For Sen. Sherrod Brown, ‘dignity of work’ is essential to life
Senator Sherrod Brown | Bill Clark/AP

WASHINGTON—For  progressive Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, “the dignity of work” means more than just quantity of jobs, symbolized by the latest low monthly unemployment rate of 3.7%. The same could be said for Biden Administration Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

“It means hard work pays off no matter who you are or what you do,” the strongly pro-worker Ohio Democrat says.

For Brown, now chair of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, that phrase translates into practical aims: Ensuring the quality of jobs, worker rights, family well-being, affordable housing and equal opportunity, regardless of race, creed or sexual orientation.

Brown declares he uses his committee perch for those goals, plus bringing back U.S. factory jobs, and intends to keep doing so. And he’ll take advantage of “more support for union organizing” to keep pushing pro-worker legislation, notably the Protect The Right To Organize (PRO) Act.

In the meantime, he declares, he’ll use his position to keep “the corporate lobbyists” from pouncing for more tax breaks, especially tax breaks they use to move jobs overseas.

Brown and Walsh made those points in separate segments of an hour-long program sponsored by The Washington Post on September 6, the first of three on “The Future Of Work” in the U.S. The second segment, the next day, interviewed AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, National Domestic Workers Alliance President and founder Ai-Jen Poo and Starbucks Workers United organizer Jaz Brisack.

Brown, Walsh, and Valerie Wilson, director of the Race, Ethnicity and the Economy Program at the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute, hit those themes in their interviews. Brown plans to pursue them legislatively if he returns to the panel’s top job after the November election, assuming Democrats hold the Senate this fall.

The committee, once a haven for the nation’s financiers, and a source of their campaign contributions to friendly solons, now “has been interested in housing, public transit and protecting Americans in the workplace,” Brown told the Post interviewer.

It will stay that way in his legislative priorities, starting with restoring the now-lapsed expanded Child Care Tax Credit, Brown said. The #2 priority “will be to come up with a new industrial policy” for the U.S., he added.

Brown is not the first Senate Democrat to push a general industrial policy for the country, with an emphasis on increasing and restoring U.S. manufacturing might, but the most-persistent. Indeed, he noted, that restoration has been a key goal of the Biden administration via the various pieces of “rescue” legislation since the coronavirus pandemic began.

And the tax credit was part of Democratic President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Act, the first anti-coronavirus aid bill. It put money in every working family’s pocket and cut U.S. child poverty by an estimated 40%, he noted.

But the credit ended at the end of 2021 and opposition from the evenly split Senate’s 50 Republicans, plus two renegade Democrats, led to its demise. That same Republican opposition, plus the renegades, has blocked the PRO Act, too.

Tilted in favor of bosses

Current labor law is tilted in favor of the bosses, thanks to court rulings and Republican-named National Labor Relations Board majorities. Improving it is vital for all workers, he said.

“A young man in my office is engaged. His father works in a steel plant that was non-union and doesn’t carry a union card. Her father does. He sees the difference and wants that (union) contract.”

Affordable housing for workers will also be a priority, the senator vows. Home prices are rising by double-digit percentages even in his birthplace of Mansfield, Ohio, and his hometown of Cleveland, along with higher-cost Atlantic and Pacific Coast cities. And many coronavirus-hit workers still struggling to pay rent, so the problem is acute.

“Lack of decent housing” leads to a host of other problems, including school performance for kids and declining life expectancy for adults, including adult workers. “If you can’t pay your rent, everything else goes wrong,” he said.

Restoring factory jobs also means changing tax policy and government incentives, Brown said. When he was growing up in Mansfield, factories—unionized factories—dominated.

“Those jobs went away” overseas as bosses moved to low-pay repressive nations, aided and encouraged by so-called “free trade” treaties and tax incentives to do so. The recently signed deficit reduction act, again passed without Republican votes, reverses those incentives, the senator said.

Though he didn’t say so, so does the successor “free trade” pact to NAFTA. That corporate-written free trade treaty encouraged the factory jobs exodus to Mexico. The successor, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is designed to halt the drain by mandating freer unionization, more worker rights, stronger enforcement and higher wages for Mexican workers.

Organized labor and congressional Democrats pushed through those provisions.

It isn’t simple, though, he admitted. Mansfield, for example, is dominated by a GM auto plant and a FiatChrysler parts plant. “GM brought the jobs back” from overseas, but the other plant “has to shut down every two or three weeks” due to lack of semiconductors for computers that help drive modern-day vehicles.

Those parts come from China, he noted. And a $52 billion federal infusion to semiconductor manufacturers will help bring those parts, and jobs, back, too.

Walsh made many of the same points. Both EPI’s Wilson and Walsh, a Laborers Local 223 member, emphasized such measures must reach those who have been left out and left behind, even in the current fast recovery from the coronavirus-caused depression.

Creative in hiring

“In Boston, companies have been creative in hiring,” Walsh said, drawing on his service as the city’s mayor. It took lobbying from his administration, but they’re also “creating a pathway upwards” for formerly left-out workers of color and women, he added.

The anti-coronavirus laws Biden, Brown and Walsh pushed through “create a pathway to middle-class jobs, especially for workers of color” and people with disabilities, the Labor Secretary said. They need it, Wilson added.

And DOL now will award job creation grants “and make sure we measure the outcomes” for those hardest-hit workers, the secretary promised.

The worst damage from the pandemic was to Black woman workers, Wilson elaborated. They got hit two ways. Many of the occupations they were forced into, and which already were low-paying, such as home health care and restaurant servers, suffered the worst job losses. And even if jobs remained, the pandemic-caused national closure of schools forced thousands of working women to reluctantly quit, to take care of their own kids.

“This continues to be a problem and a challenge,” Wilson said of the future facing those working women. “And it’s due to the larger structural problems” in the economy and society, she added—a polite way, though she didn’t say so, of endemic structural racism.

Will voters recognize all this, and this fall reward Biden, Brown, Walsh and the Democrats for their accomplishments despite Republican opposition and hate, especially of workers and people of color? The senator thinks they will.

One key point the party will hammer home, Brown added, is how four particular corporate groups—Big Pharma, international shipping firms, meatpackers and oil companies—seized the opportunity the pandemic created “by jacking up prices and profits.”

“Just last month, we passed a bill taking on the drug companies and the oil companies,” Brown said, referring to the new deficit reduction law and its taxes on fossil fuel firms and its new freedom for Medicare to bargain Big Pharma’s drug prices down.

His implication, though Brown didn’t say so: Voters will notice that and who voted to go after Big Pharma and the oil firms–the Democrats–and who didn’t.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.