Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Is a Boon for Labor Unions
Whether they are paving roads damaged by Hurricane Ida or building a next-generation railroad tunnel under the Hudson River, unions, like the Operating Engineers Local 825, expect to be part of the action.
This former sand mine, which his union uses to train workers in construction equipment, is bristling with cranes, pile drivers and dozens of other pieces of heavy machinery. But before showing off a construction arsenal vast enough to raise a skyscraper on the spot, Lalevee is enthusing about his union’s good fortune as Congress finally pays attention to infrastructure.
“When President Biden announced his plans, for us to hear that — it was nirvana,” says Lalevee, business manager of New Jersey’s Operating Engineers Local 825. “You need the free flow of goods. With the rise of Amazon and Internet shopping, trucking is more important than ever. You're going to need these bridges, highways and byways. We'll see the resurgence of rail too.”
Lalevee is not saying this from the position of a Democratic partisan. Unlike many labor leaders in America, he plays both sides of the fence. Local 825’s training center was the site of an endorsement rally for Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election in 2013 and for Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in 2017. For Lalevee, and many of his allies in the New Jersey building trades, it's a question of who has the power to help their members keep working.
The head of Local 825 is a gregarious and well-liked fixture of New Jersey politics. He’s also part of an increasingly tenuous tradition in the building trades union movement. In the Northeast and Midwest, these unions often allied with moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats alike to advance the interests of their members and the industries that employed them.
“Infrastructure has never been a partisan issue,” says Lalevee.
Historically, Lalevee is right: Everyone likes building roads. But today, the political middle ground is shrinking rapidly. That leaves building trades unions in a tricky position.
“They tend to be really pragmatic on their politics, they're not ideologically driven,” says Todd Vachon, professor of labor studies at Rutgers university. “At least in the Northeast, there are some Republicans at the local level that are more moderate. But since the rise of Trump, we've seen it's more difficult [for construction unions] to work with Republicans.”
“Your rank and file building trade guy leans a little right of center,” says Lalevee. “But President Biden understands that infrastructure creates jobs. He understands there[J1] has to be collaboration between the sides. To have him in building trade union halls talking about these things is old school politics, politics that in the past has worked.”
A Union With a Conservative Background
The building trades have long been a distinct wing of the American labor movement. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, their leadership often stood apart from the heavily immigrant and more militant industrial workers. During the organizing surge of the New Deal era, the more left-wing factory workers in industries like steel and cars formed their own union coalition (the CIO) apart from the conservative, building trades-dominated American Federation of Labor (AFL).
The roots of this divide were over what’s called “business unionism,” a practice that sees labor as a partner with the companies and contractors it works with. The building trades have long embraced that tradition, separating them from more ideological Democratic Party-aligned unions in the industrial, public and service sectors.
That didn’t mean they wouldn’t work with Democratic politicians or more liberal groups when their interests aligned. But they also worked with Republicans or other conservatives, especially in areas like the Northeast where the GOP wasn’t reflexively anti-union.
In a profession where periods of unemployment are frequent, and the membership is always keeping an eye out for the next job, union leaders worked with whoever could get their guys more hours.
New Jersey is one of those states where this tradition is especially strong. In addition to backing Chris Christie as he cruised to re-election, Local 825 backed a variety of GOP federal and state legislators, including Democrat-turned-Republican Jeff Van Drew (who notably still sponsored the labor strengthening PRO Act even after he changed parties).
On the other side, however, Local 825 and other building trades have worked with the environmental movement and other progressive groups, especially on issues where their interests align like expanding public transit capital spending. As climate issues have gained increasing prominence in the Democratic Party and its infrastructure priorities, historic tensions between the trades and the environmental movement have eased somewhat. After all, there are jobs in natural gas wells and wind turbines alike. (The Sierra Club estimates that there could be 15.5 million good green jobs if a substantially more dramatic infrastructure bill were funded to add to climate resiliency and transition the economy toward green fuels.)
“Under Gov. Murphy, there's been a lot of initiatives that break the old misconception that the building trades and environmental advocates are opposed,” says Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “There’s been strong support for environmental protection and clean energy jobs, and a lot of work for folks in their union.”
Knitting together those constituencies is a priority for Biden, who launched his American Jobs Plan green infrastructure strategy from a carpenters union training center in Pittsburgh.
For Lalevee, all of this is simply a reflection of straightforward transactional politics too often forsaken by both the left and the right.
“For most of my colleagues, we still believe in the old-fashioned, if I look you in the eye and shake your hand and tell you something's gonna happen, it's gonna happen,” says Lalevee. “That's all we ask for in return. It's helped us forge good relationships on both sides of the aisle with people that might have come in more ideologically.”
It’s hard to argue with the results. The Operating Engineers Local 825 have almost 8,000 members across New Jersey, and five counties in New York, a 20 percent increase since 2010. The pay scale ranges from between $40 to $65 an hour, plus benefits. There are few jobs left in America that can secure that level of wages even with a college degree, and fewer still that can secure a pension. Any time the union advertises for apprentices, they get a line that starts a week before the start date.
Training High-Tech Builders
Local 825 has two training centers, one in New Jersey and one in New York, with 112 acres between them. The union splits 125 pieces of heavy equipment between the two sites and spends up to $2 million a year training its members.
The Jersey training facility is outfitted with virtual reality headsets, which give members a sense of welding before training with live equipment. There’s also an arcade-like room, stocked with what look like racing games that give workers an introduction to piloting a bulldozer or crane.
Outside, operating engineers practice steering backhoes around mock-up gas lines, paving parking lots, and using a crane to maneuver a red weight through a field of traffic cones with tennis balls perched atop them. (Each ball dislodged loses the driver points.)
The center isn’t just for newcomers though. Lalevee says construction equipment is evolving so rapidly that the union has decided to forgo buying new training equipment, which has to be replaced every few years, in favor of leasing it out.
“Older workers come down here and try the new machines,” says Lalevee. “With the pace of technological advances, our trade has become a lifelong learning situation. If you’re an accomplished excavator operator but don't know how to use [a newer model], you can come up and see us here before you get on the job and look lost.”
This is part of the union’s commitment to its membership. Operating engineers don’t just get great pay and benefits, but continued training and attention to keep them at the top of their field.
Members also get the benefits of a political operation to elect and protect politicians the union believes will advance their priorities. In its stripped-down form, without the social safety net policies Biden hoped to attach to the legislation, the bill still includes a lot that Local 825 is excited about. That’s OK with Lalevee, who says he supports increased social safety net spending like expanding access to elder care, but that it shouldn’t have been paired with highway and transit spending.
“I think President Biden had a very good discussion point to talk about the workers in long-term care facilities not being paid well and working in horrific conditions,” says Lalevee. “But I’m not on board with mucking it up with roads and bridges. Pass the hard infrastructure bill, then have that debate.”
Ironically, the Gateway Project is necessary because union ally Chris Christie scrapped an earlier plan to build a tunnel under the Hudson, citing cost overruns. The move was widely seen as a means to burnish his credentials with economic conservatives, and their longstanding commitment to reducing public-sector spending (and busting unions).
In some ways, that move could be seen as part of a wave of aggressive Republican governors elected in the wake of 2008, who signaled a sharp shift toward the ideological far right. Scott Walker and Rick Snyder were of the same generation, and both enacted right-to-work laws that hurt building trades unions in their states despite the previously longstanding tradition of GOP support for those workers.
But Lalevee says he isn’t too worried about the same fate from his GOP allies in New Jersey.
“It's always a concern, but you can only take somebody for their word,” says Lalevee. “Gov. Walker and others made commitments and didn't keep them. Which is likely why Gov. Walker didn't get very far in his bid to be president. You can't make public promises to people and then flat out break them.”
Lalevee's members are probably well insulated from such a betrayal by New Jersey’s overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature, which is unlikely to approve right-to-work law no matter who is governor. That’s not their only lucky break. From a purely economic perspective, his union members are hooked into America’s largest metropolitan area, with its colossal infrastructure needs further proven by Hurricane Ida. It looks like a bipartisan infrastructure bill is about to pass, even if at a smaller scale than Biden’s original ambitions, and it includes massive amounts of spending for the Gateway tunnel into Manhattan.
For now, that means New Jersey’s Operating Engineers are still able to walk a fine line in the midst of a country consumed by ideological and partisan strife, with their eye where it’s always been: on the next job.
“There are those who would say [the bill] falls short, there are those who say it goes too far — the greatest compromises in the world are the ones that piss everybody off,” says Lalevee. “But at the end of the day, this is a historic amount of money being put on the table.”