Saying “America’s labor leaders will always find an open door with Donald Trump,” the new Republican U.S. president addressed some 3,000 delegates from Building Trades unions gathered in Washington, D.C.
Trump was the last speaker in the two-day legislative and political conference sponsored by North America’s Building Trades – the former AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department. “You can talk with a president who knows how much concrete and rebar you can lay in a single day,” he added, referring to his pre-presidential career as a developer.
Reactions to Trump’s speech were mixed, ranging from “He was fine. He was good” from Teamsters President Jim Hoffa to “He never mentioned the word ‘union.’ Take note of that,” from John Driscoll of Elevator Constructors Local 17.
And Trump drew a smattering of boos when he took several digs at his predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama. “The era of economic surrender has come to an end,” he stated. But Trump received a prompted ovation when he declared “when you see your legislators, you can tell them the American building trades and its president are very much united.”
The delegates took time out from their lobbying of lawmakers to listen to Trump and other invited speakers from both parties. On Capitol Hill, two key causes of the building trades are preserving the Davis-Bacon Act’s prevailing wage rules and emphasizing the value of Project Labor Agreements. Trump mentioned neither.
Instead, his speech mixed in a few specifics among general praise for the workers’ efforts.“It’s time we give you the level playing field you deserve,” he said at one point, without saying how.
Trump also wants building tradespeople to help restore “cities with abandoned buildings and rusted-out” infrastructure, such as Detroit and Baltimore.
The president mentioned the infrastructure bill he plans to unveil soon, but without specifics.
Other remarks included:
- Reminding the crowd that he formally withdrew the U.S. from the jobs-destroying Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. He called it “another NAFTA, and it would have been a greater disaster.”
- Pledging that in future pipeline construction projects, which he intends to approve, “From now on, we’ll put in a clause: It’s gotta be American steel, made in America.” He admitted, however, that 61 percent of the steel in the Keystone Pipeline’s northern leg -- one of the two controversial projects he has OKd – was made abroad. Union members are building Keystone under a Project Labor Agreement signed years ago.
- Reiterated his campaign theme of cracking down on immigration to the U.S. by building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. “We’re going to protect your jobs by protecting our borders,” he said, before claiming that “a record decline in illegal immigration of 61 percent in one month. That may not be as a result of Trump’s speeches: The Pew Hispanic Center, a think tank, noted that illegal immigration fell by two-thirds from 2005-2009, for example.
- Pledged to reduce the amount of time, and the number of permits, a construction project needs before ground-breaking. Pausing a moment for an aide to bring out a timeline chart, and holding it up, Trump said that some projects take 10 years or more to get all their permits “and then they get voted down.” By contrast, construction of the Empire State Building – he lauded the Ironworkers for that – took only 13 months from the idea to the topping-off.
Of such a process, Trump predicted the workers would, in revitalizing cities “rise above the cynics” and “erect new bridges, new schools, and new landmarks and raise up a bright American flag” over them “to rebuild the country and America’s destiny.”
In a random sample of reactions, workers were not united. Besides Hoffa and Driscoll, comments from others included:
“I’m not a fan, so I’m not gonna say,” said Carl Dodge of the Operating Engineers.
“I hope that what he’s saying is true. It’s not about R or D, it’s about jobs,” said Roxana Mejia of Painters Local 51 in the D.C. area.
“Outside of a few odd remarks, I’d say it was mostly positive,” added Steam and Pipefitters Local 25 President Pete Wohlgezogen of Gardena, Calif. “Reducing the permits is starting to get us more work” on pipelines.
“It was a bunch of sound bites from his campaign,” said Don MacLeod of the Laborers. “He talked about leveling the playing field, but he didn’t say what that meant.”
“I don’t believe he’s for the American worker. I believe he’s for corporate America and profits, said Mike Gleiforst of Elevator Constructors Local 25 of Lakewood and Sheridan, Colo.
“I’m pleased that he came. To have a sitting president here is huge,” said Marion Davis, director of the Teamsters’ Building and Construction Trades Division.“We’re excited. He’s the president and it would be foolish not to work with him. Trump’s impact, Davis added, has “showed up already in the pipeline industry” where the Teamsters have 5,000 members. “
“If he keeps all his promises, he’ll be very good,” Wayne Olson of Sheet Metal Workers Local 7 in Miami concluded. “Hopefully, with the right people, he will.”
Some delegates to the conference held up signs reading, "Resist!," and turned their backs on the president's speech. They were escorted out of the hall, according to news reports.