Plot to use stimulus package to gut fair labor standards

Just as the labor movement has gotten many in Congress to back a second and better economic stimulus package that does more than just hand out checks for paying back bills, enter the right wing with a plan to use this to ram through one of its favorite wage rollback schemes.

Growing numbers in Congress want the next stimulus package, due as early as Sept. 15, to include dramatically increased spending for repair of roads, bridges and airports. Unions have argued for this, pointing to the collapse last year of the I-35 bridge in the Twin Cities and the failure of levees after Hurricane Katrina three years ago. They say that spending on infrastructure repair will create many good quality, high paying jobs and that it will create them quickly.

AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades President Mark Ayers said this week that more construction spending is “the most obvious strategy for dealing with a recession and rising unemployment. Such spending puts more money in the hands of hard working people and has a beneficial ripple effect as contractors purchase materials and workers spend their salaries.”

Only a day later, right-wing Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and a group of GOP congresspersons supporting him said they want the stimulus package to include language that waives the Davis-Bacon Act, which guarantees prevailing wages on any federally funded projects.

President Bush had initially waived Davis-Bacon for reconstruction in the Gulf after Katrina. The result was a massive giveaway of no-bid contracts to shady firms that often hired immigrant workers for short-term periods, sometime paying them nothing at all. Eventually, pressure from a united labor movement forced restoration of Davis-Bacon protection in the Gulf.

Suspension of the Davis-Bacon law would undo the good that the stimulus package is supposed to achieve, Ayers noted, adding that the labor movement and its allies in Congress can be counted on to prevent the scheme from being included in the final package.

Thanks also to labor support, the second stimulus package will include provisions for longer jobless benefits. The AFL-CIO has spearheaded the drive to include extension of benefits to a full 39 weeks, up from the current 26. Democrats also want to include expanded eligibility for food stamps.

Many in Congress are now backing AFSCME’s call for inclusion into the package of $12 billion to deal with rising Medicaid costs. “State and local governments are getting crushed by budget shortfalls,” AFSCME President Gerald McEntee said. “Congress needs to act fast to protect services and jump start the economy by passing short-term aid to the states.”