The indignity of work without pay

Americans will lose the dignity of work because Mitch McConnell refuses to do his job

Published January 21, 2019 5:58AM (EST)

Hundreds of federal workers and contractors rally against the partial federal government shutdown outside the headquarters of the AFL-CIO January 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)
Hundreds of federal workers and contractors rally against the partial federal government shutdown outside the headquarters of the AFL-CIO January 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

In the midst of the longest government shutdown in history, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown this week launched a “Dignity of Work” listening tour.

The Democratic senator, who just won reelection by nearly seven points in the red state of Ohio, explained the concept to reporters: “Dignity of work means hard work should pay off for everyone, no matter who you are or what kind of work you do. . . [dignity of work] is a value that unites us all.”

Well, maybe not everyone. Forty percent of conservative Republicans view the government shutdown as inconsequential. That is, 40 percent of conservative Republicans believe that furloughing 380,000 federal workers and giving them no idea when they might see another paycheck is no problem. That is, 40 percent of conservative Republicans say that ordering another 420,000 federal employees to work without pay is nothing. Forty percent of conservative Republicans say that the farmers and students and potential homebuyers who can’t get loans because of the shutdown are no big deal; the restaurants and shops suffering because their usual government employee customers aren’t showing up are meaningless; the thousands of government contract workers laid off with no hope of recouping lost paychecks are trivial collateral damage.

That repudiates the dignity of work. It disrespects government workers and the services they perform for Americans. It also disrespects the workers routinely helped by government employees, from farmers to factory laborers, who now are denied the government services they need.

The typical government worker is short $5,000 in pay after four weeks of government closure and confronting the indignity of feeding the family from food banks, selling possessions on eBay, begging on GoFundMe and missing mortgage, rent, car loan, credit card and utility bill payment deadlines.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, could reopen government. Instead of exhibiting some guts and working for American workers, McConnell is cowering in the shadow of President Trump, who has threatened to veto any government funding measure that fails to fund a border wall.

McConnell is spinelessly refusing to allow his chamber to vote again on a government-funding measure without money for the wall. The Senate passed that bill in December with a unanimous vote — that is, with a rock-solid, veto-proof majority. Immediately afterward, the then-Republican-controlled U.S. House amended the measure to add $5.7 billion for a border wall and sent it back to the Senate, which did not pass it, effectively killing it and causing the shutdown.

This year, though, the new Democrat-controlled House passed a duplicate of the original Senate measure without money for the wall. To become law, all it needs now is a new vote from the U.S. Senate. But McConnell refuses to bring up the measure again. And he’s hiding out from constituents and lawmakers who want to urge him to do it. He is dissing 800,000 unpaid government workers and millions of American workers who depend on them.

There is no dignity in McConnell’s failure to do his work.

McConnell is obstructing the labor of dedicated federal workers, including those at the Commerce Department and U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) who determine whether imports are unfairly traded, rule on exemptions to the across-the-board tariffs placed on steel and aluminum, and report on the potential effects of the proposed new NAFTA deal.

The inability of these federal workers to do their jobs directly affects the jobs of members of the union I lead, the United Steelworkers (USW). Here are two examples.

Workers at Commerce and the ITC investigate complaints about unfair trade. They determine whether there is sufficient evidence to penalize imports that are illegally subsidized or violate other trade regulations. And they impose import duties and other punitive measures to level the playing field for American manufacturers.

This process already takes a job-killing length of time, often more than a year after the initial complaint. Now, U.S. companies and workers who expected decisions in January are confronted with additional, unnecessary delays because of the shutdown.

One case involves Maxion, an Ohio company where USW members make steel wheels. Another concerns Tyler Pipe, a division of McWane in Tyler, Texas, where 300 USW members fabricate cast iron soil pipe.

In both cases, the companies allege that unfairly traded imports from China damaged their businesses. The Maxion case was filed last March. The shutdown suspended investigations, which almost certainly means a delay in the decision that was scheduled for March 7. The Tyler Pipe case was filed last January, and the decision that was due Jan. 7 this year has now been postponed.

Politicians talk incessantly about how important it is to provide stability and certainty for business. The shutdown increases instability and uncertainty for companies like Maxion and Tyler Pipe and untold thousands of workers.

The shutdown could also delay settlement of the tariff war between the United States and China that affects virtually every American worker.

Last year, President Trump imposed $250 billion in tariffs on imports from China, and Beijing retaliated with $110 billion in tariffs on U.S. exports to China. Trump has threatened to raise tariffs on $200 million in Chinese imports from 10 to 25 percent in March if no agreement is reached on issues including China’s theft of U.S. trade secrets and its arm-twisting of U.S. companies to transfer intellectual property if they want to operate in China.

The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is negotiating, and USTR staff remained on the job until Monday. Then 75 percent of them were sent home for lack of funds because of the shutdown. That leaves U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer without staff to perform essential research for negotiations as the March deadline to resolve the dispute with China looms.

This is occurring while the U.S. trade deficit with China in 2018 grew 17 percent to $323.32 billion, the highest level in a decade. The more stuff the United States imports from China, the fewer jobs for American workers — that is, the less dignity of work for Americans.

In six days of hearings last year on the $200 billion in tariffs, American businesses warned that they could hurt profits, hiring and growth. Economists projected that the tariffs would increase prices and inflation and reduce U.S. economic growth by 0.1 percentage points.

On top of that, the White House Council of Economic Advisers admitted earlier this week that the shutdown is damaging the U.S. economy at twice the rate first projected. Initially, they said it would cut 0.1 percentage points from growth every two weeks. Now they’re saying that will occur every week.

That contraction added to the trade war retrenchment could cost thousands of jobs. Americans will lose the dignity of work because McConnell refuses to do his job.

By Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

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