Unions Look to Preserve Labor-Friendly Language in China Bill

Irina Baranova

Labor organizations are eyeing union-friendly proposals in a House-passed China competition bill in hopes that some language will survive negotiations with the Senate.

The bill (H.R. 4521), which the House passed in February, includes prevailing wage requirements on construction projects receiving the federal funding, nearly $4 billion to expand apprenticeship programs, and “union neutrality” requirements for employers receiving federal dollars.

Nearly all of the provisions are controversial, drawing criticism from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups that represent employers. It’s not clear if the pushback is substantial enough to result in the proposals ending up on the cutting room floor. The only labor provision in the House bill that may have some across-the-aisle support is apprenticeship funding.

The union-focused items are also part of two other measures—a Democrat-backed overhaul of federal labor law (H.R. 842) and an apprenticeship-focused bill (H.R. 447). Both have stalled in the Senate.

Last summer, the Senate passed its own China competition bill (S. 1260), which is much narrower than its House counterpart. The two chambers are proceeding to a formal conference to negotiate the differences. Union officials have said they’re working to educate senators on the labor provisions ahead of the bartering.

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“Each day we don’t pass this legislation, more time is given to America’s economic competitors or enemies to either out compete or threaten our country,” Sean McGarvey, president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, said in an email. “Directly connected to winning both fights is ensuring the final bill includes prevailing wage protections and the National Apprenticeship Act. Without them, companies will have less access to the necessary skilled workforce to deliver these complex projects on-time and on-budget.”

Prevailing Wage Proposals

The House bill would require employers to pay local prevailing wages set by the Labor Department on construction projects that are part of the measure’s new grant programs for semiconductor development, microelectronics research, and solar component manufacturing, among others.

Prevailing wages define the average rate and benefits paid to workers in a certain occupations, depending on location, and are often higher than wages non-federal contractors pay.

Kelsey Berkowitz, a senior policy analyst at New America’s Center on Education and Labor, said attaching prevailing wage requirements are “helpful for ensuring federal dollars don’t come in and undercut local pay levels.”

But Ben Brubeck, vice president of regulatory, labor, and state affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors, said he’s concerned the prevailing wage requirements in the House bill are expanding “into a new frontier on private construction and manufacturing projects that are not covered by the underlying intent” of the original Davis-Bacon and Related Acts.

The Davis-Bacon Act requires federal contractors to pay prevailing wages on public construction projects in excess of $2,000 that are fully or partially funded by the federal government.

The House bill’s proposed grant program is a unique situation, where grants and incentives would be awarded for the construction of private semiconductor facilities. That would be different from the usual circumstances under which the Davis-Bacon Act would kick in, and Brubeck said the requirements shouldn’t be mandated for these projects.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the ranking member on the House Education and Labor Committee, disparaged that initiative, calling it an “unabashed appeasement towards labor unions.”

“Unions get the scales tipped in their favor through unnecessary prevailing wage provisions while small businesses get knifed in the back,” she said in an emailed statement.

Appenticeship Funding

The package also includes proposals from the National Apprenticeship Act (H.R. 447), which hasn’t seen a full Senate vote after the House passed it in February. The funds, close to $4 billion, would be allotted over five years.

Berkowitz said putting robust funding behind apprenticeship programs will help them expand into industries beyond construction, where they’ve seen success.

Union-Friendly Mandates

Another provision in the House bill would require large manufacturers applying for grants or loans under the package’s supply chain resiliency program to agree to remain neutral during organizing efforts. The supply chain provision would authorize $45 billion over five years. The union neutrality requirement would apply to employers with 100 or more workers.

If a manufacturer wants a federal government loan, the least they should be able to say for workers is that they won’t actively fight a unionization effort, said Roy Houseman, legislative director for the United Steelworkers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the country needs labor law reform Tuesday when asked whether the provisions are likely to make it into the final package.

“Workers are getting illegally attacked for trying to form a union,” he told Bloomberg Law. “We’re going to have to do everything we can to protect workers’ rights, to exercise their constitutional rights.”

The House measure’s solar manufacturing language also includes what Houseman called a “labor peace clause,” or what is commonly known as a “card check” policy, a provision that draws sharp opposition from employers.

The provision would require an employer receiving federal funds to negotiate in good faith if workers petition for a collective bargaining unit through signed worker authorization cards, rather than a secret ballot. The language would create “labor peace in the process, while providing fiscal support to scale up solar manufacturing,” Houseman said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a March 16 letter that it opposes that provision in particular.

“Radical labor policies do not belong in legislation meant to improve the competitiveness of American businesses,” the letter said.


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