It’s that time of the year – the most wonderful time of the year, they say, the hap-happiest season of all. There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting and utility repair workers out in the snow.
It’s great, all right. You know what would make it better, though? Eight Hanukkah days of gifts for workers. Maybe a stocking stuffed with presents for those who labor 52 weeks a year, without a paid sick day, pension benefits or employer-sponsored health insurance.
For those of you stumped by this proposition, I’ve made a list. I’ve checked it twice. On it are eight gifts that would convert workers’ blue, blue, blue, blue Christmases to white.
For the adults who drive the real backhoes, excavators, bulldozers, motor graders, pavers, and concrete trucks, who build the massive tires on which giant trucks roll, who refine the oil to make the gasoline that powers those vehicles, who forge the steel and smelt the aluminum to construct those trucks – for all of those workers – Congress must pass a $2 trillion infrastructure bill. That’s right, $2 trillion. That’s what the American Society of Civil Engineers recommends spending over 10 years to clean the nation’s drinking water, update harbors and airports, repair crumbling roads and bridges, and secure dams and levees. The civil engineers know. They’re the ones who design these vital assets. And they’ve given the nation a D grade for their condition since 1998. Infrastructure investment would improve citizens’ safety, ease commerce and create millions of good, family-supporting jobs.
Fisher-Price medical kits
Workers need reliable, affordable health care, but the nation’s health insurance system is sick. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was an attempt to heal the insurance system, but from the moment Democrats in Congress passed it in 2010, Republicans have tried to kill it. The GOP got the U.S. Supreme Court to tell states they didn’t have to expand Medicaid. Then, many Republican states denied their low-income workers this insurance. Republicans in Congress repealed the income tax penalty that enforced the individual mandate for coverage. Then, many people dropped their insurance. The decline was 3.2 million last year. That included 276,000 children. Now Republican attorneys general in 20 states are trying to get the entire ACA overturned, which would revert the nation to the days when insurers refused to cover workers with pre-existing conditions and cancelled coverage when people got sick. Those lucky enough to have insurance are confronted by a system muddled with myriad types. Old people are covered by Medicare, poor people by Medicaid. People in between struggle to pay for individual coverage or face relentlessly increasing co-pays and premiums in employer-sponsored plans. President Donald Trump promised he would give America a system under which everyone was covered. That’s the cure: Medicare for all.
A “lost in space” robot warning: “Danger! Dodd-Frank malfunction. Danger!”
Far, far too many politicians, regulators and fat cat bank CEOs have forgotten how the Great Recession – a catastrophe caused by bank speculation – laid waste to American workers. Ten million lost their homes to foreclosure; $20 million of their household wealth vanished, and politicians took $700 billion of their tax dollars and bailed out those banks. Sorry to transport you back to those terrible times during this Season of Joy. Congress enabled the crisis by repealing in 1999 the Glass-Steagall Act. That was legislation passed in 1933 to prevent banks from causing another stock market crash like Black Tuesday 1929. It required banks to separate their vanilla commercial banking from red-hot stock market speculation. After the repeal, banks resumed their risky practices and crashed the market again in 2007 and 2008. Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010 to restore some Glass-Steagall protections. Bank CEOs threw a fit and managed last spring to get Congress to weaken those rules, thus subjecting the economy to another crisis. Now, federal regulators are working to gut Dodd-Frank by killing the Volker Rule, which was the law’s answer to Glass-Steagall. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., creator of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is sounding the warning: “Even as banks make record profits, their former banker buddies turned regulators are doing them favors by rolling back a rule that protects taxpayers from another bailout.” Danger, dear taxpayer, Danger!
This could be the kind that bricklayers use to carry mud, or it could be the kind worn by graduates. Both kinds need to be affordable – by everyone involved. School teachers – that is, professionals with bachelor’s and master’s degrees – are in revolt over poverty wages. College graduates are in depression over crushing student debt payments. And manufacturers are in delusion, claiming they can’t find the skilled workers they need, but refusing to train employees and rejecting pay raises that would enable workers to afford technical school. Public school teachers, who devote their lives to nurturing future generations, deserve respect – and that includes professional salaries. Similarly, the nation’s future teachers, civil engineers, nurses, accountants, social workers and other professionals deserve to begin their careers without an unbearable burden of college debt. States must invest tax dollars to make their public colleges affordable again. And American manufacturers could learn a lesson from their German counterparts, who provide paid apprenticeships, pay higher wages and cooperate with labor unions.
A certified hard hat
Here’s the thing: Workers should never have to give their lives or limbs for a job. Employers should outfit them with protective gear and provide safe workplaces. And the U.S. government should hold employers accountable by actively, aggressively and effectively inspecting workplaces for safety. But the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has never been properly funded to do that, and now, in a stark reversal, it’s eviscerating or postponing regulations to protect workers against exposure to hazardous substances, and it is stalling rules to protect mineworkers. A former deputy assistant secretary of OSHA, Jordan Barab, maintains a horrifying log of workers killed on the job across America every week. It kinda kills Christmas if dad or mom comes home from work in a coffin.
Yes, that’s right, cold, hard cash. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Kevin Hassett promised that the tax cut granted last December to corporations and the rich would result in a $4,000 income increase for average Americans. It didn’t happen. Hassett and Mnuchin need to make it happen now. And while they’re working on it, they can raise the minimum wage. It’s been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009. That’s disgusting. It needs to rise to $15 today. And if it did, that would push up the wages of all other workers, and then maybe, just maybe, they’d get a small piece of that $4,000 Mnuchin and Hassett promised them.
Pittsburgh, where the union I lead, the United Steelworkers (USW), is headquartered, organizes one of the biggest Labor Day parades in the country. There are floats and marching bands and hot dogs, all arranged by the region’s many labor unions. Members march and toss candy, pencils and other trinkets to kids lining the streets. A good time is had by all because of the union advantage. That is, union members earn more money and have better benefits than their nonunion counterparts. America’s workers need the opposite of the Supreme Court decision this year in Janus v. AFSCME, which made it harder for public sector labor unions to properly serve all the workers they are required to represent. Instead, workers need national legislation easing the way to collectively bargaining – otherwise they may never see any of that Hanukkah gelt.
We have an obligation to future generations. We can entertain them with pinwheels. But we must safeguard them with wind turbines. And solar cells. And other renewable energy sources. Of course, the transition cannot occur overnight. Oil and natural gas will be around for a while. But the truth is, we’ve got to have green jobs and a clean environment or there’ll be no jobs and a bleak environment.
May your holidays be joyous with lots of potato latkes, plenty of figgy pudding and eight worker wishes come true.