Photo by Bruce Buckley / ENR
Unions' President Sean McGarvey (above) pushed broad outreach, while conferees responded well to Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt (below).
Photo by Bruce Buckley / ENR

Faced with a bitterly divided political environment in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere in the U.S., construction unions are making a key strategic shift to stay out of the fray and build bipartisan support as the 2016 campaigns heat up. Sean McGarvey, president of North America's Building Trades Unions, told the group's legislative conference that the labor movement and the Democratic Party should not be considered "philosophical soul mates."

At the April 20 event in Washington, McGarvey told conferees to "focus on building increased support for our issues and priorities, no matter the party affiliation." He added, "The days of our unions being viewed as the handmaiden of any one political party" are over.

The move is based, in part, on necessity. McGarvey noted that, in addition to Republicans holding majorities in both houses of Congress, they control 25 state legislatures and are the party of 31 governors. "Regardless of how we wished it would look—blue or red—the fact is, today, we live in a purple world," he added.

As unions push for more work in a booming energy sector largely based in non-union areas, they are promoting ties to corporate leaders such as Thomas Farrell, CEO of energy firm Dominion, which now is building a $3.5-billion LNG facility in Lusby, Md., under a project labor agreement. He addressed conferees. Building trades also have broken with the Obama administration and many Democrats over the president's rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline. This year's conferees greeted Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a leading project backer, more cordially than they did other Republicans in the past.

The building trades now are expanding their nationwide outreach to Republicans. Union reps who have been successful in boosting relationships in key states and districts will mentor other local leaders. Dennis Duffy, secretary-treasurer of the Ohio State Building & Construction Trades Council, says the situation is dire in his state, where Republicans hold the governorship, a supermajority in the assembly and a state senate majority. Although he disagrees with them on many issues, Duffy says he changed both his outlook and approach. "All they knew about us is what they had heard," he told ENR. "We ignored these people and allowed them to live with these myths. When we took time to explain our business model, we found them to be very practical."

Duffy says the efforts are paying off, with some state Republicans supporting critical issues, including prevailing wage. The fight in Ohio is particularly important as unions face challenges in nearby states. In Indiana, lawmakers recently repealed the state's common construction wage law. In West Virginia, a new law now exempts public projects of less than $500,000 from paying prevailing wage.

Even in California, where Democrats hold a majority in state seats, Robbie Hunter, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council, says his group has held fund-raisers for Republicans who support its positions, including Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres. "He supports high-speed rail and has helped protect prevailing wage in California," Hunter says. "Regardless of his party affiliation, those are important to us."

Terry O'Sullivan, general president of the Laborers, said, while it will take a dedicated effort, members will reach across both sides of the aisle. He said 32% of them twice voted for George W. Bush for president. "I think, at the local level, a lot of this is already happening," said O'Sullivan. McGarvey, who has outlined a strategy to build a "customer-centric and value-added" culture, said unions now "spend a lot of time building bridges with people in the corporate community." He added, "When businesspeople start speaking on your behalf, that changes the political discussion."