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Government Must Act to Stop Spread of Economic and Financial Consequences of Coronavirus

The stock market fell 7% at the open Monday morning. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s a catastrophic collapse—a financial crisis type number. Typically, the market might gain or lose in a whole year the value that was lost by the time the sound of the opening bell faded.

The collapse appears to be the result of a combination of the spread of coronavirus and falling oil prices—two events that are themselves connected. But it needs to be interpreted as an alarm bell, because we are dealing with the threat of two deadly kinds of contagions—one biological and the other economic and financial—both of which pose serious but manageable threats to the well-being of working people.

We have heard a lot about biological contagion and how to stop the spread of coronavirus in our workplaces and our communities. You can get up-to-date information on workplace safety and coronavirus at www.aflcio.org/covid-19 and at the websites of our affiliated unions. But what about financial and economic contagion? This is something elected leaders, economic policymakers and financial regulators must take action to stop.

How does it work? Coronavirus is a shock to the global economy. It stops economic activity of all kinds—shutting down factories, canceling meetings, sending cruise ships into quarantine. The only way to prevent that is to stop the spread of the virus (see above). The consequence of economic activity slowing down or stopping is that businesses lose revenue, and generally with loss of revenue comes loss of profits.

People who trade on the stock market usually price stocks by making projections about the future profits of the companies whose stocks trade on the public markets. The stock market reacts instantaneously to changing expectations about what may happen in the economy and to specific businesses. The stock market itself doesn’t create or destroy jobs, but it does contribute to the overall financial health of companies and of people. When stock prices fall rapidly, they can create their own kind of contagion—exposing fragile financing structures for both companies and people. That can in turn lead to retreat—companies pulling back on investments or, in the worst case, going bankrupt.

So the stock market can create contagion all by itself. But the much more serious kind of contagion has to do with corporate debt. We have had low interest rates for years, and businesses around the world have gone on a borrowing spree. This spree has been one of the causes of relatively healthy economic growth in the last few years, but it has also led to businesses carrying a lot of debt relative to their earnings and growth. 

Here is where the danger gets very real, because, as we all know, if you borrow money, you have to make payments on that debt. What if businesses that have borrowed a lot of money suddenly don’t have anywhere near the revenue they expected to have? This is what empty planes and blocked supply chains mean.  

If no one does anything and the coronavirus leads to months of revenue shortfalls in overleveraged companies, there is a real risk of pullbacks in investments by those companies or, worse, bankruptcy. Falling stock markets and debt defaults can lead to weak business balance sheets and to weak financial institutions. That is what financial contagion means. We saw that in 2008 when first mortgage intermediaries failed, then hedge funds and stock brokerages, and then major banks.  

Even more seriously, once investment pullbacks, bankruptcies and layoffs start, that leads, like a spreading virus, to more losses of revenue to other businesses—in other words, economic contagion. Economic contagion, once it starts, is even harder to stop than financial contagion. Economic contagion means recession, unemployment, falling wages. What makes this crisis different is that it starts with a kind of layoff—shutdown of economic activity and quarantines to stop the spread of disease. 

We need government to act to stop financial and economic contagion until the worst of the coronavirus passes and, most importantly, until everyone has a better sense of the exact nature of the threat—that is, until the uncertainty diminishes. Working people must demand that government act, or we and our families will pay the price for others’ lack of action, as we so often have in the past.

What should government do? First, it should directly address the source of economic contraction by dealing effectively with the coronavirus itself and making sure people who are sick or need to be quarantined are able to do what they need to do for themselves and for society without being impoverished. This means emergency paid sick leave for all who need it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have proposed comprehensive emergency paid sick leave for all workers; this is an urgent medical and economic necessity. We need to recognize that until the coronavirus is contained, it will be very challenging to contain the economic consequences of the virus.

Second, government should deliver financial support credit on favorable terms to sectors of the global economy that are threatened by the coronavirus and vulnerable due to overleverage. The U.S. Federal Open Market Committee took a first step in that direction last week by lowering short-term rates by 0.5 percentage point, but that is unlikely to be enough. Central banks need to work with major financial institutions to target cheap credit to vulnerable businesses—airlines, hotels, manufacturers paralyzed by broken supply chains and the like. It is time to discard the old neoliberal idea that we should let banks lend to whomever they want when we appropriately subsidize them with cheap public assets.

Third, government should provide support to the economy as a whole. Congress cannot leave this job to the Federal Reserve. We need to look at bigger emergency appropriations to support our weakened public health infrastructure, particularly hospitals; if the Chinese experience is any indication, we are going to face serious strains to the system as the coronavirus spreads. We need to look at macroeconomic stimulus—public spending to help the economy. This would best be done in the form of investment, such as finally funding infrastructure. But we also need immediate spending; that is why universal paid sick days would be such a good idea, as would be steps to improve the effectiveness of our social safety net—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—and make it easier for everyone to get the health care they need right now.

What we don’t need is the standard right-wing response to any and all problems—tax cuts for the rich. Even more than in a normal downturn, that would do harm, diverting desperately needed public resources to those who don’t need them at all.

Most of all, we need leadership and coordination among federal, state and local governments, between the U.S. government and the Fed and governments and central banks around the world, and with multinational bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organization. This is critical, because neither the coronavirus nor the world financial system respects borders, and because people will succumb to fear in the absence of credible leadership.  

If Monday morning tells us anything, it’s that we need that leadership now, because once fear becomes contagious, it may be the hardest thing to stop.

This blog was originally posted on AFL-CIO on March 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Damon A. Silvers is the director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO. He joined the AFL-CIO as associate general counsel in 1997.

Silvers serves on a pro bono basis as a special assistant attorney general for the state of New York. Silvers is also a member of the Investor Advisory Committee of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Treasury Department’s Financial Research Advisory Committee, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board’s Standing Advisory Group and its Investor Advisory Group.

Silvers received his Juris Doctor with honors from Harvard Law School. He received his Master of Business Administration with high honors from Harvard Business School and is a Baker scholar. Silvers is a graduate of Harvard College, summa cum laude, and has studied history at King’s College, Cambridge University.

Politics Affect Unionization Rates, Study Finds

Laura ClawsonIf union density is declining in the United States (and it is), it’s because unions can’t compete in the global economy, right? That’s the story we’re often told, anyway, but a new Center for Economic and Policy Research report says that actually, politics plays a major role (PDF). The CEPR study compares 21 countries with rich economies and facing similar levels of globalization and technological progress, and finds different outcomes for unions depending on the countries’ differing political environments.

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The study looks at both union membership and union coverage, which is the number of people who are covered by collective bargaining agreements regardless of whether they are union members. (In the United States, the two numbers are fairly close; in many countries, though, significantly more workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements than belong to unions.) The result is that:

Countries strongly identified during the postwar period with social democratic parties—Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland—have generally seen small increases in union coverage and only small decreases in union membership since 1980.

Over the same period, countries typically described as “liberal market economies”—the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, and Japan—have generally seen sharp drops in union coverage and membership.

Countries in the broad Christian democratic tradition, sometimes referred to as “coordinated market economies” or “continental market economies”—Germany, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Switzerland—typically have had outcomes somewhere in between the social democratic and liberal market economies, with small drops in union coverage and moderate declines in union membership.

That declining union membership and coverage in the U.S. is in part a result of political forces shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has watched Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s assaults on public employees or read about Sen. Lindsey Graham’s threats to the National Labor Relations Board before it filed a complaint against Boeing. But since anti-union politicians and corporations always tell you that their assaults on workers’ rights are because unions can’t work in an era of globalization, this study offers a simple rejoinder.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on November 22, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

G-20 Labor Leaders Meet at AFL-CIO for Labor Summit

When the world’s banks were going under, governments jumped to their aid. Now with record numbers of people out of work, it’s past time for governments to put working people first, or the fledgling economic recovery could fall apart. Leaders from the G-20 nations issued this warning while in Washington, D.C., this week for the first-ever meeting of G-20 labor ministers and employment ministers with labor and business leaders April 20-21.

The meeting stems from the efforts by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and others at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh last September to make jobs the central element in any global economic recovery. The G-20 includes the leaders of the world’s top 19 economies and the European Union.

During their meetings at the AFL-CIO before the labor ministers’ summit, the union leaders again strongly urged their governments to support the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Global Jobs Pact, which includes comprehensive measures to stimulate employment growth and provide basic protections for workers and their families.

Sharan Burrow, president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), told the ministers:

Governments must show the same political will to attack global unemployment and underemployment as they did to tackle the banking crisis in late 2008. We cannot afford a lost decade of stagnant labor markets.

Trumka made it clear that if the jobs of the future are to be good, family supporting jobs, workers in all nations must have the fundamental right to form unions and bargain collectively:

In the U.S, tens of thousands of workers are fired every year for attempting to form unions. For example, there can be no excuse for T-Mobile, the U.S. telecommunications company, to viciously oppose unions in the U.S. while its corporate parent, Deutsche Telekom supports bargaining rights and unions throughout Europe. Unless workers’ rights are enforced in all countries, there will be a “race to the bottom” in wages and working conditions, a race that will undermine decent work everywhere.

For more information on the ongoing campaign to bring justice to T-Mobile, click here and here.

The union leaders also insisted that governments not reduce stimulus efforts until employment rates return to pre-crisis levels on a sustainable basis, and called for an equitable sharing of the cost of the recovery costs through more progressive tax systems, including the adoption of a financial transactions tax, actions the AFL-CIO strongly backs.

ITUC General Secretary Guy Ryder said:

We must halt the continuing rise in unemployment and create new jobs.  Furthermore, there needs to be an ongoing role for labor ministers within the G-20 in order to address the employment impact of the crisis with effective measures to help all workers, including the most vulnerable.

John Evans, general secretary of the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), added:

Increasing economic inequality over two decades helped cause this crisis. Fairer income distribution and restoring real purchasing power to working people is essential for sustainable economic growth in the future.

Check out the detailed proposals presented by the union delegation here. Read the ITUC/TUAC evaluation of the meeting’s outcomes here.

*This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on April 22, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He has also been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris

Sweatshop-Free Gifts For The Holidays

Last month I told you how to buy union-made treats for Halloween. But now Christmas is coming, and that means even more shopping — and for a wide range of stuff beyond just chocolates.

With the rise of globalization and outsourcing, the shopper’s dilemma is especially acute when buying clothes. You don’t want your holiday shopping dollars enriching an absentee CEO who takes advantage of the North Pole’s weak labor regulations to force his workers to churn out product night and day year-round. (His apologists will tell you he’s “jolly.” But there’s nothing jolly about a repetitive stress injury.)

What’s a conscientious consumer to do?

Never fear! The International Labor Rights Forum and SweatFree Communities have stepped into the breach with the latest edition of their Shop With a Conscience Consumer Guide, which lists tons of places you can buy sweatshop-free clothing for everyone on your list. And their 2010 Sweatshop Hall of Shame is a handy list of retail outlets that don’t deserve your business until the way they treat the men and women who make their products moves from “naughty” to “nice”.

They’ve even got these materials available as PDF brochures (Consumer Guide, Hall of Shame), suitable for printing out and taking with you to the mall. Heck, you could even print out some extra copies and hand them out to other shoppers while you’re there, you know?

So this year, don’t give lumps of coal to the men and women who make the gifts you give — shop sweatshop-free!

*This post originally appeared in Change to Win on November 17, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author Jason Lefkowitz: is the Online Campaigns Organizer for Change to Win, a partnership of seven unions and six million workers united together to restore the American Dream for everybody. He built his first Web site in 1995 and has been building online communities professionally since 1998. To read more of his work, visit the Change to Win blog, CtW Connect, at http://www.changetowin.org/connect.

G8 Union Leaders Issue Urgent Call to Tackle Jobs Crisis

The global union movement is issuing an urgent call for the leaders of the Group of Eight nations to tackle the deepening jobs crisis at their summit meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, next month.

The leaders must develop a coordinated and jobs-orientated international recovery and sustainable growth plan that focuses on creating good jobs and re-regulating the global financial system, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told a gathering of G8 union leaders today in Rome.

 The global economy continues to deteriorate at an unprecedented rate.  Workers around the world—who are the innocent victims of this crisis—are losing their jobs and incomes.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) predicts that unemployment is likely to increase by up to 59 million worldwide by the end of 2009. Unemployment in the G8 countries—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom and United States—is likely to almost double over the next 18 months, according to the ILO. At the same time, more than 200 million workers could be pushed into extreme poverty, lifting the number of working poor to 1.4 billion.

Earlier this week, President John Sweeney and the union leaders of the world’s top economies outlined a plan to stimulate the global economy. Click here to read more about that plan.

When the global economic crisis is over, said Sweeney, the G8 leaders must ensure there is no return to “business as usual.”

While this crisis was caused by global economic imbalances and financial speculation, it was underpinned by the lack of effective economic regulation over preceding decades. Rather than planning “exit strategies” that are a more brutal version of failed past policies, there is a need to establish a new model of economic development that is stronger and more efficient, socially just and environmentally sustainable.

And this time, workers’ views should be represented in the plan, Sweeney said.

Trade unions and the workers we represent have no confidence that this time governments and bankers alone will get it right.  We are asking for a seat at the table.

About the Author: James Parks’ first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. Parks is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He also has been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on June 26, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

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