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Capitol Connections

The 2024 Construction Employers of America National Issues Conference connects SMACNA members and elected leaders on Capitol Hill on key policy issues. 

Clockwise From Top: Acting Secretary of Labor Julie A. Su; Aaron Hilger and Stan Kolbe; The Hon. Earl Pomeroy; Congressman Donald Norcross (D-NJ); CEA attendees listen to presentations; Joe Boddicker, Counsel, Alston & Bird.

Infrastructure and megaprojects have dominated the news for the past 16 months as society has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, entering a new era filled with an insatiable appetite to build things. One of the key motivators behind this ramp-up has been legislative action taken on Capitol Hill over the past several years. Whether it be increased focus on transportation nodes resulting from laws such as the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, the FAA Reauthorization Bill, or individuals and businesses taking advantage of energy efficiency and alternative energy tax credits resulting from the Inflation Reduction Act, there is more motivation than ever to move projects from simply being "shovel ready" toward being realities. 

These factors directly impact the industry and were front and center during highly informative discussions throughout the 2024 Construction Employers of America (CEA) National Issues Conference. The CEA National Issues Conference brings together members from the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association (SMACNA), the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) and The Association of Union Constructors (TAUC) to learn about national issues from industry experts, network with other contractors and hear from their lawmakers while listening to remarks from senior government officials. 

Members of this coalition visited with more than 100 congressional offices and agency leaders throughout the May 6-8 event in Washington, D.C., which the MCAA sponsored with SMACNA and TAUC. 

Deputy FAA Administrator Katie Thomson

The signatory contracting market sector has reaped the benefits of legislative and regulatory action advanced throughout the last two and a half years. Legislation such as the CHIPS and Science Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, the Infrastructure and Jobs Act and the FAA Reauthorization Act have enabled financial incentives for contractors and consumers that will promote new construction and retrofits throughout the country. Meanwhile, regulatory action on issues, such as registered apprenticeships, the use of project labor agreements and much-needed reforms to the Davis-Bacon Act, will help ensure that contractors can develop the best possible pool of labor to draw from while also being on an even playing field. 

During the initial general session of the conference, moderated by the Hon. Earl Pomeroy, partner at Alston & Bird and former U.S. Representative from ND, attendees had the opportunity to listen to various speakers from the executive and legislative branches. One of the event's highlights was Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su, a champion for issues supported by SMACNA and the overall signatory contractor space. The Acting Secretary Su has led the effort for historic reforms to the Davis-Bacon Act, Independent Contractor rules, Registered Apprenticeship (RAP) standards, PLA mandates and countless program rules within the Infrastructure Act. 

Angie Simon with the Heavy Metal Summer Experience, Acting Secretary Su and Carmen Koo, Owner of Applied Air Conditioning

During the opening of her remarks, Su outlined how necessary union labor was to America's prosperity. "You are all how we are going to build our physical infrastructure in this country, but also the roads and bridges that ensure that people have good jobs that allow them to support their families and lift their communities — jobs that allow them to coach their kids in Little League because they have a little bit of breathing room in their lives," she says. "When they kiss their families goodbye in the morning, knowing that they're going to come home healthy and safe at the end of the day because the jobs you have created are good jobs that protect workers, train them and make sure that that will happen."

The Acting Secretary also detailed the value of project labor agreements, stating how they "make sure that the job is done on time, it's done safely and it's done on a budget — sometimes under budget — which we also know is good for taxpayers." 

She continues, "The first three letters of the plan are PLA because you know, I know and the president knows that PLAs allow companies to plan for current projects and future projects, plan for recruiting the workers that you'll need and plan for the work it takes to actually train workers to get the highly qualified workforce that's required to get the job done."

After touching on other critical issues, such as workforce and education, Su concluded her remarks by saying, "What we are doing is putting billions of dollars in investments in infrastructure projects across the line. It is happening and will continue, and we can only do this the right way if we do it on the High Road."

Congressman Pete Stauber (R-MN)

In addition to Acting Secretary Su, Jessica Looman, Administrator of the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division, addressed the joint membership. Throughout her career in various levels of government, Looman has advanced several industry reforms supported by SMACNA and allied industry partners, including reforming the Davis-Bacon Act, refining independent contractor rules, promoting the use of project labor agreements, and enhancing registered apprenticeship standards. 

During her presentation, the Administrator discussed some ongoing investments being made for American workers. "We are leveraging federal investments to create sustained good jobs, so this means billions of dollars are being invested in not just roads and bridges and clean energy and broadband, but also in all the physical infrastructure," she says. "Next, we're focused on strengthening enforcement. In addition to protecting workers' rights and wages, we want to protect their health and safety." 

She concluded this section of her remarks by saying, "Finally… we're empowering workers and lifting up their voices. We know that we can't build an economy that works for everyone without workers' ability to step forward."

NABTU President Sean McGarvey

Looman characterized her efforts by outlining the need to interact with workers on the ground and not rely on collected data from the field. "The No. 1 thing we must do is talk to the people doing the work."

To discuss the industry's impact on improving infrastructure, primarily work on airports, Kathryn Thomson, Deputy Administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration, took the opportunity during significant FAA activity in Congress to address those in attendance. In her remarks, the Deputy Administrator talked about the role of the FAA in getting critically needed funding out to the airports to advance retrofits that SMACNA contractors were engaged in. "One of our most important roles is to make sure that that money is being put to good use — that it is invested in infrastructure projects that are both shovel worthy and shovel ready. This allows us to create good jobs and deliver results ... and ensures that all of you have the tools you need to do the work to deliver those projects on time and on budget." 

Another topic of discussion for Thomson was the FAA Reauthorization bill, a measure that SMACNA has strongly advocated for in recent years as it moved through Congress and to President Biden's desk for signature. During her comments, the Deputy Administrator directly outlined the importance of this legislation. "This legislation contains needed changes to the grant formulas used in ongoing airport improvement programs, which will enable all stakeholders: manufacturers, government entities and industry partners to fulfill their roles in keeping the flying public safe and comfortable during their time in our air travel system," she says.

Wage & Hour Division Administrator Jessica Looman, Women Leaders of SMACNA.

Along with the guests from the administration, several members of Congress and subject matter experts were present throughout the event and addressed the body. Congressman Pete Stauber (R-MN) talked about his bill to reform change orders on federal projects, his experience owning a small business and how it impacts how he governs. "Small businesses don't get recognized as much on the hill as they should because it affects everything," he says. "For the vast majority of American communities, it doesn't matter where you're from, it still impacts you." 

Congressman Donald Norcross (D-NJ) engaged the attendees on one of his legislative priorities: getting America's youth into apprenticeship programs and swelling the ranks of the skilled trades. He talked about all the opportunities to reduce the overall student debt burden by improving the awareness of registered apprenticeship programs and the early earning power of taking a professional journey in our industry. 

Congressman Andrew Garbarino (R-NY) echoed several of these points during his remarks, "There are not enough workers. We need to do more to foster training and apprenticeship opportunities and encourage more young people to seek these opportunities. I talk about some of my friends who are in the trades at home, and they're making more money than I am. A lot of them didn't go to college, so they don't have any debt. I'm still paying off my law school debt." Congressman Garbarino also centered on some of the bipartisan efforts in Congress: "There are a lot of things that both sides have in common when we focus on those core issues, one of which is infrastructure; you would be amazed how much we can get done." Garbarino's colleague in the House Republican Conference, Congressman Don Bacon (R-NE), shared this informative update on the expansion of the defense department's infrastructure upgrades across the base network while also lauding the work being done by those in the skilled trades. "Everyone in this room helped build America to what it is today, and when you are called upon, you are right there ready to help rebuild America," he says.

House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN) talked about the viewpoint of the GOP Conference on the November election while also stressing the importance of the work being done by the contractors represented at CEA. "The companies in this room represent some of the best of what America offers," he says. 

Female SMACNA leaders proved crucial in advancing the association’s legislative agenda.

One of the newer faces in Congress, Congressman Pat Ryan (R-NY), highlighted how project labor agreements have positively benefited work on one of the most significant projects in his district: the campus of the United States Military Academy at West Point. "Through the use of project labor agreements, this work is being done transparently, to the highest quality and for maximum value to the American taxpayer," he explains. 

One of the more vigorous sets of remarks was delivered by President Sean McGarvey, President of the North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU). President McGarvey focused on securing solvency for multiemployer pension plans and building a more diverse workforce that accurately reflects America. "If you go into a Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC) and look at the young people being trained, we've come a long way in representing the makeup of this great country — there's still a lot to get done, but we've made so much progress. We all should be so proud of the work that we have done so far," he says, detailing the significant challenges in securing necessary childcare for workers. "It takes a village; if someone wants to be in the workforce, they should be in the workforce. If they can't find reliable childcare, that person is losing their livelihood, and your companies are losing a top contributor. Securing affordable and easy-to-access childcare must be one of our top priorities moving forward." 

Finally, McGarvey discussed the need to build workplaces where every team member feels valued and part of the team: "The message is simple: We need to treat people with respect." 

Joe Boddicker from Alston & Bird, considered a leading expert on Energy Tax Incentives, speculated on the outlook for many of the industry's favored tax benefits as the November elections near. "Even if there is a change in administration after the election, the consensus within the space is that these tax benefits can be regarded as quite durable and worth further investment no matter the political climate," he says. 

Mariah Becker, Director of Research and Education for the National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployer Plans (NCCMP), provided an informational overview of some of the existing and emerging challenges facing plan administrators, including withdrawal liability and some of the changes happening around pharmacy benefit managers. 
Kathleen Dobson, CSP Safety Director with Alberici Constructors, discussed ongoing OSHA rulemaking surrounding Heat Illness and Injury Prevention on indoor and outdoor worksites. In 2021, there were over 1,600 heat-related deaths, and OSHA has been undertaking efforts to address these challenges through the regulatory process. Dobson talked about the state of the regulatory process for these rules and their realistic prospects moving forward. 

In addition to listening to this impressive collection of subject matter experts and dignitaries, attendees visited Capitol Hill. The relationships built with lawmakers and their staffs foster an elevated informational collaboration that benefits our industry and the construction economy. Moving forward, these engagements serve as an opportunity to build a partnership that advances everyone's mutual objectives and secures a bright and prosperous future for all Americans.

During the conference, Pomeroy summarized all of this: "What you are doing, not only in this room but in your workplaces, is going a long way in securing the future for all Americans, helping us move forward and remain competitive in an ever-changing global landscape." 

SMACNA CEO Aaron Hilger articulated the value of the Conference to SMACNA membership,  “CEA is always a great opportunity to connect with our fellow members and educate our elected leaders on Capitol Hill about our key policy positions. Attendees are some of the most active SMACNA contractors, and they were treated to an excellent lineup of congressional allies, administration officials and thought leaders from across our space. All of my thanks go out to everyone who attended and supported our collective efforts.”

The CEA (which also includes charter members of the International Council of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, FCA International, The National Electrical Contractors Association, and Signatory Wall and Ceiling Contractors Alliance) represents construction firms that are proud to use union craftworkers. The more than 15,000 quality-driven contractor members that compose the associations in the CEA adhere to the highest construction standards, and their approximately 1.4 million highly skilled and trained workers receive family-sustaining wages, comprehensive health insurance, and defined benefit pensions.