Town hall explores help for rural America

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AFT members gathered May 12 for their ninth week of telephone town halls to discuss confronting the coronavirus pandemic, focusing on rural and small-town America.

small town with American flag

Before introducing the speakers, AFT President Randi Weingarten welcomed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s relief plan that would keep American families afloat despite the highest unemployment since the Great Depression, and make sure that essential state and local public services keep going. These services are key to safely reopening the economy.

In a nutshell, the HEROES (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act would provide nearly $1 trillion to state, local, territorial, and tribal programs that desperately need funds to pay for public employees and healthcare workers who keep our society running.

That funding would break down like this: $500 billion for state, tribal and territorial public services; $375 billion for local services; $100 billion for public K-12 and higher education; $200 billion to ensure that essential workers who have risked their lives working during the pandemic receive hazard pay; $75 billion for coronavirus testing, contact tracing and isolation; an extension of unemployment benefits, ensuring weekly $600 federal payments through January 2021; and safeguards for our democracy, with new resources to ensure safe elections, an accurate census, and preservation of the U.S. Postal Service.

More specifically for small-town and rural communities, the HEROES Act would increase broadband funding, as well as Wi-Fi hotspots and connected devices for students and healthcare workers; implement a national coronavirus testing strategy that addresses rural areas; provide grants for schools of medicine in rural areas, as well as $25 million for rural rental assistance; and allocate $2 billion for a temporary expansion of the Rural Health Care Program.

This legislation tracks with an AFT resolution last year that the rural way of life is worth fighting for. In it, the AFT pledges to do our part in seeing to it that rural communities have equal access to education, healthcare and reliable public services. The resolution vows that “Not one more school, not one more hospital, not one more post office, not one more grocery store should close on our watch.”

After sketching out the new House legislation, Weingarten introduced the night’s speakers: John Nichols, national affairs correspondent for The Nation, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and President Marc Perrone of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Nichols named a few priorities for rural areas. For example, public libraries that used to provide services of all kinds have closed because of the virus; some still have cars crammed into their parking lots for free Wi-Fi.

“Rural broadband needs a massive, massive infusion,” he said, advocating for a sweeping new program that would bring the internet to America’s remote places, just like rural electrification did in the 20th century.

Nichols also called for a $25 billion cash infusion for the U.S. Postal Service because its business mail is drying up and because it faces punitive requirements to fund pensions.

Merkley added his own concerns about the pandemic’s effects on rural America. “It has been such a dark and dangerous time even before corona,” he said, “and with the virus comes an implosion of the economy.”

With an expected 100,000 Americans who will have died by the end of this month, and 30 million who have already lost their jobs, Merkley said we must reconsider the complexity of our healthcare system.

Of course, healthcare in rural areas was in crisis before COVID-19. People from many rural communities live 30 or more miles from the nearest hospital. As health systems have consolidated, critical services have moved from rural hospitals to urban flagship facilities. Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s rural hospitals don’t have any ICU beds.

boxcars on train tracks

“It’s been deeply disturbing to see the opposition to expanding Medicaid that came with the Affordable Care Act, whose biggest beneficiaries live in rural areas,” the senator said. “It wasn’t just about them gaining access to healthcare; it was about the significant increase in revenue to rural hospitals. They expanded their services for mental health. They expanded their services for drug treatment. I ask in these rural town halls, ‘How many people are fed up with the complexity of the healthcare system? How many would support a simpler system?’ The response is robust and positive in rural, red Oregon. It’s my hope for the future that we reach that simple, seamless system where everybody is covered and we’re not getting ripped off.”

You often hear Republicans talk about how local government is more important than the federal government, Merkley mused, but now we hear Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talking about letting states go bankrupt. “It’s the stupidest thing we could possibly do, so why do we hear Republicans saying this?” he asked, wondering aloud if this is just a ploy to undermine public sector unions.

Shoulder to shoulder

Saying many people didn’t know that the UFCW represents grocery, retail and commercial workers until about eight weeks ago, Perrone observed that with COVID-19 raging through meatpacking plants, lots more people know it now.

In a meatpacking plant, he said, you’ve got 5,000 workers crowded together in one facility. A small plant may have 2,000 workers, elbow to elbow. High-pressure air conditioning shoots the virus and humidity all over the building, which has led to hundreds of workers falling ill and many dying.

“It’s highly, highly contagious unless people are given personal protective equipment,” Perrone said. “It’s extremely grueling, and you can imagine how it’s mentally challenging because of the nature of the work.”

Provisions in the HEROES Act would ensure worker safety by requiring the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue a strong, enforceable standard within seven days to require all workplaces to implement infection control plans based on expertise from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The legislation also would prevent employers from retaliating against workers who report infection control problems.

If you’ve ever read Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle, Perrone said, you know these meatpacking plants are often the first stop for immigrants. The UFCW now represents workers in plants with up to 20 languages, and the union has put 3,000 members through citizenship programs.

“So our challenge now is no PPE, no testing, no contact tracing, no isolation,” Perrone said. Whether workers are processing pork or beef, “I can promise you they’re going to give the virus to others through no fault of their own.”

He thanked the AFT for providing UFCW members with protective gear from our shipment last week. “We had been losing PPE to other countries,” he said, “because our members were not ‘first responders.’ Thanks for that, and for stepping up in South Dakota. If you guys ever have an issue, we’ve got your back.”

“This is what it means to be a labor movement,” Weingarten responded. “This is who your members are, and this is who our members are. The more we can walk in each other’s shoes, the more we can get to an America that’s all we want it to be.”

town in the mountains

Help for ‘everyday people’

During the Q&A, members echoed the desire to build bridges between urban and rural communities, and to show that small-town residents count. That’s exactly the message President Kennedy sent, Weingarten noted, when he visited McDowell County, W.Va., in 1960.

Robert Gutzler of St. Louis was a UFCW member before joining the AFT. He asked: What if Congress was to do debt forgiveness for everyday people instead of big business?

Nichols offered a start: “We screwed up the 2008 response by bailing out banks, letting many people lose their homes. We should have learned at that time that if you’re doing bailouts, you start at the grassroots. Let’s start with nurses for student loan debt relief.”

Weingarten and Nichols pointed to political reality. One thing that often gets lost in discussions of rural America is reliance on federal programs. Small-town and rural Americans, they said, ought to vote for candidates who support Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food assistance and the USPS because these are programs that rural voters rely on and that Democratic leaders will fund.

“At the end of the day, we need a new administration,” Weingarten said. “It’s not that Democrats are always wonderful and Republicans are always bad, but the issues are what’s important.”

[Annette Licitra/Pamela Wolfe photos]