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Congress must take action, and so must we

U.S. Senate should pass the HEROES Act. All of us must register and vote.


Guest column in today’s Seattle Times

(Sept. 7, 2020) — Labor Day is when America honors the contributions and achievements of its working people. It’s also a holiday to celebrate organized labor and the power that we all have when we join together in unions.

In 2020, we won’t get to celebrate Labor Day with parades, community barbecues and the like. But if there was ever a time to reflect on the people who built and run this great nation — and to take action to protect our interests — it is this Labor Day amid the continuing COVID-19 crisis.

The pandemic took hold earlier here in Washington than in other states, so we were leaders in recognizing and honoring our “essential workers.” We all understood that doctors, nurses, first responders and other health-care workers were in harm’s way on the front lines. But we also recognized that grocery-store employees, transit operators, agricultural workers and many others were exposing themselves to danger to help feed, protect and serve the rest of us.

Gov. Jay Inslee was among the first governors to call for protections for essential workers. And initially, Congress and some corporations also responded with the urgency the situation called for. Companies boosted “hazard pay,” and the federal government passed the CARES Act to help hospitals, laid-off workers, small businesses and state and local governments.

But as the pandemic rages on, that appreciation of essential workers and that sense of urgency have waned.

Corporations have ended supplemental pay even though their employees still face the same hazards daily. And Congress — specifically, the U.S. Senate — has allowed assistance for unemployed workers to lapse, is refusing to adopt an emergency workplace infectious disease standard, and is denying aid to desperate state and local governments.

Washington state faces an $8.8 billion shortfall over the next three years. Given the absolute void in COVID-19 leadership from the Trump administration, we have been left on our own to figure out how to maintain critical public services. Other states — red and blue alike — have been put in the same predicament. And even though Washington was well-positioned to withstand an economic downturn because of its budget reserves, we join other states facing the prospect of cutting services and employees when we need them most.

That must not happen.

The House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act nearly four months ago to protect workers from COVID-19 and continue assistance for the unemployed, small businesses, the Postal Service, and state and local governments. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to allow a vote on it, and Senate Republicans can’t agree on any alternative proposal.

That is unacceptable. The Senate must approve the HEROES Act at once. After four months of dithering, many of the people once hailed as essential now face losing everything: their jobs, their homes and, unbelievably, their access to health care during a pandemic. Some will lose their lives.

Here in Washington, we are fortunate to have Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, who understand this. They know we must protect workers on the job who are risking all to serve America. They know that ending federal assistance to the unemployed is devastating not just for millions of families, but also for local businesses. They know state and local governments need resources. They know Americans are counting on congressional action to ensure the Postal Service can deliver their lifesaving medicines and other necessary supplies while they stay at home.

But Sens. Murray and Cantwell are being blocked from voting on this.

Which brings us to our second Labor Day message: We need to elect more champions of working people. In less than two months, we have an opportunity to change things for the better. We can vote for candidates who put the interests of working people before the interests of corporations and the wealthy.

Step one is to make sure you and everyone you know is registered to vote. Step two is to educate yourself about which candidates have earned working families’ support. And step three is to vote — and vote early.

This Labor Day, let’s remind ourselves that this pandemic remains a dire emergency and we can’t afford to let down our guard and abandon the working people in harm’s way. This crisis demands action from Congress, and it demands action from all voters.

P.S. All working people are essential. We always have been.

Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO. Larry Brown is president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, which represents the interests of 550,000 union members in the state.

CHECK OUT THE UNION DIFFERENCE in Washington: higher wages, affordable health and dental care, job and retirement security.

FIND OUT HOW TO JOIN TOGETHER with your co-workers to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and a voice at work. Or go ahead and contact a union organizer today!