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How Hillary Clinton Won Over the Hardhats

The Democratic candidate has the endorsement of an alliance of 14 different unions from the building and construction industries.

2016 Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the North America's Building Trades Unions 2016 Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took a break from campaigning in New York’s primary contest on Tuesday for a brief stop in Washington, D.C., to give an address to some of her most stalwart supporters.  

Clinton spoke at the 2016 Legislative Conference of North America's Building Trades Unions, an alliance of 14 different unions from the building and construction industries. She won the unions’ endorsement for president back in December. Judging by the applause lines Tuesday—and the Building Trades Unions’ clap-back at a surrogate for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for suggesting she was speaking to donors—the unions’ members don’t regret their decision.

Clinton noted in her address that the endorsement was unprecedented: the first from the Building Trades Unions to come in a primary contest. She’s right. A spokesperson for NABTU said that while affiliate unions have endorsed candidates in primaries before, the parent organization has never issued an endorsement in a contested primary before. Clinton also picked up the endorsements of 10 of those member unions.

Sean McGarvey, the NABTU’s president, introduced Clinton by outlining three reasons why she received their endorsement. She spoke on each of those themes Tuesday.

Feasible infrastructure spending

Clinton’s “Building Tomorrow’s Economy Today” plan calls for $275 billion in federal infrastructure spending over five years on federal infrastructure projects. Her plan would seek to pay for this spending through business-tax reform. As Russell Berman observed in The Atlantic last fall, it’s her biggest spending proposal so far—and yet it’s still unlikely to cover the nation’s infrastructure needs. (“It’s hard to call a plan that spends $275 billion in taxpayer dollars over five years ‘modest’ and keep a straight face,” he writes.)

Her plan would also allocate $25 billion toward a national infrastructure bank, which could in turn support as much as $225 billion in direct loans, guarantees, and credit enhancement for infrastructure investments.

Bernie Sanders has proposed spending far more on infrastructure: $1 trillion over 5 years. As The Washington Post reported back in November, Sanders would pay for this spending—a relatively small part of his spending agenda—through corporate-taxation reforms. A March 2016 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office finds that two-thirds of all U.S. corporations had no federal income tax liability between 2006 and 2012.

The money may be there; getting it out of corporations is the sticking point, even after the release of the Panama Papers. “Hers is a plan that’s based in the real world,” McGarvey said during his remarks.

Attendees at the North America's Building Trades Unions 2016 Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., cheer on Hillary Clinton. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

A nuanced energy policy

On a note that’s related to and indivisible from the infrastructure component, McGarvey said that Clinton’s energy policy factored into NABTU’s endorsement.  

Clinton said that high-capacity transmission lines and clean energy were the core of her energy policy for the country. Sanders has also outlined a plan that emphasizes sustainable energy. Green language notwithstanding, there’s significant daylight between the candidates on energy.

They disagree on what clean means, for example: They’ve fought over fracking and natural gas in several debates. Clinton came out against the Keystone XL pipeline in September, joining Sanders on that issue, but Sanders has gone further in condemning also the construction of the Constitution pipeline from Pennsylvania to New York. Sanders also called for a tax on carbon.

Clinton’s silence on the pipeline issue might put her closer to the position held by the builders; earlier in the morning, before Clinton spoke, Montana Senator Steve Daines spoke about the importance of (somehow) getting the Keystone XL pipeline back on track. She has an ear for what constituencies want to hear (sometimes). In any case, the New York primary has opened a divide between the candidates on energy, an issue that’s only recently come into focus.

The James Zagroda 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act

Topics covered by Clinton ranged from Rust Belt reinvestment to the minimum wage and collective bargaining. But she spoke most evocatively about the role construction workers played in the moments and weeks after the September 11 attacks in New York.

No doubt, Clinton was playing for the crowd paying attention from New York. But she did play a substantial role in sponsoring the James Zagroda 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act, which covers the costs of medical care for rescue workers and other responders who became sick from the toxic air after 9/11.

Construction workers from Midtown, Uptown, Queens, and Brooklyn rushed to Ground Zero with their tools to begin removing debris, Clinton said. She and New York Senator Charles Schumer flew from Washington, D.C., to the site of the attacks the following day.

“None of us will ever forget that day or the days after,” she said in her address Tuesday. “I know we will always remember the heroes: fire fighters, police officers, emergency personnel, and the construction and trade workers who ran toward danger that day.”

Clinton has vowed to reauthorize the James Zagroda Act, which lapsed last September and was excluded from subsequent must-pass budget legislation. On a topic close to the heart of construction workers, Clinton has been a vocal supporter of the bill—and critic of the GOP-led Congress that has refused to take action.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.