Before Vinny Alvarez began his response Jan. 13 to a question about what the city labor movement was hoping for when Joe Biden became President a week later, he felt compelled to mention, "You know, 4,400 people died of COVID yesterday."
It was a reminder that there were reasons—besides Donald Trump being the most anti-labor President the U.S. has had in more than 30 years and someone who a week earlier had incited a mob to attempt a coup against the rest of the U.S. Government—to be holding his breath until the 45th President finally left the White House. By the time the head of the AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council was being interviewed that morning, more than 381,000 Americans had died of the coronavirus.
That toll, which included more than 25,000 deaths of city residents, was why Mr. Alvarez said among the changes he and his superiors at the national union in Washington were hoping Mr. Biden would produce was to "get COVID under control and improve access to vaccines and make sure every workplace is a safe one."
Five days earlier, the President-elect had nominated Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to be his Labor Secretary. Besides having earned praise for his city's response to worker-safety issues related to exposure to the virus, Mr. Walsh had previously been the head of the construction-union federation Boston Building Trades.
A Striking Contrast From Scalia
It represented a very different pedigree than Mr. Trump's most-recent Labor Secretary, Eugene Scalia, who previously had been a management attorney known for his legal challenges to Obama Administration regulations protecting consumers and employees, and was the son of Justice Antonin Scalia, who prior to his 2016 death had been the leader of the conservative wing of the U.S. Supreme Court.
"In a broad sense, it's gonna be good for the labor movement and the country to have a functioning government and a President who supports working people," Mr. Alvarez said.
Mr. Trump during his four years in office has looked to restrict collective-bargaining rights for Federal employees and limit the time their union representatives could spend at Federal agencies assisting them, using executive orders that the AFL-CIO is hoping Mr. Biden will quickly rescind.
In a final gesture of disdain for Federal workers, the departing President late last year canceled a scheduled 1-percent pay raise for civilian employees, citing the conclusion of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that it was unaffordable at a time of belt-tightening because of a growing budget deficit. Given that the deficit had been disregarded by both men when they pushed through a huge tax cut that primarily benefited wealthy individuals and corporations, the explanation didn't exactly pass the smell test with Federal workers and their unions.
It is why one of labor's legislative priorities in Washington, Mr. Alvarez said, will be passage of the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, expanding the areas in which Federal unions can bargain for their members.
That is in addition to the labor movement's prime bill in recent years, the Protect the Right to Organize Act, which would guarantee that representation elections would be held if a majority of the workers in a potential bargaining unit signed cards expressing interest in forming a union. That legislation would also speed the process for obtaining a wage contract once a union was designated by the rank and file, so that if no deal was reached within 90 days of the start of bargaining, the dispute would be submitted to arbitration.
There are other steps, Mr. Alvarez said, that unions are hoping Mr. Biden will take to "undo some of the executive orders the Trump Administration put in to eviscerate worker rights."
Trump Forgot the 'Forgotten'
One of them undid a positive change President Barack Obama had made in 2009 with an order that doubled the previous salary standard for supervisory employees concerning eligibility for overtime. Since the 1970s, any supervisors making more than $23,450 were ineligible for overtime pay; Mr. Obama doubled the trigger point to $47,000.
Mr. Trump cut that to $35,000, which Mr. Alvarez noted in a 2019 interview reduced by 75 percent the number of supervisors still eligible who had gained the right to time-and-a-half under Mr. Obama's order.
The man who had campaigned as the candidate of the "forgotten" workers also had remembered to rescind an Obama-era "persuader rule" requiring employers to disclose whether they were retaining firms with reputations for taking anti-worker, anti-union positions, and made it more difficult for employees of franchises of companies like McDonald's to be able to sue.
In that 2019 interview, Mr. Alvarez lamented that the 875 Safety Inspectors employed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration was the fewest since President Richard Nixon created the agency in 1970. Mr. Trump thought that was still too many: an AFL-CIO study last year showed that there were only 746 Federal Safety Inspectors.
With 9.9 million workplaces nationwide, the AFL-CIO noted, OSHA would need 162 years to inspect every one of them, and even when 1,021 state inspectors were added to the total, that amounted to just one for every 83,207 workers.
That was one area that needed a major upgrade to improve worker safety, Mr. Alvarez said, but it barely scratched the surface of what labor needed from the Biden Administration.
Need Aid for City, State
"We need to make sure the Congress and the President provide a relief package that finally addresses the needs of state and local governments," he said. "And a massive infrastructure bill as well to create good-paying jobs and help our economic growth as we try to bring our economy back from the pandemic...And racial justice and racial inequities that have existed in this country are connected to both the economic crisis and the public-health crisis we're going through now. There's also pension-funding relief, [improved] Social Security benefits and the multitude of health-care issues that need to be solved."
After Mr. Trump's election in 2016—aided by strong support from white blue-collar workers—several labor leaders said they believed he would be amenable to a major infrastructure bill, which seemed likely to appeal to Republicans as well as Democrats, particularly because of Mr. Trump's background in the construction industry.
At a certain point in the administration, however, such a measure had been put on hold so many times that it spurred jokes about an "infrastructure week" that never quite arrived. Senator McConnell, who reverted to his posture as a deficit hawk after the major tax-cut measure was adopted at the end of Mr. Trump's first year in office, was viewed as a stumbling block, and on that issue as well as coronavirus relief to cities and states determined policy to a far-greater degree than the President.
"It just wasn't enough of a priority for the Republicans who considered this to be able to get something done," Mr. Alvarez said. And the result of their inaction over the past four years, he said, was, "The infrastructure needs are greater than they've ever been."
A massive financial commitment in that area, very much in the mold of New Deal programs under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, could revive an economy that has been battered by the impact of the pandemic.
"People think it's just roads and bridges and highways," Mr. Alvarez said. "It's so much greater than that. You're talking about water lines and pipes and anything that leaks that's underground. Public buildings, police and fire houses, and fixing the electrical grid. The whole infrastructure of the telecommunications industry. Upgrading and updating the water system." He backed the adoption of key components of the Green New Deal.
Other Areas of Need
He continued, "Why don't we have internet in some areas of the city? There is a connection between the pandemic and infrastructure: the heating and ventilation systems in schools" and defects in those systems that can contribute to the spread of the virus.
Besides needing to hire hundreds of Federal Safety Inspectors, he questioned why, more than 10 months into the pandemic, "there's still a lack of an emergency COVID-19 standard from OSHA."
Mr. Biden will also inherit all of the unfinished business from the Trump Administration and Congress, including the failure to raise the Federal minimum wage, which at $7.25 an hour is less than half of the $15 minimum in effect in New York, which will be reached by California next January and a number of other states over the next five years.
Seventeen months ago, Mr. Alvarez accused Mr. Trump of using his office "to divide America, scapegoating immigrants, degrading women and playing on people's worst fears." Since then, the 45th President has moved forward only in exacerbating divisions and creating new fears about the state of the nation.
He may have done us one service: during the campaign he maligned Mr. Biden's mental acuity and honesty to such a degree that even Mr. Trump's most-strident supporters may be surprised at what a difference smart, conscientious leadership can make.
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