The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, September 20, 2019

Unions, Dems, industry await DOL decision on future of apprenticeship programs

By The Building Tradesman

WASHINGTON (PAI) — Construction unions, allied environmental groups and House Democrats are strongly opposing plans by GOP President Donald Trump’s Labor Department to let low-road non-union construction contractors run apprenticeship programs.

In letters to DOL, they said the so-called “Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Programs” would lead to lower-quality construction, confusion among workers and potential apprentices, bad training and lower pay for building trades workers. 

And the 125 lawmakers from the House Democratic majority – led by the chairs of both the Education and Labor Committee, which approves DOL programs and the Ed-Labor Appropriations subcommittee, which doles out money for them – warned that DOL’s scheme may be illegal.

The construction industry now awaits the DOL's determination on IRAPs.

DOL proposed the new apprenticeship rules responding to a Trump edict more than a year ago. It would establish the IRAPs, opening them to the low-road non-union contractors, competing with DOL-approved, union-run high-quality registered apprenticeships. 

The apprenticeship scheme is yet another bullet Trump and his ideologues, including in DOL, are firing at workers in general and unions in particular ever since the real estate mogul took over the Oval Office. 

Much of his ire has been directed at federal workers, but he’s also yanked DOL rules that cracked down on exposure to hazardous materials, such as silica and beryllium, that ordered investment advisers for pensioners and pension funds to put their clients’ interests first and that raised the threshold – and the number of workers always eligible for – overtime pay. 
Trump’s DOL even tried to let bosses grab low-paid workers’ tips, but Congress stopped that scheme.

The comment period for DOL’s scheme closed on August 26 and workers, mobilized by their unions, wrote 175,000-200,000 letters opposing it. The lawmakers want DOL to extend the comment period for another 60 days, but also made clear they don’t like DOL’s plan. 

Neither do the unions and environmentalists, banded together in the BlueGreen Alliance. They don’t want IRAPs in construction at all.

“The construction industry accounts for roughly half of U.S. apprentices, and has had great success with registered, DOL-approved apprenticeship programs. Such apprenticeship programs, like those lead by the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing, Pipefitting and Sprinkler Fitting Industry, International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, and International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, are subjected to stringent standards and oversight,” their comment letter says.

“Use of IRAPs in the construction industry would hamper the entire industry and threaten the health and rights of workers. Too many IRAPs are sham apprenticeship programs that cut corners and lower the quality of work produced while giving an unfair advantage to substandard contractors and `scamming workers out of fair pay,” BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director Jason Walsh added. 

“Leaving the door open to the use of IRAPs in the construction industry is unacceptable. These programs must be permanently kept out of the industry.” 

“The Trump Labor Department’s proposed rule “undermines key standards and protections that are necessary to safeguard the welfare of apprentices,” the 125 lawmakers said. “In sum, this proposed regulation undermines the existing RA system, including the investments states, employers and unions have made across the country, by enabling programs to be created with no Departmental oversight and potentially lower quality standards under the name of ‘apprenticeship.’”

And Trump would also use the new rule to yank money away from the high-quality registered apprenticeship programs –- the union-run programs -– even though DOL claims it wouldn’t, the lawmakers added.

“We urge the (Labor) secretary to comply with the letter of the law,” which sets out five specific requirements for all apprenticeships and links them together, the lawmakers said. If DOL goes ahead, they added, it should not impose IRAPs on the top sectors it already identifies as having the most apprentices or their equivalents: Construction, public administration, manufacturing, health care and social assistance and retail.