After attending an Oval Office meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, a group of top labor union officials said they voiced support for Biden’s promised economic recovery plan—which is expected to include a heavy emphasis on infrastructure—and his new actions to strengthen registered apprenticeship programs, many of which are affiliated with unions.
In all, 10 organized-labor leaders attended the Feb. 17 meeting, including seven from construction unions.
In remarks at the outset of the meeting, Biden gave the union presidents a warm welcome and added, “I think we have an incredible opportunity to make some enormous progress in creating jobs—good-paying jobs, Davis-Bacon and prevailing-wage jobs—to rebuild the infrastructure of this country in a way that everybody knows has to be done.”
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a post-meeting statement, “For working people, this was the most productive Oval Office meeting in years.”
Trumka added, “As we made clear today, America can only build back better if unions are doing the building.”
Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), strongly endorsed Biden’s expected infrastructure proposal. O’Sullivan said in a statement, “The plan is exactly what our nation needs and LIUNA’s members are ready for the job.”
After the session, which extended for more than 90 minutes, some union leaders also said they had discussed immediate issues, including offers to help government officials with distributing COVID vaccines.
Kenneth E. Rigmaiden, general president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), said that the union "has training centers all across the country that stand ready to help the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] administer the vaccine."
He added, "We are eager to work hand in hand with our communities in mutual aid to provide relief from the pandemic.
Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, said that in addition to the vaccine assistance, the union presidents also discussed “retirement security, energy policy, infrastructure investments and pathways to the middle class.”
The reference to "retirement security" may refer to unions' push for steps to strengthen ailing multiemployer-pension plans. Multiemployer plans are common in construction's unionized sector. Over the past few years, plans to alter the program have been floated but none has won congressional approval.
Apprenticeships and PRO Act
LIUNA's O'Sullivan also was pleased to see Biden again state his support for bolstering registered-apprenticeship programs. In construction, they include training programs operated jointly by unions and specialty-contractor organizations.
The union officials also welcomed Biden's reiterating his backing for an apprenticeship bill that the House passed on Feb. 5. It would authorize $3 billion over five years to expand training programs in a range of industries, including construction. The Senate has not yet taken action on an apprenticeship bill.
The labor leaders also said they had stressed the importance they place on having Congress pass the Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO Act. The measure contains a long list of changes that unions are seeking in federal labor law, including ending the prohibition on secondary boycotts.
But the PRO Act, which was reintroduced in early February in the House and Senate, has been strongly criticized by business groups, such as Associated Builders & Contractors and the Associated General Contractors of America.
Unions and Biden have generally been on the same page on many issues.
But one exception is the president's Jan. 21 decision to cancel the federal permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline. In a statement issued that day, McGarvey said that the building trades were "deeply disappointed" by that action, saying that resulted in the loss of more than 1,000 union jobs.
It was unclear from the White House and union leaders' statements whether Keystone came up in the Oval Office meeting.
But in a Facebook post, Mark McManus, general president of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the U.S. and Canada, said he “urged the President to take an all-of-the-above approach on energy.” That term has referred to including energy derived from oil and natural gas.