Reflection #3 in the Time of COVID-19
by Patrick Cassidy, JD
Reports are unrelenting that whenever the country gets back to work from the Covid-19 pandemic, resumption will not be “business-as-usual.” Many department stores have announced they are at risk of bankruptcy, if not already preparing to file. The airline industry is at a standstill, for how long is anyone’s guess. Many shuttered businesses in the restaurant and hospitality industry are not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels any time soon, and the current “glut” of oil has put the fossil fuel industry into a tail spin.
While many pundits are actually calling on the federal government to continue to extend, and re-extend, federally subsidized higher–than-usual unemployment benefits, WALS believes that most of these employees now “stuck” with no option of returning to gainful employment any time soon would be happy to transfer to a new “infrastructure job,” along the lines of a new Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), such as was so successfully instituted under President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression.
This new CCC, assuming it paid a “living wage” (certainly more than they would be collecting in unemployment insurance, however extended), could not only tackle the many infrastructure repairs urgently needed on the federal, state, and local levels (like the long-overdue I-70 bridge project now underway in Wheeling), but could also make fighting climate change a priority. Promoting and utilizing renewable energy sources and starting to convert the economic infrastructure of the nation into an economy that is not marching the country and world to the brink of destruction is as urgent an economic and public health task as any. Even the present pandemic (the emergence of yet one more new deadly virus) may be linked to the growing risks of climate change and environmental destruction to the biosphere. (See Chapter 7, “The Biosphere: Eat and Be Eaten” in J.R. McNeil, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century, 205-211).
Not only would such a program provide “productive’ work to unemployed Americans (who in my experience prefer meaningful work to collecting unemployment benefits), but it would give the country an opportunity to finally acknowledge the full risks of climate change, assess how that heretofore “abstract” threat may itself affect the many new strains of viruses in the world, and start a systematic re-building of the infrastructure on a “green-model” to start in earnest mitigating climate change and further biosphere destruction—which other “invisible enemy,” the Corona virus, has not displaced, but highlighted.
We naively hope that the “glut of oil” problem will cure itself when people return to driving their gas-guzzling SUV’s around our cities. But the consequences for West Virginia, and the economy at large, will go deeper than that. Economic damage as a result of the Corona virus is apparent already, and presumably will affect the rest of the fossil fuels industry on a long-term basis. Coal production in West Virginia will be down, not just because Murray Energy is in bankruptcy, but because a nation glutted with oil will not only have less demand for coal (and possibly natural gas), but be less able to rebound. And that, of course, does not bode well for the state’s energy industry or its workers.
The Jobs First Agenda provides for employment at a living-wage as a right (hopefully by Constitutional Amendment, as discussed in Reflections on the Covid Pandemic, #2.) WALS believes that making the federal government the employer of last resort in this time of serious infrastructure depletion would not constitute “socialism” (as the term is generally misconstrued and weaponized by opponents of sustainable energy and labor rights). As the economy improves, and individuals are re-employed in the private sector, (pursuant to an employer incentivized “living wage,” also discussed in Reflections #2), the presumption would be that we would have full or near full employment in the private sector, and the government’s role as employer of last resort would not be a continuing burden and it would also be a boon to a new, greener economy. Until the private sector gets back to “full-employment,” we would direct needed “green” infrastructure renewal to not only mitigate the current effects of climate change, but to transition to a green economy less dependent on fossil fuels, which has the potential for millions of new jobs in a new “green” economy.
Coal Miners are a special case, because as a society we owe much of our country’s economic progress and ability to defend itself from foreign enemies to their dedicated, and sometimes life-threatening work; and it should be recalled that during our country’s last great emergency– WWII—miners were considered not just essential workers as they are during the pandemic, but Essential To the National Defense, being exempt, by law, from military service. (Though, many found ways to ignore that exemption to fight the fascist enemy). Our country in general, and West Virginia in particular, still owes a great debt to our state’s and our nation’s coal miners. Yet all we have done with our laws over the last century is to make it easier for our nation’s coal operators to shed (in bankruptcy), their long-term pension and health-care commitments to our miners. But a great opportunity to pay back that debt we owe them would be to allow those presently unemployed during the pandemic to transfer to a government-paid, infrastructure works project based along the lines of the CCC model and at the same wages they were making in the fossil fuels industry.
Recent offers to “retrain” our coal miners for other occupations, for example, in the “digital economy,” though well intentioned, are doomed to failure. Miners I have known in my life (like my father) were never going to become “computer programmers,” but they all had the rare talents to tackle the most difficult, even life-threatening jobs for the sake of their own, their families, and the community’s well being. Their talents would be easily transferrable to infrastructure renewal and repair, as would the talents of our many out of work steelworkers, transportation workers, and building trades workers, and many other working Americans.
Then too, an infrastructure program envisioned by WALS would not only tackle “road projects,” but also offer opportunities in other fields and endeavors necessary for the future “infrastructure” success of our county, such as providing child care workers, teachers and educators, and even medical care to our uninsured and vulnerable. A provision for health care to the currently un-insured as a public-health infrastructure program, while we transition to a universal health care system, would be an economical way of handling, in the beginning, implementation of each citizen’s right to universal health care (also discussed in “Reflection #2”). Defined this way, “infrastructure repair” becomes more than a bricks and mortar proposition, helps re-build society, re-energize our economy and in the long term, our nation, toward its long-sought, but never achieved, goals of The Universal Declaration of Rights of 1948.
So, although continuing bad news about the pandemic, and its lasting effects on the economy are in everyone’s thoughts, it’s worth “reflecting” that although the current Covid-19 pandemic started in China, the Chinese language has always had the same character for “crisis” and “opportunity.” Let’s hope our current crisis is not just one heartbreak after another, both for the people we have lost, and the lost economic opportunities of much of our fellow-citizens, but an opportunity to “re-consider” some fundamental ways of “re-doing” business in the United States. But it will take some bold action at the top of our government, in conjunction with all 50 states, to not only plan for the “day-after” the pandemic, but the lingering economic destruction that everyone knows will be left in its path. And that is the question…..Are our leaders up to the challenge?