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On the road again: With Transportation Trust Fund issue settled, laborers union leader can focus on need for infrastructure upgrades and other issues

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Rob Lewandowski, communications director, New Jersey arm of Laborers’ International Union of North America.
Rob Lewandowski, communications director, New Jersey arm of Laborers’ International Union of North America. - ()

No one has ever sounded as happy driving slowly through a construction bottleneck as Rob Lewandowski did during a recent talk with NJBIZ.

When NJBIZ spoke to the communications director of the New Jersey arm of Laborers’ International Union of North America last year, he was nervous and on the brink of a shutdown of construction projects that paralyzed thousands of union jobs due to issues with the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.

That situation would eventually be resolved, and it was at the local hall of the Laborers’ International Union of North America that Gov. Chris Christie signed the bill that restarted work on the state’s roads, bridges and overall transit system.

With that in the rear-view mirror, NJBIZ caught up with Lewandowski to discuss what today’s political climate holds for arguably the most influential of any union in the state.

NJBIZ: With the deal struck last year to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund, what’s next on the regional agenda for your union?

Rob Lewandowski: It’s not so much that our union is trying to set an agenda, but that we recognize there is an agenda that’s going to get set soon — that there will be a day of reckoning moment on some of our other older infrastructure that desperately needs updates. If you take something like the Trans Hudson Express Tunnel, you could talk to commuter after commuter who would tell you that one tunnel that’s over 100 years old doesn’t serve the New York metropolitan area well.

We also have infrastructure in the ground — water and sewer lines — that is woefully in need of attention. Public officials are looking at that and asking not only how to avoid another Flint, Michigan, crisis but also how to begin to invest in something that has been underinvested in for years and years. So, we know that’s also going to be on the agenda.

NJBIZ: Do you envision local elected officials responding to this?

RL: Almost all the work we do should be nonpartisan in nature. In theory, everyone should agree on something like infrastructure. That said, we’re backing (Democratic gubernatorial nominee) Phil Murphy. That’s because we feel very confident that he has skills and vision to create government responsive to New Jersey’s working class, but also the wherewithal to set the stage for private growth. Ultimately, you need both — government that’s efficient and effective, but also an environment that’s good for the private sector. His (campaign) has our members excited and a lot of them are volunteering out there, which we’ll step up as we get closer to the election.

NJBIZ: Any hope for positive change to come from the federal level?

RL: From the beginning, you had (President Donald) Trump saying infrastructure would be a key issue; to have that from a Republican, knowing that Democrats already had public investment on their agenda, seemed like it was finally going to create a bipartisan agreement. Everything is outstanding now, with the turmoil the administration is dealing with. I think we’re clear about where we think the nation should head in terms of infrastructure investment, but we have to be patient and understand this won’t be addressed until we’re on stable ground and focused on what government should do — delivering public goods and services to the country.

NJBIZ: Speaking of national trends, union membership has declined steadily across the country, with New Jersey not being an exception. What accounts for that?

RL: Unionization is down in the private sector — the numbers are there for everyone to see. It has been going down for years. Some of that can be attributed to changes in industries and some of it is that the rules of the game to organize have changed in the favor of employers. Nevertheless, the way we see it is that we have to become more market-driven. It’s largely cooperation and collaboration  that’s going to drive us in the future. Unions can be seen as having antagonistic relationships with employers, but, ultimately, if that employer doesn’t bring the work, we don’t work. So, no one is guaranteed a paycheck. As much as we look at employers and unions as inherently antagonistic, it doesn’t have to be the case.

NJBIZ: What are some of the ways unions and companies work in concert?

RL: Unions can play an instrumental role in success in business. We try to show that. The fact (is) that we invest millions of dollars into our education programs jointly each year, offering it to more than 20,000 New Jersey residents. It’s a free source of education and it’s amazing for employers. It can be a larger resource than any college or university, which is important in this time of student loan debts.

People characterize unions as special interest. But we’re the public interest. As far as where our resources go, it’s not going back to shareholders. It goes back to more money for members, investments in health, safety and education — things that ultimately create stable communities. It’s not a story we always tell well, admittedly. But it’s a story that needs to be told.

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