The Hill

Billions in spending, hundreds of millions in grants- union future influence in the infrastructure bill

Published in The Hill
September 4, 2021
by Trey Kovacs and F. Vincent Vernuccio
Mackinac Center for Public Policy and Institute for the American Worker
Only about 6 percent of workers in America’s private sector are union members, yet the infrastructure bill the Senate passed last month gives unions a prominent role. Union leaders will have significant influence over several advisory boards, working groups and committees that make recommendations about billions of taxpayer dollars in spending and hundreds of millions in grants.

The 2,072-page, $1.2 trillion spending package — H.R. 3684 — also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, mentions at least 10 boards and groups. They will not only have input over massive amounts of federal spending but also help shape policy by making recommendations for both legislative and executive action.

For example, unions will have a seat at the table when $500 million in grants for the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program for planning and capital construction is distributed. Capital construction grant awardees are encouraged to form an advisory board, which must include unions. As advisory board members, union representatives track progress of grant commitments for inclusive employment, contracting and economic development goals. It is easy to imagine a scenario where union representatives give better progress marks to awardees that use union labor.

Union officials also will have at least one reserved seat on the Truck Leasing Task Force. Among other things, the task force will examine the impact of truck leasing agreements on driver compensation, certain safety and maintenance issues, and incentives for commercial drivers. The task force will recommend regulatory changes in federal, state and local law.
Giving unions influence over policy recommendations to federal, state and local governments could end up reducing worker choice and easing union organizing, with little effect on worker safety.

In addition, unions will have influence over a program called Grants for Charging and Fueling Infrastructure. The program will distribute $2.5 billion over five years, to create electric vehicle charging and other fuel infrastructure, with much of that going to state and local governments in $15 million grants. Any entity that applies for grants must specify in its application how it will collaborate with unions.

Basing grant eligibility, in part, on engagement with labor unions gives them leverage. The Secretary of Energy is given the authority to reject grant applications. So it’s possible that some entities that do not agree to use union labor or make concessions to unions will see their applications rejected.

The bill also mandates that unions be consulted on various other topics, such as commuter rail, railroad schedules and practice, and the “training, qualification and certification programs of locomotive engineers and conductors of railroad carriers.”

In addition to having a guaranteed seat at the table on all of these committees and working groups, unions stand to directly gain financially from the bill. For example, union training funds stand to take in millions in grant money.

The Career Skills Training program awards grants to certification programs for those installing energy-efficient technology in buildings. The nonprofits that receive these grants, which can be up to $10 million each, must have equal participation from industry and unions.

Another provision of the bill amends existing law to define labor union training programs as Industrial Research and Assessment Centers (IRAC), which assess and make recommendations to small- and medium-sized businesses about energy efficiency. In addition, the bill gives small- and medium-sized manufacturers priority for grants meant to improve their energy efficiency if an IRAC completes their energy assessment.

The bill gives the energy secretary $550 million to fund this program. There’s $150 for IRACs themselves and their activities, and $400 million for small- and medium-sized manufacturers that have had an energy assessment completed by an IRAC.

Finally, the bill also expands the prevailing wage requirement to new types of employees. A prevailing wage is usually considered the union wage in a geographic area, and it drives federal contracts to unionized firms. It also drives up the costs of federal construction contracts.

In short, H.R. 3684 gives unions an official inside track to shaping infrastructure funding and policy, now and in the future. It should be noted that unions can and should give input. But the bill grants them outsized influence, given their modest presence in the overall workforce.

The provisions of the bill calling for union input may be benign. But they also could be used to put onerous burdens on job creators and to steer work, training, grants and other taxpayer money to unions, filling their coffers and increasing the number of workers who are forced into union membership.

Trey Kovacs is a senior fellow at the Institute for the American Worker, and F. Vincent Vernuccio is a senior fellow at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and president of the Institute for the American Worker.