Building Trades Seek $4 Billion Annually for Infrastructure

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

The U.S. needs to spend $4 billion yearly, four times as much as the Trump administration requested, for infrastructure repairs, the president of North America’s Building Trades Unions said.

And that’s what the unions will lobby for, added NABTU President Sean McGarvey. And there must be “a dedicated funding source,” including an increased federal gasoline tax, to provide the money, he contended.

McGarvey and construction union presidents James Callahan of the Operating Engineers, Robert Martinez of the Machinists and Lonnie Stephenson of the Electrical Workers made the case for more money at an Oct. 23 press conference during the AFL-CIO Convention in St. Louis.

Despite the recovery from the Great Recession, the U.S. still has great unmet infrastructure needs, the four said. They include old water pipes, underground utilities which break down, cracking and decaying roads and a creaky electrical grid.

“We’re concerned about the funding, but also with the underground subsystems,” Callahan said. They’re “the sewers, the electrical lines and what’s below the roads. That’s why we’re trying to get a permanent (fiscal) ‘lockbox,’ both for funding structures and for hiring enough people.”

Repairing all that via a federal infrastructure law would put and keep even more construction workers on the job. 

There has been a distinct change in construction employment, McGarvey and the others admitted, from the depths of the Great Recession. Construction joblessness hit a high of 2.44 million in February 2010, and the construction jobless rate that month was 27.1 percent. The September 2017 data, the latest available, show 433,000 jobless construction workers (4.7 percent).

The Trump administration has yet to produce a detailed infrastructure plan, though congressional committees have held hearings on the nation’s needs. And McGarvey said his department has been working with both the White House and three business groups – the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce – on crafting legislation.

The Chamber traditionally allied with the construction unions in pushing for infrastructure spending.

But the administration has also floated the idea of funding all infrastructure improvements at the $1 billion level and only through the partnerships, rather than direct federal spending. That’s produced criticism the money would flow into Wall Streeters’ pockets rather than to rebuilding the country.

McGarvey floated a third idea for funding infrastructure repairs: Using negotiations on the pending tax bill to produce “a huge repatriation payment” of corporate profits now stashed overseas to escape U.S. taxes.

 He said that, despite appearances, both the administration and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., are fully engaged on the infrastructure issue.

There’s another reason the construction unions are pushing infrastructure spending, the four presidents said: Apprenticeships. They pointed out training new apprentices is absolutely needed not just to build the projects but to replace the tens of thousands of Baby Boomer construction workers who retire every year.

At the same time, apprenticeships are also vital to increasing participation by women, minorities and veterans in construction, which is still a white male-dominated field. Federal data show 3 percent of construction workers are women, 6.8 percent are African-American, 1.7 percent are Asian-American and 34 percent are Latino.

That led McGarvey and several other construction union leaders to join a Trump administration advisory task force on increasing apprenticeships. “The administration views” union apprenticeship programs “as a model” for the industry, McGarvey claimed. Though he did not say so, the administration also proposed a budget cut in federal apprenticeship aid.

But even more apprentices won’t fill the workplace void, the union presidents said. That will occur only when construction firms, notably non-union firms, pay their workers what they’re worth. A pay rate of $15 an hour, for a worker with a family of four or “women of color with kids” is not enough, McGarvey and Stephenson said.

“As long as these companies go higher” than that “we can get them the workforce. What we don’t have a guarantee on is jobs. And we’ve got to make sure our contractors are competitive.”                   

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Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Press Associates

Union Matters

Powering America

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.

Fierce thunderstorms, heavy snows and unusually powerful hurricanes ravaged America’s fragile power grid and plunged millions into darkness this year.

And even as these natural disasters wreaked havoc across the country, COVID-19 stay-at-home orders sparked a surge in residential electrical demand, placing new stress on a failing system.

A long-overdue overhaul of the nation’s electrical infrastructure would not only ensure America continues functioning during a crisis but help to reinvigorate the pandemic-shattered economy.

Built in the 1950s and 60s, most of America’s electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure lives on borrowed time. Engineers never designed it to withstand today’s increasingly frequent and catastrophic storms fueled by climate change, let alone the threats posed by hackers and terrorists.

To ensure a reliable power supply for homes, schools and businesses, America needs to invest in a more resilient, higher capacity grid.

That means either burying electrical lines or insulating above-ground wires and replacing wooden utility poles with structures made of steel or concrete. Other strategies include creating a battery-storage system to provide backup power, building coastal barriers to protect infrastructure against storm surge and further diversifying into wind and solar production.

Also, a shift toward more localized generation and distribution networks would limit the impact of any one power outage.

Making these upgrades with U.S.-made materials and labor will both stimulate the economy and protect national security. American steelworkers, tradespeople and manufacturing workers have the expertise to build a power grid strong enough to weather whatever storms come America’s way.

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