What the United States desperately needs is a multitrillion-dollar stimulus package to provide the resources to fight the current coronavirus surge, to provide for the unemployed and underemployed, to keep small businesses and small farms afloat, to fund state and local governments and schools, and to organize and implement the distribution of the vaccines that are vital to ending the current crisis.
What the United States does not need is a massive corporate bailout that allows the wealthiest and most powerful businesses in this country to avoid liability for actions they take that sicken and kill Americans.
Unfortunately, that is what Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and his minions have been battling to include in a new Covid-19 “relief” package. And key Democrats could end up going along with the grim reaper’s ghoulish scheme as he again uses federal legislation to insulate irresponsible CEOs from accountability—and, conveniently, to reward the business interests that fund Republican campaigns.
Exploiting the sense of urgency over the peaking pandemic and the prospect of what President-elect Joe Biden refers to as a “long dark winter” for working families, McConnell and his colleagues have for months held relief proposals hostage over the issue of a so-called “liability shield.” Such a shield—even if it is limited, even if it is only temporary—would give corporations immunity from lawsuits related to Covid-19.
Considering the stark evidence of irresponsibility on the part of US corporations since the pandemic hit, the proposal is absurd. Yet the “COVID Emergency Relief Framework” scheme that was initially proposed by corporate-aligned centrists in Congress but has now attracted backing from leading congressional Republicans and Democrats proposes just such a liability shield. The one-page outline of the plan released last week includes among its proposals: “Provide short term federal protection from coronavirus-related lawsuits with the purpose of giving states time to develop their own response.”
That’s precisely the sort of vague language that has been used in the past to take advantage of crisis moments to benefit the bottom lines of multinational corporations. If McConnell and his allies get what they want—in this measure or some future one—big business will be off the hook and working people will be further endangered. As Public Citizen warned earlier this year, the proposal by Senate Republicans “to immunize businesses from liability includes provisions shielding employers from a range of workplace laws—including laws addressing discrimination, fair wages and occupational health and safety.”
In a new variation on the scenario described in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, corporations and their congressional benefactors would have us believe that a liability shield is needed to battle the pandemic. But why? “How would exempting employers from complying with the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act help to end the pandemic?” asks the Public Citizen analysis. “What does any of this have to do with restoring the economy? Nothing at all.”
The awful truth of why corporations want the shield was summed up by the Rev. William J. Barber II when he explained Monday: “This new proposal, if you go to the bottom, is pushing for a liability shield for businesses to protect themselves from lawsuits from poor/low-wealth workers if they get Covid because the business did not protect them. That’s criminal.”
Yet, while Democrats have long objected to the liability shield, things have gotten so desperate in the United States that there’s mounting concern that a “compromise” plan—which could come before Congress in days—might include a liability shield. The only way to prevent this from happening is to make it clear that compromises that endanger the health and safety of Americans in the midst of a pandemic are unacceptable.
That’s what Bernie Sanders has done. In announcing that he cannot support the relief package as it has been proposed by Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mitt Romney of Utah, the senator has said:
Unfortunately, despite long-time Democratic opposition, this proposal provides 100 percent legal immunity to corporations whose irresponsibility has led to the deaths of hundreds of workers. It would continue to provide a get-out-of-jail free card to companies that put the lives of their workers and customers at risk. In fact, the Manchin-Romney proposal will, through this liability provision, encourage corporations to avoid implementing the common sense safety standards needed to protect workers and consumers—and make a bad situation worse.
Sanders has other objections to the plan as it is currently configured, noting on Friday that “at a time when the COVID crisis is the worst that it has ever been in the U.S. with record-breaking levels of hospitalization and death, the Manchin-Romney proposal not only provides no direct payments to working families, it does nothing to address the healthcare crisis and has totally inadequate financial assistance for the most vulnerable.”
This country has suffered enough from Shock Doctrine schemes. Sanders is right when he says that a Covid “relief” package that includes a liability shield for multinational corporations “is wrong morally and it is wrong economically if we hope to rebuild the economy.”