WASHINGTON, D.C. - Parts of the nation, including Michigan, are in the grips of a "race to the bottom" mentality among state and federal lawmakers, who seek a low-wage, low-skill workforce while devoting as few resources as possible to repairing public infrastructure.
Enough of that, said National Association of Building Trades Unions (NABTU) Secretary-Treasurer Sean McGarvey to building trades delegates from across the country. "Now is the time we go on offense… and begin to turn the tide in our direction," he said. "Together, we must continue to elevate the profile of our high-road model."
Speaking at the NABTU 2018 Legislative Conference on April 17, McGarvey said building trades leaders are "renewing the call for investment in, and new partnerships for, robust infrastructure investments – both public and private." The conference proceeded under the theme, "Our Money at Work — Rebuilding America’s Public and Private Infrastructure with Building Trades Capital."
McGarvey pointed out that there is no longer any debate that the nation's roads, bridges, airports, waterworks, sewers, electrical grid and public buildings like schools are often in dire need of repair or replacement. Some local and state governments have stepped up with bond issues and local millages to fund local infrastructure work, but Congress has notoriously not found the political backbone to fund the trillions of dollars necessary to do the work that the feds traditionally fund.
"Some will say now is not the time," McGarvey said. "With our nation’s infrastructure receiving a D+ rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers, I wonder how much more time we actually have to wait. But ladies and gentlemen, we have had plenty of discussions and there is no longer any debate – our nation’s infrastructure is in critical need of renewal and now is the time for action."
President Trump came into office heralding a $1 trillion-plus plan to improve the nation's infrastructure, and the building trades responded, McGarvey said, with "a broad, robust" plan to make it happen. Then, earlier this year the Trump Administration put forth a scaled-back plan that involves a relatively scant budgetary allocation of new money by the federal government, while calling for greater contributions from state and private sources. And there have been some proposals that have emerged from Congress, but nothing has gained traction.
Moreover, McGarvey pointed out that Congress was able to adopt a massive tax cut - but that was about it for significant legislation. Congress failed to get across the finish line on implementing multi-employer pension reforms, but it was able to dubiously muster the will to rename federal buildings and encourage flag waving.
"If these are considered priority items or investments for the future," McGarvey said, "when is Congress going to make infrastructure a priority and invest in the U.S.? When are we going to demand accountability from our elected officials to act on widely supported, common sense investments that will strengthen our nation and provide a solid foundation for the future? Well, I submit the time has come, brothers and sisters: no more distractions, no more ideological battles, no more excuses - we must demand action."
Of course, paying for infrastructure "will not only rebuild depressed and forgotten communities, it will lay a foundation for growth, shared prosperity and opportunity — for our members, our contractor partners, and the next generation of skilled craft professionals that we recruit into our ranks and train for a career in the building trades," McGarvey said.
Some things in the organized construction industry should never change, McGarvey said. Such as supporting organizing, as well as project labor agreements, prevailing wage, craft training, retirement security, as well as growth and prosperity for all workers.
What helps fosters those things happen and keeps them in place, he said, are continued commitment to training, industry partnerships and through a bipartisan approach to politics.
He said some of the tangible results of those commitments are the collective gain of 300,000 new members in the building trades since the economic collapse of 2008. In addition, he said the building trades are continuing to engage lawmakers to ensure our tax dollars are not used to undermine labor's standards, and private industry leaders are still sought as partners to implement fair contracting policies that provide a level playing field for union contractors.
"Our members work too hard and bank too many hours to have our money be used to undermine our mission," McGarvey said. "In recent years we have begun to build upon the good work by some of our unions to map our assets and insist that our pension funds are invested in a fiduciarily sound manner that also provides work opportunities for our current and future members."
Keeping better tabs on the building trades' collective pension assets strengthens those plans, and can help ensure work opportunities for our current and future active members. McGarvey said the trades have developed a "Capital Strategies Investment Consultant Report Card" to show investment returns, job creation track records and conflicts of interest among pension investments, to help pension trustees see if members' money is truly serving their union.
"As a point of emphasis this week," McGarvey said, "we are making sure all of our resources are utilized to support our mission, not to undermine it. For too long, brothers and sisters, we have let others decide our fate or our trajectory. No more. We are getting smarter and taking control of our own destiny."