Infrastructure Quietly Coming to Boil, Unions Head Says

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By Elliott T. Dube

A “tremendous” amount of behind-the-scenes activity is taking place to propel President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan forward, the president of North America’s Building Trades Unions told Bloomberg BNA.

Trump probably will move infrastructure to the forefront of priorities after dealing with health-care reform and potentially tax reform, NABTU President Sean McGarvey said March 15.

Meanwhile, the National Economic Council has gotten some “real quality people in place and on board” for launching an infrastructure program and is still filling key positions, he said. Outside experts are “putting white papers and policy positions together” to share with officials who will directly shape the program, he said.

“That work is going on in earnest,” McGarvey said. “We’re participating in five, six, seven different groups that are working on those issues.”

McGarvey also praised the Congressional Building Trade Caucus’s “honorable and respected” activity in spotlighting infrastructure and other construction industry concerns. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.), a former head of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, and Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), a former Southern New Jersey Building Trades Council president, created the caucus in 2016.

McKinley, Norcross and 11 other U.S. representatives sent a letter March 1 encouraging Trump to adopt certain priorities as part of any infrastructure program. The writers urged Trump to use prevailing wage standards in any infrastructure package, to rely on the existing registered apprenticeship model, and to distribute infrastructure funds to “all corners of the country.”

Trump Following Up on Campaign Talk, McGarvey Says

In the meantime, Trump has started “putting campaign rhetoric into action” by following up on other proposals he made that appealed to working-class, wage-earning voters, McGarvey said.

For instance, the president has put “a stake through” the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership by withdrawing from it and has put pressure on the country’s partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement to revise that pact, he said.

McGarvey also referenced Trump’s recent executive order streamlining and expediting environmental reviews and approvals for infrastructure projects. Trump also issued a “Buy American” memorandum directing the Commerce Department to develop a plan for the use of U.S. materials and equipment in all new pipeline projects. The White House has since specified that the mandate is “specific to new pipelines or those that are being repaired” and doesn’t cover the under-construction Keystone XL pipeline project.

Trump’s attention to these jobs-related, trade and other economic issues is resonating, McGarvey said.

“I can tell you from my travels out in the country that they are the issues that people who support him are still paying attention to,” McGarvey said. “There’s lots of other things going on, but by and large, that’s not their focus.”

Prevailing Wage Debate Continues

McGarvey also addressed recent efforts by lawmakers to minimize or eliminate prevailing wage standards.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) recently introduced a bill to suspend Davis-Bacon Act prevailing wage requirements for federal transportation-related infrastructure contracts. In addition, numerous states in recent years repealed or altered their prevailing wage laws.

The Davis-Bacon Act is an archaic law that involves a “broken wage determination process,” Ben Brubeck, vice president of regulatory, labor and state affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors, told Bloomberg BNA in a March 14 email.

State-level prevailing wage rollbacks have “relieved state and state-assisted projects from inefficient compliance burdens, outdated work restrictions and inflated costs,” Brubeck said.

But McGarvey said attempts to roll back prevailing wage standards are based on ideology, not fiscal considerations. Flake’s legislation is “more of a message bill” that NABTU is nevertheless taking seriously in opposing, he said.

“There’s this preconceived notion that prevailing wage laws benefit the building trades and in turn benefit the Democratic Party, and that’s really the line of attack,” McGarvey said. “It has nothing to do with fiscal responsibility or being good stewards of state tax money. That’s been proven over and over again.”

The building trades have consistently been a major source of political contributions for Republicans in Congress, which is part of the reason why legislation is “so difficult for ideologues to move there,” he said.

A “who’s who of corporate America"—including trade groups such as the American Petroleum Institute, the American Chemistry Council, the Nuclear Energy Institution and the Waterways Council—have gone on record as saying prevailing wage standards are smart public policy and a useful tool for developing highly skilled, safe workforces, McGarvey added.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elliott T. Dube in Washington at edube@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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