‘We’re going to build 21st century infrastructure through good-paying union jobs.’
By TIM ROWDEN
“There’s nothing wrong with being a union member,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said last week while visiting with St. Louis union workers, health officials, business leaders, and state and local officials as part of a nationwide tour to St. Louis to promote President Biden’s Build Back Better initiative and infrastructure plan.
Walsh, a veteran union laborer and former mayor of Boston, was sworn-in as Secretary of Labor on March 23 of this year.
“When I ran for mayor (of Boston), I was criticized for being too close to the unions,” Walsh said. “And what I said was, ‘There’s nothing wrong with being a union member, because being a union member is an opportunity for us to raise a family, put food on the table, a truck in the driveway, if you want, or a car or whatever and keep a roof over your head. There’s nothing wrong with that. And fighting for good wages and better benefits, that’s what this country is all about, and what we should be all about.’ That’s what the president’s Build Back Better agenda, creating opportunities and creating jobs is all about. We have to create more opportunities for the middle class.”
Walsh came to St. Louis on July 15, and met with union workers and Labor leaders at a bridge construction project on Tesshire Drive over Gravois Creek in Affton.
While in town, Walsh also toured a COVID-19 vaccination site at North Central Community Health Center to encourage residents to protect themselves and their community from the coronavirus; visited St. Louis Job Corps Center; joined a roundtable on women’s workforce development at Rung for Women; and participated in a home care and care economy roundtable with Rep. Cori Bush and SEIU Healthcare at Centenary United Methodist Church.
INFRASTRUCTURE AND JOBS
President Biden “sat down with Democrats and Republicans and came up with $1.2 billion on infrastructure – roads and bridges, obviously rail, internet, the electric grid, building out the electric grid and all the construction involved in that. Everything that’s involved in the physical infrastructure,” Walsh said.
“This $1.2 trillion comes down to cities and states and counties all across the country. It’s transformative. We’ve never seen anything like it, so we going around the country talking about it, the importance of it, keeping people working and building back better infrastructure. We’re going to build 21st century infrastructure through good-paying union jobs that will boost local economies.
“When I walked out here, I smelled the concrete. I know what it smells like, what it smells like on you clothes and your work boots. I appreciate the work you guys do. I know it’s hard work.
“These guys and ladies are out here when it’s 95 degrees out, and they’re working. They’re out here when it’s 65 and beautiful and they’re working. They’re out here when it’s raining. I get that work. I appreciate the work you do, building this bridge, building St. Louis and Missouri.”
While at the bridge construction site, Walsh spoke with workers on the project, including Mitchell Johnson, an Iron Workers Local 396 member, who explained the ongoing attacks on unions and union labor from the Republican-controlled Missouri Legislature.
“Missouri is kind of in a place with this ‘right-to-work,’” Johnson said. “We’re fighting it constantly. In 2018, we voted out RTW by a majority of 67 to 33 percent, and now they’re rewriting that bill again in different words, and submitting it back to us.”
Johnson said when he heard Walsh was coming to St. Louis, he was hopeful Missouri union workers might get some help beating back the constant attacks from corporations, out-of-state business interests and Missouri Republicans.
“Maybe we’ll get some help on a federal level with these state problems, like the constant attacks, because, when you’ve got a 67 percent vote on ‘No,’ you shouldn’t have to do it again,” Johnson said.
Walsh said there is help in the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which Biden supports and which is currently awaiting action in the evenly divided Senate, where it will need bipartisan support to overcome a Republican filibuster, which would effectively stall the legislation.
“There is help, with the PRO Act,” Walsh said. “The president supports the PRO Act. But as you know from 2018, elections matter.”
Walsh’s appointment as Secretary of Labor, the first union member to hold that post in decades, is an example of how much elections matter. But so, too, is Republican obstruction of pro-Labor legislation both at the state and federal levels.
ELECTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES
“Elections do have consequences,” John Stiffler, executive secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council said. “Having a former union laborer as Secretary of Labor is a positive example of that. He is a good union man that supports workers in all sectors. That he came here to listen to our needs and understands the need to grow the Labor Movement and make the economy work for all workers is significant. But we have to remember, elections have consequences for the other side, too. We have to elect pro-Labor representatives, and we need to let our senators and representatives know that we need and expect them to support the PRO Act.”
Passing the PRO Act and Biden’s infrastructure bills is essential, said Pat White, president of the St. Louis Labor Council.
“It’s significant that Secretary Walsh came to meet with us,” White said. “He is the first union member to hold that job in a very long time. It’s refreshing to have someone in such a high office who’s actually worked with the tools and knows what it’s like to be on a job site.”