NABTU Paves the Way for the Infrastructure Generation

North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) encompasses a coalition of 14 national and international unions, collectively representing more than three million skilled craft professionals in various construction trades in the United States and Canada. Founded in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1907, NABTU has a long history of service to the building trade and communities.


We talked recently with two officers of NABTU: Melissa Wells, Special Assistant to President Sean McGarvey and Delegate to the Maryland House of Delegates, and Dr. Tom Kriger, Director of Research and Education. The conversation included the crucial importance of addressing of America’s infrastructure needs, the ongoing work NABTU does in creating economic security and employment opportunities for its construction workers, the union’s long-time investment in apprenticeship training, and its mission to create pathways to the middle class for women, communities of color, and military veterans.


LaborStrong: Can you address the importance of infrastructure and the “infrastructure generation”?

Melissa Wells: It is vital to our economy and vital to our communities to have safe bridges and a robust transportation network. It’s also vital to our national security, if you look at what’s going on in the semi-conductor industry and how that is really important to growing more jobs and industry here in the United States. At NABTU, is making sure that those infrastructure jobs are leveraged into good union jobs. We want to bring a new generation of workers — the “infrastructure generation” — into the industry where we know there will be a lot of opportunity for them, and where we can target recruitment of more women and workers of color and veterans, as well as individuals that have been involved in the carceral system.

Dr. Tom Kriger: What I would add to that is that the building trades historically have had a lot of jobs in infrastructure projects – Hoover Dam was done under a Project Labor Agreement and a lot of the Interstate Highway System was constructed by the building trades. Melissa is spot on in talking about how infrastructure development is hugely important for the economy and national security. The only other part I would add is that the American Society of Civil Engineers has for the last 10 years been voicing concerns that our infrastructure in the United States is a C- or a D, which for one of the wealthiest industrial countries in the history of the world is probably not a good situation.


LaborStrong: How has NABTU been supporting infrastructure projects in the U.S.?

MW: We’ve been really happy and pleased with the Biden-Harris Administration. A lot of presidents have talked about how we can improve and invest in our infrastructure, but President Biden is one who has made the biggest genuine investment probably since the Great Depression under President Roosevelt. At NABTU, we are really pushing to make sure that on these projects are prioritizing diversity and equity as well as pushing for the utilization of Project Labor Agreements, which provide a very clear process for individuals to come through our apprenticeship readiness programs. The end result is that those jobs that will be created from the infrastructure investments can provide a clear pathway for [members of underserved communities] to become skilled and licensed journey workers.

TK: Actually, NABTU helped pass the infrastructure bill. At the very last moment there were some Democrats who held out because they had some issues with the bill, so the Speaker of the House reached out to us. We were able to mobilize a number of what I would call of “prevailing wage” Republicans who have traditionally supported project labor agreements, and that’s how the bill got passed. The other thing I would add is that the Inflation Reduction Act also has labor standards: that’s the through line that runs through all these [Biden Administration] bills. For example, for the first time in in U.S. history, for renewable energy, wind, and solar and geothermal, you have developers who can get tax breaks if they use registered apprenticeship and pay prevailing wage. I’m talking commercial and residential solar, not utility grade solar. This industry has not had high-road labor standards, and it’s all been kind of a race to the bottom, low-road model of employment. Now that will change.


LaborStrong: Dr. Kriger, you run the Building Trades Academy program for NABTU. Can you talk a little bit about it?

TK: The Building Trades Academy has been around in various forms for 40 or 50 years. Previous to our partnership with Michigan State, it was housed at an institution called the National Labor College. The AFL-CIO used to have a fully accredited college on the Beltway and we had 500 students who were taking so-called union skills classes or training classes. So we taught classes in bargaining, organizing, and strategic planning, but because we have different labor laws in the construction industry, we taught labor law, organizing, and collective bargaining specific to the construction industry. The labor college closed and we moved on to partner with Michigan State University on the program, and now we are looking for a new academic partner.


LaborStrong: Obviously, it takes training to become a union organizer.

TK: Yes, the whole role [of the Building Trades Academy] has been to provide a kind of multicraft training, especially to all the smaller affiliates, because they don’t have the larger education departments and the staff to do full comprehensive training programs for all their members. So we partner with them.


LaborStrong: Speaking of organizing, there’s a sense in this country that organizing is on the upswing in terms of more successful union actions. Would you agree?

MW: I think at least we’re seeing trends, like we’re seeing with Starbucks trying to organize, although we’re still seeing a lot of a lot of genuine pushback from corporations. I do think folks are coming to collective bargaining and organizing because that’s historically the pathway. Tying this in with infrastructure and with what Tom is saying, it’s great to see that in the Department of Labor has its good jobs definition and President Biden has also been very adamant about supporting collective bargaining and making sure businesses are not impeding it.


LaborStrong: Do you think changing political climates — a change in administrations — might affect this trend?

MW: It’s possible. I don’t want to call [this era] another Gilded Age, but we know companies are making record profits and we know wages have been stagnant for more than 30 years and workers haven’t quite seen prosperity. So I think that that those realities are also at play. And I don’t think another president would necessarily be as pro union as the current one.

TK: I think when there’s a change in administrations the rug can get pulled out from under a lot of this stuff, but I think there’s also some momentum that’s built up. For example, with semiconductor chips, it would be very difficult for a new administration to come in and pull back that money because the whole idea of onshoring the manufacturing of semiconductor chips is a national security issue and a baseline economic issue. Melissa and I are part of a team where we work both in Columbus, Ohio, where the Intel project is being built, and in Syracuse, New York, where the Micron project is developing, and they’re adding organizers in both places. Projects are really going to ramp up in these areas, and we could have 5,000 to 6,000 people on these jobs by early to mid-2025. We’re talking about at least a mini-boom in jobs for the construction trade in New York State, also with the building of the Buffalo Bills stadium. So between Columbus and Syracuse, just in those 450 miles, you have thousands of new jobs, and these are multiphase projects that could last 10 years. If you’re a young worker, you can finish your apprenticeship and even get a good chunk of your career in just on one of those projects.


LaborStrong: NABTU is also known for its strong presence in local communities, especially in terms of its Apprenticeship Readiness Programs.

MW: Our Multi-Craft Core Curriculum (MC3) program was initially started as a way to address retention. The apprenticeship directors of all of the 14 building international unions approved the curriculum, so whether you want to be an electrical worker or you want to become a plumber or a steamfitter or a cement mason, it provides a good overview and exposure to the industry as well as some key certifications like OSHA and Safety that are really critical when you’re on a jobsite. We initially started with about 10 programs about a decade ago, and now we have more than 200 programs across the country. Overall about 80 percent of program completers are workers of color and at least 20 percent of completers are women. So we have seen a lot of success in terms of being able to connect historically underrepresented workers to the industry, by way of partnerships with groups like the National Urban League, the NAACP, YouthBuild, Catholic Charities, and others. These organizations I’ve mentioned are typically very focused on serving the specific demographic groups that we have been trying to grow our partnerships with over time. Those relationships are vital because they not only help us grow recruitment networks also provide vital wrap around services that help people be successful. In essence, it’s workforce development that is focused on the construction industry.

TK: The thing we’re hoping to make sure of is that our workforce more closely resembles the communities in which we work. Forty years ago, the building trades councils probably didn’t work with a lot of community groups, so with the list of groups Melissa gave —  they’re different in different places — but it puts our folks in rooms with people they probably weren’t sitting across the table from not so long ago.