WASHINGTON D.C. - Building trades membership and market share are up, the business community is again starting to recognize the value provided by construction union labor, work opportunities are improving, and Congress provided a needed fix for multiemployer pension plans.
Things are looking up for the U.S. construction industry.
"But, with all this good news, there exists a potential dark cloud that, if not handled properly and strategically, could derail all the good work that we are doing. And it’s called politics."
That's how North America's Building Trades Unions President Sean McGarvey began the red meat portion of his keynote address to the building trades' 2015 Legislative Conference, re-emphasizing what he told Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council delegates in March in Lansing.
"The single biggest thing that can, and will, derail the collective hopes and aspirations that we have for the union construction industry and the members we represent," McGarvey told 3,000 delegates on April 20, "is for us to make the mistake of having our fortunes tethered to one side of the shifting winds of American politics, rather than focusing on building increased support for our issues and priorities, no matter the party affiliation."
The traditional political ties between Democrats and building trades unions have become so frayed in recent years, McGarvey said, that unions can't count on them to hold fast when they're needed most.
Two examples he cited were the underwhelming Democratic support for the construction of the Keystone Pipeline, and the refusal of a super-majority of Dems in the Maryland state Legislature to beef up the state's prevailing wage law. The current Maryland law, he said, only allows for a pitiful $20 per day penalty for noncompliance - less than a parking infraction.
"So, the Building Trades endorsed a legislative proposal to increase that penalty to $250 per day," McGarvey said. "Again, we are talking about the Maryland State Legislature – arguably the most Democratic state legislature in the nation. But incredibly, Democratic leaders in the Senate, engineered a maneuver to water down this measure at the behest of the ABC."
McGarvey added: "This speaks volumes. These are people we have supported for decades with our votes, our resources and our voices. And this is the lack of respect that all construction workers – union and non-union alike – are getting from Democratic leaders in a blue state like Maryland. I don't know about you, but I find this to be both professionally and personally offensive."
Also offensive, he said was Democratic lawmakers who oppose and disparage the Keystone Pipeline construction on the basis that it would only create "temporary" construction jobs - which is essentially the nature of nearly all construction work.
So what are labor leaders and members to do? Union members are already way ahead of the curve, McGarvey said.
"Consider that for over a generation now, according to AFL-CIO exit poll data, that roughly 40 percent of our collective membership consistently votes for the Republican candidate for president; for governor; and for the United States Senate," McGarvey said. "This is not a recent phenomenon, and the AFL-CIO has the data to prove it.
"The fact of the matter is that the men and women that we represent – who are roughly split 60-40 between Democrats and Republicans – deserve nothing less than our utilizing every available strategy, process and resource to better their lives. Especially when it comes to politics.
"And if that means working both sides of the aisle to construct 'Building Trades Majorities' that may run counter to the political sensibilities of some of our friends and allies, then so be it."
McGarvey suggested that anyone who doesn't see the value of winning friends on both sides of the aisle isn't looking at reality. He pointed out that the GOP now has outright control of 31 state legislatures - the highest number in the history of the party - while Dems have outright control of just 11. The result has been all kinds of anti-labor legislation in recent years: passage of right-to-work laws in Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin, repeal threats of state prevailing wage laws in those same states, and serious anti-labor attacks in Nevada and West Virginia.
He said we might hope for more blue state control, but it's a purple political nation "that is mostly tinged with red."
McGarvey said that "virtually all of us in this room today" were brought up to believe that the Democratic Party and the labor movement "are philosophical soul mates. Well, that may have been true at various points in the past. But, I can tell you that today we are finding ourselves having almost as many disagreements with the Democratic Party as we are with Republicans.
"Either we can adapt to these political realities and start being smarter and more strategic in how we engage in the political arena," McGarvey continued, "or, we can do what others in the labor movement have historically done... hitch our wagon to one political party... with the hope that things will turn around overnight... and that we don't wither away into irrelevance in the meantime."
The building trades have had better success working across the aisle in the Republican-controlled Congress than in most of the state houses. McGarvey cited labor's success getting multi-employer pension reforms passed late last year, as well as the existing support of no less than 50 GOP lawmakers for keeping the federal Davis-Bacon prevailing wage law, while building support for project labor agreements.
He said one way to cut through the politics and appeal to GOP lawmakers is to "start playing our game." That is, pointing out how losing prevailing wage laws cuts into all construction workers' paychecks. Doing a better job of explaining the building trades' business model, which offers the best training in the industry without relying on tax dollars to train workers. And, for local unions and labor-management groups to operate with an internal culture "premised upon being customer-centric and value-added."
"It simply makes no sense to put all of our eggs in one political basket," he said. "We, all of us, need to step back from getting trapped in the 'Democratic vs. Republican' horserace analysis that has become so central to the labor movement, as well as popular culture and the media. We need to be more thoughtful and strategic in how we approach our participation in the political arena."