Unions press Senate to back stimulus bill

Reposted from Workday Minnesota WASHINGTON - Unions and their allies, working both through ground troops and over the air, are pushing senators of both parties to approve the giant economic stimulus bill now moving through Congress.

In both a Jan. 29 press conference and a Jan. 30 teleconference, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, Change To Win Chair Anna Burger, Transportation Trades Department President Ed Wytkind and others also blasted House Republicans for their unanimous lockstep party-line vote against the $819 billion-plus plan.

The House approved the bill, 244-188, with all 177 House Republicans opposing it. The Senate vote is expected during the week of Feb. 2. Congressional Democratic leaders want to send a final version to President Barack Obama by Valentine's Day.

But unions and their allies must convince enough Senate Republicans to back it and stop a filibuster threat from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., and his Right Wing allies. The GOP needs only 41 votes to keep the talkathon going and kill the bill.

Obama has campaigned hard for the plan, which he says would create or preserve at least 3 million jobs and prevent unemployment, now 7.2%, from rising even more this year than economists forecast. Most forecasters call for jobless rates of 8% or above by the end of the year.

Approximately two-thirds of the bill's cost would be for programs to put people to work, including everything from sending Medicaid money to states – to keep workers on the job helping jobless people who have lost their health care – to rewiring the nation's federal and school buildings to make them more energy efficient. The other third is tax cuts, mostly to individuals to offset the bite payroll taxes take out of their paychecks.

As a result, the bill has drawn a wide range of support. For example, Terry Hatch of the National Electrical Contractors Association his group and the IBEW have a joint training program for hundreds of thousands of union members, preparing them to undertake such 'green' retrofitting.

AFSCME President Gerald McEntee said his members who are stumping for the stimulus are particularly emphasizing the Medicaid money. 'Their message is simple: This is hitting the states, too. Ohio, for example, has a $7 billion budget deficit, and you can just take that scenario all across the country,' he said.

Getting the Medicaid money into the hands of the states 'is the fastest turnaround of all the things in the stimulus package,' McEntee added.

That concern about how quickly the money can be used to create jobs is one argument the GOP is raising. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office calculated that 65% of the bill's funds would be spent by the end of September in 2010.

That's too slow, the GOP says. House Republicans argued – unsuccessfully – for dumping all the spending and approving only $475 billion, all for tax cuts for the rich and for businesses. That drew scorn from the unionists. McEntee called it the 'same old same old.' Burger said 'the Republicans didn't understand what was going on.'

McEntee noted one quarter of his 1.4-million-member union's members are registered Republicans. He said they're calling AFSCME headquarters in Washington, complaining about the House GOP's obstructionism.

Obama's stimulus plan, Burger said, is 'an economic recovery for Main Street, not Wall Street.' She criticized those 'financial barons who ran to the federal government' for aid after their own practices of 'running amok' caused the economic collapse. SEIU members and their colleagues in Change To Win are telling tales of lost jobs as they campaign for the stimulus package, Burger added.

'In New York, if you call a child abuse hotline, you're on hold for half an hour' because its staffers have been let go due to budget cuts. 'In Massachusetts, one-quarter of the personnel in mental health services are on a list to be laid off,' she said. Those jobs would be saved and restored by funding in the bill, Burger explained.

NECA's Hatch disputed the GOP's contention there aren't enough projects ready to employ construction workers. 'In New England alone, we have 12-14 major projects ready to go but they're stopped due to funds unpredictability,' he said. Len Simonson, chief economist for the union-friendly Associated General Contractors, said the bill's $148 billion for infrastructure would create 1.85 million jobs, including 660,000 construc-tion jobs. As of December, there were 1.522 million jobless construction workers.

Other speakers noted that with this recession underway since December 2007 and expected to last at least through this year, not all the infrastructure projects must start now. 'The economic downturn is a lot deeper and steeper than many people predicted just a few months ago,' said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. 'So as we put people back to work, we also want to make investments in the future,' through long-term projects.

They would include information technology in health care, and retrofitting school buildings while preserving teachers' jobs – thus letting them educate future generations.

CORRECTED name Terry Hatch Feb. 23, 2009.