Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Heading Off Economic Disaster
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It's appalling that an apparently large number of Americans are taking seriously the economic program President Bush and his Republican allies in Congress are trying to peddle.

Its call far further massive cuts in the taxes of the wealthy few, for massive cutbacks in vital government services provided millions of ordinary non-affluent citizens, for virtually unchecked military spending and budget deficits is a recipe for economic and social disaster.

There are other proposed programs, however, that should be taken seriously -- programs proposed by the AFL-CIO and other knowledgeable organizations and individuals who seek to help the nation as a whole, rather than merely pile up the riches of a small privileged class.

So, instead of tax breaks for the wealthy and budget cutbacks, what do we need?

Some of the best answers to that come from the AFL-CIO, which calls for granting tax rebates and otherwise easing the tax burden on the millions of lower and middle class families that badly need more money and would spend it immediately. That and other aspects of the labor federation's program would cost $260 billion at most and undoubtedly would quickly pump far more dollars than that into the economy.

Not the least of the likely results would be the creation of more than one million new jobs. Many of them would involve building, rebuilding and repairing schools, highways, bridges, water and transit systems and other parts of the nation's deteriorating infrastructure.

Such projects are as needed today as were the extensive public works projects that did so much to revive the crippled economy during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Also needed are immediate federal grants that would help states avert "major and irreversible damage from the worst state budget problems since World War II" -- problems that are forcing drastic cuts in health care, education and other essential services.

The unemployment insurance system is as problematic. It's clearly failing the ever-growing number of jobless Americans -- more than 8 million at last count. Benefits, which vary by state, average only $250 a week and generally are paid out for no more than 26 weeks despite the steady increase in unemployed workers' waits between jobs. Sixty percent of the workers are not eligible for benefits, in any case.

Losing a paycheck is only part of the problem facing the jobless. For many, losing a job also means losing health care coverage that was paid for by their employer but which they can't afford on their own.

The AFL-CIO says the government should pay for the coverage, raise unemployment benefit rates substantially, double the period during which benefits can be drawn and make them available to all jobless workers. What's more, it should be a government responsibility to help train the unemployed for work that's still available to those with the necessary skills and that would be available to many more if the other parts of the AFL-CIO plan were implemented.

The jobless aren't the only workers needing help. There are at least four million other workers who, though employed, have been able to find only low-paying part-time or temporary jobs.

This is not to mention the millions who work at or near the poverty-level minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. Raising the minimum, another AFL-CIO proposal, would noticeably stimulate the economy because of increased spending by minimum wage workers.

Related proposals call for reducing the standard work day or week with no reduction in pay and revising trade agreements to shield U.S. workers from unfair foreign competition.

Strengthening unions naturally is part of the AFL-CIO plan -- primarily revamping the labor laws to make it easier for workers to organize, bargain and strike and thus improve the economic standing of the majority of Americans. That was another of the key elements in the program that led the nation out of the Great Depression, but naturally it will nevertheless prompt fierce opposition from the virulently anti-labor Bush administration and its corporate allies.

The proposals for true economic recovery are extremely ambitious, certainly. But we'd better start thinking about such bold steps, lest we end up in a Great Depression ourselves, thanks to George W. Bush and his wealthy friends.

Copyright Dick Meister