OPINION: America needs union workers to drive the success of a national infrastructure program

United Steelworkers

Visitors to National Airport in Washington, D.C., often gaze in awe at a grand, wide hall with soaring, vaulted ceilings intended to evoke the grandeur of government buildings in the nation’s capital.

Union workers at Cives Steel Co. in Winchester, Va., fabricated thousands of tons of steel for that innovative project. While they’re pleased to have contributed to the facility’s majestic appearance, they’re even prouder to know that their skilled craftsmanship produced strong, flawless steel components keeping thousands of passengers, vendors and other airport users safe every day.

As America embarks on a historic modernization of roads, bridges, water systems, airports, schools, manufacturing facilities and other infrastructure, it’s essential that the nation’s highly skilled union workers supply the raw materials and parts as well as the labor for these publicly funded projects.

Union workers will deliver infrastructure that’s safe to use and built to last. Congress just needs to ensure they have the opportunity to put those skills to use, and that means including domestic procurement requirements in legislation implementing President Joe Biden’s infrastructure program.

“If you want a good-quality product, it’s got to be made by union people. They take pride in what they do. They want to put out a good product,” said Buddy Morgan, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 8360, which represents workers at the Winchester plant.

Morgan, who has worked at Cives Steel for 42 years, and his coworkers, many of whom also have decades of experience under their belts, have already worked on many of the kinds of infrastructure projects Biden now wants to take to scale through his American Jobs Plan.

In addition to the National Airport project, which involved the production of pieces so huge that workers faced formidable challenges just maneuvering them onto trucks, members of Local 8360 fabricated tons of steel for a terminal at Philadelphia International Airport and a military aircraft hangar in Norfolk, Va.

Over the years, they’ve also manufactured steel components for schools, industrial facilities, sports complexes, hospitals and laboratories.

The structural integrity of enormous buildings — and the lives of people using them — depend on the quality of their work. That’s why welders in Morgan’s plant will stand for hours, barely moving, sweating profusely under helmets and protective clothing, to perfectly fuse steel pieces together.

“You wouldn’t believe the welds they put down and some of the pieces they put together,” Morgan said, noting the difficulty of transforming the specifications on a blueprint into components that will hold up a building. “They can look at the thing, and they do this so well, and they’ve done it for so long, that they can figure out what they need to do.”

Upgrading the nation’s roads, bridges, locks, dams and ports — all crucial parts of Biden’s infrastructure plan — would help Morgan and his coworkers more quickly and cost-effectively transport their large, custom-built products to customers.

Hundreds of Virginia’s bridges are structurally deficient, and many of the state’s roads are in poor condition, according to the most recent analysis by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Just around Winchester, Morgan noted, major transportation projects continue to languish for lack of funding even though they’re urgently needed to reduce congestion, improve traffic flow and help businesses like Cives Steel stay competitive.

“It’s hard to get around,” some of the truckers tell Morgan.

Upgrading infrastructure with union labor and union-made goods will not only guarantee quality craftsmanship but also ensure that the American Jobs Plan delivers the biggest possible boost to the U.S. economy.

Biden’s plan has the potential to create as many as 2.7 million jobs — essential for rebuilding the middle class — while re-energizing the nation’s industrial base.

“It’s our economy,” said Mark Powers, a longtime member of USW Local 831, explaining why he wants a national infrastructure program to directly benefit workers in his Danville, Va., community.

Powers trains new workers at the Goodyear plant in Danville that produces tires for tractor-trailers, dump trucks, cranes, cherry-pickers and other heavy-work vehicles.

An infrastructure program carried out with union-made goods would send demand for tires soaring. That, in turn, means more of the good-paying jobs that enable Powers’ coworkers to provide for their families, support local businesses and pay the taxes that sustain their communities.

“We would have to grow our plant to meet the demand,” Powers predicted. “If the trucks are rolling, we’re making money.”

Construction companies receiving road-building contracts under the American Jobs Plan would need to buy tires for earthmoving equipment. Biden’s proposal to upgrade the electric grid, build renewable energy facilities and expand high-speed broadband portends surging purchases of tires for bucket trucks. Modernization of schools, airports and seaports means increased need for the tires on water trucks, fuel carriers and cement mixers.

And Powers envisions many of the parts and components for infrastructure projects traveling to job sites on 18-wheelers equipped with the highly regarded “steer” tire and other products his coworkers make.

“It’s the best in the world,” Powers said of the steer tire that goes on the front of the truck. “They’re smooth, and they’re built on our most modern machinery. They balance well. They run well. You’ve got to pay attention to the details.”

The success of America’s once-in-a-generation infrastructure program also hinges on the details.

Only America’s union workers have the skills and passion necessary to deliver historic, top-quality returns on the nation’s infrastructure investments.

“We can do just about everything,” Morgan said.

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