On Monday, December 18, the Biden-Harris administration announced regulations that will implement President Biden’s executive order requiring project labor agreements (PLAs) on federal construction projects costing $35 million or more. In response, SMART issued the following statement:
“The finalizing of President Biden’s executive order requiring project labor agreements on large-scale federal projects is a life-changing win for union members and construction workers across the country. PLAs have been lifting working families into the middle class for generations – extending union-won, family-sustaining pay and benefits to local communities while bringing complex jobs to completion on time (and saving taxpayers’ money). SMART applauds the Biden-Harris administration for fulfilling its promise to our members, and for prioritizing the working men and women who are building our nation. We look forward to taking on the core infrastructure projects of the future.”
Acting United States Department of Labor Secretary Julie Su and General Services Administration Administrator Robin Carnahan gave remarks alongside Ohio Congresswoman Shontel Brown and Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb at the Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building in Cleveland, Ohio, following the announcement. As part of the event, Fatima Ware – a SMART Local 33 (northern Ohio) journeyworker and owner of WTD Mechanical, LLC – introduced Secretary Su. Great work, sister!
President Joe Biden visited SMART Local 19 (Philadelphia, Pa.) on Labor Day, honoring America’s workforce with sheet metal workers and union members from across the area during the annual Tri-State Labor Day Parade and Celebration. Local 19 apprentice Brittany Rivera introduced the president, telling her story of entering the sheet metal trade, being a working mom and the many benefits Local 19 has afforded her and her young family.
“Being a union member has changed my life,” Rivera said. “I spent 15 years in food service before a friend encouraged me to get in this trade. From him, I saw how a union provides stability, security and a good-paying job to raise my family. … I’m so grateful for Local 19. I know that I belong here.”
“Thanks to President Biden, the most pro-union president in our history, women are realizing that the trades aren’t just for men,” she added. “They’re taking advantage of the opportunities being created thanks to the president’s leadership.”
Biden’s visit to Local 19 — during which he also recognized Philadelphia City Council candidate and Local 19 Business Manager Gary Masino — is a testament to this administration’s real, material support for union workers, said Local 19 Political Director Todd Farally.
“It is always an honor for Local 19 to host the Tri-State Annual Labor Day Parade and Celebration. But this year was a particular privilege for our union,” Farally explained. “President Biden spoke to thousands of union members about all the good work his administration has delivered over these past few years: investing in our infrastructure, rebuilding our manufacturing base and ensuring worker-friendly regulations within federal labor law.”
In his speech, Biden specifically discussed the crucial role SMART sheet metal workers are playing as we build the economy of the future, from complex ventilation systems in chip plants, to fabricating and installing energy-efficient heat pumps.
“The sheet metal workers who used to use hand-drawn blueprints to design ductwork in buildings now use sophisticated, computer-aided design systems so the entire project can be laid out in 3D,” he noted, emphasizing the expert training delivered in our union’s apprenticeship programs.
The president also discussed the importance of investing in working families; something his administration has done through the passage of job-creating laws like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.
“Decades of handing out excessive tax cuts to the rich and the corporations without making the investments in America and the American people — that had been a bust,” Biden declared. “The long and short of it is we’re making things here in America again with American workers, with American products, in American factories.”
SMART members from across the United States and Canada gathered in Washington, DC on April 25th and 26th for the 2023 North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) Legislative Conference. Throughout the week, workers and elected union leaders came together to push for legislation that prioritizes workers, as well as hear from elected officials, industry stakeholders and others.
The April 25th plenary session began with a keynote address from NABTU President Sean McGarvey, who introduced and emphasized the 2023 conference theme: “Empowering the Infrastructure Generation.”
Unprecedented investment – spurred by pro-worker federal legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act, the Inflation Reduction Act and more – is creating tens of thousands of jobs and sparking the renewal of America’s infrastructure. This presents opportunity for the workers of today and tomorrow, McGarvey said, and it’s vital that unions push for legislation like the National Apprenticeship Act to ensure we can train the workforce to meet demand and bring workers of all backgrounds – rural, urban, women, people of color, the formerly incarcerated, veterans and more – into unions like SMART.
“Our model makes sure workers aren’t just trained for a project, but equipped with the highest skillsets for a long and meaningful career,” McGarvey explained. “This is our time to make sure we are building the opportunity pipeline to maximize private investment with public dollars and reach communities large and small.”
McGarvey was followed by various pro-worker officials, including former Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker and Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin. Walsh discussed his time working with the Biden administration and the importance of making our voices heard in the halls of power – and the need to spread the word about how pro-labor elected officials are benefiting working families.
“Who you vote for has consequences,” Walsh said. “This is how we restore and expand access to the middle class in this country: through good, union jobs.”
Following Walsh, NABTU Legislative Conference attendees were joined by Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, who has overseen a transformative pro-worker shift in the Prairie State – including the passage of the Workers’ Rights Amendment, project labor agreements on more than 1,000 construction projects, a $50 million Illinois Works pre-apprenticeship program and the passage of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, a pro-worker clean energy law that covers climate infrastructure projects with project labor agreements.
“Workers’ rights are gaining strength,” Pritzker declared. “Supporting workers’ rights is about investing in Illinois’ most precious resource, our nation’s most precious resource: our people.”
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin has been a steadfast advocate for the union apprenticeship model, recognizing the potential unions have to lift workers of all backgrounds into the middle class. She explained the continued significance of union apprenticeships as policy and technology shift the way the world works, and declared to conference attendees her intent to continue the fight to reauthorize the National Apprenticeship Act.
“There’s one tried and true method that has lasted and stood the test of time, and that’s apprenticeships,” Baldwin said.
The day concluded with a fiery address from President Joe Biden, who took the stage hours after announcing his run for reelection. Throughout his speech, Biden focused on the steps taken by his administration to create an American economy that grows from the bottom up and the middle out – and emphasized that “we need to finish the job.”
“I learned a long time ago: There’s labor, and then there’s UNION labor,” he declared.
Biden explained how his administration’s pro-worker agenda has led to the passage of laws including the American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. Together these laws helped protect multiemployer pension plans; invested heavily in HVAC, energy efficiency, production, transit, rail infrastructure and other SMART sectors; created more than 800,000 manufacturing jobs; capped insulin copays at $35 per month for those covered by Medicare; and much more. The president also referred to his executive order requiring project labor agreements on federal projects that cost more than $35 million – a policy that amounts to an investment in union labor.
“I’ve said it many times: Wall Street didn’t build America. The middle class built America, and unions built the middle class,” Biden said.
Illinois Governor JB Pritzker speaks at the NABTU Legislative ConferencePresident Joe Biden addresses the NABTU Legislative Conference
“For decades, trickle-down economics hollowed out the middle class. America rewarded wealth, not work. … As jobs were lost, something else was lost as well: a sense of pride, a notion of who you are, a sense of self-worth, earning your way,” he added. “My economic plan is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America, and that’s what we’re doing: rebuilding America.”
The April 26th plenary saw remarks from a range of bipartisan speakers, including Rep. Nikki Budzinski, Republican Congressmen Don Bacon and Brian Fitzpatrick, Senator Raphael Warnock, Senate Leader Chuck Schumer and others. Once again, the focus was firmly on the future – and how unions like SMART need to ensure we meet the workforce demands of this moment for generations to come. From making sure people of all backgrounds have pathways into union apprenticeships, to passing legislation that helps fund ever-evolving apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, now is the time to secure our future.
“Thank you for building the strongest and most robust country in the world,” Bacon said during his speech. “You deserve fair wages for a hard day’s work, pensions when you retire and safety at work.”
“You are at the center of America,” Warnock added during his remarks. “We need to hear your voices and countless efforts you’ve made to build this country. As you continue beating that drum, I will keep looking for every opportunity I can to stand up and protect our working people.”
Following the speaking agenda, SMART members joined representatives from the rest of the building trades on Capitol Hill to lobby for legislation that benefits our members.
“At the NABTU Legislative Conference, I had a first-hand view of the way that conditions for the working class have changed under the Biden administration and a Congress filled with pro-worker candidates,” SMART General President Joseph Sellers said. “We will continue to push for pro-labor policies that put our members to work and lift working families up.”
Today, President Biden vetoed HJ Resolution 30, which would have rescinded the Department of Labor’s rule entitled “Prudence and Loyalty in Selecting Plan Investments and Exercising Shareholder Rights.” In response, SMART issued the following statement:
“Days like today prove that no modern American president has done more to advance the causes of working people than President Biden. Today, President Biden used the power of the veto to stop Congress’ attempt to roll back a Department of Labor rule concerning environmental, social and governance (ESG). This rule allows private sector retirement investors to consider critical factors when making investment and proxy voting decisions around a company’s past record.
“The choices made by workers’ pension funds are crucial for the retirement security of millions of working families. So instead of putting the retirement security of working people first, some members of Congress chose to prioritize political posturing and culture wars over people’s pocketbooks.
“While some politicians suggest that ESG standards are a way for investors to force a political agenda on Americans’ retirement investment strategies, their claims are entirely misguided, ill-informed and just plain wrong. Such arguments are merely the latest attempt to boost corporate bad actors and shield them from legitimate investment decisions made by working Americans and those managing their retirement security.
“President Biden sent a strong and needed message to legislators that ESG factors should be left to the professionals, not to the politicians bent on their own personal agendas.”
President Biden delivered his second State of the Union address on February 7, 2023 – outlining the ways in which the Biden administration’s economic plan is delivering results for working families. SMART issued the following statement in response:
“On the campaign trail and during his first State of the Union speech last year, President Biden made big promises: substantial infrastructure investment for the first time in decades, the return of manufacturing to America, and an economy that works from the bottom up and the middle out, not the top down. Now, two years after the president’s inauguration, we can say that the Biden administration is delivering on those promises.
“President Biden signed legislation like the American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act into law: saving hundreds of thousands of union pensions, providing the most significant investments into our country’s infrastructure and semiconductor production in generations, and making the largest American investment in clean energy ever. These investments have already put thousands of SMART sheet metal members to work, and they will drastically improve the health and working conditions of our Transportation Division members across sectors.
“Since President Biden took office, more than 200 companies have announced private investment in manufacturing, utilities and energy to the tune of $700 billion, across all 50 states. Our members are already working these jobs, from solar panel production facilities in New York to data centers in Arizona.
“And after two years of President Biden’s agenda, the American economy has created more than 12 million jobs, with an unemployment rate of 3.4% – a 54-year low.
“But, as the president made clear in this year’s State of the Union, there is more work to do. We look forward to working with Congress and this administration to end the anti-worker corporate scheme that is Precision Scheduled Railroading. And we call on Congress to pass a billionaire minimum tax, which will finally see the one percent pay their fair share and ease the damaging impact of inflation for working families; expand the Child Tax Credit, which will lift more children and families out of poverty; extend the Inflation Reduction Act’s price cap on insulin to all Americans; and pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which will make it easier for workers to form a union.”
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is infusing $292 million into the completion of the Hudson Tunnel modernization project, which will rehabilitate the old North River Tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey, build a new tunnel and improve reliability for the 200,000 passengers who traverse the tunnel each weekday. President Biden visited New York City to champion the project on January 31, 2023, where he noted that this phase of the project will create 72,000 jobs.
“Yesterday in Baltimore, I announced that we’re building [the B&P Tunnel project] under the new project labor agreement. And we’re making sure there is [a PLA] here as well,” Biden said. “The agreement contractors and unions put in place … before construction begins to ensure major projects are handled with well-trained, highly skilled union workers that resolve disputes ahead of time, ensuring safer work sites, avoiding disruptions and work stoppages that can cause expensive and extensive delays down the line.”
Funding for the modernization project faltered under the previous president’s administration. But thanks to the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021, construction can resume in earnest for this crucial phase of the project. This alone will put tens of thousands of union members to work – and once the tunnel has been fully modernized, it will vastly improve the working conditions for SMART Transportation Division members working for Amtrak and regional transit systems.
“Since the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we’ve seen time and again how important critical infrastructure projects are for our members – both the sheet metal members who work on these projects, and the transit workers who keep our country moving every day,” said SMART General President Joseph Sellers. “We applaud the pro-labor leadership of Congress and the Biden administration in putting these funds directly towards projects that benefit working people.”
The Northeast Corridor accounts for approximately 20% of the United States economy’s GDP. “If this line shuts down for just one day it would cost our economy $100 million,” Biden said. “And the current Hudson River rail tunnel can be a major chokepoint.”
“This is one of the biggest, most consequential projects in the country,” he added. “But we finally have the money, and we’re going to get it done.”
In addition to New York and Baltimore, the AP reports, infrastructure law funding will spur work on the Brent Spence Bridge, which connects Kentucky and Ohio; the Calcasieu River Bridge in Louisiana; a commuter rail project in Illinois; the Alligator River Bridge in North Carolina; a transit and highway plan in California; and roadways in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Mississippi.
“Funding from this law – along with renewed investment from private companies – is creating a level of opportunity across our country that is almost unheard of,” SMART Director of Organizing Darrell Roberts remarked. “Our members are ready to take on this work, and we as an organization are ready to bring in new members and elevate the working class throughout this nation.”
SMART Local 18 (Wisconsin) members hit the pavement at Milwaukee Laborfest 2022, where they marched with fellow workers, gathered with local and federal leaders and listened to President Joe Biden’s Labor Day address.
“Awesome day!” Local 18 shared on Facebook. “Had many speakers, including the most union-friendly president ever, speak in front of thousands at Milwaukee Labor Fest.”
Local 18 leaders met with Wis. AG Josh KaulLocal 18 members with Sec. of Labor Marty Walsh
President Joe Biden signed on Nov. 15 the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that will expand work opportunities for Union sheet metal workers rebuilding America’s schools and public buildings as well as boost U.S. passenger rail service, lead to improved safety measures for bus and transit operators and adjust how freight rail safety is handled by the Federal Railroad Administration.
The bill provides $1.2 trillion in funding for infrastructure, with a large proportion of the funding going directly to the industries SMART represents. This bill=union jobs for SMART members.
“Our union was proud to stand with President Biden today to sign this historic bill into law. It will create an unprecedented number of good, union jobs and put SMART sheet metal workers to work improving indoor air quality in our schools and in commercial and residential buildings. It also makes long-overdue railroad safety improvements and will help school districts across the country buy clean, American-made, zero-emission buses that will drive demand for the products and services provided by SMART members,” union leadership stated after the bill’s signing, which was attended by SMART General President Joseph Sellers as well as five members from across the mid-Atlantic who were invited to the ceremony. These included SMART TD D.C. Legislative Director Jarad Jackson of Local 1933 (Washington, D.C.), SMART TD Local 610 (Baltimore, Md.) Chairperson Michael Harbin, Kalima Ramsay from SM Local 100 (Washington, DC), along with fellow Local 100 members Mike Moran and Rolando Javier Montoya Garzona.
President Biden made one of his principal promises the pledge to rebuild America’s infrastructure after years of neglect. This legislation proves his Administration is delivering on this promise. However, this is only the start.
Now we’re working with his administration to implement the bill. Every SMART local must work at the local and state level to help with implementation of the bill to secure the work and make sure funding from the bill results in jobs for SMART members.
And there is the potential for even more union jobs. Another $1.75 infrastructure bill is pending that would deliver thousands of additional jobs. It’s now up to all of us to do our part to make sure Congress acts and passes this second bill quickly. America should have world-class infrastructure built by skilled union workers and it must be done quickly so the nation can catch up to its competitors on the global stage and once again set the precedent other nations follow. Text the word PASS to 67336 to let your Senators know the importance of investing in America’s workers by addressing the nation’s infrastructure. (message and data rates may apply).
Important Highlights of This Historic Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Actand How It Impacts SMART Members are Listed Below:
Energy Efficiency & HVAC upgrades:
$250 million to be used for energy efficiency revolving loan fund, which can be spent on indoor air quality in commercial and residential buildings.
$50 million for an energy efficiency pilot program for non-profit buildings to conduct energy efficiency upgrades, including HVAC systems.
$500 million for school energy efficiency that can be used to upgrade ventilation.
$40 million for an energy audit training program to train individuals to conduct energy audits or surveys of commercial and residential buildings.
$250 million in grants for federal buildings to improve energy performance targets.
Electric school buses:
$5 billion for the replacement of existing school buses with zero emission and clean school buses
Registered apprenticeship/workforce development:
$10 million for career skills training programs where students concurrently receive classroom instruction and on the-job training for the purpose of obtaining an industry related certification to install energy efficient buildings technologies.
$15 million for a pilot program to restore, retrofit and construct eligible transportation facilities. The grants should employ residents impacted by the project through targeted hiring programs, in partnership with registered apprenticeship programs and contract and subcontract with disadvantaged business enterprises.
Requires at least 5% of grants for buses and bus facilities is used for workforce development, including registered apprenticeship programs.
$550 million for industrial research and assessment to maximize energy efficiency. Registered apprenticeship programs qualify to receive the funding.
$6B for Northeast Corridor Grants
$16B for the National Network
$36B for Fed-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail, with $24B set aside for the Northeast Corridor
$5B for CRISI
$3B for Railroad Crossing Elimination Program
$50M for Restoration and Enhancement
Amtrak Mission Statement, Sec 22201: Amtrak’s mission is modified to better reflect the primary goal of providing quality service, including eliminating references to “justifying expending public money.”
Amtrak Food and Beverage, Sec, 22208: Eliminates harmful language on food and beverage revenues that stunted growth of Amtrak on board options and sought to ultimately reduce or eliminate on board service and creates a new food and beverage working group that includes labor participation.
Amtrak Quality Jobs, Sec 2213: Prohibits contracting out of work if employees who can perform that work are currently furloughed.
Station Agents, Sec. 22203: Requires Amtrak to staff station agent positions at stations that receive certain levels of traffic.
Critical Incident Stress Plans, 22424: Amtrak and commuter rail employees who are victims of assault must now be covered by critical incident stress plans, and the benefits and protections provided by such plans.
Long Distance Trains, Sec. 22210: Increases the difficulty for Congress to eliminate a long-distance route.
Train Length, Sec. 22422: Requires a National Academies study on the safety of trains longer than 7,500 feet.
FRA Reporting Requirements, Sec. 22421: requires FRA accident reports to include information on train length and number of cars as well as the size of the crew on board. Additionally, increases transparency for regulatory waiver requests, including requested suspensions of rules.
FRA Accident and Incident Investigations, Sec. 22417: DOT must create a process to better involve stakeholders, including rail labor representatives, in its investigations.
PTC Failures, Sec. 22414: requires a quarterly report on failures and functions of positive train control technology. This includes cutouts, malfunctions, and enforcements where an accident was actually prevented.
Buy America Provisions:
Limit federal financial grants to infrastructure projects that only use iron, steel, manufactured products, and construction materials that are produced in the U.S.
Direct the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to establish a Made in America Office that President Biden established with an executive order in January.
Require the Secretary of Commerce, the United States Trade Representative, and the Director of OMB to assess impacts of all U.S. free trade agreements, World Trade Organization Agreements on Government Procurement, and federal permitting processes on the operation of Buy American laws and include their impacts on the implementation of domestic procurement preferences within 150 days.
Require the OMB Director along with the Federal Acquisition Regulatory (FAR) Council, to issue guidance to standardize how federal agencies comply with and enforce the Buy American Act within one year.
Include a Sense of Congress that the FAR Council should increase the domestic content requirements for domestic end products and domestic construction material to 75%, or in the event of no qualifying offers, 60%. President Biden issued an executive order that aligns with this provision in January. In addition, there was a notice of proposed rulemaking in July, to gradually raise the domestic content threshold from 55 to 75% over five years.
Establish a centralized online hub (BuyAmerican.gov) that would contain information on all waivers and exceptions to Buy American laws that have been accepted, requested, or granted to increase the transparency of the waiver process.
Make the Buy America requirement permanent for Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds (DWSRF), a program that provides loans and grants to fund water infrastructure improvements. $23.4B for DWSRF is provided in the bill overall.
In April 2021, we met with Steve Dodd and Greg Hynes to talk about the first 100 days of the Biden administration. We have brought them back for this Talking SMART episode to talk about the first year of the administration and, more specifically, its impact on SMART members.
Brother Dodd is SMART’s Director of Governmental Affairs. He spoke with us about the many actions the Biden administration has already taken to support working families, including positive impacts of the passage of the American Rescue Plan on COBRA, unemployment benefits, multiemployer pensions, and funding for school HVAC retrofits.
He also discussed the PRO Act and what it means for SMART members to have so many labor friendly people now appointed to top positions in the Biden administration.
“This president has done something that all presidents have always talked about but never were able to accomplish,” said Dodd. “This Bipartisan Infrastructure bill, and now its implementation, means a great deal to not only sheet metal workers but all workers, whether they’re union or nonunion, across the United States.”
Brother Hynes is a fifth-generation railroader and SMART TD’s National Legislative Director. He discussed how the Biden Administration, in contrast to the previous administration, now very much has an open door for labor and actively seeks input from unions on issues of concern to working families.
“The most obvious are the appointments and the people that President Biden has surrounded himself with,” said Hynes. “He’s actually put competent people in charge of these agencies. And they are all very labor friendly, I mean, it comes from the top down.”
Greg also touched on how the American Rescue Plan included funding to rehire furloughed Amtrak workers, the significance of new leadership at the Federal Rail Administration which is now re-prioritizing rail safety over corporate profits, and what it really means when politicians or rail carriers say we need to just “cut back on regulations.”
In addition, listen for the open mic segment with SMART General President Joseph Sellers at the end of this episode. He responds to multiple questions that have come in from SMART members asking about what steps the Biden-Harris administration has taken to address the multiemployer pension crisis.
“Strong unions built the great American middle class. Everything that defines what it means to live a good life and know you can take care of your family — the 40-hour workweek, paid leave, health care protections, a voice in your workplace — is because of workers who organized unions and fought for worker protections.”
The words above could have been written or spoken by any of thousands of union organizers or leaders across the United States in recent decades. They could be part of the narration to a union video or the rousing prelude to a call-to-action at a union rally. But they aren’t. Instead, they come from the Biden-Harris 2020 campaign website, which is peppered with promises to stand with regular working Americans, support the creation of good union jobs and strengthen collective bargaining and worker organizing. We know campaign promises are one thing… and post-election actions and reality are another. So, what has the Biden-Harris Administration done for workers thus far? Are they walking their pro-worker talk? Below is a summary of actions to help working Americans under the first 100 days of the Biden-Harris Administration:
President Biden Fired Aggressively Anti-Union NLRB General Counsel
Just hours after his inauguration, President Biden took the unprecedented step of firing the sitting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Robb, who had been blasted as an anti-union zealot. During Robb’s tenure at the NLRB, the board significantly expanded employers’ powers, allowing them to search workers’ cars and personal items, eject union organizers from public spaces, withdraw union recognition more easily, discriminate against union members in the workplace, thwart protests, and disregard the rights of workers at subcontractors and franchises, among other harm done to workers’ rights. His assistant, who took over in his place and shares the same views, was next in line to replace him. Biden terminated her immediately thereafter. One of Robb’s priorities had been to try and limit the legality of Project Labor Agreements. Two suits filed by Robb aimed to create new case law on PLAs, which would have had disastrous impacts on work hours for all construction union members. They were rescinded by Robb’s Biden-appointed replacement.
Biden-Harris Administration Issued Emergency Safety Protection Order
On Day 2, President Biden underscored that worker safety will be a top priority under his administration, signing an executive order directing OSHA to produce “clear guidance for employers to help keep workers safe from COVID-19 exposure.” This action aimed to save lives and protect workers who regularly face dangerous conditions while serving their communities during the pandemic. Strong enforceable standards built into the order require employers to develop workplace safety plans, implement science-based protection measures, train workers and report workplace COVID outbreaks.
Biden Appoints Amit Bose to Replace Former Rail CEO Ron Batory Atop FRA
On Jan. 21, President Biden appointed Amit Bose, who had served as deputy administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) during the Obama administration, to the same position for his administration. Bose later was elevated to the position of FRA acting administrator and is in line to become the permanent FRA administrator. “We’re excited to be working with Amit Bose,” said SMART Transportation Division National Legislative Director Gregory Hynes. “We’ve had several conversations and he understands and supports our issues. It’s a welcome new day for rail labor.
New Administration Set $15 Minimum Wage for Federal Contractors
President Biden signed an executive order that ordered the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to establish a $15 minimum wage for all federal contractors.
President Biden Selected Union Steelworker to Lead OSHA
President Biden selected former United Steelworkers’ safety official James Frederick to lead the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), signaling a commitment to tougher federal enforcement of workplace safety standards as the nation continues to battle a COVID-19 pandemic that has killed over 500,000 Americans. Frederick worked for 25 years in the Steelworkers’ health, safety, and environment department.
President Picked Building Trades Official to Lead Wage and Hour Division
Jessica Looman was the executive director of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council before she was selected to head the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. She previously worked as general counsel for the Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota. In between, she served as the deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. Her appointment is of particular importance and offers a very stark contrast with the previous administration, which issued an eleventh hour change to prevailing wage laws. If kept in place, the change would have had a disastrous impact on prevailing wages, pricing out high-road signatory contractors from projects. The change also would have given employers on public projects the leeway to pay someone performing commercial work the residential wage instead, which typically would be significantly lower.
President Selected Union Attorney to Lead FLRA
President Biden promoted union attorney Ernest Dubster to be the chairman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA). This agency oversees disputes between the federal government and federal unions. Dubster previously worked as legislative counsel for the AFL-CIO and as a law professor teaching collective bargaining and arbitration.
President Fired Entire Anti-Union Federal Labor Board
President Biden’s work to rid the government of Trump’s anti-union appointees continued with his decision to oust the 10 members of the Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP). This panel decides contract disputes between federal unions and the government. It was stacked with anti-union picks that included leaders from the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which crafts “right-to-work” (for less) legislation for state elected officials, as well as bills aimed at eliminating prevailing wages (including the infamous Act 10 bill in Wisconsin). The board also included appointees from the Heritage Foundation, and another individual from a top union-busting law firm. President Biden offered the 10 appointees the chance to resign, which eight did. The other two were fired. When those appointees were on the board, the government won 90% of the cases that came before the FSIP — meaning federal employee unions won only 10%.
President Biden Issued Buy American Executive Order That Closed Previous Loopholes
While the Trump administration used the right-sounding “Buy American” words and rhetoric, it never put into place policies to effect meaningful change regarding the purchase of American-made goods and services. Five days into office, President Biden signed an executive order that directed the federal government to strengthen its Buy American standards. This required more of the product to be made in the United States, cut red tape for buying these items, and made it easier for small and medium sized manufacturers to get federal contracts. The government spends about $600 billion a year on American-made products and is expected to add another $400 billion as part of Biden’s Build Back Better program.
President Named Far More Labor-Friendly NLRB General Counsel
The week after firing Peter Robb as NLRB general counsel, President Biden named Peter Sung Ohr as the NRLB’s acting general counsel. A career NLRB attorney, Ohr had been the board’s regional director of Region 13 in Chicago. Now as the NLRB’s top attorney, he gets to choose many of the cases the board hears and write directives that tell regional offices how the NLRB should enforce the law. In his first week on the job, Ohr repealed a dozen Trump-era anti-worker directives that had targeted unions. He also threw out a case that would have prevented unions from negotiating commonsense neutrality agreements with employers.
President Issued Order to End Federal Private Prisons
Near the end of his first week in office, President Biden issued an executive order directing the federal government to stop contracting with private prisons. Private prisons are for-profit ventures that reduce prison employee wages and take jobs from union corrections officers. Training and security standards are often much lower at private prisons. According to a 2012 study by The Sentencing Project, private prison employees earn an average of over $5,000 less than government employee prison staff and receive 58 fewer hours of training, leading to higher employee turnover and decreased prison security. In addition, a 2016 Justice Department report found that private prisons had a 28 percent higher rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults and more than twice as many inmate-on-staff assaults. According to the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents employees with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, federal prisons staffed by union employees are “more cost-effective, more efficient and much safer than their for-profit counterparts.”
Biden Signed Executive Order Calling for Union Labor to Build New Climate Infrastructure
Realizing that the shift to clean energy is a tremendous opportunity to create jobs, President Biden signed an executive order directing the federal government to lead the way by focusing public dollars on American-made products, including renewable energy goods and clean vehicles, and that high labor standards be attached to every federal incentive for clean energy. The president also explicitly called for investments communities that produce coal and other fossil-fuels to create good jobs in new industries and by cleaning up abandoned mines and wells.
President Biden Signed Order Mandating Masks on Interstate Travel
President Biden underscored his commitment to the safety of air, rail and transit employees and passengers with a mask mandate that covers anyone who flies, takes a passenger train like Amtrak, or travels on busses such as Greyhound or Peter Pan that cross state lines. This order was followed up on January 29 by the Centers for Disease Control, as directed by the president, and imposes a mask requirement on all public transportation systems including rail, vans, bus and motorcoach services.
In an announcement of the order sent to Federal Railroad Administration stakeholders and partners on January 31, an FRA representative wrote the following: “Science-based measures are critical to preventing the spread of COVID-19. Mask-wearing is one of several proven life-saving measures, including physical distancing, appropriate ventilation and timely testing that can reduce the transmission of COVID-19. Requiring masks will protect America’s transportation workers and passengers, help control the transmission of COVID-19, and aid in re-opening America’s economy.”
Per Biden’s Order, OSHA Released New COVID-19 Safety Guidance
OSHA issued enhanced COVID-19 safety guidance to help employers and their employees implement a COVID-19 prevention program and better identify risks that could lead to exposure and infection.
Employee Advocate Appointed Senior Advisor on Unemployment Insurance
The Biden-Harris administration selected Michele Evermore for the newly created role of senior advisor on unemployment insurance within the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration. Evermore previously worked as a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a non-profit that supports low-wage and unemployed workers. Evermore has been a prominent pro-worker voice throughout the pandemic, both as an expert in explaining the federal assistance available to workers, and as a vigorous advocate who addresses the inequities of unemployment assistance.
U.S. House Passed National Apprenticeship Act
With this new bill, union-sponsored registered apprenticeships will not only continue strengthening economic opportunities in every community, both large and small, they will also open pathways for more industries to recruit, train and expand productive and highly-skilled workforces.
President Biden Nominated Labor Attorney to Serve as NLRB General Counsel
President Biden appointed Jennifer Abbruzo, special counsel for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and highly respected within the labor movement, to serve as the NLRB’s new general counsel. During her labor career, she provided legal counsel on numerous initiatives that advanced worker power. She previously served as deputy general counsel and acting general counsel at the NLRB. In her nearly 23 years with the agency, she helped to protect workers’ rights from numerous corporate attacks. Once confirmed, she will replace acting General Counsel Peter Sung Ohr.
Biden-Harris Moved to Eliminate IRAPs
In mid-February, the Biden-Harris Administration restricted funding for Industry Recognized Apprenticeships (IRAPs), an important step in rolling them back entirely. IRAPS are a dangerous initiative inspired by anti-union contractors aimed at undermining high-quality union apprenticeship programs and replacing them with a watered-down system of certifications. The IRAP program was the most serious political attack on building trades unions in over a generation. Cutting off IRAP funding is an important step in the fight to roll them back. Through his actions, President Biden took important steps to eliminate this existential threat to union apprenticeships. The Biden-Harris administration also brought back the Department of Labor’s Advisory Committee on Apprenticeship, which provides much-needed industry-based input on policy, quality assurance standards and equitable enforcement.
FRA Closed Comment Period on Proposed Rail Worker Fatigue Regulations
On Feb. 22, comments closed for a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for which the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) sought input on how to address the problem of rail worker fatigue. The regulations would require certain railroads to develop and implement a “fatigue risk management program” as one component of their larger safety programs. The notice and closing of the comment period shows movement by the Biden-Harris administration on a long-delayed component of the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA), which requires railroads to create safety risk reduction programs to address the hazards that railroad workers face on a regular basis. SMART-TD filed its comments in conjunction with another union representing rail operating personnel ahead of the comment deadline.
Biden Signed Order Allowing Unions at DOD
The Defense Department employs about 700,000 civilian workers, about half of which are unionized. An executive order from the previous administration allowed the Secretary of Defense to eliminate collective bargaining rights for those employees at the DOD secretary’s discretion. An executive order by President Biden reversed this anti-union directive.
Biden Order Allowed DOL to Extend Unemployment Benefits to Those Who Refuse Work Due to COVID Concerns
Under the Biden-Harris administration, the Department of Labor released guidance extending unemployment benefits to workers who refuse to return to a job that is unsafe. The benefits eligibility now applies in circumstances where a worker refuses to return to work or accept an offer of work at a worksite that, in either instance, “is not in compliance with local, state, or national health and safety standards directly related to COVID-19.” These health and safety standards include those related to the wearing of face coverings, physical distancing, and the provision of personal protective equipment consistent with public health guidelines. This extended eligibility is specific to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), a type of benefit created and federally funded by the 2020 CARES Act. PUA covers self-employed individuals, independent contractors, and other workers who are not covered by traditional unemployment insurance programs.
Major Court Victory for Freight Rail Labor Blocked Trump FRA Policy
In a legal victory that underscored the importance of electing presidents who will pick judges who understand worker issues, soon after President Biden was inaugurated, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit put common sense and safety ahead of profits and political favoritism. By vacating action by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) under the Trump administration to preempt all state laws and regulations concerning freight train crew size, the court ruling overturned one of the most blatant attacks on workers from the previous administration. While the decision was not a direct result of actions by the Biden Administration — the 3–0 ruling was made by judges nominated by Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — the actions of President Biden and his appointees point toward a far more receptive audience in the nation’s capitol in the fight to maintain two-person crews.
Biden Announced Support for Amazon Organizing Drive
By announcing his support for Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama seeking to form a union, President Biden became the first president in over 70 years to come out strongly in support of a major union organizing drive. The last president who articulated this type of support was Franklin D Roosevelt. While the Alabama warehouse workers lost their election in April, the campaign — and the president’s public support — inspired them and other Amazon workers across the country.
House Passed Right-to-Organize Bill with White House Support
On March 9, the U.S. House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which is the most significant worker empowerment legislation since the Great Depression. Among other improvements and reforms to outdated U.S. labor laws, it will:
Help ensure workers who win union recognition can reach a first contract quickly.
End employers’ ability to hire permanent replacements to punish striking workers.
Enhance the NLRB’s power to fine companies that violate labor law, up to $50,000 per violation.
Weaken so-called “right-to-work” laws in the 27 states that allow employees who benefit from union contracts to choose not to join or pay union dues.
In early March, President Biden encouraged Congress to pass the PRO Act and the House swiftly passed it. The president had articulated his support for labor law reforms during his campaign, but with the PRO Act now introduced in Congress, his support is a powerful tool in helping ensure that all Democratic Senators support the bill. As of press time, the bill was the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
The American Rescue Plan
On March 11, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The act is a $1.9 trillion relief plan that will jumpstart the American economy. It puts real money behind the president’s commitment to defeat the COVID-19 virus and to build back the U.S. economy back better than it was before the pandemic. This critical relief package has already delivered desperately needed federal support for hard-working Americans and will help rebuild our shattered economy with provisions that directly benefit SMART members. The plan includes resources for COVID testing, logistics, vaccine production and distribution to save lives and reopen America. It secures health care coverage, extends unemployment benefits and provides direct cash support for tens of millions of American families. It also delivers badly needed state and local aid to safely reopen schools and keep our bus and transit systems safe. In addition, the legislation allocates $170 billion to education, with much of that funding targeted to updating ventilation systems — putting sheet metal members to work as we monitor air quality and retrofit those same buildings to rebuild America’s aging HVAC systems. For SMART brothers and sisters on Amtrak who were idled due to no fault of their own, $2 billion is provided to re-open routes and get them back to work.
Multiemployer Pension Relief
Included in the American Rescue Plan signed by President Biden is a provision allocating $86 billion for multiemployer pension plans facing financial uncertainty. Under the legislation, eligible plans will receive funding in an amount sufficient to ensure that full benefits are paid for the next 30 years, without any benefit reductions or any repayment obligations. Hundreds of multiemployer plans that cover millions of union members and retirees stand to benefit (SMART’s pension plans are currently financially healthy). “Reckless Wall Street behavior, industry deregulation and employer abuse of corporate bankruptcy have threatened the financial security of millions who’ve worked hard, only to have that promise stolen from them,” said SMART General President Joseph Sellers in his March 2021 video message to members. “We now have a president who supports workers, retirees and their union. This administration put that commitment of ‘guarantee’ back into the ‘Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation’ ” — without cuts to accrued benefits or taxation.”
Former Union Leader Confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Labor
On March 22, the U.S. Senate confirmed Marty Walsh as the U.S. Secretary of Labor. Known primarily for his work as the mayor of Boston, Mass. Walsh was previously a rank and file member of LIUNA who worked his way up in the trade. His appointment by the Biden-Harris Administration puts a union member in charge of the Labor Department for the first time in decades.
Biden Nominated Nation’s First Made in America Director
On April 28, President Biden named Celeste Drake as the nation’s first Made in America Director. The new position will shape and implement federal procurement and financial management policy to help carry out the president’s vision of future manufacturing focused on ensuring goods are made in America by American workers. Drake joins the administration from the Directors Guild of America, where she served as the executive in charge of government affairs. Prior to joining the DGA, she served as the trade and globalization policy specialist for the AFL-CIO, where she led efforts to reform the labor rules found in NAFTA and the USMCA and to reform the process by which Congress oversees and approves trade agreements to protect American jobs.