WASHINGTON (PAI) – Senate Labor Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, will roll out an extensive package of legislation within the next few weeks – everything from infrastructure improvements to parts of the Employee Free Choice Act – to try to rebuild the middle class.

Declaring, “We need a percolate-up economy, not a trickle-down economy,” the veteran lawmaker outlined his Rebuild America Act to the Communications Workers’ legislative-political conference on Feb. 1.

“It is the function of government to help create good jobs,” Harkin emphasized.

Harkin got rousing cheers, and several standing ovations, from the hundreds of unionists who packed a large meeting room at Washington’s unionized Omni Shoreham Hotel. But the reception he’ll get on Capitol Hill will be much cooler.

That’s because the House’s ruling Republicans oppose almost anything to help workers. Harkin admitted their opposition, blaming the Tea Party’s influence. And even if Harkin could get his proposals out of his committee, the Senate GOP would talk them to death via a filibuster on the floor.

Harkin recognized that obstruction, too: He praised CWA’s stand to kill the filibuster, and promised to renew that fight at the start of the 113th Congress in 2013. “That’s the first thing we’ve got to do,” he vowed.

Had it not been for the Republican Scott Brown’s win in a Massachusetts special Senate election, “we would have had enough votes to pass part of EFCA,” by overcoming a GOP filibuster against labor’s top cause, Harkin stated. Besides EFCA, to help level the playing field between workers and bosses in union organizing drives and in bargaining first contracts, his legislation includes:

• Investing in infrastructure and manufacturing. “We’re driving on Eisenhower’s highways,” he said, referring to the Interstate Highway System. “And our kids are going to Roosevelt’s schools,” referring to buildings erected during the New Deal. Meanwhile competing nations – he cited China – “are investing in infrastructure while we’re falling behind.” Harkin did not put a dollar figure on his infrastructure and factory investments.

• Redoing job training curricula in the nation’s schools, with federal prodding, to train students for jobs in expanding occupations. Harkin indicated businesses would be partners in that effort, by working with colleges, universities, and secondary schools on what jobs are open and what skills they need.

•”Empowering workers, which means raising the minimum wage,” and indexing it to inflation afterwards. It also calls for “expanding access to overtime pay,” reversing a Bush-era ruling defining millions of workers as professionals ineligible for overtime.

• Legislate improvements to retirement security, particularly “rebuilding the defined benefits pension system,” available to less than one-fifth of the workforce. Now, he said, two-fifths of all workers have 401(k) accounts, troubled by the stock market, and with not enough to retire upon. The rest have nothing but Social Security.

“And it means ensuring that all workers have the right to organize, and that employers will face real penalties for violating the workers’ rights to form unions,” Harkin declared, to a big roar.

The Employee Free Choice Act, which never made it out of Harkin’s committee in the Democratic-run 111th Congress, (he couldn’t line up 60 votes to overcome the filibuster threat) imposed larger fines for employer labor law-breaking. It also formally legalized card check recognition of unions, cut down on time available for employers’ delays and mandated binding arbitration of first contracts if the two sides could not agree to a pact after a set time (usually 120 days).

Employers must be “forced to negotiate in good faith,” Harkin said, recalling – again – how young hotshot financers bought the Delavan, Iowa, engine plant where his late brother, who was disabled, worked. They broke the United Auto Workers at the plant via a lockout and “striker replacements.” Harkin’s brother, at age 54, had to take a job “as a janitor cleaning latrines” and “never recovered” from the shock.

Harkin was not specific on how he would rebuild the pensions. He also proposes to strengthen Social Security “so its benefits would be a greater replacement share” of a worker’s pre-retirement income, but again did not say how.

Other measures:

• Enact family-friendly legislation. One measure would mandate seven days of paid sick leave for full-time workers in all but the smallest companies. The U.S. is one of the few nations worldwide without paid sick leave. Harkin and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., are the prime congressional sponsors of paid sick leave legislation.

• Pay for his legislative package by a financial transactions tax, a key cause of the National Nurses Union and – at the legislative conference – the Communications Workers. The tax, of three cents per $100 in transactions, would bring in $350 billion over a decade and force Wall Street to help pay for repairing the damage it caused through the Great Recession. “Even the chief of Vanguard Investments” favors the tax, Harkin said.


“You feed the tree at the roots,” he concluded. “That’s the fight to restore the middle class.”




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.