World News

Biden discusses COVID relief and infrastructure with top labour 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 hosts a meeting with labor leaders to discuss coronavirus response legislation and the president's infrastructure plan in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 17, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Biden met with the labour 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 at the beginning of the meeting. He called himself “a labour 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 has argued that Biden’s relief plan would put millions of Americans to work in union jobs in manufacturing and the clean energy sector that pay well. Republicans have largely dismissed the plan as too expensive and potentially inflationary. A plan to modernize U.S. infrastructure is also forthcoming.

“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.

A White House statement said Biden discussed the groups’ priorities and “the importance of ensuring union workers play a key role in building a resilient and sustainable infrastructure” system.

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.

“For working people, this was the most productive Oval Office meeting in years,” Trumka said in a statement. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris “share our belief that rebuilding our infrastructure is critical to our communities,” it said.

As a presidential 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.

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.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Nandita Bose; Additional reporting by David Morgan and David Shepardson; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Kirsten Donovan and Grant McCool