Key Lawmaker, Unions, Discussing Ways To Fund Infrastructure

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Richard Neal isn’t waiting for Donald Trump to act to repair and upgrade U.S. infrastructure.

The Massachusetts Democrat, who this year took over the chair of the key tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, has been meeting with colleagues, union leaders and even some businesses to figure out where to find funds for that objective.

Their aim: Garner enough money, from raising the federal gas tax and elsewhere, to repair crumbling highways, replace broken bridges, upgrade aging subways and airports, modernize the electric grid and install new water lines instead of relying on 100-year-old mains, among other projects.

And the unionists are going to lobby federal lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, for whatever new funds are needed, several leaders pledged this week.

They won’t have much trouble making their case. On the morning of an outdoor Capitol Hill press conference on the push, May 15, one participant, Rep. Michael Bost, R-Mo., found out that “I-44 westbound in my district” north of St. Louis “was closed when they found a 6-inch crack” in road’s superstructure.

“It’s a safety issue,” the former firefighter added. “How would you like to have your house on fire and have the truck hook up to a hydrant, and the water main serving it breaks?”

Neal’s discussions, with members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and with the 85-member House Labor and Working Families Caucus, come as once again lawmakers prepare to tackle the problems of U.S. infrastructure – problems that are so acute that the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the country a D+ grade on the issue.

 

ASCE calculates the U.S. needs to spend $2 trillion to bring present infrastructure up to snuff, and $2.5 trillion more to bring it into the 21st century, including improvements to key intersections, highways and rail lines and to expand and create access to broadband and the Internet nationwide.

Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., an Electrical Worker and former president of the South Jersey Building and Construction Trades Council, disclosed Neal’s discussions while introducing and moderating the press conference, part of National Infrastructure Week.

That’s a joint lobbying effort by workers, business and state and local officials to push action on a comprehensive multi-year infrastructure bill, rather than the series of too-small stopgaps lawmakers have approved for the last decade or so.

The legislation “is gonna be broad and robust and have the same standards on the East Coast as it has on the West Coast,” including putting tens of thousands of construction workers on jobs at Davis-Bacon Act local prevailing wages, Norcross said.

“Davis-Bacon is for everyone in construction,” added Painters President Ken Rigmaiden. “It assures everyone they get an appropriate wage for their work, can pay taxes, and can contribute to their communities and to society.”

"Nobody is productive when they’re getting stuck in traffic jams,” added Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., another Electrical Worker. “You don’t have to tell that to someone from my district in Los Angeles.”

And while the cost of upgrading U.S. infrastructure is high, the “cost of doing nothing is high: People will die,” Norcross declared, in bridge collapses, widespread flooding over aging levees and in more episodes of lead poisoning of kids through aging water lines, such as in Flint, Mich., Newark, N.J., and Detroit.

Repairing and replacing infrastructure produces jobs and also saves them. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., whose upset win in an early special election in 2018 in a very-GOP district presaged that fall’s Democratic sweep, noted Shell Oil is building the nation’s largest petrochemical plant in his new district. “But upriver from it, there’s a lock and dam” that’s so old “it has a 50% chance of failing.” If it does, the refinery goes with it.

The lawmakers offered all that evidence and more – including the positive economic impact Sanchez and others cited -- for a massive effort to repair and upgrade U.S. infrastructure.  But they admitted doing so faces two big hurdles: Lack of money and lack of people.

Despite huge efforts by state and local officials to raise their gas taxes and fund their projects, federal-level funding is still lacking. And even if the federal gas tax, now 18.4 cents per gallon, is increased for the first time in 26 years, it still won’t be enough.

“We also have the aviation tax, the waterways trust fund – which has a surplus that could be cut loose – and bond issues,” North America’s Building Trades President Sean McGarvey said in response to a reporter’s question. “All of those are being considered.”

But they’re also waiting to see what Trump comes up with, as a follow-up to an infrastructure discussion he had two weeks ago in the White House with Democratic congressional leaders.

Trump, himself a developer, endorsed the $2 trillion for current repairs and upgrades. But he didn’t propose how to pay for it. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., declared the week before he won’t even let lawmakers consider raising the gas tax, or any other increase.

The second hurdle, however, is people, or lack of them. The lawmakers said about one-third of the 7.4 million current U.S. job openings are in the building trades – and that’s not counting the tens of thousands of Baby Boomer retirees every day.

So part of the unions’ infrastructure campaign is also to campaign for more money for apprenticeship programs. Combined, unions run the nation’s largest training program for any industry, and their high-quality training, including on-the-job training, lets high school graduates step into jobs paying $60,000-$80,000 annually, with no college debt.

Finding new construction workers includes finding them among the foreign-born, added Painters President Ken Rigmaiden in an interview afterwards. His union leads a six-union coalition campaign for permanent U.S. protection of some half a million people – all from communities of color in war-torn or disaster-hit countries – to stay in the U.S. for good.

Many of those Temporary Protected Status workers have been here for years or decades, and many are employed in construction.

“Congress can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said of legalizing the TPS beneficiaries and increasing apprenticeship funding. “The politicians we’re working with, Democrats and Republicans, are giving us assurances” on both funding and Davis-Bacon. “We’re hoping to get this done. “

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Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Federal Minimum Wage Reaches Disappointing Milestone

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

A disgraceful milestone occurred last Sunday, June 16.

That date officially marked the longest period that the United States has gone without increasing federal the minimum wage.

That means Congress has denied raises for a decade to 1.8 million American workers, that is, those workers who earn $7.25 an hour or less. These 1.8 million Americans have watched in frustration as Congress not only denied them wages increases, but used their tax dollars to raise Congressional pay. They continued to watch in disappointment as the Trump administration failed to keep its promise that the 2017 tax cut law would increase every worker’s pay by $4,000 per year.

More than 12 years ago, in May 2007, Congress passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. It took effect two years later. Congress has failed to act since then, so it has, in effect, now imposed a decade-long wage freeze on the nation’s lowest income workers.

To combat this unjust situation, minimum wage workers could rally and call their lawmakers to demand action, but they’re typically working more than one job just to get by, so few have the energy or patience.

The Economic Policy Institute points out in a recent report on the federal minimum wage that as the cost of living rose over the past 10 years, Congress’ inaction cut the take-home pay of working families.  

At the current dismal rate, full-time workers receiving minimum wage earn $15,080 a year. It was virtually impossible to scrape by on $15,080 a decade ago, let alone support a family. But with the cost of living having risen 18% over that time, the situation now is far worse for the working poor. The current federal minimum wage is not a living wage. And no full-time worker should live in poverty.

While ignoring the needs of low-income workers, members of Congress, who taxpayers pay at least $174,000 a year, are scheduled to receive an automatic $4,500 cost-of-living raise this year. Congress increased its own pay from $169,300 to $174,000 in 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession when low income people across the country were out of work and losing their homes. While Congress has frozen its own pay since then, that’s little consolation to minimum wage workers who take home less than a tenth of Congressional salaries.

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