By Tom Conway
USW International President
States that spent millions of dollars fighting the coronavirus asked the federal government for help plugging huge holes in their budgets.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave them the finger instead.
The Kentucky Republican said he’d rather let states go bankrupt than come to their aid. He claims they’d have funds to weather the crisis if they didn’t spend money on frivolous things like pensions for cops and road workers.
It’s just like McConnell to exploit the pandemic for his right-wing, small-government, anti-worker agenda.
Withholding money from cash-starved states or letting them declare bankruptcy would lead to draconian slashes in social welfare programs and layoffs of state troopers, corrections officers and other essential workers. And, as McConnell desires, states would face pressure to renege on pensions for workers and retirees.
The cuts would increase poverty, send income inequality soaring to even higher levels and break what’s left of the middle class.
In his long war on workers, this is McConnell’s most morally bankrupt ploy yet.
States stepped into the breach and spent millions on the pandemic only because Donald Trump botched the federal government’s response, putting hundreds of millions of lives at risk.
When the Trump administration failed to provide respirators and other personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers, states scrounged supplies on their own. The federal government failed to deliver ventilators needed to keep critically ill patients breathing, so governors scavenged those as well.
Shortages of these items even forced states into bidding wars, something that drove up the budget deficits that McConnell now refuses to help governors address.
If states hadn’t spent this money, more people would have died.
On top of the money spent fighting the coronavirus, states lost billions in tax revenue as businesses closed and workers lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
Governors justifiably turned to the federal government for help.
But McConnell suggested that states would be able to ride out the crisis if they hadn’t made “bad decisions” on issues like pensions for public workers.
He said he wouldn’t fund “blue state bailouts,” a shot at Democratic-controlled states that actually do the right thing and provide dignified retirements to government workers.
McConnell never stared down a gunman like state troopers do. He never had a prisoner spit on him, a hazard corrections officers face all the time.
But he thinks pensions for the people who do these tough jobs — and right now do them with the added risk of catching COVID-19 — are unnecessary.
Because of their huge financial losses, some states already laid off some workers.
Yet McConnell rejects the idea of borrowing money — and adding to the federal deficit — to help states cover COVID-19 costs.
He thinks spiking the deficit should be done only for really important things, like giving huge tax cuts to rich people and corporations.
The 2017 tax cut that McConnell engineered for 1-percenters like himself will add as much as $2 trillion to the deficit over 10 years.
As McConnell sees it, more money for rich people is good, while government services for average Americans and pensions for public workers are not.
Because of greedy corporations and their political allies, namely McConnell, income inequality decimated America’s middle class.
CEO compensation increased 940 percent since 1978 while worker pay generally stagnated. As the economy expanded, corporations pocketed the profits instead of sharing them with the workers who generated them.
But workers who were barely making it a few months ago now face all-out financial ruin because of COVID-19. The virus already cost more than 30 million Americans their jobs, and the unemployment surge comes just as states run out of money for the safety-net programs that would help sustain laid-off workers.
Because of the coronavirus, income inequality worsened almost overnight.
The growing concentration of wealth in a few hands threatens the American ideal as much as any virus. Rich people and corporations use their money to monopolize the political system and get politicians like McConnell to do their bidding.
That’s how the 2017 tax cut happened.
Instead of looking for new ways to undercut workers, McConnell could use his enormous power to help them survive.
He could push through legislation forcing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop an emergency, temporary infectious disease standard requiring that employers take certain steps to protect workers from COVID-19.
McConnell also could force Congress to pass a bill that provides payments for health care benefits for laid-off workers, ensuring they don’t have to dip into their own dwindling finances to maintain coverage during the pandemic.
Because of corporate lobbying, Congress left health care professionals, first responders and workers at companies employing 500 or more people out of earlier legislation providing paid sick days to other Americans. These workers need paid sick leave, too. McConnell can push through another bill to provide it.
And at a time when so many Americans are experiencing financial anxiety, McConnell could pass a bill protecting the pensions of about 1.3 million workers and retirees enrolled in private-sector multiemployer pension plans that were failing even before the pandemic hit.
The House already passed legislation shoring up these plans, but McConnell refused to hold a vote in the Senate. He doesn’t think private-sector workers deserve decent retirements any more than public workers do.
As much as Americans struggle now, McConnell’s refusal to assist states with pandemic costs would create more hardship.
Layoffs of police officers would turn parts of the country into crime zones. Cuts to education and training programs would deny disadvantaged Americans a path forward. Pension defaults would increase demand for safety-net programs, which states would shut down for lack of funds.
And cash-strapped states would be forced to consider cuts to hospitals and other medical services, leaving their residents vulnerable to a return of the coronavirus.
It isn’t only people in blue states who would suffer, either.
But he already showed his true colors.
As the pandemic death toll mounts and states struggle to keep the lights on, McConnell is focused on one thing — capitalizing on the crisis at the expense of working Americans.