When President Joe Biden came to Baltimore to survey the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge, he made a promise all of Baltimore and the region desperately needed to hear.

“We’re going to move heaven and earth to rebuild this bridge as rapidly as humanly possible. And we’re going to do so with union labor and American steel,” Biden said, adding that he had a “simple reason: They’re the best workers in the world, and that’s not hyperbole.”

No, it’s not hyperbole. It’s fact.

Union labor, along with our signatory contractors, time and again have led miraculous rebuilds after accidents and natural disasters. Our skill, training and ability to quickly mobilize are vital in restoring infrastructure and communities.

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We saw it last year with the I-95 bridge in Philadelphia and in the aftermath of that fateful day, Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City. And we need to see it again in Baltimore — with contractors committed to contracting standards such as livable wages and shared prosperity and inclusion. So, yes, President Biden has it right. Baltimore’s rebuild must be laser-focused on union labor and a commitment to workforce development that benefits the men and women who live in and around the city.

It is possible. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise because I am living proof.

I have lived in Prince George’s County all but two years of my life. I grew up hearing all the lies about unions, which too often are targeted at Black and Latino workers. I made it my mission to find out the truth for myself.

Starting as a union laborer, I was fortunate to find people at Clark Foundations to guide me. Eventually, I found the same type of mentors and advocates in the piledrivers union. They saw I was hungry and not afraid to ask questions.

I have been with the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters for 15 years now. Six months ago, I started my job as council representative for our divers and piledrivers — 85% of whom are minorities, including 65% Black, a testament to what is possible when a real commitment is made to workforce development. In Baltimore, where 61% of the residents are Black, the men and women of our union can say we are representative of our city.

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Union jobs build communities, and rebuilding or replacing the Key Bridge, which could take up to three years or more, is the perfect time to bring new blood into our apprenticeship programs. Someone could start a paid apprenticeship, learn their trade on the bridge project, see it to completion and go on to have a life-changing career.

We must do better than hired guns who parachute in for jobs and leave when the work is finished.

This community-building approach is greatly needed in Baltimore. We must show our young men and women that opportunities are here and now. We must work together and show that the city, state and region are committed to workers who live here.

Most of us already know the union workers, on average, are paid better than their nonunion counterparts. But let’s get real with some numbers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2023 annual report, union members in 2022 far out-earned nonunion workers, based on median weekly salaries — $1,216 to $1,029. That’s $187 a week or nearly $10,000 per year before benefits, pensions, training, access to overtime and working conditions are considered.

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Next, there’s this from The Century Foundation, an independent policy research organization committed to driving policy change to improve people’s lives: Black union members earn 13.1% more on average than comparable nonunion Black workers; Hispanic union members earn 18.8% more.

Finally, there’s this: Men and women working under a Carpenters Union collective bargaining agreement are paid the same scale wage, eliminating pay discrepancy based on sex and gender.

That’s what is at stake here, Baltimore.

We know a once-in-a-lifetime accident happened in the Patapsco River. But we’re also looking at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We need to rebuild a bridge, yes, but we also can rebuild our community, financial security and a brighter future for the men and women of Baltimore.

William R. Davis (wdavis@eascarpenters.org) is a council representative for the Eastern Atlantic States Carpenters. He represents nearly 300 piledrivers and divers across all of Maryland, the District of Columbia and most of Virginia.

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