Building Trades Political Field Representative Kevin OSullivan
October/November 2001 IBEW Journal
Thank you, President Hill, for your kind introduction and for inviting me to be here with you today and with the delegates and the leaders of our great union. President Sullivan had hoped to be here to join all of you here today. But due to the recent tragic events and the resulting travel issues, he's not able to join us. He has asked me to extend his sincerest apologies and best wishes to all.
Brothers and sisters, I am proud to say that my family has been with the IBEW for three generations; and I am a member of Local Union 164, Jersey City, New Jersey.
164 is a great local that has a proud 100-year-old tradition and continues to flourish under the progressive leadership of Buzz Dressel. As you will soon come to hear, I'm a nuts and bolts kind of guy who is not afraid of taking on a challenge but is not hired for my public speaking. So I'll thank all of you in advance for your tolerance and kindness for this speech.
I'd like to congratulate this convention for reelecting President Hill and Secretary-Treasurer Jerry O'Connor to lead the IBEW into the 21st century. This union has a terrific leadership team and the Building Trades Department looks forward to working with you for many years to come.
Brothers and sisters, it is my honor to bring greetings from the 13 other building and construction trades presidents, and from President Ed Sullivan and Secretary-Treasurer Joe Maloney. I'm here today as a construction worker, as a man who has worked with his hands and his tools just like all of you. Everyone here knows we do dangerous and highly skilled work. That's why we need our unions, to be our voice, our protection, and our hope for a better way of life.
Throughout its history, the IBEW has been that voice, that protection and that hope for all of you. And for hundreds of thousands of electrical workers throughout North America, I'm proud to be with you here today.
Our union's presence in the industries of construction, utility, communications, manufacturing and others, now spans three centuries. You have shown determination to represent working people in all these industries and across our vast continent; and you don't ever, ever back off.
The IBEW and its members have historically been leaders at all levels of our movement. In the building trades alone, over 20 percent of all elected state, local and provincial leaders hale from this International Union. You not only participate in the labor movement, you help lead the movement; and I deeply thank you for it.
Then there's politics, my favorite subject. I'm going to talk to you about the legislative challenges a little later; but I must tell you, the IBEW carries the lion's share of the load locally in the states, provinces and internationally when it comes to political action.
So let me give credit where credit is due. Under Rick Diegel's direction, your legislative and political presence is extraordinary in Washington, Ottawa and throughout the two nations.
Now, I don't need to flatter Ed Hill, but as President Sullivan would say, he's way too wicked sharp for that. But I do want to thank you, Ed, for all your support that you've given President Sullivan, Secretary-Treasurer Joe Maloney during their first year as officers of the Building Trades. The IBEW has long been the bedrock of the building trades and we know we can always count on the support of the IBEW.
Also, I want to thank all of you, the business managers, agents, International Representatives, activists, and leaders of this great union for your confidence and support. You've helped the Building Trades Department navigate through some pretty rough waters during this first year in our new administration, and we really appreciate it. Your solidarity is what keeps us up front and out front despite the odds against us; and your fighting spirit is what makes the IBEW one of the most innovative and aggressive unions in our movement.
Brothers and sisters, despite some of the bumps we've encountered this past year, we've produced for the department and our affiliates in the term of legislative, organizing and political work. I'd like to give you a brief overview of our work.
We had a great year politically, as we did a remarkable job in getting our members and families registered to vote, educating them, and getting them out to the polls. Our front-line, coordinated grassroots campaign effort with all 15 building trades unions working together targeted 16 congressional districts in two states, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Thanks to your hard work, we won 12 of those races, propelled Debbie Stabenow into the Senate and carried Pennsylvania and Michigan for our presidential ticket.
All in all, voters from union households made up 26 percent of electorate at the polls, higher than ever, and two-thirds of our building trades members voted for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. And they supported progressive congressional candidates by a ratio of 7 to 3.
Regardless of our outcome of the presidential race, our building trades unions came out to the election stronger than ever. Armed with credibility, we've actually been able to move this White House on some key issues, and this credibility gave us two of our biggest legislative victories.
One victory has finally allowed our members who were exposed to nuclear radiation at plants on worksites during the Cold War to get some much-needed compensation. And because of the other victory, Section 415 of the I.R.S. Code was reformed in the President's tax bill, and thousands of building trades members will now receive bigger pensions that they've earned. And I know that includes many of you in this room.
Our new political clout also helped us in another ongoing battle, and that's the struggle to regain our ability to negotiate project labor agreements on public work projects. It is fresh in all of our memories that President Bush outlawed project labor agreements on federal projects with one of his first executive orders.
Ironically, in just a matter of days, we were approached by the White House seeking support of the President's energy bill which, as many of you know, would enable a massive national development program, including several electrical generation and transmission projects. They came to us because they knew the lobbying power of the building trades. The result was a partial victory. The President agreed to grandfather all projects where contracts had been let, and that saved some big projects such as a big dig in Boston.
But I want you to know that we didn't stop there. Two of our friends in Congress, New York Republican Representative Peter King and California Democratic Representative George Miller, agreed to introduce House Bill 1360 to completely overturn the president's executive order banning the PLAs.
These two allies from the two largest states are far apart when it comes to political party geography; but thanks to our power you've given our legislative task force, with your hard work in their field, they are together when it comes to the building trades.
In addition to legislation, we also filed suit in federal district court to overturn the executive order. A few weeks ago, the federal judge agreed with us. The issue: To issue a preliminary injunction against the executive order. The full hearing on the merits --
The full hearing on the merits should begin soon in Washington; and one way or another, we're going to regain the right to negotiate project labor agreements when and where we want them.
I must add that while we disagree with the administration on many things, we fully support President Bush during this time of crisis and find ourselves in agreement with most of the tenets of their energy legislation, especially the fact that it calls for building some 1800 power plants and related transmission lines. And we're going to support it if we can get the assurance that those plants will be built with union labor and especially with union electrical workers.
This bipartisan energy bill, which also includes the drilling in Alaska that will create tens of thousands of jobs across the country, passed the House in August with a big boost from the building trades.
We face a tough fight in the Senate, including a threat of a filibuster. But with your help, we're going to get it passed, because most of those jobs will be union.
I also want to share with you the news that we are actively engaged in discussions with some of the larger owners of the power industry. Last week, President Sullivan addressed the Edison Electrical Institute, consisting of the top executives of America's power producers.
And I want to announce another important development concerning work with the U.S. military that we began as a result of our skills summit with industry leaders last year. We have a shortage of skilled craftsmen in the construction industry, and, at the same time, there are tens of thousands of men and women who leave the military each year who have construction-related skills and experience. Soon, we hope to have an agreement with the U.S. military that allows us to track these individuals, determine their skill levels, select them into the crafts and refer them to our union halls by zip code. The advantage to the military will be that they can offer the hope of a better civilian career, once people are discharged, and the advantage to us is that we will get first crack at these perspective members. We need them and they need us.
This year and next our legislative plate is full, and we will get ready for the mid-term congressional elections in 2002. We can't take our eye off the ball on Capitol Hill. We'll be calling on all of the affiliates and local unions for grassroots pressure when it comes to keeping Davis-Bacon firmly attached to school construction legislation and to projects financed under the Clean Water Act. Those of who you who are building trades officers will be hearing from me yet once again.
We're also facing challenges to our apprenticeship and training programs by legislation that would send training subsidies to non-union contractors with no standards and no accountability attached. We'll offer recruiting and training more workers for our industry, but not at the price of the standards that we have fought so hard for, for so many years to uphold. The IBEW is helping set those standards, and we cannot and will not let them fall.
As you all know, we've also been facing challenges to our multi-employer health and welfare funds by the Patients' Bill of Rights, which is supported by some unions. Without adequate protections, the bill would subject our plans and our trustees to greater, expanded liability for erroneous benefit claims decisions. We've been working with the AFL-CIO to have our problems addressed. Recently, the House passed a Patients' Bill of Rights that we cannot live with, and we oppose a version passed earlier by the Senate. Unless our needs can be met in conference, we will oppose the final version.
One of our greatest challenges in protecting our multi-employer plan is that many members of Congress, and even most labor leaders outside the building trades, truly don't understand how our plan works. When we try to explain, well, we might as well be talking to a wall. That's the reason we started the National Coordinating Committee for Multi-Employer Plants, or the NCCMP. It's the only organization that exists strictly to support and defend our plan on Capitol Hill. Therefore, I want to applaud you all for your support of and participation in this great NCCMP, as they perform a critical mission for our members.
Finally, let me close with a word or two about the top priority of the labor movement, and that's organizing. It is all important to us, because we in the construction industry trades depend on our legislative and political power. The power comes from people, our members and their families going to the polls, continuing their support of candidates at all levels of the government who support us.
We in the building trades have many national obstacles to overcome when it comes to organizing, close lists, high initiation fees and, of course, we have to uphold our skills standards. But building trades unions are still declining as a percentage of the workforce in the real terms. We have to turn that around.
The IBEW has long been a pacesetter in construction organizing, and I urge you to expand this work. Your work is helping our movement rebuild our membership roles and our political power.
Again, it's great to be here with you. Thank you so much for the confidence that you have placed in President Sullivan, Secretary-Treasurer Maloney and all of us at the Building Trades Department. We're building the bridge to opportunity. Thank you and God bless America.
Political Field Representative Kevin OSullivan