News & Commentary

August 18, 2019

Deanna Krokos

Deanna Krokos is a student at Harvard Law School

This week, Politico reported on tensions between the Trump administration and the once-supportive building trades unions, after revelations about a Labor Department proposal to push forward an industry-led “apprenticeship program” have proven controversial. The North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU) is an umbrella organization within the AFL-CIO that represents millions of construction workers across the U.S. and sets prevailing wages for important infrastructure projects. NABTU has been in talks with the White House since early in Trump’s term over potential large-scale investments in infrastructure plans. However, some of that good will has broken down as inertia behind the infrastructure bill has stagnated and the Department of Labor seems to have changed the terms of the developing apprenticeship program.

Apprenticeship programs are widely regarded as an opportunity for younger workers to join the labor force without amassing the debt load associated with higher education. However, the administration’s proposal has undergone recent developments that worry labor leaders.  The new program would break tradition as regulations and oversight are rolled back and industry fills the advisory role usually held by the Department of Labor or regulated labor unions. BloombergLaw reports that one source of controversy has been the reversal of an earlier promise to NABTU that the broader deregulation would not affect construction training programs

Politico  reports that the proposal has received over 160,000 comments, mostly in opposition, claiming it would undercut existing, union-sponsored training programs. There is concern that non-NABTU trained workers would undercut the prevailing wages that union construction workers rely on. The report notes that many comments explicitly rebuke program’s potential to undercut the effectiveness, pay, and safety standards of existing training programs.

These tensions can have significant electoral ramifications. The building trades have a strong presence in key Midwest states that the president carried in the 2016 election. The union has proven an ability to mobilize voters and educate membership about threats to their strength and interests, making this issue “a significant force in the 2020 election.”  The building trades have become more diverse over the years, as incoming Skadden Fellow Hugh Baran writes that both race-conscious affirmative-action programs and facially race-neutral “local hiring” initiatives have led to increased opportunities for minority workers to gain access to good-paying union construction jobs. While the majority of white male union members voted for the president in 2016, these developments raise questions as the administration shows hostility toward members. NABTU President Sean McGarvey has announced the possibility that NABTU may refuse to endorse any candidate in the next presidential election.

The president has received further criticism from the labor movement after a speech to workers at Pennsylvania’s largest construction site sparked controversy. Following the event at a future Shell petrochemical plant, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the union workers could only choose to either attend in support or use their earned “paid time off” hours and sacrifice overtime pay.  One anonymous source estimated the penalty to reach around $700. The Gazette gained access to a circulated memo explaining the event to workers which further instructed against protesting or “anything viewed as resistance.”  Although not a campaign event, the president urged the workers who chose against sacrificing pay to convince union leadership to support his re-election bid. While troubling to some, this maneuver remains legal under federal labor laws.

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