Bruce Buckley for ENR
Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson sought union support for Keystone pipeline.

Construction labor is locking arms with the petrochemical industry in hopes of clearing a political path for the Keystone XL pipeline and other stalled oil and gas projects.

Union presidents joined with industry leaders at the annual legislative conference of North America's Building Trades, the rebranded organized-labor umbrella group, to call for approval of the pipeline and other stalled petrochemical megaprojects.

Speakers at the mid-March event pointed to environmental and national security studies that address concerns raised by Keystone opponents, including a Jan. 31 U.S. State Dept. report that said the project would not lead to a significant greenhouse-gas spike.

"Together, we have exposed how political gamesmanship continues to delay a pipeline that would create more than 20,000 construction jobs," Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., told the 2,000 attendees.

He noted union efforts to link with industry in Marcellus shale states, including a partnership with the American Petroleum Institute to defeat an Ohio ballot measure that would have halted hydraulic fracturing.

With the huge potential for construction jobs in the petrochemical sector, the union-labor group is trying to plant its flag firmly in the Gulf Coast region. Building Trades President Sean McGarvey said the group would open, on April 1, an office in Houston, its first outside Washington since the 1980s. "If there is an epicenter, it is along the Gulf Coast," McGarvey said.

Building trades already are working with Exxon Mobil to advance a multibillion-dollar expansion plan for its petrochemical plant in Baytown, Texas, Tillerson said.

McGarvey says unions will leverage their training capabilities to offset labor shortages predicted if billions of dollars in projects are approved. Among those engaged in the effort is the operating engineers' union, which recently re-affiliated with the Building Trades after an eight-year absence. The union already has performed more than two million hours of work on the Gulf Coast parts of the pipeline.

Laborers' union President Terry O'Sullivan said organized labor would pressure legislators in both parties to advance Keystone.

McGarvey sees few legislative issues advancing through Congress but said unions will raise concerns regarding potential reforms to immigration policy and multi-employer pension rules.

Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez told attendees that the department concluded more than 1,700 Davis-Bacon Act prevailing-wage investigations in fiscal 2013, which resulted in recouping $27.9 million in back wages for 11,000 workers.

“We will continue to build on this record,” he said, singling out the issue of misclassification of workers as independent contractors, which he said “will be at the forefront of our agenda.”

Perez noted that in Maryland, where he had been Secretary of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, a law dealing with misclassification was enacted in 2009. He said he doesn’t  like the term misclassification.

In Maryland, we call this what it is: workplace fraud.” He said the practice is “prevalent.”

Perez also said that workplace safety "will continue to be a top priority.”

He said he often hears the worker-safety debate defined as “We can either have jobs, or job safety.” He adds, “This is  a false choice, categorically.”