By Ira Grupper

I have, over five decades, been a labor union shop steward, delegate to Greater Louisville Central Labor Council, and columnist.  Now, as I sit at home, with compromised health, I look at the situation of poor and working class folk in the U.S. and elsewhere, and find words difficult to put to paper.

The United Nations agency UNICEF has condemned U.S. deportation of hundreds of migrant children amid this pandemic.  Over 900 children, as of this writing. 

Here in the U.S., in struggle against coronavirus, it is the most vulnerable and poorest members of our society who have turned out to be disproportionately cannon fodder.  No universal health care, no increased spending on public health.  Speaking of pandemics, is there a pandemic of voter suppression, police mistreatment of minorities?

Well, can one really expect the situation of U.S. workers per se to be any better? 3,169,000 unemployment claims were filed nationwide during the last week of April.  Here in Kentucky, more than 671,000 workers filed these claims.

Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the most powerful U.S. senator, wants some states to declare bankruptcy. Yet, while most states received an average of $1.25 billion, via the CARES Act, Kentucky got more than $2.7 billion from Congress, thanks be to Mr. McConnell.

In the war against the virus, the most vulnerable and poorest have turned out to be cannon fodder.  Why is there no universal health care, no big increases in spending on public health?

Let’s look back at our history.  In the 1970’s Louisville faced the Rust Belt hemorrhaging of jobs, many moving to right-to-work (i.e. nonunion lower paying) states.  General Electric, then our largest employer, had 26,000 workers.  Now they are down to a few thousand.

Many factories closed entirely, moving to business-friendly (read:  non-union) states:  Brown & Williamson (5,000 jobs lost), Philip Morris (4,200), Fawcett-Haynes (3,400), American Standard—and the list goes on.

Ironically, the reason we had successfully prevented right-to-work was due to the strength of the United Mine Workers (UMW).  Coal is no longer a major player, and the UMW is hardly a Kentucky presence.  So, now Kentucky is right-to-work (for less).

Louisville, in its wisdom, sought, successfully, to attract other, non-manufacturing, employers:  Presbyterian Church USA, Humana, and more.  Recently, it had high hopes for developing the tech and info-technology sectors.

But now, who knows?  The city recently laid off 75 bus drivers, at a time when they are most needed. 

Hundreds of other city jobs remain in question.  Disabled people who use paratransit are in jeopardy:  paratransit outsourced, not enough safe-distancing, as mandated by the Center for Disease Control, the governor, the mayor. 

Further complicating the Louisville situation is the recent police slaying of Breonna Taylor. Will the firing of the police chief be sufficient? Or is it necessary we understand and act on the systemic racism that allows for this?

A coalition of Louisville groups is calling for (Louisville) Metro Council to pass a city ordinance that eliminates the use of no-knock warrants within the city of Louisville.

In addition to ending police mistreatment, poor and working class people have demanded, over the years, better healthcare, education, and decent working conditions. The coronavirus has made the situation more urgent today.

Labor Today recently provided a perspective, with two quotes from 90 year old Dolores Huerta, who along with César Chávez, helped found the United Farm Workers union in 1965:  “Every moment is an organizing opportunity, every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world.” 

And:  “Every single day we sit down to eat, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and at our table we have food that was planted, picked, or harvested by a farm worker. Why is it that the people who do the most sacred work in our nation are the most oppressed, the most exploited?

The U.S. Dept. of Labor, B.L.S. (Bureau of Labor Statistics), published “Summary of strike activity during CES survey reference pay period, April 2020 (includes strikes of 1,000 workers or more)”.

It mentions two strikes, since ended:   Charter Communications, Inc. (Spectrum-Time Warner Cable)—on the East Coast.  Union:  IBEW (electrical workers).  And Asarco—Arizona and Texas.  Unions:

IAM, IBB, IBEW, IBT, IUOE, UAW, and USW.  Metal ore mining, other nonferrous metal production.  Total on strike:  3,500.

Interestingly, the government report notes:  “…no adjustments are made for the use of replacement workers.”  That is, scabs (strike-breakers).

But the above-referenced is data-driven, not worker-driven.  Payday Report is a gutsy exploration from the workers’ viewpoint.  May 22:  “Ford workers walk off—Workplace violence at record levels—220 strikes since March 1…Just 2 days after opening its U.S. and Canadian plants…Ford briefly was forced to shutter its U.S. and Canadian plants…when multiple workers were found to be suffering from COVID 19 infections…”

There is so much more to report on: the next stimulus package, the Essential Worker campaign that appears to be spearheaded by the Fight for $15 and one union.  Stay tuned for my next column.

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