Testimony of Melissa Wells

Good morning, Madam Chair and commissioners. Thank you for having me today.

My name is Melissa Wells and I am the Special Assistant to the President of NABTU for Diversity and Inclusion.

I’d like to begin by expressing NABTU’s gratitude for the commission’s focus on an issue that is one of our top priorities.

On behalf of our 14 affiliates, NABTU is strongly committed to stamping out all forms of discrimination on any jobsite. Our critical role in this effort has focused on diversifying the industry’s workforce with deliberate actions that open career opportunities for any person that wants to support themselves or their families with middle-class wages and benefits. That’s what our model does; create economic opportunity for individuals and families through registered apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship training in one of the 14 construction crafts.

We understand such opportunity has not always been available to women and people of color – but not just because of the actions of one or more discriminatory contractors or even a union leader. Discriminatory laws and so-called societal norms have also stacked the deck against women and people of color joining the construction workforce. All levels of government must have sound public policy to promote diversity in our industry and eliminate discrimination.

This isn’t fair or right. NABTU believes the demographics of our unions should closely resemble the demographics of where we live and work. And that’s exactly what we have been working to achieve.

The unionized sector of construction, the Building Trades organized sector, recruits a high percentage of apprentices who are people of color and women. Over the last 20 years, NABTU’s registered apprenticeship programs have registered 40,000 more women and nearly 300,000 more people of color than the unorganized construction sector.

This growth is because of our dedication to paying family-sustainable wages, ensuring high labor standards, providing health care and retirement, and using apprenticeship readiness programs and registered apprenticeship to uplift people into the middle class. These programs are the gold standard of workforce training in the construction industry.

Our nearly 200 Apprenticeship Readiness Programs across the United States provide underrepresented communities with opportunities to access the middle class through Registered Apprenticeship. These programs are flourishing due to our intentionality and partnerships with scores of local and national groups like YouthBuild, National Urban League, Catholic charities and Goodwill Industries. ARPs are bringing construction education back into high schools, engaging young people early, and we’re teaching it in state prison systems, opening opportunities for the justice-involved who want a chance to change their life.

Of the thousands of graduates in the last 5 years, 80 percent are people of color and 25 percent are women. In that time, when you include Helmets to Hardhats, our veterans placement program, these programs have graduated almost 25,000 men and women that are now in various levels of their registered apprenticeships.

I’m also pleased to report that NABTU has recently launched a new 501(c)3 called TradesFutures. This further demonstrates our long-term commitment and dedication to these programs as stated previously.

These results and continued commitment to growing diversity would not be possible without a strong partnership from the business community. Organizations like The Association of Union Constructors (TAUC) whose member companies proudly stake their reputation on paying their workforce and investing in skills training as well as increasing diversity on their job sites will continue to be a key reason that the construction industry will move the needle on this issue. In short, they are the good actors and we need more of them. We need more project owners and major construction companies to mirror the behavior of Southern Company and Bechtel. Both companies have been proud to showcase the advantage of working with the building trades to guarantee a skilled and diverse workforce on their jobsites – and not just in states that are known to be “union friendly.”

The bottom line is that there is work to be done by all stakeholders in the construction industry. And that includes the non-union sector of the industry.

NABTU is especially concerned about non-union organizations and contractor groups that continue to oppose public policy that would help grow diversity on jobsites around America. For example, the Associated General Contractors in partnership with the right-wing so-called construction trade association known as the Associated Builders and Contractors continue to adamantly oppose the federal government’s use of project labor agreements. Both organizations have also opposed the consistent application of federal prevailing wage on infrastructure projects.

Their opposition is especially startling considering that project labor agreements help ensure labor and management are working together to recruit and retain a diverse workforce for an infrastructure project. Their lack of support for prevailing wage is also troubling because it is the only law that guarantees equal pay for all workers, regardless of race or sex, on a jobsite. And furthermore, according to a 2018 study from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, prevailing wage laws boost the wages of Black construction workers by 24 percent versus those of white workers.

While the Associated General Contractors condemned the previous administration’s executive order that disallowed diversity and inclusion training, they now actively lobby to undermine the Biden Harris administration’s policies to diversify construction.

Nevertheless, NABTU will continue to oppose their efforts and defeat anti-diversity or anti-discrimination public policy. We will strengthen existing partnerships with high road employers and forge new ones - all in the name of creating pathways to the middle-class for women and people of color.

In closing, I’m sure we can agree, the responsibility to increase diversity in construction is shared by all stakeholders in the industry – from the C suite to the job site. NABTU and our 14 affiliates are changing lives. We are doing our part, and we will continue to lead the way in fostering a truly diverse building trades future.