Respecting Working People
The pandemic provides a reminder that none of us succeed alone. Passing new legislation for human infrastructure will change the lives of millions.
In the early months of the pandemic, at 7 p.m. sharp, New Yorkers banged pots and pans on their balconies to express their appreciation for health care workers struggling valiantly to keep people alive. This fraught time has caused many to pause and acknowledge the value of frontline workers, including typically ignored grocery store cashiers, delivery drivers, restaurant staff and every variety of cleaner who wipes down germ-covered surfaces. What parent battling to keep their kids focused on school during lockdown didn’t gain some new appreciation for the skill and fortitude required of teachers to hold students’ attention and learn day after day?
You might have missed President Biden’s speech to labor union leaders a couple of weeks ago, just after Labor Day, when he re-asserted his belief in the central role of working people and the responsibility government has to them. It’s the kind of talk that is often uttered insincerely, but this is no late-life conversion from Biden, who talks plenty about treating people with dignity and never looks happier than when he’s waxing about taking the train or jawboning with “regular Joes.”
“I think one of the good things that’s come out of this godawful crisis regarding COVID is ordinary people who never thought about the technician at the drugstore, never thought about the grocery store worker, never thought about what that firefighter has to do when they go in. They don’t ask, ‘Do you have COVID or not?’ Never thought about the people who keep this country up and running before…Simply put, worker power is essential to building our economy back better than before—it’s just that basic—to counter corporate power, to grow the economy from the bottom up and the middle out. I’m so tired of trickle-down.”
The words are practically whiplash-inducing, especially after all the fake talk of the previous White House occupant. You know, that guy who lied that he was there for “the forgotten men and women of our country” and that he would stop Wall Street from “getting away with murder,” then proceeded to push through $2.3 trillion in tax breaks further enriching corporations and the wealthiest among us, tried repeatedly to repeal the Affordable Care Act, said he would cut Social Security and Medicare if he won in 2020, and failed to pursue infrastructure spending (or even hold the oft-promised, roundly ridiculed Infrastructure Week).
Next Monday the Senate is expected to vote on a massive budget spending plan, originally set to cost $3.5 trillion, to pay for new family, health and education programs. This “human infrastructure” investment would follow the nearly $1 trillion package the Senate passed last month for physical infrastructure expansion and repairs—including bridges, roads, internet, electric grids, airports, water, public transit, passenger and freight rail, electric vehicles and charging stations—that the White House says would add 2 million jobs a year over the next decade.
Elements of Biden’s proposal for the budget spending—which almost certainly will only pass the Senate with Democratic votes through reconciliation, and which surely will be chipped away at by Sens. Manchin and Sinema—illuminates the values driving this administration. (It includes some of the programs that were stripped from Biden’s original infrastructure plan.) Among the potentially world-altering details: universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, child care benefits for working families, two years of tuition-free community college, federal paid medical leave, expanded health care benefits, and investments in home and community-based services for seniors, the disabled and home care workers.
These are the kinds of major investments, and policy and structural changes, that can genuinely shift the trajectory for millions of Americans and help readjust an economy that has dangerously fueled the growing disparity between rich and poor and dramatically undermined a once-prosperous middle class.
But I also hope the consequence of new investments that touch the lives of working people might also cause pause among at least some Republicans trying to make ends meet and who are not fully on-board with leaders spurring political violence. Don’t doubt that they too have seen videos of extremists screaming at teachers who want a safe (masked) classroom and attacking nurses and other (masked) frontline hospital workers trying to do their jobs.
I’m not idealistic enough to believe that we will end up with a now-hostile minority who suddenly recognizes that everyone should be treated with dignity or that constructive support from government programs can reduce their high-volume grievances. But the combination of leaders modeling positive values and enacting policies that demonstrate commitment to working people just might influence a small percentage who are still able to notice that the shaft they were handed need not be inevitable.
A closing note, my favorite quote from Sen. Elizabeth Warren:
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there—good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory... part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
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Very true - every word. And Senator Warren’s words are the truth. Billionaires got there on the backs of everyone else. Tax the Rich! Invest in Social Security - make Medicare for All!
I firmly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. I know I’m happiest when I’ve made others I care about happy. No one succeeds entirely on their own, with the possible exception of writers.
When I worked as a registered nurse in hospitals, taking care of patients was a collaboration of nurses, nursing assistants, physicians and hospital technicians all working together in the best interests of patients.
When I worked as a litigation attorney I collaborated with other attorneys representing co-defendants or plaintiffs,
attorney co-workers, legal secretaries, legal assistants, experts in different fields, judges, clients and insurance carriers. I can honestly say that I learned many things from all of them.
In fact, collaborating with others to achieve a mutual goal can be exhilarating & joyful.
It’s a gift we give each other—the gift of ourselves.