517 area code.
The telephone filing system now accepts calls from the following area codes: 269. 616, 231, 517, 989, 906, 705 and 715. The system is being phased in and now serves all of western Michigan, the south-central region, as well as northern-lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.
Unemployed workers in those area codes can call toll-free, (866) 500-0017, to file new and additional claims for unemployment benefits as well as additional claims.
Southeast Michigan and the rest of the state are expected to be placed on line by the end of the year. Jobless workers from around the state can also file claims via the mail or the Internet, www.michigan.gov/bwuc.
Trades MOVE into new organizing mode
The new program uses the acronym MOVE - Multi-Trade Organizing Volunteer Education, and will soon be available to local unions for inception in their training programs. The program is being formulated in conjunction with Cornell University.
MOVE has three primary objectives: to continue the basic message of COMET (Construction Membership Education Training), to address the increase in immigration and its affect on the construction workforce over the past several years, and to enlist the support of union members in cooperative organizing efforts on mixed job sites.
"Every day," the building trades department notes,
"union members work alongside nonunion construction workers
on mixed (union-nonunion) job sites, providing an incredible
opportunity for organizing. By informing our members of the magnitude
of the organizing challenge we face, and by linking the challenge
to the opportunities presented to us on mixed job sites, the
MOVE program will play a critical role in rebuilding union power
in the construction industry."
Mr. Rakolta became a partial owner of Walbridge in the early 1950s, accumulating his holdings until becoming its sole owner in 1970, when he also became its chairman and chief executive officer.
Mr. Rakolta played an active role as a leader and mentor in the construction and automotive industries throughout his career. He remained chairman and chief executive officer Walbridge until 1993, when his son, John Rakolta, Jr. succeeded him, but he remained active in company affairs until his death.
Among Walbridge's many notable projects are the Daimler Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, The Nissan Research and Development Center, the One Detroit Center tower, the Rouge Steel Hot Strip Mill, and the recently completed Compuware Headquarters in downtown Detroit.
A bombardier-navigator during World War II, Mr. Rakolta was injured when his plane was shot down over Germany. He was held as a POW until he was liberated by Allied troops in 1945.
"My father was an exceedingly generous man, and believed in sharing his good fortune with others," said his son, John Rakolta, Jr. "Dad never forgot his roots, but he was also willing to take risks. He was an excellent judge of people, a tireless worker, and a man respected for his unwavering integrity. He was an entrepreneurial leader, but he also adhered strongly to traditional values throughout his life. His word was his bond, and if he made a commitment, he kept it."
Mr. Rakolta is survived by his wife of 57 years, Mary, his
son John Jr., and three daughtrs, Linda, Patricia and Maryann.