The Electrical Worker online
May 2020

Unions Fight Back; Trump Backs Down from
Plan to Gut Apprenticeships

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After a coordinated response from hundreds of thousands of union building trades workers, the Trump administration backed off its plan to undermine the century-old construction apprenticeship system March 10.

Key to saving the successful union-run apprenticeship system was an unprecedented response from more than 325,000 union construction workers, including 65,000 IBEW members, who submitted their stories to the Labor Department, which was considering changes to expand its Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs to the construction industry.

The idea behind IRAPs was to expand apprenticeships to traditionally white-collar industries that don't have a history of using them like business management, banking, software technology or paralegal work. IRAPs can be a good way to get workers into those jobs without forcing them to take expensive private certification or loan programs.

But the Trump Administration wanted to go much further, imposing IRAPs on construction, too.

"We support IRAPs in principle; we have hundreds of thousands of members who topped out of them, mainly in utilities," International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. "But applying it to construction would have been catastrophic."

Stephenson said that not only is the construction apprenticeship system approaching 100 years old, there are life-and-death safety issues.

"There are simply fewer dangers when you are working in an office, not building one," he said. "Mistakes on job sites can not only get you maimed or killed; they can kill others. And when you start talking about the work our members do with electricity, there are many lives at stake."

Early in his presidency, Trump issued an executive order authorizing the Labor Department to change the apprenticeship system in the U.S.

"It was a shot across the bow," said Political and Legislative Department Director Austin Keyser. "We didn't know if they were going to get around to aiming directly at us, but we knew they were too close."

The registered apprenticeship program in the building trades was created back in 1937 with the passage of the Fitzgerald Act, but it traces its history to state-run apprenticeship programs at the turn of the 20th century.

It is a partnership of equals, where labor and management decide together not only how many apprentices to train, they decide on wages for their jurisdiction and what skills the future workforce will need to meet the need of future construction customers. Apprentices pay only the cost of books and earn benefits and pay far exceeding minimum wage.

Historically, there has been tension between what management and labor wanted, but if either of them pushed too far, they would start losing jobs to nonunion contractors.

"It's a balanced, three-part free market between labor and management on the one hand, but always subject to the needs of customers," Keyser said. "Over the course of 100 years the marketplace has forced everyone to compromise and find solutions that work."

All of that would disappear if IRAPs spread to the trades, Keyser said.

Management would be given sole discretion to determine everything: numbers, wages, curriculum and how much — or how little — an apprentice would need to know to become a journeyman. Government oversight, according to the plan, would be replaced with "self-monitoring," a euphemism for no oversight at all.

Nonunion contractors could pay minimum wage, charge for tools and books and, on federal projects, they wouldn't be bound by Davis-Bacon wage progression rules or journeyman-apprentice ratio requirements.

"Government played next to no role in the apprenticeship marketplace for 100 years and now the Trump Administration wanted to pick one side, and it wasn't ours," Stephenson said.

Despite two years of meetings with the administration after the executive order, when the proposed rule was finally issued in June 2019, none of labor's basic concerns were addressed.

For example, the proposal gave standards recognition entities — not government agencies — the power to create new apprenticeship programs and approve or reject applicants. But there was next to nothing in the draft plan about oversight over the SREs, whether they could have conflicts of interest, what kind of information they would have to reveal about success rates or even what duty they owed to keep apprentices safe and healthy.

The Labor Department didn't even say how this information must be provided to the public.

And, most importantly, while the rule said the Labor Department would not "initially" accept industry-led apprenticeships for the construction sector, it did not rule out doing so later.

Worse, the 60-day comment period ran through summer vacation season and a personnel shake-up was underway in the administration.

While the proposed bill was bad and vague about IRAPs in construction, labor negotiators had come to understand then-Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and other officials were opposed to the imposition.

But by the summer of 2019, Acosta's position was frustrating administration officials in the White House, according to published accounts, most importantly then-acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Mulvaney began stripping power away from Acosta. In July, the axe dropped, and Acosta was ousted.

"Acosta was no great friend of labor and few tears were shed when he was forced out, but on this, we believed he was a reliable backstop" Keyser said. "Once Mulvaney took over, it was a different game."

Stephenson put out a call, online, through The Electrical Worker and through the locals. Members needed to speak up to save apprenticeships. It didn't matter that it was summer vacation. Time was short. The other trades did the same.

"It was an existential threat to the IBEW at that point," Stephenson said.

And the union responded. More than 325,000 trade unionists commented, including more than 65,000 IBEW members.

"It was an astonishing outpouring from our membership," Stephenson said. "Reading those comments about the meaning of our apprenticeship to them and their families has been one of the highlights of my career. Not just how many, but the depth of feeling."

As the comment period ended over the summer, Keyser was not sure what the final rule would look like. The response had been overwhelming. Would it be enough?

When the final rule was finally issued March 10, trades were excluded from IRAPs. As always, the strength of the IBEW was built entirely on the solidity of its members.

"This not the outcome the Chamber of Commerce and the Trump administration wanted," Stephenson said. "They have the money. They have the influence. But they can never buy what we don't have to: our people. We are in every part of this country, with good wages, decent benefits and a pension that promises a dignified retirement. We know the value of that, and we fought to keep it."


Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez visited Washington Local 26's training center in 2015 to promote the importance of construction apprenticeships. The Trump administration threatened to destroy the union apprenticeship system.