Union leaders to Biden, Harris: U.S. needs coronavirus, economic relief
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO and a host of other union leaders agreed with Joe Biden yesterday that revival of the economy is tied to crushing the coronavirus. | Evan Vucci/AP

WILMINGTON, Del.—Top union leaders told President-Elect Joe Biden U.S. workers need trillions of dollars in coronavirus economic relief, and in measures to protect workers from the ravages of the modern-day plague.

And Biden, who met with union leaders and business executives via Zoom centered in his home in Wilmington, Del., agreed.

He also, in remarks on the economy after the Nov. 16 session, again criticized GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump—whom Biden beat in the election—for inaction or worse against the coronavirus contagion.

“More people may die, if we don’t coordinate,” between his incoming administration and the Trump regime, Biden said. Trump has refused to concede, or coordinate with Biden and his transition teams.

Biden again called for a nationwide mandate now to require wearing face masks in public to battle the virus. As of 6 p.m. on Nov. 16, the virus, officially Covid-19, has killed 247,019 people since the March 13 pandemic proclamation, out of more than 11.17 million who have tested positive. That includes one million in the prior week.

Wondering why Trump and Republicans refuse to mandate masks in public, Biden asked “What the hell’s the matter with these guys? It’s totally irresponsible.”

The incoming administration says beating the virus is needed to help get the economy back on its feet, or, as Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris put it, “opening this economy responsibly and rebuilding it so it works for working people.”

That reconstruction includes raising the federal minimum wage, paid family and parental leave, and a child care tax credit. “When we build back better, we’ll do so with higher wages, including a $15 minimum wage nationwide,” Biden said. The federal minimum, $7.25 hourly, has stagnated for more than a decade.

“For millions of Americans who’ve lost hours and wages or have lost jobs, we can deliver immediate relief and it needs to be done quickly,” Biden said. “Congress should come together and pass a Covid relief package” like the House-approved $3 trillion Heroes Act earlier this year. The Senate’s ruling Republicans, however, won’t approve anything.

The Heroes Act would restore federal jobless benefits, send aid to financially trashed states and cities and impose pro-worker provisions, notably requiring firms to implement protection plans for workers against the virus. That was AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s key point in his remarks to the group.

“We need to manufacture the respirators and personal protective equipment (PPE) that continue to be in short supply,” he told Biden, Harris, the CEOs and fellow union leaders Marc Perrone of the Food and Commercial Workers, Rory Gamble of the Auto Workers, Lee Saunders of AFSCME and Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees.

“We need to make the investments to retrofit our workplaces and schools to meet the ventilation and distancing requirements scientists and workplace safety experts tell us are absolutely vital,” Trumka said, adding, “We need to make sure all COVID-19 cases are counted and reported so we know where the major outbreaks are before they get worse.”

And with new outbreaks surging and particularly hitting people of color, “The most important thing we can do on day one is to reestablish OSHA’s mission of protecting workers,” Trumka said. The Trump regime’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has done everything but carry out its mission of protecting workers.

“For four years, OSHA has been AWOL…OSHA has been totally absent during this pandemic and workers across industries have been left to fend for ourselves,” Trumka said.

He said one of the first orders Biden can give when he takes over from Trump, assuming no further Trump blockades, is to have OSHA issue a temporary emergency standard ordering firms to develop and impose anti-virus protection plans.

The AFL-CIO and National Nurses got so fed up with agency refusal that earlier this year, they sued to get it to move. But GOP-named judges on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for D.C. said no.

“We cannot afford to wait any longer,” Trumka told Biden. And after OSHA issues the temporary standard, it can get back to work on a permanent rule protecting workers against all airborne viruses, not just Covid-19. OSHA was on the verge of issuing it when Trump took over and pulled the plug.

If “all work has dignity, then all workplaces need to focus on safety. It’s not too late to save tens of thousands of lives. That starts with a strong COVID-19 safety standard on day one,” he urged.

UAW’s Gamble called the session “productive and honest…of the challenges we all face in manufacturing and business to wrestle control of a very difficult situation for our economy.”

While the union and the Detroit 3 automakers are having “productive and ongoing discussions” about how to protect auto workers while keeping plants running, there’s “acute need for an immediate economic package for those hard hit by this pandemic, help for our states and our frontline providers and specifically to protect the health and safety of UAW members in the workplace,” he added.

“Testing, PPE equipment, and a plan for distribution for a vaccine, when available, are crucial as is the ability for workers, management and government to work together through this pandemic nimbly and efficiently in order to save lives.”

SEIU, AFSCME, and the Food and Commercial Workers had no formal statements after the Zoom session with Biden and Harris, though SEIU tweeted: “President-Elect Biden is planning to undo Pres. Trump’s anti-worker executive orders.” AFSCME in tweets talked about getting new funds so state and local workers, particularly in schools, wouldn’t get fired.

Three days before the session, Perrone protested a Trump USDA decision to speed up poultry plant processing lines to 175 birds a minute—a ruling done to help chicken plant owners, such as big firms like Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride. It endangers workers, both from virus exposure and job injuries, Perrone said. UFCW is already suing to stop USDA’s plan.

“In the months ahead, UFCW will urge” Biden “to reverse the Trump administration’s dangerous policies and do all he can to protect America’s meatpacking workers still on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Perrone added.


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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