Politico Pro Q & A: John Ballantyne, of Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters

Politico Pro Q & A: John Ballantyne, of Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters

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January 2, 2017 – New Jersey


Gov.-elect Phil Murphy takes office Jan. 16, giving Democrats control of the governor's office as well as both chambers of the state Legislature for the first time in eight years. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. ambassador to Germany, has been a strong advocate for union rights, with many of his platform proposals aligning with the agendas of various unions in New Jersey. POLITICO sat down with some of the most powerful union leaders in the state and asked them to discuss their hopes for the new administration.

Today: John Ballantyne, executive secretary-treasurer for the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, which is one of the largest trade unions on the East Coast and represents thousands of people working as craftsmen in the construction industry. One of the union's key priorities: improving existing labor enforcement at the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development. A study from Stockton University last year found that a growing underground construction economy is costing the state millions in uncollected tax dollars every year because of off-the-books employment and misclassified workers.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. This is the first time in eight years Democrats will control the governor's office and state Legislature. What does that mean for you and for your members?

“We're a bipartisan organization when it comes to politics, so whichever candidate has the core beliefs of the union and shares the same core principles with regards to protecting workers' rights, that's really what we're concerned with. With having a Democrat, Phil Murphy, as the governor-elect, and a Democrat-controlled state, we feel very comfortable. There have been things over the last eight years that have been somewhat neglected. That would be within the Department of Labor and the enforcement of certain labor laws that we benefit from as a union here and as a state. One of the most important things for us is restructuring the Department of Labor and giving it the authority and ability to enforce the current laws that are on the books, and get them to really start looking at payroll fraud and misclassification and enforcement.”

Q. You've suggested that one way for the new administration to improve enforcement is for the Department of Labor to issue stop-work orders on projects and contractors the state suspects are breaking the rules. Does the department currently not issue stop-work orders?

“They have the ability to do it, but they need to strengthen that ability to issue a stop-work order on projects they suspect are cheating workers and taxpayers, while conducting an investigation at the same time. By cheating workers, I mean not paying a fair wage, misclassifying them.”

Q. What's your relationship with Murphy?

“We've built a wonderful relationship. The last time I had a great relationship with a governor-elect was with James McGreevey. I've said this to Ambassador Murphy as well, he's been absolutely dynamic. He's been to many of our carpenters’ events; we actually enjoy having him. In February of last year, we had 1,000 members come out a rally to hear him speak. When you put 1,000 carpenters in a room, they're not easily swayed. I'll tell you, they received him extremely well. I was very impressed. He came in, rolled up his sleeves and got up on stage, and he laid out where he was looking to go as a governor for the state of New Jersey and encouraged industry to come back and business to come back. What he spoke about specifically was the pathway to the middle class and that the door was open through the unions and the labor movement and how important that was. Since then, he has made an effort to make sure he's stayed in touch ... and has been at so many events for us. We look at him as part of the extended carpenters family.”

Q. How does the relationship you have with Murphy compare with your relationship with Gov. Chris Christie?

“There's not a strong relationship there. It's night and day. There's a relationship here where I can pick up the phone and have a conversation with Ambassador Murphy. We do not have that ability right now with Gov. Christie.”

Q. What's your relationship with Senate President Steve Sweeney?

“The Senate president has been a long-time friend to the carpenters, and we look at him as a building trades representative as well as a great union leader [Sweeney is an official with an ironworkers' union]. I know him and his brother. We've sat on a few committees together within the building trades. We look at him as somebody that we put a lot of trust in. We feel very comfortable with him. He's also somebody that, from the laborers' point of view, is someone with the same core principles. We're extra appreciative that he's in the position that he's in, and we're very dedicated to supporting him.”

Q. What about incoming Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin?

“We've gotten to know him over the last two years. The Middlesex County [Democratic] chairman, Kevin McCabe, happens to work with the Carpenter Contractor Trust, so he actually works for a related arm as a cooperative between our associations and our union. Kevin happens to be the Middlesex County chairman, which is probably one of the strongest counties here in the state of New Jersey. He helped develop that relationship and introduce us here to Assemblyman Coughlin. We were very dedicated to our commitment to him, and that was to see he would become the next Assembly speaker. We feel that our organization as a whole is positioned with great leaders and elected officials in the incoming speaker, the state Senate president, as well as Ambassador Murphy. We're really looking forward to a great year.”