President's Corner


May 2020 Reasons for Optimism

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President’s Corner

Brothers and Sisters,

The initial wave of uncertainty has begun to wash away as the world learns how to operate under the unique conditions of COVID-19. There has been new guidance on workplace safety and hygiene, and with the current number of new cases beginning to level off, businesses are slowly beginning to reopen. I welcome this progress, which I am confident will benefit the economy and support job opportunities for our members, although I hope that state leaders continue to consult the relevant data to ensure that it is being done in a manner that will allow our members and families to stay safe.

In the meantime, there has been some good news on the work side over the past couple of weeks. I want to start with some long-awaited news from the Illinois Tollway. It seems for as long as I have served as a Director on the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority Board, we have been stuck in negotiations and conflict with Canadian Pacific Railroad (CP) over the use of some land in its yard to construct Interstate 490, a critical piece of the Elgin-O’Hare Western Access project. This new interstate will connect Interstate 90 with the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway in Bensenville, just on the western edge of the airport, and it would allow drivers to access the airport more directly from the west.

The problem was that former leaders of the railroad made agreements with the Illinois Tollway and failed to live up to them. Some pilings for a bridge needed to be located within the CP yard, and construction was held up while the project was mired in lawsuits.

In mid-May, the Illinois Tollway reached an agreement to settle all issues and move forward with construction this fall. This is a massive project that should continue until 2025, and it couldn’t come at a better time. With the outlook for commercial construction very uncertain, it is important to have large infrastructure projects on the books for years to come. Since we led the charge for a capital bill in Illinois in 2009, the promotion of this work has been a priority. So many sectors of the construction industry boom and bust along with the markets, but infrastructure is a stable market and we have done a lot of work to enhance its stability.

For example, vehicle miles traveled in Illinois are estimated to be down more than 50 percent since March, which translates to a similar reduction in the gas tax revenue that funds infrastructure work. Luckily, we were successful in our efforts to advance a $45 billion capital plan in Illinois last year, which essentially doubled the amount of funding available for construction. For this reason, the temporary drop in revenue will not be a doomsday scenario.

Even more important to note, though, is how important it is today that we pushed the Illinois Safe Roads Amendment in 2016. That amendment protects transportation funds from being swept out for other uses. As the reduction in sales tax and income tax revenue hits state government and creates funding crises in everything from education to department payroll, you can bet the road fund would have been emptied were it not for this amendment. In fact, a $100 million diversion from the road fund was stopped within the past few days when State Representative and Local 150 member Lance Yednock stepped up and squashed it. This proves not only the importance of the Illinois Safe Roads Amendment, but also the importance of having our friends elected to office.  Our work is safe because we knew tough times would return and we planned accordingly.

Back on the Tollway side of things, passenger toll revenue is down almost 55 percent since March, but because the tollway is run in such a conservative manner, there will be no reduction in this year’s construction budget. Since it began almost a decade ago, the tollway’s capital plan has been a godsend for us, and it looks like that will continue for at least a few more years.

On the other side of the state line, the Indiana Department of Transportation has had a similar experience to its counterpart in Illinois. Though revenue has been comparably reduced, the state has found opportunities to increase efficiency in the face of the pandemic. For example, on the Interstate 70 project near Indianapolis, INDOT lengthened shifts to get more work done while traffic loads were low. It created more jobs and massive savings over the life of the project. INDOT does not plan to cancel or slow its lettings this year.

On top of all that, there has been almost no reduction in utility work this year. Infrastructure work is likely to be our bread and butter while the economy recovers from the downturn, and since our Training Center opened up in April, it has been prioritizing the retraining of workers in industries where protracted unemployment is a possibility. For example, the steel industry has been hit hard by reduced demand for steel in the automotive and petroleum industries, so members who have been laid off from the mills are being urged to get to the Training Center to re-train on equipment that will be in demand over the coming months and years.

I want to commend the staff at the Training Center for their efforts to make field training available and safe over the past month. With the building barred from opening, we’ve been writing the playbook as we go, but the Training Center is near its available capacity every day, and it has been a lifeline for dozens of members.

We are currently in a great place when it comes to union market share across our jurisdiction. We are well over 96 percent market share in most of our districts, and in areas like District 8, where we have a difficult environment in Iowa, our organizers are actively working to combat the encroachment of large non-union companies that see a shaky economy as their opportunity to move in on our work. We will promote the use of Project Labor Agreements, which guarantee timely, skilled completion of projects in return for the use of qualified contractors.

As you know, all union meetings have been postponed due to the limits on public gatherings and the International Union’s guidance not to hold union meetings, and I miss them as much as you do. As states begin to enter new phases of reopening, we will evaluate when it will be safe and practical to hold union meetings once again. I look forward to the day that we can get together for a drink and a sandwich after a meeting. In the meantime, we are working on new ways to provide you information from the halls and the field.

Since the pandemic began to impact our business operations in mid-March, we have taken great care to make sure that our buildings are as safe as possible. We quickly limited in-office staff as much as possible, having as many people as possible working remotely or from the field. When we closed the halls to the public, we also prohibited business agents from being able to access the buildings without authorization. Staff that remained were spaced out whenever necessary, and to date, we have not had a single staff member diagnosed with COVID. As regulations begin to relax, we will be bringing some staff back into the halls and benefit fund office, but the halls will not yet be open to members or accessible by business agents. We have been able to provide critical services without being open to the public thus far, and we will continue to take things slowly in an effort to ensure that our staff remains safe and healthy.

Throughout this health crisis, I have been impressed with the professionalism of our members and with your commitment to working safely, and protecting yourselves and others by using masks and following health and safety guidelines. Earlier this month, we sent every active member a reusable cloth “Fight Back” mask, and I have been happy to see so many pictures coming in from the jobsites with members wearing them.

Stay safe and look out for each other in the field.

United We Stand, Divided We Fall.