Max Elbaum

Staring into the Economic Abyss

Staring into the Economic Abyss
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By Max Elbaum

With federal unemployment benefits now expired, more than 30 million U.S workers and poor people are starting into an economic abyss.

Without an immediate resumption of large-scale assistance, experts predict up to five million people will be thrown into homelessness and hunger will reach levels not seen since the 1930s.

This looming catastrophe was both predictable and predicted. Two-and-a-half months ago, the Democratic-controlled House passed the HEROES (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act allotting $3 trillion to stave off just such a disaster. The GOP-led Senate and Trump administration ignored it for eight weeks. Only days before the aid cut-off July 31, Republican Senate leaders unveiled a counterproposal offering a third as much assistance combined with provisions further jeopardizing public health.

As of this writing, negotiations have finally begun in earnest between the two sides.

This legislation is an urgent priority for the entire social justice movement. You can take action to support Senate passage of the HEROES Act here.

The competing proposals also illuminate the economic agendas now dominant in each major party. Those contrasting agendas, and the consequences that are all but certain to follow even with a best-case legislative outcome, tell us a lot about what the left will need to do in the streets and at the ballot box in the months ahead.

WHAT’S ON THE TABLE

There is a sharp contrast between the HEROES Act and the GOP Senate proposal:

*The Democratic-sponsored HEROES Act continues the $600 per week supplement for those on unemployment insurance while the GOP proposal would slash that amount to $200 per week.

*The HEROES Act calls for OSHA to establish an enforceable standard for workplace infection control plans and prevents employers from retaliating against any employee who reports workplace violations. Mitch McConnel’s Senate proposal has none of those provisions and establishes a liability shield for businesses and schools facing COVID-19 claims.

*The HEROES Act allots $1 trillion for state and local governments, the GOP plan allots zero.

*The HEROES Act does not condition school funding on reopening, while the GOP plan does condition some funding based on holding in-person classes.

*The HEROES Act includes funding for expanded Coronavirus testing, election protection, and the postal service. It also includes undocumented immigrants in some of its funded programs. The GOP plan includes none of these things.

*All together the HEROES Act is a $3 trillion package, the GOP plan is one-third that size.

Numerous labor and progressive groups from the AFL-CIO to The Peoples Bailout to Indivisible have criticized shortcomings in the HEROES Act. These include its failure to provide universal monthly cash assistance, failure to rein in Big Pharma’s capacity to profit from anti-COVID-19 medicines, and failure to halt all immigration enforcement during the pandemic.

It is also worth noting that just ten days before pandemic benefits were set to run out, and with no negotiations on another COVID-19 relief package underway, Congress passed a $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act. Half of Senate Democrats and 40% of House Democrats voted for (failed) amendments to cut the Pentagon budget by 10%. This is a significantly larger congressional opposition to the bloated Pentagon budget than in previous years. But the overall vote, even in the middle of a public health and economic crisis, is a sign of how much the federal budget (and the bodies which approve it) remain hostage to imperial militarism.

PASS THE HEROES ACT NOW

Even with its shortcomings, if the HEROES Act became law it would be a huge step in the right direction. It would allow millions of the country’s most vulnerable people to stay in their homes and put food on the table. It would weaken employers’ ability to force workers back to unsafe jobs. And it would be a step toward keeping the postal service in full operation and protecting the 2020 election.

Besides averting an avalanche of human suffering, implementation of the HEROES Act would create far more favorable terrain for all progressive movements – the labor and racial justice movements especially – to fight for further gains and more political power.

For these reasons, The People’s Bailout wrote at the beginning of July:

“It’s already been well over a month since the House of Representatives passed its $3 trillion HEROES Act…. if we don’t fight now, the Senate bill might be much worse! Now is the time to act. We need to create an urgency that puts pressure on Senators to finalize a robust relief package and pass it now!”

Actions suggested by The People’s Bailout include:

“Join a Virtual Town Hall: The Town Hall Project, Center for Popular Democracy, National Employment Law Project, United Today Stronger Tomorrow (a project of Community Change), MoveOn and others are organizing Town Halls focused on the need to extend unemployment insurance.

“Lift up The BREATHE Act: The Movement for Black Lives is still going strong. Last week they introduced a visionary bill that divests our taxpayer dollars from brutal and discriminatory policing and invests in a new vision of public safety – a vision that answers the call to defund the police.”

The AFL-CIO has been raising its voice: “America faces a crisis on three critical fronts: a public health pandemic, an economic free fall and long-standing structural racism. Working people need safe jobs, economic security, and freedom from systemic racism. Delivering on economic essentials included in the HEROES Act is an absolute minimum requirement for stopping the free fall into even deeper and deadly racial inequality. Take action here.

Bernie Sanders has weighed in as well, saying that pathetic would be “too mild a word” to describe the GOP-backed bill.

MAKE TROUBLE AND VOTE, VOTE AND MAKE TROUBLE

The scale of the pandemic and the extent to which economic hardship is hurting people in all parts of the country means that Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress can be put under substantial pressure. It is late in the game, but everything anyone can do helps:

And as we take immediate action, we also should prepare for what is coming just ahead. McConnell and Trump are in positions of power, and it is likely that the stimulus legislation when finally passed into law will fall short of what the AFL-CIO termed the “absolute minimum” required by all those facing class and racial injustice.

This means more people will go hungry and everything from bread lines to food riots may become “the new normal.” Fights already underway for workplace safety, against evictions and for safe and effective methods of schooling will intensify.

Another layer of the bandages covering the anti-human core of the U.S economic and political system will be stripped away. More spotlights will be cast on the structures of white supremacy which result in the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 crisis has across the color line.

Engaging the street, workplace, school, and neighborhood fights over every one of these crisis components – making a hell of a lot of trouble – is a responsibility of the left.

The electoral arena is also a crucial battleground. The contrast between the Democratic Party-sponsored HEROES ACT and the McConnell-GOP alternative underscores the importance of who controls the House and Senate in the fights that lie ahead. Breaking the grip of white nationalism and all-round reaction on the federal government requires ending GOP control of the Senate as well as ousting the President.

It will take an across-the-board combination of militant protest, get out the vote, and doing whatever is necessary to protect the results to best position partisans of justice, peace and saving the planet for the bitter battles that lie beyond November.

 

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