LINCOLN CITY — U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley picked up his first union endorsement Aug. 16 when the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council (OSBCTC) backed his re-election. The council was meeting at its 52nd annual convention Aug. 16-18 at Salishan Lodge.
Merkley, who is entering the final year of his first six-year term, focused his remarks on restoring middle-class jobs. OSBCTC represents more than 25,000 construction workers in 29 unions and six district councils.
“If we want this nation to get back on track and grow again, we’d better focus — hard — on jobs for the middle class,” he said. “…The byproducts are going to drive the economy back to success in a much more powerful way.”
Merkley said that thanks to a strong labor movement, America experienced a huge growth in its middle class from 1945 to 1975. Workers saw their real wages increase as productivity increased.
“And then something changed,” he said.
With increasingly virulent attacks on unions, wages went flat for the next three-and-half decades (despite continued increases in productivity). Then the Great Recession of 2008 hit and wages declined.
“Sixty to 80 percent of the jobs lost (in the Great Recession) were living wage jobs, but only about 40 percent of the jobs we’re getting back are living wage jobs,” he said. “We’re getting a whole lot of no benefit, minimum wage jobs.”
Merkley said the United States must invest more in its infrastructure, invest more in career technical education, get back to manufacturing, and require federally-funded projects to use American-made materials.
He has sponsored a number of bills that would provide low interest loans and loan guarantees and credits for installing energy-efficient renovations in commercial and multi-family residential buildings. The bills include the Rural Energy Savings Program and the Water Infrastructure Finance and the Innovation Authority (WIFIA). The Rural Energy Savings Program would assist rural electric co-ops in offering low-interest loans to their customers, which families and businesses can repay through savings on their monthly energy bills. WIFIA would help urban and rural municipalities replace and repair aged and crumbling water supply infrastructure and wastewater treatment facilities using low-cost federal loans.
“This is the most cost effective strategy there is — the biggest bang for the buck in creating jobs.You get huge leverage for low interest loans, and you can’t outsource the jobs, and 95-plus percent of the materials are made in the United States,” Merkley said.
Both concepts have passed in the Senate but are now bogged down in the U.S. House.
Merkley pointed out that the U.S. spends only 2 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure, compared to 10 percent in China and 5 percent in Europe.
“China has gone from bicycles to bullet trains over the last 10 years,” he said. “We’re barely repairing the infrastructure we already have, let alone building infrastructure for the future economy. That’s no way to prepare for the future economy.”
Merkley has championed several amendments on Buy America. One closed a loophole that allowed the San Francisco Bay Bridge to use Chinese steel. Merkley also employed a floor amendment to include Buy America language in the WIFIA legislation.
In addition to Merkley, several elected leaders addressed the convention, including Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, Secretary of State Kate Brown, state Treasurer Ted Wheeler, state Sen. Lee Beyer (D-Eugene), and state Reps. Val Hoyle, (D-Eugene), Caddy McKeown, (D-Coos Bay), Margaret Doherty, (D-Portland), and Julie Parrish, (R-Tualatin).
Hoyle was awarded the “Legislator of the Year,” and Doherty was recognized as having the “Fastest Gavel in the West.”
“I will proudly display this on the wall of my office next to the AFL-CIO Legislator of the Year Award,” Hoyle said.
Doherty, who was introduced as “one of our greatest allies in Salem this year,” said that when she heard that the payment of prevailing wage on Oregon University System projects was the Number One listed issue for the Building Trades, she stepped up to sponsor a bill to fix the problem.
“The path to victory wasn’t easy, but we prevailed and received the strongest vote for a prevailing wage in state history,” she said.
Delegates also heard from Sonia Ramirez, political director for the national Building and Construction Trades Department, and Henry Kramer, secretary-treasurer of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers.
Convention delegates passed resolutions supporting several proposed construction projects valued at more than $10.6 billion — a majority of which is private investment money.
They backed construction of the $7.5 billion Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export terminal and Pacific connector natural gas pipeline at the Port of Coos Bay. If allowed to proceed, Jordan Cove would be the largest single construction project in Oregon history. Jordan Cove’s general contractors have signed a project labor agreement for the terminal, which will take 42 months to complete, employing 1,750 people on average, with a peak workforce of 3,400.
A resolution in support of a $242 million Morrow Pacific coal export facility in Boardman calls on Gov. John Kitzhaber, Oregon’s congressional delegation, Oregon lawmakers, and state and federal regulators to support the permitting and construction of the project. The facility would be built under a project labor agreement and create more than 2,100 construction jobs.
Delegates also support construction of a $100 million international equestrian competition venue proposed near Willamina in Yamhill County. Wallace Bridge will sit on 300 acres and consist of two polo fields, a gallop track, steeple chase facilities, and a 5-star resort. The resolution calls on the National Resources Conservation Service and the National Appeals Division to expedite the modified conservation easement necessary to begin construction.
Additionally, delegates endorsed the new scaled down ($2.75 billion) plan for replacing the Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver, also known as Columbia River Crossing.
Delegates also passed resolutions opposing a pair of initiative petitions that could find their way on the ballot in November 2014.
The first is Initiative Petition 3 — the Affordable Renewable Energy Act. It would weaken Oregon’s renewable portfolio standards (RPS). The RPS statute was passed by the Legislature in 2007, setting a goal for all large utilities in the state to provide 25 percent of the electricity they sell from renewable sources (i.e. wind, solar, and geothermal) by 2025.
IP3 would allow utilities to include hydroelectric power as part of their renewable energy requirements. Union officials see that as a threat to the livelihood of construction workers.
OSBCTC’s resolution says in part that IP 3 “would stifle investments in new renewable energy facilities and will significantly reduce the number of jobs associated with renewable energy facilities, thereby increasing the rate of unemployment and slowing the economic recovery.”
IP3 needs 87,213 signatures to make the ballot in November 2014. The initiative was approved for circulation May 15.
The other initiative petition has to do with “right to work.” Backers are still waiting for a ballot title from the Oregon Supreme Court, but whatever it is, construction unions will oppose it.
“OSBCTC will employ significant resources to defeat any right-to-work measure or legislation in Oregon,” the resolution stated.
Delegates voted to continue a $1 per member per month assessment to fund Oregonians to Maintain Community Standards to promote union construction workers and lobby for and against legislation and ballot measures that protect or harm union workers.
Scholarships were awarded to Alexander Peterson and Laura Wagner. Wagner is the daughter of Plumbers and Fitters Local 290 member Daniel Wagner, and Peterson is the son of Dennis Peterson, a member of Cement Masons Local 555.
The scholarships are funded by $1,000 contributions each from Ferguson Wellman Capital Management and Quest Investment Management Inc. Recipients are selected by Duke Shepard, a policy adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber, based on an application and short essay.
“Just a few years ago, many of us thought that social media platforms like Twitter were something for kids to play with. After all, construction workers are not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Instagram,” said Executive Secretary John Mohlis.