Labor unions serve a great purpose for their members, as they work to negotiate better pay, better health care and pension benefits and a safer work environment. In the case of building trades unions, including the Insulators, unions also train the next generation of skilled workers through apprenticeship programs.
Here some key political updates, which affect the fundamental role of unions pertaining to apprenticeship, healthcare and pensions.
The Registered Apprenticeship Program is central to the value proposition of the building trades. We are the safest and most productive workforce because of our training.
For the most part, non-union contractors and their employees do not make the same investment in training. Instead of spending their own money on training, the non-union construction industry often seeks government funding and tax breaks, while they also seek to weaken the strong requirements that make a registered apprenticeship program so valuable.
Due to the success of the Building Trades Registered Apprenticeship model, policymakers have sought to expand apprenticeship into other industries. We think this is a good idea and believe other industries could benefit from high-quality training programs.
When the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) started to update regulations regarding apprenticeships, the Insulators and the building trades told the DOL construction apprenticeship works well and they should not be messed with.
On June 25, the DOL proposed the creation of Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs), which concerned us, because IRAPs would not require strong government standards to qualify as a recognized training program. We were especially concerned that the non-union construction industry would use the DOL to undermine our successful apprenticeship model so the non-union construction industry could qualify as an IRAP without meeting strong standards.
We were pleased the DOL’s initial IRAP proposal provided the construction industry exemption, but the draft regulation only provided a temporary exemption.
Once the IRAP proposal was released, the Insulators and building trades unions organized a major campaign to encourage our members to provide comments to the DOL with a strong and clear message: IRAPs do not belong in the construction industry.
Our union made IRAPs our top priority because any attempt to undermine our apprenticeship programs represents a direct threat to our jobs and our standard of living. As is often said in the labor world, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
The non-union construction industry view IRAPs as an opportunity to get what it has always wanted, which is the ability to recognize themselves as having legitimate training programs.
This is why it was imperative for the Insulators to make our voices and our comments heard – and we did.
When General President McCourt, the Executive Board, Local Business Managers and Local Apprenticeship Directors encouraged our members to provide comment to the DOL, Insulator members answered the call and submitted 7,486 comments.
Thanks to all our members and retirees, their family members and friends and our contractors for taking the time to participate in this crucial effort to protect our apprenticeship programs. When the DOL comment period ended on Aug. 26, over 310,000 Americans had submitted comment to oppose IRAPs in the construction industry, which is the largest number of comments the DOL ever received.
The DOL will now review the comments and publish a final updated apprenticeship regulation. At a minimum, we expect that the DOL will maintain the IRAP construction industry exemption, and we will continue to work to ensure that the exemption is made permanent.
Healthcare and Safety
Another essential role for unions is to ensure our members have a safe workplace and the best healthcare coverage for themselves and their families, especially since healthcare is consistently ranked as the most important issue for U.S. voters.
We continue our strong support for federal legislation to ban asbestos, and I recently participated in a congressional briefing to increase awareness for the need to ban this deadly material in the U.S. It is expected the U.S. House of Representatives will consider the Ban Asbestos Now legislation (H.R. 1603) before the end of this year.
We are delighted to see the growing and positive support for this important legislation, but unfortunately, this version of the federal Ban Asbestos Now legislation is not likely to become law. The Republican-led U.S. Senate is not likely to consider any asbestos ban legislation, and President Trump is unlikely to support it.
This is very disappointing, as the New England Journal of Medicine published a very persuasive article this summer supporting legislation to ban asbestos.
Furthermore, asbestos abatement work at the White House this summer forced the evacuation of Ivanka Trump’s office.
Despite this, President Trump has stated that he believes asbestos is safe, and the Trump Environmental Protection Agency has failed to include current asbestos exposure as part of its agencies review of asbestos. Trump himself has not discouraged the use of his image on Russian bags of asbestos that are exported to the U.S.
With the difficulties of getting a national asbestos ban enacted into law, there are also state legislative proposals to ban asbestos.
There are limitations with individual states taking action to ban asbestos, as only the federal U.S. government has the authority to ban the importation of asbestos. There are also concerns different state laws will create confusion and undermine the need for a complete national ban.
Lastly, some of the first state asbestos ban proposals (New Jersey and Connecticut) have been criticized as weak and ineffective.
Even with limitations, there is a compelling case to support state efforts to ban asbestos. Just as we have seen with states taking action to increase the minimum wage, success at the state level can build momentum for federal action. If we are currently unable to enact a national ban, we should do what we can, where we can.
General President McCourt supports state action to ban asbestos, but he wants to make sure state proposals are strong and effective. We are working with public health stakeholders to develop model state asbestos ban legislation, which will be the gold standard template for states to take positive action.
In addition to our support to ban asbestos, we also continue our work to create mesothelioma patient registries in the U.S. and Canada (Summa Strategies has an update on the Canadian efforts in this Journal edition).
I am also very pleased to report that the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved bipartisan legislation (H.R. 748) on July 17 to repeal the 40 percent excise tax (known as the Cadillac tax) on higher cost healthcare plans. The excise tax was included in the 2010 Affordable Care Act (more commonly known as Obamacare), but the Insulators and organized labor have succeeded to delay its implementation.
Now is the time to end this healthcare tax once and for all, and I hope the U.S. Senate will take action this fall.
In addition to apprenticeship training, a safe workplace and healthcare benefits, unions also work to ensure their members have retirement security at the end of their working days.
While most union pension plans have recovered from the 2008 financial collapse, some large multi-employer plans still have structural deficits, which threaten the solvency of the entire multi-employer system.
If large pension plans go bankrupt, the members of the surviving pension plans could be required to pay higher pension premiums to cover large pension plan defaults.
In order to fix these multi-employer pension challenges, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation (H.R. 397) to enable the federal government to issue low-rate bonds and loan the proceeds to distressed pension plans.
The Democratic U.S. House of Representatives has done its work on repeal of the healthcare excise tax and multi-employer pensions, and now it is time for the Republican U.S. Senate to take action.