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Construction workers are preparing for a fight with former Trump ally

Construction workers

If the dispute turns North America to trade unions against President Donald Trump, it could further weaken its already declining support in the Midwest. | Joe Raedle / Getty Image

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A powerful trade union group, worried by the Ministry of Labor's apprenticeship proposal, has "the potential to be a significant force in the 2020 elections."


One of the largest working groups in the country adopted Donald Trump at the beginning of his presidency, hoping he would create construction jobs and withdraw from proposals that could reduce workers' wages.

But now both sides are on the verge of war, threatening a key bloc of Trump's support for swing countries in the Midwest in 2020.

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The dispute is that the agreement between Trump and the North American Trade Trade Unions has become an apprenticeship initiative for the Department of Labor, a policy complicated by the ouster of Secretary Alexander Acosta last month. Union leaders worry that the final version will undermine their own on-the-job training programs and create cheap labor for developers, pushing highly-skilled construction workers who rely on prevailing wage jobs to make ends meet.

"This is an existential threat to construction deals," said a former administration official with knowledge of the discussions. And there is a powerful group – a federation of unions that represents millions of construction workers in the US – seeing early signs of a member-led uprising against Trump in 2020.

Such a turnaround could further weaken Trump's already declining support in the Midwestern states that won him the presidency in 2016, when many members of Building Trades accepted their commitment to create jobs in the working class and improve national infrastructure.

"Construction deals have the potential to be a significant force in the 2020 election," says Steve Rosenthal, strategist and former political director for AFL-CIO, "especially in some of the key swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Iowa.

"Construction deals know how to mobilize their members and move their votes," he added. "And their opposition to Trump can have a ripple effect beyond their members and their families over other voters in the communities in which their members live and work."

Trump tried to get support from construction deals this week in a Pennsylvania show. One instruction letter to workers attending the event, he said the president hopes to "promote goodwill from the unions," and he does not waste time on it.

"I love unions and I love workers," Trump said. "And, you know, when I built buildings in New York … I built them exclusively with alliances. People don't understand this. I was exceptional. "(Until recently, it was virtually impossible for someone to build something in New York without union work.)

Although her leadership supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign, NABTU has always been viewed as more conservative than other working groups, and since Trump's victory, she has been criticized by the left for this reason. Trump – who won the majority of white union members – made a point of meeting with leaders of several construction unions on his third day in office, after which NABTU President Sean McGary elevated his "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 engine development, moving people to the middle class."

In April 2017, McGary praised Trump as "the very definition of American success story" to an audience of Washington members.

At the time, the McGarry Group was keen on securing construction jobs from the proposed infrastructure of the Trump administration program that never came to fruition. McGary also had an interest in dissuading Trump from the early impulse to push for the repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, which required the federal government to pay a prevailing wage – usually union size – for construction projects. Trump gave up the idea after floating it early in his presidency.

But construction deals and administration are increasingly diverging on apprenticeships an initiative, a proposed rule, that would create industry-led job training programs. The Ministry of Labor's proposal received more than 160,000 comments, with the majority being union members who announce themselves as the strength of existing trade union training programs. Most of the comments implicitly rebuke White House officials who seek to make the proposal less favorable to unions.

The two sides emerged more in agreement in June 2017 when Trump issued an executive order aimed at "easing regulatory burdens" on apprenticeships. In an effort to expand job training to new industries, the administration has proposed creating a class of "industry-recognized" programs with fewer restrictions than existing government-approved programs.

McGary agreed at that time to join the Trump committee to help set up an apprenticeship system – with the understanding that apprenticeship of NABTU under government control would be untouched, according to its Chief of Staff, Michael Monroe.

NABTU says there has been an agreement with the administration to exclude construction jobs from the new proposal to protect existing construction job training programs for pipe fitters, iron workers and roofers. But that agreement was with Acosta. Now NABTU leaders fear that White House acting chief Mike Mulvaney and his hawks for deregulation will not honor the deal.

Trust between Construction work and the White House began to unravel in May, when the White House forced Acosta Chief of Staff Nick Jill after the investigation raised questions about his attitude toward subordinates. But there was perhaps a deeper source of tension: Mulvaney and some domestic policy advisers considered Acosta too wary of deregulation and too adaptable to unions.

When he took over as chief of staff in January, Mulvaney considered the situation so dire that he seized Acosta's rule-making power, commanding the final say on policy issues. Then the secretary of labor's resignation came in July, days after Mulvani urged Trump to fire him a lenient agreement on the 2008 legal basis, which Acosta subsequently did A US attorney for South Florida has been hit by rich sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Before leaving, Acosta persuades Ivanka Trump, who was involved in creating the apprenticeship rules, not to build construction from the new industry-led program, according to a former administration official. Construction deals had told Acosta that letting developers pay apprentices recognized in the industry for less than the prevailing salary would create price competition with NABTU's program.

"It will lower standards, put workers at risk, put projects at risk, put communities at risk," Monroe said. "To undermine all the features that make our successful, which means to undermine the truth of the system as a whole."

Acosta's decision was also driven by politics, according to a former official who noted the strong operation of construction transactions in the Midwest. Capitol Hill Democrats have also raised concerns about the industry-led Ministry of Labor's new program, warning that it risks creating low-quality programs with light oversight.

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

In a proposed rule, published in June, the Department of Labor said it would not "initially" accept applications for apprenticeships led by the construction industry, but did not rule it out later. This language has raised deep concern among Building Trades leaders and prompted NABTU to direct a series of public comments to the Department of Labor on the proposal.

NABTU leaders say they have seen a high volume of comments from the Midwest. The Indiana iron worker, encapsulating the sentiment, told the Department of Labor that his apprenticeship to the unions was providing a way to the middle class – and expressed concern that it would "disappear" at the suggestion of the administration.

Meanwhile, in April, McGarvey said construction deals may not support any candidate until 2020. Hacker emails published by WikiLeaks show internal disagreement with some member unions, including Teamsters and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, after approval by the Clinton Federation – demonstrating how cheerful NABTU's support was for each candidate.

Clinton did poorly in 2016 among Union households, earning only 51 percent, the hardest Democratic presidential candidate's winning margin since 1984. In Ohio, Trump beat Clinton among Union households by 9 percentage points. But the next Democratic candidate may be polling more strongly with this group in 2020, argues from the Brass Building Building argument if their constituents 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 are committed to it is something I would think people in more political circles than I would probably notice."

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