Wolf, lawmakers can’t miss this chance to help Pennsylvania workers | Opinion

An SEIU activist rallies for a $15/hr. minimum wage, which was one of the policies that F&M researchers polled in their most recent public opinion survey. (Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr Commons)

By Rick Bloomingdale

With the start of the 2019 state budget season, Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Legislature have an opportunity to support the working men and women of Pennsylvania.

Last year the Commonwealth began a new tradition of budgets that reinvest in Pennsylvanians.  When the elected public servants in Harrisburg decide to pass a budget, rather than squabble in front of the press, Pennsylvanians do better.  In 2019, we can choose to do better.

A budget is more than a series of line items and partisan proxy positions. There is a difference between a legislative agenda and a state budget, but too often the distinction is dismissed in favor of using the budget to stymie political ideology at the expense of Pennsylvanians.

While sincere discussion of the fiscal issues facing our Commonwealth is vital to long-term economic sustainability, our state government cannot lose sight of whose economic dignity they are here to preserve and protect.

All work has dignity. Last week, Wolf announced an incredible effort as part of his budget proposal to raise wages across Pennsylvania. By raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour this year, with a 50 cent increase each year until reaching $15 an hour in 2025, Pennsylvania can finally come out from behind the rest of the pack and take a lead in giving workers a raise.

Our communities rely on the home caregivers, the day care workers, and the food service workers; most of us could not do our jobs or lead our lives without their work.   When these workers are treated with dignity, then we all get a raise.

Working families across Pennsylvania are the greatest asset of our Commonwealth, not our finite natural resources or tax loopholes. The women and men of Pennsylvania are part of a legacy of an empowered and dedicated labor force.

A state budget is an opportunity for our leaders to invest in the men, women, and children whose individual livelihoods are often ignored throughout the cycle of budget hearings.  Pennsylvania’s history is a story of the working men and women who not only built this state but will continue to build its future.

Last year, the Commonwealth’s budget produced an unprecedented increase in workforce development.  The term gets thrown around a lot and is in danger of losing its meaning.

Workforce development prioritizes investment in the training, education and support of working women and men, preparing our communities for the future.  When we invest in workers we increase revenue and economic prosperity for decades to come.

When we have a highly-trained and skilled workforce, we can engage our own workers in rebuilding our communities.  We have children being exposed to lead when they go to school.  We drive on roads and bridges that need significant repair.

For too many years, we’ve talked about infrastructure without acting.  Our roads, bridges, schools and public buildings have been on the “someday we’ll get around to fixing this” list for too long.  Let’s actually put people to work and start fixing things.

Last year, the state budget included a $7 million line item for apprenticeships. This was an exciting and promising investment in the Pennsylvania workers. The apprenticeship model, exemplified by the building and construction trades unions, is the most comprehensive and reliable way to provide top of the line training, the value of craftsmanship and a rock-solid pathway to the middle class.

Apprenticeships stand apart from other job training programs; apprentices earn a living wage and benefits while they learn their trade.

Too often workforce development focuses solely on training and neglects the development of the worker.  When a woman or man enters a job training program, their successful completion is interconnected with their ability to support themselves. Well-constructed apprenticeship programs, like the time-tested model in the building trades, produce the highest quality of craft on the job and a workforce that is primed to take on the advanced and technologically innovative jobs of the future.

Not only do these programs train workers for careers, they are intrinsically connected to the needs of employers and evolving industries.

Labor unions have long supported the expansion of the apprenticeship model into other sectors of employment.  Over the next several years, Pennsylvania’s economy will be changing. We’ll need more trained healthcare workers to support our population; to ensure our Commonwealth thrives for future generations we need to attract more advanced manufacturing and IT jobs.

We can only do this if we demonstrate the will to invest and cultivate our greatest asset: Pennsylvania’s workers.

Rick Bloomingdale is the president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. He writes from Harrisburg.

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