‘Workers First’ car caravans drive mass turnouts nationwide
Elise Bryant, president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, gets ready for the Workers First Caravan in the Washington, D.C., area on Wednesday. | CLUW via Twitter

WASHINGTON—From Fairbanks to San Juan and from Bangor to Honolulu, workers nationwide turned out June 17 in car caravans, at press conferences, and in call-ins to lawmakers to demand solons “Put Workers First For Racial And Economic Justice.”

Their top demands are additional economic aid during the coronavirus pandemic, for workers, not bosses, and for racial justice and economic justice and to force the federal government to order employers to provide anti-coronavirus protective gear.

To make their views heard, at least 1,000 cars, festooned with posters and flags, honked their way to Capitol Hill from two sites in the D.C. suburbs, then descended on the Mall to its west.

Their point, and those of hundreds of other caravans in every state, D.C., and Puerto Rico, was to force the GOP-run Senate to approve a $3 trillion coronavirus pandemic economic aid package the Democratic-run House passed late last month.

They also demanded comprehensive criminal justice reform, not just the ouster of so-called “bad apples” in police departments. The reform would address the militarization of police and their immunity from prosecution for murdering unarmed Black, brown, and Native Americans, a court system tilted against people of color and a police culture that treats non-whites automatically as dangerous.

And the third plank in the car caravan is a demand for a prolonged, continuous, and systematic dismantling of the 401-year-old U.S. system of white-elite and corporate supremacy over the rest of us, especially over people of color.

As a reminder of racism’s persistence, a white nationalist/racist murdered nine peaceful Black worshipers, including the pastor, in a church basement in Charleston, S.C., five years ago to the day.

“We are confronting three crises at the same time: A health crisis, an economic crisis, and a structural racism crisis,” Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, wearing an anti-coronavirus protective mask, told a Zoom morning press conference.

“And all three disproportionately affect Black and brown people of color,” the New York City civics teacher added from her van while being driven to downtown D.C. for the caravan.

“This is about uprooting all three, and then we can say jobs for all means worker rights for all,” she declared.

The $3 trillion stimulus package was the big-dollar item in the demands – and one that faces determined opposition from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and GOP President Donald Trump.

The measure, called the Heroes Act, includes about $1 trillion to help state and local governments, whose revenues have cratered due to forced shutdowns to battle the pandemic, while their costs for providing jobless benefits have skyrocketed.

Unless the Senate approves the package soon, school systems nationwide will be forced to stay closed this fall because there won’t be available money to pay teachers and staff, Weingarten said.

So will other local agencies, including jobless offices, said another caravaneer, Jason Suggs of AFSCME Local 3641. He works in Maryland’s unemployment insurance office, which, like other offices nationwide, was overwhelmed by the 40 million more people suddenly without work when the pandemic and resulting business closures hit.

“That’s roughly one in every four” nationwide, the Local 3641 president said. “Every day, I speak with hard-working folks” who are now hard up. Thousands, after six weeks or more, have yet to receive a single check, he said.

Others are told “to bring in more documents” to satisfy federal jobless rules. But if Suggs and his colleagues get laid off, they can’t help – and will have to seek jobless aid, too. “And we’re all getting calls now from people asking what to do after July 31.”

The House-passed Heroes Act also extends special temporary federal unemployment benefits beyond their July 31 deadline. Those benefits both add money to regular jobless checks and cover jobless people who were previously ineligible, such as “gig economy” workers, so-called “independent contractors,” and musicians who do not work full-time all the time.

It also includes $25 billion to help tide the U.S. Postal Service over and keep it from disappearing – a fate Trump prefers – in a flood tide of red ink. Doing away with the USPS and its 630,000 workers, 80% of them union members, is a top goal of the corporate poohbahs and radical-right ideologues around the president. Postal unions are lobbying hard for the money. Trump and McConnell say “no.”

Killing the USPS would eliminate another threat Trump fears: Massive voting by mail, to counteract the coronavirus pandemic, which would in turn drive up turnout of workers, young people, women, people of color, and elderly. Trump and his GOP allies say such a hike in turnout would defeat their party and president at the polls this fall. The bill includes $400 million and a mandate for states to erect and implement vote-by-mail.

And it orders Trump’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to order firms to immediately develop and implement plants to protect their workers and customers against the spread of the coronavirus. That’s a key cause of National Nurses United, AFT and its nurses affiliate, the Service Employees, and other unions.

“Having OSHA check our workplaces” before workers return to their jobs “makes sense,” Suggs said.

“We have to keep our front-line workers safe,” Weingarten commented. Right now, the car caravaneers insisted, too many aren’t. They’re pushed together on food processing plant production lines, not given sanitizers or time to wash hands and often lack protective masks, gloves, and other gear.

Trump’s OSHA has issued just one citation of a faulty firm for not protecting workers since the pandemic started. It’s fielded more than 5,000 complaints.

“Thousands of working people across the country joined together to demand the Senate pass the Heroes Act and that Congress take actions to address structural racism,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement after the Zoom press conference.

“The Heroes Act is grounded in five economic essentials desperately needed to keep working people safe and financially secure. This would save lives through a federal infectious disease standard for employers” he added, referring to the OSHA rule. The federation tried in federal court to force OSHA to issue such a rule, but lost there to Trump.

Workers First Caravan in Wisconsin. | Wisconsin AFL-CIO via Twitter

“But the Heroes Act by itself is not sufficient to address systemic racism. The killings of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people, whether from the knee of a police officer or the bullet of a neighbor, have forced us to confront racial injustices yet again. Indeed, racism damages the lives of all working people by dividing us, weakening us, and poisoning us with debilitating hate,” Trumka explained.

“I’m here today participating in the caravan because my coworkers and I are concerned whether we will have a safe environment when we return to our classrooms,” Crystal Puryear, a D.C. teacher and member of AFT Local 6, told the Zoom press conference. “We need PPE (personal protective equipment) provided and environments that are clean and safe for everyone.”

“Additionally, we are demanding full funding, including counselors back in our schools, because police are not the answer for discipline issues. Teachers are workers like everyone else. Congress must act today because our school children depend on us as teachers, and they depend on being in safe schools and safe environments.”

One group of essential workers got a jump on June 17, with a June 12 caravan of its own, the Teamsters reported. The union organized nationwide food supply chain workers – grocery workers, truckers, stockers, and others – to demand employers and state governments “take action to keep them safe and protect the nation’s food supply amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Workers in more than 30 cities raised their voices to demand change in the wake of recent COVID-19 outbreaks in the food industry, specifically, the need for enforceable safety standards, government funding for paid sick and family leave, hazard pay, access to PPE, and testing capacity,” the union said.

And Puryear said that even after the car caravan wound up successfully on June 17, the campaigning won’t stop. On June 21, the first day of summer, “there’ll be a local protest.”

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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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