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Feature >> State of the Union Construction Industry Forum

December 14 2016

What will a Trump presidency mean for the union construction and maintenance industry – and, for that matter, the economy as a whole?

That’s the question on everyone’s mind as 2016 roars to an end. But the answer – at least for now – remains elusive, even for some of the most powerful people in Washington, D.C. Only one thing is certain: when it comes to Donald Trump, throw the crystal ball out the window, because it won’t do anyone any good.

“Quite honestly, nobody knows” what Trump will do as president, said Sean McGarvey, President of North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU). Speaking at TAUC’s State of the Union Construction Industry Forum on December 8, he added, “We don’t know. [The business community] doesn’t know. I think President-elect Trump knows – some of it.”

Jim VandeHei, co-founder of POLITICO and one of the sharpest political minds in Washington, echoed McGarvey’s sentiments. “Welcome to Trump Land,” he joked to the packed crowd of contractors, labor reps and owner-clients. He went on to describe the President-elect’s approach as “a mixture of impulse and improvisation.”

“Big things are going to happen in wildly unpredictable ways,” VandeHei said. “We don’t know…nobody knows. His kids know. That’s it. So unless you’re talking to [son-in-law] Jared or Ivanka, maybe Steve Bannon, no one knows exactly what he’s going to do. [Even] he probably doesn’t know exactly what he’s going to do.”

Anatomy of a Victory

McGarvey gave Trump credit for tapping into the “deep-seated fears and feelings” of many union members across the country. Based on research stretching back to 2007, NABTU knew that a lot of craftworkers were frightened about what the future held for their careers and families. Trump’s message resonated with these men and women – and in several crucial states, cross-over votes from Democrat union voters helped him win.

“When we polled our members, Hillary Clinton was clearly the one that they supported, but Donald Trump was number two with our members, going back to the fall of 2015,” McGarvey said.

“Exit polls were probably off a little bit,” VandeHei said, “but in those states where Donald Trump did better than anyone thought, it’s clear Hillary Clinton underperformed among union members.” VandeHei said union voters agreed with Trump’s message that globalization and other economic trends over the past 20 years haven’t benefited the vast majority of Americans. “I think there are a lot of union members who are very open to what Donald Trump is talking about,” he added.

Infrastructure & Energy

When it comes to infrastructure spending, NABTU is “all in,” McGarvey said. However, he stressed once again that no one really knows what President Trump’s actual proposal will look like.

When it comes to energy, McGarvey said he and his colleagues have been “heartened” by the picks Trump has made for his administration thus far, and they feel that energy policy is about to take a “dramatic turn.” Although NABTU supported Clinton, he added that Trump was the second-best option.

“We can no longer continue to have private sector companies plan and invest capital into energy projects when there’s no predictability that, when they follow the rules, the end result is they can actually build and operate that facility,” McGarvey said. He also blasted the “politicization of energy projects” under President Obama.

Despite the seismic shift that occurred on November 8, McGarvey stressed that NABTU’s strategy hasn’t changed. “It’s one of engagement – engagement with the owner community to invest in projects with their capital, and the opportunity to put our members to work.” He also expressed a commitment to create opportunities through apprenticeship and training programs for communities of color, women and veterans.

“I am more optimistic about the growth trajectory that the unionized construction industry is on and will continue to be on for the foreseeable future,” McGarvey added. “When we agree with President-elect Trump we’ll do it publicly, and when we disagree we’ll do it respectfully, just like we did with President Obama, and just like we did with President Bush before him. But in any case, I think the future is very bright for the unionized construction industry and there are lots of opportunities.”

Cautious Optimism

Two key Congressmen, both with decades of experience in the construction industry, expressed cautious optimism about a Trump administration.

Rep. David McKinley (R-WV), one of only two professional engineers in Congress, told the TAUC Forum audience he is encouraged by discussions he has had with the Trump transition team regarding the proliferation of federal regulations. He predicted Trump will slow down on imposing new regulations that make it harder for businesses to operate.

“If we can get our regulations under control, we can unleash a potential we haven’t seen in generations in this country and put our people back to work,” Rep. McKinley said.

Regarding infrastructure spending, McKinley’s message was simple. “You want to change the economy, [make it] robust and vibrant again? Put our construction people back to work…use our infrastructure as a vehicle to put Americans back to work quickly.”

As for Trump’s victory, McKinley said he had “never seen a more seismic shift in our political landscape…I’m excited to see what’s going to happen. He wasn’t my first choice, but he’s the President of the United States.”

Rep. Donald Norcross (D-NJ) is the only electrician in the House of Representatives and worked for years installing power lines in refineries and on the tops of bridges. He rose through the ranks and eventually became assistant business manager for IBEW Local 351 and President of the Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO.

Like McKinley, Norcross said he was “absolutely thrilled” over the potential for Trump to engage in a robust round of infrastructure spending.

“I dealt with Donald Trump for [many] years in Atlantic City…one thing I understood about the Trump organization, they understood the art of the deal… I think there is real opportunity here. There is also some peril; I certainly have some issues, and I’m not suggesting everything Donald Trump is doing is the right thing. But he is talking about things that make a difference to the people I represent…it’s about building again.”

The Trump Doctrine

VandeHei predicted that President Trump will be just as unconventional in terms of political strategy as candidate Trump. Despite calls from some corners for Trump to give up tweeting once he takes the oath of office, he doubts that will happen.

“That Twitter account, one of the reasons he’s not going to give it up is that it gives him leverage.” As a successful businessman, Trump understands the power of leverage better than almost anyone, he noted.

“You think what he did to Boeing and Carrier isn’t going to have a huge impact on other companies?” VandeHei asked. Any corporation considering moving jobs to Mexico will think twice, knowing that a single tweet from President Trump could unleash a torrent of negative publicity.

Trump’s social media prowess could also come in handy when clashing with more conservative members of his own party, who may not approve of his plans to spend big on infrastructure, VandeHei said. “Conservatives are scared of him. Any time some poor guy in Congress thinks he’s going to make a stand against Donald Trump, all he’s gotta say is, ‘Want me to tweet? Want me to talk to my friends at Breitbart? You ready for hell?’ They’re going to buckle like they already buckled, which will give him even more leverage. He really is upending the ideology of his own party, and it’s my guess he’ll upend the ideology of the Democrat Party, too.”

VandeHei summed up Trump’s win as a “profound disruption to how this city works.” He said the expansion of executive power under Presidents Bush and Obama have laid the groundwork for “an extremely powerful imperial presidency.”

“When you have all-Republican rule in this city, you can do a hell of a lot fast,” VandeHei said. “There are no checks on his power. He is going to be able to do massive, massive things.”

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