If America’s essential workers could retire on unctuous praise, they’d have no more need for 401(k)s. Over the past two months, politicians in both parties have showered America’s doctors, nurses, grocery-store workers, and delivery drivers in expressions of gratitude. Even the president has paid tribute, lauding “the heroism of our doctors and nurses” and “the bravery of our truck drivers,” all of whom he considers “warriors, in a sense.”
But make no mistake: Republicans do not support these figurative troops. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration and congressional GOP have made preserving the (im)balance of power between capital and labor one of their top priorities. Here, a quick rundown of six different ways Republicans are trying to disempower workers this May Day, both in negotiations over the next round of coronavirus stimulus and through executive action:
1. Republicans’ top priority for the next coronavirus relief bill is to immunize employers who violate workplace safety standards from the threat of lawsuits.
Late last month, a worker at a meatpacking plant in Missouri filed a lawsuit accusing Smithfield Foods of flouting CDC guidelines for workplace safety. The suit alleges that the Milan plant provided workers with a single safety mask per week, denied them the opportunity to wash their hands, and forced them to “work shoulder to shoulder” and take breaks in cramped hallways. A judge ordered the plant to comply with federal safety guidelines earlier this week.
Across the country, at least 17 meatpacking workers have died from COVID-19, while hundreds have been sickened.
Nevertheless, days after that Missouri judge’s ruling, Trump signed an executive order effectively barring state governments from shutting down meatpacking plants for violating safety standards. Invoking the Defense Production Act, the president declared that such facilities were critical to the nation’s food supply and thus cannot be shuttered for any reason. Trump then told reporters that he intends to issue a separate executive order limiting the liability of meatpacking firms to lawsuits over workplace conditions.
Now, congressional Republicans are working to extend the disempowerment of meatpacking workers to the rest of the U.S. labor force: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have said they will block any further coronavirus stimulus unless it includes provisions insulating employers from the threat of liability lawsuits.
“Imagine you are a businessman thinking about reopening,” McConnell told Fox News this week, “and you’ve heard that the trial lawyers all over the country are sharpening their pencils getting ready to sue you, claiming that you didn’t engage in proper distancing or other issues related to health and safety.”
McConnell and McCarthy reiterated this theme in an official statement, declaring, “We cannot let a second pandemic of opportunistic litigation enrich trial lawyers at the expense of Main Street and medical professionals.”
Of course, if the GOP leaders’ genuine concern is that frivolous lawsuits will impede recovery while enriching trial lawyers, some compromise could surely be reached. After all, as tools for safeguarding workers’ rights, liability litigation is a poor substitute for a strong trade union. If McConnell’s aim is not to subordinate workers’ rights and welfare to their bosses’ profit margins — but merely to combat opportunistic litigiousness — then he can offer to abolish state-level right-to-work laws, approve union certification by card check, establish sectoral bargaining, and legalize secondary boycotts in exchange for a temporary liability shield. But he won’t, because disempowering workers is the point.
2. To ensure that recently laid-off workers have no choice but to accept jobs in hazardous workplaces, Republicans are vowing to slash federal unemployment benefits.
The crown jewel of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package that Congress passed in late March was a dramatic expansion of federal unemployment benefits: By providing all sidelined workers with a $600 weekly bonus on top of state-level UI support, the bill left many unemployed Americans with as much income — if not more — as they’d earned at their lost jobs.
But that bonus is set to expire in July, even as the economic crisis it was intended to mitigate is set to rage on for months if not years. Congressional Democrats are therefore pushing to extend the enhanced benefits — by making them a permanent part of America’s social safety net that automatically takes effect whenever the U.S. unemployment rate is above a certain threshold.
This week, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham assured his constituents that Senate Republicans will never let that happen.
“I promise you, over our dead bodies will this get reauthorized,” Graham said. “The goal is to help people who are unemployed — to make sure that if they get unemployed, they’ll have their income intact — but it was never our goal to pay people more to be out of work than at work … if a person is making $23 an hour on unemployment, it’s going to be hard to get you to go back to work for a $17-hour job.”
Of course, one way to solve the problem Graham identifies would be to turn that $17-an-hour job into a $28-an-hour one. But:
3. Republicans have refused to endorse Democrats’ proposals to provide hazard pay to frontline workers (let alone to put upward pressure on wages for all workers by raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour).
President Trump has made supportive noises about providing frontline medical workers with hazard pay. But neither the White House nor congressional Republicans have introduced any formal proposal for doing so. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have unveiled a plan to provide up to $25,000 in wage subsidies to all essential workers — from doctors and nurses to grocery clerks and delivery drivers. Republicans reportedly consider such benefits too broad and pricey.
4. McConnell hopes to starve blue states of aid until they are forced to cut the pensions of public workers.
The Senate majority leader is no longer (officially) trying to force states into bankruptcy. But Senate Republicans are adamant that they will block any fiscal aid to states that isn’t spent directly on combating the coronavirus or that makes it easier for states to avoid cutting public workers’ pensions. “There’s not going to be any desire on the Republican side to bail out state pensions by borrowing money from future generations,” McConnell recently told right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt.
5. Labor secretary Eugene Scalia is trying to deny unemployment benefits to as many Uber drivers as possible.
In addition to increasing the generosity of federal unemployment benefits, the $2 trillion stimulus package also extended eligibility for those benefits to gig-economy workers. Since then, Trump’s Labor Department has been working diligently to ensure that no U.S. worker has it too easy in the middle of a pandemic and burgeoning economic depression. As the Washington Post reports:
New Labor Department guidance says unemployment benefits apply to gig workers only if they are “forced to suspend operations,” which could dramatically limit options for those workers if their apps are still operating. Other workers also face a high hurdle to qualify for benefits.
The guidance says a worker “may be able to return to his or her place of employment within two weeks” of quarantining, and parents forced to stop work to care for kids after schools closed are not eligible for unemployment after the school year is over. Workers who stay home because they are older or in another high-risk group are also ineligible unless they can prove a medical professional advised them to stop working.
6. Trump’s Labor Department is also refusing to enforce CDC guidelines for workplace safety.
Finally, in case you were worried that neutering liability lawsuits wouldn’t be enough to safeguard employers’ God-given right to flout workplace-safety laws in the middle of a pandemic, Trump’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been declining to require that all firms abide by the CDC’s public-health guidelines.
In sum, Republicans don’t see America’s essential workers as “warriors” so much as enemy combatants in a (one-sided) class war.