2015 Legislative Conference Keynote Speech – President Sean McGarvey
Ladies and Gentlemen… Brothers and Sisters… distinguished guests.
Welcome to the 2015 National Legislative Conference of North America’s Building Trades
This year marks the 60th anniversary of this Conference… and the 50th year that we have
gathered together here at the Washington Hilton Hotel.
When we reach such milestones in our lives, whether personally or as an organization, we often
find ourselves reflecting back on all that has transpired before; taking stock of where we find
ourselves today; and then making plans to elevate ourselves and improve in the time that we
When the Building Trades first came to Washington in 1955, we came to fight for the same
things that we fight for today.
Job opportunities for our members; and in 1955 we came to push for congressional approval of
President Eisenhower’s plan to construct the Interstate Highway system.
And number two:
We came to fight to protect the community wage and benefit standards that were fought for
and established by our forefathers in the 1930s and 1940s.
So, when you look at where we are today, nothing has really changed in terms of our overall
But, what has changed, brothers and sisters, is the environment in which we must engage in
that fight; as well as the tools and strategizes that we must utilize to achieve our objectives.
So, the question that must be on our minds not only today… and every day as we move forward
What’s our plan to get us in a position to succeed?
In my remarks to this assembly in both 2013 and 2014, I outlined to you our strategic need for a
new internal culture premised upon being customer-centric and value-added.
I also outlined in detail our two-track strategic approach for winning greater market share and
increased membership; while simultaneously building increased political capacity and fostering
a more positive image for our unions.
And that image is brighter than ever today… thanks to the leadership and the efforts of all 14 of
our affiliates who have invested the time… the resources… and the training… to ingrain the
principles of pride, performance and professionalism into the cultural fabric of the union
We are nurturing strong relationships with individual businesses and whole industries through a
wide array of customer-centric value that we bring to the table, and which has tangible bottom
Today, our workforce development expertise is opening doors all across the nation… as we
witness the perfect storm of a new construction boom… confronting the demographics of our
industry… whereby large numbers of workers in our industry are soon set to retire over the
next five to ten years.
Also on that list of value-added benefits is our legislative and regulatory expertise at all levels of
government; as well as our ability – through numerous investment vehicles – to offer financing
assistance for a wide array of construction projects.
And all of that is conjoined with a successful and progressive labor relations model that is
centered upon a tripartite approach to job site management and performance… involving the
owner, the contractor, and our unions.
The second part of our strategic approach that I outlined to you over the last two years centers
upon the building of relationships with government and community leaders at the state and
That community-minded approach is centered upon the idea that the Building Trades have the
tools, the programs and the wherewithal to help address many of the socio-economic problems
that communities and local governments have been struggling with for generations.
By leveraging our private workforce development investments with public construction
investments, we are demonstrating to local governments and community leaders a path,
through formal apprenticeship and apprenticeship-readiness programs, to move historically
underserved populations away from a life of hopelessness and despair and toward a rewarding
and productive life in the middle class.
Today, brothers and sisters, I am proud to report that we are now operating apprenticeship readiness programs in over 70 localities across the United States – from Rochester to Boston to
New York City… from Augusta, Georgia to Detroit… and from Tacoma, Washington down to
The lesson here, is that not only are these programs having a positive impact in the
communities in which they are operating… but they are also serving to help us build greater
political allies at the grassroots level and to imprint a new image of the Building Trades in the
minds of many who may have harbored negative stereotypes and perceptions in the past.
Through these outreach efforts at the local level, we are not just creating supporters of our business model, but we are building an army of advocates for this model.
Now, the question that we ask ourselves today is this: Is our approach producing success?
And the answer is yes.
2014 was a good year.
Membership is up; man-hours are up; contractor backlogs are up; unemployment is down; and
our apprenticeship numbers are starting to come back.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, membership in our building trades unions
increased by 53,000 in 2014.
This followed an increase of 95,000 in 2013.
So, in the past two years, our membership rolls have increased by 148,000.
Clearly, a large portion of those gains are simply many
I say “non-traditional,” because these entities have had little or no prior history with us.
But they are now seeking a partnership… because of the visible and effective efforts we have
put forth to assist individual owners and entire industries with various problems that they may
be having with their projects – whether it’s a legislative or regulatory issue… a grassroots
mobilization need… or a manpower staffing need… they now understand and appreciate the
fact that the entire range of abilities and expertise that we bring to the table has immeasurable
value for their bottom line.
In return, they are rewarding us with the opportunity to prove our worth on their projects.
And really, that’s all we ask – the opportunity to prove our worth.
And speaking of proving our worth and investing in ourselves, there is something else I would
like to acknowledge here today.
For the last two years, I have implored the attendees at this conference to re-examine our
collective pension fund investment allocations to ensure that we are directing a substantial and
steady flow of money into various investment vehicles that are financing projects that put our
members to work.
You took those words to heart, and today we are seeing a measurable increase in those
investment allocations, which is now amplifying our ability to finance a greater number of
projects, and to dictate the labor relations policies on those projects.
You’ve done a good job in this regard; but there is still more that we can do.
Brothers and Sisters, here’s the bottom line: There can be no question that North America’s
Building Trades Unions are on a positive trajectory.
We are making headway with businesses and whole industries in areas of the nation where we
have historically struggled.
And we are building up goodwill at the state and local levels, and within individual
This is helping to shatter old mindsets and negative stereotypes that have dragged us down for
far too long.
But, with all this good news, there exists a potential dark cloud that, if not handled properly and
strategically, could derail all the good work that we are doing.
And it’s called POLITICS.
In the past, I emphasized the fact that multiemployer pension fund reform… and the issue of a
new or expanded guest worker program… were the two single biggest obstacles threatening
the growth of the union construction industry.
Today, thanks to the tireless efforts of the gentlemen up on this stage today, as well as the
good work of our legislative representatives…and all of you… we are today in a better position
on each of these issues.
And while we are clearly not out of the woods yet on either score, I can say to you today that
we are advancing the ball in a positive direction.
On both of these issues, we were able to achieve significant success because of a willingness to
work both sides of the aisle within the U.S. Congress to build bi-partisan support for our
And that bi-partisan approach is also why in today’s U.S. House of Representatives, which is
arguably the most conservative House of Representatives in modern times, the Building Trades
have built a bi-partisan coalition that includes roughly 50 Republicans on the issue of federal
prevailing wage protections under the Davis-Bacon Act, and we are building increased bipartisan support for PLAs in the United States Senate.
What I’m saying to you is this:
The single biggest thing that can, and will, derail the collective hopes and aspirations that we
have for the union construction industry and the members we represent, is for us to make the
mistake of having our fortunes tethered to one side of the shifting winds of American politics,
rather than focusing on building increased support for our issues and priorities, no matter the
Let me take you back 35 years ago, to 1980.
In the aftermath of the 1980 elections, we had a Republican, Ronald Reagan, occupying the
But, Democrats controlled the US Senate by a margin of 58-42, and Democrats had a 277-158
spread in the US House of Representatives.
Across the states, the story was mostly the same:
29 State Legislatures were controlled by Democrats; 15 controlled by Republicans; and 5 were
And Democratic Governors were in power in 31 states, versus 19 Republican Governors.
Fast forward to today, and we all know it’s a completely different story.
Today, it’s the Republican Party that has a 10-seat advantage in the U.S. Senate;
and it’s the Republican Party that enjoys a 57-seat advantage in the U.S. House of
And the situation, for the most part, is the same at the state level.
The GOP now has outright control in 31 state legislatures – the highest number in the history of
the party – while the Democrats have outright control in just 11.
8 states currently have split control.
Republicans currently hold the governorship in 31 states; while Democratic governors are in
office in only 18 states; and an Independent holds that office in another.
There are now 23 states where Republicans are in control of BOTH the Governorship and both
houses of the legislature, while Democrats have that level of control in only 7 states.
Today, there are really only a handful of states that can truly be classified as “Democratic
And several of those states elected Republican governors in the last election cycle.
Brothers and Sisters, regardless of how we wished it would look… blue or red… the fact is
TODAY WE LIVE IN A PURPLE WORLD!
Further, it’s a purple world that is mostly tinged with red.
I wish it were different.
We all wish it were different.
But, the fact is this situation is not likely to change any time soon.
So, as I see it, we have but two choices:
Either we can adapt to these political realities and start being smarter and more strategic in
how we engage in the political arena;
Or, we can do what others in the labor movement have historically done… hitch our wagon to
one political party… with the hope that things will turn around overnight… and that we don’t
wither away into irrelevance in the meantime.
It’s as simple as that.
Today, we are under attack in several states – most notably, Nevada, West Virginia, Indiana,
And I want to acknowledge and thank the Building Trades leadership… and our contractor allies
in those states… for the fights that they have waged, and for the diligence with which they have
sought to protect the interests of our members.
When we examine those states where we are having these bruising fights – from right-to-work
to prevailing wage repeal – there is generally one common link.
These are states where others within the labor movement historically have been “all-in”
politically with the Democratic Party.
There is no question that the Republican Party has turned to the right.
Just like there is no question that the Democratic Party is veering to the left.
Yet, there is also no question that the attacks we are seeing today on the labor movement are
political in nature.
Indiana Governor Mike Pence is continuing his discrimination agenda by now finding the time
to single out and discriminate against construction workers who he and his friends in the legislature think are paid too much.
As a result, the men and women of Indiana’s construction workforce, both union and nonunion, can look forward to potential wage and benefit cuts between 30 and 40 percent.
It will be our intention to continue to educate our members, the public and, yes, lawmakers –
regardless of party – about the true nature and intent of these proposals to give hardworking
Hoosiers a pay cut and deny businesses the skilled workforce they need to compete.
These attacks have not, and they do not, make a distinction when it comes to various elements
within the labor movement.
And that is a problem for us, brothers and sisters.
We need to do a better job of explaining our business model in a way that creates a distinction.
The point I’m trying to get across to you is this:
We, all of us, need to step back from getting trapped in the “Democratic vs. Republican”
horserace analysis that has become so central to the labor movement, as well as popular
culture and the media.
We can no longer allow that to dictate OUR attitudes and actions.
Because if and when we allow ourselves to get caught up in that analysis, then we have lost our
focus on what is truly important to our industry and to our members.
We need to start playing our game.
We need to be more thoughtful and strategic in how we approach our participation in the
And that means cultivating and constructing what we call “Building Trades Majorities” at all
levels of government.
The father of evolution theory, Charles Darwin, once said, and I quote, “It is not the strongest of
the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
The campaign for marriage equality is a perfect example.
Ten years ago, few of us would have believed that marriage equality would ever become a
reality in America.
Yet, here we are today.
And there are valuable lessons that can be learned from this campaign.
There was a strategic move to localize the issue.
These local experiments then become living, breathing case studies that other states and
communities could observe and study.
This is why our efforts to implement apprenticeship-readiness programs… and to work with
local government and community leaders… is so vitally important in changing the narrative
when it comes to our Building Trades Unions.
Brothers and sisters, for over 100 years, our unions have always figured out how to adapt and
evolve with the times.
For the past two years, I have implored this conference to think smarter and more strategic
when it comes to how we deal with owners, end-users, community leaders, and our approach
And when it comes to politics, especially in this day and age, it simply makes no sense to put all
of our eggs in one political basket.
The days of our unions being viewed as the “handmaiden” of any one political party, or the
pawns in someone else’s political game… MUST NOW COME TO AN END!
For far too long, the Building Trades have suffered and sustained collateral damage as a result
of the short-sighted political fights waged by other organizations.
That needs to end.
And what also needs to end are the days of politicians having unchecked expectations that our
political support is automatic.
I’ve said this repeatedly over the last two years at this conference:
We must cease to view politics as a charitable endeavor.
For us, politics must be viewed through the same lens we view everything else: AS A BUSINESS!
Nothing should be ventured, in terms of political support, unless, like the rest of the free world,
the policies and outcomes that affect our members get a complete and fair hearing.
If we do not get those assurances, then we should not be engaging with those politicians!
Brothers and Sisters, what I’m saying to you is this:
We need to step up our game when it comes to politics, just like we have stepped up our game
in terms of building a new internal culture… building new collaborative and customer-centric
relationships with businesses and industries… and building community goodwill all across the
nation through our apprenticeship and apprenticeship-readiness programs.
Now, in addition to exercising more discretion in terms of our general political support, we
need to also assess whether or not we truly possess a modern, effective political operation at
every level of our institutions – and one that is calibrated not for party politics, but to establish
Building Trades majorities.
In taking an assessment of your political operation back home, start by asking some basic
Is our political operation admired and respected?
Are we being more innovative in terms of using data?
Are we utilizing all the modern communication tools at our disposal?
And are we encouraging our own to run for office so that can have more Marty Walsh’s sitting
in Mayor’s offices around the country…
And more people like New Jersey Democratic Congressman Donald Norcross – an IBEW
member; or New York Republican Congressman Richard Hanna – a member of the International
Union of Operating Engineers – helping to tell our story in the caucus rooms and meeting rooms
in the U.S. Congress.
Or the dozens of our members who hold office in state legislatures across the nation.
And probably the most fundamental and important question we need to be asking ourselves is
Are we taking care of the basics when it comes to the education and engagement of our
In other words, are we talking to, and educating, our rank and file members on a consistent
basis… and in a way that they are receptive to… and which motivates and connects them to
the political process and our role in it?
And are we doing this on a year-round basis… and not just in the weeks following Labor Day in
an Election Year?
When we commit to doing all of these things, brothers and sisters, people – especially
politicians – will come to understand that the Building Trades will be a force to be reckoned
with – one which possesses the means and the wherewithal to back up what we say.
I realize that some may be skeptical when it comes to working with both political parties…
In response to that, remember this one fundamental principle:
We are a labor organization first and foremost…
Politics comes second.
Our members and our organizations are not tools to be used… and oftentimes abused… by
political parties for their own self-interests.
Yes, I understand that virtually all of us in this room today were brought up to believe that the
Democratic Party and the labor movement are philosophical soul mates.
Well, that may have been true at various points.
The state of Maryland has a prevailing wage law that, unfortunately, is coupled with a
ridiculously weak system of compliance.
In fact, current law only allows for a $20 per day penalty for non-compliance.
Now, you don’t need an MBA to figure out that $20 per day is an easy cost to cover when you
are cheating workers out of wages.
A parking ticket in downtown Annapolis costs more than $20!
So, the Building Trades endorsed a legislative proposal to increase that penalty to $250 per day.
Again, we are talking about the Maryland State Legislature – arguably the most Democratic
state legislature in the nation.
But incredibly, Democratic leaders in the Senate, engineered a maneuver to water down this
measure at the behest of the ABC.
And then the Democratic leaders in the House played the same game.
Again, we are talking about a state legislature that has supermajorities of Democratic control.
Brother and Sisters, this speaks volumes.
These are people we have supported for decades with our votes, our resources and our voices.
And this is the lack of respect that all construction workers – union and non-union alike – are
getting from Democratic leaders in a blue state like Maryland.
I don’t know about you, but I find this to be both professionally and personally offensive.
Brothers and Sisters, a price must be paid.
Because if not, we will simply be rolled again and again.
We need to remind ourselves every day that, in today’s political world, there is always a shiny
new toy that comes on the scene.
In many respects for the Democratic Party today, that shiny new toy is represented by a
radicalized environmental movement and its billionaire supporters.
Which, of course, mirrors the billions of dollars from just a handful of donors that are flowing to
the Republican side.
And this new support has made it all that much easier for some Democrats in Congress to stand
on the floor of the House and Senate and disparage the jobs associated with the Keystone
pipeline – OUR JOBS – as being, quote, unquote, “TEMPORARY.”
Now, let me be clear… when it comes to the Building Trades and the environment…
First off, we are not climate change deniers.
Our unions have consistently been in favor of a balanced and reasoned global solution that puts
us on a path to address the serious nature of climate change…
but does so in a manner that does not destroy the American middle class and the ability of our
members to ply their crafts.
Our unions seek energy independence.
And American energy independence equates to American national security.
There are far too many of us in this hall today who have personally suffered a loss because our
nation has had to go to war to protect vital energy sources that are critical to our economy.
Tomorrow, we will hear from Retired U.S. Marine General James Cartwright, who knows
firsthand the strategic importance of an America that is increasingly energy independent… and
who understands how a thriving energy sector is helping us to create jobs and career training
opportunities for military veterans through our Helmets to Hardhats program.
Contrary to what some may think about us when it comes to environmental issues… the
Building Trades understands the need for a comprehensive national approach that ensures a
sustainable, and accessible, supply of affordable energy for the United States.
Further, we also recognize the need for an economic development strategy that moves our
nation towards more efficient, innovative and, yes, “cleaner” energy technologies.
And that view has been widely shared with both Democrats and Republicans, which makes it all
the more distressing when some of our so-called “friends” stand up publicly and belittle the
career choices made by the men and women of our unions.
All of this brings me back to what Dennis Duffy said in the opening video we just viewed.
We all took an oath of office to represent our members.
And that oath of office did not include an oath of allegiance to either the Democratic or
We can all still be solid and proud trade union leaders even when we are working both sides of
the political aisle.
After all, our membership is split along both sides of the aisle.
Consider that for over a generation now, according to AFL-CIO exit poll data, that roughly 40%
of our collective membership consistently votes for the Republican candidate for President; for
Governor; and for the United States Senate.
This is not a recent phenomenon, and the AFL-CIO has the data to prove it.
The fact of the matter is that the men and women that we represent – who are roughly split 60-
40 between Democrats and Republicans – deserve nothing less than our utilizing every
available strategy, process and resource to better their lives.
Especially when it comes to politics.
And if that means working both sides of the aisle to construct “Building Trades Majorities” that
may run counter to the political sensibilities of some of our friends and allies, then so be it.
Now, many of you are probably thinking “But the Republicans in my state are way more
conservative and anti-union.”
Well, that might be true. Or, it may not be true.
But one thing that is true is this:
As trade union leaders in this day and age, you have one of the most difficult jobs on Earth.
What I’m simply asking each and every one of you is to approach your job in the exact same
dedicated manner as you approached your craft… and not be afraid to try!
Sure, there are some Republicans who will never be willing to listen to us.
Just like there are some Democrats who consistently align themselves with special interests
whose primary concern is not the American middle class.
The point I’m making is that we won’t know whether we can find common ground with any
lawmaker, regardless of party, until we genuinely attempt to reach out to them and start a
We need to explain to them our business model.
We compete for every job opportunity we get… there are no seniority rules in our unions.
And we self-fund our training and education infrastructure.
This all adds up to a private-sector based model to help build communities and lead people out
of hopelessness and despair and onto pathways to productive lives.
Put simply, Brothers and Sisters, our business model dovetails nicely with the personal and
governing principles of many lawmakers, regardless of party.
Again, this was the experience of our brothers and sisters in Ohio.
Prior to engaging with them, they thought that all Republicans had horns on their heads and
pitchforks in their hands.
But, you know what?
Through dialogue and education, they soon discovered otherwise.
And more importantly, it was the exact same experience for those Republican legislators.
Once they better understood our business model, they saw how well it jibed with their
Brothers and sisters, all I’m saying today is that it’s time for us to start playing a new game.
Sure, we can’t do it overnight.
But, 10 years from now… the economic well-being of our members should no longer be
dependent upon who occupies the White House… a Governor’s mansion… a state legislature…
or the US Congress… because we have constructed “Building Trades Majorities” at all levels of
We stopped playing checkers long ago… we need to perfect our chess game.
Our story is America’s story.
Our members and our unions are the real deal.
We are GENUINE.
We have heart and character.
We are the builders of America.
And we are driving the bus of economic and social opportunity.
Ours is a business model that people of all political persuasions should embrace… provided we
take the time to engage with them… and explain it to them.
Because in today’s world… you win with your briefcase, not your brawn.
North America’s Building Trades Unions represent the true values that make America the
greatest nation on this Earth.
We can set an example that liberals, conservatives and independents – ALL support.
An America of HOPE… OPPORTUNITY… and the ability to earn a fair day’s pay… for a fair day’s
In business and in politics, the Building Trades is about bringing both sides together – because
two sides make a whole.
We have a great opportunity to make continued progress with a proven formula for success.
100 years ago, the Building Trades were the bedrock of the American labor movement.
And today, brothers and sisters, we are still that bedrock.
And that’s because of who we are… what we do… and what we represent.
WE ARE NORTH AMERICA’S BUILDING TRADES UNIONS!
Thank you. And may God bless our great movement.