Over the weekend, Barack Obama promised in his radio address a major "Made-in-America" jobs stimulus package that could add as many as four million new jobs to the American economy. Obama said, "Our first job is to put people back to work and get our economy working again. This is an extraordinary challenge." But it's vital that this spending be accompanied by vigorous enforcement of oft-flouted federal contracting laws that demand that decent wages be paid on jobs contracted with federal taxpayers' money. As highlighted in December by a report by the Center for American Progress Action Fund: The federal government is failing to live up to its legal and moral obligations as a model employer. Through numerous laws and executive orders, Congress and the executive branch have expressed a clear and long-standing objective to set and enforce high standards for the treatment of contracted workers. The federal government, however, is falling far short of this goal. Instead of helping to create quality jobs, all too often the federal government contracts with companies that pay very low wages and treat their workers poorly. For taxpayers, shortchanging federal contract workers is often penny wise but pound foolish. Without decent wages, benefits, and working conditions, work quality can sometimes suffer due to high turnover, inadequate training and experience, and low morale. And when contract workers are poorly compensated, taxpayers often bear additional costs, such as for Medicaid and food stamps, in effect subsidizing low-road companies. But when contracted workers have quality jobs, taxpayers often receive quality work and law-abiding companies are able to compete on a level playing field. Moreover, like the canary-in-the-coal-mine warning of problems, contracted workers being treated poorly can be a sign that taxpayers are being hurt as well. While Republicans are likely to take potshots at the Obama initiative, it's important to keep in mind that decent wages -- and strengthened union organizing through the Employee Free Choice Act -- must go hand-in-hand with any economic recovery plan. Indeed low, stagnant wages played a key role in the current economic meltdown. In her testimony on Friday, Labor Secretary nominee Rep. Hilda Solis placed great emphasis on ensuring fair pay and workplace safety, making enforcing federal contracting law a likely priority, but declined to address specifically her support of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill she co-sponsored while in Congress. Supported by labor unions and well-received during her nomination hearings, she is well on her way to serving as a Labor Secretary who can help make President-elect Obama's ambitious jobs package a reality. As recapped by the AFL-CIO Now blog: We’ll create nearly half a million jobs by investing in clean energy–by committing to double the production of alternative energy in the next three years, and by modernizing more than 75 percent of federal buildings and improving the energy efficiency of two million American homes. These made-in-America jobs building solar panels and wind turbines, developing fuel-efficient cars and new energy technologies pay well, and they can’t be outsourced. “Made-in-America jobs.” What sweet words after eight years of an administration bent on giving endless corporate incentives to move U.S. jobs overseas. Here’s more from Obama’s radio address: * Put nearly 400,000 people to work by repairing our infrastructure–our crumbling roads, bridges and schools. * Build the new infrastructure we need to succeed in this century, investing in science and technology, and laying down miles of new broadband lines so that businesses across our nation can compete with their counterparts around the world. * Work to achieve bipartisan extensions of unemployment insurance and health care coverage; a $1,000 tax cut for 95 percent of working families; and assistance to help states avoid harmful budget cuts in essential services like police, fire, education and health care. But without tough enforcement of contracting laws -- and a fair right to organize -- those ambitious jobs plans may never come to pass. And if they don't, as Nobel Prize-winning Paul Krugman has pointed out, we could be facing a Second Great Depression.
Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.