Dem presidential hopefuls make pitches to 3,000 building trades activists
Left to right: Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Eric Swalwell | AP

WASHINGTON—It’s called, in political parlance, “a cattle call.”

The phrase refers to what happens when presidential hopefuls parade their positions, one by one, before a group, large or small.

And that’s what nine Democrats– John Hickenlooper, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Tim Ryan, Terry McAuliffe, Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Eric Swalwell, in that order – did before 3,000 construction workers at the April 10 session of North America’s Building Trades Unions’ legislative conference in D.C.

All supported pro-worker and particularly pro-building trades causes, recognizing the activists represent three million unionists, many of whom will vote in next year’s presidential primaries and caucuses.

But hanging over the specifics was the fact that tens of thousands of construction workers in 2016 defected to GOP nominee Donald Trump, especially in the key Great Lakes states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, where his narrow popular vote wins gave him Electoral College victory.

Several hopefuls acknowledged it, reminding the delegates Trump had broken his key promise to the building trades: A comprehensive plan to rebuild the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges, railroads, airports, and other infrastructure.

Trump has yet to send a plan to Congress. Warren noted he lies when he talks about $1 trillion for infrastructure. Trump’s talking points produce only a $200 million plan, she said.

All the hopefuls endorsed Project Labor Agreements, where unions and contractors agree on union representation for workers in return for a set of work rules and grievance procedures to cover problems on the job. And the PLAs also set specific budgets for the projects.

Another cause, which all backed and which the unionists also took to Congress, is preserving the Davis-Bacon Act and its requirement that contractors pay prevailing wages on federally funded construction. Cut-rate contractors and their GOP allies have campaigned for years to eliminate Davis-Bacon, thus driving workers’ wages down.

The leadoff speaker, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, set the tone by declaring that “as president, any attempt to eliminate prevailing wage or Davis-Bacon will meet my veto pen.”

“We must rebuild our infrastructure with the strong protections of union labor, of the prevailing wage and of Davis-Bacon,” added Minnesota Sen. Klobuchar, whose father was a Minnesota Newspaper Guild member and whose mother, an American Federation of Teachers member, walked picket lines in the 1951 Twin Cities teachers strike.

Harris got very specific on infrastructure, rattling off statistics on what needs rebuilding: 32 percent of urban streets, 14 percent of rural roads, one million miles of water pipes “that have been in use for 100 years or more,” and one of every nine bridges, among other needs.

“You look at our roads and bridges, and all the potholes and workers’ tires go flat. Anybody tried to buy tires lately?” she asked, to laughter. “These things are all related.”

And Booker, now a senator, reminded the crowd that, when he was Newark’s mayor, he pushed through New Jersey’s first municipal prevailing wage ordinance.

While all nine praised the role of unions, and especially the building trades, in creating the U.S. middle class, only four – Sens. Warren of Massachusetts, Harris, Klobuchar, and Bennet of Colorado — explicitly endorsed strengthening unions through comprehensive labor law reform. Booker talked about “creating new types of unions” for home health care workers and other unrepresented groups.

Even fewer – Warren, Harris, and Klobuchar – vigorously endorsed repeal of the 72-year-old federal provision to let states enact so-called “right to work” laws. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., a co-leader in current polls, told a Machinists conference on April 8 that he’s reintroduced his anti-RTW legislation.

Another hopeful, former Virginia Gov. McAuliffe, reminded the crowd he campaigned hard against two right-wing attempts to write RTW into the state constitution. Both lost. RTW laws let workers take union services without paying one red cent for them and they’re a favorite cause of big business and the radical right.

The mentions of Trump led some of the hopefuls, notably Booker, Warren, and Harris, to pivot to how to bring the nation together and end the rancor, divisiveness, hate and distrust Trump fosters. All also declared new jobs, construction and otherwise, must be high-paying union jobs. “Nobody should have to work more than one job to pay the bills,” Harris said.

“If you’re tired of being crushed by a rigged system, and if you believe that our democracy can and should work for everyone, then join us in this fight,” she declared.

“This election isn’t about one man. It’s got to be about reclaiming the idea of America,” said Booker, an African-American whose grandfather migrated from the South to Detroit for World War II work – and to join the Auto Workers. That particularly means the American Dream – and for all, not excluding Muslims, Spanish speakers or others, he pointedly added.

“We need to change the rules and clean up corruption and put more power in the hands of workers and small businesses – and change the rules of democracy,” starting with a constitutional guarantee “of the right to vote and have every vote counted,” Warren said.

Only one hopeful, Klobuchar, inadvertently stumbled, when she mentioned, and praised, a Carpenters’ training center, bringing down a round of boos. Carpenters President Doug McCarron declared his union independent years ago. It’s also been criticized for raiding and his top-down command and control.

A random sample of unionists interviewed afterwards gave the hopefuls generally good reviews, though almost all noted it’s too early to make a decision.

“I thought they were very inspirational, spoke from the heart and had a lot of passion up there,” said Jeff Epperstein of Roofers Local 11 in Chicago. “And they hit the issues important to us.”

Bricklayers President Jim Boland noted Ryan, the U.S. representative from Youngstown, Ohio, and its surroundings, was the only one who delved into competition from Russia and China. The Chinese, the congressman said, “are cleaning our clock.” That led Boland to add Ryan, who is little known, to his list of “strong candidates,” also including Booker and Harris.

Warren, Boland said, shares the same problem Hillary Clinton had: Failure to connect with the crowd. And “McAuliffe’s an easy one to underestimate,” he added of the former governor and prolific Democratic fundraiser. McAuliffe promised a decision within a few weeks – but not before taking sharp shots at Trump.

“It’s good to hear from all of them so we can make a decision. But some of them flew right by health care, which is one of the most important things to us right now,” added Brian Cavey, business manager of Heat and Frost Insulators Local 24 in Laurel, Md. “Warren touched every single issue; the others bounced around.”

Though Cavey did not say so, Swalwell, the Bay Area congressman who closed the parade, was the sole hopeful to advocate permanent repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s “Cadillac tax” on high-value health insurance plans. That tax, now on hold, would hit unionists’ plans especially hard.

“And the three B’s – Biden, Bernie and Beto – weren’t here,” Cavey said, referring to Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, and former Texas U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke. “Corey (Booker) reminded me a little of (Barack) Obama up there. Obama offered hope; Booker offered dreams.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.