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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Worker Safety May Be a Pivotal Concern of Voters in November

At The Nation, Jeet Heer argues that “The Coronavirus Class War Has Already Started: The combination of plutocratic bailouts and a physically endangered working class is sparking a new blue-collar militancy.” As Heer writes:

There is actually a two-pronged class war going on. Among the rich and their allies in both political parties, the crisis offers an opportunity to loot the Treasury. The stimulus packages that have passed or are being contemplated are all designed to lock in the privileged position of the existing rich, with only limited efforts made to soften the blow of the recession on the working-class majority. At the same time, blue-collar workers are expected to work in dangerous conditions with little compensation. Many of these same workers are being squeezed by furloughs, pay cuts and layoffs.

The combination of plutocratic bailouts and increasing precariousness and physical danger for the working class is an explosive one. It’s hard to see how it can last long without a breakdown of the social order.

Heer explains further, “It’s not just medical workers that are facing more precarious and dangerous workplaces. Writing in The New York Times, veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse observed that there was a strong class division in how the coronavirus crisis is being experienced.”

“Millions of white-collar workers are telecommuting from home to stay safe as the coronavirus extends its terrifying reach across America,” Greenhouse observes. “But millions of other workers—supermarket cashiers, pharmacists, warehouse workers, bus drivers, meatpacking workers—still have to report to work each day, and many are furious that their employers are not doing enough to protect them against the pandemic.”

Heer adds, “The growing lethality of the American workplace is fueling a wave of strikes, both union-led and spontaneous wildcat protests. Greenhouse listed a few of these workplace actions”:

Last Tuesday, after a mechanic tested positive for the coronavirus, more than half the workers at Bath Iron Works, a shipyard in Maine, stayed home from work to pressure their employer to thoroughly clean the shipyard. Workers walked out at a Fiat Chrysler truck plant in Warren, Mich., because there was no hot water for washing up. Bus drivers in Birmingham, Ala., went on strike because they felt not enough was being done to protect them from contracting the coronavirus from infected passengers, and bus drivers in Detroit staged a sudden sickout for the same reason. Sanitation workers in Pittsburgh engaged in a work stoppage over their coronavirus worries.

Looking towards the near future, Heer believes, “This wave of protests is only likely to grow, not just because of the coronavirus but also because of the breaking of the social contract by the rich. By crafting bailouts that favored corporations and millionaires amid a pandemic during which blue-collar workers are being forced to work in life-threatening conditions, the American political elite is playing with fire. We could well see social strife far more intense than even the turbulence of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement that emerged in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse.”

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Trump and the Republicans gutted laws and enforcement of safety inspection regulations that protected miners and toxic peesticide protections for farmworkers. Greenhouse notes at The American Prospect that “Trump’s appointees have eased safety requirements for oil and gas drilling workers. His administration has even relaxed child labor rules, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds who work in nursing homes and hospitals to operate power-driven patient lifts without supervision—even though thousands of experienced adult health care workers get injured each year moving and lifting patients.”

The Republican war on unions has deprived millions of workers of the kind of representation that can prevent health and safety abuses on the job. Heer concludes, “The very collapse of American unions in recent decades means that the stabilizing force of organized labor is gone, making wildcat strikes the weapon of choice in this new class war. America may be heading into a period of working-class militancy unlike anything it has experienced since the 1930s and ’40s.”

If worker safety is not the pivotal issue in the November elections, it will certainly be one of the leading concerns that could make a substantial number of those who have stayed home on election day (about 40 percent of eligible voters in 2016) turn out.

Throughout Trump’s presidency, progressives have repeatedly called attention to the Administration’s gutting of consumer, environmental and health regulations, falling too often on the deaf ears of distracted voters. As the coronavirus death toll continues to soar, however, the likelihood that most voters will lose a family member, friend or co-worker is also growing. There is nothing like a life or death issue to get one’s attention.

If Democrats will loudly and frequently hold Trump, McConnell and the GOP accountable for the gutting of the CDC and a host of worker and consumer protections, it just might produce the margin of victory needed to win the White House and majority control of the U.S. Senate .

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