A Trump administration plan for a new industry-led apprenticeship program could threaten the administration’s tenuous relationship with building trades unions.

North America’s Building Trades Unions, an umbrella group within the AFL-CIO that represents 15 individual worker groups, opposes a Labor Department proposed rule that would establish certification requirements for an Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program. NABTU is also concerned the department will back track on a deal to remove construction apprenticeships from the new program.

The administration says the proposal is designed to expand apprenticeship opportunities and give businesses more say in crafting training programs. The trades unions, however, say allowing industries to set their own apprenticeship standards could threaten union-protected wages and safety requirements already established under an 80-year-old Registered Apprenticeship Program.

NABTU has been more supportive of the Trump administration than other organized labor factions and offers potentially thousands of union member voters. With the 2020 election looming, President Donald Trump’s attempts to court blue collar union member voters may be threatened if NABTU continues to pursue a public campaign attacking the Labor Department’s proposal.

“These Americans voted for job creation, not lower wages,” NABTU President Sean McGarvey said in a statement following the Aug. 26 close of the proposed rule’s public comment period. “They voted to end the special interests’ grip on government. They voted to strengthen communities long forgotten, not put public safety at risk. This historic engagement by working families should remind those in the White House and the Department of Labor who are pursuing their own, narrow, ideological agenda that the voting public is now on high alert and will be watching as this proposal develops.”

The Labor Department received more than 325,000 comments in response to the proposal, thousands of which came from union members bashing the apprenticeship plan. Only a little more than 61,000 comments have been publicly released so far.

Current System

Construction unions want to continue to funnel workers through the DOL’s established registered apprenticeship system. They argue that the current program provides uniform safety and wage requirements for apprentices, both of which aren’t guaranteed to remain the same under the IRAP proposal. Unions could also lose out on potential members if they go through a job training program offered by an industry group rather than a local union.

While a large portion of comments submitted by union members criticized the DOL’s proposed training program, industry groups indicated they felt encouraged by the department’s move toward developing a new job training system. Businesses and trade groups like Associated Builders and Contractors want to have the option to create additional training opportunities through IRAP.

The ABC, a national construction trade organization, and the Associated General Contractors of America said the administration’s effort to develop a new apprenticeship system is a promising start. They also stopped short of a full endorsement for the current proposal.

“The development and acknowledgment of the value of an industry-led apprenticeship system is a positive step in addressing the nation’s skilled workforce shortage,” ABC said in its comment to the DOL. But both organizations in their comments also offered recommendations to improve the proposal. That includes allowing the construction industry and the U.S. military to participate in IRAP.

The debate over whether the construction industry should participate in the new job training program has pitted business groups and building trades unions against each other.

Former Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta sided with building trades groups earlier this year, but his resignation in July left the DOL’s position on the question unclear. Acting Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella has not publicly weighed in on the question.

The proposal, as it stands now, would exclude the construction industry from participating in IRAP apprenticeships, reasoning the industry is already heavily involved in the Labor Department’s Registered Apprenticeship Program. Offering an alternative for construction could negatively impact participation in the registered system, which sees thousands of construction apprentices every year, the DOL has said. However, the agency included language in the proposal that would leave the door open for construction to be potentially included in later iterations of the program.

“To be sure, whether they are in Wisconsin, Georgia, Minnesota or Missouri, as they learn more about this and other proposed initiatives by these actors, millions of great Americans are enraged and engaged and will be watching both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue closely to be sure the ideologues do not prevail,” McGarvey said in his statement.