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Unions Hail Biden Rollback of Trump’s Apprenticeship-Lite Program

WASHINGTON—Union leaders praised President Joseph Biden’s Feb. 17 executive order rescinding the Trump administration’s creation of “industry recognized apprenticeship programs” that have lower requirements than standard union apprenticeships.

“Biden reaffirmed his commitment to a pro-union, worker-first agenda by reversing the previous administration’s executive order creating Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Programs,” International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers President Lonnie Stephenson said in a statement after he and nine other union leaders, predominantly from the building trades, met with the President Feb. 17. “IRAPs undermined training and safety standards across multiple industries and encouraged employers to lower apprentices’ wages and benefits.”

“This was super-important to us,” Mason Tenders District Council President Mike Hellstrom told LaborPress. “IRAPs are really subpar to our apprenticeship programs across the trades. We think the Biden administration is doing the right thing.”

Those programs, authorized by Donald Trump’s 2017 executive order, began in May 2020. The Department of Labor has approved 27 “standards recognition entities” to develop them, in the name of flexibility and expanding job training. Those entities could include “trade groups, companies, educational institutions, state and local governments, nonprofits, unions, joint labor-management organizations, and certification and accreditation organizations,” but in practice were nonunion.

“Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs provide an additional apprenticeship pathway that is industry-led and market-driven,” then-Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training John P. Pallasch said in the May 2020 announcement.

Their requirements, however, are significantly weaker than those of traditional Registered Apprenticeship Programs, such as those at the heart of building-trades unions’ training of new members, in all of the five “core components” defined by the Labor Department.

In registered union-run programs, apprentices have a schedule for getting paid more as they gain skills; are generally required to put in 2,000 hours of on-the job training and 144 hours of classwork; are supposed to be taught one-on-one; and receive a certificate of completion from the Labor Department or a recognized state agency. In IRAPs, they don’t have to be paid more than minimum wage; there are no definite requirements for the amount of instruction or teaching ratios; and the credential is issued by the industry.

“They fail to require the wage progression that reflects increasing apprentice skills, and they lack the standardized training rigor that ensures employers know they are hiring a worker with high-quality training,” the White House said in a statement Feb. 17. The Labor Department hopes to expand Registered Apprenticeship Programs to include cybersecurity, green energy, software development, and data science, added Suzi LeVine, principal deputy assistant secretary for the Employment and Training Administration.

Biden’s order halts consideration of applications for new standards recognition entities and will end funding for the 27 authorized, the White House said, but will not affect IRAPs already approved, according to the Labor Department. The “vast majority” of the 131 such programs created are in nursing, House Education and Labor Committee Republican Leader Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said in a statement that denounced Biden for “catering to union bosses and increasing Washington’s overreach into the private sector.”

While the strongest opposition to IRAPs came from the building-trades unions, the Trump administration did not authorize them in construction. Still, the unions saw them as a Trojan horse that would lead to the undermining of their own apprenticeship programs. When the Labor Department announced the regulations in March 2020, the Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group of more than 21,000 nonunion contractors, urged that “all U.S. workers should have the opportunity to participate in DOL’s new industry programs, particularly as federal registered apprenticeship programs supply only a small fraction of the construction industry’s workforce.”

“We knew we were going to be next,” says Hellstrom. He believes the 80,000 letters building-trades union members sent in opposing IRAPs were what convinced the department to exempt construction, but by the end of the Trump administration, “it was looking like we were going to be folded in.”

“They were a direct threat to world-class training programs like the IBEW’s and we applaud President Biden’s decision to rescind them,” Lonnie Stephenson said.

At the Feb. 17 meeting, President Biden also endorsed the National Apprenticeship Act of 2021, sponsored by House Education and Labor Committee chair Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), and said he would ask the Labor Department to reinstate the National Advisory Committee on Apprenticeships. The Scott bill would authorize $400 million in the next fiscal year to expand opportunities and access to Registered Apprenticeships, youth apprenticeships, and pre-apprenticeships, going up to $800 million in 2026. The committee projects that it would create almost 1 million “apprenticeship opportunities.”

“We are highly encouraged by the dialogue,” North America’s Building Trades Unions President Sean McGarvey said in a statement after the meeting, adding that the unions had been able to raise important issues such as “retirement security, energy policy, infrastructure investments, and pathways to the middle class.”

“For working people, this was the most productive Oval Office meeting in years,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “President Biden ran on a promise to build back better…. America can only build back better if unions are doing the building. If we make key structural changes to our economy, we can create a new generation of good-paying union jobs.”

Those changes, he added, include COVID-19 relief, infrastructure spending, and “strengthening working people’s freedom to organize a union” by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize Act.

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