One big bill for workers done; one bigger bill to go
Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders will now push in the Senate for passage of the massive BBB agenda backed by Biden and House progressives led by Reps. Barbara Lee and Pramila Jayapal. Jose Luis Magana | AP

WASHINGTON—The legislative and negotiating marathon in the first full weekend of November resulted in one big legislative win for workers—the “hard” infrastructure bill—but one even bigger bill—the Build Back Better Act—has yet to go.

Now congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden, who are pushing both, must ensure the evenly split Senate approves the BBB, too, while selling the benefits of both to the country at large.

Of course, lawmakers have to OK the $1.75 trillion BBB bill, the largest expansion of the social safety net since the Great Society, if not the New Deal, first. And therein lies the problem for workers.

Heading into the week of Nov. 8, the House was expected to narrowly approve the BBB bill, as five of its eight holdout Democratic “moderates” pledged to support the measure.

Assuming all 213 Republicans vote “no”—and debate made clear they would—it would narrowly pass. The Democrats hold 221 seats.

“Most of my friends on the other side of the aisle”—he was being sarcastic—”never gave a damn about the middle class or those struggling to get into the middle class,” said House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., about the congressional GOP.

But McGovern’s description may also cover the two Democratic senatorial holdouts, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both recipients of millions of dollars in corporate campaign committee contributions throughout their congressional careers.

The two still haven’t committed to join the other 46 Dems and both independents in backing the BBB. With every Republican expected to obey GOP leader Mitch McConnell’s edict to “vote no,” Sinema and Manchin are crucial.

Sinema in particular should be on the spot, because the BBB bill has been financially cut in half to meet Manchin’s objections, and because she was the lead Democratic drafter of the final bipartisan version of the “hard” infrastructure measure, now headed for Biden’s desk.

That’s the bill to allot $1.2 trillion over five years—about half of it new spending—to rebuild or replace the nation’s crumbling roads, crashing bridges, creaky subways, diesel-exhaust buses (with electric ones), and lead-lined water pipes. The overall figure includes $65 billion to extend broadband nationwide, a top cause of the Communications Workers.

It also would fund a network of charging stations for electric vehicles—a Biden priority which Rep. Tom Burgess, R-Texas, called “toys for rich people.” He also railed against a tax credit for buyers of EVs crafted by union labor.

And unionists will do the infrastructure work, Biden promises.

The president cheered that. So did the Laborers, the Amalgamated Transit Union, and North America’s Building Trades.

“The investment will put Laborers to work in every community, revitalize our nation’s economy, and open doors to the middle-class for hundreds of thousands of working men and women,” Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan said.

He lauded “the grassroots support and extraordinary activism of LIUNA members who working together, took up this fight, barraging members of Congress with tens of thousands of emails and calls, as well as, attending more than one hundred town hall events, parades, rallies, and press events.”

“We look forward to working with the White House on the rollout of the infrastructure bill, the Build Back Better Agenda, and the creation of good union jobs building this nation,” he declared.

That BBB measure is stuffed with pro-worker provisions on both its tax and its spending side. It provides new money for expanding child care and home health care and mandates a $15 hourly wage for child care workers, who now earn a median pay of $11-$12 an hour—which means half are below that level. And that’s just for starters.

It expands Medicaid to millions of people in “red” states whose right-wing GOP governors and legislators refused to take Affordable Care Act subsidies to do so. It extends the monthly child care tax credit, which Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., chair of the House Appropriations Committee, termed “Social Security for children.” That credit cuts child poverty in half, Biden calculates.

And it will “protect our planet for future generations, to do so with great equity in a way that builds back better for women,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, said.

But since the BBB bill is also a “reconciliation” bill technically dealing only with budget and taxes, it has positive provisions for workers there, too. “Wealthy individuals and corporations finally will pay their fair share in taxes,” through the BBB bill’s tax sections, says AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler.

“And for the first time, employers will be hit with real financial penalties for union-busting, making this the most significant advancement for the right to organize since passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935,” she added.

The measure also expands who can get hit with the higher fines to include corporate CEOs, board members and aiders and abettors of labor law-breaking. It expands the list of offenses, too, to include such impositions as captive audience meetings.

“President Biden promised to be the most pro-union president in history—and today is another down payment on that promise,” Shuler said. “We are so close to making our economy fairer and safer for working people, and we can’t stop now. With the bipartisan infrastructure bill set to become law, the House and Senate must finish the job by sending the Build Back Better Act to President Biden’s desk.”

“And at a time when the wealth gap between the richest and the poorest families in this country has more than doubled, this bill will stem the rising tide of income inequality by asking those at the very top to pay what they owe, their fair share” McGovern added.

But progressives and their allies have their work cut out for them in pushing the BBB bill through the balky Senate, and they know it.

“Bernie Sanders’ Reconciliation Bill (including lowering Prescription Drug Prices) is on the verge of being sunk by fellow Democrat Kyrsten Sinema,” the labor-backed Alliance for Retired Americans warned. “We turned our anger into ACTION: We mobilized our Arizona activists, made calls to her office, and even staged a PROTEST at her office!” and will do so again.

“Until now, these two bills have been linked, for a simple reason: progressives care more about Build Back Better, and conservatives care more about” the hard infrastructure bill, e-mailed Leah Greenberg, executive director of Indivisible. “For the last two months, progressives have acted as a bloc to withhold their votes from the infrastructure package in order to protect against the danger that conservatives simply walk away from Build Back Better.

“This standoff succeeded in bringing conservative Democrats to the table to hammer out the framework and details of a Build Back Better package. This in itself was a victory…The organizing of the progressive caucus prevented that from happening and forced conservatives to actually negotiate. We’ve made a ton of progress in the last two months.”

Eventually, Greenberg reported, enough of the “moderates” committed publicly to vote for the BBB bill when it comes up to persuade the Progressive Caucus to drop its opposition. A handful of the progressives, still distrusting the moderates’ good faith, voted “no.”

“Now let’s be real: Commitments on paper, or at a press conference, are better than no commitments at all. But they’re not nearly as ironclad a guarantee as a vote,” Greenberg warned.

“The progressives who took this deal are recognizing the urgent need to give President Biden a win and taking a leap of faith. It’s now up to the conservative Democrats, Democratic leadership, and President Biden to deliver. And we’re going to do everything we can to make sure they uphold their end of the bargain,” she concluded.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.