Several speakers criticized the Republican approach to the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) during a Tuesday hearing by the Education and the Workforce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In his opening statement, Rep. John Kline (Minn.), Republican chair of the full Committee, confirmed that his bill (HR 4297) would impose a new requirement that “two-thirds of the workforce investment board members be employers,” while making representation from labor unions, community colleges and youth organizations optional. This provision would enable governors and local chief elected officials to eliminate labor and community representation on state and local boards according to their ideological whims, removing the voice of workers in their deliberations.
In his closing statement for Committee Democrats, Rep. John Tierney (Mass.) pushed back on the board composition issue. While “everybody understands that we want this to be a business oriented and majority board,” he said, the goal of getting everyone served means having representation of others on the boards, “whether those are community-based organizations or labor and others.”
It’s important to have the right representation on the boards, Tierney argued, to ensure that there is a pipeline of workers being trained for job openings. In a April 16tletter (available here) to Committee members, labor organizations representing nearly 16 million union members called for unions to “be fully represented on WIA boards so that the workers are heard in the decisions that profoundly affect their careers.”
The high point of the hearing occurred when Andy Van Kleunen, Executive Director of the National Skills Coalition, pointed out that the Republicans bill wielded the “blunt instrument of program consolidation” to achieve its goals, producing a “remedy that will do far more damage than the illness it proposes to cure.” In and of itself, he emphasized, consolidation will not yield reform:
We need a more targeted approach. Randomly lumping a list of programs together will not guarantee that workers or businesses are going to be better served by the investments made out of that common pot, particularly if they are not guided by the effective practices developed by innovators in the workforce field over the past 15 years. Unfortunately, the proposed Workforce Investment Fund block‐grant would do little to require states that have not been innovators in the past to adopt the effective practices of their peers. At same time, we fear the structure of the consolidated fund might create perverse incentives for even high‐performing states to abandon the very models they developed to bring a wide range of people into the skilled labor market…. In all, while some states under this bill might continue to help the hard‐to‐serve, we fear that many states will not, putting millions of already vulnerable people at greater risk for long‐term unemployment.
Subsequent speakers repeated the “blunt instrument” phrase to characterize how the Republican bill would hammer the nation’s workforce system.
In answering a question by Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas), Van Kleunen explained that some groups of participants – such as low-income persons, minorities, migrant and seasonal farmworkers, Native Americans and older workers – will take longer to serve and succeed, and once you put all the programs into one consolidated pot, those people will be not be served. In contrast, the system should be providing rewards for those programs that are focusing on the hard to serve, he concluded, not neglecting them.
Other Democrats on the Committee were unrestrained in their criticism of the consolidate-the-system-to-death approach. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) decried the Republicans’ move to “scrap WIA and turn it into a block grant.” Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) declared that the “bill cuts away at WIA in the guise of improving it.” The Republican’s approach brings to mind the old Vietnam War statement by a U.S. military officer that “it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save.” This is what the House Republicans are up to: destroying WIA through consolidating programs in order to save it from the mandates to serve low income people and listen to the voices of workers.
Republicans are expected to mark up their bill, HR 4297, on April 25.