Building Trades Leader: Any Politician Who Doesn't Back the PRO Act Shouldn't Get Labor's Support

A conversation with Jimmy Williams, the progressive new president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.

Mindy Isser

Jimmy Williams (R) is the new president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. IUPAT

On September 1, Jimmy Williams Jr. officially became the president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT). At 43, he is the youngest president in not only IUPAT’s history, but also within the building trades unions and any major affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Williams has big plans for his tenure: to diversify his union, grow and strengthen the labor movement and, of course, pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act — the most sweeping labor legislation since the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

The building trades unions have a reputation as conservative and insular, and Williams’ ideas and goals are the complete opposite: inclusive, sweeping and progressive. Williams is not afraid to tackle the tough topics that the labor movement as a whole still wrestles with: having difficult political conversations about racism; putting resources towards new organizing, including undocumented immigrants and workers in the South; and refusing resources to politicians who don’t unequivocally support labor. In These Times spoke to Williams about his outlook on the labor movement today, and his big plans for the future.

I understand that you’re the youngest president in IUPAT’s history. Tell me how you got your start in the union.

Jimmy Williams: I was born into my union. I’m a fourth generation member of the IUPAT, and a member of my local union in Philadelphia since 1998. I’m a glass installer by trade, a glazier. My great grandfather was actually a charter member of our local union, my grandfather was a member, my father was a member, and countless uncles and cousins were too. We all grew up in the Philadelphia labor movement and in our industry. That tradition is kind of dying off in the construction industry these days, but for me that’s how I got my start. And I’ve been lucky — I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with a lot of leaders who have come out of the Philadelphia labor movement, one of whom was my father, who was a previous president of the painters’ union [James Williams, IUPAT president from 2003 to 2013], and Sean McGarvey, the president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, who was also a member of my local union back home in Philadelphia as well. We have a long tradition of leaders who have emerged out of our local union.

How did growing up in a union household affect the way you view the role of the union and the importance of organizing?

Jimmy Williams: It was kitchen table stuff. It was ingrained in my childhood how important the union movement was to our family. Pretty much any time we would have dinner together as a family, we would always thank the union for being able to provide a great standard of living growing up. But there were also hard times that we fell on. When I was younger I remember my father having to go on unemployment often and was always so grateful when he did have a job, because the union provided such a good standard of living for him, and for us as children.

We would always be doing things with the union. I was probably seven or eight years old the first time I was on a picket line. We always viewed the union as our family to an extent, and just being active and around union activity, you got to see the impact a labor union could have on everyday, average people who just needed an opportunity and a start. I was shaped pretty early on to see what togetherness and collective action can do for people, when it comes to being able to live comfortably with health insurance, with knowing that you’d have a secure retirement in the form of pensions, with higher pay. In the construction industry, when people don’t work, they don’t get paid. The pride and the skills people took to the job site really shaped me in wanting to expand those opportunities to people regardless of where they come from and what background they have.

When you grow up in a strong union environment, and you see what it’s like for non-union workers, and the challenges that they’re faced with, it really does make you want to organize constantly. Because you know there’s a better way.

It sounds like you see the labor movement as a movement that needs to be active in broader social movements. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Jimmy Williams: My belief system at its core is that the labor movement is one of the most forgotten movements in this country, and it’s by design. Part of what we have to do within the IUPAT, and we are strongly taking on this challenge, is that we have to organize our members from within first, so that they realize they’re not just joining a union for the benefits and the pay. That’s the byproduct of what our movement has been able to create, but we believe strongly that the labor movement needs the social movement type of energy to be able to face the economic challenges that this country is faced with. The labor movement the only true movement that connects to every other positive, progressive social movement in this country, whether it’s the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, freedom of association, rights for gay and transgender people — those are all workplace rights too. We just believe strongly that a labor union is only as good as its ability to organize its members into a larger movement.

IUPAT seems very committed to organizing undocumented workers in the construction industry, who obviously are forced to deal with the worst aspects of it, like misclassification, wage theft and sexual harassment. But other building trades unions have treated these workers more like the enemy than workers who deserve union rights. Can you tell me a little bit about how and why IUPAT has chosen to prioritize this work?

Jimmy Williams: The worker, regardless of documentation, is never the enemy. Any time a union alienates the worker, regardless of documentation, they set themselves up for failure long term. But more importantly, this system of immigration is the modern-day version of slavery in this country. It’s set up and done so purposefully so corporations can maximize their profits. Period. The undocumented worker in this country is given every sort of right under the National Labor Relations Board to organize, and they’re given the same rights as U.S. citizens to organize their workplaces. We’re crazy if we don’t try to organize regardless of documentation. There’s a very racist and xenophobic approach to people if they don’t understand this. 

Race is what corporations and the capitalist system has used to divide working people for generations. If we don’t figure out the best way to organize regardless of race or documentation, we are missing the boat. There’s certain parts of this country where, in the construction industry or at least in our industry, the Latino immigrant worker makes up a huge part of the workforce. We’re crazy if we don’t change our union’s demographics with the changing demographics of this country.

Similarly, IUPAT has national committees for underrepresented members — like LGTBQ workers, women workers, etc. Why is this a priority for the union?

Jimmy Williams: It’s a priority because our union has been historically led by middle-aged white males. I find myself a middle-aged white male, and it’s extremely difficult for me to be able to sympathize, empathize, and understand the struggles that our members have who are not middle aged white men. Our committees are really the lifeblood of how we service our members, how we recruit new members, and how we organize new members. It’s so much easier to identify with someone who is in your same shoes and same struggles. Our committees are really important to us so that we can meet the goals of diversity. Giving a voice to the most underrepresented people within our labor union and within the construction industry is going to be the thing that puts us on a path forward to growth and success.

Our women’s committee set a goal and a marker for us for our membership to become 20% women by the year 2024. We’re setting goals to recruit through our apprenticeship programs and meet those goals. The future of the construction workforce, especially in our industry, has more and more women joining, specifically in the paint and drywall side of our industry, but it’s really across the board.

Conversely, we hear so much about conservative building trades members. Whether that’s overblown or not, it’s obviously a reality to some extent. How do you plan to organize those workers?

Jimmy Williams: There may be some truth to building trades union members being just a tad more conservative than most in the labor movement. But the truth of it is, the labor movement is reflective of society as a whole. It is union leaders’ responsibility to organize our membership along political lines. Within the IUPAT we have tried, and I believe we moved the needle during the last election, to get people to understand that you have values you have to vote — whether they’re your conservative, Christian beliefs, whether they’re fiscally responsible beliefs or socially responsible beliefs. But within the union movement, it’s our responsibility to try to have our members vote their union values first. That’s how we speak to our members. And yes, there’s a percentage of our membership that’s extremely conservative, but that’s no different than society as a whole. 

Political organizing is the same as union organizing: You have to be engaged, and you can’t turn a blind eye to having hard conversations with people. The 2020 election cycle was the perfect example of our union taking on some really hard conversations. And when you walk away from them, you’re going to get what you deserve. The union movement could be the strongest voice in the political process when we’re saying the right things and when we’re organizing our people the right way.

Why is passing the PRO Act such a big priority for IUPAT? What will continued focus on the legislation look like? I know you lived through the fight for EFCA, so I’m curious what lessons you learned from that.

Jimmy Williams: It’s a hard topic to for people to understand because people don’t even understand employment law and labor rights in this country. The PRO Act is another example of trying to take something that is extremely easy, and it gets turned into an extremely complicated discussion when it comes to legislation. For us, it’s the biggest litmus test that exists for any elected official. Within the IUPAT, we’re not going to support anybody who doesn’t support the PRO Act, financially or otherwise.

Labor law reform is the thing that’s going to change the labor movement in this country. It’s not going to be leaders like myself. Expanding access to collective bargaining is the only way the labor movement can truly grow and thrive and function. The laws are slanted against organizing. When the National Labor Relations Act was passed, it said it would be the policy of the United States government to support organizing and to support the process through which workers can collectively bargain. But that is not how the law has been applied, and it needs updating and it needs change. The passage of the PRO Act, whether or not it makes it through the House and Senate in the near term, is the ultimate goal for us and many in the labor movement.

We watched numerous times how politicians on both sides of the aisle have killed things like EFCA in 2009. They all said they were going to support it, but when it came down to it, we couldn’t get the president of the United States or the leadership in the House and Senate to make it a priority. It is number one, front and center, for us to not to make the same mistakes we made in the past.

I was around in 2008 and I was a Pennsylvania resident and I tell this story all the time: Arlen Specter [a former Pennsylvania senator] said he would not support EFCA; he was a Republican and a swing vote on many of President Obama’s key initiatives. He then turned around and became a Democrat because he was being primaried by the conservative right, and he asked the labor movement for support, and we gave it to him. We gave it to him! We endorsed him in the primary. I can tell you that I never voted for him. But that’s the discipline that we lacked at the time to get EFCA passed. And that’s the kind of discipline we need as a movement. If the PRO Act is not passed and signed into law now, then that’s the organizing conversation that takes place in 2022, that’s the organizing conversation that takes place in 2024, all the way through until it becomes law.

The PRO Act is the most important way to advance the labor movement in this country. And there has to be a movement behind it. It cannot just be an inside, Washington D.C. conversation. It has to be a conversation that’s in the mainstream and that’s talked about among the general public in the United States. We’re geared up for a long-term fight. We have many people who are supportive and who want to see this thing go through, but it’s not enough right now. And until we get the majority of elected officials that can pass it into legislation, we’re going to have to keep organizing and mobilizing for the PRO Act.

Besides passing the PRO Act, do you have any big goals, plans, or priorities for the union under your leadership?

The biggest goal is to become a leader in organized labor when it comes to having organizing be our primary focus. I had the luxury of being our organizing director for the last 10 years, and we’ve been able to do a lot within our union to promote and put organizing at the center of what we do. But now we have an opportunity to go even further and have our organizing program drive our agenda. There’s nothing stopping us from organizing brand new markets, like residential. There’s nothing stopping us from organizing manufacturing in our industry. We need to be able to adapt to the changing way that construction is done in this country. There is absolutely no reason why we couldn’t organize in places we’ve never organized before.

We’re 100% committed to organizing people of color, undocumented workers, and folks in right-to-work states and in the South who have been neglected and overlooked by the labor movement for years. The South presents such an opportunity because working conditions have been beaten down for so long in right-to-work states. What we’re seeing is a shift: the Midwest is becoming the new South. We have seen states adopt right-to-work laws that I never in a million years would have imagined. Like Michigan, the home of the United Auto Workers and the sit-down strikes in Flint, and West Virginia, a hub of the mineworkers. You go down South where they’ve had right-to-work laws in place as a way to keep Jim Crow-era policies in place, and you don’t see working conditions that exist in places like California, Illinois, the Northeast. So, of course, workers want to collectively bargain, workers want to form and enjoy unions in the South. It’s an exciting time to be organizing in the South; it’s an open canvas because the labor movement has been so absent there. Our percentage of the workforce when you go to states like Georgia is minuscule, less than 1% in certain instances. But it presents a great opportunity: We’re seeing some of our fastest growth in the state of Texas.

Those are the main and primary goals of our administration and our team. Within our union, the times that we live in require us to get creative and challenge the norm. We’re presented with a great opportunity to unite and come together. There’s a lot of solidarity among labor unions. We can come together within these hard times of Covid and climate change and social unrest, and I think it’s an exciting time. There’s new people, new plans, new exciting ideas emerging — and we’re excited to be part of that.

Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.
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