DETROIT – Historically, there have been disagreements, schisms and some bad breakups among unions and federations in the U.S. labor movement.
How the current strained relationship between the Building Trades Department and the AFL-CIO will be defined or acted upon may be revealed in the next few weeks. And in a similar vein, the relationship between the Building Trades Department and the Democratic Party – and of course, the Republican Party – isn’t on sure footing, either.
“We don’t have the best relationship in the world with (the AFL-CIO),” said Building Trades Department President Sean McGarvey on Aug. 7 to delegates of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council’s 50th State Convention. “Sometimes they take positions about the construction industry without talking to the people who know the construction industry.”
The House of Labor generally keeps its internal sqaubbles internal, but McGarvey was a bit animated in speaking out about his displeasure with the AFL-CIO, whose president, Rich Trumka, has spent much of this year declaring that organized labor is in a crisis and needs to adopt new strategies to survive and gain market share. One of the proposed strategies is reaching out to groups like the NAACP and the Sierra Club to explore partnerships, even granting AFL-CIO memberships to those groups.
McGarvey said the building trades have a major problem with affiliating with groups whose actions and politics have cost building trades jobs. “There are proposals out there to do direct affiliations of community groups into the federation, direct affiliation of environmental groups into the federation, and we have been working at and asking for a long time, well, let’s look at the details,” McGarvey said. “How is this going to work structurally? What say do they have? What influence will they have? What will the cost be? And we haven't gotten a lot of answers.”
Environmental groups have cost the building trades jobs. Influence from environmental groups like the Sierra Club have held up approval of the $5 billion Keystone Pipeline from Canada’s Alberta Sands to the Gulf Coast of Texas. The building trades have a project labor agreement in place to do the work – but pressure on President Obama from green energy groups has kept his signature from getting the work started.
In Michigan, pressure from environmental groups on the Granholm Administration just before her term ended was a factor in torpedoing the construction of two coal-fired power plants, with a total price of about $3 billion.
McGarvey acknowledged that Trumka “has an unbelievably difficult job.” But he said the Building Trades Department’s Board of Governors “is fully engaged in this,” and expects to introduce a resolution to the AFL-CIO that shows a basic acceptance of jurisdiction: teacher unions should have a say in teacher policies, manufacturing unions should have a say in manufacturing industry policies, and construction unions should have a say in construction industry policies.
“They (the AFL-CIO) take policy positions on the construction industry without consulting the construction industry,” McGarvey said. And sometimes that leads to conflicts with construction industry owners complaining that the building trades “just threw me under the bus.”
He continued: “We deeply care about the direction of the labor movement. We’re part of the AFL-CIO… Some labor theorists think we’re Neanderthal knuckle-draggers that they read about in history books from 50 years ago that has no basis in reality.”
McGarvey suggested that if the AFL-CIO wants to bring in groups outside of labor to the labor movement, it should include representation from the building trades’ customers: the owners. “Let’s bring owners in on a committee, and tell us what owners are looking for and what makes them less resistant to organizing.”
He added: “this could potentially be one hootenanny of a convention, and all I can tell you is we are ready to go. We want to build the labor movement, but we don't want to do it at the expense of the members that we currently represent. They have to come first.”
As for the department’s political relationships, McGarvey said at a meeting this month he expected passage of “a resolution of bipartisan policies” from the Building Trades Departments’ general presidents.
“I have got one quote on the wall in my office – and I am a (former AFL-CIO President) George Meany fan – and it says, ‘We are a big part of the Democratic Party, but we don't run the Democratic Party, and they don't run us. So we think it's a good idea to try to be a little more bipartisan in our politics, because I can tell you the Democrats put a big, just as big a screw in on us in Washington, D.C. as the Republicans did, from the president on down.”
McGarvey added: “Just so there is no mistake in this room, I am not a
registered Democrat, and I am not a registered Republican. I am an independent
And I am going to be with anybody who's going to help my members. And I am so
frigging tired of being taken for granted from Democrats and screwed by
Republicans that we have to find a different way.”