McConnell’s Callous Indifference

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

McConnell’s Callous Indifference

Ken Merkel started cutting expenses as soon as Packaging Corp. of America (PCA) furloughed him along with hundreds of other workers at its Jackson, Ala., location amid the COVID-19 recession.

Although the Army veteran and community volunteer slashed his car insurance, quit his satellite TV service and canceled a life insurance policy, he still needs $600 in weekly federal unemployment payments to make ends meet.

But this lifeline for Merkel and more than 30 million other unemployed workers is in jeopardy because Senate Republicans refuse to extend the benefits period and pass other legislation critically needed to battle the pandemic.

Instead of safeguarding hard-working Americans who fell on hard times through no fault of their own, callous Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—the person who controls the Senate’s agenda—put them squarely in harm’s way.

The 54-year-old Merkel, for example, got his first job pumping gas when he was 12 and never stopped pushing himself. Now, as infection rates soar across the U.S. and COVID-19 threatens still more damage to the nation’s economy, the former military policeman could lose almost everything he spent a lifetime building.

The Democratic-controlled House already passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act to combat the pandemic and help millions of average Americans avert financial calamity.

The common-sense legislation would extend emergency federal unemployment benefits, due to expire next week, through January. It would provide aid to local governments struggling to maintain essential public services because of COVID-19 budget crises, deliver another round of stimulus checks to hard-pressed families and ensure that those who lose their jobs continue to receive health insurance.

The HEROES Act would finally force the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to take steps to protect workers from COVID-19 on the job. And it would allocate billions of dollars for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, measures crucial for controlling the virus in hotspots like Alabama and McConnell’s home state of Kentucky.

But more than two months after the House passed the HEROES Act, it languishes in the Senate.

In refusing to bring the measure to a vote, McConnell flaunts both his disdain for average Americans and his indifference to the enormous damage that COVID-19 continues to inflict on the country each day.

He derided the HEROES Act as a “wish list” of giveaways—a windfall for people he considers freeloaders—when it’s really a responsible stopgap measure intended to save lives and sustain unemployed workers until they get back to the jobs they’re proud to do.

McConnell even claimed that continuing the $600 federal unemployment payments, provided on top of benefits supplied by the states, would just give workers a reason to stay home instead of returning to their jobs.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Laid-off Americans aren’t the lazy moochers McConnell evidently thinks they are. They’re loyal, patriotic workers who faithfully did their part to keep the nation functioning right up until the moment their employers furloughed them.

Walking a mile in Merkel’s shoes—or those of his co-workers—would show this out-of-touch millionaire just how much average Americans struggle right now.

Without the $600 in weekly federal benefits, for example, the PCA workers in Jackson will have to try to scrape by on a scant $275 provided by the state of Alabama. That’s all but impossible.

“I’ve already cut the best I can,” explained Merkel, a winder operator and member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9-1083 who not only has his own bills to pay but helps his stepmother with hers. “Ask the congressmen and the senators how much they could go without.”

As if he isn’t already struggling enough, losing federal unemployment benefits will force Merkel to start dipping into his retirement savings. And at that point, he noted, “I’ll be hurting my future.”

Local 9-1083 President Valerie Creagh receives calls and texts every day from colleagues concerned about the $600 payments.

Without that assistance, some risk losing the cars and homes they worked hard to afford. Others would fare much worse.  

“It would actually force some of our members into poverty,” predicted Creagh. “I hate to say that, but it’s just the truth.”

Merkel would be happy to let the federal government keep the unemployment money. What he really wants is to go back to work.

“I earned my place,” he said, noting the skills and training his trade requires. “My desire is to continue to gain, to work and to get more out of life.”

Workers around the country face the same plight as their PCA counterparts.

Another 1.3 million filed unemployment claims last week, joining the tens of millions who already lost their jobs because of COVID-19.

Layoffs began in the service sector; cascaded across the steel, rubber, aluminum, paper and auto industries; and now threaten thousands of airline workers.

Also, as Americans lost their jobs and businesses closed or scaled back, local governments lost billions in tax revenue that they rely on to pay public workers, provide essential services and even fight the pandemic.

Many cities, counties and transit agencies already cut personnel, services and programs because of huge budget shortfalls. And more will do the same in coming months if McConnell and other Senate Republicans fail to deliver the billions in local government aid allocated through the HEROES Act.

Despite this tsunami of destruction, McConnell feels no urgency to take up the legislation.

Workers don’t concern him. Corporations do.

As the COVID-19 death toll mounts, McConnell refuses to advocate for ordinary Americans. Instead, his goal is protecting companies that failed to take adequate steps to safeguard workers and customers sickened or killed by COVID-19.

He insists that Congress pass legislation giving corporations sweeping immunity from what—in his mind—will be a mountain of frivolous lawsuits filed by moochers. If he ever addresses the HEROES Act, McConnell likely will insist that corporate immunity become part of the deal.

The HEROES Act isn’t perfect.

It contains a provision called the GROW Act, for example, that would make it easier for employers to stop their contributions to multiemployer pension plans, putting workers’ retirement security at risk. This unacceptable provision must be stricken from the final version of the legislation.

But the HEROES Act provides crucial aid to Americans fighting to pay their bills. It ensures that local governments will continue providing police, fire and other essential services.

And it gives health officials the resources they need to conduct COVID-19 testing, track community spread and fight the infection rate while researchers work furiously on a vaccine.

“Maybe there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Merkel said. “But meanwhile, we have to get through the tunnel.”

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Photos of Ken Merkel and Valerie Creagh. Click here to tell your senator to remove the GROW Act and pass the HEROES Act today

There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work

Union Matters

Failing Bridges Hold Public Hostage

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) gave the public just a few hours’ notice before closing a major bridge in March, citing significant safety concerns.

The West Seattle Bridge functioned as an essential component of  the city’s local and regional transportation network, carrying 125,000 travelers a day while serving Seattle’s critical maritime and freight industries. Closing it was a huge blow to the city and its citizens. 

Yet neither Seattle’s struggle with bridge maintenance nor the inconvenience now facing the city’s motorists is unusual. Decades of neglect left bridges across the country crumbling or near collapse, requiring a massive investment to keep traffic flowing safely.

When they opened it in 1984, officials predicted the West Seattle Bridge would last 75 years.

But in 2013, cracks started appearing in the center span’s box girders, the main horizontal support beams below the roadway. These cracks spread 2 feet in a little more than two weeks, prompting the bridge’s closure.

And it’s still at risk of falling.  

The city set up an emergency alert system so those in the “fall zone” could be quickly evacuated if the bridge deteriorates to the point of collapse.

More than one-third of U.S. bridges similarly need repair work or replacement, a reminder of America’s urgent need to invest in long-ignored infrastructure.

Fixing or replacing America’s bridges wouldn’t just keep Americans moving. It would also provide millions of family-supporting jobs for steel and cement workers, while also boosting the building trades and other industries.

With bridges across the country close to failure and millions unemployed, America needs a major infrastructure campaign now more than ever.

 

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