With news that the economy is hemorrhaging jobs, President-elect Obama has stepped up to do the right thing. On the heels of the worst unemployment report that we've seen in more than a decade, a report that indicated that unemployment is 6.7 percent, African-American unemployment is 11.2 percent, and more than half a million jobs were lost in the past month, the President-elect has announced that he will implement a massive road-building plan, with more than five thousand projects being implemented among the 50 states, to the tune of more than $64 billion. Such a plan was expected, as infrastructure repair was part of the Obama campaign platform.
Still, it is reassuring to have the plan announced at this juncture, after learning how big a hit American workers are taking because of the recession.
It is important to understand the magnitude of the first Friday jobs announcement. We have not lost half a million jobs in just one month in more than 30 years.
While Congress has been battling about a bailout for the financial services and auto industries, workers have been fighting for their economic lives. The infrastructure-rebuilding plan that Barack Obama has announced is one of the few indications that workers are part of the government's response to our economic woes.
Governors and others have applauded the plan to repair decaying buildings and roads. We have not done anything this massive since President Dwight Eisenhower created the federal highway system in the 1950s, and it shows. While some parts of the highway system are in good repair, there are stretches of road that are bumpy and poorly paved. Now, there is the possibility of repair.
There is one challenge with the effort to jump-start the economy with infrastructure repair. These building trades jobs are most likely to go to men, in general, and to White men in particular. Indeed, the building trades have been notorious for their reluctance to welcome women and people of color to their ranks. And there are entire contracting associations that have sued the federal government so that they did not have to comply with affirmative action laws. If contracts go to those who oppose equal employment opportunity, it is likely that those who most need help in this economy will find themselves jobless.
The need for a rapid recovery cannot overshadow the need for equal employment opportunity, and for equal access to infrastructure employment. The workers who are hired must have a demographic profile that looks like American, with African American and Latino workers represented at close to their representation in the population.
This can't be a Katrina-type repair effort where the quick and dirty approach locks out small minority contractors. With $64 billion on the table, there ought to be enough to go around for those minority contractors who may need to subcontract with a large contractor.
Even states like California, which passed the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, must be required by the federal government to ensure equal opportunity in this economic recovery. To do otherwise would be to suggest that we are doing business as usual, and that we accept the higher unemployment rates that African Americans and Latinos experience.
President-elect Obama ha moved expeditiously to appoint his economic team and his national security team. Now, he must appoint a labor secretary with sensitivity to both economic recovery and economic disparities. Alexis Herman served the Clinton Administration well in the second term, as she combined her sensibilities as a trained social worker with her knowledge of job creation programs and possibilities. She should be consulted as the Obama Administration seeks a labor secretary to work through the challenges of the massive public works program proposed.
There must be equal opportunity in this economic recovery. Now is the time for organizations like the National Urban League to come to the table with plans to involve workers of color in the recovery.
Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women.