Unions, Dems resist GOP attempt to starve states and localities
AFT President Randi Weingarten said lawmakers have a choice to make between GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his corporate backers and the people. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP

WASHINGTON—A big battle is shaping up, which affects not just two million workers and their families, but everyone else in the U.S., over whether the next economic stimulus bill in Congress will aid state and local governments and their employees – or not.

On one side are workers, unions, congressional Democrats, and the states and cities themselves. Mass closures forced by the coronavirus pandemic, which has sickened 1.224 million people nationwide, killed 73,275 and thrown almost 34 million people out of jobs as of 8:30 am on May 5, have forced skyrocketing demand for those governments’ services. Meanwhile, those governments’ revenues have literally gone down the drain.

Take away money, advocates say, and teachers can’t teach because school systems stay shut down, the garbage doesn’t get picked up, nurses go unpaid and so do firefighters and other first responders, for example.

On the other side are GOP President Donald Trump, congressional Republicans, notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and right-wing anti-worker ideologues, including other GOP senators.

McConnell wants a “pause” in further economic stimulus laws and suggests states should declare bankruptcy, which would force the states and cities to fire workers and abolish contracts and pensions, right when those workers are most needed.

That brought a sharp retort May 7 from Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Schumer added House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and he would soon unveil a “Rooseveltian” relief package, without giving details. But seven Democratic senators, Schumer included, unveiled their state and local aid plan days before.

“The people like McConnell and” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., “and even Trump who say, ‘Let’s wait and do nothing,’ well, they remind me of the old Herbert Hoovers. We had the Great Depression — Hoover said let’s just wait it out. It got worse and worse,” Schumer said.

Unions agreed. “It’s time to press Congress as hard as we can to fund the frontlines of this pandemic. And it’s the (GOP) Senate majority that is the real problem,” the Teachers (AFT) warned in launching a petition drive supporting the state and local aid.

Left unsaid in this war: More than 35% of state and local workers are union members, including 70% of workers – teachers, counselors, nurses, aides, custodians, even some administrators – in the nation’s public schools. And those unionists are both concentrated in “blue states” and a key Democratic Party constituency.

Also left unsaid: Studies dating all the way back to the mid-1980s show taxpayers in the “blue states” – which Trump falsely denounces as badly run – consistently sent more money to the federal government than they got back in federal discretionary spending. “Red states,” with McConnell’s Kentucky prominent among them, had the reverse pattern.

But now all states are in the tank, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and resulting closures. That led the Senate Democrats to unveil legislation to help them, allocating dollars, in grants, to the state and local governments, though without an overall dollar figure.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., supplied sums. He told a telephone press conference on May 7 that state officials seek $500 billion from the next stimulus package and local governments need a similar sum. He emphasized the money would pay the 2.2 million state and local government workers. Otherwise, they’d be laid off.

That’s because, except for Vermont, states must balance their budgets – and all have seen their sales tax and income tax revenues collapse with the closures. Their choices are either cutting workers or cutting programs, including programs to help jobless workers, that people need, he said.

Virginia alone “had to cancel 2% raises” for state and local workers, “cut aid to low-income schools” and make other cuts in higher education, health care, and other areas, Scott noted. Though he did not say so, low-income workers lost another way: Gov. Ralph Northam (D) canceled a scheduled raise in the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024.

One big question, so far unanswered: Whether the next stimulus law will also include worker protections, and if so, how strong, as envisioned by the Essential Workers Bill of Rights, a top progressive cause. Daily Kos, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and their allies mounted a mass phone, e-mail, and text “virtual lobbying” effort on May 7 for inserting that pro-worker measure into the stimulus bill.

Unions are applauding the Democrats’ plans to aid state and local workers. AFSCME, which has1.4 million members, and is the lead union for state and local workers, launched a cable and digital ad campaign advocating the aid. They haven’t mentioned the Bill of Rights.

“Front-line health care workers, corrections officers, home and child care providers, sanitation workers, and other public service workers put their lives on the line every day to save ours. America refuses to thank them with pink slips,” said AFSCME President Lee Saunders. “Public service workers and the services they provide are essential to beating this pandemic and opening the economy.”

“Does anyone’s idea of a reopened America mean permanently overwhelmed hospitals, overcrowded classrooms, trash in the streets, and dirty water coming out of the tap?” he asked. “The public service cuts communities made after the Great Recession” a decade ago “are one reason we are in the mess we are in today in fighting this pandemic. We must learn the mistakes of austerity and not repeat them.”

AFT, which has 1.7 million members, took aim at the Senate Republicans in general and McConnell and Trump in particular in announcing its own petition drive for the state and local government aid.

“Members of Congress have a choice: They can stand with McConnell and his corporate donors, or they can stand with the frontline workers, like teachers and nurses, who are getting us through this crisis—and will continue to do so in its aftermath. Standing with the heroes means Congress must provide state, local, and school aid while state economies are effectively shut down,” AFT said.

“State and local stabilization funds aren’t the most exciting issue to talk to Congress about. And that’s part of what McConnell is counting on. He thinks the public doesn’t care and won’t speak out. But we will. Because we know this aid is critical for all of our communities. We can’t let him or Donald Trump forfeit our future.”

One state and local aid package, unveiled by seven Democratic senators on May 6, will “ensure state and local governments” can “pay our first responders, health care workers, teachers, and public servants, and can continue serving our communities without raising taxes or fees,” its lead sponsor, Kirsten Gillibrand. D-N.Y., said in a statement. “I will do everything in my power to ensure that this proposal is included in the next economic relief package.”

“This direct relief is a lifeline for many local governments who are facing the impossible decision of choosing between tax hikes and laying off public safety officials like police officers, sheriffs and firefighters” added cosponsoring Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “We can’t let Ohio communities deal with the rippling effects of this crisis alone. We have to do more.”

“The coronavirus pandemic has upended everyone’s lives,” said another co-sponsor, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich. “State and local governments in Michigan have been leading the response to this crisis on-the-ground, but they need immediate support to carry out essential responsibilities. This bill will ensure cash-strapped communities can continue vital functions, including public safety and emergency services.

Besides seeking money for state and local governments, lawmakers also will push hard for emergency standards from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to mandate that firms protect workers – by drafting and implementing plans to do so – against airborne viruses, such as the coronavirus.

“We’ve been yelling at OSHA for this since January,” Scott said.

Mandating protection for front-line workers, especially nurses, has been a longtime goal of National Nurses United and other unions. But OSHA, Scott and his colleagues said, has been missing in action. It’s issued “guidance” on protecting workers, but not a standard, which has the force of law.  Without it, they noted, you get situations like the one in LaPlata, Md., There, on May 7, the state fined a nursing home $10,000 a day retroactive to March 30 for outright refusal to protect workers – and residents – from the coronavirus.  One worker and 34 residents have since died there from it.


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.