Public service workers essential during COVID-19 crisis

Yet the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board seems to think the appropriate response to this crisis is to cut their income and increase their workload.

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City workers prepare to scrub down Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood on May 22 after an explosion at an old coal plant. Public service workers remain essential during the COVID-19 crisis, writes Bob Reiter, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The COVID-19 crisis has shown how essential public service workers are to our communities, from public health experts tracking the virus and providing safety guidance to the now immensely overburdened workforce that processes unemployment claims to the streets and sanitation crews who pick up our trash every day.

While the vast majority of Chicagoans recognize and applaud the work of our public service heroes on the front lines of this crisis, the Sun-Times Editorial Board seems to think the appropriate response to their efforts is to cut their income and increase their workload. Not only would the austerity measures suggested by the Sun-Times fail to make any significant impact on the financial plight of state and local government — a fact the editorial board readily acknowledges — but they would demean public service and prolong the COVID-induced economic slump.

Most people understand the depth of this crisis and overwhelmingly support funding the public services needed to respond. In a recent national poll, 74% of respondents said they preferred funding for education, health care and other public services over reducing government spending or debt.

People also know that hiring freezes, layoffs and pay cuts put more Chicagoans out of work or reduce the amount of money in their pockets, deepening economic woes at exactly the time we should be stimulating the economy.

Elected leaders locally and nationally have joined with economic experts from across the political spectrum to speak out against cuts at the state and local level instead calling for more assistance from the federal government. Even Jerome Powell, the Republican Federal Reserve Chairman, has pushed for greater financial assistance for state and local governments, telling the Senate Banking Committee just this week that additional aid is “certainly an area I would be looking at if I were you.”

So instead of shrugging our shoulders at Washington inaction and immediately cutting public services, we should be joining together in an effort to ensure Congress passes the necessary support for state and local governments, starting with the HEROES Act.

The Sun-Times is just as wrong in its divisive attempt to frame the issue as “union versus non-union” We need to come together to combat COVID-19, not be pitted against one another. And workers need a strong voice through their unions now, when workplace health and safety is literally a matter of life and death.

Instead of standing up for working people at this crucial moment, the Sun-Times board presents this crisis as an opportunity for employers to unilaterally reopen contracts and impose changes. This could set a dangerous precedent that may erode workers’ rights in countless ways, even after the pandemic passes.

The labor movement, especially public sector unions, have worked closely with the city, county, and state for years to recommend and implement cost-saving measures. We will continue to find ways to provide the services the public needs as efficiently as possible.

But this isn’t the time for cuts that prolong the crisis and degrade the services we all depend on. Instead, let’s work together to ensure passage of the HEROES Act, and take the necessary steps to protect and strengthen our city, county, and state for the long term.

Bob Reiter is president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, one of several labor organizations to have an ownership interest in the Chicago Sun-Times.

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