Right-wing Republicans drop worker rights bomb on Baltimore bridge rebuilding

BALTIMORE—The most MAGA right-wingers among the U.S. House’s ruling Republicans are threatening to deep-six federal funds to rebuild the smashed Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, even as two top Latino-oriented groups campaign for money to help families of the disaster’s victims.

In an open policy letter published on Twitter/X, the so-called House Freedom Caucus members— extremist pro-fascist Trumpites—demand concessions, including on worker rights, that would effectively kill Democratic President Joe Biden’s promise to rebuild the bridge entirely with federal funds.

First the caucus demanded the government get the owners of the Dali, the 100,000-ton container cargo carrier that lost power and crashed into the bridge’s central pier,  to pay for reconstruction. Suing for reimbursement could take years to solve, Twitter/X users responded, leaving the bridge in limbo.

The caucus’s second condition was that the Port of Baltimore “draw on available federal funds” and not seek more money to build a new bridge over the Patapsco River, the sole entrance to the port, the nation’s fifth-busiest and its main port for import and export of cars and trucks.

Then the right-wingers dropped their bomb on worker rights:

“If it proves necessary to appropriate taxpayer money to get one of America’s busiest ports back online, Congress must ensure it is fully offset and that burdensome regulations—such as NEPA, the Endangered Species Act, Davis-Bacon, project labor agreements, etc.—are waived to avoid all unnecessary delays and costs,” the Freedom Caucus officially declared. An official caucus stand needs a two-thirds vote.

NEPA is the National Environmental Policy Act. Davis-Bacon ensures construction workers on projects built with federal funds are paid locally prevailing wages, shutting out anti-union, low-wage cut-rate contractors who often short their workers’ already skimpy paychecks and refuse to pay overtime.

Why PLAs are important

Project Labor Agreements, now required by Biden, ensure unions and bosses, again on federally funded construction, set up a formal labor-management problem-solving and grievance process in return for a fixed contract price for any project, all to be built by union workers. The caucus also demands Biden lift his ban on building new terminals to export U.S. natural gas.

That last demand exposes their hypocrisy on the issue of the war in Ukraine. The Freedom Caucus folks claim they are against funding the right-wing government there in its battle with Russia but yet they demand unfettered access to Europe by the gas companies that support that war because of the high profits it yields for them. The natural gas exported by the energy companies in the U.S. replaces what Europe lost because of U.S. embargoes against gas from Russia and because of the blowing up of the pipelines that delivered that Russian gas to Europe.

The Freedom Caucus has leverage in its push against worker rights because the Republican House majority is down to one seat.

That means any defections, when combined with Democratic votes against Republican schemes, sink them, just like the Dali sank the Francis Scott Key Bridge. The bridge collapse and blockage of the Patapsco threw several thousand union longshore workers out of jobs and eliminated revenue that supports more thousands of ancillary jobs.

The Freedom Caucus’s anti-money stand is in line with its so-called “principles,” pushing for deep cuts in federal domestic spending programs while allotting even more millions to the military. But it’s also in line with recent overall Republican campaigns, often led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, against disaster aid to any “blue” state, as well as with the stands of the caucus’s God, Donald Trump. Those same anti-spending lawmakers, however, have no shame in seeking federal disaster aid money for their states.

And when he occupied the Oval Office, Trump made no secret of using the Republican massive tax cut for corporations and the rich to politically punish blue states, including Maryland, Illinois, California, and especially New York.

And he forced the Transportation Department to drop plans to fund another major infrastructure project that would benefit commerce and travelers in the Northeast, just as a new bridge would: Replacing the elderly, narrow railway tunnels under the Hudson River between New York and also-blue New Jersey.

Even as the Freedom Caucus schemes against replacing the bridge, Casa de Maryland and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)—showing humanity, not hate—are campaigning to raise funds for the families of the Key Bridge victims.

The crash sent the bridge to the bottom of the Patapsco River in under a minute, killing the six workers and injuring two. All eight were migrants from Latin America and longtime Baltimore-area residents.

The six victims have been identified as Jose Mynor Lopez, a father of two and Maynor Yassir Suazo, a father of three, brothers from Honduras, Dorlian Castillo, 26, from Guatemala, Miguel Luna, a father of three from El Salvador, and Carlos Hernandez Fuentes, 24, and Wenceslao Contreras Ortiz, 25, both from Mexico. All had been in the U.S. for years.

The toll would have been higher

The death toll would have been a lot higher had the ship’s handlers not blasted a Mayday distress call when the cargo carrier lost power five minutes before it hit the bridge’s central pier.

That gave Maryland Transportation Department workers enough time to stop further traffic from entering the bridge, but not enough to get the work crew, who were taking a lunch break from repairing potholes, off the bridge.

Video of the disaster shows a string of car and truck lights on the Key Bridge deck minutes before it crashed into the river—and then nothing on the deck, followed by the collision.

LULAC set a $25,000 fundraising goal to help the surviving families of the six, including covering basic living expenses as well as funeral costs. Their bodies are still at the bottom of the river, possibly in their cars where they were eating their lunches, but at any rate, pinned under the bridge wreckage. “Time is of the essence,” to help their families, said LULAC President Domingo Garcia,

“The death of these six men while working to fill in potholes in the middle of the night sadly highlights the systemic issues facing Latino immigrants in the United States,” Garcia added.

“Despite making up a significant portion of the construction workforce and other jobs in varying industries, they are disproportionately exposed to life-threatening dangers. Most of these construction workers, originally from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico, symbolize the broader narrative of Latino workers’ significant contributions to our nation and communities.

“Let’s come together as LULAC members, Latinos, Americans, and most importantly as humans to help rebuild.”

“Providing humanitarian support during this crisis is the priority, as families navigate this tragedy and seek answers about their missing loved ones. The entire Baltimore region and the CASA family are lamenting this tragedy,” said Casa Executive Director Gustavo Torres. Two of the dead were active Casa members. The Washington-Baltimore News Guild represents the Casa staffers.

International Longshoremen’s Association Local 333 President Scott Cowan, whose union represents the 3,000 dockworkers at the Port of Baltimore, met with federal Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg when the secretary visited the site of the collapsed bridge. They discussed aid to the dockworkers, ILA said. That includes non-unionists who toil at the port or depend upon it.

Biden visited the bridge site later, though he stayed onshore by one end with bridge remains, just before the funding controversy broke out. He reiterated his pledge to have it rebuilt at federal expense since it’s part of a key North-South auto and truck route along the East Coast. Cost estimates for a new bridge run into several billion dollars, with no timeline for reconstruction.

“While there will be difficult challenges to meet for our ILA longshore families in the Port of Baltimore, knowing we face them with the support of so many in the international dockworker union family gives us renewed strength and hope,” said Harold Daggett, president of the parent ILA.

While Cowan discussed aid with Buttigieg, Daggett contacted Gov. Wes Moore, D-Md., and acting Biden Administration Labor Secretary Julie Su on that same cause. Maryland legislative leaders are crafting a measure to extend special benefits to the now-jobless workers, too.

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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.