The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, March 11, 2011

All unions looking over their shoulder

By The Building Tradesman

LANSING – A docket full of Republican-sponsored anti-worker legislation that has been introduced in the Michigan House and Senate the past several weeks has raised the hackles of workers among every unionized job description in the state.

We know this because regular marches and rallies in front of the Michigan Capitol Building have included teachers, police officers, firefighters, nurses, government workers and of course, construction Hardhats – all of them protesting anti-union legislation that would hit workers’ pocketbooks and affect the viability of unions.

The demonstrations mirror, on a much smaller scale, the daily demonstrations, sit-ins and sleep-ins in the State Capitol Building in Madison, Wisconsin over the past few weeks. There, Senate Democrats fled the state to deny a quorum for the majority Republican lawmakers. Along with Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin Republicans plan on stripping public workers of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights, even though those workers have agreed to asked-for wage and benefit concessions.

The Wisconsin demonstrations also had an effect in other states. In Indiana, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels called on state Republican lawmakers to stand down on their plan to make our southern neighbor a right-to-work state. Daniels said RTW would interfere with other legislative priorities. Florida’s new Republican Governor, Rick Scott, told a radio program “my belief is as long as people know what they’re doing, collective bargaining is fine.”

But in Ohio, a bill narrowly approved by the Ohio Senate would weaken public employee unions by curtailing collective bargaining rights and banning strikes. It was expected to be passed by the state House this week.

In comments he made before and after the November election, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said he did not want to go down the path of right-to-work for Michigan, calling it “too divisive.”

But the Michigan AFL-CIO has counted no less than 37 anti-union, anti-worker bills introduced by the Republican majorities in the state House and Senate, and some of them are nearly as hated and feared by organized labor as right-to-work.

Following is only a sampling of some of the worst legislation on the Michigan docket, as far as organized labor is concerned. Some have mirror bills in the Senate/House, and some of the bill numbers have been amended.

Right-to-work zones. There are two bills that were introduced in the Michigan Senate (SB 0120 and 0116) one in the House (HB-4054) that would allow local governing bodies to create right-to-work zones. Passage of such a law would allow cities, school boards and counties to implement right-to-work laws, which allow workers to take full advantage of a union’s services without having to pay dues.

Prevailing wage repeal. House Bill 4224, introduced by Rep. Bradford Jacobsen (R-Oxford) would repeal the state’s prevailing wage law. For the state’s construction workers, both union and nonunion, repealing the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act of 1965 would be devastating to workers’ wage scales and ability to gain work. Bidding on state-sponsored road, office and school construction would be thrown open to any contractor able to underbid the competition using lower-paid, and often undocumented workers.

Prevailing wage detractors, such as those from the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors, claimed at the hearing that Michigan could save 10-15 percent off the cost of public construction work with prevailing wage repeal. Over the years, unions have cited several academic studies that show in states where the law has been repealed, governments have seen no savings.

With strong Republican majorities in both the state House and Senate, killing an obscure law like prevailing wage may be more likely than seeing a right-to-work bill passed in Michigan. The MIRS Capitol Capsule said unions “are genuinely concerned the House will move a prevailing wage law repeal. There’s good reason.”

Project labor agreements, “in state, school and local public construction, road projects, etc., or as a condition of selective tax breaks granted for private projects,” would be outlawed under House Bill 4287, introduced by Rep. Joseph Haveman (R-Holland). Republicans rail against the federal government’s intrusions on state’s rights, but stand by when the state intrudes upon the rights of cities and counties to set their own labor procurement laws.

Emergency financial managers, under House Bill 4246, could be appointed by the state to clean up fiscal affairs in economically challenged communities. Under the bill introduced by Rep. Al Pscholka (R-Stevensville) their powers would include the ability to “reject, modify or terminate a union’s collective bargaining agreement.”

This bill is seen as especially dangerous by organized labor, simply because union agreements could be revoked easily without debate by the financial manager. Scores of municipalities and school districts in Michigan are in such bad financial straits that they could end up with an emergency financial manager.

Repeal of MIOSHA. Introduced by Sen. Mark Jansen (R-Gaines Twp.), Senate Bill 0014 would repeal the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Act, throwing out the work of a highly successful state-run safety program. Illness and injury rates for workers have dropped substantially over the past decade in Michigan, usually at a better rate than nearby states. Established in 1974, MIOSHA and its Construction Safety Division have been leaders in implementing new safety programs and policies.

MIOSHA repeal would put Michigan back under the less-restrictive federal OSHA program.

Act 312. In Wisconsin, police and firefighters were exempt from having their collective bargaining ability eliminated. No so in Michigan, where House Bill 4205 would repeal compulsory arbitration in local police and fire departments if contract negotiations fail. The law would give the last word on contract matters to the municipality. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Haveman (R-Holland), said the law provides a costly advantage to police and fire unions.

Union protestors, most from the construction industry, over-filled a House Oversight Committee room on Feb. 22 before a hearing on a bill that would repeal prevailing wage on state-sponsored construction projects.

The hearing was held for House Bill 4224, which would repeal the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act of 1965. The Republican leaders of the Oversight Committee only allowed testimony from the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors and the ultra-conservative Mackinac Policy Center. Of course, they panned the law as being costly to taxpayers, even though there is ample evidence that prevailing wage does not inflate construction costs.

Union representatives were not allowed to comment on the bill, but chanted “let us speak” after much of the group that wouldn’t fit into the hearing room was moved to an overflow room.

Patrick Devlin, secretary treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, said, “A lot of skilled workers are traveling from across our state to talk to their legislators so they can get both sides of the story when it comes to the dangers of repealing Michigan’s Prevailing Wage Act. Eliminating the Prevailing Wage Act would mean more unskilled, untrained and undocumented workers building Michigan’s schools, bridges and roads. Unfortunately, we will not be able to deliver that message to the committee, because it appears only powerful special interests with money are allowed to have a say in what our government does.”