Today’s News & Commentary — August 11, 2021

After a weekend of sluggish procedural advances, which Fred described on Monday, the Senate finally, after months of grueling bipartisan negotiations, passed a sweeping $1.2 trillion physical infrastructure package, called the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of 69-30. All 50 members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate voted for the bill, along with 19 Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the chief of the Senate Republicans. The comprehensive, 2,702-page piece of legislation marks the largest federal investment into infrastructure in more than a decade, pouring hundreds of billions of dollars of new federal spending into rebuilding the nation’s dilapidated roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and railways, upgrading public transit systems (including billions in funding for passenger and freight rail systems and clean buses and ferries), modernizing the power grid, expanding high-speed broadband internet access to rural and low-income communities, replacing decaying water treatment systems and lead pipes, building a national network of charging stations for electric vehicles, and fortifying and preparing the nation against the effects of climate change. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), a key negotiator, promised that the bill “is going to improve the lives of all Americans,” and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh tweeted that passage of the bill “is great news for workers, families and communities across the nation,” affirming that “through good-paying union jobs, we’ll build 21st century infrastructure.” Labor groups and unions have voiced their support for the package; the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), for example, applauded the deal, proclaiming that “this historic infrastructure deal will uplift millions of working families through good unions jobs that offer decent wages and benefits.”  

The infrastructure package represents a significant investment into public works and a major policy win for President Biden, seemingly vindicating his insistence on the campaign trail that he could reach across the aisle and achieve bipartisan consensus — but the cost of bipartisanship was steep. Senate Democrats were forced to make “miserable compromises” and major concessions from President Biden’s initial plan, which was nearly twice as big, sacrificing much of their ambitious efforts to invest enormous sums into public transit, clean energy, healthcare, climate resiliency, and even narrowing racial inequities. Nevertheless, the legislation will now be sent to the House, where it may face a more rocky path, as a majority of the House’s 95 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have threatened to withhold their support until the Senate passes the separate “big, bold$3.5 trillion budget package, which includes a substantial expansion of the nation’s social safety net and enormous investments in climate programs, antipoverty initiatives, healthcare, childcare, and education. “We’re not going forward with leaving people behind,” declared Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Speaking to reporters after passage of the infrastructure bill, Senator Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) promoted the budget resolution and assured those “who are concerned that this does not do enough on climate, for families, and making corporations and the rich pay their fair share,” that “we are moving on a second track, which will make a generational transformation in these areas.”

On Tuesday, the Senate voted along party lines to open debate on said budget resolution, launching the wretched “vote-a-rama,” which lasted deep into the night, and early this morning, after more than 40 roll calls and 14 hours of debate, they approved the framework for the resolution, 50-49, a crucial first step in what will likely be a lengthy process until final enactment. The framework will now be taken up by the House, and its initial approval by both chambers will unlock the budget reconciliation process, allowing Democrats to pass the legislation along party lines, circumventing the death knell of the filibuster. After approval by both chambers, congressional Democrats will still need to actually assemble and write the sprawling legislative package, the final text of which must be passed by both chambers, in a way that appeals to the moderates in the party, who have already balked at the price tag.  

A new report released on Tuesday by the Economic Policy Institute reveals that CEO compensation has grown by more than 1,300 percent since 1978, shattering the dismal 18 percent growth in a typical worker’s annual compensation during the same time period. In just one year, between 2019 to 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic raged and millions of Americans were thrown out of work and into economic misery, CEO compensation skyrocketed nearly 20 percent. In 1965, the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio was 21-to-1, but by 2020, it had risen to 351-to-1. In fact, CEO compensation has climbed so precipitously over the last three decades that, according to EPI’s report, it has greatly outpaced even the compensation growth of the top one-tenth of one percent (0.1%) of wage earners and the growth of the stock market. The report explains that “rising CEO pay does not reflect rising value of skills, but rather CEOs’ use of their power to set their own pay,” and concludes that “the economy would suffer no harm if CEOs were paid less (or taxed more).”  EPI’s findings are far from surprising  — the exorbitant salaries enjoyed by CEOs and the discrepancy between CEO pay and worker pay has been well-documented. Nonetheless, these new data further highlight the urgent need to redress income inequality, the foundation of so much social misery and dysfunction.

More than 100 drivers at a Pepsi bottling facility in Munster, Indiana, responsible for delivering pop to the shelves of major grocery chains across the Midwest and represented by Teamsters Local 142, have been on strike for nearly a month, protesting the company’s proposal to sharply raise the workers’ health insurance premiums from $14 to more than $80 over the next four years — a more than fivefold increase. The workers decided to reject the disputed agreement, even though their union had endorsed it. On Monday, the mayor of the neighboring city of Hammond, Thomas McDermott Jr., who has visited the picket line, threatened a citywide boycott of Pepsi if the company failed to reach an agreement with the striking workers by later this month. “I can’t in good conscience continue to be a customer if they aren’t using union drivers,” McDermott explained, “if Pepsi management can’t resolve their differences with the union by Friday, Aug. 20, Hammond…will terminate all of our Pepsi contracts.” Though last year PepsiCo had a market capitalization of more than $200 billion, reaped more than $70 billion in net revenue, and, in line with EPI’s findings documented above, their CEO, Ramon Laguarta, was compensated more than $20 million, the drivers who ship their product across the country have not received a mileage raise in more than a decade.

Grueling schedules and poor working conditions have long been the norm in the film industry, but now, as documented in a recent article published in Jacobin, after months of pandemic shutdowns allowed many in the industry to experience the joy of free-time, film workers, along with many others in various industries around the country, are rejecting a return to a constant state of overwork and starting to organize. Ben Gottlieb, a lighting technician who created an Instagram account to anonymously share the horror stories of workers in the industry, described to Jacobin that a standard workday is twelve to fourteen hours, and that during the months-long pandemic-induced shutdown, “everyone developed hobbies, people got into hiking, they got closer with their kids,” but as production restarted and pre-pandemic schedules were gradually reimposed, “people are miserable on set now, and you can tell.” These laborers in the film industry, who bring us movies and television shows, are examples of the surge of worker dissatisfaction and labor agitation spreading throughout all industries and regions as American workplaces reopen and a life dominated by constant work and anxiety begins to reassert itself.

In other pandemic-related news, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, who has, in the name of “freedom,” been locked into a lethal competition with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in recent weeks to see which state can boast the greatest number of residents infected with the coronavirus, called an “extraordinary” special session of the Texas legislature last weekend to, according to the Texas Tribune, make it harder for workers in the state to obtain paid sick leave. Abbott added an item to the agenda calling for legislation “shielding private employers and employees from political subdivision rules, regulations, ordinances, and other actions…that conflict with federal or state law relating to any form of employment leave.” In other words, the item is an attempt to preempt local labor laws, particularly mandatory paid sick leave. More than four million workers in the Lone Star State currently lack access to paid sick leave, which is crucial to mitigating the spread of COVID-19, despite recent attempts by the cities of Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio to pass ordinances requiring that employers provide it. In a word, as COVID infections and hospitalization reach record highs in Texas and dozens of the state’s overwhelmed hospitals are running out of beds in their intensive care units, spurring some to postpone non-emergency operations or even entirely close their emergency rooms, Governor Abbot has taken a break from outlawing local mask mandates to prioritize denying paid sick leave to the workers in his state.

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