With unemployment surging, unions and environmental groups greeted President-elect Barack Obama’s efforts to win approval of a $775 billion “green jobs” economic package even before he takes office.
Charlie Witt, business agent of Ironworkers Local 512 in Minneapolis-St. Paul, said there are many rusting bridges in need of repair like the I-35 span across the Mississippi River that collapsed Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145.
“We had 140 members of my local working on the replacement bridge,” Witt said. “We started in September 2007 and finished it up in September 2008.”
Another bridge across the Mississippi about 20 miles downriver from St. Paul is in desperate need of repair, he added. “It is twice as long and in far worse shape then the I-35 bridge. I fear the I-35 bridge collapse was a harbinger of many others to come. The bridges are falling due to age or lack of maintenance.”
Until last October, Witt’s local, covering ironworkers in all of Minnesota and North Dakota and one-third of Wisconsin, enjoyed nearly full employment. “Now,” he said, “I have 200 workers sitting on the bench and another two or three workers laid off every day.” Commercial and industrial steel construction “has just died.
“There are ready-to-go projects here, but the local and state funding to pay for them just isn’t there,” Witt said. Minnesota went from a modest budget surplus to a $5 billion shortfall this past year.” The federal assistance promised by Obama “would be very helpful,” he added.
Vance Ayres, executive secretary of the District of Columbia Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO, was equally supportive.
“The sooner Congress approves this package the better,” he said. “It is going to get the economy moving again and put people back to work. There are infrastructure repairs that have been needed for years and finally they are going to get done. Labor as a whole is behind this plan. It’s a win-win situation.”
Union members, who played such an enormous role in Obama’s election, have been invited to join the Jan. 20 inaugural parade, Ayres told the World. He said trade unionists will be on the Washington Mall in unprecedented numbers that day to show support for Obama’s job-creation plan, his vow to sign the Employee Free Choice Act and his promise to push for health care reform.
As many as 4 million people are expected on the Mall, arriving on 10,000 chartered buses and by automobile, plane and rail.
Keith Schneider, communications director of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition founded jointly by the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club, hailed Obama’s plan for including $100 billion to promote the shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy like wind and solar.
“One hundred billion or more to accelerate the development of a clean energy economy is extraordinary,” he told the World in a phone interview from Michigan. He called it a “transcendent idea,” adding, “It is so exciting for us and the country that the president is basing his economic stimulus plan on basic principles of a green economy.”
Obama met with House and Senate leaders on Capitol Hill Jan. 5, hoping to win bipartisan support for his plan so that it could be passed and ready for his signature Jan. 20 immediately after his inauguration. But congressional leaders said it would take until mid-February to approve the legislation. The new House and Senate reconvened Jan. 6 with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vowing quick action on the stimulus package.
Republican leaders who have blocked congressional oversight and pushed deregulation of banks and corporations for the past 40 years are now harping on the need for “scrutiny” of Obama’s package in the name of ferreting out waste, fraud and corruption — subjects they are expert at, as the last eight years show.
Already Obama has been compelled to include $300 billion in tax cuts in his package to attract GOP support although tax cuts create far fewer jobs than direct federal funding of construction projects.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors released a report last month titled “Main Street Economic Recovery,” which listed 11,391 “ready-to-go” public works and public service projects in 427 cities and towns.
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, president of the Conference of Mayors, noted that “Main Street America’s economic crisis continues to worsen. Since the start of the recession a year ago, the nation has lost 2.7 million jobs. About 10.3 million American workers are now unemployed and the jobless rate in November reached 6.7 percent.”
He added, “Washington has bailed out Wall Street banks and insurance companies to the tune of $700 billion. It is now time for Washington to make another kind of investment, one that guarantees a return. It is time to initiate a Main Street Economic Recovery — immediate and direct assistance that enables local governments and the private sector to invest in infrastructure and create the jobs that will help restore this nation’s economic growth.”