Barack Obama is gaining in support among some construction trades.
AP/Wideworld
Barack Obama is gaining in support among some construction trades.

The Democratic Party remains divided over its candidate for president, but the two battling contenders were greeted with enthusiasm at the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Dept.’s annual legislative conference in Washington, D.C., even as some craft unions have yet to endorse either.

With no official Democrat nominee to back, union representatives heard from both Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) during the meeting on April 14-16, focusing for now on an “anyone but McCain” approach.

During his keynote address, Mark Ayers, experiencing his first presidential campaign as BCTD president, called President Bush “the most anti-union president in U.S. history,” noting Republican nominee Sen. John McCain would offer more of the same. “If you liked George Bush, you’ll love John McCain,” he said.

The Democrat candidates keyed off that theme, with each promising to radically alter the Bush labor-relations approach, if elected. “They don’t believe in unions. They don’t believe in organizing. They’ve packed the [National Labor Relations Board] with their corporate buddies,” Obama said. “Well, we’ve got news for them: It’s not the Dept. of Management, it’s the Dept. of Labor, and we’re here to take it back.”

Clinton echoed that sentiment, promising to install pro-union nominees to lead both agencies.

Obama and Clinton remain in lockstep on key union issues. Both vowed to return project labor agreements to federal contracting, a practice halted during the Bush years. They also promised swift passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would strengthen labor organizing practices. The candidates took the administration to task for weakening the Davis-Bacon Act, particularly for Hurricane Katrina rebuilding. “When I’m President, you’ll never have to fight those battles again,” said Clinton, promising to apply the prevailing-wage law to all federally assisted construction projects.

AFI-CIO building and construction trades department
AP/Wideworld
AFI-CIO building and construction trades department
AFI-CIO building and construction trades department
AFI-CIO building and construction trades department
AFI-CIO building and construction trades department
Hillary Clinton has several labor endorsements, including the painters (bottom), while Obama seeks out craft supporters (top).

Clinton and Obama both forwarded universal health care as a way to remove rising health- benefit costs from the bargaining table. “I’m tired of seeing union members having to spend all their time negotiating about the health care they already have when they should be negotiating for better wages to support their families,” Obama said.

Unions and Democrats are even cozying up on climate issues. Jim Grogan, general president of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers, says unions are seeing the green movement as “good for jobs.”

Even so, the building trades remain divided on who can best deliver the promise, with splits even showing up between internationals and their locals. Obama has been endorsed by the plumbers’, boilermakers’ and teamsters’ unions, while Clinton has official backing from the bricklayers’, sheet-metal workers’, painters’ and the plasterers’ and cement masons’ unions.

Tim Stricker, the painters’ director of government affairs, cites Clinton’s experience. “It is vital at this time in history, not just domestically but around the world,” he said.

Vincent Panvini, the sheet-metal workers’ director of governmental affairs, said members chose Clinton “two to one” over other candidates in a poll last year. Referring to Obama, as well as past contenders John Kerry and Al Gore, he said, “We’re tired of losing because these guys are seen as intellectuals who don’t want to get down in the dirt. Hillary will get down in the dirt and fight for you.”

The United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters backs Obama because“he’s got a fresh perspective,” said President Bill Hite. “He’s a very smart man and looks at things differently. He may not have the experience of Hillary Clinton, but I’m a guy who believes in change.”

But key BCTD unions, such as those representing laborers and ironworkers, have yet to endorse. The laborers’ union was in force at the conference after its return to BCTD last month following a two year absence spawned by management disputes. “The issues we had were addressed to our mutual satisfaction,” says union President Terry O’Sullivan. He says the union is withholding official support for a candidate because of a lack of consensus in polls of members. O’Sullivan says after three surveys, Obama has pulled almost even with Clinton. He says the union will await a candidate garnering 60% of laborer votes.

Outsiders

Also uncommitted are the carpenters’ and operating engineers’ unions, which remain unaffiliated with BCTD after exiting with the laborers to form the alternative National Construction Alliance. O’Sullivan says NCA will be dissolved by month’s end. Its two other soon-to-be former members will form a new alliance, as yet unnamed. O’Sullivan says he is negotiating with other BCTD unions to restore a “heavy-highway alliance” run independently of the department but having links to it. He speculates the carpenters and operating engineers would not participate.

New BCTD President Ayers is pushing for Democrats.
AFI-CIO building and construction trades dept
New BCTD President Ayers is pushing for Democrats.

Even with existing divides, BCTD leadership is gearing up to go after John McCain. He engendered still-enduring union enmity after backing a guest-worker program bill at the 2006 conference. He has not returned since. “Our choices were made clear,” says Sean McGarvey, BCTD secretary-treasurer.

Ayers hammered McCain’s record, noting his votes against Davis-Bacon and the Employee Free Choice Act, while supporting “disastrous trade agreements that have undercut good American jobs.”

BCTD plans to launch a large-scale grassroots campaigning effort, says Tom Owens, BCTD spokesman. Along with the AFL-CIO, it plans to target six states across the U.S. that have key statewide races and strong union membership in place. O’Sullivan says his union is committing an unprecedented $15 million to support presidential and congressional candidates this fall. “We’ve never spent more than $3 million,” he notes.