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September 2013

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President's Economy Tour Needs Powerful Follow-up

We've got a bunch of construction workers who aren't working right now. They've got the skills. They want to get on the job." The venue was an early-August airing of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The speaker was President Barack Obama, who called upon Congress to pass legislation to rebuild our nation's aging infrastructure. During Leno's show, the president — who has been touring the nation talking about the need to "reignite the true engine of economic growth — a thriving middle class" — also proposed raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9.

The response to the president's remarks was boringly predictable and shallow. Leading Republicans in Congress excoriated him for showing up on a comedy show during a week when U.S. embassies were shut down due to terrorist threats but offered no ideas of their own to improve the lot of the American people. News media analysts who bothered to comment said Obama's economy tour was simply an attempt to raise his 48-percent approval rating, down four points since his election last year.

The National Employment Law Project says that three-fifths of all jobs created during the recovery have been low-wage work. With thousands of our own members still looking for long-term work in the construction industry, including many who have family members working at or near the minimum wage, we fully support President Obama's call to re-focus our nation's attention on the middle class. He's right when he says our nation must and can do better.

But the IBEW would do our members and the nation a disservice if we became unthinking cheerleaders for the president. While recent experience has irrefutably shown that there are few Republicans with a plan to spur economic recovery, Democrats, including our president, need to do more to stand on the side of working families.

We have publicly called upon the president to make changes to the Affordable Care Act to protect multi-employer health care plans. We demanded an open debate and end to the secrecy surrounding the new trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, so that another bad trade deal doesn't hurt American workers, slow the economic recovery and create a needless rift between his administration and the champions of American working families.

Naturally, the president's opponents seized on our criticism, crowing that he is losing his "base." No matter. We know what they want for unions and the middle class. But years of experience clearly show that when Democrats waver in support of working families, only the voice of the wealthy and powerful is heard.

One year ago this month — after tens of thousands of IBEW members had just returned home from the August 11 Workers Stand for America Rally in Philadelphia — we addressed in this column the need to build a movement to save the middle class in America with a Second Bill of Rights .

We wrote, "Without real economic opportunity and the chance to get a decent education and health care, without the right to speak out and make our voices heard — whether at the ballot box or the workplace — then our democracy is all but dead."

In March, 62 percent of those asked in a Morning Joe/Marist poll said the top priority for the country should be creating jobs. Only 35 percent said it should be to reduce the deficit. In two April polls, nearly two-thirds said across-the-board federal spending cuts had hurt and not helped the economy and large majorities opposed either raising the age of eligibility for Medicare or reducing Social Security to cut spending.

The American people are being very clear. They are tired of hammering golden nails into their own coffins.

Between now and the midterm congressional elections of 2014, billions of dollars will be spent to turn these poll numbers around, to get working Americans to support so-called "deficit reduction" measures that shovel money to the very richest.

Mr. President, you're on the right track. But only by truly listening to the voices and honoring the dreams of America's working families, will you or your party have the power to create the America its people deserve.

Edwin D. Hill

Edwin D. Hill
International President

Salvatore J. Chilia

Salvatore J. Chilia
International Secretary-Treasurer