Lots of cash, including pro-worker cash; very little pro-worker policy
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says Democrats turned the Senate's pro corporate bill into a pro worker bill. | Patrick Semansky/AP

WASHINGTON—The $2.2 trillion coronavirus economic impact bill Congress President Donald Trump says he will sign contains a lot of pro-worker cash – and very little pro-worker policy.

It wasn’t for lack of trying, at least by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. She produced an alternative with the same spending – but festooned with pro-worker sections.

That version had items ranging from mandates on firms getting federal funds that they (a) limit executive pay and (b) pay their workers at least $15 an hour, to repeal of Trump’s anti-federal worker executive orders, and even, Pelosi said, pension reform.

But her measure got sidelined. On the other hand, Pelosi, rightly, called McConnell’s original business-weighted bill “a non-starter.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, appearing on Fox Business – despite that network’s pro-Trump tilt – had a mixed reaction. “The (Senate) bill makes many important investments” but “it falls short in protecting frontline workers and does nothing to preserve America’s pensions,” he said in part.

Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry agreed, calling the measure “a good first step to address the economic and health problems faced by working people of all races and ethnicities.” But it’s “no substitute” for coordinated administration action.

“We still need to do more,” she said. “Congress should immediately begin work on a new bill that ensures every working American has paid sick days, everyone can get coronavirus testing and treatment free of charge, no matter their immigration status, and working people continue to come before corporations. In particular, continuing to bar Dreamers, TPS-holders, and undocumented families from access to testing and medical services will have devastating public health consequences.”

Their comments came after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., reached a bargain with Senate Democrats, and senators passed it. Headline items for workers are the $1,200-per-adult and $500-per-child checks, four months of extended and expanded jobless benefits and a strict independent check on the $500 billion corporate “slush fund” Trump proposed. The Senate GOP tried to cut the jobless benefits but failed on a 48-48 tie vote.

“If we err on the side of giving a hardworking family an extra $1,000 or $2,000 because of our approach, so be it. No apologies,” Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.

Pelosi promised the House would pass the  $2.2 trillion bill on March 27. She had little alternative. After the Senate got done, McConnell – unbelievably – sent the Senate into recess for three weeks, leaving Pelosi and House Democrats with their own “take it or leave it” vote.

“We held the line against so many of the ideological issues the Democrats and specifically the Speaker of the House tried to put into this legislation,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., crowed during floor debate.

Not all was lost for workers. Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., pointed out that traditional jobless benefits apply only to workers whose firms pay Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, and most importantly, jobless benefits levies, on their behalf.

That leaves out millions of misclassified “independent contractors,” as well as gig economy workers and other workers such as home health care aides.

“For all kinds of absurd reasons having to do with  Republican attacks on workers for many years, fewer than 50% of workers today are eligible for unemployment benefits,” Sanders said.

“What this bill does, rightly so, is say that in the midst of this terrible economic crisis where…some economists are estimating that by June, unemployment could be 20% or 30%, and what this bill does say is that whether or not you are eligible for unemployment today, you are going to get unemployment compensation.

“And that means many of the gig workers, many of the waitresses and waiters who make starvation minimum wages, many so-called ‘independent contractors’ will be eligible for the extended unemployment benefits. And that is exactly the right thing.”

Cantwell agreed, adding: “I wish we would have come to terms on even allowing for COBRA enhancements, particularly for the aerospace sector,” which has already seen 13,000 layoffs, according to its leading union, the Machinists.

“It is so important in fighting this disease that we not only take care of unemployment benefits, but we also make sure people in unemployment have access to health care. We can’t be in the midst of a pandemic and not give people affordable access to healthcare,” she said.

And, in an ironic twist, the coronavirus economic aid bill was attached to a pro-worker piece of legislation, S748, the permanent repeal of the so-called “Cadillac tax” on high-value, high-cost health insurance plans.

The coronavirus economic aid bill is supposed to be temporary, with many expiration dates on or before Dec. 31. The lead Senate Democratic bargainer, Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., predicted it won’t be.

“This legislation will be with us not for days and not for weeks, not even for months, but probably for years. To improve this legislation was worth taking an extra day or two, improving it after the Republican leader just put it down without consulting us and tried to say ‘take it or leave it,’” he said.

And its jobless benefits section is “unemployment insurance on steroids,” he added.

Pelosi told reporters on March 26 the Dems won’t give up, when she started looking forwards towards passing the next coronavirus economic aid bill – but not before refuting Barrasso and McConnell.

“We did jujitsu on it,” she said of McConnell’s measure. “It went from a corporate-first proposal that the Republicans put forth in the Senate to a Democratic workers’ first legislation.”

The next measure, she promised, would mandate not just free testing of people for the coronavirus – paid for by the government – but free treatment as well. It would also have “a better definition of who qualifies for family and medical leave” a 15% increase in food stamp funds, and “stronger OSHA protection for our workers,” which she called “essential, essential to life.

The GOP bounced that House Democratic provision requiring OSHA to implement an emergency health care standard, now, requiring hospitals, nursing homes, and other health care facilities to implement and enforce protection plans for their workers against airborne ills – such as the coronavirus.

That’s a key goal of National Nurses United, both temporarily and permanently. Trump ordered OSHA to shelve it. As soon as the stimulus bill passed, four Senate Democrats introduced S3568 to force Trump to use his emergency powers to order OSHA to write the rule.

“We would have added even more support for Medicaid, hospitals, community health centers, nursing homes, and new patient protections to ensure everyone with coronavirus can access and afford treatment,” Schumer added.

“We would have increased food assistance. We would have included more relief for student borrowers and prohibitions on evictions and foreclosures on Americans for the duration of the crisis. We have gotten many of those but not all on evictions and foreclosures.” Sens. Doug Jones, D-Ala., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, introduced an eviction ban, also after the money bill passed.

While there was “jujitsu” by the GOP on policy, money was another matter, with one exception in each category: The legislation bans more funds for Trump’s Mexican Wall, and it shorts Washington, D.C., by $700 million.

“Importantly, the bill will not permit the transfer of emergency funding” intended “to battle COVID–19” – the official name for the coronavirus — “to the president’s misguided projects including the border wall,” said. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the top Democrat on the Senate panel which actually helps dole out federal funds.

Three provisions in the Homeland Security section of the bill confirm that transfer ban, though they don’t mention the wall by name.

Banning the wall wasn’t the only anti-Trump zinger in the legislation. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a right-wing Trumpite said the measure included “a neat little feature …that no son or daughter or family member or any individual that works with the presidency, vice presidency, or the Congress could get any of the grant programs, loan programs” in the money bill.

“In fact, the language they demanded was interesting: No son-in-law could get that,” Lankford continued. “I  wonder: Who could that be targeted toward? A particular son-in-law that might be there,” Trump son-in-law and aide Jared Kushner.

As for shorting, D.C., the heavily Democratic and majority-minority capital city is a favorite GOP whipping boy and lab for right-wing ideological experiments.  It was in line, using a formula for distributing funds to states, for a base of $1.25 billion in general money from the bill., before other targeted funds. The GOP called D.C. a “territory” and gave it a territory’s pro-rated share, cutting the base to $550 million. That gave “heartburn” to Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

Other key items picked out from a close reading of the bill include, but are not limited to:

  • No use by firms of federal money for stock buybacks, high executive compensation or CEO bonus pay for as long as firms take the cash – and a year afterwards. And, Schumer said, and reading of the bill confirmed, protection of collective bargaining agreements.
  • Provisions, especially in the airline industry, but also at hub airports, against furloughs, despite a horrific decline in passengers after imposition of all the “shelter in place” orders in the states.

SEIU’s Henry said the airline money earmarks $3 billion to keep 125,000 frontline airport workers on the job. The bill doesn’t give a figure but says hub airports will get extra subsidies to keep 90% of their workers – cleaners, luggage handlers, and others — on payrolls, unless doing so would drive the hubs financially under.

  • A job retention tax credit for firms, inserted by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Ben Cardin, D-Md. It “allows companies that furloughed workers to bring those workers back and get a credit up to 50% of that wage, up to $10,000, as a tax credit in order to bring back those workers,” Cardin said.

That provision, and others, “will also allow companies to furlough workers so they can stay on as employees, so when, God willing, this crisis abates, they can quickly resume work with their employer and businesses can reassemble,” Schumer said.

  • $150 billion for state governments and $8 billion for tribal governments. Schumer predicted they’d need it as their workloads would increase – with applications at state unemployment agencies for jobless benefits – as their revenues crashed. He was right on the first count, the very next day: New claims for unemployment insurance soared to a record 3.28 million for the week ending March 21. AFSCME forecasts the states will be short of both money and workers.

“My Republican friends didn’t want to do it,” during their closed-door talks, Schumer said. “But they had to do it, because local governments are hurting.”

“If anyone thinks, just passing this bill, that tomorrow everything is going to flow smoothly, you are sadly mistaken,” Sanders warned. “This is a complicated, multifaceted bill, and it is going to take an enormous amount of work to make sure the money goes where it should go in a cost-effective way.”

  • $25 billion to keep the nation’s bus and subway systems afloat, despite drastic declines in ridership. Without it, members of the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers would lose even more jobs than they already have.
  • The Democrats banned Trump from spending more money to refill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, despite low current oil prices. That pissed off right-wing oil-state Sen. Lankford. “It will actually cost us more money in the future,” he fumed. “But it was their intention to say that we don’t want oil companies to get any support in this downturn.”
  • $75 million each for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., pushed those funds, to help artists whose suddenly lost gigs and income when arenas, concert halls, arts festivals, and other showcases shut down due to restrictions on movement and groups. Funding is a key goal of Actors Equity and other arts unions.

“When arts and cultural venues are shuttered and artists and all others are out of work, there is no doubt these are exceedingly difficult times,” said Udall. The GOP screamed about the arts funds but lost. Sen. John Cornyn. R-Texas, alleged, without proof, the Democrats wanted to insert tax credits for solar panels, and fuel standards for airplanes, but they lost those battles.

  • $100 million more for the Bureau of Prisons, and lawmakers told BOP to use it to buy N95 masks and other protective equipment for corrections officers. The Assistance to Firefighters grants program, where the feds help local departments with equipment purchases, also gets $100 million for the same reason. That program is a key Fire Fighters cause.

Federal prisons are so overcrowded – and thus breeding grounds for coronavirus transmission – that the officers, members of the Government Employees, need the devices. The money bill also orders the Justice Department to look into more “home detention” of non-violent offenders, to ease the crowding and the danger.

  • And the Health and Human Services Department got $27.5 billion to, in so many words, devise ways to bring the supply chain for medicines – especially for vaccines against the coronavirus – back to the U.S. Left unsaid: Many of the ingredients for the vaccines and parts for other U.S. medical equipment come from China, including Wuhan, where the pandemic began.

That money will run through Sept. 30, 2024, and go for “development of necessary countermeasures and vaccines, prioritizing platform-based technologies with U.S.-based manufacturing capabilities, the purchase of vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, necessary medical supplies, as well as medical surge capacity, addressing blood supply chain, workforce modernization, telehealth access, and infrastructure, initial advanced manufacturing, novel dispensing…and other preparedness and response activities,” the stimulus bill says.


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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