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Jeffrey Sommers; Republican indifference toward essential workers will only disappear with new leadership

Jeffrey Sommers; Republican indifference toward essential workers will only disappear with new leadership

VOS (copy)

Rep. Robin Vos, Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker, in his office at the State Capitol in Madison, on Thursday, December 19, 2019. Photo by Michelle Stocker

Robin Vos is Wisconsin’s well-known representative of the 79th Assembly District and Speaker of the state Assembly. He is also Koch Industries’ long-time man on the ground in Wisconsin as the former head of their right-wing lobbying arm, the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC. No stranger to controversy, just this past April, Vos forced an election on Wisconsin that could have been postponed. But, Vos wanted to increase the GOP’s hold on the state Supreme Court and forced the election. Doing so put many people at risk for catching COVID-19 as polling places lacked sufficient protective equipment for all its volunteers, and certainly none for those who turned out to vote. Regarding the election’s public safety, the only point of debate was how many would get sick, or even potentially die, not whether anyone would become ill.

Fast forward to last week and Vos was at it again. Vos was secretly, and perhaps inappropriately, recorded by one of Gov. Tony Evers’ staffers in a meeting to ensure proper notes were taken and presumably so that Vos would not later assert a different position than conveyed at the meeting. At the gathering, the problem of the high and spiking rates of COVID-19 in Racine County, much of which falls within Vos’s district, was raised. The matter is politically fraught with trouble for Vos, as in the preceding months the Wisconsin GOP made a proverbial political football out of the matter of state shutdowns of businesses in order to slow spread of COVID-19. Racine County’s Republican sheriff joined the grandstanding fray by publicly refusing to enforce shutdowns on grounds of “constitutional freedoms.” Never mind that such actions were both common in the U.S. and deemed constitutional during past pandemics, not to mention successfully deployed around the world to stem the spread of CV-19. In fact, due to these closures, estimates range as high as 600,000 people saved nationally, as asserted in studies done Martin Eichenbaum’s of Northwestern University and others. And, countries such as Sweden, which also failed to employ shutdowns, saw GOP activists promote their model to emulate. Subsequently, Sweden posted some of the world’s highest per capita COVID-19 death rates. In short, the COVID-19 situation and decisions made in Racine County were looking politically bad for Vos.

So, how did Vos address the unfolding COVID-19 fiasco in Racine County? Instead of issuing a mea culpa, he blamed “immigrant culture.” Immigrants do a disproportionate share of our "essential work," which places them at increased risk of getting COVID-19. Vos could have said, "we need to do a better job of protecting our essential immigrant workers." Instead, Vos blamed hard-working immigrants for doing the very jobs we all depend on. Wisconsin’s construction, hospitality, landscaping, factories and dairy industries are dependent on immigrants, especially Latinos. Latino workers also undertake dangerous work in meat processing plants where injuries are frequent turnover high. Workers who are undocumented also can't complain to Occupational Health and Safety Administration or to their supervisors for fear of retaliation. Many companies fail to protect their immigrant workers from the virus with enough protective wear. In short, these immigrants are the essential workers we have all depended on the past three months, but we do not care for them.

In fact, the Wisconsin GOP’s problem with essential workers was recently revealed last month when the Chief Justice of our state Supreme Court, Patience Roggensack, asserted with no irony that the spate of Latino workers in Brown County falling ill with COVID-19 — working in meat “packing” in the home of the Green Bay Packers — were not “regular folks.” As they say, “you can’t make this stuff up,” and it would be funny, if it were not deadly serious.

Given the demonstrated disregard Vos and Roggensack have displayed to essential workers, one likely will see no change in their attitudes. This means change can only then come from new leadership.

Jeffrey Sommers is a proud Wisconsinite and visiting professor at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. His book on austerity in the Baltics (with Charles Woolfson) is titled "The Contradictions of Austerity: The Socio-economic Costs of the Neoliberal Baltic Model."

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