Biden speech highlights NABTU Conference

International leaders and HFIAW delegates were part of the standing-room-only crowd when President Joe Biden started his re-election campaign with an enthusiastic speech to close out the first day of the 2023 NABTU Legislative Conference. 

"It feels like coming home. It's so good to see you guys," Biden said, drawing one of many standing ovations. "I'm here because there is no better place to talk about what we have accomplished." 

The North America’s Building Trades Union (NABTU)  annual conference kicked off on the four-year anniversary of Biden’s first announcement that he was running for the country’s highest office.  

Biden repeatedly referenced his re-election campaign theme, “Finish the job,” during his speech. This included references to the Infrastructure Bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPs Act, and again as he closed his speech.

“We made a lot of progress because of you. Let’s  finish the job!” he said as the crowd rose to its feet again. “I’ve never been more optimistic about America’s future. Because of you all and what we’re doing. We have to finish the job!”

Plenary Day 1

Roughly three hours before Biden spoke, NABTU President Sean McGarvey kicked off the conference with his keynote address. He emphasized the tremendous opportunities that lie ahead for union construction workers thanks to the trillions of dollars injected into the economy from the Infrastructure Bill, CHIPs Act and Inflation Reduction Act.

“We’ve gotten to a place where workers and infrastructure are not only a priority … They are the priority,” McGarvey said. 

The NABTU President’s speech also touched on efforts to improve worker safety, responsible contracting, climate change and permit reform. 

Another major topic focused on NABTU’s efforts to expand pre-apprenticeship programs nationwide through new partnerships with the Department of Labor and the Urban League.

“This is our time to make sure we are building the opportunity pipeline,” McGarvey said. “… We must invest in workers in every community. Nothing less.” 

Former Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh followed McGarvey. The member of Laborers Local  223 in Boston thanked the delegates for their support, referred to the crowd as “family,” and then reviewed the accomplishments during his time in the Biden Cabinet.

“Your support has meant the world to me,” he said.  “(You) helped me bring the values of labor into the federal  government.”

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker followed Walsh and similarly reviewed his first term in office.

“(When I took office) … I was determined to make my state a beacon of hope,” Pritzker said. “I promised to stand up for workers, and that’s exactly what we have done. In my first 24 hours in office, I signed an executive order for Project Labor Agreements and Prevailing Wage  on all public projects.”  

He also touched on the successful effort to insert a  Workers Rights Amendment into the Illinois Constitution  -- a first for any state. He concluded his remarks with the claim that Illinois is now the most pro-worker, pro-union state in America.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) picked up where  Pritzker left off. She highlighted efforts to support good-paying jobs and working families but focused most of her remarks on efforts to expand and support apprenticeship programs and pre-apprenticeship programs across the U.S.

The last speaker before Biden took the stage was  Brendan Bechtel, CEO of the Bechtel Corporation, who joined McGarvey for a Q-n-A session. 

Bechtel Corp. has been the general contractor on numerous megaprojects, including the Shell Cracker Plant in northwest Pennsylvania, the second half of the massive Vogtle nuclear power plant project in Georgia and now the Intel project outside Columbus, Ohio.

The conversation focused heavily on different ways contractors and NABTU can work to address worker shortages predicted in the decade ahead. 

“The shortage is real,” Bechtel said. “We’re seeing it in real-time.”

The conversation also touched on efforts to address mental health issues in the construction industry and how Bechtel wants to help lead efforts to change attitudes. 

We lose seven times as many people to suicide than on the job sites, which can make you ask if we are putting the wrong emphasis on the wrong things,” Bechtel said. “Our industry is tough. It’s stressful. We have hard deadlines, and they look to us to do the impossible.”

Plenary Day 2

Day Two of the NABTU Conference was dominated by speeches from both Democrat and Republican members of Congress. 

Rep. Nikki Budzinski (D-Ill.) was first. She talked to delegates about her history with building trades unions,  going back to her grandfather, who was a member of IUPAT  Local 157 in Peoria, Ill., and continued to some of her early jobs, taking positions with the Laborers, Firefighters and the UFCW. Before being elected to Congress, Budzinski worked in the Budget Office in the Biden Administration.

She promised to always oppose So-Called “Right to Work” initiatives and has proposed legislation to bolster apprenticeship programs.

“You will have no stronger partner in Congress,” she said. “I am laser-focused on the issues that keep working  families up and night.”

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) followed Budzinski and thanked NABTU for inviting him back for a second consecutive year.

We live in the greatest country in the world,” Bacon said. “And you built it. You deserve the credit … We need you.”

As one of only 13 GOP House members who voted in favor of the Infrastructure Bill, Bacon explained why the legislation was desperately needed in his home state of Nebraska

He also spoke about his support for Davis Bacon and apprenticeship programs, adding that he is a sponsor of new legislation he hopes will open the door for a million new apprentices in various industries.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) was another GOP member of Congress who voted for the Infrastructure Bill. He repeated and expanded on Bacon’s message of support for the building trades.

He promised to “relaunch” the Building Trades Caucus in the House and fully supports the re-introduced PRO  Act and the National Apprenticeship Act.

“All these efforts are only possible when we work across the aisle,” Fitzpatrick said. “There are too many challenging issues that should not be recognized by political parties. Bipartisanship is the only way.” 

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) was the final Republican member of Congress to address the delegates. He began by sharing his family history going back three generations and the connection to various unions, including his great-grandfather Frank Sullivan who was a founding member of the IBEW.

He repeatedly expressed gratitude to the trades for work related to the Willow Project -- a roughly $7 billion proposal from ConocoPhillips to drill oil and gas in Alaska inside the National Petroleum Reserve, a 23-million-acre  area on the state’s North Slope that is the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the U.S.

"This project happened because of you people here," Sullivan said. "This is one of the biggest energy projects in the country. The leadership here played the critical role." 

He also referenced the Willow Project when addressing the major need for permitting reform in America, calling it,  "an issue I'm obsessed about."

"Alaska is ground zero for this permitting craziness. Think about the jobs that this is killing," Sullivan said. "...We need permitting reform that will help the country; help us build stuff and help the American worker." 

When introducing the next speaker, Sen. Raphael Warnock, (D-Ga.), McGarvey described him as the person who, "single-handedly changed everything for everyone in this room." 

Warnock thanked the delegates for helping to get him elected in a run-off election that decided majority control of the U.S. Senate and promised to always be a partner with the building trades. He also encouraged the delegates to keep fighting for safe working conditions and the opportunity for growth. 

“Democracy is like a muscle that we have to constantly flex,” Warnock said. “This is a room of strong individuals who are laser-focused on making sure everyone has a voice.  We need to work to lift the voices of every American.  That sense of service – one person, one vote – is the covenant of the American people."

Senate Majority Leader Charles “Chuck” Schumer (D-N.Y.), whom McGarvey called, “The Mailman,” because he always delivers, closed out the speeches from elected officials.

A regular guest at the NABTU Conference, Schumer shared anecdotes from his decades in public office and the consistent union support.

“You were there when I needed you, and I will always be there when you need me,” he said. “And I will continue to do that. Everything I do, I make sure all federal money  supports union jobs.”

At the conclusion of the Day 2 Plenary session, many delegates headed to Capitol Hill in small groups to meet with various federal lawmakers or their staff members. 

This included numerous HFIAW delegates who were seeking support for the Federal Mechanical Insulation Act and other legislation to provide tax credits for the labor costs associated with mechanical insulation installation. 

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