Reflection #4 in the Time of COVID-19
by Patrick Cassidy, JD

Here in the Heartland, spring seems delayed, as we hear constant bad news about more infections, more deaths, and inevitable economic devastation due to COVID-19.

But if that’s not enough to keep you up at night, you might read the recent Salon article by Chauncey Devega, who discusses the works of some well-known American “thinkers,” people like Pulitzer Prize Winning author Chris Hedges, whose new book, America: The Farewell Tour, and Atlantic Magazine writer and author George Packer, who sees the pandemic as hastening the decline of our country, whether or not your political ideology limits your reflections on the future to a multiple choice question:

Our country is: a) still great; b) formerly great; c) soon to be great again; d) all of the above.

According to these pundits, whichever your preference, your political affiliation, whether Republican or Democratic, is not going to stop the decline because leaders of both parties have been overseeing the same economic system that prioritizes “inequality, callousness, selfishness and profit motive.” For them, Republican and Democratic presidents have advanced that agenda for decades. Theirs is a profound, if gloomy, prognosis that we all should reflect upon in this time of crisis.

National Road, Wheeling. April 24, 2020. S. Duffy.

Before you start feeling “good” about the prospects of opening up the country
“economically,” please stop for a moment and consider all those essential and front-line workers, like health-care workers and other emergency responders, public employees, meat packers and food workers, grocery store employees and other service personnel, many of whom have suffered and died in lopsided numbers from the corona virus as compared to those who had the option, ability, or luxury, to stay at home. Those working from home benefit from and rely on the front-line workers to provide them with food and other living essentials during the pandemic; those same front-line workers whose new normal is the witnessing of wholesale sickness and death, without family support, or who themselves face increased risk of illness and death.

“Life and death” decisions have come to the American workplace in huge numbers, now more than at any time in our recent history. Both having a job during the pandemic, and not having a job, might kill you, or a loved one. While the narrative of opening up the economy projects the false notion that economic health and public health are locked in a zero-sum game in which one’s gain is another’s loss, we should well realize that those suffering—economically—and most importantly, physically, are those who are already marginalized and treated as expendable by the prevailing economic system, despite their current “essential” designation. It should be no surprise that Covid-related casualties and those at the most risk correlate along class, race, and gender lines as many “essential” workers are women, people of color, and the working poor.

The frustrating thing about “reflecting” on the “legal rights” for our workers during the time of Covid-19 is that what little legal protection American workers have, what little “rule of law” allowed them (and which have been the source of these Reflections) has been shown to be fragile, and subject to cancellation by the “whim” of our political leaders.

Last week, it took only a “claim” by the CEO of Tyson Foods that the “food chain” was in jeopardy to cause the President of the United States to issue an executive order for virus-threatened meat packing employees to keep working in the midst of danger. And all that law I mentioned in Reflection #1, about providing your employees a “safe place to work?” Forget about it. The President, backed by Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, also announced that he will be seeking to give Tyson and all of Corporate America “legal immunity” for breaking the law (whichever) during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This intention completely ignores the contrary public pronouncements of Governors of most of the states that the present social-distancing policies are to ensure the “health and safety” of all residents, including workers. And in the case of “essential workers,” social-distancing polices require companies to take “precautions” to protect their employees’ health and safety, which used to be referenced legally as in, “providing a safe-place to work for your employees.” What is amazing is that the “rule of law” was so causally swept aside, and almost immediately, upon the unsubstantiated claim by a top CEO that the “food chain” may break down, when Tyson was having trouble getting its chicken to market. Not coincidentally, Tyson workers, like most meat-processing workers are African-American, Latino, and immigrants toiling at low-wage, high-risk jobs without adequate safety measures during (if not before) the pandemic.

Is what little “Rule of Law” we have for working Americans so fragile that we dispense of it whenever a CEO of a large Corporation complains about “risks” to his company’s bottom-line for getting its regular supply of “chicken” to the supermarket?

Is that why many working Americans are suffering from this pandemic, because their “chicken” purchases have been curtailed?

Shouldn’t we at least be getting unbiased reporting from our food and safety agencies before we declare a threat to the food supply is so great that forcing employees to work in unsafe conditions should be the new “Policy” of the government; or the reason why the Federal “Defense Production Act” should finally be implemented—to squelch employee protections instead of delivering needed medical supplies and protective gear to our health care providers?

Have we not “reflected” already, that through it all, that many (if not probably most) of these health care workers, these other essential workers, are not even guaranteed a “living wage,” in this country for their (now we realize) essential work for the common survival of our society? Whether an overworked nurse, or an orderly, or member of the hospital cleaning staff, grocery store worker, public employee or other emergency first-responders, most of these people are not unionized—let alone earning a “living wage.”
Well, what’s so unusual about that? A lot of other occupations, such as “teachers,” don’t make a “living wage” as well, and they are not complaining. Well, if you think that is true, you haven’t been listening.

There have been suicides and mental breakdowns in the health care sector during this pandemic. Some workers say they will “do their duty” during the crisis, but intend to leave their “health care” occupations long term. Many other employees, deemed “non-essential,” by our current “value system,” will not be going back to work at all, even if they were able to “shelter in place,” because their small businesses have shut down permanently, or their wages were so marginal to begin with that they will ride out their “increased” unemployment benefits until they run out, and then begin to look for equally marginal jobs to the ones they left during the crisis.

The Jobs First Agenda (JFA) believes all American workers, as a matter of right, should be paid a “living wage” whether considered “essential” during any particular emergency or not. (Reflection No. 3 discussed how mine workers were considered essential to the National Defense during WW II, only to have that status forgotten afterward).

Read: the Top Ten Features of The Jobs First Agenda.

But why are the wages of American workers generally so low to begin with that it can be true that nearly half of Americans live pay check to pay check, and could not come up with an extra $2,000 for an emergency. Those statistics came from a widely-reported 2015 study, with more recent surveys indicating that, for the majority of Americans, the threshold number is often lower. No matter the amount, the point is that economic instability, if not the immanent threat of economic ruin, is a fact of life for too many working Americans—even prior to the pandemic.

Yes, we agree with the pundits above that “inequality, callousness, selfishness, and profit motive” has been as inbred into our culture since at least the 1980’s as a substitute national “policy” of our economic system; but The Jobs First Agenda also recognizes that it has not always been this way in our country.

As a result of an earlier national crisis, The Great Depression, our country in 1935 declared that it was the “public policy” of the United States to determine wages by “collective bargaining” as the best way to keep “commerce” unimpeded and for all American Workers to be treated fairly. And you might not know it, but that policy is still in the law books, although an unobserved relic of another failed “rule of law.”

But don’t think this is a matter of “personal opinion.” Here is the “pertinent part” from the official United States Code, which codified the National labor Relations Act of 1935, at the height of the Great Depression:

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection. (NLRA, 29 U.S. Code §151).

How is it, you may ask, that if collective bargaining has been this country’s public policy for making these kinds of wage determinations since 1935, still only about 10% of all Americans are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, that is, a “union-negotiated agreement”?

The answer is that partisan politics, starting with Richard Nixon in the 1970’s, turned the National Labor Relations Board from pursuing the announced policy of the law, into just one more bureaucracy of swinging doors between regulators and the regulated, and ultimately a “tool” for setting the rules for how far a company could go to use red tape, propaganda, force, and intimidation to thwart employees trying to form a union. The Answer—Pretty Far.

Notwithstanding these partisan changes, The Jobs First Agenda asserts that true collective bargaining can be brought back by simply returning to the longstanding, fundamental policy of the United States. This can be implemented by a substantial modification to the existing NLRA, or its complete replacement with an Act more in accord with the “policy” supposedly reflected in its language.

Under the JFA, employees would choose a “bargaining representative” as a matter of right when they become employed (in accordance with the long existing PUBLIC POLICY of this country), so that any determinations about the “terms and conditions of their employment,” would thereafter be determined solely by “collective bargaining.” Upon reaching an agreement with the workers’ collective bargaining representative in any particular workplace, or occupation, that agreement would need to be certified by the Department of Labor to be free of coercion with full and free collective bargaining—before the employer would be entitled to get the “incentivized” tax treatment for employing individuals at the “living wage”—what we call the “secret sauce” of the Jobs First Agenda, that both makes it non-socialistic, and able to be paid for by a massive reform of the tax code to prioritize human capital–over fossil fuels, big corporations, and lobbying groups–to prioritize our American Workers over “inequality, callousness, selfishness and profit motive.”

We believe that our government, to ensure an economically sustainable way out of this pandemic, need not wait until the Jobs First Agenda recommended amendments to the Untied States Constitution are ratified.

Instead, the government could start to hire back unemployed and permanently displaced employees in the Infrastructure Sector, prioritizing “moving towards a Green economy,” as discussed in the last Reflection.

Consistent with its recognition of its own long-existing policy, each and every employee hired by the government would be automatically signed up with the appropriate collective bargaining representative for the work site, or public employment sector. Employees would still have the right not to join a union; but this will not serve as an excuse for all employees not to reap the benefits of collective bargaining, which will in any event be mandatory for both public and private employers.

As a new Agency, the new Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC #2) would presumably contract with the largest government union, to engage in collective bargaining; and it would be from “collective bargaining” that a “living wage” would be determined for all new government hires. While the government would be truly functioning as the employer of last resort to decrease unemployment during a time of crisis, it would retain that function on a much more limited scale after the pandemic, assuming reforms to the NLRA are made to allow for mandatory collective bargaining in the private sector. We believe The Jobs First Agenda will lead to “full” or near “full” employment in the private sector because of every employee’s right to a “living wage job,” paid for by incentivized subsidies (multiple tax deductions or the like) inuring to the benefit of private employers in return for paying “living wages” to their employees.

Whatever the economic future of Working Americans, we have also learned over the last decade that both corruption of our politicians and our institutions, has to be stopped and government accountability assured before the American Worker can believe in any system of reform, even if it is “old values,” or “old priorities,” re-introduced into our economic system. It will not be enough to talk about changing priorities if our politicians remain corrupt and if our government remains “unaccountable” to the partisans of “inequality, callousness, and selfishness and profit motive.”

Reflection #5, due next week, will discuss just how The Jobs First Agenda hopes to change the present narrative about corruption and governmental accountability, to complement the new priorities (or renewed old priorities) of our economic system. In the meantime, stay safe, and keep “Reflecting.”

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