Politics of US slump in housing

Construction workers, meeting in Washington, cheered a rousing political speech by President Carter on April 1. But before and after his strongly pro-labor remarks, the conference of 3,000 building tradesmen sharply criticized the administration's economic policies as potentially disastrous.

Robert A. Georgine, president of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department, claimed a new 2.3 percent drop in construction spending, largely the result of weakness in residential construction, high interest rates, and budget cuts that are a part of President Carter's strategy to cut down inflation.

"It is neither effective nor fair," asserted Mr. Georgine, "to fight inflation by throwing more people out of work, cutting real wages, and bringing on a recession. . . . Trading inflation for unemployment is no answer."

Construction spending dropped in February to an annual rate of $242.1 billion , erasing gains in the two previous months. While commercial building continues at relatively high levels in many parts of the country, home building has dipped sharply in recent months and appears headed to the low levels of the recessionary period in the mid-1970s.

Although most of some 4.1 million union construction workers are employed in commercial building, others depend either wholly or in part on housing jobs. Unemployment in their ranks is rising sharply.

The impact reaches far beyond that. Fewer new homes mean less demand for factory products -- lighting fixtures, kitchen and bathroom fixtures, paints, wallpapers. . . .

Construction unions are also concerned about President Carter's proposed deep budget cuts that would, among other things, cut dam and water reservior projects , sewer grants, highway and airport construction, and other works projects.

Then why did the building trades conference give Mr. Carter four standing ovations and repeated bursts of applause? The makeup of the department that speaks for about one-third of AFL-CIO's membership is basically conservative. Its rank and file has supported Republicans at times in the past. It is hardline in foreign policy matters, which means it supports Mr. Carter's position on Iran and Afghanistan.

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