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Thomas Kochan Headshot

Main Street's Agenda: Give Workers the Tools to Lead and Sustain a Recovery

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Main Street America is sending a clear message to Washington these days: Don't direct all your help to Wall Street. Give us the tools we need to dig ourselves out of our own economic crisis. Our leaders in Washington should learn from our history.

In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt's first step to stabilize a collapsing economy was to declare a bank holiday and implement a regulatory structure to secure our financial institutions. But then, and for the next several years, the Roosevelt administration and Congress invested in job creation and enacted the labor policies that gave workers the tools needed to lead a sustained economic recovery. Unemployment insurance, minimum wages, the right to form a union and engage in collective bargaining laid the foundation that allowed workers to receive a fair share of the economic progress they helped to create.

In our current crisis Congress and the administration have taken the first step to stabilize the financial sector, it will be left to the next president to complete the task. We must decide which candidate offers a remedy for the economic issues facing the working people of America in the 21st century.

John McCain's idea of an economic plan is to further cut taxes on business and promise to freeze spending of most federal agencies. Barack Obama has a better, more direct plan for addressing Main Street's concerns. He will jumpstart a worker led recovery by creating new, sustainable jobs by investing in critical industries such as energy renewal, infrastructure repair, and health care. Then, to provide workers the tools they need to make these investments pay off for the economy and for their families he will:

• Invest in education from early childhood through college and in life long learning opportunities for the adult labor force. A basic education from early years through college is invaluable. The benefits of Obama's plans to provide child care assistance and expanded student grant and loan programs far exceed its costs. But to turn "life long learning" from a nice rhetorical phrase into reality will require a substantial expansion of federal and state government training investments (the US spends less than nearly any other advanced country on training and related labor market services and substantially less now than in the past). Tax credits will enable us to build upon existing programs in the private sector. Companies and unions in industries as diverse as health care, hospitality, and manufacturing have created jointly negotiated and administered training funds. Well developed union apprenticeship programs that can be expanded to make life long learning a reality for more of the women and men looking to upgrade their skills to qualify for the good jobs of the future.

• Fix labor law to empower the more than 50 million workers who want to join a union and gain a voice at work but are blocked from doing so by a law that is both broken and outdated. Today's workers want and need both greater bargaining power to secure their economic future and the opportunity to contribute directly to improving the quality the products and service they provide. We see this in places like Kaiser Permanente where a labor management partnership negotiates fair wages and engages front line work teams to improve the quality and efficiency of health care delivery. Building upon this example requires a laws that eliminate the risks of being fired for joining a union, put an end to the legalistic battles that delay the organizing process, and ensure that bargaining relationships get off to a positive start by providing mediation (or, if necessary, arbitration) of first contracts. Labor and management can then be held accountable for building relationships that produce the growth in productivity required to fund improvements in wages.

• Expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover all working parents and amend it to ensure all workers have a minimum of seven days paid leave available to care for themselves or family members. We need a labor market policy that allows parents to meet their dual work and family responsibilities. America is one of the only countries in the developed world without some form of paid family leave. States are showing us the way to do this. California enacted a paid family leave plan in 2004 and other states are learning from experience with this law. It is time to make this the national standard.

• Update our unemployment insurance system by expanding coverage to the two thirds of the unemployed now outside the current system. Many of today's unemployed are permanently displaced workers who need training, health insurance coverage, and other support to move to new jobs. Still others are women returning to the labor force after taking time out to attend to family responsibilities. The patchwork of unemployment plans carried over from the Roosevelt era excludes from the system many of those with the greatest need. We need an unemployment system that covers all those who lose their jobs and/or reenter the labor force, provides training assistance to refresh or obtain the skills needed for the good jobs that are available, and that provides bridge health insurance to those of work.

Barack Obama offers America a way to transform the resentment, skepticism, and anger workers are feeling today about the Wall Street bailouts into a strategy for using their skills and energy to build a worker-led sustainable recovery. That's why we need to make sure he is in the White House in January.