By Dick Meister

IT'S OBVIOUS THAT NEITHER President Bush's economic stimulus plan nor the
variations proposed by congressional Republicans are any such thing. They
are merely plans to enrich their wealthy backers through massive tax cuts.
And though Democratic plans are aimed at actually stimulating the sagging
economy, they are only halfway measures.

But there are other plans that call for much more of what needs to be done
for the benefit of all Americans. Probably the best of the plans comes from
the AFL-CIO, which recently launched a nationwide campaign to drum up
support for it.

It would grant tax rebates and otherwise ease the tax burden on the millions
of lower and middle class families that badly need more money and would
spend it immediately. The AFL-CIO estimates that and other aspects of the
program would cost $260 billion at most and quickly pump far more than that
into the economy.

Not the least of the program's predicted results would be the creation of
more than one million new jobs.  Many  of them would involve building,
rebuilding and repairing schools, highways, bridges, water and transit
systems and other parts of the nation's deteriorating infrastructure.

Such projects are as needed today as were the extensive public works
projects that did so much to revive the crippled economy during the Great
Depression of the 1930s.

Also needed are immediate federal grants that would help states avert
"major and irreversible damage from the worst state budget problems since
World War II"  -- problems that are forcing drastic cuts in health care,
education and other essential services.

The unemployment insurance system is as problematic. It's clearly failing
the ever-growing number of jobless Americans -- more than 9 million at last
count.  Benefits, which vary by state, average only $250 a week and
generally are paid out for no more than 26 weeks despite a steady increase
in unemployed workers' waits between jobs. Sixty percent of the workers are
not eligible for benefits, in any case.

Losing a paycheck is only part of the problem facing the jobless.  For many,
losing a job also means losing health care coverage that was paid for by
their employer but which they can't afford on their own.

The AFL-CIO says the government should pay far the coverage, raise
unemployment benefit rates substantially, double the period during which
benefits can be drawn and make them available to all jobless workers.

What's more, it should be a government responsibility to help train the
unemployed for work that's still available to those with the necessary
skills and that would be available to more if the other parts of the AFL-CIO
plan were implemented.

The jobless aren't the only workers needing help. There are at least four
million others who, though employed, have been able to find only low-paying
part-time or temporary jobs.

This is not to mention the millions who work at or near the poverty-level
minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. Raising the minimum, another AFL-CIO
proposal, would noticeably stimulate the economy because of increased
spending by minimum wage workers.

Related proposals call for reducing the standard work day or week with no
reduction in pay and revising trade agreements to shield US workers from
unfair foreign competition.

Strengthening unions naturally is part of the AFL-CIO plan -- primarily
revamping the labor laws to make it easier for workers to organize, bargain
and strike. That was another of the key elements in the program that led the
nation out of the Great Depression.

It's certain we must pursue a similarly bold program, lest we end up in a
Great Depression ourselves.

    Copyright c 2003 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist
who has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and

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