Construction union members were in a celebratory mood on opening day of the 2023 North America's Building Trades Legislative Conference, as labor leaders praised the Biden administration and members of Congress for advancing a union-friendly agenda during President Joe Biden’s first two years in office. 

Capped with an appearance by the president at the April 25 event in Washington, D.C., speakers throughout the day trumpeted the passage of such legislation as the $1.2-billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS Act and the American Rescue Plan, which includes billions in funding to help secure ailing multiemployer pension plans.

“This would not be possible without you,” NABTU President Sean McGarvey told members. “You delivered the critical votes that decided who would run this country in the White House and in our nation’s Congress. The landmark achievements of this administration over the two years … are because of you. You've delivered game-changing victories for building trades members across the nation.”

The strong show of support for President Biden came as he used the setting and audience to formally announce his re-election campaign. Taking the stage for his first major speech following the announcement, the president called out the inability of the Trump administration to pass legislation such as theinfrastructure funding law.

“Under my predecessor, Infrastructure Week was a punchline,” Biden said. “On my watch, we’re making Infrastructure Decade a headline. That’s where you come in. We’ve already announced over 25,000 infrastructure projects in 4,500 towns across the country. Union workers will build roads and bridges, lay internet cable and install electric vehicle chargers. Union workers are going to transform America, and union workers are going to finish the job.”

Focus on Project Roll-out

While some legislative items remain on the building trades’ agenda, much of their near term focus will be on rolling out projects that will receive federal funding. “We need to capitalize on that $1.2 trillion,” said Terry O’Sullivan, outgoing general president of the Laborers International Union of North America. “There are various pieces of that bill, including grant money that will be given out to cities and states. So, we need to focus time and attention on that.”

One legislative priority is construction project permit reform legislation to speed up federal review and permitting. While the funding law did include several provisions to address expedited federal review for transportation projects—particularly highways and bridges—the main focus of current discussions is on energy projects, including pipelines and electric power lines. 

The Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works is holding hearings on permit reform this week. 

Mark McManus, general president of the plumbers and pipefitters' union, says that, despite a split Congress, he believes permit reform has enough bipartisan support to pass a bill. “The last piece out there for us right now is permitting reform,” he said. “We can have all the great ideas in the world and we can put the financing out there, but right now we still get bogged down in permitting.”

 Brendan Bechtel, chairman and CEO of the Bechtel Group, stressed to conference attendees the importance of permit reform to keep projects moving. “Bechtel doesn't get to do projects unless our customers can get them permitted, and we can't be in a position to hire your members unless those projects happen,” he said.

The conference was a friendly early stop for the president as he launches his reelection campaign. “It’s so good to see you, guys,” he told the crowd. “It feels like coming home.”

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has already endorsed Biden, and members in attendance at the NABTU conference showed strong support for during his speech with several standing ovations and chants of “Let’s go, Joe” and “Four more years.” 

Strong union support could prove critical in the president’s bid for reelection, and labor leaders are already sounding the call.

“I've been in D.C. for 30 years and President Biden and the Democratic Congress got more done in two years than I've seen in four or even eight years,” said O'Sullivan. who is set to retire April 30 and be succeeded by union vice president Brent Booker. “It's been one hell of a ride. We need to get him reelected and keep it going.”