Between the Obama administration and Democratic majorities in Congress, construction unions have had the political wind at their backs for more than a year. But with industry unemployment just under 25%, labor hopes the winds of change won’t hit Capitol Hill during November’s midterm elections.

Energy Chief Chu noted nuclear projects.
Photo: Bruce Buckley/ENR
Energy Chief Chu noted nuclear projects.

With a mission to keep its momentum going, hundreds of construction union leaders met in Washington, D.C., for their annual legislative conference on April 18-21. Labor leaders savored such policy victories as the repeal of the Bush- era ban on federal project labor agreements and pushing Davis-Bacon provisions into American Recovery and Reinvestment Act projects. But Mark Ayers, president of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Dept., still rallied attendees to focus on keeping their friends in office. “May God have mercy upon us if we allow the majorities of Congress to change this November,” he said.

Speaking to a packed house of conference attendees, Vice President Joe Biden touted the administration’s record on labor issues and rallied support for Democrats facing re-election. “Today, this White House is waging a war to get you back to where you belong,” he said.

Critics argue that it could be tough for Democrats to retain control of both houses given concerns over high unemployment and dissatisfaction in some quarters with passage of the health-care bill. Geoff Burr, vice president of federal affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors, which represents open-shop firms, said if the election were held today, Republicans could gain up to 40 seats in the House and seize the majority. But, he conceded, “That’s six months from now, which is two political lifetimes.”

Even so, Ayers told ENR he expects the AFL-CIO to mobilize with “massive” efforts in the months leading up to November, although admittedly the outreach will not be as extensive as during the 2008 presidential campaign. “You can bet we won’t stand by and watch the [Tea Party] take out Harry Reid,” he said.

Building trades’ leaders were quick to recognize that jobs are the No. 1 concern for members. Jim Williams, general president of the International Union of Painters & Allied Trades, said he is focused on ensuring that his members see a link between the current leadership in Washington and opportunities to create more union jobs. “We need to educate our members between now and November about what this administration has done for us and what it would mean to lose that,” he said.

union legislative priority scorecard
Federal Project Labor Agreements Final rule published in April encourages use of project labor agreements on federal projects of more than $25 million.
Employee Free Choice Act (the “card-check bill”) Bill passed by the House in 2007 but blocked in the Senate. It was reintroduced in 2009, but no further action was taken.
Health-Care Reform President Obama signed the bill but without the Merkley amendment, which would have required construction firms to provide health benefits or pay fines.
Jobs American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed in February 2009 included Davis-Bacon Act provisions.
Independent Contractor Classification U.S. Dept. of Labor hired hundreds of new investigators to help target misclassification by employers. Internal Revenue Service seeks more resources for enforcement in 2011.
Source: AFL-CIO building and construction trades dept., ENR reports

Unions are hopeful the next six months could play out in their favor, said Sean McGarvey, the building trades’ secretary-treasurer. He noted if unemployment starts to improve and people better understand the health-care bill, opinion polls could improve for President Obama and congressional leadership. “People are in for a big surprise when they tally the votes on Election Day and the results are not anywhere near the Armageddon that was predicted,” he said.

Meanwhile, union members have a lot of recent victories to relish, particularly on project labor agreements. In recent weeks, pacts were announced for proposed nuclear projects in Georgia and Texas. Ayers told members 21 of 25 major U.S. Dept. of Energy projects awarded since last summer include labor agreements. Recently...