The Economy Today: On the Roads

A roundup of national and regional economic headlines

The big economic news of the morning, reported by The Wall Street Journal and others, is that new claims for unemployment benefits plunged last week to the lowest level in months. But this seemingly good news is accompanied by some big caveats: unemployment data are typically volatile in the summer, meaning this week’s news could be a blip, not a trend. And the tally of continuing claims actually increased by 159,000, to 6,883,000.

A couple major papers feature labor-related stories today. The Los Angeles Times reports on a dispute between the drugstore chain Rite Aid and a union that represents warehouse workers in suburban L.A. According to the Times, the labor movement sees the case as a symbol of the ongoing political debate over the Employee Free Choice Act, a piece of pro-union legislation now stalled in Congress. The most controversial aspect of the bill is its provision allowing union votes to occur through “card checks” rather than secret ballots, but the Times story focuses just as much on measures designed to increase penalties for illegal practices and force employers to negotiate in good faith.

The New York Times, meanwhile, takes a look at one reason why EFCA is still stalled: infighting among various unions. Most of the issues at stake are not philosophical but parochial, among them competition for the shrinking pool of organized employees in the private sector. The story also notes in passing that unions generally oppose a health care reform measure that advocates see as a key revenue-generator: lifting the tax exemption for employer-provided health benefits.

As chatter in Washington focuses on whether a second stimulus package is needed, the disbursement of funds from the first funding continues to attract heavy attention from the press. The New York Times reports in a front-page story that more than half of the $26.6 billion in federal funding intended for road improvement funds will go not to the large metropolitan areas that drive the economy and contain most of the nation’s population, but to outlying rural regions. Decisions about how to distribute the funds were mostly made by states, which have a history of scanting on aid to urban areas, according to experts cited in the story. An additional $1.5 billion in stimulus funds is in the hands of the federal Department of Transportation, which is instructed to use it for “projects of national or regional importance.”

The Dallas Morning News, meanwhile, reports that some state agencies in Texas have received so much federal money that officials there are worried about how to use it. The state Department of Housing and Community Affairs and Workforce Commission are each seeing exponential increases in some line items. At the same time, a Democratic congressman is accusing GOP state officials of using stimulus money to cutback on state funds for schools, and some local districts are still not sure about what, exactly, they can use the federal money to pay for.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.