High hopes: As D.C. powers haggle over infrastructure package, N.J.’s unions are optimistic — and eager to get started

Greg Lalevee. (File photo)

Every twist and turn of the effort to inject more than a trillion dollars into fixing the nation’s infrastructure — the proposals, the counteroffers, the rumors and, frankly, the gamesmanship — Greg Lalevee follows it all.

He’s business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, a standard-bearer for New Jersey’s heavy equipment operators, mechanics and surveyors. These are roles in industries just climbing back from an almost 20% pandemic slowdown.

So, for him, there’s much more going on than political machinations — everything is on the line.

“This would represent so much work for us — potentially many years of robust work,” Lalevee said. “Even if it would take some time to get projects drawn, it would be such a good day for our organization. It would be music to our ears.”

President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats and Republicans have been working to reach a consensus on an infrastructure package through a process of negotiation that regularly teeters on falling apart. As of late May, the White House cut the package from a $2.3 trillion price tag to $1.7 trillion, and Republicans were reportedly developing another counteroffer.

The bill proposes spending on roads, highways and bridges, as well as broadband Internet infrastructure and water system improvements. Disagreements between Democrats and Republicans center around what else may be included and how to pay for it all.

Biden’s administration was looking for progress on the initiative by Memorial Day, and congressional Democrats had expressed a willingness to move forward regardless, under special budget rules.

Lalevee, for his part, didn’t think things were at a stalemate.

“I personally think there will be an end-point of these negotiations that just puts a healthy amount of infrastructure spending out there in the world,” Lalevee said. “Right now, we continue to talk to our delegation in Washington to make sure things stay as apolitical as they can be in this environment to get something done.”

Rob Lewandowski, communications director for the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which has a 20,000-member New Jersey branch of workers in construction and other trades, was also feeling optimistic about the quickly evolving negotiations. At the end of the day, he said, infrastructure spending is popular with voters on both sides of the political divide.

Coping with COVID

The Laborers’ International Union of North America, like all unions, lives and dies on the health of its membership.

Union spokesman Rob Lewandowski said that has made the pandemic hit especially hard. COVID-19 claimed the lives of about eight of the local organization’s members. And many more chose to exit the workforce during the spread of the deadly virus.

“Some people, speaking anecdotally, were thinking of doing a few more years, but then instead considered the middle of the pandemic a better time to retire,” he said. “Ultimately, people at retirement age or close to it said: ‘You know what? It’s a good time.’”

Rob Lewandowski, communications director for the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

It’s a significant trend, even if it hasn’t accounted for a giant uptick of retirements at the union for LIUNA.

Greg Lalevee said he’s also experienced the same thing at International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, even if it similarly isn’t an overwhelming amount of retirements.

“I wouldn’t say I’m seeing the processing of more pension statements than in normal times,” he said. “But, being a 35-year member myself, I know people personally who retired sooner than I thought they would. And I think a lot of that is on people’s individual circumstances, and whether they had some underlying health conditions or someone vulnerable at home to think about.”

In times that might inspire turnover, unions such as Local 825 are also seeing more interest from the next generation of workers in the role unions play — and how they can get involved.

Lalevee said that’s been true even with the hold that was placed on tours for college students and other millennial-enticing recruitment programs during the pandemic.

“We’ve seen a growth in people wanting to unionize,” he said. “We certainly have more expressions of interest from groups of workers than we did before. Our goal is that hopefully as we’re moving out of (the pandemic), we can continue to have more of those conversations.”

“They ride on these roads and bridges every day, and so, they understand what’s needed,” he said. “The fact that the White House is thinking so big on infrastructure might give some pause, but it also recognizes how long we’ve kicked the can down the road. This is a dysfunction that spans several administrations and their relationships to Congress. It’s at the point where, when it comes to a meaningful infrastructure plan, we can either pay for it now or pay a lot more later.”

Lewandowski pointed to the regularly cited American Society of Civil Engineers ratings, which consistently rate New Jersey’s infrastructure at “D+,” which is lower than the nation as a whole. The organization’s most recent survey found that driving on damaged roads in New Jersey costs each driver $713 per year.

The repair of those roads, as well as the maintenance work on other infrastructure as a result of the federal spending bill, is not guaranteed to end up in union contracts, Lewandowski clarified. Such work does have to use regional prevailing wage systems, which are often connected to union wages.

But unions feel like they’re competitive on measures of productivity, and they would be glad to see the industry flush with new jobs.

“When it comes to where the work is right now in New Jersey without that infrastructure bill, we’re continuing to see a vibrant investment in the energy infrastructure market,” Lewandowski said. “In particular, we’re preparing for the next wave of energy — the offshore wind that’s coming to the state.”

Lewandowski said his organization is working closely with offshore wind company Ørsted and other companies with Garden State-centric wind turbine development proposals.

“All this wind energy is going to have to be brought onto land, through substations and into peoples’ homes and businesses,” he said. “Labor will have an important role to play in that. It’s an area we’re training people up for, because we expect it to be an area of focus for at least five to 10 years.”

On the federal level, even with the precariousness of the current tug-of-war situation on Capitol Hill, Lewandowski sees a lot of promise for local unions in the new White House.

“It’s worth pointing out that the Biden administration’s secretary of labor, Marty Walsh, is a card-carrying member of our union,” he said. “Now, I don’t think that gets us any front-of-the-line access, but it’s certainly a point of pride. There’s a degree of reassurance that he understands not just the macro issues, but also gets it on the ground.”

Lalevee also thinks it will be a good few years for local unions … that a strong infrastructure bill would certainly make even better.

“The president is not wrong when he talks about how other foreign powers are investing in infrastructure — all you have to do is look at the percentage of GDP China is investing,” he said. “We really need to take care of the infrastructure in this country. And there’s a lot of work to be done.”