McGarvey: BLDG. Trades Unions Face Huge Opportunity, Huge Problem

WASHINGTON —The nation’s building trades unions face a huge opportunity, via building new projects for the energy industry, and a huge problem, their aging membership, says their top leader, Sean McGarvey.

In his keynote address to the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades legislative conference in Washington in late April, McGarvey forecast energy companies would need well-trained, highly skilled, experienced union labor to build the pipelines, power plants and other facilities the U.S. requires over the next few years.

Symbolic of that need is the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, from the Montana-Canada border to Gulf Coast oil refineries. Building Trades unions strongly back the pipeline, which would employ 10,000 construction workers for its northern leg.

Democratic President Barack Obama must decide whether to build Keystone. Environmental groups and some other unions oppose it. They contend it would greatly increase carbon emissions that lead to global warming, and it has a high risk of oil spills.

The construction unionists showed their support for Keystone in a 1,000-person demonstration in downtown D.C. during the legislative conference. Keystone’s sponsor, TransCanada, long ago signed a project labor agreement with the Operating Engineers, the Laborers, the Teamsters and other unions to have union labor construct it.

“Converging circumstances have the potential to afford the union construction industry its greatest market share gains in generations,” McGarvey forecast.

“Opportunities presenting themselves to us equate to a once-in-a-lifetime chance for building trades unions to cement our stature as trusted and valued partners with owners and end-users in both the private and public sectors.”

But if Keystone symbolizes opportunities for construction unions, the age of the delegates symbolizes the “demographic” problem – his word — unions face.

That’s because huge numbers of construction workers will retire in the next few years, along with the rest of the “Baby Boom” generation, McGarvey said. And that’s on top of those forced out of the building trades by the Great Recession. Tens of thousands of skilled workers permanently left for other jobs, he explained.

McGarvey said one potential solution is a strategic combination of politics, marketing and industry relations: Convincing contractors that union labor is most cost-effective, marketing the benefits of union construction – and convincing Congress not to abet a race to the bottom in wages and benefits. -PAI