Inside the CEA National Issues Conference

The Construction Employers of America event offers a robust, ongoing dialogue with policymakers in Washington, D.C. concerning issues impacting the unionized construction industry.

Left bottom: Robin Carnahan, administrator of the General Services Administration. Left top: CEA National Issues Conference attendee. Center: Earl Pomeroy, CEA National Issues Conference moderator. Right: Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of the DOL's Wage and Hour Division.  

Pre-pandemic, one of the spring rituals in our nation’s capital was the arrival of advocates from various construction trade associations, including SMACNA, MCAA and TAUC. These individuals came to town with one singular purpose: To meet with their lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to urge action on issues of importance to the unionized construction industry at the Construction Employers of America (CEA) National Issues Conference. The attendees focused on improving awareness and promoting engagement on critical issues to signatory contractors, such as prevailing wage laws, infrastructure improvement and workplace safety.

However, much like the rest of the trade association world, events like the CEA National Issues Conference came to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic. While there were efforts to continue the work virtually, in-person events bring opportunities to discuss policies with relevant stakeholders.

But in the 117th Congress, historic work was still getting done on a policy front. Congress successfully moved legislation, such as the CHIPS and Science Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, to the President’s desk for signature. These long-needed policy initiatives advanced by Congress are responsible for generating a wave of traditional and new technology projects and spiking manufacturing facility work nationwide for signatory contractors. While these victories are essential to the long-term health of our industry, the only way to sustain this positive momentum is ongoing dialogue with policymakers in Washington. This progress can only be accomplished through face-to-face engagements.

It was a spirited sign of the ongoing return to normalcy when SMACNA, MCAA and TAUC members assembled in Washington, D.C., for the 2023 CEA Issues Conference. Under the backdrop of the newly developed and quickly emerging area of the Wharf, attendees gathered for the first time in years to continue building on the positive momentum generated over the recent sessions of Congress.

Earl Pomeroy, CEA National Issues Conference moderator, and Laura O'Neill, director of public engagement for the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The conference came at a critical juncture for the skilled trades. There has been growing legislative momentum on several issues of importance for signatory contractors, including work on expanding registered apprenticeships and the Davis-Bacon Act. The Davis-Bacon governs prevailing wages on public works projects, making it a critical tool in ensuring that the best possible workforce is available for public-sector infrastructure initiatives. In addition to these focus points, decarbonization and infrastructure projects served as points of emphasis for this round of advocacy efforts. New topics entered the policy conversation, including prevailing wage laws, registered apprenticeship preferences and requirements for private sector projects using federal tax incentives.

Former Congressman from North Dakota Earl Pomeroy, currently senior counsel at Alston & Bird, served as moderator for this event. Pomeroy’s unique combination of existing congressional relationships, industry insight and an unparalleled understanding of the legislative process enabled him to shepherd attendees through each session, providing necessary insight for each speaker.

SMACNA, MCAA and TAUC members in attendance.

The top-flight list of national policy experts and Hill speakers illustrated the need for ongoing Congressional action on critical issues. They highlighted some of the successes achieved on these fronts over the past few years.

Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator from the Department of Labor (DOL) ‘s Wage & Hour Division, and Lafe Solomon, senior counsel from DOL’s Office of the Solicitor, addressed in detail several of the core issues under their jurisdiction that are of importance to signatory contractors, including Davis-Bacon, PLAs, Independent Contractor misclassification and Registered Apprenticeships. Looman has long been a champion of issues significant to the skilled trades and SMACNA. SMACNA has endorsed her nomination by President Joe Biden to lead the Wage and Hour Division due to her exceptional legal and policy knowledge of the construction industry and the vital role skilled labor and labor standards play on every project — public and private.

CEA attendees meet with Senator John Fetterman (D-PA).

Laura O’Neill, director of public engagement for the U.S. Department of Commerce, shared recent CHIPS 1.0 and Science Act developments. The CHIPS 1.0 Act is critical for contractors as it will fuel dozens and dozens of megaprojects. These include microprocessor chip production facilities and the factories responsible for producing electric vehicles and their associated batteries. These emerging projects represent real (and lucrative) business opportunities for signatory contractors. 

Jessie Stolark, executive director of the Carbon Capture Coalition, discussed the state of energy efficiency initiatives and how tax credits and the current legislation are helping to create more efficient buildings. She reiterated the value of SMACNA members, saying, “Contractors are vital to helping us meet our nationwide decarbonization goals. This work requires highly skilled individuals knowledgeable about emerging technologies and best practices. These are the kinds of jobs that will only grow in importance moving forward.”

Lafe Soloman, senior counsel from the 
DOL's Office of the Solicitor, addressing 
core issues for signatory contractors.

A highlight of the conference was the panel of speakers from the General Services Administration, which serves as the “landlord” of the U.S. Federal Government. Administrator Robin Carnahan led GSA’s contingent and examined some ongoing issues facing high-efficiency decarbonization efforts in the Federal Contracting and Procurement program. She praised the work done by signatory contractors, highlighting their ability to “deliver consistently on time and on budget.”

Two industry champions Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and Senator Peter Welch (D-VT), joined the conference as keynote speakers representing the House and Senate from Capitol Hill and the Legislative Branch. 

Congressman Connolly’s remarks focused on the role contractors needed to play in modernizing the nation’s infrastructure. Connolly warned everyone in attendance that updating our nation’s infrastructure was more important than ever as competitors such as China pour trillions into their upgrading bridges, roads, railways and transportation nodes to move goods and services as quickly as possible. Connolly discussed how signatory contractors represent the best potential taxpayer value regarding public works projects. 

Connolly’s district spans a significant part of Northern Virginia. More contractors live in Connolly’s district than any other in the nation. It is also a critical hub for government and commerce right next to Washington, D.C. The Congressman discussed some of the recent infrastructure projects in his district. He provided an overview of some of the successes and failures associated with these efforts as Congress changed hands. 

An attendee responds to CEA speaker insights. 

During his remarks, Connolly wanted the audience to understand how valuable their work is toward driving infrastructure efforts forward, stating, “Your advocacy over these coming days is more critical than ever; you can drive home the fact that this work is necessary. We are not just talking about investing dollars; we must invest in people.” Connolly also cited the economic benefit of infrastructure efforts, citing the Eisenhower-era Interstate Highway Act, “When we began building our highway network, who could envision the return on investment we are still getting to this very day? We must follow this example and take the steps needed to make us competitive.”

Senator Welch concentrated on how the industry can help the country meet our building system efficiency, low carbon retrofit and new construction goals. The Senator affirmed his belief that this should be a priority for all Americans to demand a lower carbon environmental impact built environment through building and retrofitting structures to strict carbon and efficiency standards. His many energy efficiency legislative achievements have assured that middle-class families will no longer suffer from rising energy prices by cutting energy waste. Welch detailed how this should be a non-partisan issue.

Welch championed the role skilled labor and high-quality union contractors must play in these efforts, stating, “The contractors in this room have the skills needed to deliver this work at maximum value and quality to the consumer. Without you, there is no progress on this front.”

Tracy Marcinowski, assistant commissioner for acquisitions at the General Services Administration, and Bill Clark, chair of the Civilian Agency Acquisition Council.

Mariah Becker from the National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployers Plans (NCCMP), a top pension reform policy expert, discussed the regulatory outlook for adjusting and reforming benefit programs and how potential legislative action could impact their sustainability into the future decades. While she was generally optimistic about the state of multiemployer plans and their current stability, Becker offered the union contractor audience a plainspoken narrative concerning the current pension stability and reform climate. She clarified that the current pension climate could easily be reversed should opponents to multiemployer plans be swept into power in the Legislative and Executive Branches. 

To close the 2023 CEA Conference, Sean McGarvey, president of the North American Building Trades Union (NABTU), detailed a long list of jointly supported policy and legislative issues. He enthusiastically emphasized the importance of shaping the nation’s labor standards and regulations and translating the new laws passed in the last Congress into projects that benefit skilled labor and SMACNA contractors. 

President McGarvey also shared with the union contractor audience the state of the labor movement and how signatory contractors can work with the Building Trades to address challenges to the workforce, expanding a more diverse population in recruitment, as well as boosting the image of the industry as an essential career leading to the middle class. McGarvey joined previous speakers in detailing some of the legislative achievements from the last two years, many of which were driven by the solid and enduring relationship that Labor has with the Biden Administration and the relationship NABTU enjoys with the union contractor community.

Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of the DOL's Wage and Hour Division.

In addition to the roster of influential speakers, at the heart of the CEA National Issues Conference were the visits to the House of Representatives and the Senate by SMACNA contractors and their allies in CEA. Members departed the annual event venue and headed toward the House and Senate buildings that house the offices of our nation’s lawmakers and their top staff. This is where the highest value of the in-person CEA meeting came into focus. The importance of walking into an office and meeting face-to-face with legislators and their top staff cannot be understated. Representatives and Senators often rely on this insight to evaluate how to vote on upcoming legislation. SMACNA members worked on improving relationships to generate support for future initiatives. One message contractors left behind was how vital legislation, such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act, have had across their states, regions and districts. Regarding the impact of the CEA National Issues Conference, Stan Kolbe, SMACNA’s executive director for government and political affairs, says, “While we often consider reaching out to our members of Congress and agency leaders when we see an emergency or an urgent policy request to advance, conferences like this allow our SMACNA CEOs to showcase their construction industry leadership, expertise and the vital role they play in construction.