WASHINGTON, Feb. 17 (Reuters) — President Joe Biden told 10 top union leaders on Wednesday that his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan and a separate measure to modernize U.S. infrastructure would boost the U.S. economy and create millions of good-paying jobs.
Biden met with the labor officials, including Richard Trumka, a long-time political ally and head 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, in the Oval Office.
"We have an incredible opportunity to make some enormous progress in creating jobs," Biden told reporters at the beginning of the meeting. He called himself "a labor guy," but said that was not inconsistent with growing businesses.
"As they say in parts of my state, 'These are the folks that brung me to the dance.' And I appreciate their friendship," he quipped.
The White House has argued that Biden's relief plan would put millions of Americans to work in union jobs in manufacturing and the clean energy sector that pay well. Republicans have largely dismissed the plan as too expensive and potentially inflationary. A plan to modernize U.S. infrastructure is also forthcoming.
"We rank something like 38th in the world in terms of our infrastructure - everything from canals to highways to airports," Biden said, underscoring the need to increase U.S. competitiveness.
A White House statement said Biden discussed the groups' priorities and "the importance of ensuring union workers play a key role in building a resilient and sustainable infrastructure" system.
Studies show that 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.
"For working people, this was the most productive Oval Office meeting in years," Trumka said in a statement. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris "share our belief that rebuilding our infrastructure is critical to our communities," it said.
As a presidential 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 set Feb. 24 for its first hearing on modernizing U.S. transportation infrastructure while addressing climate change. Names of witnesses were not released.
Biden 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.
Union leaders and civil rights advocates on Wednesday urged Biden to reiterate his campaign promise to boost the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour from $7.25.