Building Trades leader: U.S. needs $4 trillion for infrastructure repairs
Ten years after the deadly collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis spanning the Mississippi nothing serious has been done about repairing the nation's crumbling infrastructure. | AP

ST. LOUIS—The U.S. needs to spend $4 trillion, four times as much as the Republican Trump administration requested over the next several years, for needed infrastructure repairs, the president of North America’s Building Trades Unions says.

And that’s what the unions will lobby for, adds NABTU President Sean McGarvey. And there must be “a dedicated funding source,” including an increased federal gasoline tax, to provide the money, he contends. Another large chunk of change, he said, will come from public-private partnerships.

McGarvey and construction union presidents James Callahan of the Operating Engineers, Robert Martinez of the Machinists and Lonnie Stephenson of the Electrical Workers made the case for more money at an October 23 press conference during the AFL-CIO Convention in St. Louis.

Despite the recovery from the Great Recession, which didn’t start in the construction industry until 2011, the U.S. still has great unmet infrastructure needs, the four said. They include old water pipes, underground utilities which break down, cracking and decaying roads and a creaky electrical grid.

“We’re also concerned about the funding, but also with the underground subsystems,” Callahan said. They’re “the sewers, the electrical lines and what’s below the roads. That’s why we’re trying to get a permanent (fiscal) ‘lockbox,’ both for funding structures and for hiring enough people.”

Repairing all that via a federal infrastructure law would put and keep even more construction workers on the job, especially in coming colder months when residential construction slows, the four said.

That’s a distinct change, McGarvey and the others admitted, from the depths of the Great Recession, which began when the bottom dropped out of the housing market. Construction joblessness hit a high of 2.44 million in February 2010, and the construction jobless rate that month was 27.1 percent. The September 2017 data, the latest available, show 433,000 jobless construction workers (4.7 percent).

The Trump administration has yet to produce a detailed infrastructure plan, though congressional committees have held hearings on the nation’s needs. And McGarvey said his department has been working with both the White House and three business groups – the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce – on crafting legislation.

The Chamber has traditionally allied with the construction unions in pushing for infrastructure spending.

But the administration has also floated the idea of funding all infrastructure improvements at the $1 trillion level and only through the partnerships, rather than direct federal spending. That’s produced criticism the money would flow into Wall Streeters’ pockets rather than rebuilding the country. The reality critics note is that the administration plans extending massive tax breaks to large contractors and businesses that were already planning certain projects and claiming that these projects, which would have been done anyway, are part of the infrastructure program.

McGarvey floated a third idea for funding infrastructure repairs: using negotiations on the pending tax bill, which analysts note is really a tax cut for the rich, to produce “a huge repatriation payment” of corporate profits now stashed overseas to escape U.S. taxes. The likelihood that wealthy beneficiaries of a huge Trump tax break will then start returning to the public coffers money they have effectively hidden for years is far from a certain proposition.

A fourth source he mentioned was a gasoline tax increase. “We haven’t had a gas tax increase for 25 years,” he said.

The type of funding and its sources will help the building trades unions evaluate it, MCGARVEY SAID. And he said that, despite appearances, both the administration and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., are fully engaged on the infrastructure issue. That assessment appears to differ somewhat from remarks made by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka at his press conference a day earlier in which he said infrastructure is one of the areas in which President Trump has thus far produced nothing.

There’s another reason the construction unions are pushing infrastructure spending, the four presidents said: Apprenticeships. They pointed out training new apprentices is absolutely needed not just to build the projects but to replace the tens of thousands of Baby Boomer construction workers who retire every year.

At the same time, apprenticeships are also vital to increasing participation by women, minorities and veterans in construction, which is still a white male-dominated field. Federal data show 3 percent of construction workers are women, 6.8 percent are African-American, 1.7 percent are Asian-American and 34 percent are Latino.

That led McGarvey and several other construction union leaders to raise the issue with the Trump administration he had told the PW in an interview last spring. At that time he said building trades leaders were advising the administration on the importance of increasing apprenticeship and extending them more to minorities and women. McGarvey said at that time that this was one of the reasons it was important for building trades leaders to engage with the administration. Some in the labor movement had been critical of the buildings trades leaders for having a friendly meeting with Trump so early in his administration.

“The administration views” union apprenticeship programs “as a model” for the industry, McGarvey claimed at yesterday’s press conference. The administration itself, however, has said nothing about such apprenticeships. In fact, and McGarvey did not say this, the administration has proposed a budget that cuts federal funds for apprenticeship programs.

But even more apprentices won’t fill the workplace void, the union presidents said. That will occur only when construction firms, notably non-union firms, pay their workers what they’re worth. A pay rate of $15 an hour, for a worker with a family of four or “women of color with kids” is not enough, McGarvey and Stephenson said.


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.