Biden will press for COVID relief plan with AFL-CIO head, other labor leaders

Andrea Shalal and Nandita Bose
·3-min read
FILE PHOTO: Biden speaks about racial equity at the White House in Washington

By Andrea Shalal and Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden will consult with 10 top labor leaders at the White House on Wednesday about his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan and the need to modernize U.S. infrastructure, the White House said.

Labor leaders taking part include Richard Trumka, president 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, the White House said.

"They will discuss how to put millions of Americans to work in good-paying union jobs building roads, bridges, transit, electric vehicle charging stations, broadband, schools and child care centers, water infrastructure, and more," the White House said in a statement.

Biden is pushing hard to win bipartisan support for his relief plan, although Republicans have been reluctant to embrace a plan they view as too expensive and potentially inflationary.

He also plans to ask Congress to invest heavily in infrastructure amid studies showing 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.

Details have not been released, but as a 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 by July 4, setting an ambitious deadline for Biden's push.

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Wednesday said it would hold its first hearing on modernizing U.S. transportation infrastructure while addressing climate change on Feb. 24. Names of witnesses were not released.

Biden, a lifelong supporter of trade unions, 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.

Biden may face demands from the labor leaders to reiterate his campaign promise to boost the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour from $7.25.

The Democratic president said during a CNN town hall late Tuesday that he was cognizant of the concerns of small business and mentioned minimum wage rates of $12 to $13 an hour, while highlighting evidence that increasing the rate to $15 an hour would help bolster economic growth.

The White House later said that Biden was merely explaining how wages would progress to an end point of $15 an hour. Democrat-backed legislation proposes increasing 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.

(Additional reporting by David Morgan and David Shepardson; Editing by Heather Timmons, Jonathan Oatis, Kirsten Donovan)