As coronavirus still rages, debate over post-virus future heats up
Green New Deal supporters demonstrate in Washington, D.C. The Green New Deal is a prime example of the type of job-creating program progressives want to see when the economy opens after the pandemic. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP

WASHINGTON—Even as the coronavirus pandemic still rages through the U.S., the debate over the shape of society and the economy, post-virus, is heating up.

On one side, with the weight of wealth, clout, and the ruling Republican White House, are corporate and right-wing interests that want to take the country back to the days of a small ruling class lording it over – and subjugating – everyone else.

And they want to do it now, with red-state governors, notably in Georgia and Florida, already reopening their states, in defiance of health warnings about social distancing and avoiding crowds.

On the other side are organized progressives, including labor and its many allies, progressive lawmakers, many, but not all, Democrats, and, on the left, groups like DSA and the CPUSA. They want to come out of this continental and global crisis with an economy and a society that work for all, not the few. And for some of them, if that means “socialism,” as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. – a key roadblock – insultingly and snidely calls it, so be it.

Public opinion is strongly on the go-slow side towards any type of economy, old or new, reports business analyst Karen Webster in “Our national survey of consumers, more than 10,000 now, has found consistently, week after week, that the only thing that will give the customer real confidence about getting back to their daily routines is the availability of a vaccine that will alleviate their fear of dying. If anything, that sentiment has only gotten stronger each and every time we go into the field and ask — which is every 10 days.” Such a vaccine, experts say, is up to 18 months away.

The Trump administration has already used the pandemic to attack unions in much the same way as they have used right to work laws to do so. They have suspended elections for union representation using the pandemic as an excuse. In this photo, workers demonstrate against the right to work for less law. | Paul Sancya/AP

And, yelling from the wings, energized, legitimized and accepted by Donald Trump and his acolytes, is a third, vicious and murderous mob: Hate-mongers and white nationalists.

The outcome of this struggle could be as momentous as the last time the U.S. faced such a choice, in the depths of the Great Depression. The circumstances are remarkably similar, too.

Unemployment is near or above 20%, a level unseen since that crash, which lasted from 1929-1938. Food banks and soup kitchens are extremely stretched thin. Donations dry up and volunteers disappear – for the justified fear of lack of social distancing causing community spread of the coronavirus. City downtowns are deserted and museums and other attractions are closed. Streets are bereft of cars.

Just like in the 1930s, tens of thousands of businesses are shuttered, many never to return. Auto production has fallen by 50%, calculations show. People are literally going hungry, as farmers, with no markets among now-shuttered mass restaurant buyers, dump milk down the drain and plow vegetables under in the fields, again a repetition of the 1930s. And white nationalists were powerful, then, too.

But in the 1930s, millions took to the streets in an uprising demanding social and economic change, which FDR’s New Deal attempted to answer, with public works programs and stricter regulation of corporate crooks, deliberately saving capitalism from itself. The New Deal also enacted Social Security, the minimum wage, overtime pay and more  — and what Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Sen. Robert Wagner, Sr., D-L-N.Y., and eventually FDR thought would be a comprehensive law protecting workers, especially their right to unionize: The National Labor Relations Act.

Now millions are agitating online for a mass change in U.S. society. Some, wearing N95 masks and keeping the social distance of six feet apart, are even taking to the streets.

The reason why: The coronavirus pandemic. As of 10 a.m. April 27, close to 1 million people in the U.S. (994,664) had caught the virus, and 56,394 have died in the three months since the count started. That exceeds the number of U.S. soldiers killed in action in the 20 years, 1955-75, of U.S. domination of the Vietnam/Indochina War: 47,434, says the Department of Veterans Affairs, not counting another 10,786 who “died in-theater” but not battle.

One of every eight soldiers who died in Vietnam was African-American, slightly larger than their 10-plus percent of the U.S. population at that time.  Now, Dr. Lisa Cooper, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity, reports African Americans are 13% of the U.S. population but account for 34% of coronavirus deaths in those states that already report racial breakdowns. African-American death rates range from 50% to more than 70% of the total in some cities, such as Chicago.

The progressives’ platform

In and out of Congress, progressives have put together a platform for the massive restructuring of society and the economy, along the lines of the New Deal, but going beyond it. “The disastrous policies and course of the past two years” – at that time, in 2019 — “have undermined public protections, security for our diverse population, and presented a danger to our democracy,” National Nurses United said last year. The restructuring initiatives include:

  • Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, proposed guaranteeing every worker’s income – regardless of whether their job still exists or not due to the pandemic – up to $100,000, plus health and pension benefits. The CPC just added work-sharing legislation to combat the new Great Depression to its agenda and will hold an electronic hearing, via its Facebook page, on April 29 on both.
  • Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., introduced an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights” that could easily cover everybody after the pandemic is over. It includes strong worker rights provisions and enforcement, high fines for labor law-breakers, mandatory arbitration of first contracts if the two sides don’t agree, elimination of the “independent contractor” dodge corporations now use to keep people without minimum pay, benefits or the right to organize, and caps on executive pay, stock buybacks, golden parachutes, and other such corporate graft.
  • Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., Jayapal, and others, including at least a dozen unions led by NNU, say the coronavirus crash, which has thrown 26.5 million (and counting) workers onto unemployment lines and cost millions of them their health insurance, again proves the need for Medicare For All.

Its great virtue, besides saving money from national spending on health care – now 17.8% of gross domestic product – is that it unties the tight bond between jobs and health care coverage. That bond has been fraying for years, as corporations unload more of the costs onto workers, who can’t individually afford it.

  • The AFL-CIO’s plan for dealing specifically with the impact of the virus includes a principle – stronger protection against bosses who retaliate against workers who speak up – that the labor federation advocates across the board. It’s also pushing comprehensive pro-worker labor law reform, which passed the Democratic-run U.S. House, and which McConnell has deep-sixed.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee this fall against Trump, has gone even farther. In one debate, he proposed high fines and jail terms for corporate labor law-breakers in general. Anger with Trump is so great that Biden, who was not the first choice among many progressives, is leading strongly in the polls among both those who are 18 to 35 years old and among seniors.

  • The Progressive Caucus and its allies, notably Sanders, the BlueGreen Alliance and the Labor Network for Sustainability, push the Green New Deal as a way to create millions of jobs, especially construction jobs, in retrofitting the country to lower greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
  • And the Utility Workers, the Steelworkers, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the BlueGreen Alliance spoke out strongly about the Trump EPA’s dumping of environmental protections – another action the president uses the pandemic to justify.

They advocated “a forward-thinking effort to spur the recovery of America’s economy focused on rebuilding the middle class and creating good-paying jobs that allow workers to get ahead and never again be one virus away from losing everything.”

Congress, they added, should “undo years of neglect and underfunding that undermined America’s social safety net and public sector…along with putting millions of Americans back to work when it is safe rebuilding the nation’s physical infrastructure systems.”

“If we are going to invest in America’s recovery we should do it to benefit workers,” BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director Jason Walsh said earlier in April. “When it’s safe, we must put America back to work in good-paying jobs rebuilding America’s infrastructure and our manufacturing sector and rebuilding the social safety net and public services that we know are vitally important to saving lives.”

“Decisions made for all of us are made by private interests based on what is best for those private interests,” notably short-term capitalist profits, said a speaker, reading a slide, at a recent CPUSA webinar on the Green New Deal and other issues. “Capitalist ‘externalities’ are paid by the rest of us: Waste, pollution, inadequate wages and health care.”

The solution, the seminar leader said, reading the following slide, is “Decisions made by democratic bodies, with public participation” and “based on a long-term vision of what humanity needs.”

That means “creation of a system based on harmony with nature” – the Green New Deal – “and an end to oppression and exploitation,” the follow-up slide said.

The right-wing reaction

A big difference between 1935 and 2020 is existential influence of corporations, their criminal chieftains, and their political handmaidens. The “malefactors of great wealth” – to use Teddy Roosevelt’s, not FDR’s, phrase – are more powerful now than they were 85 years ago, thanks to the concentration of cash and riches within the hands of the 1%. Those decades ago, the rich were back on their heels.

The right-wing majority on the U.S. Supreme Court increased that corporate clout starting in 2010 through decisions setting the 1% and corporations free to overwhelm the rest of us in politics through unlimited amounts of campaign donations and spending, most of it “black money” with no disclosure.

The modern malefactors mean to use their wealth against the rest of us, with the pandemic as their excuse.

One key tactic: Dismantle the opposition, by destroying its core, organized labor:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court, in the Janus decision several years ago, showed the right wing the way forward, by depriving unions of cash, through making every single state and local government worker a potential “free rider” able to use union services without paying one red cent for them. And right-wing lawmakers are again trying to steer so-called “right to work” laws through Congress and “red state” legislatures. The most extreme example, so far, is in Florida, where public workers will not be able to join unions, or have their agencies deduct “fair share fees,” much less union dues, from their paychecks, unless their employer gives them the go-ahead, one by one.
  • Another is to prevent organizing. The Trump-named current three-person National Labor Relations Board announced a moratorium on union representation elections in late March. It was supposed to lift it in early April. But 20 pro-corporate labor lawyers, marshaled by the Chamber of Commerce, demanded the board extend the ban indefinitely.

The chamber, too, used the pandemic as a lever, alleging home visits by union organizers could produce community spread of the coronavirus. They also repeated the chamber’s frequent lie about union intimidation of voters. And the chamber alleged the virus would prevent bosses from communicating with workers, without saying how bosses have done so, by intimidation, rampant law-breaking up to and including illegal firings, and use of union-busters at “captive audience” meetings.

  • Trump’s NLRB also issued federal rules, which have the force of law, outlawing organizing what the right snidely calls “micro-unions” at one worksite within an employer’s larger plant, and banning holding joint employers jointly responsible for labor law compliance, or lack of it. The board also re-erected bosses’ hurdles to union representation elections.
  • And to ensure progressives can’t retake power, the right also denies the right to vote to anyone – workers, women, people of color, migrants, students, the elderly – who disputes their hegemonic agenda. Name a tactic, including forcing people to endanger their health by standing in voting lines, as the GOP forced in this year’s Wisconsin primary, and they’re using it.

The Supreme Court GOP majority blessed those voter suppression tactics, too, twice.

Some red-state officials also block vote-by-mail plans to get around the pandemic. Voting by mail, with no excuses needed to do so, is already used in Oregon, Colorado, Washington state, and several others. California is moving towards it. In all those states, turnout went up in 2018 far above prior levels. But in red states, notably in Missouri and in the North Carolina legislature, officials are making it difficult, if not impossible. Where governors try to block their moves, the GOP-gerrymandered legislatures neuter those chief executives’ powers to kill bosses’ schemes.

  • Another tactic: Massive deregulation, returning to the dog-eat-dog economy of chieftains and serfs of the 1890s.

Deregulation is in full swing, ordered by Trump. Early in 2017, long before the virus hit, he mandated executive branch agencies to kill two rules for every one they issued. The unspoken subtext: Rules protecting workers and consumers bit the dust, and other rule plans – including ones that would have protected nurses against airborne diseases such as the coronavirus – were shelved or yanked. When Trump agencies, following federal law, put their rule revocations out for public comments, the agencies’ political masters ignore the comments.

Right-wingers the GOP Trump regime installed in key federal offices, including the Environmental Protection Agency, enthusiastically trashed everything. EPA’s staff has shrunk by more than 30% since Trump took over, “green” initiatives have vanished from its website, and the agency is promulgating the right-wing wish list of turning loose virtually every polluting industry it can find.

  • The right-wing Heritage Foundation convened a pro-corporate so-called “National Coronavirus Recovery Commission” which issued a report and recommendations for what comes next. A key section read that when governors “reopen” states, they do so by “taking the lead on pro-business reforms to jump-start the economy and encourage consumer confidence.”

This should include easing restrictions on home-based businesses, easing unnecessary regulations on child care providers and allowing non-licensed co-ops between parents, allowing gig-based businesses to provide com­pensation, such as for sick leave, that would help to allevi­ate the spread and economic consequences of COVID-19 (the coronavirus’s official name) without triggering their treatment as an employer” – and thus triggering labor law protections for workers, though Heritage did not say so.

Heritage also advocates “reducing or removing restrictive labor policies, such as increased minimum wages or prohibitions on indepen­dent work.” Indeed, Gov. Ralph Northam, D-Va., who has wavered between pro-business and pro-worker policies, suspended the state’s minimum wage increase the newly Democratic legislature approved.

“States should also allow employers in union-run pension plans to reduce or skip contributions as long as the union amends its collective bargaining agreement to temporarily freeze pension accruals,” Heritage recommends – a polite way of saying states should let firms trash pension benefits.

The Heritage Foundation isn’t the only outfit seeking to use the coronavirus to roll back the gains of workers, women, and people of color.

  • Trump and his Treasury Secretary, banker Steve Mnuchin, are using the financial straits of the U.S. Postal Service to strong arm the USPS into huge concessions: Tearing up its union contracts and raising rates on its profitable package service, which would, in turn, benefit private delivery services, notably anti-union and anti-worker Federal Express. Most USPS workers are union members. They’re also majority people of color, female, veterans, or combinations of those characteristics.
  • So-called right-to-lifers have prevailed on red-state governors, notably in Alabama, Ohio, and Texas, to outlaw reproductive rights through methods ranging from clinic requirements which are impossible to meet to promulgating extremely early fetal “viability” standards.
  • Even before the virus hit, Trump openly advocated cutting benefits from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, in a statement he made about cutting the federal deficit – after the $1.5 trillion Trump-GOP tax cut for the rich and the corporations ballooned it, but before the virus hit.
  • “Though fatalities are rising, workplace inspections by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) dropped by 10.5% percent between 2014 and 2018,” the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health reported. “OSHA now has just 875 inspectors to cover nine million U.S. workplaces.” That’s fewer than when OSHA began in 1970.
  • Heritage also wants to dismantle the public schools. “States should immediately restructure per-pupil K–12 education funding to provide education savings ac­counts (ESAs) to families, enabling them to access their child’s share of state per-pupil funding to pay for online courses, online tutors, curriculum, and textbooks so that their children can continue learning,” their commission recommends.

Education Savings Accounts are a fancy name for taxpayer-subsidized vouchers for parents of private school kids – vouchers which would rob public schools and their unionized teachers of needed funds to maintain and improve schools, especially schools serving students of color. That’s no coincidence. The majority of teachers are women, and students of color are a majority in U.S. public schools. The right hates both. States should dump occupational licensing requirements, too, Heritage adds.

Stephen Miller, a well known white nationalist, has Trump’s ear constantly because of his position at the White House. | Andrew Harnik/AP
  • “Governments should repeal laws that prohibit some businesses, such as trucks from the alcohol industry, from delivering grocery supplies to stores and consum­ers,” Heritage said. “States should also repeal unreasonable day-care licensing requirements that make daycare very costly for parents and limit their options to return to work. Hospitals and medical providers that can demonstrate they have plans in place to protect the spread of COVID-19 should be allowed to reopen and offer ser­vices that have been deemed ‘non-essential,’” which in­cludes cancer treatments.

The catch to that last recommendation is that Trump’s OSHA refuses to issue an emergency rule forcing medical providers to create and enforce such plans, which the Obama-era OSHA ordered them to craft. Before it could force implementation, though, Trump took over – and shelved the whole project.

The white nationalist threat

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, white nationalism, a section of the oppressors’ coalition, is open, active, and growing, while white nationalist allies occupy several positions in Trump’s White House. Trump’s Department of Homeland Security recognizes the threat and now calls it more dangerous to the U.S. than foreign terrorism. But Trump himself has tied DHS’s hands on combating such extremists, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports. The department can share information with local officials, but that’s all.

“These extremists are not reluctant to voice their desire for mass violence to counter the demographic changes” they hate and fear, SPLC said in its latest report, The Year in Hate and Extremism 2019, issued before the pandemic was declared.

As an example, SPLC quoted the neo-Nazi Daily Sturmer website’s declaration: “Random violence is not detrimental to the cause, because we need to convince Americans that violence against non-whites is desirable or at least something not worth opposing. There’s no way you can remove 100 million people without a massive amount of violence.”

“This type of rhetoric is not without consequence,” SPLC added. After a white nationalist gunman assassinated 22 Hispanic-named people and wounded another 26 in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, last year, “a New York Times review of popular right-wing media platforms identified ‘hundreds of examples of language, ideas, and ideologies that overlapped with the mass killer’s written statement – a shared vocabulary of intolerance that stokes fears centered on immigrants of color.’”

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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.