The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, July 01, 2011

Mobilizing members, reaching across the aisle: a blueprint for other unions

By The Building Tradesman

(By Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer)

WASHINGTON (PAI) – The nation’s construction unions scored two big wins for workers in the normally hostile, GOP-run House of Representatives this week. It might be instructive for the rest of the labor movement to review – and emulate – how they did it.

The first, narrower, win was a 204-203 vote to preserve Democratic President Barack Obama’s executive order telling federal contracting officers to continue considering creating project labor agreements for federal construction contracts.

PLAs set standards for construction projects, with guaranteed pricing, timetables, grievance procedures and hiring standards, among other factors. In return, construction unions cannot strike and contractors cannot lock construction workers out.

The second win was much wider: A 232-178 vote beating back a Republican move to ban use of local prevailing wage standards – set by the Labor Department – on Defense Department and Veterans Affairs Department construction.

On the first vote, 27 Republicans joined all but one Democrat in backing PLAs. On the second, 54 Republicans – even including so-called “Budget Hawk” Paul Ryan, R-Wis., whose cut-cut-cut mantra wants to convert Medicare into a voucher program – deserted the anti-worker GOP party line and voted for Davis-Bacon.

In both cases, a majority of Republicans voted against workers, and all but one Democrat voted for workers, but just enough Republicans crossed the aisle to defeat the anti-worker moves. And it wasn’t the first time. The votes marked the third time the anti-executive order scheme had gone down the drain and the fourth time the anti-Davis-Bacon move lost.

So how did the construction unions do it?

Interviews with legislative directors for two of the unions, plus correspondence, show several keys to the two wins. And there was another, campaign contributions, that may have had some influence, too.

Sheet Metal Workers Legislative and Government Affairs Director Vince Panvini explained construction labor mobilized its locals through e-mails to 40,000 business agents and business reps nationwide – along with contacting individual unionists.

The business agents and business reps mobilized members to call and e-mail lawmakers, appear at local offices during the recent congressional recess, and generally point out the benefits of the two measures. In short, there was a lot of hard-working shoe leather.

Panvini and Roofers Vice President Jim Hadel also said the unions pushed the message that both PLAs and Davis-Bacon created or sustained well-paying middle class jobs, especially for minorities. That platform, commentators noted, was what both parties ran on in 2010.

They also made those points in letters to lawmakers, partly to counter the anti-worker, anti-union mouthings of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), whose members, in town for their legislative conference, descended on Capitol Hill.

“It’s amazing that these voluntary construction management agreements are always on the chopping block!” Panvini and assistant SMWIA Legislative Director Jay Potesta wrote lawmakers before the PLA vote (their emphasis).

“Those (e.g., the ABC), that oppose the use of PLAs have never produced actual TRUE statistics to backup their rhetoric. They often try to malign the true essence of PLAs:

* PLAs are always entered into voluntarily by the parties involved in construction projects. The project owner, e.g., the government, will establish the workforce standards from both union and NON-union workers.

* Cost-saving benefits for the customer, especially the taxpayer in these cases.

* The guaranteed supply of trained & skilled workers.

* A workforce that guarantees the future for training workers from the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, and

* Quality and efficient on time and in most instances under budget construction projects.”

But union power alone would not have carried the day. So the building trades enlisted three contractor associations that work closely with them: The Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning National Association (SMACNA), allied with SMWIA; the National Electrical Contractors, which works with the Electrical Workers; and the Mechanical Contractors, who work with the Plumbers and Pipe Fitters – all to counter the ABC.

“Nothing comes easy. Together we do battle. They’re our partners,” Panvini says.

The contractors made the point that PLAs are an economic positive, as are prevailing wages. SMACNA’s letter bluntly noted that prevailing wages – the point of Davis-Bacon – are below union wages 72 percent of the time. Pro-Davis-Bacon lawmakers repeated that in the June 13 debate. SMACNA made the extra point that “savings” claimed by nonunion cut-rate contractors would be shifted to state and local taxpayers instead.

“SMACNA and our thousands of infrastructure contractors greatly appreciate that HR2017 (the legislation being debated) will continue to recognize the importance and merit in prevailing wages as part of any quality based public procurement policy. Federal, state and local prevailing wage laws encourage employers to: Pay a locally prevailing wage, offer health care coverage to their employees and their families, provide for the future retirement of their employees and make a significant investment in the future by training a skilled and safety conscious workforce.

“Support of prevailing wages on public infrastructure represents a commitment to construction quality and the future. Without prevailing wage statutes, many contractors will simply shift the cost of employee health, training, retirement and welfare benefits to localities across the nation. Support of a prevailing wage policy fosters practices and programs which lessen today’s and tomorrow’s burden on the public sector. Members of Congress should understand that cost shifting by low bid firms opposing prevailing wage coverage does not save funds for communities on public construction,” SMACNA said (their emphasis).

There’s one other factor that may have been in play in the votes to keep PLAs and Davis-Bacon: Campaign contributions, especially their tilt towards one party or another.

Panvini made the point that construction unions have long been known for being bipartisan in their campaigns, and especially for reaching out to the remaining moderate Republicans. Twenty-seven Republicans supported workers on both House votes, and another 27 joined them on the pro-Davis-Bacon vote.

But while the unions have always given a heavy majority of their campaign finance money – all raised voluntarily – to Democrats, the construction unions have never ignored the GOP. Similarly, their cooperating contractor associations split their campaign giving in the last election cycle: Combined, the associations Panvini and Hadel mentioned gave a combined $720,800 to Democratic congressional candidates in 2009-2010 and $726,500 to Republicans.

Not so, ABC. It spread misinformation to other congressional Republicans in this debate, such as the assertions that Obama’s executive order bars non-union contractors from federal construction and that PLAs cost 20 percent more than similar non-PLA projects.

And 23,000-contractor ABC swamped the GOP with campaign cash: $1,176,585 to Republicans, and $10,000 to Democrats.

The labor movement can take some lessons from all of this:

* Bipartisanship matters. Three Republicans led the fight for the workers: Steve LaTourette of Ohio, Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey and Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri. During debate, it was revealed that the pro-PLA amendment was originally drafted by a Democrat, but she gave it up, knowing LaTourette had a better chance of success.

* Coalitions matter. The contractors’ letter, especially its refutation of the accusations that the two laws benefited only unionists – to the detriment of everyone else – played a key role.

* For thinking Republicans, shown the fiscal facts, economics trumps ideology. Several admitted during debate they were glad to learn the facts the union-contractor coalition produced.

Those are three political lessons the rest of labor should keep in mind.