Sunday, December 14, 2008

Not Including Labor

The only good thing to come out of these horrible economic times and the even more horrible response by the government is that it has suddenly become clear to even the most passive of citizens that the average American is just not important to the people with all the power. Ironically, the people with all the power are also discovering that maybe all that power isn't going to do them much good in the long run if the rest of the nation fails. Suddenly it's becoming OK to start addressing the issues affecting labor (organized or not), and the op-ed pages are starting to publish essays suggesting that the problems of working Americans (whether they're working right now or not) have to be addressed alongside the problems of financial institutions.

One such essay, written by Evelyn F. Murphy, a former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, appeared in yesterday's Boston Globe and suggests some truly innovative approaches that could be taken by the Obama Administration.

Ms. Murphy begins by asking some very relevant questions:

TAXPAYER MONEY is bailing out investment banks, commercial banks, and insurance giant AIG. So far, more than $700 billion has been committed to repair and restore the capital markets. Hear any mention of investing in labor?

Meanwhile, the massive public works program that President-elect Barack Obama is previewing suggests job-generating engines in repairing roads, bridges, schools, and new energy technologies. Hear any mention of investing in workers?

Economics 101 says that both capital and labor are essential. Today's vacuum in labor policy leadership in the lame duck administration creates no counterbalance to the dominance of capital-oriented solutions. Consequently, the nation could miss the imperative to bring labor policy into the 21st century.

She then proceeds to offer some truly bold and innovative suggestions to the next administration, all of which deserve serious consideration, so I urge you to click on over.

I am only going to examine the first of Ms. Murphy's suggestions, not because I disagree with it (I most certainly do agree with it), but because I don't think she went quite far enough.

Today's economy is knowledge-based, relying on brains more than brawn. The Obama administration has an opportunity to develop the labor force of this century.

First, it should establish a massive, say $350 billion, student loan program. Student loans dried up in the recent credit crunch. Now is not the time to curtail our national educational agenda; it is precisely the time to stimulate this investment. Why not guarantee access to public higher education to every person who has the grades, test scores, and commitment to enhance her or his educational credentials? Growth in student enrollments will stimulate jobs for educators and researchers. Financial support for students attending the 1,200 community colleges throughout America would add workers now in short supply in healthcare institutions and medical laboratories, along with technicians needed in information technology and biotechnology. The Obama administration should seize this opportunity to ratchet up America's education of a world-class labor force.

While it is true that technology is now and will continue to be the driving force in the world economy, this nation will still need such occupations as carpenters, plumbers and pipe fitters, mechanics, line workers, and non-degreed health workers. Not everyone is going to make it as chip designers or software engineers, and to assume that is to shortchange a huge segment of the school age population. The investment that Ms. Murphy is suggesting should be extended to more than colleges as purveyors of "higher education." It should also include what used to be called trade schools, whether run at the community college level or (gasp!) through labor union apprenticeship programs.

By extending that kind of investment in the labor force, the rest of Ms. Murphy's suggestions fall into place nicely.

I've already emailed the link to Mr. Obama. I'd appreciate it if you did as well. After all, he's made it clear that he intends to go directly to the nation when Congress waffles. Let's make that part of his enormous job easier.

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