At Building Trades, Trump Promises "Open Door" to Labor

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Saying “America’s labor leaders will always find an open door with Donald Trump,” the new Republican U.S. president made one of the few specific pledges to some 3,000 delegates from Building Trades unions gathered in a D.C. hall.

Trump was the last speaker in the two-day legislative and political conference sponsored by North America’s Building Trades – the old AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department. “You can talk with a president who knows how much concrete and rebar you can lay in a single day,” he added, referring to his pre-presidential career as a developer.

Reactions to Trump’s speech were mixed, ranging from “He was fine. He was good” from Teamsters President Jim Hoffa to “He never mentioned the word ‘union.’ Take note of that,” from John Driscoll of Elevator Constructors Local 17.

And Trump drew a smattering of boos when he took several digs at his predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama. “The era of economic surrender has come to an end,” he stated.

But Trump received a prompted ovation when he declared “when you see your legislators, you can tell them the American building trades and its president are very much united.”

The delegates took time out from their lobbying of lawmakers to listen to Trump and other invited speakers from both parties. On Capitol Hill, two key causes of the building trades are preserving the Davis-Bacon Act’s prevailing wage rules and emphasizing the value of Project Labor Agreements. Trump mentioned neither.

Instead, his speech mixed in a few specifics among general praise for the workers’ efforts. “It’s time we give you the level playing field you deserve,” he said at one point, without saying how. Trump also wants building tradespeople to help restore “cities with abandoned buildings and rusted-out” infrastructure, such as Detroit and Baltimore.

He also mentioned the infrastructure bill he plans to unveil soon, but without specifics.

His specifics included:

• Reminding the crowd that he formally withdrew the U.S. from the jobs-destroying Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. He called it “another NAFTA, and it would have been a greater disaster.”

• Pledging that in future pipeline construction projects, which he intends to approve, “From now on, we’ll put in a clause: It’s gotta be American steel, made in America.”  He admitted, however, that 61 percent of the steel in the Keystone Pipeline’s northern leg -- one of the two controversial projects he has OKd – was made abroad. Union members are building Keystone under a Project Labor Agreement signed years ago. 

“Over the next 7-3/4 years – I hope – we’ll believe in two simple rules: Buy American and hire American,” he said. “We didn’t just offshore American jobs. We offshored the American Dream.”

Trump had Building Trades President Sean McGarvey and three union presidents with him in the Oval Office three days after the inauguration, where he announced he wanted Keystone and the Dakota Access Pipeline built.

• Reiterated his campaign theme of cracking down on immigration to the U.S. by building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. “We’re going to protect your jobs by protecting our borders,” he said, before claiming that “a record decline in illegal immigration of 61 percent in one month. That may not be as a result of Trump’s speeches: The Pew Hispanic Center, a think tank, noted that illegal immigration fell by two-thirds from 2005-2009, for example.

• Pledged to reduce the amount of time, and the number of permits, a construction project needs before ground-breaking. Pausing a moment for an aide to bring out a timeline chart, and holding it up, Trump said that some projects take 10 years or more to get all their permits “and then they get voted down.” By contrast, construction of the Empire State Building – he lauded the Ironworkers for that – took only 13 months from the idea to the topping-off.

Of such a process, Trump predicted the workers would, in revitalizing cities “rise above the cynics” and “erect new bridges, new schools, and new landmarks and raise up a bright American flag” over them “to rebuild the country and America’s destiny.”

In a random sample of reactions, workers were not united. Besides Hoffa and Driscoll, comments from others included:

• “I’m not a fan, so I’m not gonna say,” said Carl Dodge of the Operating Engineers.

• “I hope that what he’s saying is true. It’s not about R or D, it’s about jobs,” said Roxana Mejia of Painters Local 51 in the D.C. area.

• “Outside of a few odd remarks, I’d say it was mostly positive,” added Steam and Pipefitters Local 25 President Pete Wohlgezogen of Gardena, Calif.  “Reducing the permits is starting to get us more work” on pipelines.

• “It was a bunch of sound bites from his campaign,” said Don MacLeod of the Laborers. “He talked about leveling the playing field, but he didn’t say what that meant.”

• “I don’t believe he’s for the American worker. I believe he’s for corporate America and profits,” said Mike Gleiforst of Elevator Constructors Local 25 of Lakewood and Sheridan, Colo.

• “I’m pleased that he came. To have a sitting president here is huge,” said Marion Davis, director of the Teamsters’ Building and Construction Trades Division. “We’re excited. He’s the president and it would be foolish not to work with him. Trump’s impact, Davis added, has “showed up already in the pipeline industry” where the Teamsters have 5,000 members.“

“If he keeps all his promises, he’ll be very good,” Wayne Olson of Sheet Metal Workers Local 7 in Miami concluded. “Hopefully, with the right people, he will.”

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Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Freight can’t wait

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities.

A freight train hauling lumber and nylon manufacturing chemicals derailed, caught fire and caused a 108-year-old bridge to collapse in Tempe, Ariz., this week, in the second accident on the same bridge within a month.

The bridge was damaged after the first incident, according to Union Pacific railroad that owns the rail bridge, and re-opened two days later. 

The official cause of the derailments is still under investigation, but it remains clear that the failure to modernize and maintain America’s railroad infrastructure is dangerous. 

In 2019, 499 trains that derailed were found to have defective or broken track, roadbed or structures, according to the Federal Railroad Administration’s database of safety analysis.

While railroad workers’ unions have called for increased safety improvements, rail companies have also used technology and automation as an excuse to downsize their work forces.

For example, rail companies have implemented a cost-saving measure known as Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), which has resulted in mass layoffs and shoddy safety protocols. 

Though privately-owned railroads have spent significantly to upgrade large, Class I trains, regional Class II trains and local, short-line Class III trains that carry important goods for farmers and businesses still rely on state and local funds for improvements. 

But cash-strapped states struggle to adequately inspect new technologies and fund safety improvements, and repairing or replacing the aging track and rail bridges will require significant public investment.

A true infrastructure commitment will not only strengthen the country’s railroad networks and increase U.S. global economic competitiveness. It will also create millions of family-sustaining jobs needed to inspect, repair and manufacture new parts for mass transit systems, all while helping to prevent future disasters.

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work