The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, April 19, 2019

Pelosi, building trades seek compromise on green construction that won't kill jobs

By The Building Tradesman

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI)—Walking a fine line between two competing wings of the Democratic Party – construction unionists and environmental advocates – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to find a compromise over the “Green New Deal” that will satisfy both.

That was evident when the Californian keynoted a parade of political speakers who marched to the podium on April 9 to address the 3,000 delegates to the legislative conference of North America’s Building Trades Unions – the old AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department.

Pelosi followed North American's Building Trades Union President Sean McGarvey, who made plain the construction unions’ opposition to the main aim of the Green New Deal: To eliminate U.S. dependence on oil and coal within a decade or so. The environmentalists also want to ax nuclear power, too. Their replacements: Wind, solar and sea power.

The environmentalists and their congressional allies, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a Democratic Socialist, and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a longtime champion, say oil and coal in particular produce the greenhouse gas emissions which lead to global warming and its threat to the Earth. 

They have union allies, too, led by the Steelworkers, National Nurses United and transit unions. All argue that constructing factories to build the solar panels, windmill panes and other components needed for a “Green New Deal” can produce even more high-paying union jobs. 

And retrofitting the nation’s schools, public buildings, houses and plants to be energy-efficient, can provide building trades jobs, too, they add.

But for McGarvey, killing energy construction projects means killing high-paying union construction workers’ jobs. As another speaker who followed the pols pointed out, 32 percent of the nation’s building trades workers now toil on building or rebuilding the nation’s energy infrastructure of electric grids, pipelines and utilities.

After praising the new Democratic-run House for turning its attention to electoral reform, holding leaders – especially those who lie – accountable and for a verbal commitment to infrastructure, McGarvey then chastised them:

“This year they got distracted by a shiny new object, the Green New Deal. What we need is a real deal that strengthens our economy,” preferably by investing at least $1 trillion in infrastructure, McGarvey said. Congress keeps talking about it, but doesn’t do it, he added. 

“If we invested in energy efficiency alone – just retrofitting public schools and industrial buildings – it would create millions of jobs and would prioritize communities and promote the middle class,” he said.

Urging such a massive investment was one of the top lobbying causes the delegates carried to Capitol Hill this week. Another is preserving Project Labor Agreements and the Davis-Bacon Act’s prevailing wage protections on federally funded construction. The last two have been longtime targets of the GOP and anti-worker, anti-union construction contractors.

Delegates also lobbied lawmakers to solve the financial problems of troubled multi-employer pension plans – which affect construction workers, shipbuilding workers, meat packing plant workers, grocery workers and miners, among others. Congress has repeatedly kicked the can down the road on the issue.  

But McGarvey’s comments on the Green New Deal, and Pelosi’s caucus, buttressed by a record flood of new female lawmakers, many of whom advocated the GND on the campaign trail, left the House Speaker trying to thread a political needle in her address.

She started by reminding the delegates that in her first stint as Speaker, from 2007-2011, doing something about climate change was one of her top priorities, and that labor and the environmentalists joined together to achieve that goal. 

And Pelosi made the point that regardless of the outcome, unionists will have a big share of coming job creation, as far as she’s concerned. “America’s middle class has a union label on it,” Pelosi declared. She also set a goal of “at least $1 trillion” infrastructure spending (her emphasis).

That means federal spending, she added, since states and cities can only scramble to patch crumbling roads, creaky railroads and buckling bridges. 

Then, still seeking to bring the two wings together, Pelosi declared “I think we should have a Green Ideal – rebuilding the infrastructure in the best way.”

“We’ve had conversations” with construction union leaders, as well as others, “about that,” she added without elaborating. She did not take questions afterwards. 

Potential ways to create a “Green Ideal” – McGarvey called it “the real deal” - includes improving mass transit and con-structing facilities to boost U.S. energy exports, Pelosi said. “The point is jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.”

That export construction may be another possible source of building trades jobs. One later speaker predicted that next year, the U.S. will not only become a net energy exporter for the first time in decades, but will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil exporter.  

Besides Pelosi, other speakers included AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, an Electrical Worker, who urged Congress and the Trump administration "get in a room and get it done!” on infrastructure. The building trades, unlike Trump – who wants to turn over much of the financing and responsibility to so-called “private-public partnerships” -- are campaigning for federal financing of the projects.

The sole Republican in the NABTU speakers’ lineup, Trump’s Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, received polite applause, and endorsed infrastructure construction, without mentioning Trump’s private-public scheme. 

Acosta spent much of his speech touting increased enforcement figures in terms of fines, but without mentioning Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspections – or the administration’s efforts to promote “compliance assistance” at OSHA and elsewhere at DOL That lets cut-rate construction contractors off the hook.

Acosta got one ovation though, prompted by flashing of the hotel ballroom’s lights. “I said it in the Senate committee and I’ll say it here: Infrastructure (legislation) will include Davis-Bacon.” After the applause died down, he quipped, “I thought that’d get your attention.”