Job creation in an election year was the top priority for speakers and attendees at the construction unions' annual legislative conference in Washington, D.C., on April 30. Members of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Dept. looked for signs of optimism not just from keynote speaker President Obama but also from newly elected President Sean McGarvey, making his first major appearance leading two million union workers since the sudden death of his predecessor, Mark Ayers, on April 8.
Although the economy is showing signs of improvement, construction unemployment remains at roughly 17%. Given the state of the industry, President Obama's speech highlighted federal transportation funding, which continues to operate on short-term extensions in the absence of multiyear legislation, as a critical means of getting union labor back to work.
"Members of the building trades have suffered more than most," Obama said. "That makes no sense at a time when there's so much work to be done. We've got roads and bridges all across this country in desperate need of repair. The worst part about it is, we could be doing something about it."
Obama called on Congress to pass a two-year, $109-million highway funding bill that already passed the Senate and is now being negotiated in the House. "Pass this bill right away," he said. "Not everything should be subject to thinking about the next election, instead of thinking about the next generation."
Obama added, "It's time to take all of the money we spent on wars, use half of it to pay down debt and use the rest of it to do some nation-building right here in America."
Obama and other conference speakers spotlighted recent efforts by Republican leaders in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and other states to challenge collective bargaining rights. "What's their big economic plan in addition to tax cuts for rich folks? It's dismantling your unions," the president said.
The Obama administration earned praise from unions with its push for project labor agreements on federal work and greater enforcement of the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires prevailing wages. But other wish-list items, including the Employee Free Choice Act, never gained traction.
Despite that, McGarvey praised the president's efforts on job creation and on his labor-friendly policies.
"We haven't agreed with every decision he's made, but the overall results are hard to argue with," said the new building-trades president, who was formerly the secretary-treasurer.
Construction labor officials have used the Associated Builders & Contractors' endorsement of Mitt Romney to help rally union forces. Addressing ABC in February at a Phoenix conference, Romney promised on "day one" of his presidency "to end the government's favoritism towards unions in contracting on federal projects and to end project labor agreements."