by Mary Ellen Flannery
As reauthorization of the 1998 federal Workforce Investment Act moves forward this month, Congress has a once-in-a-generation chance to modernize the nation’s workforce system, improving opportunities for out-of-work Americans to get much-needed career training—not just for their benefit, but for the benefit of the country.
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Unfortunately, on Wednesday, Republican members of the House Education and Workforce Committee chose instead to forward a bill that consolidates and imperils programs for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, and silences the voice of the people who know best how to deliver job training—the faculty and staff of community colleges. The Republican-led bill, called the “SKILLS Act,” was approved Wednesday, after every Democrat on the committee walked out of the room in protest. It goes next to a vote of the full House of Representatives.
Earlier this week, NEA had urged committee members to take a bipartisan approach to the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), so that the reauthorization could be an opportunity to strengthen America’s working families during these economically perilous times.
In a letter sent Tuesday to leaders in Congress, NEA’s Mary Kusler, director of government relations, called on Congress “to strengthen our nation’s economy by equipping the unemployed and underemployed—young and old—to advance in their careers.” At the same time, NEA jointly set a letter with its labor allies at AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and SEIU [ed note: pdf link] that encouraged specific changes to the WIA that would enable working-class people to prosper.
Unfortunately, on Wednesday, the Republican-led House Education and Workforce committee didn’t listen. They took up a version of the WIA that would silence the voices of community college faculty and staff—the people who actually provide job training to the nation’s middle class. “It is undemocratic to create policymaking bodies that impact workers, such as WIA boards, without ensuring that those workers have a voice—in this case, the educators who provide training and services for community college students, at-risk youth, and adult education students,” wrote Kusler.
Furthermore, under their Republican proposal critical programs for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, like federal literacy programs for adults who can’t read, would be consolidated and imperiled. No more would funds be targeted for veterans, workers with disabilities, laid-off workers, and others. Important funds for One Stop centers, where out-of-work Americans can navigate the path to career training and new jobs, would be muddled and potentially lost.
But there is a proposal that the NEA and its labor allies at AFL-CIO, AFSCME, SEIU, and AFT strongly support — it’s the “Workforce Investment Act of 2013,” (HR 798), a bill recently filed by U.S. Rep. John Tierney (D-MA), U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX), and U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA). The Tierney bill calls for much-needed modernizations in the workforce investment system so that out-of-work workers can find well-paid careers — not just for their benefit but for the benefit and strengthening of the nation. The Tierney bill also recognizes the critical role of community colleges in career training, and calls for faculty and staff to be part of the local and state workforce boards.
After boycotting the Republican vote this week, Tierney, Hinojosa, and Miller issued a joint statement saying: “We didn’t come to this decision lightly. Unfortunately, we viewed boycotting this proceeding as our only alternative after many months of repeatedly requesting bipartisan negotiations and being rebuffed by committee Republicans.”