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February 5, 2010 Current Issue

Michigan construction fatalities see an all-time low in’09

Construction ‘mired in its own depression’

Michigan’s miserable, but we’ve got company

New patient tower in service at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital

Supreme Court opens door for flood of campaign finance cash

Major drop for union membership in 2009

News Briefs


Michigan construction fatalities see an all-time low in’09

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

LANSING – Ten construction workers in Michigan died on the job in 2009, an historic low since MIOSHA has kept count since the agency came into existence in 1974.

There were 15 construction workers fatalities on the job in 2008, compared to 11 in 2007. In the last two decades in Michigan the single-year high was 37 construction fatalities in 1997.

“The incidents of both construction injuries and fatalities are headed in the right direction – down,” said Patty Meyer, safety manager for the MIOSHA Construction Safety and Health Division. “I think what we’re seeing are the effects of a slower economy and less work, yes, but we’re also seeing that our cooperative programs with contractors, associations and unions are really working.”

Falls and electrocutions are usually the leading cause of fatalities for construction workers. In 2009 in Michigan, the causes of fatalities included three “crushed-bys” (often trench cave-ins), as well as two falls, two electrocutions, two “struck-bys” and one explosion.

Meyer said the lower fatality numbers in construction in 2009 are mirrored by the lower injury rates in recent years. While 2009 construction injury/illness rates are not yet available, the trend in recent years has seen declining numbers. There were 4.4 recordable injury/illness cases per 200,000 workers in construction in Michigan in 2008, which represented an 11 percent decrease from 2004.

“There’s just an overall improvement in construction safety and health,” Meyer said. “Last year 39 percent of our construction safety inspections resulted in no violations – that’s excellent.”

 Meyer said there are a variety of safety awareness programs, as well as partnerships in place. The Michigan Volunteer Protection Program for Construction partners MIOSHA with major contractors around the state. Those contractors that show a commitment to worker safety meet strict record-keeping and safety criteria, and will eventually be allowed to be exempt from safety inspections on the job.

The MIOSHA Training Institute, together with Macomb Community College, has educated 4,000 workers and employers on advancing on-the-job safety and health. The state Associated General Contractors, the Construction Association of Michigan and a number of unions have partnered with MIOSHA to deliver targeted safety training.

Meyer said MIOSHA is also working with employers under a program called “Protecting Workers in Tough Times,” by allowing employers to get a reduced fine when safety problems are uncovered in exchange for abating those problems quickly.

“We’re trying to work with contractors and help them to do what’s right,” Meyer said. “These cooperative programs really work, and I think it raises the level of safety awareness on jobsites.”

Started in 1974, MIOSHA has saved construction workers’ lives: In the 1960s, an average of 44 Michigan construction workers were killed on the job every year.


Construction ‘mired in its own depression’

The hits just keep on coming.

Nearly 90 percent of U.S. construction contractors say there will be no recovery in 2010. That was the major finding of a national construction hiring and business outlook forecast released Jan. 20 by the Associated General Contractors of America.

As a result, the AGC found, fewer contractors plan to purchase construction equipment and after a year of near-record industry layoffs, many doubt they'll be able to hire new staff this year.

“Unfortunately for the industry and for our economy this year's construction outlook is far from positive,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, the association's chief executive officer. “As long as the construction industry remains mired in its own depression, broader economic and employment growth will continue to lag.”

The outlook, which is based in part on survey responses from nearly 700 construction firms submitted in late December and earlier this month, shows that privately-funded construction activity is likely to decline even further this year. Of the responding contractors, 64 percent expect demand for new manufacturing facilities will decline, while 71 percent expect demand for new retail, warehouse and lodging facilities will drop.

The snowball effect means that as a result, the number of firms expecting to buy new equipment is down to 46 percent this year from 61 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, 81 percent of firms report already having to cut profit margins in their bids just to stay competitive and another ten percent say they are now submitting bids so low they will actually lose money on the projects.

Sandherr added that many construction firms are uncertain that they'll be able to add staff following a year of record layoffs. In 2009, 73 percent of firms said they laid off employees, averaging 39 layoffs per firm. For 2010, however, 60 percent of firms say they are unsure whether they will be able to add new staff, or be forced to make further cuts. "Perhaps they can't imagine who else to let go," Sandherr noted.

One of the relatively few bright spots for the industry was the federal stimulus. Thirty-one percent of contractors say they were awarded stimulus funded projects. Of these, 46 percent say the stimulus helped them retain an average of 24 employees each. Another 15 percent say the stimulus helped them to add an average of 10 new employees per company while 12 percent cite the stimulus as driving new equipment purchases.

Sandherr added that the stimulus is driving up expectations for publicly-funded construction activity in 2010. He noted that 62 percent of contractors expect the highway market to improve or remain stable, 61 percent say water and sewer construction will improve or remain stable. And 55 percent say work on public buildings will improve or remain stable in 2010.

“The stimulus is finally beginning to have a measurable, but limited, impact on the construction industry,” Sandherr noted. “The full impact of those investments has sadly been tempered by the inability of Congress to put a host of multi-year infrastructure funding plans in place.”

In addition to stimulus-funded projects, contractors also are relatively upbeat about prospects for power and hospital/higher education construction. Fifty-two percent expect demand for power facilities to be at or above last year's levels while 57 percent of contractors expect growth or stability in demand for hospital and higher education construction.

Overall, however, the outlook points to another difficult year for contractors Sandherr said. The only truly good news, he added, is that construction costs remain at multi-year lows, providing good deals for anyone willing to begin a construction project.

Citing examples like a DC-area county that is increasing its capital budget in light of the "limited time sale," Sandherr said the association was contacting Congressional and Administration leaders to urge them to invest in new construction activity. "If they act now, they can save taxpayers millions on construction costs while immediately boosting employment and economic activity," Sandherr said.


Michigan’s miserable, but we’ve got company

For the first time since the start of the Great Recession, every state and the District of Columbia reported losing construction jobs over the 12 months leading up to December 2009, according to a new analysis of state-by-state employment data released this month. The analysis, conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America, found few signs of a construction industry recovery. (Although six states reported construction job increases between November and December 2009).

“There’s nowhere for construction workers to turn for relief from job losses and hardship,” said Ken Simonson, the association’s chief economist. “Sifting through the monthly variations, it is obvious that construction employment is losing ground almost everywhere.”

Simonson noted that Nevada experienced the largest annual percentage decrease in construction employment (27.7 percent), followed by Wyoming (23.8 percent); Tennessee (20 percent); Montana (19.6 percent); and Arizona (19 percent).

Michigan ranked among the worst states (#42), having lost 16.8 percent of its construction workforce or 24,000 jobs last year. California (#40) lost more construction jobs (116,100) than any other state during the past year.

The best performing states also lost construction jobs from December 2008 to December 2009, but on a smaller scale. The smallest declines in construction employment were in Louisiana (3.5 percent); Washington D.C. (4 percent); Oklahoma (4 percent); West Virginia (4.2 percent); and North Dakota (4.8 percent).

Proponents of instituting right-to-work laws claim that states which are more union-friendly are more likely to drive away business and be hostile to new development. For what it’s worth during 2009, four of the five worst performing states in construction employment are right-to-work states. Conversely, five of the top 10 best performing states did not have right-to-work laws.


New patient tower in service at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

ANN ARBOR – The second of two new patient towers was handed over to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital last month, nearly completing a major transformation of the patient experience at the health care facility.

About 215 construction workers at peak employment built the seven-story North Tower over the last 19 months, working for construction manager Christman Construction. Their work has provided the health care facility with 198 modern, private, new patient rooms. With the completion of the North Tower – and previously the 11-story East Tower in October 2007 – St. Joseph Mercy has replaced existing patient rooms with nearly 600,000 square-feet of new space on its campus while spending $171.8 million.

“It’s a total upgrade in the hospital experience for our patients,” said Drew Lindstrom, project coordinator for St. Joseph Mercy. “With our new facilities we’re looking to provide an experience that will provide the best patient care in a completely patient- and family-centered environment.”

When the entire project is complete two existing buildings on the hospital campus that were erected in the 1970s will be demolished to make way for the new patient towers.

Lindstrom said there was considerable study in deciding whether to renovate and expand the existing facilities or erect new buildings. “We found that in order to keep up with medical technology and patient care needs, we couldn’t upgrade our existing facilities to a high enough level.”

The new buildings increase overall hospital space by 100,000 square feet. Patient rooms, waiting rooms and public areas will feature natural light and warm colors. An innovative design creates separate zones for the patient, staff and visitors. Compared to the old setup, the new patient rooms will double in size to 308 square feet, with each room having a private shower and restroom. Patient rooms will also have the requisite flat screen TV, changeable lighting, and a day-bed for the use of family members.

The next phase of the project will include the demolition of the second of two of the old patient towers, and the creation of a new entrance for the hospital.

The job was quickly winding down last week, with only about 30 Hardhats on the job, mostly building the North Tower’s chapel.

“Three years ago, we put together a schedule for building these two towers, and we hit it on the nose,” said Mike Adler, senior superintendent for Christman. “We basically did it on time and under budget. It’s been a really enjoyable experience. The tradespeople have all been professionals and very cooperative.”

Added Lindstrom: “With Christman, the tradespeople, we’ve had a top-notch group out here.”

THE NEW NORTH Tower addition at St. Joseph Merch Hospital is in the foreground.

INSTALLING A LIGHT fixture in the ceiling of the new chapel at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor is Mike Friedel of IBEW Local 252, working for Tri-County Electric. “You mean I’m going to be in the paper for first time in 20 years in the trade?” Mike asked. Yup – and he’s front page material.

Supreme Court opens door for flood of campaign finance cash

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI) – By a 5-4 margin, an ideologically split U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 21 threw out many restrictions on financing political campaigns – including limits on corporate and union spending, and bans on spending for ads within 60 days of an election.   Its ruling opened the way for a flood of corporate campaign cash.

The justices left in place a 100-plus-year-old ban on direct corporate giving to candidates, but threw out almost all other campaign finance laws.  As a result, analysts expect huge amounts of corporate cash into elections, funneled through the Chamber of Commerce, trade associations and phony front groups.  Unions can’t match that.

The ruling, based on First Amendment free speech grounds, was blasted by labor’s allies in the progressive movement as well as by Democratic President Barack Obama.  The labor movement opposed the 60-day campaign ad spending ban in a legal brief it filed last year with the High Court.

“The government cannot suppress political speech based on the speaker’s corporate identity,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the court’s 5-man majority, all named by Republican presidents.  Kennedy called the law’s 'censorship” of speech “vast in its reach.” Justice John Paul Stevens, leading the dissent, said the “ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation.''

The justices not only tossed the ban on unions and corporations paying for “issue ads” within 60 days of an election, they also killed a 63-year-old ban on corporations from using their own money – as opposed to money raised separately by their campaign finance committees, or PACs – to produce and run their own campaign ads for or against candidates by name.  One of the few restrictions the justices left intact was a 100-year-old ban on direct corporate donations to candidates.

Last year, then-AFL-CIO General Counsel Jon Hiatt, acting on behalf of the federation, filed a friend-of-the-court brief challenging campaign finance law curbs on when union PACs could spend their money on issue ads – putting labor in line with the recent Supreme Court decision, sort of.

AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka said after this ruling, that corporate speech, controlled by company officers, should be viewed differently from speech by unions, which he said are democratically controlled by their members.

“The Supreme Court,” he said, “further tilted the playing field in favor of business corporations in public elections.  By allowing unlimited corporate treasury expenditures that explicitly support or oppose particular candidates, the court increased the already excessive influence corporations exert in our electoral system,” he declared. 

Trumka added: “We believe the court wrongly treated corporate expenditures the same as union expenditures….”

President Obama, whose campaign set an all-time fundraising record last year, was upset.  Obama’s campaign did not take PAC money, relying on large bundlers and small contributions through the Internet.  Union PACs spent millions on pro-Obama ads.                       

“The Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics.  It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans,” Obama said. 

“This gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington – while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates.  That's why I am instructing my administration to get to work immediately with Congress” on “a forceful response to this decision,” the president concluded.


Major drop for union membership in 2009

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI)--The number of union members nationwide declined by 771,000 in 2009, to 15.33 million, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.  That wiped out numerical gains of the prior two years, combined.  But unions’ share of the workforce was virtually unchanged, moving from 12.4% in 2008 to 12.3% last year.

BLS said the “statistically significant” decline “largely reflected the overall drop in employment due to the recession.”  Its survey of 60,000 households, done throughout 2009, showed an overall decline in employment of almost 4.9 million, to 124.5 million.

BLS did not go beyond that, although its data revealed a 232,000-member decline in just one sector, durable goods manufacturing, alone.  That could very well be primarily accounted for by the layoffs, buyouts and crash at the not-so-big-anymore Detroit Three automakers, BLS economist Jim Walker admitted.

And Walker told Press Associates Union News Service the numbers of unionists nationwide are not strictly comparable year to year.  That’s because the agency, after gathering data about a worker’s occupation, industry and income, then asks if the worker is a union member, or represented by a union -- and that’s all.   It does not ask the worker if he or she was a union member the year before.

And while one-fourth of the addresses used for the union member data are the same as the year before, the occupants at those addresses may have changed, Walker adds.  That makes even a year-by-year comparison at those households inaccurate. 

The AFL-CIO did not comment on the drop in union numbers, and SEIU President Andy Stern mentioned it on Jan. 26, but did not elaborate.  Other facts about the union workforce in the BLS survey included:

* Topping a trend that has built for years, the 7.896 million unionists who are public workers -- teachers, Fire Fighters, police, state employees, etc. -- now outnumber the 7.431 million in the private sector.   And while private sector union density dropped from 7.6% in 2008 to 7.2% last year, public sector density rose 0.6%, to 37.4%.

* Unionists still far out-earn their non-union colleagues and the gap is widening.  The median weekly salary for union members last year -- the point at which half are above that dollar figure and half below -- was $908, up $22 from the year before.   The median for non-unionists was $710 in 2009, up $19 from 2008.

* The “wage gap” between men and women is narrower for unionists than for everyone else -- and it’s closing for union women while widening for non-union women. 

The median weekly wage for union women last year was $840, 87.8% of the $957 median for union men.  In 2008, union women earned 86% of what union men earned.  The median weekly wage gap among non-union women versus non-union men in 2009: $628 to $786.  In 2009, non-union women earned 79.9% of what non-union men earned, down from 80.3% the year before.

* Four states were more than one-fifth unionized: New York (25.2%), Hawaii (23.5%), Alaska (22.3%) and Washington (20.2%).  But actual union numbers dropped in all four states, with the smallest decline -- of 10,000 -- in New York, down to 2.019 million.  Density rose in New York and Washington.  The least-unionized state was North Carolina, at 3.1% -- a number that may rise next year with UFCW’s successful unionization of the 5,500-worker Smithfield pork products plant in Tar Heel.

* Women are catching up in union ranks: 13.3% of men are unionists, compared to 11.3% of women.  “The gap between their rates has narrowed considerably since 1983, when the rate for men was about 10 percentage points higher than the rate for women.  Between 1983 and 2009, the union membership rate for men declined by 11.4 percentage points, while the rate for women declined by 3.3 percentage points,” BLS said.  Last year, 43.9% of all unionists were women.

* Several states had notable changes in union numbers, density, or both.  California’s loss of density (-1.2% to 17.2%) and numbers (-287,000, to 2.45 million) came in a state that lost almost 600,000 workers in one year.  Indiana’s density declined from 12.4% in 2008 to 10.6% in 2009.  Indiana unions lost 72,000 members, to 277,000.      

Michigan’s union density stayed the same, 18.8%, even though 61,000 people left union rolls there, due to the auto industry crash.  The recession appeared in Michigan’s overall workforce, down by 300,000 in one year.  The same thing happened in Ohio.  Missouri lost 51,000 unionists -- more car plants closed -- to 234,000, and its union density declined from 11.2% to 9.4%.  Minnesota lost 30,000 unionists, matching the overall decline in its workforce, and union density dropped from 17% to 15.1%.

Conversely, Illinois gained 12,000 union members, to 951,000, and its density jumped by almost one full percentage point, to 17.5%.  But the biggest absolute increases in union numbers from 2008 to 2009 were in the South: Texas (+59,000, to 508,000), Georgia (+26,000, to 177,000), Virginia (+20,000, to 166,000) and Louisiana (+19,000, to 99,000).  Union densities in those states still were all under 6%. 

And union numbers are still skewed to the Northeast and Midwest.  California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Jersey, in that order and combined, accounted for just under half of all union members nationwide.


News Briefs

Labor wants bigger jobs bill, Stimulus II

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Key senators are drafting a jobs bill that’s worth half as much as the one the House passed in December, and that concentrates on helping small businesses via a tax credit for creating jobs, reports say.

The House bill, worth $154 billion, extended jobless benefits, food stamps and COBRA coverage, among other things.  It also had direct job-creation provisions, such as money to let state and local governments keep workers retained via the stimulus law.

Target for passage of the $82 billion Senate bill is the President’s Day recess.  Its details are still emerging, but it would include aid to state and local governments, money to build infrastructure, spending on alternative energy and the job creation tax credit, said Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., a co-author.

That’s not enough for labor, says AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka.  The fed is pushing a larger, more expensive and more comprehensive 5-part program.  The Senate bill also dissatisfies Labor Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

“Smaller steps won’t do it.  We have a big recession and we need big steps to deal with it,” Harkin stated.

“We must act on a scale that will be meaningful:  We need more than 10 million jobs just to get out of the hole we’re in.  We want health care fixed.  We want our leaders to break the stranglehold of Wall Street and the big banks and make them pay to repair the economic damage they created,” Trumka said.   “President Obama spoke directly to those concerns.  He called for a jobs bill and putting people to work.”

Labor-backed poll is warning to labor

WASHINGTON (PAI) – The Massachusetts special election for the U.S. Senate, won by Right-Wing Republican Scott Brown in a normally deeply Democratic state, was “a working class revolt” fueled by voter anger at inaction in Washington, a post-election survey says.

The poll, by Guy Molyneux and Mark Bunge of Peter Hart Research Associates, also told the AFL-CIO –  which commissioned it – and congressional Democrats that any candidate who ignores that anger will be in political trouble this fall, the two said.

“This was a working-class revolt, and it reveals the danger to Democrats of not successfully addressing workers’ economic concerns,” they said.

Democratic nominee Martha Coakley, the state attorney general, lost to Brown, a GOP state senator in a legislature that is 88% Democratic.   Brown won by a 52%-45% margin, to become the GOP’s needed 41st vote to keep filibusters going, and thus killing, everything from health care revision to the Employee Free Choice Act.


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