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Building Trades Allow Themselves to Be Played Like Fools

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Emperor Tangerine invited the building trade union leaders in for a meeting yesterday and boy were they excited.

At a meeting with the leaders of several construction and building trade unions, President Trump reiterated on Monday his interest in directing hundreds of billions of dollars to infrastructure investments, some of it from the federal government, union officials said.

“That was the impression I was taken away with,” said Sean McGarvey, the president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, an umbrella group, on a call with reporters after the meeting. “That the American citizenry and the American Treasury will be invested in building public infrastructure.”

Mr. McGarvey added that Mr. Trump clearly felt that much of the money should come from the private sector and that some of the investments could take the form of public-private partnerships, an idea the president floated as a candidate.

The meeting included roughly half a dozen union leaders and a similar number of rank-and-file members, as well as senior White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence; Reince Priebus, the chief of staff; Katie Walsh, the deputy chief of staff; Stephen K. Bannon, the chief strategist; Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor; and Sean Spicer, the press secretary. It took place in the White House and ran for well over an hour.

The presence of so many senior aides suggests that the Trump administration sees a political rationale to courting the building trade unions, many of whose members appear to have voted for Mr. Trump last fall.

“We have a common bond with the president,” Mr. McGarvey said. “We come from the same industry. He understands the value of driving development, moving people to the middle class.”

Mr. O’Sullivan was previously the chief executive of the Union Labor Life Insurance Company, and he said that during his tenure there the company invested in some of Mr. Trump’s projects and had a good relationship with him.

Mr. McGarvey said he worked on a Trump project in Atlantic City in the early 1990s and had always been grateful for the work. “It was the middle of a recession; no one had jobs,” he said. “He made investments to expand at the time Trump Plaza. I got that job after being unemployed for six months.”

The two union leaders said they had discussed a number of specific projects with the president and his aides, including the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export and storage facility in Oregon. More broadly, they discussed possible investments in building and repairing bridges, schools and hospitals.

Certain projects, like the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, have divided the labor movement, with the building trades supporting them as a source of jobs with good pay, and other unions, like the Service Employees International Union, opposing them on environmental grounds, and out of concern for desecrating sacred Native American lands.

The shorter version of this is that Trump is going to undo Obama’s decision on the Dakota Access Pipeline and run it right down those savage Indians’ throats. And nothing would make Terry O’Sullivan more excited. Because JOBS!!!! The type of job, irrelevant. Do the Laborers or the other building trades have nonwhite members? Yes they do. Does McGarvey or O’Sullivan prioritize the civil rights of those members? Evidently not. Do they prioritize a livable planet? No. Do they think they need allies in the rest of the labor movement or the broader left movement? No. Do they wish it was 1910 again? Yes. Do they hate hippies? Yes. Do they have tremendous power within the AFL-CIO? Yes, very much so. Are they acting in their members’ best interests? No. Do their members see it that way? Largely, no.

And then there’s this:

At the meeting, Mr. McGarvey raised one point of possible discord between the labor leaders and the Trump administration: the so-called Davis-Bacon Act, which requires the federal government to pay contractors and subcontractors “locally prevailing wages,” as determined by the Labor Department, on most construction or renovation projects.

Many conservatives contend that the act inflates the cost of infrastructure projects, and on Tuesday, Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, is proposing a bill to suspend it for federal highway construction contracts.

Mr. McGarvey said he had told Mr. Trump that Mr. Flake’s bill would undercut wages and undermine the president’s campaign goal of producing good middle-class jobs.

The president was noncommittal in response, he said. “He said he knows the Davis-Bacon proposal well, understands how it works,” Mr. McGarvey said, but avoided taking a position.

In other words, my offer to you is nothing.

The building trades are going to have no influence on issues that matter even to their most backward-looking leadership. Davis-Bacon is going to get destroyed. And they will still vote for Trump in 2020.

There’s a few things going on here that are important for us to understand. First, if the Democratic Party or the left wants to “solve the white working class problem,” there’s a case study we can focus on. It’s called “solving the LIUNA problem.” The old adage about the Laborers is that they would build their own prisons if they got union scale to do so. Terry O’Sullivan has been an absolute dinosaur on climate issues, bullying other unions into not saying anything about climate change or other environmental issues. No one in the labor union has done more to damage relationships with the progressive community in recent years. But then these are the white working-class people Democrats need to reach to win those critical Midwestern states. Can they? Rather than focus on this in the big picture, can they win LIUNA members and other building trades members?

The difficulty of figuring this out is the difficulty of the white working class issue generally, which is the enormous cultural baggage that gets in the way of cross-movement alliances over the last few decades. A good bit of the intense focus on DAPL and Keystone is that these workers hate hippies. They see themselves as the working “real Americans” and anyone who gets in the way of that is their enemy. There is no question that environmentalists have failed to reach out to these unions effectively, and it’s a must that they create a union-centered program of green energy infrastructure. That has to be part of solving the LIUNA problem. But there are deep cultural divides here–many of these rank and file members want to see immigrants kicked out, Muslims kicked out, gay rights repealed, etc. That might be expected–it’s not like that’s not the case in every union. The problem is that McGarvey and O’Sullivan and some of these other union leaders aren’t trying to educate their workers on these issues. Instead they are encouraging them to see this as a culture war. Right now in Rhode Island, there’s a battle over whether a gas liquefaction plant will be built. At a recent city council meeting debating it, LIUNA members were outside jeering environmentalists as they walked in. That’s incredibly counterproductive.

On top of this is the fact that the changing makeup of the union movement has reinforced the power of the building trades. One of the impacts of deindustrialization and capital mobility was the decimation of the industrial unions. It was always those unions who pushed for the widespread social democratic policies that typified the New Deal and Great Society. The building trades never played an important role in the New Deal coalition and they have never articulated big social policy. But with the UAW and USWA shells of what they once were and many of the other unions like the International Woodworkers of America no more, the building trades have become more powerful within the labor movement than any time since the creation of the CIO. The public sector unions have countered this to some extent, but with SEIU out of the federation, their ability to do so is more limited. Richard Trumka is, with the exception of Walter Reuther, by far the most politically progressive labor federation leader in American history. But he can only do so much when so much of his membership is made up of very conservative building trdes.

The other thing to note is that it’s pretty clear at this point that many of the building trade leaders would have no problem returning to the labor movement of the late 19th century, where you had tiny numbers of union members in the skilled trades with no impact on government and the vast masses of workers unorganized. I don’t see how they see this as good for them, but by meeting with Trump, they are basically endorsing this position. And you can see it from the look on Trump’s face. They are being played for fools. And they largely are fools.

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