$700 billion bailout ‘like using a can of Red Bull and a candy bar’

As the economy continues crashing and as Congress readies for a special post-election Nov. 17 session at which it could pass a new stimulus package of more than $300 billion, labor and its allies are pushing for sweeping measures aimed at getting millions back to work and putting money into the pockets of the people.

Not waiting for the January inauguration of Barack Obama and the swearing-in of the new more labor-friendly Congress, unionists are already knocking on the doors of Capitol Hill lawmakers. They are determined to see the stimulus result in reconstructed schools and extended unemployment benefits on the one hand, to a new network of modern roads and expanded Medicaid aid to states on the other.

Labor is fully aware, however, that it may have to do battle with lame duck President Bush and Republican obstructionists in the Senate to win economic relief for Main Street before the new administration takes office.

As evidence of the need for emergency action now they point to the sharp decline in gross domestic product, 0.3 percent from July 1 through September. At the same time ExxonMobil announced its $11.7 billion profits, the largest profit margin in U.S. corporate history.

“Even Bush should realize something has to be done,” said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. “We need a genuine economic stimulus package now, in the next 30 days, to boost our economy before already struggling, hard-working families suffer even more from a downward spiral.”

Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan insisted when he spoke before the congressional Transportation Committee on Oct. 29 that the tax rebates given to consumers earlier in the year and the $700 billion Wall Street bailout have had no lasting impact because they created no sustainable jobs. “It was like using a can of Red Bull and a candy bar to fix the problem,” he declared.

O’Sullivan said thousands of construction projects could be started immediately and that, with a jobless rate of 10 percent in construction, the workers are available now.

In the public sector alone, retrofitting of buildings to save energy would put almost a million people to work at an average pay of $40,000 and would provide long-term benefits to the nation, he said.

Presidents of the nation’s two huge teachers’ unions, Randi Weingarten of the AFT and Dennis Van Roeckel of the NEA are telling Congress that the schools must be part of any stimulus package.

Weingarten says the squeeze on state budgets is hurting schools badly. Marcia Reback, AFT president in Providence, R.I., provided an example when she told lawmakers that all music programs in her district have been eliminated.

“Education and the economy are intertwined,” Weingarten said. “When the economy is weak, workers lose their jobs, their homes and their healthcare. The effect of these losses doesn’t just hit the workers, it also affects their children, our students.”

She said the nation’s school buildings need at least $286 billion in immediate repairs that, if done, would put people to work and bring in more tax dollars to hard-pressed school districts.

NEA President Van Roekel said, “Many districts are being forced to raise prices for school meals due to escalating food costs. Schools report a steady stream of anxious parents, often in tears, pleading for free meals for their children because they do not have 70 cents a day for reduced price meals.”

When Ron Blackwell, the AFL-CIO’s chief economist testified he laid out numerous recommendations that would put more money in the hands of workers, not the least of which was extension of unemployment benefits from their current 26 weeks to 39.

Blackwell used his time to testify, however, to go well beyond the immediate stimulus package and to discuss longer term fixes for the economy.

He said the nation’s trade deficit could be fixed by making the terms of trade more equal and by protecting the rights of workers in other countries. He said the harmful economic imbalance between workers and bosses could be corrected by passing the Employee Free Choice Act:

“The imbalance of bargaining power between workers and their employers is responsible for the stagnation of wages and the rupture of the crucial relation between wages and productivity that served as the foundation of the social contract,” he said. “It also led to low savings and forced workers to use credit to keep going.

“Correcting this imbalance means creating full employment, a meaningful minimum wage and reforming our labor law to allow workers to freely associate with their fellow workers and form a union to bargain collectively. This is essential to restoring the economy to strength and sustainability,” he said.