The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, March 17, 2017

Building trades' McGarvey: Changing times bring changing strategies 'people on the other side of the aisle can help us'

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

Strategists in the Democratic Party were playing checkers. Strategists in the Republican Party were playing chess.

LANSING - Following are selected comments of North America's Building Trades Unions President Sean McGarvey, made on March 7 to delegates to the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council's 58th Legislative Conference.

"Obviously the 2016 election didn't turn out the way we planned, when it comes to the election cycle for the president of the United States and the U.S. Senate.

The building trades for the past couple of cycles have been trying, in a respectful way, to peel itself away a little bit, from the AFL-CIO's political program, quite honestly, because we don't think that it always speaks to what our members are interested in and wants to hear in a communications platform.

So we worked hard with our affiliates, setting up some operations... to work on communications based on the polling of what our members told us they want us to hear. And we concentrated on that and we thought we did a pretty good job - obviously not a good enough job.

Interesting things about the differences in the Democratic Party, the progressive community, and the rest of the labor movement is that when we talked to our members, through our polling, the No. 2 thing, which was surprising to us, was they were concerned about security. They were concerned about terrorism.. When we look at the polling for the rest of the labor movement, you might see mass deportation be No. 2. That wasn't an issue that made the top 20 among our membership.

So we tried to concentrate our communications based on what our members told us what was important. At the end of the day that didn't matter particularly here in Michigan, in Wisconsin, in Pennsylvania, as that blue firewall failed to hold.


We worked intimately with the Clinton campaign.  Lots of our members weren't crazy about her, but lots of members didn't know her. Never before has there been a candidate for the highest office of the United States who intimately knows and understands the building trades like Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But there are winners and losers in elections, and the people got to vote, and Donald Trump is the president of the United States. Our job is to try to make lemonade out of lemons. It wasn't just Hilary Clinton. Dems got crushed everywhere. It's amazing the shape that the Democratic Party is in, and how we got here. Thirty two states are all Republican: governor, senate and house. There are only 13 states with Democratic control.

For a couple of decades, strategists in the Democratic Party were playing checkers. Strategists in the Republican Party were playing chess. Because real power comes through how you set up these districts, how you run these candidates and how you get them elected.

If you don't retake a House, a senate or take back a governorship, if you don't have a seat at the table for negotiations over redistricting, you are never going to change those districts to benefit Democrats.


I can tell you in the case of public sector unions, in the case of Freidrichs (vs California). that was teed up and ready to go before (U.S. Supreme Court) Justice Scalia died (in January 2016). We would have lost that case. And basically what that case would have done, and will do when it goes back to the Supreme Court when the new justice is sworn in, is to create national right to work for public employees. The implications for the labor movement are huge.

If you look at the impact on Wisconsin when Wisconsin went right-to-work (in 2012), it was pretty devastating consequences for AFSCME. The last numbers I saw, they lost 70 percent of their members. When workers had the opportunity to opt out of paying dues it had a devastating effect.

It's going to have an effect on the national AFL-CIO. The national AFL-CIO has been in difficult financial circumstances for quite a few years now, and finally we're going to deal with it in a serious way. That means layoffs at the AFL-CIO, there's going to be a reduction of about 25 percent of employees.

With all the other trouble we've got, the labor federation now has fiscal problems, but they're wrestling those to the ground through the budget process.

That's the doom and gloom. We got our ass kicked in the election. The labor federation is in a very tough spot, we have a very tough decision that's going to be coming from the Supreme Court.


The building trades, with our problems - which we have and have been battling ably here in Michigan - we're in good shape. Work is terrific, just about every place in the United States.

We gained 99,000 members last year. We're up a quarter of a million members since 2012. Man-hours are up. Apprenticeship seats are being filled. Lots of good things are happening. But we have big fights, too. You know what's going on in Michigan, you been fighting it just terrifically. I see the focus you've done on that. 

The building trades are doing well, even with these fights. But our issues haven't changed. It's energy. It's infrastructure. And it's standards. It's prevailing wages, project labor agreements and apprenticeships. We're just about jobs. We care about Planned Parenthood and mass deportations, but our focus is on energy, infrastructure and standards which all lead to good jobs, careers for our existing membership and those who want to join our unions in the future. And that message doesn't matter and does not change if there is a Democrat or Republican in office.


When I get criticized by the so-called progressive community about the positions that we take, all I say is, please read the objectives of our Constitution, which spells out what the members want us to work on.

Out industry partners are all on the record. I have letters in my drawer representing thousands of major employers in the United States saying we support the Davis Bacon Act. We support the building trades. When we get criticized from the progressive community about who we hang out with, who we do business with. Bernie Sanders can't do a damned thing to help us with Davis Bacon in the U.S. Senate. But people on the other side of the aisle can help us.

The only reason in Michigan and other states that there isn't a quick execution of prevailing wage repeal is that the building trades built relationships with Republicans over the years. As dreadful as right-to-work is, you combine right to work with the repeal of prevailing wage, then I'm not talking about gaining 100,000 members last year or 250,000 members over the past four.

In excess of 50 percent of our membership voted for President Trump, and in some states, it approached 60 percent. And President Trump knows  who those voters are and what organizations they belong to. That brings me to an opportunity we had to meet with the president of the United States. I got a call on a Sunday morning, and was asked if he was available to meet with the president and was asked to contact these five general presidents to see if they were available. The next day at the appointed time we met with the president of the United States. We proceeded to have a conversation with the president for the next 90 minutes. Energy, infrastructure and standards, along with green technologies. It was a really good conversation. He comes from a background where he was a major developer. He has a relationship with the building trades, he has a relationship with ULLICO Union Labor Life Insurnce Co.. ULLICO has financed eight of his projects over time.


As a citizen I worry about what's going on in the country right now. We don't have it all together right now. But when it comes to the things on my business card that I am charged to do, I am relatively hopeful about getting an infrastructure program, and more than hopeful about the energy side.

We talked with the president about Buy American provisions on American-sourced steel, concrete, glass, aluminum, then two days later the president took those positions, just like he said on the campaign trail. I think they will pay dividends and benefits, they already are. We believe there will be a big opportunity for an infrastructure proposal.

We don't condone what he did on the campaign trail. We don't condone his thought process in terms of the people he has around him. We don't condone any of that, we find it abhorrent. But we are not, not going to represent the interests of our members. We are not going to be in a position where the leader of the free world says I want to talk to you about infrastructure and energy and apprenticeship and say no, we're not coming. We waited eight years for that call and never got it. The man is going to be the president for the next four years. Maybe. So we're going to do the best we can with what we have."