POLITICIANS: BUILDING TRADES SHOW THE WAY IN REBUILDING U.S.

With the federal government mired in partisan warfare, U.S. building trades unions are showing the way in rebuilding the country, while also reaching out – and putting to work – the women and minorities who will be the future of the construction industry, two top politicians say.

Nevertheless, speakers at the Building and Construction Trades Department's annual legislative conference urged its 3,000 participants to lobby lawmakers for a renewed, greater federal role in upgrading the nation's infrastructure, from “green” factories to rebuilt highways to more mass transit to new energy-saving street lights.

The delegates descended upon Washington March 9-12 just after Democratic President Barack Obama again demanded lawmakers pass a 4-year $302 billion highway-mass transit construction bill, paid for by closing corporate tax loopholes.   The measure would provide tens of thousands of new jobs for construction workers, at a time when 1.1 million construction workers – one of every eight – are still jobless.

 The department agrees with Obama, and advocates paying for it by increasing the federal gas tax.  That tax, now 18.4 cents per gallon, has stayed the same since 1993.  But the House's ruling Republicans strongly oppose a gas tax hike, and their dominant Tea Party wing also hates workers, and federal spending.

Given that gridlock, the Building Trades – now renamed North America's Building Trades -- other unions and the AFL-CIO stepped into the infrastructure breach themselves, with $10 billion on infrastructure spending via the Clinton Global Initiative, the think tank/ foundation the former president established. 

 Some $8.4 billion of that has already been committed. And Clinton himself, a surprise speaker to the conference on March 10, hailed them for that.  Labor's billions, he said, “show the people on Wall Street the proper way to invest in the American economy...When it's all spent, you'll have 70,000-80,000 new construction jobs.

 “If you want to raise wages and reduce income inequality, you have to have tight labor markets and more investment” in the U.S., just like at the end of his term in 2000.  “This is an example where people get together and share the benefits fairly, and it shows job creation,” unlike “investment in finance,” he added, to boisterous applause.

The $10 billion investment “just scratches the surface” of rebuilding the U.S., Clinton explained.  Construction unionists can also erect energy-efficient buildings and factories and install new energy-efficient citylights, and that's just for starters, he said.

But the money for that should come from the billions that U.S. corporations have stashed overseas, to escape taxation, Clinton added.  “If we're going to bring some of that corporate cash home, I'd say you gotta put some of those dollars to work in an infrastructure bank to put people back to work,” he declared.

A national infrastructure bank, which would use public money to leverage private investments, is a favored cause of the building trades and congressional Democrats.  Obama has also endorsed it.

Investing in infrastructure, Clinton added, is needed because history shows it could take the U.S. a decade to get out of the financier-dug hole.  So much was invested in financial finagling, and so little in raising workers' incomes, that the crash was similar to the panics of 1873 and 1893, during the Gilded Age, he explained.  Given that, “I want an investment-based, not a transaction-based, financial system.  We're here to invest in people.”

Thousands of those people must be women and minorities, said Martin Walsh, the former President of the Greater Boston Building and Construction Trades Council. Walsh, who since Jan. 6 has been Boston's mayor, touted a special Building Pathways program he began as council president to recruit and train inner-city minority youth and women in construction as a model for the country.  Walsh, a Laborers Local 223 member, is the first active unionist to be mayor of a major U.S. city in years.

 It's needed, Walsh pointed out, because, as one other speaker noted, the average age of a building trades worker in a typical state, Wisconsin, is 59. 

 Walsh called the program “a resource for both job creation and bridge-building” by construction unions to women and minorities.  “We talk about poverty, achievement gaps and lack of opportunity.  We need to find ways to create new jobs and new opportunities” to close the U.S. income gap.  “There's only one group that can close that gap: Organized labor.”

 That can be done, he added, if everyone – labor, management and government – pulls together, added Sean McGarvey, the BCTD president.

Construction unions and pro-union contractors set the standard for such cooperation, McGarvey said.  But unions now “must take the next step” and expand the market share for themselves and those contractors.  If a pro-union contractor can't bid on major projects in any city where unions are strong, something is wrong, he warned.

What the unions offer to contractors and politicians of both parties is “unmatched effectiveness at developing talent” in the skilled crafts, projects that come in on time and on budget, a stable and well-trained workforce and creation of a middle class that will buy goods and lease or buy space in the structures they erect, he stated.    ###

Reprinted from an article by Mark Gruenberg, Press Associates International