The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, April 14, 2017

McGarvey: building trades must again become labor movement backbone

By The Building Tradesman

WASHINGTON (PAI)--With public sector unions under constant attack and manufacturing unions struggling to keep their numbers up as factories' share of the U.S. workforce declines, building trades unions must again become the backbone of the U.S. labor movement, says Sean McGarvey, president of North America's Building Trades Unions.

And they have experience in doing so in the face of hostile lawmakers, governors and presidents he adds.

Keynoting NABTU's legislative and political conference in D.C. in early March, McGarvey first laid out bleak news for the labor movement overall.

"What we are seeing today is very similar to what the leaders of the Building Trades faced in the 1920s. America’s manufacturing unions are a shadow of what they once were. And our public-sector unions are under assault from every quarter," he said. And construction unions were under attack from wealthy business interests, too. But they fought back and membership started to rise in the mid-1920s and kept rising after that.

Now, they have to create the same momentum, but in different ways, he told the 3,000 delegates.
• Formal labor-management committees with entire industries and individual large corporations. The latest is with the American Chemistry Council. Some others are with the oil and natural gas industry, the nuclear industry and the electric utility industry.

"And it is not by mere coincidence that these same organizations have all expressed public support for the federal Davis-Bacon Act," McGarvey said. Keeping Davis-Bacon and its local prevailing wage standards for federally funded construction is a key building trades goal. 

• Reaching out to politicians on both sides of the aisle to seek common ground on specific issues, despite criticism from both pundits and other sectors of the labor movement.

As one example, McGarvey said he and other construction union leaders, at a White House meeting with new Republican President Donald Trump, "were quite forceful with the president in stating our concerns that infrastructure investments must be coupled with strong community wage and benefit standards afforded under the Davis-Bacon Act."

"Understanding, appreciating and successfully operating within the political realities as they exist today in the United States is strategically necessary if we are to continue to make gains for our members and our unions," he declared.

“It is in the best economic interests of our members and our unions, for us to go everywhere and anywhere with business and industry leaders, community leaders and political leaders, and to engage in deliberations, conversations and discussions that have the potential to advance the economic interests of our members and their families.”

• Constructing partnerships with community groups, based on their availability and effectiveness and as a boost for minorities and women, to advocate and utilize apprenticeships and union-based training. McGarvey reported that more than four-fifths of the unions' most recent graduating classes of apprentices were minorities and were 23 percent female. 

• Leveraging more of labor's funds into construction projects that employ union workers. "There is our increasingly aggressive expansion of our Capital Strategies Approach focused upon marshaling building trades’ pension assets and investments, in order to further our ability to provide financing for commercial, residential and infrastructure investments that rebuild this country, and produce job opportunities for our members and future members," McGarvey said.

• Putting pressure on politicians, including at the state and local levels, to live up to their campaign promises on infrastructure, construction and related issues.

"We intend to transition our 'Hardhats for America' effort from 2016 into a formal organization known as 'Re-Build USA,'” he said. Its focus "will be to design and execute a comprehensive and effective communications campaign designed to reach our members where they live and work" at their job sites, at home and through social media. 

"Our message will be focused upon reminding them of the promises and policy recommendations proposed by the president during the campaign, especially his promise to invest in American infrastructure and America’s energy resources, and to ensure that working American families get the raise they so richly deserve.

“Re-Build USA will endeavor to hold the president, and all elected officials accountable, not only in terms of living up to the fundamental economic promises made during the campaign and which attracted the support of significant numbers of our members, but to also oppose and reject adverse policies and proposals that run counter to those promises, including and especially attacks on prevailing wage standards at both the federal and state levels.”

All this has to be done earlier than ever, McGarvey warned. "There can be no doubt: The critical lesson from the 2016 election is that we must collectively do a better job of communicating with our membership. We cannot wait until Labor Day of an Election Year to start talking about issues and candidates," he said.