WASHINGTON - Here's a sampling of what happened and what was heard at the annual AFL-CIO Building Trades Department Legislative Conference April 3-6, via Press Associates.
Building Trades Department President Robert Georgine retired from his position after 26 years in office. As expected, the 3,000 delegates to the conference elected International Union of Elevator Constructors President Ed Sullivan to succeed Georgine. Joseph Maloney, director of Canadian affairs for the building trades, was elected to serve in the No. 2 post, secretary-treasurer.
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) promised delegates that if Democrats win back Congress this November, no legislation to erode workers' rights would be allowed on the House floor.
This drew enthusiastic applause from Building Trades members who fought hard over the years to preserve the Davis-Bacon Act, strengthen OSHA, and to protect workers against the attacks of congressional Republicans.
Gephardt said union power at the ballot box is growing. In 1996, union families accounted for 23 percent of the vote and stopped anti-union initiatives in many states. In the 1998, union members secured the gain of 10 House seats for Democrats.
"What are we winning for?" Gephardt asked the audience. "To get candidates in Congress for organized labor that will take the House back for working families."
The building trades announced opposition to a plan by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to cut from the federal motor fuels excise tax.
Repealing part of the federal motor fuel tax would cost lives and jobs, and not affect the current crisis over higher gasoline prices, construction unionists say.
"Cutting 4.3 cents a gallon sounds innocent, but it translates into 840,000 lost jobs, 28,000 accidental deaths, over 1 million non-fatal injuries, and $40 billion in health care and other related costs," said Georgine.
The fuel tax goes directly to the Highway Trust Fund. The fund pays for maintenance and repair of the nation's highways and bridges. And if the fuel tax cut went into effect the fund would be cut by $20 billion through 2003.
The American Road and Transportation Builders Association says every billion dollars invested in road repair prevents 1,400 premature deaths on the highways. The Department of Labor estimates that every billion dollars invested in surface transportation creates 42,000 jobs.
Commenting on the Democratic line-up of speakers at this year's Building Trades convention, Republican Governor John Rowland of Connecticut said he felt like a guest at the Democratic National Convention.
Invited to speak because of his firm support of Project Labor agreements in his state, Rowland acknowledged congressional Republicans deserve labor's contempt. They certainly have earned a bit of his own, he told the audience.
He said he was "embarrassed" by the congressional GOP and their union-bashing comments.
Rowland added he was tired of the misdirection of the GOP and their rhetoric of "union bosses that is offensive to everyone. You are not union bosses, you are union leaders," he told delegates.
Rowland also said he told the GOP in a caucus meeting in Florida a few years ago that the GOP has been very successful in alienating people such as women, senior citizens, trade unionists, African-Americans, etc. But, he said, the good news is "we still have the support of white male businessmen."
Work in the construction trades now rivals the clerical field as the top industry for temporary work. Each day nearly 250,000 construction workers are on the job as temps.
This dramatic restructuring of the building trades is now the target of a nationwide campaign to organize construction temp workers, spearheaded by the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department.
Addressing the delegates, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney hailed the Building Trades Temp Campaign as critical in stopping "predatory temp firms" and making sure that "temps get a permanent voice at work."
The temp campaign's two main goals are to raise awareness among building trades union members about temp agencies' encroachment in construction work, and to unionize those temp workers.
On average, temporary day laborers make the minimum wage and often find their wages dragged well below that as temp firms charge them for transportation and safety equipment.