Unions and President-elect Trump

Look to infrastructure for possible scenarios: Litwin
Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Roads and bridges have a lot to do with how Donald Trump might interact with unions during his administration, according to ILR Associate Professor Adam Seth Litwin.

Politically, it makes sense for the president-elect to make his infrastructure plans union-friendly, Litwin said.

“On the one hand, there is no clearer way for him to demonstrate that he is really the ‘president for the working man’ that he claimed to be over the course of the campaign.

Of course, on the other hand, union involvement also gives the president-elect a scapegoat for projects that go awry,” Litwin said in an interview.

In the absence of prevailing wage protections, potential contractors are likely to bid low on projects, practically ensuring that they cannot afford union labor, Litwin said.

If that happens, the only benefits that could accrue to unionized workers would be indirect, he said.

Litwin explained that benefits would come either in the form of healthier local economies, bolstered by the presence of construction crews and the like, or via commerce built on reliable roads, bridges and power grids.

The decline of union strength in the United States roughly parallels the decline in infrastructure investment, suggesting that infrastructure investment is generally good for unions and their members, Litwin said.

The biggest American infrastructure occurred during the New Deal as a short-run boon to the economy and to workers, he said.

Most of the activity burst happened before the establishment of the current industrial relations system, making it difficult to say whether union members benefitted disproportionately from these government investments, legitimized unions Litwin said.

The need for a consistent and reliable supply of workers and for labor peace engendered first by the New Deal, then cemented by the second world war, that engendered the establishment of our present system with the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 and its Taft-Hartley revisions in 1947, he said.

Union leaders should be skeptical about the degree to which the new administration’s infrastructure plan would deliver to their members, “particularly to the extent that the plan eschews prevailing wage protections and that contracts are allocated to the lowest bidder.”

In general, unionized labor competes not on the basis of low costs, but on its high quality standards and its reputation for timeliness and safety.

In drafting his national infrastructure plan, Litwin said, Trump “will need to remember that he is no longer a CEO looking to bid on these projects.”

“If he were, then he would want the project requisitions to come with few, if any, strings attached.”

“But, as president, aside from improving our highways, bridges and power grids, he also wants to create good, high quality jobs -- whether they are union or non-union.”

Prevailing wage provisions like those arising from the Davis-Bacon Act are ideal for this because they require employers to pay union wages, whether or not they use union labor, Litwin said.