Arlene Walsh Wallace

First Week with LiUNA

Arlene is a second year Law and French student at Trinity College Dublin. She is a recipient of the All-Ireland Scholarship, and was awarded an Entrance Exhibition Scholarship upon entering Trinity. She has a keen interest in both Irish and international politics, and is currently serving as the Secretary of Trinity Sinn Féin. Arlene is also a passionate human rights activist, taking a particular interest in the area of refugee rights. She is currently a member of the DU Amnesty International committee, serving as the coordinator of the #IWelcome campaign on campus. Arlene is a member of the TCDSU Lobby Group for Refugee Education, which conducts research into access to education for those claiming asylum in Ireland. She also acts as an advocate for her fellow students, and is currently both a Class Representative and a Mentor for first year Law and French students.

 

Student
Arlene Walsh Wallace

University
Trinity College Dublin

Degree
Law and French

Work Placement
LiUNA

Host Family
David and Roshana Cohen

Date Published
10th June 2017

As part of the D.C phase of the Washington Ireland Program, I am undertaking my work placement at the Labourers’ International Union of North America, better known as LIUNA. LIUNA is a trade union for workers in the construction industry, and is one of the most politically active unions in the U.S. It represents its 500,000 members on a variety of issues that are important to them, such as collective bargaining agreements, infrastructure, and immigration.

Upon arrival at LIUNA headquarters on Monday morning, I was introduced to the team in the Legislative and Political department, which is where I will be spending the majority of my six weeks there. The department is responsible for ensuring that the political and legislative process produces the best results for their members, in terms of job creation, wage levels and benefits. They lobby various members of the political institutions in order to ensure that pro-union leaders are elected and can thus influence the political system.

After a brief introduction to the ins and outs of life on the eighth floor, I was whisked across the road to attend a meeting at AFL-CIO headquarters, at which representatives of a variety of unions are briefed on the legislation which is going to be passing through the legislature over the coming week. This was a great introduction to the activities of unions such as LIUNA, and also gave me an insight into how they go about influencing the decisions of policy makers which will impact their membership. I found the meeting extremely informative as I gained a better understanding of the issues which affect the membership of unions across the U.S., especially during the uncertain times the country currently finds itself in. Upon reflection, I was taken aback by the impact that the decisions at top level will ultimately have on the average worker. I gained a really interesting perspective on the power of the political process, and this is something I am sure will develop over the summer.

Following the AFL-CIO meeting, I spent the afternoon participating in an online training course, which gave me an insight into the history of LIUNA and how it has developed since its formation in 1903. I was particularly interested in the section on immigration, as this is going to be the focus of my work over the summer. The union was initially founded by immigrant construction workers, who were looking to organise and gain better working conditions for their membership. Considering the current political climate in the United States, the topic of immigration is one which will be a key focus for the WIP curriculum over the summer, as many changes are being proposed to the current system of immigration that is in place. I finished my work placement on Monday afternoon and felt energised for the week ahead.

I finally met the wonderful Patti Devlin on Tuesday morning, and she briefed me on the projects I will undertake over the duration of my work placement. Patti is the Federation Liaison to the General President of LIUNA, Terry O’Sullivan. We discussed the elements of immigration policy I will be researching over the summer, in particular the current status of the Temporary Protected Status visa and the impact of the H-2B visa on the construction industry and LIUNA membership. As an Irish immigration activist, the intricacies of the immigration issue in the U.S. are not something I am completely au fait with. I was slightly daunted by the depth of knowledge I would be required to have in order to produce various reports and letters on the issues in question, especially considering the limited time I have on work placement.

However, once I got stuck in to the various materials on the issues, I found myself wanting to know more and to understand the impact they could potentially have on the construction industry into the future. I find the various elements of the American immigration system highly fascinating, and by the end of my first day of research I was eager to know as much as possible.

As the week went on, I continued to gain a better understanding of the work LIUNA does on a legislative level on behalf of its membership. I attended another AFL-CIO briefing on Wednesday, this time in relation to the results of an in-depth survey of the membership of various unions across the United States. The focus of the survey was on the impact of messaging on the membership and the language a union should use in order to get their message across in the most effective way possible. I found the results extremely interesting, in particular those which reflected on the recent drop in union membership as a result of right-to-work legislation being introduced in many states.

On Thursday afternoon, I was lucky enough to witness another interesting aspect of the work of the legislative and political department. I was invited by my colleague David to join him on a visit to the Hill. The purpose of the trip was to lobby politicians and their representatives on the issues that matter to the membership, in order to ensure that they have a full understanding of the impacts of their votes on legislation relating to employment and job creation. During the meeting with Congressman Mike Gallagher, the continued importance of the Davis Bacon Act for construction workers was emphasised by the union representatives. The Act provides fundamental basic protections to workers, such as a prevailing wage, and also governs the fringe benefits available to workers.

Having been involved in some lobbying efforts before coming to D.C., I found this element of LIUNA’s legislative work really fascinating. It was interesting to see a professional lobbyist in action, and to see the interaction between lobbyist and politician first hand. The ability to compromise and deal with difference is crucial to any lobbying effort, and this is something I hope to gain more experience in over the next few weeks.

Overall, my first week at LIUNA has been extraordinary. I am astounded by how much I have learned about the work of American trade unions in such a short space of time, and the aspects of immigration I am researching are extremely interesting. I thoroughly look forward to what the next five weeks have in store!