Ed Barnette long ago realized that affordable child care and paid sick leave, among other resources, would be essential to helping West Virginians build better lives and save what’s left of the middle class.
He just never expected that when America was finally on the cusp of providing these essentials, West Virginia’s Democratic senator would join pro-corporate Republicans in blocking the way.
“It’s almost like he forgot where his roots are,” fumed Barnette, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 5668, which represents hundreds of workers at the Constellium plant in Ravenswood, West Virginia. “He comes from a blue-collar state. When you say ‘West Virginia,’ the first thing you picture is a worker with a hard hat.”
“Surely, he won’t do it,” Barnette recalled saying to himself in the days before Manchin decided to withhold his vote and block the bill. “He did, and I just thought, ‘Damn it! You’re supposed to be working for us.’”
Barnette rejoiced last fall when Congress passed a historic, $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Like other states, West Virginia urgently needs improvements to its roads and bridges, schools and airports, energy systems, locks and dams, and communications networks.
But Barnette understands that the infrastructure legislation will have the biggest impact—and create the greatest number of manufacturing and construction jobs—only in conjunction with the $2 trillion Build Back Better bill.
Build Back Better would provide access to affordable child care and pave the way for more parents, especially more single parents, to enter the workforce. It would ensure workers receive up to four weeks of paid family medical leave, so they could battle life’s challenges while continuing to support their families.
And it would provide universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds, putting all of America’s children on the road to productive lives.
Just as important, Build Back Better would boost funding at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), positioning the agency to better address safety risks workers face every day as well as crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other enhancements, the additional resources would enable the agency to hire more inspectors so the agency can investigate additional complaints, develop new safety standards and save lives.
Build Back Better also would increase the penalties that employers face for violations, making them more likely to address hazards proactively. The current low penalties merely encourage corporations to risk workers’ lives.
“I definitely think we need a stronger OSHA,” Barnette said. “It’s the difference between life and death with some employers.”
In addition, the legislation would incentivize the development of emerging industries, like clean energy and electric vehicle production, that would help to revitalize American manufacturing, create good-paying jobs and better position the nation to lead the world economy.
Whether it’s assembling electric vehicles, making batteries or manufacturing the components for solar panels, West Virginia has union workers with the work ethic and enthusiasm to get these industries up and running, noted Dallas Elswick, a former chemical worker and USW member from Nitro, West Virginia.
"The union workers made this country,” Elswick said. “Everybody knows that. And there’s a need for development here. There’s a big need.”
The House passed Build Back Better in November. The bill needed the support of all 48 Democrats and two Independents to pass the Senate, so President Joe Biden and congressional leaders worked tirelessly to get Manchin on board.
Senator Charles Schumer, the Senate majority leader, repeatedly spoke with him. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talked with him, too.
Biden spoke with Manchin by phone and had him over to the White House. Biden also went so far as to host Manchin at his Delaware home to talk through the transformative nature of the bill, even though the legislation’s potential to level the playing field for working Americans is clear for all to see.
He abandoned single parents, unable to afford child care, to poverty. He threw seniors, struggling to pay for prescriptions and health care, under the bus. He slammed the door on workers eager for new industries and jobs.
Barnette and Elswick are among millions in West Virginia and around the country calling on Manchin to do the right thing and embrace Build Back Better.
“We may not get an opportunity to do this ever again,” Elswick said of the sweeping changes offered by Build Back Better. “For him to do what he did is unbelievable.”
Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).
This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.T