By Don McIntosh
President Joe Biden invited 10 top union leaders to the White House Feb. 17 for a meeting alongside Vice President Kamala Harris to talk about COVID relief and his plans to create manufacturing and clean energy jobs.
“The middle class built this country, and labor built the middle class,” Biden said in front of cameras before the private meeting began.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka later called it the most productive Oval Office meeting for working people in years. The White House meeting coincided with several pro-union announcements, the latest in a string of overtures to America’s labor movement.
One was that Biden will nominate Jennifer Abruzzo to serve as general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB is an independent federal agency that administers union elections and investigates employer abuses of workers’ union rights. Its general counsel is kind of like the agency’s top prosecutor and is the person in charge of nearly all NLRB staff. Biden earlier made waves when—within hours of being sworn in—he fired Trump-appointed general counsel Peter Robb, nine months before Robb’s term was set to expire. Unlike Robb, who was a management-side labor lawyer, Abruzzo is a career NLRB lawyer who is seen as pro-union. A former deputy general counsel at the National Labor Relations Board, she’s been working as special counsel for the union Communications Workers of America (CWA). Abruzzo will need to be confirmed by the Senate.
Apprenticeships: IRAPs sent to scrap heap
Biden also took steps Feb. 17 to support the apprenticeship model of workforce training, drawing immediate applause from building trades unions.
First, he told labor leaders that he’ll ask the Department of Labor to reinstate the National Advisory Committee on Apprenticeships.
Connie Ashbrook, a former union elevator constructor who headed up Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., had served on the advisory committee for seven years when Donald Trump took office in 2017. Up to then the 27-member group had been meeting quarterly to advise the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) on apprenticeship issues. The new administration ghosted them.
“There was no formal goodbye,” Ashbrook told the Labor Press. “I talked to the director of the office of apprenticeship. He said, ‘We’re just going to wait and see. You can assume you’re still a member of the committee until you hear differently.’” That was the last she heard. The DOL never called another meeting of the committee.
Biden next told labor leaders he supports Rep. Bobby Scott’s National Apprenticeship Act of 2021, which would greatly increase federal funding for apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, including programs that help recruit women and people of color into apprenticeships.
Finally, Biden signed a new executive order rescinding the 2017 Trump executive order that had created “industry-recognized apprenticeship programs” (IRAPs). The Trump order touted IRAPs as a new kind of apprenticeship program that could be designed and overseen solely by employers and employer groups. Federal apprenticeship laws dating back to 1937 had mandated a role for labor representatives in setting standards for federally recognized apprenticeship programs, and there was no basis in federal law for Trump to set up such an employer-only program. Congress refused to appropriate any funding for IRAPs, but under the direction of Trump appointees, the Labor Department set up the program anyway. Before his term ended, 27 “standards recognition entities” (SREs) were established under the program that would have the power to approve new federally registered apprenticeship programs on the IRAP model. Those 27 SREs can continue to recognize additional IRAPs, DOL said in a statement following Biden’s announcement, but the Biden executive order directs DOL to halt funding for them, and not consider new or pending SRE applications.
“IRAPs undermined training and safety standards across multiple industries and encouraged employers to lower apprentices’ wages and benefits,” said IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson, who was present at the White House meeting.
A White House statement explaining the move said IRAPs have fewer quality standards than registered apprenticeship programs, failing to require a wage progression that reflects increasing apprentice skills, for example.
“The Biden administration is concerned that the IRAP program creates a redundant apprenticeship program, with duplicate and often inferior systems that compete with the highly successful and longstanding Registered Apprenticeship Program,” added the Department of Labor its Feb. 17 release.
Besides Trumka and Stephenson, the White House meeting included AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler; Machinists International President Robert Martinez, Jr.; and six other building trades union leaders: North America’s Building Trades Union (NABTU) President Sean McGarvey; International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) General President James T. Callahan; Iron Workers General President Eric Dean; Laborers’ General President Terry O’Sullivan; Painters General President Kenneth E. Rigmaiden; and United Association of Plumbers and Fitter General President Mark McManus.