Health care reform is here – now creating jobs is our top priority

Newton B. Jones, International President

THE HOUSE OF Representatives made history March 21, passing the most significant improvement in American health care since the adoption of Medicare in 1965. Among other things, the health care reform bill extends health insurance coverage to 95 percent of Americans, bans insurance companies from denying coverage of pre-existing conditions and cancelling policies when people get sick, and closes the Medicare “donut hole” in prescription drug coverage for retirees.

Organized labor has supported health care reform since President Theodore Roosevelt brought the issue to prominence in 1912. This bill is not everything we had hoped for, but it is an enormous step toward high-quality health care for every American. We waited a long time for this day. Union members can be proud of the role you played in getting this bill through Congress.

Now it is time we returned to issues that languished while the health care debate dominated the headlines: the economy, the pension crisis, the Employee Free Choice Act, energy independence, and job creation.

Creating jobs is of foremost importance now

THE GOOD NEWS is that the economy is showing signs of recovery. In the second half of 2009, it began growing again, by two percent in the third quarter and nearly six percent in the fourth. We are still a long way from full recovery, but those numbers are a lot better than the 14 percent decline we saw the preceding year.

No doubt some of this growth came from President Obama’s stimulus bill — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. When that bill was being debated, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that the stimulus would expand the economy about two percent in the third quarter of 2010 and more in the last quarter. Looks like they got it right. Boilermakers should thank their congressmen who supported this bill.

We should also thank those who voted for the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment (HIRE) Act, which provides tax breaks for businesses that create new jobs and extends federal highway programs. With nearly 15 million people still out of work, we need to support all legislation that helps put Americans back to work.

A good way to put Boilermakers and other industrial craftsmen back to work is to break the logjam in new power plant construction. As the economy grows, so does demand for electric power, but the investment risk associated with building new nuclear or coal-fired power plants has been so great that power producers have shied away. In the past few years, many proposed projects have been abandoned or delayed.

American public support for nuclear energy died after the accident at Three- Mile Island in 1979, and although no significant accidents have occurred since then, the industry is still battling public perception. For 30 years, companies have been reluctant to build new units, and nuclear-related jobs have left the country.

But that long dry spell is coming to an end, thanks to $8.3 billion in construction loan guarantees announced by President Obama in February. The Southern Company will use these guarantees to add two additional reactors to its Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Burke, Ga. Those projects will create about 3,500 construction jobs and 800 continuing jobs once the plants are open. The Boilermakers have signed a Building and Construction Trades agreement with a principal contractor on that project for a significant part of the work. We hope to see more such projects now that President Obama has tripled the amount of money available through those loan guarantees to $54.5 billion.

The energy bill is also a jobs bill

BUILDING NUCLEAR POWER plants can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions while creating jobs. So can building coal-fired power plants that use carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

Let Congress know we expect them to act boldly to bring back jobs — and to do so quickly.

Just as President Obama’s loan guarantees are breaking up the logjam in nuclear power plant construction, the comprehensive energy and climate change bill currently in Congress can open the door to construction of new coal-fired power plants, as well as a great deal of retrofitting existing power plants. Environmentalists see this legislation as a climate change bill; we see it as a jobs-creation bill that benefits the environment.

Currently, power producers who burn coal and other fossil fuels to make electricity are in a bind. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced plans to regulate CO2 emissions from all industrial sources, but they are a long way from writing up the rules for exactly how those emissions must be reduced. Until their rules are released, power producers are reluctant to make changes to their existing power plants or to build new ones, fearing their newly-installed equipment might not be compatible with the EPA’s regulations.

The energy bill eliminates that uncertainty by setting emission targets (caps), which the EPA will then be required to enforce. In addition, it creates a trading system whereby facilities that are already emitting CO2 at levels below the targets can sell “carbon credits” to plants that still need to reduce their emissions. Purchasing these credits will help companies in carbon-heavy industries ease their way into compliance with CO2 reduction targets.

But the bill is stalled in the Senate (it passed the House last year). We need to pass this law or its equivalent in order to free up investment in building new power plants and retrofitting existing plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, like that recently installed at AEP’s Mountaineer plant in West Virginia. CCS projects mean jobs for Boilermakers and others in the building trades.

Three more CCS jobs are planned, with support from the U.S. Department of Energy. But with the future of coal riding on CCS, we need more than a few projects. Passing energy legislation can open that door.

Rebuilding our Navy will create jobs

THE U.S. NAVY fleet is now at a 91-year low of 279 ships. At this level, the Navy’s ability to provide support for necessary military actions around the globe is compromised. Adding ships to the fleet will not only make our country safer, it will help create jobs in U.S. shipyards, alleviating unemployment and stemming the slow drain of highly-skilled workers from that industry.

In recent years, the Navy has entered into long-term lease agreements of foreign-built ships in order to augment the fleet. This practice not only puts our nation at greater risk, but also sends precious tax dollars overseas at a time when too many skilled workers sit idle at home. Redirecting tax dollars toward shipbuilding can put U.S. citizens to work.

The Senate must also expand Title XI loan guarantees to rebuild our aging domestic fleet. The House has already passed a bill providing $100 million for Title XI. We must let the Senate know we expect them to stand up for America the way the House has.

EFCA can create jobs along with fairness on the job

WE ALSO NEED to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. When workers join a union and are able to collectively bargain a contract with their employers, they become better employees. Numerous studies have shown that unionized workers are more productive and remain on their jobs longer than nonunion employees. In addition, they earn higher wages, which they spend locally, enriching their communities and adding to the economic recovery.

Americans are hungry for work and ready to begin rebuilding the nation’s economy. There are roads, bridges, railroads, and schools that need attention. Our electric power system needs to be expanded and upgraded to the newest and best technology available. The continued bleeding away of our manufacturing base needs to be addressed.

It is the activity of a nation’s citizens that builds wealth and enables the government to finance programs for the common good. But when there are no jobs to be had, that activity is strangled.

Now that the health care debate no longer dominates all our time, Congress can get to work unlocking America’s potential by passing legislation that will put Americans back to work. Let Congress know we expect them to act boldly to bring back jobs — and to do so quickly.