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Construction workers prepare to battle former ally Trump

Friday, August 16th, 2019

Ian Kullgren March 9, 2018. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)

A powerful union group uneasy about a Labor Department apprenticeship proposal has “the potential to be a significant force in the 2020 election.”

One of the nation’s largest labor groups embraced Donald Trump at the start of his presidency, in hopes he would create construction jobs and retreat from proposals that might reduce workers’ wages.

But now the two sides are on the brink of war, endangering a key bloc of Trump’s support in Midwestern swing states in 2020.

At issue is a deal gone bad between Trump and North America’s Building Trades Unions over a Labor Department apprenticeship initiative, the politics of which have grown more complicated since last month’s ouster of Secretary Alexander Acosta. Leaders of the union federation worry that the final version will undermine their own job-training programs and create a supply of cheap labor for developers, undercutting high-skilled construction workers who rely on prevailing-wage jobs to make ends meet.

“It’s an existential threat to the Building Trades,” said a former administration official with knowledge of the discussions. And it has the powerful group — a union federation that represents millions of construction workers across the U.S. — seeing early signs of a member-driven revolt against Trump in 2020.

Such a turn could further weaken Trump’s already-declining support in the Midwestern states that won him the presidency in 2016, when many Building Trades members embraced his pledge to create working-class jobs and improve the nation’s infrastructure.

“The Building Trades have the potential to be a significant force in the 2020 election,” said Steve Rosenthal, a strategist and former political director for the AFL-CIO, “particularly in some of the key swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Iowa.

“The Building Trades know how to mobilize their members and move votes,” he added. “And their opposition to Trump can have a ripple effect beyond their members and their families to other voters in the communities where their members live and work.”

Trump sought to shore up support with the Building Trades this week at an appearance in Pennsylvania. Aninstruction sheet given to workers attending the event said the president hoped to “promote good will from the labor unions,” and he wasted no time doing so.

“I love the unions and I love the workers,” Trump said. “And, you know, when I built buildings in New York … I built them exclusively with unions. People don’t understand that. I was exclusive.” (Until recently, it was virtually impossible for anyone to build anything in New York City without union labor.)

Though its leadership endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign, NABTU has always been viewed as more conservative than other labor groups, and since Trump’s victory it has weathered criticism from the left for that reason. Trump — who won the majority of white male union members — made a point of meeting with the leaders of several construction unions on his third day in office, after which NABTU President Sean McGarvey exalted their “common bond with the president.”

“We come from the same industry,” McGarvey told The New York Times after the meeting. “He understands the value of driving development, moving people to the middle class.”

In April 2017, McGarvey praised Trump as “the very definition of an American success story” before an audience of members in Washington.

McGarvey’s group had a keen interest at the time in securing construction jobs from the Trump administration’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure program, which never came to fruition. McGarvey also had an interest in dissuading Trump from an early impulse to push repeal of the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act, which requires the federal government to pay prevailing wage — typically union scale — on construction projects. Trump backed off the idea after floating it early in his presidency.

But the Building Trades and the administration are increasingly at odds over the apprenticeship initiative, a proposed rule that would create industry-supervised job training programs. The Labor Department’s proposal has received more than 160,000 comments, the vast majority of them from union members vouching for the strength of the unions’ existing training programs. Most of the comments implicitly rebuke officials in the White House who have sought to make the proposal less favorable to unions.

The two sides appeared more in agreement in June 2017, when Trump issued an executive order aimed at “easing the regulatory burden” on apprenticeships. In an effort to expand job training to new industries, the administration proposed to create a class of “industry-recognized” programs with fewer restrictions than existing government-sanctioned programs.

McGarvey agreed at the time to join Trump’s committee to help create the apprenticeship system — with the understanding that NABTU’s own government-supervised apprenticeships would be untouched, according to his chief of staff, Michael Monroe.

NABTU says it had a deal with the administration to exclude construction jobs from the new proposal, to protect the Building Trades’ existing programs for training pipe fitters, iron workers and roofers, among others. But that agreement was with Acosta. Now NABTU’s leaders fear that White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and his deregulation hawks won’t honor the bargain.

Trust between the Building Trades and the White House began to unravel in May, when the White House forced out Acosta’s chief of staff, Nick Geale, after an inquiry raised questions about his treatment of subordinates. But there was perhaps a deeper source of tension: Mulvaney and some domestic policy advisers judged Acosta too cautious on deregulation and too accommodating to unions.

When he took over as acting chief of staff in January, Mulvaney had judged the situation so dire that he seized Acosta’s rulemaking authority, commanding final say on policy matters. Then came the Labor secretary’s resignation in July, days after Mulvaney urged Trump to fire him over a lenient 2008 plea deal that Acosta, then the U.S. attorney for southern Florida, had struck with wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Before he left, Acosta persuaded Ivanka Trump, who was involved in the apprenticeship rulemaking, to keep construction out of the new industry-led program, according to the former administration official. The Building Trades had told Acosta that letting developers pay industry-recognized apprentices less than prevailing wage would create price competition with NABTU’s program.

“It would lower standards, it would put workers at risk, it would put projects at risk, it would put communities at risk,” Monroe said. “All the features that make ours successful, to undermine that is to undermine the veracity of the system at large.”

Acosta’s decision was also driven by politics, according to the former official, who noted the Building Trades’ strong grassroots operation in the Midwest. Democrats on Capitol Hill were sounding alarms about the Labor Department’s new industry-led program, too, warning that it risked creating low-quality programs with lax oversight.

Acosta and three White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.

In the proposed rule published in June, the Labor Department said it would not “initially” accept industry-led apprenticeship applications for the construction sector, but didn’t rule out doing so later. That language stirred deep anxiety among Building Trades leaders, and prompted NABTU to direct a torrent of public comments to the Labor Department about the proposal.

NABTU leaders say they’ve observed a high volume of comments from the Midwest. An iron worker from Indiana, encapsulating the sentiment, told the Labor Department that his union apprenticeship provided a pathway to the middle class — and expressed concern that it would “disappear” under the administration’s proposal.

In April, meanwhile, McGarvey said the Building Trades might not endorse any candidate 2020. Hacked emails released by WikiLeaks showed internal dissent from some member unions, including the Teamsters and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, following the federation’s endorsement of Clinton — demonstrating how tenuous NABTU support was for any candidate.

Clinton performed poorly in 2016 among union households, winning only 51 percent — the narrowest margin of victory for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1984. In Ohio, Trump bested Clinton among union households by 9 percentage points. But the next Democratic nominee could poll more strongly with that group in 2020, Building Trades brass argue, if their voters feel betrayed by Trump.

“This is not necessarily what people supported or thought they would get out of this administration,” Monroe said. “The fact that they’re out there engaging on this is something I would think that people in more political circles than I am would probably take notice of.”

This article was originally published by Politico on August 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Ian Kullgren is a reporter on POLITICO’s employment and immigration team. Before joining POLITICO, he was a reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. and was part of a team that covered a 41-day standoff with armed militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their efforts earned the Associated Press Media Editors grand prize for news reporting in 2017. His real beat was politics, though, and he spent most his time at the state capitol covering the governor and state legislature.

Groups Petition OSHA to Issue Heat Standard

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018

Peggy Frank, a 63-year-old California postal worker — and also a mother and grandmother — died last week while working her usual route in unusually hot weather. Frank’s heat-related death was not a freak occurrence, nor was it unusual.

“An average of more than 2.2 million workers in the agriculture or construction industries worked in extreme heat each day,” according to according to a report released yesterday by Public Citizen, in support of a petition by more than 130 organizations for an OSHA heat standard.  High heat — and especially working in high heat — can cause serious heat-related illnesses and death. It can also worsen other conditions such as heart disease and asthma.

The report cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics which concludes that “exposure to excessive environmental heat stress killed 783 U.S. workers and seriously injured 69,374 workers from 1992 through 2016,” and these numbers are probably significantly underestimated because many heat-related deaths are registered as heart attacks. Construction workers and farm workers are the occupations most at risk.

Although it seems hard to believe, almost 50 years after OSHA was created, the agency still has no occupational heat standard. High heat has been plaguing workers for a long, long time — pretty much since God said “Let there be light.” We’ve known about the hazards of heat stroke and how to prevent them for a long time as well.

And, of course, the problem has gotten much worse since the beginning of time. The groups petitioning OSHA — which include Public Citizen, Farmworker Justice, Interfaith Worker Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, United Farm Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers Union and several other labor unions —  tied the need for an OSHA heat standard to global warming which is significantly increasing the risk to workers. The petition noted that

Global warming is resulting in more frequent days of extreme heat, and record-breaking summers are now becoming the norm. 2017 was the second-hottest year on record, surpassed only by 2016. Indeed, 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001…. Record-setting years will be common in the coming decades, as temperatures are projected to increase by 2.5°F (1.4°C) for the period 2021–2050 relative to 1976–2005 even if we aggressively reduce greenhouse gas pollution worldwide.

Groups Petition OSHA For A Heat Standard

Yesterday, more than 130 organizations announced a petition to OSHA for a heat standard that would protect workers from the hazards of high heat.  Joining the press conference were former OSHA Directors Dr. Eula Bingham and Dr. David Michaels as well as former California/OSHA Director Ellen Widess. The press conference, which included the passionate statement of a man whose brother died of heat exposure, can be heard here.

Federal OSHA, which concluded that extreme heat was a factor in the deaths of at least six workers in 2017, has been concerned about the problem for many years. The agency launched a national heat education campaign in 2012, following successful efforts to prevent heat-related deaths among workers cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico.  OSHA borrowed CalOSHA’s  their “Water, Rest, Shade” campaign and developed a cell-phone heat app, that would analyze the hazards of heat for workers in their geographical area, and recommend measures to protect themselves. (Available from the Apple Store or from Google Play.)  OSHA also increased enforcement under its General Duty Clause, which the agency uses when there is no standard. But, according to former OSHA head David Michaels, the Obama administration declined to launch rulemaking for a heat standard due to lack of time and resources while working on the silica, beryllium and other OSHA standards issued during the last administration.

Three OSHA state-plan states — CaliforniaWashington, and Minnesota (indoor) — have heat standards, leaving 130 million workers in the rest of the country who lack the protections of a national OSHA heat standard. The military also has strict heat standards and in 2016, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)  issued the third version of its criteria for a recommended heat standard “which includes the following elements: heat stress threshold, rest breaks, hydration, shade, heat acclimatization plan, PPE, exposure monitoring, hazard notification, worker training, medical monitoring, injury surveillance, and recordkeeping.”

The report and petition argue that federal OSHA’s current efforts and voluntary activities are not enough. The report points out that an OSHA analysis of heat-related fatality cases show that “17 of 23 fatalities (74 percent) involved workers who were in their first three days on the job, and eight (35 percent) victims were on the very first day of work,” because employer did not follow industry recommendations to allow workers to acclimatize, or get used to the heat for a few days before heavy work.

Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA), who spoke at the press conference,  promised to introduce legislation that would require OSHA to issue a heat standard.

The petition outlined a number of elements of an OSHA heat standard, which would reqiure employers to:

  1. Provide mandatory rest breaks with increased frequency in times of extreme heat and significant exertion.
  2. Provide access to shaded and otherwise cool conditions for employees to rest during breaks.
  3. Provide personal protective equipment, such as water-cooled and air-cooled garments.
  4. Make provisions for adequate hydration.
  5. Implement heat acclimatization plans to help new workers safely adjust to hot conditions.
  6. Regularly monitor both the environmental heat load and employees’ metabolic heat loads during hot conditions.
  7. Medically monitor at-risk employees.
  8. Notify employees of heat stress hazards.
  9. Institute a heat-alert plan outlining procedures to follow when heat waves are forecast.
  10. Train workers on heat stress risks and preventive measures.
  11. Maintain and report records relating to this standard.
  12. Institute whistleblower protection programs to ensure that employees who witness violations of the heat stress safety standard are free to speak up.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on July 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

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