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Biden: ‘AFSCME workers are holding this country together right now’

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Listen to the Call

Hear the audio from the June 12 tele-town hall with Vice President Joe Biden and AFSCME President Lee Saunders:

Former Vice President Joe Biden joined AFSCME President Lee Saunders during a tele-town hall on Friday to emphasize the importance of protecting essential public services during the health and economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. They also discussed how to address racial injustice, spotlighted most recently by the killing of George Floyd and others.

Also joining the call were AFSCME members from across the country, whose jobs and service expose them directly to these crises. They each asked Biden how, as president, he would lead the nation in addressing them.

Saunders kicked off the call by spotlighting the urgent issues facing our country.

“These last few months have been as painful and challenging as any I can remember – for our union and for the entire nation,” he said. “We are grappling with a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 people. The economy has cratered, leaving tens of millions out of work and fearful about the future. And in recent weeks, with the murder of George Floyd and others, we are confronting the systemic racial injustices that have plagued our country for its entire history.”

Saunders applauded AFSCME’s brave members for serving on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet warned that unless Congress provides $1 trillion in aid to states, cities and town, a grim scenario awaits the country: dangerous cuts to education, transportation, sanitation and every public service that sustains our communities.

Saunders also addressed the problem of systemic, institutional racism that has brutalized so many African Americans and led to disproportionate coronavirus hospitalization and fatality rates.

“The frustration and despair we’ve seen in American cities over the last two weeks is a direct result of police violence against black people,” said Saunders. “It’s anger about a rigged system that enriches people already standing on third base, while millions of people of color can’t even buy a ticket to the game.”

Biden echoed Saunders concerns and reinforced his commitment to public service workers.

“Twenty million people are out of work right now. The continuing crisis of violence and indignity African Americans face … is the original sin of this country and has diminished our soul for so long. We’re at a moral reckoning. We must make this right,” he said.

Calling the challenge facing this country “unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” Biden said that “AFSCME workers are holding this country together right now.”

Keith Lowry, an Arizona paramedic, explained that he and his co-workers have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, doing everything possible to protect their communities but still lack personal protective equipment (PPE). And many essential workers like EMTs are getting laid off. Lowry asked Biden how he would help “maintain safe staffing levels and get fire department and EMS workers what they need” to combat the coronavirus, especially if there’s a second wave of infections.

Biden first thanked Lowry and other AFSCME members, acknowledging the fear of so many front-line workers that they will bring the virus home to their families.

He then listed several key pro-worker priorities: ensuring that unions have a voice in reopening the economy, providing free COVID-19 testing, making sure there is PPE for every essential worker, providing paid sick leave for all working people and instituting stronger federal worker protections and expanding them to include all public service workers.

“But most of all,” Biden said, “we need to fund local communities. We need a trillion dollars to make sure every state, county and city can … pay for their essential workers.”

AFSCME members and economists from across the spectrum have been pushing for the U.S. Senate to pass state and local aid like the U.S. House has.

In responding to a question from Carl Williams, a janitor from Madison, Wisconsin, about underinvestment in communities of color and what can be done to make it easier for people of color to join unions, Biden said, “The moment has come for us to confront systemic racism that affects every part of society.”

Biden said unions are critical for better wages, benefits and economic justice.

“As president I’m going to defend workers rights to organize and I’m going to pass the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act,” he said.

Lorna Davison, a victim’s advocate in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office in Detroit, who helps crime victims navigate the judicial process, has seen more than 200 of her fellow Wayne County workers laid off since the pandemic.

She asked Biden for his plans to “put this nation on a real path toward short-term and long-term recovery, bring back jobs, and help those who are out of work.”

Biden reiterated the need for the federal government to fund the front lines, not only to prevent layoffs of public service workers but also to beat the pandemic and reopen the economyHe said he’s been pushing more governors – including Republican governors – to fight for funding.

“In the coming weeks, we have to invest in real job creation, including public sector jobs, as well as a public health service force, including testing and tracing,” up to 100,000 people, Biden said.

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