Alliance of business, labor on infrastructure begins to fray

An alliance between business and labor on infrastructure spending is beginning to fray amid partisan fighting in Congress over what transportation legislation should include.

Last year, Tom Donohue, the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, forged a partnership with Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, to press Congress for increased spending on infrastructure and transportation projects. The head-turning duo made joint statements as well as Capitol Hill and media appearances to trumpet their common ground.

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Now that Congress is moving forward with legislation on the issue, that coalition is being tested. 

The House version of the transportation reauthorization bill — a $260 billion package that would be partly funded with expanded oil and gas drilling — drew ferocious pushback from transportation unions after it was released last Tuesday. 

“It’s simply a partisan bill,” said Jeffrey Rosenberg, director of government affairs for the Amalgamated Transit Union, a member of the AFL-CIO. “There wouldn’t have been 130 or so amendments during the markup if there had been any recognition of the other side.”

The AFL-CIO has yet to take a position on the House transportation bill.

The Chamber, however, was quick to praise it, and pledged to work with House leaders “to advance this legislation in support of job growth and economic productivity.”

Ed Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department (TTD), said business and labor were never going to walk in lockstep on every provision in the transportation package.

“We’re going to disagree with them on some of the provisions in the bill. The business community is going to like some, and we’re going to like some,” Wytkind told The Hill.

Wytkind’s union and others in labor are opposed to measures in the House package that they argue would encourage privatization of Amtrak and mass transit systems.

Janet Kavinoky, the Chamber’s executive director of transportation and infrastructure, said some disagreement is to be expected.

“Every time you get closer to a bill getting done, everyone has their list of issues and it’s harder to keep coalitions together,” Kavinoky said.

“There is no disagreement on multiyear bills and the need to maintain investment at least at current levels,” she added.

Alison Omens, an AFL-CIO spokeswoman, stressed there hasn’t been any  “splintering” between business and labor over the House package.

“Our overall goal is still the same — a multiyear robust transportation bill without provisions that detract from the main issue of rebuilding our infrastructure and job creation,” Omens said.

The Chamber and the AFL-CIO were more directly at odds in the recent battle over legislation funding the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a long-sought infrastructure package for aviation.

Several unions were enraged by a compromise measure added to the FAA bill that changed the Railway Labor Act (RLA) so that the percentage of a company’s workforce needed to vote for holding a union election was increased from 35 to 50 percent.

In a letter sent to senators Monday, the AFL-CIO and its Transportation Trades Department (TTD) took issue with how the compromise was fashioned.

“First, the AFL-CIO and TTD did not agree to the RLA reforms included in the conference report and had not seen legislative language until the deal between the Senate and House leadership was announced on Friday, Jan. 20. Second, we are not taking a position on the FAA conference report. Third, there is no disagreement that the RLA provisions are flawed and should have been handled differently,” wrote Wytkind and Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s government affairs director.

The Chamber, in contrast, praised the legislation Monday and strongly urged the Senate to pass it.

“Few pieces of legislation making their way through Congress right now can rival the positive economic impact that infrastructure investment can have on the economy,” Kavinoky said in the Chamber’s statement. The bill later passed the Senate in a 75-20 vote.

With the FAA package finished, Congress is turning its attention to funding for infrastructure, and both the Chamber and the AFL-CIO have concerns with how the process is playing out in the House.

The biggest roadblock to the legislation might be how it’s paid for. On Friday last week, the House Ways and Means Committee proposed a $40 billion transfer from the general fund, instead of revenue from the gas tax, to pay for mass transit. That could endanger funding for public transportation, according to several advocates.

“What concerns us is the Ways and Means Committee is taking away the only source of user fee-based revenue for public transportation,” Kavinoky said. “You’re creating uncertainty in the transit sector. What we need to do with a multiyear bill is to create certainty.”

But the Chamber executive said she couldn’t say whether the business group would oppose the overall bill if the Ways and Means Committee proposal survived.

“We are looking at this from 60,000 feet. We will work really hard to get this changed, but I can’t say right now that we will oppose this bill if we can’t get this changed,” Kavinoky said.

Wytkind of the Transportation Trades Department took a firmer stand on the provision.

“We can’t be in favor of a bill that completely guts mass transit,” he said.

While both business and labor have different issues with the House transportation bill, the two factions said they are pleased with the version that is moving through the Senate.

“It will keep service on the street. It keeps the funding levels strong. And it enhances the safety of the systems, too,” Rosenberg said.

“The core of the Senate bill represents a good set of bipartisan compromises,” Kavinoky said.