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Unions win Jobs, Infrastructure, Pension Plan Improvements in Surface Transportation Bill 


July 6, 2012

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Intense lobbying by unions of the Building and Construction Trades Department and others over the need for improvements to America’s infrastructure finally took shape on June 29 when Congress voted to reauthorize federal funding for surface transportation.The bill will go to President Obama’s desk for his signature.


Transportation funds were extended on a short-term basis on nine occasions by Congress as debate continued over the provisions of the bill.

Final passage will put thousands of construction workers to work on projects from rebuilding 80,000 deficient bridges to dredging harbors and building roads.

The bill also contains language that will benefit workers covered by defined benefit pension plans, a measure that was the subject of a June 15 letter from International President Hill to members of Congress.

National League of Cities’ President Ted Ellis said:

We appreciate the hard work of our national transportation leaders in recognizing that transportation investment means jobs in our communities and provides the vital link for people to get to their jobs, school and doctor appointments.

The House passed the bill by a vote of 373-52. The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 74 to 19. All of the votes against the bill came from Republicans.

Included in the bill is the Realize America’s Maritime Promise Act (RAMP), a measure that will put thousands of construction workers, Seafarers and Teamsters on the job by dredging key American harbors to enable them to receive larger ships from a widened Panama Canal.

RAMP mandates that monies that are held by the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, coming from maritime commerce taxes collected from shippers be used solely for harbor improvements. While the fund—established in 1986—contains nearly $6 billion, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives decried the fact that some of the funds were diverted away from port improvements.  

A press release from a coalition of RAMP supporters—including the Chamber of Commerce, industrial interests and unions states:

…Because of sediment accumulation in navigation channels, almost 30 percent of commercial vessels that call at U.S. ports can no longer be accommodated due to inadequate channel depths.

The RAMP supporters, calling themselves the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund’s Fairness Coalition, add:

This drives up the cost of our nation’s exports and imports and increases the risk of vessel grounding and associated oil spills … Thousands of good-paying American jobs would be created or maintained by using [trust fund] revenues for their intended purpose: maintaining America’s waterways.

John Walsh, International Representative, IBEW Political/Legislative Department, who attended briefings on RAMP, says:

It’s a great thing to see what can happen when unions, business interests and legislators from both parties come together on common sense legislation.

 If this bill hadn’t been passed, says Walsh, U.S. employers in the shipping industry could have faced the prospect of heightened competition from China-based shipping companies that are already buying up port facilities in Costa Rica to divide the cargoes of ships that would be too large to make it to major ports that had not been dredged.

Pension language in the highway bill will help insure the long-term retirement security of workers and retirees while simultaneously assisting American companies that continue to provide defined benefit pension plans by modifying some provisions of the Pension Protection Plan of 2006.

Those provisions require employers to make what International President Hill described in his letter to Congress as “immediate, excessive and unnecessary contributions to their pension plans.” This places more pressure on companies to opt out of or reduce payments of defined benefit plans.


Photo used under a Creative Commons license from flickr user rutlo.