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VIDEO: U.S. Transportation Secretary Buttigieg Speaks About Generational Investments in America’s Infrastructure at National Pipeline Conference

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Secretary Buttigieg addresses the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry

Watch the address here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nn5vwPbV38c 

PHOENIX – U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg delivered  keynote remarks at the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry (UA) National Pipeline Conference, held in Phoenix, AZ. on March 6, 2024.  

Secretary Buttigieg celebrated energy wins under the Biden Administration, shared updates about the Department of Transportation’s implementation of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, highlighted the pro-union and pro-labor work of this Administration. Secretary Buttigieg also thanked UA members for their skills and their hard work to make countless infrastructure projects a success across the country. 

The full transcript of Secretary Buttigieg’s remarks are below: 

Good morning! Thank you, President McManus. Thanks to all of you for the warm welcome. I really appreciate that, and I’m impressed with the energy. The only reason I’m this awake right now is that my mind is still on Eastern Time, but I could tell that this is the place to be. No offense to the tax conference that I see is also going on here at this hotel, but really pleased to be with this group and I appreciate so many of your members, your locals, your leaders, including the General President McManus and Chad Gilbert, which I will have a little more to say about a little bit later, I’ll come back to them. But I really want to say on behalf of not just the Administration, and the President, but also our own PHMSA, because your partnership with our Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration is vital to the work that we do.  

As you might imagine, I’m here to talk about what we’re doing in this administration under President Biden’s leadership, what’s happening in our economy and how it’s affecting people’s everyday lives, and how you’re at the center of that. 

We’ve got a lot to talk about, but I want to begin with an earnest thank you, actually a double thank you. Starting with the rearview mirror thank you for your role in helping us get that infrastructure bill done in the first place, and then a thank you in advance for everything you’re about to do to help us actually deliver. And I want to give you a status report on that work in a moment.   

But I don’t want to just blow past how much it means that we got that bill done in the first place. Getting an infrastructure bill done is harder than it should be. We know that because a lot of Administrations and Congresses came and went, some of them talking a really big game about infrastructure and just didn’t get it done. And when President Biden came into office, people were scoffing at the idea of you can get this done, especially at his insistence that it could be done on a bipartisan basis. People didn’t think you could get anything done on a bipartisan basis in today’s world, and understandably so.  

But President Biden believed in this, you believed in this, the trades in general and UA in particular stepped up and made clear to the American people why America needed this. The work needed to be done and the process of doing was going to create countless good paying jobs. And sure enough, because of that advocacy we saw a number of Republicans heed the call, cross the aisle, work with Democrats, work with President Biden, work with people like me in the Cabinet, to get it done.   

I know how important those jobs are because when I first became mayor of my Indiana hometown in 2012, our unemployment was in the double digits. We worked like hell to fight the unemployment down just back into the single digits and to get it back down to the 9, 8, 7. I never could have imagined having it back below 4 nationwide like we have done now. In a few short years we’ve gone from asking where we were going to find jobs for our workers, to people asking how we were going to find enough workers to do all these jobs.  

Which brings me to the second big thing I want to thank you for, because of course you are the reason why we very much have workers ready to do those jobs. You are the reason why we are absolutely prepared as a country to meet the test of our productive capacity that’s in front of us right now. To have the skills and the workers to do the great paying jobs we’re creating at a record pace. You’re making sure we have safe and skilled workers to get the job done. Your recruiting, your training, your apprenticeships, you’re development. So, I want to thank you for that.  

And that actually brings me to a third very basic thank you which is just for the work that your members do every day. The nature of infrastructure — especially the types of infrastructure that UA’s members work on — is that most people don’t have to think about it. I used to say, when I was mayor , when I spoke to our folks at our Water Works, nobody’s ever going to beat down the door of the mayor’s office and say, hey, I need to talk to you, I need to tell you that when I went to my kitchen sink today, I got a glass of clean, safe drinking water out of it and it didn’t poison my family or anything, so just tell everybody down at the Water Works, to keep up the great work. It just doesn’t work that way.  

And actually, the better its doing, the less people have to think about it. In a way, that’s the point, right? People are more free to think about the things that matter to them in life. Their kids, their health, their faith, their family, their businesses, their school, whatever it is, precisely because they don’t have to think about those basic things. So much depends on somebody just knowing that their car can go, just knowing that their water will come safe and clean. And if you can’t count on that, even for a minute, nothing else matters.  

So, I want to thank you for what your hundreds of thousands of members do every day. And thank you for helping us get this law passed. And thank you for everything you are ramping up to do to deliver all those great projects that we’re funding right now. 

And that’s where I want to give you a bit of a status report.  

So, any of you who served know that the phrase bottom line up front, so I’ll start with the bottom-line up front. America is building like we have not been building in more than half a century. The Biden Administration is investing $1.2 trillion in America’s infrastructure and that includes tens of billions of dollars for new or modernized water infrastructure, lead line replacement, carbon capture and sequestration, geothermal, methane emissions reductions, new manufacturing facilities, building new and repairing old gas distribution infrastructure, and more. 

It’s making people safer and creating new economic opportunity in literally thousands of communities across the country. I was in New Mexico last year to announce the first round of awards in our one-billion-dollar program to repair and modernize old, high risk natural gas pipes in communities like Las Cruces, It’s a desert town, not far from El Paso. It’s one of many with a smaller gas pipeline system that they just hadn’t had that funding to address until now. We brought them $10 million to fix 12 miles of pipe there and that same day we launched dozens of projects like that across the country. It’s the first ever federal program dedicated to giving communities the resources to do this work, to make pipelines safer, to cut methane emissions, and I want to thank UA because not only are your members often the ones doing the actual work, but UA leadership really helped design that program from the ground up. By the way, stay tuned because we’re announcing the next round of awards, about $400 million worth, very soon.  

We’re also working to make sure we meet communities where they are. Some of the communities that applied for the funds to get this grant have never gotten this kind of federal grant funding ever. Some of them are the type of town where the mayor has a day job. So, we knew we had to make it simpler to apply and do business with us. And we did. We did the upfront work on environmental reviews. We streamlined the application to more of a yes or no of template and cut red tape on projects we know are a clear benefit to communities and the environment.  

We’re proud of that program — that’s a $1 billion program, and that would be a big deal on its own, but that’s just one. Across the board, this administration is investing tens of billions of dollars in building up energy for the future that will largely be transported by pipeline. Things like hydrogen and CO2, projects going up around the country. My department of course will have a role in pipeline safety for those projects and I have no doubt that UA pipeliners will have a major role in building and maintaining them for the rest of our lives. And then alongside it the projects that we’re working to deliver, we’re also delivering policies, rules to make it all safer.  

Again, with the help of UA, we’ve developed the regulations we need to make those pipelines stronger, reduce pollution, and protect workers and consumers from leaks. We have brought 400,000 miles of pipe that were previously unregulated, to now fall under federal safety and maintenance requirements. And in addition, we’ve put forward what might be the most ambitious pipeline safety upgrade ever. As many of you know, for the last century, in many cases the process to identify methane leaks has come down to asking pipeline operators to walk the line and see if there are any dead plants nearby or if they can smell something. And even then, only required to fix the urgently unsafe lines. We have proposed to update rules to use the right kind of technology to find those leaks and require that every single methane leak be fixed.  

And as you know, that doesn’t just keep the gas safely where it belongs, which is inside the pipe, it also means that there will be skilled workers delivering those safe pipelines. You add that to the unprecedented investments that we’re making in energy infrastructure under Secretary Granholm’s leadership, and the bottom line is millions and millions and millions of hours of work for UA members. 

So, that’s the update on what we’re doing. I also want to talk about how we’re doing it. Because the how matters. The how is, we’re doing it in partnership with labor. It’s how we do everything in this administration and you see the difference it makes.  

Again, I’ll start with the bottom line. When a largely anti-union administration is succeeded by a proudly pro-union administration, you see the difference, and not just in Washington. Again, I think back to when I got started in Indiana, not long ago, we’re talking 10 years ago. People went around saying the labor movement was dying. And now, as you know, things couldn’t be more different. Last year was one of the most important years for unions in living memory. Teamsters landed that historic deal with UPS, established new protections from 340,000 workers. UAW got historic gains after a strike that saw the first ever sitting President on a picket line. Even Hollywood is responding to the labor movement in a new way.  

And we’re definitely seeing a new season of growth for UA. Since Joe Biden became president, UA has grown by about 15,000 members, so congratulations. 

Now obviously, as much as I’d like us to take credit, let’s start by recognizing that that is first and foremost because of your work and your well-earned reputation for the quality of your work.  

And, it includes growth coming from UA leadership, seeing opportunities that haven’t been passed into, making sure that no talent is left on the table in this moment of needing to call all of the talent that we can into this work. You have programs hiring veterans, hiring women, traditionally underrepresented members, that has expanded and strengthened the foundation of the UA and the middle class in this country.  

But the growth also definitely has to do with the generational investments that President Biden has made in American energy, in tandem with the pro-union policies that he’s put in place up and down the administration.  

Again, you can see examples of that just from our DOT. Because with UA leaders at our side, we have negotiated to make it so applicants must pay a fair wage if they want to receive funds from our new pipeline repair grant program.  

After years of a race to the bottom that was about who could lower their wages the most, we’ve raised the floor on worker pay. And take it from me, if you don’t pay fair wages, you’re going to have a hard time getting federal funding.  

We know it’s the right thing to do, not just economically, but to make sure the good projects get built well, because quality matters, training matters, safety matters, and that’s what you’re about. So, I want to thank you for creating the gold standard for training pipeline workers and for delivering quality work.  

And the wins that you’re seeing at UA are being felt across the country. I think so many of the challenges that the middle class and working Americans today have felt are directly tied to the ways that some policies and companies have set out to weaken unions over decades – so we’re doing the opposite. And I really want to dwell on this piece because a lot of people talk a good game when they get in front of unions. Everyone knows how to say the right thing to you, when they want something. But this administration is actually walking the walk, not just words, actions.  

President Biden has insisted on PLAs on all major new direct federal construction contracts.  

The Biden Department of Labor published a rule updating the Davis-Bacon prevailing wage, which means thousands more dollars per year in the pockets of more than a million construction workers around the country. We know what this work means. Pensions, IRAPs, you name it, look at who is walking the walk.  

After decades of talk and with your help, once again, we also got that infrastructure bill done. Not a photo op, not infrastructure week, an actual $1.2 trillion package to create a true infrastructure decade. That is projects, not propaganda. It’s policies, not promises. It’s results, not rhetoric. It is jobs, not generalities. 

And sure enough, we’ve seen wages in this sector go up at more than twice the rate of inflation. This entire field of construction is expanding faster than ever before in modern memory. In September, , the number of total construction jobs in America hit 8 million for the first time, and every month since then we’ve had a new record. Unemployment has been below 4% for two years. That’s something that hasn’t happened since before I was born. Yeah, I’m young but not that young, that’s still a big deal.  

And of course, what really gives it the meaning isn’t the number, it’s the people. 

A few weeks ago, we were at the I-5 Interstate Bridge. This is in Vancouver, WA between Washington State and Oregon near Portland. It’s critically important bridge that carries about 100,000 vehicles per day but is over 107 years old and it’s in need of replacement. In December, we announced $600 million to help replace it. And when you go to the bridge, it is really unforgettable, not least because of the 900 tons of concrete counterweight that is directly above you when you’re standing on that bridge.  

But what I really remember most from our visit was what we heard when we sat down in the building trades hall there, from union members and apprentices.  Like we do at those roundtables, we went around and heard from the leaders and then with a little bit of prodding, the apprentices started telling us their stories. And started to explain what this meant to them. There was one sitting to my left, his name was Jordan. You could tell immediately he was a veteran, a little younger than me. Turned out he’s a Marine, he reminded me of some of the guys that I was with when I was in Afghanistan. But he wasn’t in Afghanistan, he was in Iraq and Syria, and just one of those guys who seemed a little bit older than their age when you meet them. He talked about what it was like coming back, coming off active duty, trying to figure out where he fit in, and how hard it was. Then he said, and we took down his words, he said, “I came across this union. The amount of training I got, the amount of work stability, the level that I have to conduct myself at, the purpose that I have, prevented me from becoming a statistic.”  

And now he’s the first person in his family to own a house. And everywhere I go I’m meeting people who remind me what it means to have these kinds of jobs. The purpose that comes with it, the whole different trajectory your life could take. And you know better than anyone, you know what a union job means. It means presents under the tree, it means a new home, it means a new car or truck in the driveway, it means a better future. It’s why we all pushed so hard for this in the first place and that is why we’re so proud that the Biden Administration is the most pro-worker and pro-union since FDR. And I want you to know there’s more where this came from.  

We’ve launched a new industrial policy for the United States of America, not just creating jobs but good union jobs. And that’s true, not just generally with labor unions, but very specifically with UA, where your leadership and members are our advisors and trusted partners as we developed these policies, I’ll give you a few examples. 

Dave Barnett, long time UA leader. Is Dave here? Thank you for everything you did for the transition. You advised the Biden transition from the start and continued serving on PHMSA’s Liquid Pipeline Standards Committee. Chad Gilbert, I was just talking to Chad. An invaluable new member of the PHMSA Gas Pipeline Advisory Committee. He’s respected, he says it how it is, and his viewpoints shape policy. We have a committee that helps select our grants from the natural gas infrastructure safety and modernization program and the only non-governmental representatives on that committee are three UA members. We have Jeremy Moddrell and Kyle Henderson, big parts of the Federal Carbon Capture task force. Thank you for breaking this idea that we that we have to choose between doing the right thing for jobs and doing the right thing for the future.  

PHMSA never had union representation on both of our committees at the same time that review pipeline safety standards. Until now there may have been CEOs represented, but now we’ve got worker representation from the UA on them. 

We made UA integral to the work of USDOT in a way that is not been done before, and we’re better at our jobs because of it. And that goes all the way to the top. President Biden has visited so many UA locals he can probably start delivering your mail. And I know, General President McManus has an open line into the West Wing.  

Just one other thing I want to talk about. And it’s one other pipeline that’s out there and I’m a cabinet officer, some of you might be recording so I’ll just use the word negativity to describe what’s coming through that pipeline and you can use your imagination if you want to talk about it in different terms. 

But unfortunately, that’s the pipeline that going stronger than ever. And you know what? Special interests? Politics? Nothing new there, but it’s dangerous.  

I know the dynamic well enough and I’ve gotten to know Washington well enough to know that people are going to keep coming along to try to convince your members that the answer is to turn back the clock. And they’re going to come on trying to change the subject from jobs and infrastructure and pipelines and safe water to whatever the latest culture war might be. Or whatever way they think is the best way to convince people that the way forward is to look backward. To hope everything in 21st century is just going to work the way it did in 20th. And I’m here, and I know I’m probably preaching to the choir but I’m just here to emphasize that it doesn’t work that way, nor should it. We can be so much better than even the best moments of our past. And anybody trying to sell your members on the idea that we can turn back the clock, does not respect your members.  

Again, I grew up in the hometown of the Studebaker Car Company, and I was born twenty years after it shut down. And ten years after that, my trip to school every day went alongside acres and acres of collapsing factories that looked like they’ve been taken out in a war. There wasn’t a war. The destruction happened because the company couldn’t innovate, couldn’t keep with the times, thought things wouldn’t change, and then the times changed anyways and the jobs, and the factories started to disappear, so that by the time I was born there were weeds pushing out through those parking lots. 

And even 50 years later, when I was mayor, we were feeling the consequences of that. But we turned our city around, not by pretending we could go back to the 1950s, But by figuring out how to set ourselves up for success going into the 2050s. And now we’re working in the same spirit under President Biden’s leadership, making sure that the present and the future aren’t just as good as a past that’s too easy to idealize now that it’s behind us. But rather a future that’s going to be a hell of lot better especially for union workers.  

Right now, it’s happening in what we build, it’s happening in how we build it. It’s why we’re getting on top of the all of the above things that are happening going into this future. And with it you’re winning. UA is winning. America is winning. The skilled, safe workforce that you’re at the heart of will win this decade for the American economy. And we’re just getting warmed up.  

I’m absolutely convinced that one day, we’re going to look back on the 2020s and agree it was Americas deciding decade for the 21st century. It is the time that we took command of our future. We will see what we created, reshaping everything from a street intersection somewhere to massive projects that amount to the cathedrals of American infrastructure, and we will explain to our children what it took to make it all happen. And in that story, UA members, the union of pipeliners, plumbers, steamfitters, pipefitters of America, all the workers who made it happen, will have an enormously proud role, because when your kids and grandkids ask what you did to help America through this time, you’ll be able to say you didn’t just help this country, you built it.  

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.  for everything that you do. Don’t forget that none of this happened on its own, all of it happened because we were working together and don’t forget how much work we have to do together to see it through. Thanks for everything that you’re doing. Keep up the great work. 

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