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State of the Union 2012: pension reform, new political landscape, and much more

Brent BookerThe annual TAUC State of the Union Construction Industry Forum was held Dec. 5 in Washington, D.C. As always, the 2012 event featured a first-class slate of speakers discussing a number of issues vital to contractors, owners and unions as we head into the new year.

Brent Booker, Secretary-Treasurer of the Building & Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, delivered a wide-ranging progress report. He said that while the economy is still tough, he is very optimistic about the next few years. Unions are working hard to make inroads, especially in regions like the South and Southeast, where organized labor has historically been underrepresented.

"We're trying to go out and get in front of the CEOs and decision makers of these companies and present to them the value that we [can] add to their programs," Booker said. "We should be treated like everyone else. When you look at the skill sets the building trades have, and then look at everything else we can do, the value we can add to a project cannot be compared to what non-union contractors are doing.

"Non-union contractors in the South and Southeast had the last 20-30 years to prove what they were doing, to prove they had a skilled, trained, quality workforce," Booker added. "And I can tell you…they failed. That's the reason why we have this opportunity. If they were doing the work down there right now, and there weren't any problems, [owners] wouldn't' be entertaining any conversations with [BCTD President] Sean McGarvey or Brent Booker, I'll tell you that."

Booker noted that both he and McGarvey are continuing the discussions his late predecessor Mark Ayers began with utility giant Southern Company. Booker said the talks have been "very productive" and the BCTD is committed to offering owners a value-based solution that leverages the highly trained and skilled union workforce.

Booker also stressed the importance of changing with the times. He pointed out that over the past half a decade, several large utility companies have made dramatic shifts away from coal-fired generation and toward natural gas. The unions must figure out a way to be a leader in this new natural gas-based economy, while still maintaining a strong presence in the coal industry, he warned.

Pensions, Pre-Employment Wellness, and Politics

The Forum also welcomed two well-known experts on multiemployer pension plans for an update on the latest developments on Capitol Hill. Randy DeFrehn, Executive Director of the National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployer Plans, and Rocky Miller, leader of the Labor and Employee Benefits Group of Cox, Castle & Nicholson LLP, briefed attendees on the legislative package recently finalized by the Retirement Security Review Commission. The package is a comprehensive plan to improve the current multiemployer system and ensure that it remains viable and stable in the decades to come. The next step will be convincing Congress to accept the plan, which enjoys support from both contractors and unions (including the BCTD).

TAUC Labor Committee Chair Bill Cornell of McCarl's hosted a special panel on Pre-Employment Wellness Programs. The panel included Gary Bohn of Kiewit Power Constructors, Jake Locklear of Atlantic Plant Maintenance, CPWR's Dr. Laura Welch and TAUC legal counsel Steve Fellman of GKG Law. Bill led the panel through a frank and open discussion on the concept of the wellness programs, and gave contractors and unions a chance to ask questions, explain their positions and voice concerns.

Our keynote speaker was well-known political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, who spoke about the new political realities following the November elections. In his trademark humorous-but-blunt style, Rothenberg dissected the November election results and answered attendees' questions on a variety of issues.

If you weren't able to make this year's event, we hope you'll make a special note on your calendar to attend the 2013 State of the Union Construction Industry Forum. Dates will be announced early next year, but the forum is always held in early December, so put a reminder in your Outlook calendar or iPad app today!

12/11/2012