By Tom Conway
USW International President
Kenny Overstreet scrounges every penny — and even sells the eggs his chickens lay — to make ends meet after Packaging Corp. of America (PCA) furloughed him and hundreds of other workers at its Jackson, Ala., site.
Before the COVID-19 recession struck, the 61-year-old saved a little whenever he could for the retirement he planned to take in a couple of years.
But now, he scrimps to pay monthly bills and prays PCA calls him back to work before he blows through the nest egg he spent decades building.
Millions of unemployed workers need strong, rational leadership to guide them through these perilous times. But instead of a sage and ardent champion in the White House, they’re stuck with a president whose incompetence fueled the pandemic’s spread and hastened the economy’s collapse.
Donald Trump downplayed the coronavirus until it overwhelmed the country, failed to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to front-line workers and blustered as unemployment soared to the highest level since the Great Depression.
But it wasn’t enough for Trump to spectacularly fail at his job.
Trump tried to use the turmoil as cover for stealing Americans’ Social Security benefits and consigning millions of workers to retirements of grinding poverty.
What he called a stimulus program is really one of his biggest cons. He proposed deferring payroll taxes and eventually eliminating them under the guise of leaving a little more money in Americans’ paychecks.
Not only would that have provided no help to millions of unemployed workers like Overstreet, who don’t have paychecks right now, but payroll taxes are what the nation uses to fund Social Security and Medicare. Cutting them would advance the Republicans’ long-sought goal of eliminating the retirement safety net, forcing tens of millions of elderly and disabled retirees to scratch out a living on their own.
Workers love Social Security. Most happily pay into the system, considering it an investment in their future and that of their fellow Americans. Yet Republicans illogically denounce Social Security and Medicare as giveaways and repeatedly try to kill them.
That infuriates Overstreet, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9–361, who regards Social Security as a vital and hard-earned part of his retirement.
“We pay into Social Security for years,” observed Overstreet, who has sweated out a living in roiling hot paper mills for nearly three decades. “It’s not an entitlement, the way I see it. We bought it.”
After the nation caught on to his snake oil salesman’s scheme, Trump renounced it.
But while he played politics with Americans’ futures, Trump frittered away an opportunity to provide real, immediate help to 30 million unemployed workers — including Overstreet — who lost their livelihoods through no fault of their own.
For months, these workers survived because of federal unemployment benefits provided through a stimulus program Congress passed in March.
But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other anti-worker Senate Republicans refused to extend the $600-a-week payments, letting them lapse in July.
An effective, compassionate president would have used his clout to preserve assistance that workers need while the COVID-19 death toll keeps climbing and the economy continues to struggle.
But desperate Americans can expect no help from a bungling impostor like Trump. Instead of fighting for the people who needed him most, Trump let them lose the only lifeline many of them had.
“If he was to tell McConnell to get something done, it would happen,” insisted Overstreet, citing the senator’s habitual groveling to Trump. “I believe that. I believe McConnell would walk off a cliff if he told him to.”
While Trump turned his back on unemployed workers, he’s been only too happy to loot the treasury on behalf of rich people and corporations. The March stimulus package, for example, handed billions to companies that failed to save jobs and contained a “millionaires’ giveaway” enabling 43,000 of the wealthiest Americans to claim average tax breaks of $1.6 million this year alone.
Trump’s apathy and ineptitude have dire consequences for the people of Jackson, a community of several thousand where PCA is the most important employer.
Without federal assistance, unemployed workers must rely on $275 in weekly benefits provided by the state of Alabama. And that isn’t enough to cover basic expenses, like food and utilities.
“You can’t make it without really looking at your finances and selling off the things that aren’t necessities,” said Local 9–361 President Luke Lankford. “You have to re-evaluate your whole life.”
Lankford and some of his co-workers began traveling to other cities for non-union construction jobs lacking the decent pay, good benefits and dignified working conditions that the USW ensures members receive from PCA and other employers.
Overstreet decided he needed to stay close to home, even though job opportunities there are virtually nonexistent. His wife, Sheila, has health problems, and the couple help support a daughter and two grandchildren who live with them.
The family eats some of the eggs their chickens produce and sells others, raising enough money to help offset the cost of feeding the birds. Overstreet conserved more money by delaying the roof he planned to put on an outbuilding.
“Every little bit counts,” he said.
It didn’t have to be this way.
Three months ago, the Democratic-controlled House passed a bill to extend federal unemployment benefits through Jan. 31, a measure intended to prevent the very interruption in payments now wreaking havoc on millions of households.
The House bill, called the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, also allocates a second round of stimulus checks, protects millions of cash-strapped renters from eviction, and provides billions in aid to local governments struggling with COVID-19 budget shortfalls.
The HEROES Act isn’t perfect. For example, a provision allowing corporations to more easily stop their payments to troubled multiemployer pension plans will have to be stricken from the final version.
Trump could have championed the bill’s many sensible provisions and forced them through the Senate to ensure Americans meet their most basic needs during health and economic crises that might still get worse.
But he turned a blind eye when McConnell called the HEROES Act too generous to struggling Americans and refused to vote on it.
Republicans claim Americans eligible for extended unemployment benefits will want to stay home instead of returning to work or finding new jobs.
But that’s ridiculous. The workers at PCA, for example, want to return their jobs as soon as possible. Overstreet thinks of young co-workers juggling babies, car loans and mortgages, and he says, “I know they’re hurting.”
Before the pandemic, Overstreet thought about taking early retirement.
Now, he says, much will depend on the next election. If Trump gets another four years, he may keep working for fear America’s grifter-in-chief will try to swindle Americans out of their Social Security, Medicare or other necessities yet again.
“I don’t trust him,” Overstreet said.