Bold action needed to rebuild America and create jobs, progressives tell Congress

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WASHINGTON — Union leaders and progressive lawmakers at a Nov. 18 conference on Capitol Hill called for emergency action to assist jobless workers and as much as $900 billion for a massive public works jobs program.

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker told the conference that 250,000 union members had joined in a huge “get-out-the-vote” drive for the Nov. 4 election. “Union votes were a key voting bloc, 67 percent to 30 for change,” she said, calling it “a pretty astounding” record.

“Now the real work begins,” she said. “President Obama needs to dive right in to create jobs and expand the economy,” including extending unemployment benefits and food stamps.

“Every time we open the newspaper, another city is in fiscal crisis,” the AFL-CIO leader declared. “We all know that Wall Street got a bailout. Now it is time — past time — for a rescue plan for working people on Main Street.”

She said the labor movement would work with President Obama to make sure the Employee Free Choice Act is enacted, making it easier for workers to join unions. “President-elect Obama understands that workers need unions,” she said. “We are going to continue the mobilization. Failure is not an option.”

The conference, titled “Real Investment in America,” was sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive strategy and action center. It took place, appropriately enough, at the Library of Congress, a public works project completed by the Corps of Engineers in 1897.

“America is literally falling apart, from bridges in Minneapolis to levees in New Orleans,” CAF Co-Director Robert Borosage said. “Our cities face a $100 billion combined deficit, a collapse of property tax revenues,” forcing layoffs of city employees and closings of libraries and schools.

The crisis, he said, requires “not temporary, targeted, timid” federal action but rather “sustained, across-the-board” assistance in the range of $450 billion to $500 billion.

Ron Bloom, a special assistant to United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, said the USW “is at ground zero of the manufacturing economy.” Public investment in infrastructure is fundamental, he said.

“We make no apology for arguing that workers be well paid and work in a safe, healthy environment,” Bloom declared. “The other strategy is a low-road, low-wage strategy … a race to the bottom. We need a race to the top.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) assailed the Bush administration’s “Wild West approach” — allowing Wall Street to loot the $700 billion bailout — which has failed to slow the meltdown. “We must do more to keep people in their homes,” she said.

“We must do more to create jobs. Over 2.8 million Americans have lost their jobs this year.” Lee called on Congress to approve a moratorium on foreclosures and $200 billion to help homeowners with unpayable mortgages.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) held up a photo of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13 and injuring more than 100 people.

“Infrastructure projects are an integral part of any stimulus plan,” he said. “When you build a bridge in Minneapolis, you can’t build it offshore.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $1.6 trillion is needed to repair the nation’s bridges, highways, water mains, and schools. Ellison urged passage of his bill to create a National Infrastructure Bank to allocate tens of billions for these projects, many of them “ready to go.”

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), chair of the 80-member House Progressive Caucus, said, “It’s time for a new ‘New Deal’ to get America back to work. There’s no better way to do that than to create a green job economy. It will create millions of high-paying jobs that will stabilize our economy.”

The House had attached to the federal budget an extension of unemployment compensation, increased funds for food stamps, and $34 billion for infrastructure repairs, Woolsey noted. But those amendments were blocked by Republican filibustering in the Senate.

Providing $300 billion in federal aid to Main Street “is not so much when you consider the cost of the war in Iraq,” she said. “It can be funded without breaking the bank, by reforming our tax code to make it more progressive, by eliminating $62 billion in waste” in the Pentagon budget.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said Congress should enact her bill to create a National Infrastructure Development Corp., a joint federal-private agency modeled on the European Investment Bank, to fund projects like a “smart” electricity grid, high-speed inter-city passenger trains, and wind and solar power. Obama has endorsed similar ideas, she said.

University of Texas economist James Galbraith called on Congress to pump purchasing power into the economy. He proposed a 30 percent increase in Social Security benefits, dropping the age for Medicare eligibility to 55, and spending $900 billion or more for public works.

Programs like the 1930s WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps put 60 percent of the unemployed to work, he said. The jobless rate fell from about 25 percent in the mid-1930s to 3 percent by 1939. He listed vital projects built by WPA including New York’s Triborough Bridge — “not a bridge to nowhere,” he added. “Will it be necessary to do this again?” he asked. “Yes! Whatever it takes.”