Jobless workers urge lawmakers to act on big economic aid measure
Jobless workers demonstrate outside the Dade County offices of GOP senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio and President Trump's Doral resort. | South Florida AFL-CIO

WASHINGTON—To lighting designer Stephanie Freed of New York, tenant organizer Juan Nunez of the Bronx, caregiver Ingrid Vaca of D.C., and millions of jobless workers, the continuing battle over when, whether and how much more aid will go to workers who physically and financially suffer from the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic depression is more than just numbers on a page.

It’s a matter of staying in your apartment or being evicted, paying the heating bill or having the furnace shut off in winter, feeding your kids or not, or being able to go to the doctor, for example.

“Think about the people who care for your children. Think about the people who care for your elderly. Think about the people who clean your houses,” Vaca said in Spanish, through a translator. “We are not treated the way we should be treated.”

“Please, we ask you not to throw us away like a dirty old rag.”

And so those three workers, plus hundreds of others, gathered for an instant Zoom meeting Dec. 8 to strategize how to force lawmakers to act—and to lobby for much more money than recalcitrant congressional Republicans and GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump want to yield.

Backed by almost 1,000 organizations from coast to coast, the workers have united in the People’s Bailout coalition to demand the government help them and help them now, a lot. “Rescue workers, not corporate executives” is just one of their platform planks.

Supporters include the Communications Workers, the Service Employees, its Chicago-based Local 1 and Local 32BJ, the Professional and Technical Engineers, Fight For 15, the United Electrical Workers, the Labor Network for Sustainability, Teachers (AFT) Local 6069, Government Employees Local 3354, the Asian-Pacific American Labor Alliance, the BlueGreen Alliance, and the Portland, Ore., chapter of Jobs With Justice. Other supporters run the gamut of environmental, peace, and other progressive groups.

At issue is what the latest coronavirus relief aid package, if there is one, will look like and how much will go to hurting workers. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., heads a caucus that so far wants to give nothing at all. Neither does he, really.

But McConnell might opt for $500 billion over the next months if it includes his pet provision to prevent workers and customers from suing a firm if its negligence or worse infects them with the coronavirus. Jobless workers would get $300 weekly federal unemployment aid in McConnell’s bill. Businesses would get billions. Almost everybody else—such as schools, states, and cities—gets zip.

Congressional Democratic leaders now back a bipartisan $908 billion bill that includes $180 billion for weekly federal checks to jobless workers, $160 billion to state and local governments whose revenues have tanked, $10 billion for the Postal Service to replace first-class mail revenue which vanished, $45 billion for mass transit, airlines, and Amtrak, and $82 billion to schools to help sanitize their buildings and erect social distancing measures to contain the virus’s spread. Businesses would get $288 billion, and a modified lawsuit ban, probably fewer than five years.

What the Democrats started with, but McConnell junked, was the $3.4 trillion Heroes Act, with a lot more jobless aid and crammed with pro-worker provisions. Among them: Forcing firms to craft and implement anti-virus protection plans, using federal law to force manufacture of personal protective equipment (PPE), and billions more for broadband, buses, subways, airlines, Amtrak, and their workers.

The Heroes Act would have helped the jobless workers who spoke on the Zoom call. But the People’s Bailout demands even more, and workers who spoke on the call noted there are still some holes, even in that legislation.

“Many of my undocumented sisters and brothers had to work” and expose themselves on the job to the virus “because they had no other choice,” said Vaca. And because they were undocumented, they couldn’t or didn’t get prior checks, she noted. They should get checks now, too, she said. Others went to work or planned to do so, and then caught the virus, officially called COVID-19.

That’s what happened to her. After being out of work starting in March, Vaca was hired to be a housekeeper in August…and then she got sick, for a month. When she got out, no job. “And I still suffer with the symptoms,” she said.

Freed, the unemployed lighting designer and electrician, lost her employment when New York’s theaters shut down due to the virus. She’s run through her savings, the past federal jobless aid ended—thanks to the GOP—and now she can’t pay the rent.

The “moderate proposal,” the compromise, “cuts the $600” weekly to $300, Freed noted. “And it’s not retroactive” to when the prior checks ended. “Millions will lose all money the day after Christmas, and without [jobless] aid, I’ll lose my apartment.”

There’s also a federal eviction ban, and one in New York state, too, through the end of the year. Tell that to tenant organizer Nunez. Many of the people he helps are undocumented and speak and read only Spanish.

When notices of future court hearings on potential eviction for non-payment of rent were tacked on their doors, the tenants couldn’t understand them. They moved out immediately, Nunez said, because they thought they were being thrown out then and there.

And the aid isn’t enough in the high-cost city, he noted. If the worker must stay home to care for herself or a coronavirus-stricken child or parent, they don’t get paid, regardless of the amount. “If they gotta stay home, guarantee them a home,” Nunez declares. “Rent in New York City averages $2,500 a month. You know what they did with the $1200?”—the one-time government check to each adult early in the pandemic.

“They bought food.”

Providing aid for all those problems and more is the point of the People’s Bailout. Its platform is topped by a demand for “free and accessible” coronavirus testing and treatment “for all people, no exceptions.” That also includes providing personal protective equipment, “paid sick and family medical leave for all workers without exception” more Medicaid money, and full funding for Native American health centers.

“Critically, the government must ensure such health protections cover all people, including low-wage workers, health workers, independent contractors, family farmers, Black and Latinx communities, undocumented immigrants, Indigenous peoples, people who are incarcerated, people who are homeless or housing insecure, and others likely to be hit first and worst by COVID-19 and the economic downturn,” the People’s Bailout says.

It also demands “direct economic relief” to workers, without a pass-through via companies, as the GOP demands. That relief includes increased and extended jobless benefits, sending them to all workers, including those not normally covered by state jobless programs, and bans on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs.

“Larger payments should be made to lower-income workers and the poor, who are disproportionately exposed to both COVID-19 health risks and heightened job insecurity. These payments should be made swiftly and regularly throughout the duration of the economic recession,” the People’s Bailout declares.

“Any financial assistance directed at specific industries must be channeled to workers, not shareholders or corporate executives. Specifically, any federal loans must be used to maintain payroll and benefits, not executive bonuses or stock buybacks,” its third plank adds.

There would be pro-worker strings attached to such corporate-targeted cash: Worker representation on company boards, company-wide $15 hourly minimum wages, neutrality in union organizing drives, and bargaining and payment of prevailing wages on construction projects, along with pro-worker Project Labor Agreements.

“And adoption of a ‘ban the box’ hiring policy to ensure fair employment opportunities for all,” adds People’s Bailout. That would give job opportunities to another group of workers who firms otherwise reject: Formerly jailed people who have completed their sentences.

“I’ve paid my taxes, helped my community, and now, when we most need help, we’re not being taken into account,” said Vaca.

The bailout organizers urged participants and allies to text and e-mail senators and seek other ways to continue the fight. They drew support from one of the two senators who joined in, Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt. The other, Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., lauded their fighting, urged them to keep the pressure on—but didn’t promise anything.

Sanders also outlined what they were up against. “We gave out a trillion dollars in corporate welfare,” he said, while not making clear whether he meant coronavirus relief to businesses, the 2017 Trump-GOP tax cut, or a combination of both. “And the House just passed a $740 billion military budget.”

It’s priorities like that, the senator said, that make people lose faith in their government.

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CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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