“Now it is time for the Senate to bring forward a better deal that addresses the public health crisis, keeps workers on the job, creates a real safety net for the unemployed, and prohibits companies from using government assistance to lay us off, cut our benefits, or enrich themselves.” — AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka

WASHINGTON—Leaders of major U.S. unions praised Senate Democrats for blocking a $1.8 trillion economic-stimulus package Mar. 22, calling it a “corporate power grab” that would have done little to help workers laid off during the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic.

“This is not a moment for corporate power grabs or crony capitalism,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement praising Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the 46 other Democrats who voted against a procedural measure to advance the bill. “Now it is time for the Senate to bring forward a better deal that addresses the public health crisis, keeps workers on the job, creates a real safety net for the unemployed, and prohibits companies from using government assistance to lay us off, cut our benefits, or enrich themselves.” 

“Airline employees and fast-food workers are already feeling the sting of layoffs, while security officers fear they will be next,” Service Employees International Union International President Mary Kay Henry said. “It was unconscionable for Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans to think they could prop up multibillion-dollar companies while telling millions of struggling Americans that they were on their own. Senate Democrats did the right thing by standing up to McConnell, President Trump and every other elected official who turned their back on working people.”

With Democrats filibustering the bill, a cloture vote failed by a 47-47 party-line vote, well short of the 60 votes needed. Republicans argued that it was necessary to pump money into the economy immediately. 

“Our nation cannot afford this game of chicken,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) posted on Twitter Mar. 23. “This is a national emergency. Not a partisan opportunity. Doctors, nurses, small business employees, laid-off Americans, and vulnerable seniors need help right now.” He accused the Democrats of slowing relief by insisting on “special treatment for Big Labor.”

Democrats objected to numerous provisions in the GOP-sponsored bill, particularly a $425 billion loan program they said had no way to ensure that companies didn’t dump workers after taking the money. The loans would be disbursed by the Treasury Department, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin would not have to reveal who the recipients were for six months.

The measure also would have given $1,200 to adults making less than $75,000 a year and $500 each to their children. It would have extended unemployment benefits for 13 weeks, one month less than Democrats wanted. It included $58 billion in grants and loans to airlines and freight carriers, but did not contain provisions to protect laid-off airport workers who had been employed by contractors instead of directly by the airlines—almost one-third of the airport workforce.

“You know the old saying: half a loaf is better than none,” Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) posted on Twitter. “But the vote today was not even 1/2 a loaf for hospitals, city & county gov’ts, small businesses & working folks, who would have got just a couple of slices while most of the bread goes to bailouts. That is why I voted NO!”

Several other unions had also urged a no vote. “We have to reject the Trump-Mnuchin power grab and defend workers,” the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees told members.

Communications Workers of America President Chris Shelton called it “a monumental failure by a shameless group of privileged politicians who have no idea what working people are going through in this moment of national, international, and human crisis.” 

He said the bill represented the belief that “an investment of public dollars is too expensive only when it might benefit working people,” and that any stimulus bill “must have grants—yes, GRANTS, not just loans—directed to payroll to keep workers employed,” along with “protections for workers and their collective bargaining agreement during any bankruptcy after a bailout.”

“The no-strings-attached corporate windfall proposed by the Senate is worse than the Bank Bailout of 2008,” the Association of Flight Attendants, a CWA affiliate, said. “The proposal allows CEOs to lay off millions of workers while stuffing their pockets with taxpayers’ dollars…. Relief is needed urgently, but it’s worth taking the time to get this right for working people. Any relief must come with a guarantee to keep workers on the payroll, a ban on stock buybacks and executive bonuses, and strong Congressional oversight to keep companies in line.”

The AFL-CIO’s “Labor Plan” contains more than 20 proposals it says are needed to help workers. Its health measures include guaranteeing 14 days of paid sick leave for all working people, using emergency federal authority to expand production of medical supplies and equipment, and providing free testing and treatment for COVID-19 infections for everyone, including immigrants.

For “severely impacted sectors” such as transportation, construction, retail, entertainment, and hospitality, it advocates federal funding of payroll costs to ensure that “idle or hibernating” firms stay in business and their workers stay employed; similar funding for public transit and Amtrak; and making additional aid to private businesses conditioned on providing paid sick days, with no layoffs, pay cuts, benefit cuts or reopening of union contracts, and including workers on corporate boards.

Its other proposals range from expanded public assistance, such as increasing unemployment benefits, “dramatically broadening eligibility” for them, and a moratorium on foreclosures, evictions, and student loan defaults, to New Deal-style measures such as a $1 trillion infrastructure package and enacting the Protecting the Right to Organize Act.

A bill introduced in the House by Speaker Nancy Pelosi Mar. 23 contains several of these concepts. The 1,119-page measure, the Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act, would expand unemployment benefits, make coronavirus treatment free for the patient, guarantee paid family and medical leave for more workers, and increase funding so health-care workers can get personal protective equipment such as masks, according to Pelosi’s office.

The bill would appropriate $40 billion in grants to the airline industry “that shall exclusively be used for the continuation of payment of employee wages, salaries, and benefits,” including $3 billion earmarked for contractors. It would also require airlines receiving the money to stay neutral in union-organizing campaigns and limit executives’ pay to 50 times the median employee salary.


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