Infrastructure deal: ‘Concrete’ projects in, ‘human infrastructure’ not yet
Road construction workers pour and spread wet concrete over rebar mesh on the I-75 Rouge River Bridge in Michigan. A budget impasse in Michigan is starting to take a toll on government programs and services. John T. Greilick/Detroit News via AP

WASHINGTON—The eight-year $1.2 trillion “compromise” infrastructure deal Democratic President Joe Biden reached with a bipartisan group of lawmakers can be summed up in some simple phrases:

“Concrete” projects, rebuilding the nation’s crumbling roads, inadequate airports, creaky mass transit, aging subways, collapsing bridges—the latest of them just miles from the White House—and replacing lead-lined water pipes and elderly buses, are “in.”

Non-“concrete” projects, except for broadband expansion nationwide and a multibillion-dollar start to investing in “green” construction, aren’t in—yet. Those omissions include retrofitting schools, expanding child care, and permanently implementing paid family and medical leave for all workers.

And everybody’s ducking the question of how to fully pay for all this, other than by transferring unused pandemic battle money to fund almost half the cost.

That combo leaves construction unions cheering and green advocates grumbling, so far.

Biden reached the agreement in long talks with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. News reports indicate the negotiations almost collapsed until Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who represents a deep-red state, declared, “We gotta get this done, guys.” They did.

The $1.2 trillion includes $312 billion for transportation construction, $55 billion to replace the pipes—which will create jobs for utility workers—and $65 billion to fully wire the nation with broadband, a top cause of the Communications Workers. Another $73 billion would modernize the electric grid, to try to prevent more Texas-sized blackouts.

But child care expansion is left out, school retrofitting is left out, and much of the Green New Deal is left out. All that “human infrastructure” is supposed to be rolled into a second “reconciliation” bill, which Biden also demands, and which can be passed on a party-line vote.

Biden vows he won’t sign the first “concrete” bill unless lawmakers send him the second one, too.

“I expect that in the coming months this summer, before the fiscal year is over, that we will have voted on this bill, the infrastructure bill, as well as voted on the budget resolution,” which would include reconciliation, he told reporters. “But if only one comes to me, this is the only one that comes to me, I’m not signing it. It’s in tandem.”

Those unions which put out statements applauded the concrete bill.

Typical praise came from Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan, whose members build and resurface roads and runways, among other infrastructure. The plan is “a bold and transformational investment in our nation’s infrastructure that will put Laborers to work and help union families build better lives.”

It will “create hundreds of thousands of good union jobs building our roads and bridges, upgrading our drinking water and power systems, and improving infrastructure resiliency. These investments will bolster our economic well-being and secure our infrastructure for years to come.

“America’s infrastructure is hanging on by a thread. The time is now to invest in our infrastructure and, in turn, invest in the safety of our communities,” North America’s Building Trades tweeted.

Green groups faulted the transfer of other goals to reconciliation. Signaling problems with congressional progressives so did Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Her reaction was mixed.

“A Civilian Climate Corps,” which is in the “concrete” bill, “will train a new workforce for good, union jobs in the clean economy, invest billions of dollars in underserved Black and Brown communities, (and) revitalize our infrastructure and our climate,” she had tweeted. “It’s how we take our future back into our own hands.” At a town hall, she added the climate corps “will become an onramp to unionization.”

But then Ocasio-Cortez got a look at the bargainers in the White House and was dismayed with both who they were and the result. All were white and most were male.

“The diversity of this ‘bipartisan coalition’ pretty perfectly conveys which communities get centered and which get left behind,” she said in a follow-up statement.

“No climate, no deal. No big, bold reconciliation package, no bipartisan deal,” Jonathan Berman of the Sierra Club declared.

He noted Biden and Democratic congressional leaders “made clear there can be no bipartisan agreement signed into law without a companion reconciliation package rooted in the climate, jobs, and justice vision of the American Jobs and American Families plans” that Biden previously unveiled.

“We’re facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure a healthier, more just future, which is why we need big, bold investments in our communities, in our clean air and safe drinking water, and in clean energy. We have no time to waste. The choices we make together now will shape our society’s direction and the health of our planet for decades to come.”

And the Sunrise Movement, which staged a June 4 demonstration in front of the White House for the Green New Deal, and against compromising with its foes, was caustic then.

“Instead of prioritizing the rapid investment in jobs and justice we need, Biden is prioritizing appeasement and negotiations with the racist, anti-democratic Republican Party, and with every passing day, his plan becomes weaker, smaller, and fails to meet the challenges we face.

“Biden is wasting time attempting to work with Republican leaders on a bill, and could compromise on key climate and progressive priorities in the process,” it said.

The union tack was different since the “concrete” projects promise tens of thousands of good jobs and since Biden has pledged they would be union jobs with federal Davis-Bacon wage standards and other worker protections.

The “infrastructure deal looks like a significant step forward in meeting the long-neglected needs of our nation’s infrastructure and the working families who rely on it,” said Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department.

“TTD looks forward to working with the Biden administration and Congress to ensure every dollar spent…is paired with the strongest labor protections possible that guarantee good jobs and strong worker protections for the Americans who design, build, operate, and maintain our infrastructure.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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