January 8, 2015 By Marc Bussanich
New York, NY—That’s how the president of the 500,000-member California Building and Construction Trades described the fierce political battle over the last 15 years for the nation’s first high-speed rail network that culminated in a groundbreaking ceremony in Fresno on Tuesday.
Robbie Hunter, president of the building trades in California, used to be an ironworker with New York City Ironworkers, Local 40 back in 1978 before he moved to California, but he still retains his strong Irish brogue.
He stood near Governor Jerry Brown at the groundbreaking on Tuesday as he penned his name on a segment of track.
“This has been a political war. The California building trades have been the foot soldiers for this project. We’ve shown up at hundreds of hearings. We’ve spent our resources, our time and our political capital by getting the necessary votes at every stage of the political fight,” said Hunter.
In fact, the building trades spent substantial advertising resources by erecting billboards around the state advocating for a project that will not only employ hundreds of thousands of building tradesmen and tradeswomen, but will allow all Californians to travel via an alternative transportation mode that is environmentally friendly.
Putting up the billboards and attending city council meetings in the towns along the proposed route were the necessary steps to counter the expected opposition from conservative groups who like to say that public investments are too expensive. Indeed, California Republican Congressman Jeff Denham, who, ironically, as chairman of the Sub-committee of Railroads in the House of Representatives, is one of the project’s most fiercest critics.
Rep. Denham’s opposition shocks Mr. Hunter.
“He’s destroying jobs and opportunities for the blighted areas in the Central Valley he represents. It would be like a doctor going against his Hippocratic oath to help the residents in his area. It’s beyond comprehension.”
The California High Speed Rail Authority, the agency pioneering the project, says that hundreds of thousands of jobs will be created over the next 15 years to build-out the system to eventually connect both San Francisco and Sacramento in the north to Los Angeles and San Diego in the south.
Hunter says all kinds of tradesmen and tradeswomen will benefit.
“Carpenters, laborers, ironworkers and cement masons will be earning good paying, middle class jobs to build this network.”
And the communities in the Central Valley, who have been beset by high unemployment for decades, will benefit too.
“We have an [community benefits] agreement with the authority that preference for construction jobs will be going to veterans and poverty-stricken families [who will attend the trades’ apprenticeship programs]. We think communities should benefit as well from the project. The projections are 20,000 jobs will be created annually for the next five years, and that’s just in the Central Valley. Typically one out of three or four workers on the job are apprentices, so we’re looking at 5,000 jobs for the community; that’s incredible for an area that’s always been blighted by high unemployment,” said Hunter.
While the project might not all be built by union labor because public works projects are based on the lowest bid, nonetheless an agreement between the authority and the California building trades calls for hiring all workers through the different trades’ hiring halls in and nearby Fresno, according to Hunter.
While detractors have always railed against big public projects that ultimately benefited California, such as Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge, Hunter said that high-speed rail isn’t only a game changer for California, but the whole country.
“It’ll go across the country like wildfire,” he said.