Biden presses for COVID relief plan with AFL-CIO head, other labor leaders

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden told 10 top union leaders on Wednesday that his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan and a separate measure to modernize U.S. infrastructure would boost the U.S. economy and create millions of good-paying jobs.

U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a CNN town hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S., February 16, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Biden met with the labor officials, including Richard Trumka, a long-time political ally and head of the AFL-CIO federation of labor unions, Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Union, and Lonnie Stephenson, international president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, in the Oval Office.

“We have an incredible opportunity to make some enormous progress in creating jobs,” Biden told reporters before the meeting. He called himself “a labor guy”, but said that was not inconsistent with growing businesses.

“As they say in parts of my state, ‘These are the folks that brung me to the dance.’ And I appreciate their friendship,” he quipped.

The White House said Biden’s relief plan would “put millions of Americans to work in good-paying union jobs building roads, bridges, transit, electric vehicle charging stations, broadband, schools and child care centers, water infrastructure, and more.”

Biden said he would brainstorm with the union officials on how to build support for his relief plan, which Republicans have largely dismissed as too expensive and potentially inflationary, and a forthcoming plan to modernize U.S. infrastructure.

“We rank something like 38th in the world in terms of our infrastructure – everything from canals to highways to airports,” Biden said, underscoring the need to increase U.S. competitiveness.

Studies show that close to half of U.S. roads are in poor or mediocre condition and more than a third of U.S. bridges need repair, replacement or significant rehabilitation.

Details have not been released, but as a candidate Biden called for spending $2 trillion over four years investing in clean-energy infrastructure. He also wants to boost electric vehicles and high-speed rail, while beefing up domestic production of key strategic goods, including medical supplies.

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To underpin the revitalization of U.S. infrastructure, Biden said he was backing Democratic legislation that would expand registered apprenticeships and create some 1 million new opportunities for young people in building trades and elsewhere.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and more than 230 trade groups on Wednesday urged Congress to enact comprehensive infrastructure legislation here by July 4, setting an ambitious deadline for Biden’s push.

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Wednesday set Feb. 24 for its first hearing on modernizing U.S. transportation infrastructure while addressing climate change. Names of witnesses were not released.

Biden on Wednesday also announced the nomination of Jennifer Abruzzo, currently a senior executive with the Communications Workers of America union, as general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

Union leaders and civil rights advocates on Wednesday urged Biden to reiterate his campaign promise to boost the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour from $7.25.

During a CNN town hall on Tuesday, Biden said he was cognizant of business concerns and mentioned minimum wage rates of $12 to $13 an hour, although he also cited evidence that boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour would help bolster economic growth.

The White House later said Biden was merely explaining how wages would rise steadily to $15 an hour. Democrat-backed legislation proposes hiking the federal minimum wage to $9.50 immediately and then in increments until it hits $15 in 2025.

Civil rights leader Reverend William Barber said nearly 60 million U.S. workers earned less than $15 an hour today, including many on the frontlines of the pandemic.

“Democrats need to stay focused and united and get this done. And they don’t need to talk about indexing the minimum wage for some places like the South and Midwest or leaving out tip workers,” Barber said in a statement.

Biden is trying to navigate a difficult situation. His Democratic Party is moving to push through the rescue plan without significant Republican support, but some Democrats, including Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, oppose including the minimum wage increase as part of the package.

Barber’s group is meeting privately with Manchin on Thursday to persuade him to back the wage hike.

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