After a coordinated response across North America’s Building Trades Unions, including hundreds of thousands of letters, phone calls and comments from union construction workers, on March 10 the Trump Administration backed off its plan to undermine the century-old construction apprenticeship system.
|The current apprenticeship system, balanced between contractors and unions, has been in place for more than a century. The mix of on-the-job training and classroom work, like these apprentices from Washington, D.C., Local 26 are engaged in, doesn’t need the federal government to put its thumb on the scale for business.
Key to saving the successful union-run apprenticeship system was an unprecedented response from 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.
“DOL’s final ruling regarding IRAPs is an important victory for skilled apprenticeship programs like the IBEW’s,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “We couldn’t have done this without an army of construction workers and union members telling this administration to back off. Without them, this administration would likely have succeeded in their efforts to weaken skilled apprenticeships and empower second-rate training programs that hurt workers and lower standards. Thank you.”
IRAPs have their place, Stephenson said. Many IBEW members, primarily at utilities, go through IRAPs designed by the companies or trade groups. They can also be a good idea in industries that have historically put the full cost of training onto workers, saddling them with debt from trade schools or community colleges without a guarantee of a job on the other side.
But, said Construction and Maintenance Director Mike Richard, changing federal rules to hand contractors full control over the century-old apprenticeship system would be a disastrous government overreach.
“They backed off; they should’ve backed off sooner, and it shouldn’t have taken so much of our time and money to fight them,” he said. “Our apprenticeship is not only the best in the world – for our members, contractors and customers – it’s a free-market system that uses next to no government money or time.”
The construction apprenticeship system has been successful for so long for a reason, said Political and Legislative Director Austin Keyser: Cooperation. Contractors, through the National Electrical Contractors Association, and local unions jointly decide how many apprentices to train, what they will learn and how much they will be paid. It is a system that provides a living for apprentices, the skills training contractors need and a workforce large enough to meet the needs of the jurisdiction – all without flooding the market and driving down wages.
IRAPs take out that joint determination, handing all those decisions to employers alone.
So, it was a great concern when President Trump signed an executive order directing the Labor Department to consider proposing regulations to expand IRAPs in June 2017, Keyser said.
“Alarm bells were going off,” he said. “Our construction apprenticeship is our crown jewel. We have invested decades in developing it and untold millions of dollars over the last century. You mess with that, you are messing with the soul of the IBEW.”
The department received 326,798 comments, the most the Employment and Training Administration has ever received on a rule. The vast majority were from union construction trades workers, a sign of how unpopular a change to the apprenticeship was.
“That matters. That’s power. When they started this, I guarantee you this is not the outcome the Chamber of Commerce and the Trump Administration wanted,” Keyser said. “They have the money. They have the influence. But they can never buy what we don’t have to: real people, in every part of this country, with good wages, decent benefits and a pension that promises a dignified retirement. They know the value of that, and they fought to keep it.”
But Keyser said that, like many terrible corporate backed ideas, dead is never dead.
“Bad ideas in D.C. are like zombies. If you want to keep what you love, you have to stay committed to killing them again and again and again,” Keyser said.