Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Minnesota Amazon workers plan Prime Day strike, this week in the war on workers

July 15th, 2019 | Laura Clawson

Consider there to be a digital picket line around Amazon’s upcoming Prime Day. Workers in a Shakopee, Minnesota, warehouse are staging a walkout for six hours of Prime Day to protest harsh working conditions.

Amazon’s answer to the workers’ protest is that it raised wages to a $15 minimum. Which is good. But it’s not what they’re talking about here. The workers are talking about the strict quotas they have to meet to keep their jobs, quotas that lead to physically punishing work. They’re talking about warehouse temperatures and broken sprinkler systems. And they want to push Amazon to turn more temp jobs into permanent jobs.

This will be the first U.S. work stoppage for Amazon, though the company’s European warehouse workers have held strikes. Minnesota Amazon warehouses, though, have been the site of successful organizing by Muslim workers seeking accommodations during Ramadan, when they’re fasting. Pilots who fly for Amazon—and have their own issues with the company—are sending a representative to the strike and said in a statement that “We hope that Amazon takes seriously these striking workers’ calls for change.

 

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

 

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Trump's acting Labor secretary pick feared by unions

July 15th, 2019 | Ian Kullgren

Ian Kullgren March 9, 2018. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)Patrick Pizzella, tapped by President Donald Trump on Friday to step in as acting Labor secretary, is a polarizing figure beloved by conservatives for his pro-business views and disliked by unions and Democrats for a history of opposing worker protections.

Pizzella, who has served as deputy secretary of Labor since April 2018, will take over following Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s resignation amid controversy over a plea deal that he brokered for wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein as a prosecutor in Florida. Pizzella comes “highly recommended by Alex,” Trump told reporters Friday.

But Pizzella’s ascendance to the top of the agency tasked with enforcing labor protections is something unions have long feared. He worked alongside disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to shield the Northern Mariana Islands from federal labor laws in the 1990s, and generally has favored easing workplace regulations.

“If the president is serious about helping working people, selecting Patrick Pizzella wouldn’t be the way to demonstrate that,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement. “My dealings with Patrick have been limited, but his dubious track record, including his association with Jack Abramoff, doesn’t bode well.”

Some Democrats on Friday urged Trump to put someone else in charge of the Labor Department. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said in a written statement that Pizzella‘s “checkered past on these issues — including lobbying with convicted felon Jack Abramoff on behalf of sweatshops and pushing anti-worker policies as a member of the Federal Labor Relations Authority — make him unfit to lead the Department of Labor.”

This article was originally published by Politico on July 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Ian Kullgren is a reporter on POLITICO’s employment and immigration team. Before joining POLITICO, he was a reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. and was part of a team that covered a 41-day standoff with armed militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their efforts earned the Associated Press Media Editors grand prize for news reporting in 2017. His real beat was politics, though, and he spent most his time at the state capitol covering the governor and state legislature.

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The Media Uses Coal Miners To Attack the Green New Deal—Then Ignores Their Pension Fight

July 12th, 2019 | Sarah Lazare

To stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis, at least 80 percent of coal reserves must stay in the ground, according to a conservative estimate in the journal Nature. This means that coal miners would see their already declining industry all but disappear. The Green New Deal, the resolution put forward by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) for an economy-wide mobilization to address the climate crisis, call for a “just transition” that guarantees good new jobs for coal miners. Some insist that the “just transition” start now, which is why they are supporting the American Miners Act.

Introduced in the Senate on January 3, the Act protects the pensions of more than 100,000 coal miners whose retirement fund was depleted by the 2008 crash. It also rescues the healthcare benefits of miners whose companies went bankrupt last year.

But you wouldn’t know about this bill, or its sister legislation in the House, from reading the New York Times, the Washington Post or Politico, three influential outlets within the Beltway. None have reported on—or mentioned—the legislation since it was introduced in early January, even though it has the support of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and high-profile cosponsors like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Ocasio-Cortez.

Yet these outlets have given considerable space to coal miners and unions to advance other narratives. In a four month period this spring and summer (February 25 to June 25), the New York TimesWashington Post and Politico have published 34 articles and opinion pieces that touch on coal miners or their unions. Collectively, they paint coal miners primarily as a source of votes, and assume that the sole political motivation of that bloc is opposing environmental policies that would close mines.

Seven stories discuss the decline of the coal industry or the new mergers, without mentioning the American Miners Act. Seven describe Democrats’ attempts to reach out to coal miners. One mentions rising suicide rates among coal miners in the Midwest. One includes brief mention of a coal miners’ strike more than a century ago. Only one piece highlights coal miners’ present-day concerns about workplace conditions: an article about silica dust causing a resurgence of black lung, that was produced by Reuters and reprinted by the New York Times. And only one discusses how the Gre­en New Deal could support coal miners.

By far the most frequent reference, in 16 stories, was to depict coal workers as a conservative constituency. These 16 stories either pit coal miners’ livelihoods against robust climate action, reference miners’ support for regressive policies like environmental deregulation, or discuss miners who back President Trump. When coal miners speak against progressive policies, particularly environmental ones, they’re more likely to be given a platform. When they issue demands that affect their everyday survival, they’re on their own.

Politico and the Washington Post gave considerable space to the opposition of coal miners and unions to the Green New Deal, with three articles in this period highlighting the topic. By contrast, only one article, a 855-word opinion piece in the Washington Post, made the case for why coal miners should support the Green New Deal.

Overlooked blue-green alliances

These Green New Deal articles are worth examining, because they establish a narrative that there is an insurmountable divide between elite climate activists and workers just trying to get by. On March 12, the Washington Post ran the headline, “AFL-CIO criticizes Green New Deal, calling it ‘not achievable or realistic.’” The piece centered on a letter of opposition to the Green New Deal co-drafted by Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, on behalf of the AFL-CIO’s energy committee.

Yet, on May 8, when Roberts rallied at Capitol Hill to call attention to the existential threat posed to retired coal miners’ livelihoods, the Washington Post was mum. Alongside the Alliance of Retired Americans, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) and multiple members of Congress, Roberts made an impassioned case for the American Miners Act, the aforementioned legislation that would transfer money to the UMWA pension fund, a boon to workers whose benefits were threatened by the Great Recession. “We didn’t get any of the money you sent to Wall Street. You bailed them out,” Roberts shouted from a podium. “What about the people who work for a living in America? What about the people who’ve given their health to America?”

The press conference would have also offered an opportunity to report on alliance-building between coal miners and Green New Deal proponents. And in fact, Sara Nelson, president of AFA and vocal supporter of the Green New Deal, spoke at the press conference. “Flight attendants are here, with our miners, to make sure that miners’ healthcare and pensions are preserved,” she said. “They earned them.”

In a May interview with In These Times, Nelson emphasized the importance of rallying behind the bill. “We need to push to adopt legislation that keeps America’s promise to coal miners of pensions and healthcare,” she said, “as well as addresses black lung— that’s the bare minimum to show good faith that this process of taking on climate change will focus on making coal miners’ lives better, not worse.”

As labor and climate activists grapple with difficult questions about how to transition away from a fossil fuel economy without leaving workers behind, major media outlets remain stuck in a reductive “elite vs. blue-collar” divide. In These Times contributor Michelle Chen noted that this false dichotomy appears throughout a June 1 Politico article, “Labor anger over Green New Deal greets 2020 contenders in California.” The article quotes Jack Pitney, described as “a veteran California political analyst and political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.”

He says there’s a “cautionary tale” for Democrats, who should remember that “West Virginia, until 2000, was considered solidly blue.” Republican strategist Karl Rove, working for candidate George W. Bush, pushed the fact “that the Democratic nominee was Al Gore, author of ‘Earth in the Balance,’’’ a fact that didn’t sit well with coal miners, Pitney recalls.

The piece cites unnamed coal miners as a warning to Democrats: If you campaign on the Green New Deal, you will lose elections. But reality is not so simple. While it is true that labor leaders in the building trades and extractive industries have expressed criticism or outright opposition to the Green New Deal, they don’t represent all of labor, nor all of their own rank-and-file membership. As Stanley Sturgill, a retired coal miner, told me at the People’s Climate March in 2014, “I worked underground for 41 years and I have black lung disease. I’m actually having a hard time breathing just to get to this stage. I am marching today because I want to build a bright future for my family, for Appalachia, and for this world. I have a vision where my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren can have good jobs that support our families without doing damage to our water, air, land and climate.”

And in fact, a survey by the progressive think tank Data for Progress in June found that “union membership is one of the factors most highly correlated with support for Green New Deal policies, as well as the Green New Deal framework as a whole.”

Some unions, locals and labor federations have come out in support of the Green New Deal, including the Service Employees International Union, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, the Maine AFL-CIO and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. And labor and climate groups worked together to pass landmark climate legislation through the New York legislature in June, thanks in part to the backing of the New York State Amalgamated Transit Union, Teamsters Joint Council 16 and the Communications Workers of America Local 1108. Environmental and workers’ groups have long tried to build cross-movement trust and solidarity, years before the Green New Deal was introduced.

The Black Mesa Water Coalition, for example, has long organized in Arizona to build support within coal mining communities for a just transition from coal. And Kentuckians for the Commonwealth organizes coal mining communities, including coal miners with black lung, to push for a transition away from fossil fuel extraction, rooted in opposition to climate change and the devastating health effects of coal mining. The organization has been talking about the need for a just transition for at least a decade, meaning that coal mining communities deserve partial credit for advancing this concept. In the former coal camps of Lynch and Benham, the organization is working to help residents envision and fight for a just transition to renewable energy, from protesting mountaintop removal to retrofitting homes.

The climate stakes

But perhaps the most glaring omission in Politico’s June 1 article is its failure to reckon with the stakes. Whether to support or not support a Green New Deal is not a question of political strategy to win voters or union support, devoid of context. The UN’s IPCC report, released in October, estimated that we have 12 years to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius and save hundreds of millions of people from devastating environmental destruction, poverty and death. This is a crisis that hurts poor and working-class people most, particularly those in the Global South, who are already seeing their societies uprooted by intensifying storms, draughts, and sea-level rise. Miners, who are on the front lines of hazardous fossil-fuel extraction, are not spared.

To be sure, a May 7 article in the Washington Post does emphasize the urgency of the climate crisis before noting the concern that it would “put coal miners out of work.” And it is worth noting the one Washington Post op-ed, published April 19, that defends the Green New Deal against critics like Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr (R-Ky.), who dared Ocasio-Cortez to come his district.

“The Green New Deal specifically addresses the need to help people in communities affected by the transition away from fossil fuels,” the article notes. “It calls for “directing investments [to] deindustrialized communities, that may otherwise struggle with the transition away from greenhouse gas intensive industries.”

Yet the 855-word opinion piece may do little to counterbalance the narrative of conservative, anti-environmental coal miners reinforced across many stories. This lopsided focus contributes to the impression that the gulf between coal miners and climate justice campaigners is impossible to bridge.

“Mine workers are not the enemy here, and I think the press does play them out to be,” says Uehlein. “But they’re not. They’re potential allies if we can wrap our heads around real full-spectrum ‘just transition’ policies and fight for them.”

Accomplishing this transformation will require nuance and respect for the lives of coal miners who are hurting from dried-up pension funds, something influential media outlets could use more of.

Anna Attie, Eleanor Colbert and Daniel Fernandez contributed research to this report.

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 8, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.

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The Soul of a Union Man

July 12th, 2019 | Leo Gerard

Leo Gerard, a longtime contributor to OurFuture, retires Monday after 54 years as a union man and 18 as the International President of United Steelworkers (USW). We thank Leo for his leadership and tireless efforts for working people around the world. 

I was raised in a company house, in a company town, where the miners had to buy their own oilers – that is, rubber coveralls – drill bits, and other tools at the company store.

That company, Inco Limited, the world’s leading producer of nickel for most of the 20thcentury, controlled the town of Sudbury, Ontario, but never succeeded in owning the souls of the men and women who lived and worked there.

That’s because these were union men and women: self-possessed, a little rowdy, and well aware that puny pleas from individual workers fall on deaf corporate ears.

As I prepare to retire in a couple of days, 54 years after starting work as a copper puncher at the Inco smelter, the relationship between massive, multinational corporations and workers is different.

Unions represent a much smaller percentage of workers now, so few that some don’t even know what a labor organization is – or what organized labor can accomplish. That is the result of deliberate, decades-long attacks on unions by corporations and the rich. They intend to own not only workers’ time and production but their very souls.

I’d like to tell you the story of Inco because it illustrates the arc of labor union ascendance and attenuation over the past 72 years since I was born in Sudbury.

When I was a boy, the Inco workers, about 19,000 of them, were represented by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. The union was gathering strength. My dad, Wilfred Gerard, was among the rabble rousers. We lived just a few miles from the mine, and workers would gather at the house. Someone would bring a case of beer, and my mom would make egg salad or baloney sandwiches.

Conditions in the mine were terrible, and these workers were organizing to achieve change. I recall them talking about a work stoppage over safety glasses. I was amazed that they would have to take action like that to get essential work equipment. The company, I thought, should voluntarily take this simple step to ensure workers were not unnecessarily injured on the job.

I learned two important lessons from sitting on the steps and listening to those meetings. One was that the company would do nothing for the workers unless forced by collective action. The other was that labor unions were instruments of both economic and social justice.

I started work in the smelter at age 18, after graduating high school. My mother told my girlfriend, Susan, my future wife, not to let me get involved in the union – because if I did, I would be gone all of the time.

For a few years, I resisted union activism. Still, I carried a copy of the labor contract in my pocket, pulled out just high enough so the boss could see it. I knew what it said, and I wanted him to know I knew.

In 1967, when I was 20, the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers merged with the United Steelworkers (USW), and I became a USW member.

It didn’t take long for the guys at the smelter to see that I had a big mouth. And in 1969, they petitioned for me to become a shop steward.  That was the beginning. My mom was right. It did mean I was gone much of the time.

I got myself demoted so I could work day shift and attend college at night. On day shift, I noticed the company was using a bunch of contractors. Many were performing work that was supposed to done by union members. Other contractors sat in their trucks parked behind the warehouse doing nothing. So I got about six guys to help me track and record the violations every day.

Then we would file grievances against the company. We could not win because the contract language was weak at that point, but we took it through all the stages of grieving, and it cost Inco money. That made the bosses furious.

So they took it out on me. You have to be prepared for that if you are going to be an activist. They made me rake rocks that had fallen off the mine trucks onto the road. They made me pick up trash in the parking lot. They tried to humiliate me. But I always found a way to comply without bowing to them.

The advantage we had in those days was that they thought they were smarter than us. They didn’t understand that we were a team and we stuck together, so there was no way they were going to own us.

That was the 1960s, a different time. Union membership in the United States rose through 1965, when nearly one in three workers belonged. In Canada, the rise continued through 1985, when the rate was 38 percent. The drop off in the United States was fairly slow until 1980, when it plummeted to 23.2 percent. It has now fallen to 10.5 percent. In Canada, the decline was steady, but much slower. The rate there remains 30.1 percent, close to the all-time high in the United States.

The difference is that in the United States, corporations and conservatives engaged in a successful campaign, beginning in 1971, to seize power from workers and propagandize for what they euphemistically called free enterprise. Really, it’s cut-throat capitalism. The upshot is that U.S workers have more difficulty forming unions than Canadians, and U.S. corporations can more easily lock workers out of their jobs and hire strikebreakers. The intent is to enable corporations to own their workers, lock, stock and soul.

Lewis Powell, the late U.S. Supreme Court justice, launched this drive to crush labor, the left and environmentalists in the United States with a memo he wrote in 1971 for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and distributed to corporate leaders.

Powell told the Chamber that it had to organize businesses into a political force because, he claimed, corporations and the free market system were “under broad attack,” and in “deep trouble.” He inveighed against regulations sought by car safety activist Ralph Nader, by environmentalists petitioning for clean air and water and by unions demanding less deadly mines and manufacturing. He castigated those on the left pursuing a fairer, safer and more humane society.

Businesses must cultivate political power, and wield it, Powell said, to secure “free market” advantages, such as tax breaks and loopholes specifically for corporations and the rich.

Powell also told the Chamber: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

That is exactly what the Chamber achieved. It catalyzed a business movement, funded by wealthy conservative family and corporate foundations, including those of Coors, Olin, Scaife and Koch, to name a few. The foundations sponsored conservative professors at universities and right-wing “non-profits” such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which provides junkets for right-wing lawmakers at which it encourages them to champion anti-union and anti-worker legislation. These groups bankrolled conservative candidates and secured appointment of conservative judges.

Between the end of World War II and 1970, during the rise of unions, workers’ incomes rose with productivity. Income inequality declined, and North America became home to the largest middle class in history. After 1970 and the Chamber effort to implement the Powell manifesto, unions declined and workers’ wages stagnated. Virtually all new income and profits went to CEOs, stockholders and the already rich. The middle class dwindled as income inequality rose to Gilded Age levels.

This occurred at the same time that corporations expanded, becoming massive multinationals, with facilities sprawled across the world and without allegiance to any country. This happened to Inco. Vale do Rio Doce, a Brazilian corporation, bought it in 2006, and now Vale is a true multinational with facilities worldwide.

Multinationals spurned their obligation to serve workers, consumers, communities and shareholders. Instead, they focused only on shareholders, the rest be damned. They closed factories in the United States and Canada and moved them to places like Mexico and China, with low wages and lax environmental laws. They exploited foreign workers and destroyed North American workers’ lives and communities.

As far back as the 1970s, the USW, the AFL-CIO, as well as the textile, shoe, steel and other industry leaders, warned Congress about what this trend, combined with increasing imports, meant for American workers and their neighborhoods. In 1973, after the United States experienced its first two years of trade deficits in a century, I.W. Abel, then president of the USW, urged Congress “to slow the massive flood of imports that are sweeping away jobs and industries in wholesale lots.”

Congress’ failure to heed this alarm resulted in the collapse of the U.S. textile and shoe industries and many others. It very nearly killed the steel industry, which has suffered tsunami after tsunami of bankruptcies, gunpoint mergers and mill closures. Tens of thousands of family-supporting jobs were lost and communities across both the United States and Canada hollowed out.

In 1971 and 1972, the trade deficit totaled $8.4 billion. Last year it was $621 billion. Every imported toy, shoe, bolt of cloth and ingot of steel means fewer U.S. factories and jobs and more struggling towns.

The USW presidents who followed Abel – Lloyd McBride and Lynn R Williams – escalated the battle against offshored factories and unfairly traded imports. The USW even filed suit to try to stop the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) because Williams, like independent Presidential candidate Ross Perot, saw that it would suck Canadian and U.S. factories and jobs south of the Mexican border.

The late USW President George Becker and I agitated for change, confronting and cajoling presidents and prime ministers and members of Congress and Parliament. The USW marshalled all of its forces, including activists in its Women of Steel and NextGen programs, the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, and its Rapid Response coordinators. Tens of thousands of workers rallied, camped out in Washington, D.C., harangued lawmakers and sent postcards.

Working with allies in the community, such as environmental and human rights groups, faith and food safety organizations, together we have won some short-term relief measures. These include  the tariffs on imported steel and aluminum imposed last year and the defeat of the proposed new trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would have extended NAFTA problems across Pacific Rim countries.

In the decades that the USW battled bad trade, I moved through the ranks, from staff representative, to District Director to Canadian National Director to USW Secretary-Treasurer. Among my goals was to forge international workers’ alliances to combat the corporate cabals that always got seats at the table to write the trade deals that worked against workers. When I was elected USW president in 2001, one of my top priorities was expanding the union’s coalitions.

Now the USW participates in three global unions, which together represent more than 82 million workers in more than 150 countries worldwide. The USW and partner unions also created more than two dozen global councils of workers, including those for workers at ArcelorMittal, BASF, Bridgestone, DowDuPont and Gerdau. These employers quickly learned that taking on workers at one factory meant taking on workers at all of their workplaces internationally.

In 2005, the USW and the Mexican miners’ union known as Los Mineros formed a strategic alliance. And the USW gave Los Mineros General Secretary Napoleon Gomez sanctuary in Canada when he was unjustly accused of wrongdoing by a Mexican government intent on shutting him up after a mine disaster.

In 2008, the USW joined with Unite the Union, the second largest union in the U.K and Ireland, forming Workers Uniting to fight exploitation and injustice globally. And the USW formed alliances with union federations in Australia and Brazil, where the organization is known as the CUT.

This international brotherhood and sisterhood stood with Canadian mine and smelter workers for a year beginning in July, 2009.

During its first negotiations with the USW, Vale, the Brazilian corporation that bought Inco, demanded harsh concessions from its thousands of Canadian workers. Though Vale was highly profitable, it said it wouldn’t even bargain with the USW unless the workers first accepted the cuts. That forced them out on strike.

I started talking regularly with the head of the CUT in Brazil to strategize and plan joint actions. Brazilian workers and community groups wholeheartedly supported their Canadian brothers and sisters. They demonstrated in front of the Vale headquarters and threw red paint – symbolizing blood – on the building. They shut down traffic with all sorts of street actions. They protested at the Vale shareholders meeting, inside and out.

They also traveled to Canada, in force with flags, for a rally in Sudbury in March of 2010, when the strike was eight months old and banks were repossessing some workers’ cars and foreclosing on homes. By then, Vale had 100,000 workers in mines and smelters across the world. Supporters from many of those communities – in Asia, Africa, Europe and Australia – joined thousands of Canadians who marched through the streets that cold day.

Vale could see that its Canadian workers, in Sudbury, Port Colborne, and Voisey’s Bay, were not alone. They had allies from around the world willing to stand up to the giant multinational.

The strike ended 12 long months after it started. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we certainly didn’t accept Vale’s concessionary demands. Vale failed to accomplish its mission, which was to spread to all of its operations worldwide the authoritarian, top-down, nasty management practices that it had honed in Brazil. The proof of that is the next round of negotiations with Vale went fairly well, and we got an honorable settlement.

Now, for labor to secure gains, in the United States or Canada or anywhere, workers must mobilize. We have to bring everyone together, women, men, poor people, people of color, gay people – all working people.  None of us is big enough or developed enough to win this fight alone.

If we fight together, I can’t guarantee we will win. But if we don’t fight for justice, I can guarantee we will lose.

Since none of us is willing to owe our souls to the company store, we’re going to have to find ways to continue building coalitions robust enough to confront capital and win the battle for economic and social justice.

This article was originally published at Our Future on July 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Leo Gerard, is the International President of the United Steelworkers (USW) union and is the second Canadian to head the union. He is also a vice president of the AFL-CIO. Gerard is co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute.

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Alexander Acosta stepping down as Labor secretary

July 12th, 2019 | Ian Kullgren

Ian Kullgren March 9, 2018. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)Eliana JohnsonAnita Kumar

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta is stepping down from his post, just two days after he held a news conference to defend a plea deal that he brokered for wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein while serving as a U.S. attorney in Florida more than a decade ago.

President Donald Trump alerted reporters this morning of Acosta’s departure. “This was him, not me,” said Trump as Acosta stood beside him.

Trump, who saw Acosta largely as a source of favorable monthly statistics about unemployment and job growth, called Acosta “a great labor secretary not a good one” and “a tremendous talent. He’s a Hispanic man, he went to Harvard, a great student.” Trump indicated that he was satisfied with Acosta’s explanation for the plea deal in Wednesday’s news conference, saying, “He explained it.”

But Acosta has had a rocky relationship in recent months with other White House officials, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, over the perceived slow pace of deregulation at the department. And one person familiar with the situation said that although Trump initially thought Acosta handled the Epstein controversy well, over the last couple of days the president saw the negative press and didn’t like it.

“POTUS is not a fan of bad press, especially when other people make him look bad,” this person said.

Acosta, a 50-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer, came newly under fire for the lenient 2008 plea deal after Epstein was re-arrested July 6 in New York City and charged with sex trafficking. Under the earlier plea agreement, Epstein served only 13 months of an 18-month term and was permitted daily furloughs to go to the office. Epstein also was required to register as a sex offender and to pay restitution to his underage victims.

At the White House this morning, Acosta told reporters: “Over the last week I’ve seen a lot of coverage of the department of labor. And what I have not seen is the incredible job creation that we’ve seen in this economy. more than 5 million jobs, I haven’t seen that…. I do not think it is right and fair for this administration’s labor department to have Epstein as the focus, rather than the incredible economy that we have today.”

It’s an ignominious end for a son of middle-class Cuban immigrants who climbed his way up and made a name for himself in conservative social circles. Acosta led his resignation letter with mention of his parents and their desire to secure “the best opportunities for their son and grandchildren.”

“He’s been careful for his whole life, going to the right schools and connecting to the right people,” said a former administration official. “And now he’s just going to be remembered for Jeffrey Epstein.”

Things began to unravel for Acosta in November, when the Miami Herald published a lengthy reexamination of the case, and accelerated in February, when a district court judge ruled that the 2008 plea deal violated the Crime Victims Rights Act because Acosta never revealed the terms of the deal to Epstein’s victims before it was finalized. Also in February, the Justice Department opened an investigation into whether Acosta’s prosecution team committed professional misconduct in its handling the Epstein case.

Key details of Acosta’s plea agreement with Epstein were known to senators at the time Acosta was confirmed as labor secretary, though initially these seemed minor compared to domestic abuse allegations against Trump’s first pick for labor secretary, Andy Puzder. Acosta defended his actions at a congressional hearing this past April, saying he entered the case only after a state grand jury recommended that only one charge be filed against Epstein — a course of action that would have resulted in no jail time for Epstein, no restitution to victims, and no registration as a sex offender.

“At the end of the day Mr. Epstein went to jail,” Acosta said. “Mr. Epstein was incarcerated, he registered as a sex offender, the world was put on notice that he was a sex offender, and the victims received restitution.“

Acosta has suggested that he and his attorneys were worn down by Epstein’s all-star legal team, which included Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor who investigated the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the 1990s. Among other tactics, the Epstein lawyers investigated the prosecutors looking for “personal pecadillos,” Acosta wrote in 2011 to journalist Conchita Sarnoff, whose 2016 book “TrafficKing” chronicled the Epstein prosecution. Acosta called these efforts “a year-long assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors.”

Acosta has also said that the full extent of Epstein’s alleged abuse wasn’t known at the time he struck the plea deal.

“Had these additional statements and evidence been known,” he wrote in a letter Sarnoff, “the outcome may have been different.”

Epstein aside, Acosta‘s relationships in the White House wore thin in recent months. Known for his careful demeanor, Acosta was privately accused by White House officials of slow-walking deregulatory efforts, such as business-friendly policies on overtime pay and shielding franchised companies from legal liabilities.

It took two years for DOL to issue a regulation outlining a program for privately led apprenticeships, a delay that irked the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump. A former DOL official told POLITICO in June that she was “fed up” with Acosta.

Mulvaney curtailed Acosta’s rule-making authority shortly after taking office in January, requiring three White House aides to sit in on all the agency’s regulatory meetings. Then in May, the White House took the unusual step of ordering Acosta to fire his chief of staff, Nick Geale, after an internal review concluded that Geale’s interactions with employees — including frequent profanity-laced tirades — were damaging morale inside the agency.

Even as White House aides abandoned Acosta, the president himself remained content, in large part because of the favorable monthly employment statistics typically reported by DOL. Acosta went out of his way to praise the strength of the economy on social media, often mentioning the president by name.

“I feel very badly, actually, for Secretary Acosta,“ Trump said July 9. “I’ve known him as somebody that works so hard and does such a good job. I feel very badly about that whole situation.”

This article was originally published by Politico on July 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Ian Kullgren is a reporter on POLITICO’s employment and immigration team. Before joining POLITICO, he was a reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. and was part of a team that covered a 41-day standoff with armed militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their efforts earned the Associated Press Media Editors grand prize for news reporting in 2017. His real beat was politics, though, and he spent most his time at the state capitol covering the governor and state legislature.

He is a native of the mitten state and graduated from Michigan State University, where he ditched most of his classes to work on The State News, the student newspaper. He’s a big fan of mountains, for hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter.

About the Author: Eliana Johnson is a White House correspondent at POLITICO. She previously served as Washington editor of National Review, where she led the organization’s 2016 election coverage. She has worked as a producer at the Fox News Channel, as a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, and as a staff reporter for the New York Sun, where she covered higher education. She graduated from Yale College in 2006 with a degree in History.

About the Author: Anita Kumar serves as White House correspondent and associate editor, covering President Donald Trump and helping organize and guide coverage for POLITICO’s White House team.

Kumar joined POLITICO in 2019 after covering the White House for McClatchy’s chain of newspapers for six years. She reported on Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president in 2016 and Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012.

Prior to that, she worked at the Washington Post, writing about Virginia politics, and the Tampa Bay Times, writing about local, state and federal government both in Florida and Washington. She started her career at the News & Advance in Lynchburg, Va. and worked briefly at the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C.

A native Virginian, Kumar grew up in Charlottesville and attended the University of Virginia.

Kumar was elected to the White House Correspondents’ Association board in July 2018 for a three-year term. She appears regularly on television and radio.

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A sexist Republican just gave the Supreme Court exactly what it needs to legalize sex discrimination

July 11th, 2019 | Ian Millhiser

Mississippi state lawmaker and Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Foster refused to travel with a reporter covering his campaign — because the reporter is a woman.

The reporter, Larrison Campbell, is one of several journalists from the outlet Mississippi Today, who asked if they could shadow Republican candidates running to lead the state. Both of Foster’s opponents agreed to this arrangement, although the reporter assigned to cover their campaigns happened to be male. Foster, however, refused to allow Campbell to ride along with him unless she was accompanied by a man.

On Twitter, Foster later explained that he discriminated against Campbell because of an arrangement with his wife.

It must be very sad to be in a marriage built on such a foundation of mistrust, but Foster’s sexism could also have profound legal implications. While Foster’s discrimination against a reporter is unlikely to end in a civil rights lawsuit, an employer who followed this “Billy Graham Rule” would necessarily deny professional opportunities to their female employees.

Imagine, for example, that a female campaign aide asked to ride with Foster because they wanted to share an idea for how to improve Foster’s stump speech. That aide would be denied this opportunity, while a male colleague with a similar idea would be allowed to ride with Foster.

Such an arrangement violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which provides that employers may not “discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

But here’s the problem — after Foster’s initial tweet explaining that he would not ride with Campbell because of his arrangement with his wife, Foster explained that this arrangement is tied up in his religious identity.

If you’ve followed the drama about whether anti-LGBTQ business owners should have a right to discriminate if they claim a religious justification for doing so, it’s not hard to see how Foster’s arrangement — or a similar arrangement by another employer — could end.

Let’s say that Foster refuses to travel with female aides while giving this professional opportunity to male aides. One of them sues, asserting that Foster violated Title VII. Foster then claims that he has a right to violate Title VII because his sexism is rooted in his religious beliefs. How would the Supreme Court handle such a case?

The short answer is that we don’t know for sure, but the court gave us a pretty good hint in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and that hint suggests that there are five votes on this Supreme Court to hold that sexist religious beliefs trump Title VII.

Hobby Lobby involved an employer who, in violation of federal regulations, refused to cover certain forms of birth control in their employee health plan. Prior to Hobby Lobby, this employer would have lost because the law did not allow “religious liberty” claims to diminish the rights of third parties — in this case, the rights of the company’s employees who wanted contraception. Hobby Lobby scrapped this longstanding rule, and permitted religious objectors to wield their objections against the rights of others.

But if religious objections now trump other peoples’ rights, what does that mean for anti-discrimination law? In a single paragraph, Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion in Hobby Lobby, tried to calm this concern. “The Government has a compelling interest in providing an equal opportunity to participate in the workforce without regard to race,” he wrote, “and prohibitions on racial discrimination are precisely tailored to achieve that critical goal.”

Notice what Alito did there, however. While he specifically states that race discrimination in employment cannot be justified by religion, he rather pointedly does not say that other forms of discrimination — such as sexism or homophobia — cannot be justified by a religious objection to obeying a civil rights law.

The Supreme Court, moreover, has only grown less sympathetic to victims of discrimination since Hobby Lobby. Both of Trump’s appointees to this court, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, are significantly more conservative than the man they replaced.

So, while it is not certain that there are now five votes to say that sexist religious beliefs nullify Title VII, it is quite likely that they are. And the “Billy Graham Rule” that Foster says he follows would give this Supreme Court exactly the vehicle it needs to hold that laws banning discrimination against women must bow to religious conservatives.

This article was originally published by Think Progress on July 10, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is the Justice Editor for ThinkProgress, and the author of Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

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Should HIV-Positive Workers Be Allowed in the Sex Industry? Some Advocates Say Yes.

July 11th, 2019 | Carrie Weisman

Carrie WeismanIndividuals who are HIV-positive are not permitted to participate in the adult entertainment industry. That standard is enforced through the Performer Availability Screening Services, otherwise known as PASS. Anyone who tests positive for HIV is permanently banned from the system.

The same applies to other regulated subsets of sex work. To date, Nevada is the only state where full-service sex work is legal. All individuals who apply for work must undergo medical testing for STIs, including HIV. According to Jeremy Lemur, a P.R. representative for one of Nevada’s 21 legal brothels, anyone who tests positive for the virus is not welcome to work at any legal establishment within the state.

But not all sex workers think HIV-positive people should be banned from the field. Jacen Zhu is an adult performer and LGBTQIA activist. According to him, there are schools of queer performers who believe in opening up the industry gates to those living with an undetectable HIV status.

The word “undetectable” is important to emphasize here. The advance of antiretroviral therapy has dramatically shifted the prognosis of those who test positive for HIV. The medication works by preventing copies of the exciting virus from replicating and blocking new ones from entering human cells. So long as they remain vigilant with this medication regime, HIV positive individuals are able to maintain a normal lifespan. In fact, the medication is able to suppress viral loads so effectively that standard blood tests will not be able to detect any trace of the virus. This is what it means to become “undetectable.” And that’s an important status to carry, especially in the context of intimate relationships. A 2017 report conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 49% of people living with HIV in the United States had reduced their viral loads to an undetectable level.

“If you have an undetectable viral load for an extended period of time, say 6 months, it is extremely unlikely that you would transmit the virus to an uninfected partner,” explains Dr. William Short, an infectious disease specialist based in Philadelphia. Short is also an Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania and serves on the board of directors for the American Academy of HIV Medicine. “Thousands and thousands of acts of condom-less sex have been studied,” he adds. “The science is very clear.”

“Many gay and queer performers are rallying in support of undetectable performers being able to work,” says Zhu. “[We are] fighting stigma from within our own safe-spaces. These performers are proactive in their sexual health. If we’re in an industry promoting sex, we also hold the responsibility of being sexual health advocates.”

While there is a notorious lack of data about sex work, it’s safe to say that some will face financial hardship if they are no longer able to work in this field. Sure, there are the headlines that suggest some individuals have been able to amass incredible earnings from their time in the field, but the more likely reality is that the many more turn to sex work as a means of survival. This is especially true of marginalized communities who experience difficulty securing housing, employment and the proper documentation required to enjoy a safe and stable existence.

To be sure, people in the industry have genuine fears. Some of the backlash is coming from other performers. In January of this year, thousands of people poured into the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in anticipation of the Adult Entertainment Expo. The annual event is designed to spotlight new products and services related to the adult entertainment industry. This year, the organizers agreed to throw in a discussion surrounding HIV, a subject that is often shunned from conversations concerning mainstream porn. The idea was to decrease the stigma of what has now become a controllable diagnosis, open up a dialogue about safety and consent, and explore how HIV and the adult entertainment industry may interact in the future. But hopes of what that conversation may blossom into disintegrated the moment performers hit the web with concerns over what a more lax approach to the virus could mean for the industry.

Some grassroots organizers emphasize that the decriminalization of sex work is critical to protecting the health of workers and clients.

Nina Luo is a community organization at Vocal-NY, a grassroots organization that provides harm-reduction services to low-income individuals affected by HIV/AIDS. She’s also the press coordinator for Decrim NY, a coalition designed to decriminalize the sex trade in New York City and State. According to her, decriminalization gives sex workers a better shot at actually tracking their interaction with the virus. Without the fear of police, they are in a better position to do things like negotiate condom use, disclose their status and access medical resources. This, in turn, gives clients the ability to utilize informed consent when deciding whether or not they want to move forward with things. According to a Lancet study, decriminalization can reduce new HIV infections amongst sex workers, partners and clients up to 45%.

This is important to keep in mind, even for those currently working within legal environments. Sky (who prefers to be identified by her professional name) has been working at Sheri’s Ranch in Nevada for a little over a year. Earlier this year, a federal lawsuit was introduced aiming to outlaw the brothels. “If the brothels go away, none of the women I’m speaking with are talking about how to leave the sex industry,” she says. They’re all talking about how they’re going to survive in a sex industry that’s no longer legal.” At the brothels, the women are required to use barrier methods during any sexual interaction with a client. Escorts don’t typically enjoy that same security working independently, and illegally.

According to an investigation conducted by UNAIDS in 2014, stigma, discrimination and “punitive legal environments,” are key determinants in HIV vulnerability. UNAIDS found that of as many as 48% of U.S. sex workers say they have had their condoms confiscated by police.

It’s a tightrope to walk between forging a system designed to protect the health and wellness of those in the industry and protecting the individual freedoms of sex workers. Decriminalizing the industry means law-enforcement officials would be unable to intervene in activities and transactions related to sex work. This would give both clients and providers more say in whom they choose to work with and in what capacity. Legalizing it, on the other hand, would require a series of regulations be put into place, ones that would likely alienate certain individuals from the field, particularly those who test positive for HIV, even if undetectable.

Loosening up stigmas surrounding the virus, meanwhile, would serve sex workers even—when off the clock.

“Sex workers are afraid of disclosing their work to healthcare providers for fear of lower quality service, discrimination, criminalization or harassment. This linkage between a patient and healthcare provider is critical to identifying violence, exploitation, trafficking, yet it’s disrupted by criminalization,” says Luo.

“We’re not trying to create a new industry,” she adds. “But we do want to remove policing and criminalization from sex workers’ lives.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 10, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Carrie Weisman is a journalist based in New York City. She reports on sex, relationships and culture.

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House Republicans spin CBO report to claim $15 minimum wage is socialism

July 10th, 2019 | Josh Israel

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, released Monday, found that a national $15 hourly minimum wage would likely increase pay for more than 15 million people and could cost between zero and 3.7 million jobs.

Within hours, several House Republicans had tweeted out the report’s worst-case scenario and suggested that gradually moving toward paying working Americans a livable wage was “socialism.”

The CBO is a non-partisan arm of Congress that works to make economic estimates and predictions about the economic and fiscal impact of legislation. It is currently run by Phillip Swagel, an economist who worked in President George W. Bush’s administration.

At the request of Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) — the ranking minority party member on the House Budget Committee — CBO economists produced a report called “The Effects on Employment and Family Income of Increasing the Federal Minimum Wage.”

The report found that by raising the $7.25 per hour current minimum wage for most workers to $15 by 2025, the nation likely “would boost the wages of 17 million workers who would otherwise earn less than $15 per hour” and could also boost the wages for another 10 million workers who earn slightly above that amount.

The report’s median estimate was that “1.3 million other workers would become jobless,” and found a “two-thirds chance that the change in employment would be between about zero and a decrease of 3.7 million workers,” while 1.3 another million people would be lifted out of poverty.

It also noted, “Findings in the research literature about how changes in the federal minimum wage affect employment vary widely. Many studies have found little or no effect of minimum wages on employment, but many others have found substantial reductions in employment.”

Rather than acknowledging the nuance in a candid way, Womack and other House Republicans quickly moved to demagogue by highlighting only the worst-case scenario.

“This report confirms what we already knew about House Democrats’ Raise the Wage Act: American workers and families will lose their jobs if this bill is enacted,” Womack claimed in a statement. “CBO shows that imposing a 107% increase on the minimum wage could result in up to 3.7 million lost jobs – jobs hardworking Americans rely on to feed their families and pay their bills, jobs communities need to fuel their local economies, and jobs essential to strengthening our nation’s financial future.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) tweeted that the “Democrats’ minimum wage plan would erase up to 3.7 MILLION American jobs.”

In the next sentence, however, he dropped his caveat that this was the worst case scenario.

“To put the impact into perspective, the job loss of this minimum wage increase is nearly equivalent to eliminating all jobs added to the economy since November 2017,” McCarthy wrote in his tweeted statement, attacking the minimum wage increase proposal as “the new Democrat-socialists’ [sic] plan.”

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) also tweeted a similar attack, accusing Democrats of again putting “their socialist agenda above workers.”

Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-MI) tweeted that the report “shows that raising the minimum wage to $15 does more harm than good and could cost as many as 3.7 million jobs in the United States.”

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) tweeted that “forcing” a “damaging $15/hr minimum wage mandate” on local businesses would mean “up to 3.7 million jobs” lost and hurt families.

Rep. Doug LaMafla (R-CA) was even more blunt, falsely claiming the CBO had reported “raising the minimum wage would eliminate 1.3-3.7 million jobs,” ignoring the fact that the word “median” means there is an equal chance that such an increase would cost somewhere between no jobs and 1.3 million.

But many studies have found that gradual increases to the minimum wage do not actually cost jobs. A January 2019 report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for example, examined 138 “prominent state-level minimum wage changes between 1979 and 2016” and found that “the overall number of low-wage jobs remained essentially unchanged over five years following the increase.”

A 2018 study by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California at Berkeley similarly detected “no significant negative employment effects” in several cities that had recently raised their minimum wages to more than $10 per hour.

As of Tuesday, 204 U.S. representatives (plus the non-voting delegates from the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands), all Democrats, have signed onto the Raise the Wage Act. The Senate companion version has 32 supporters, all members of the Senate Democratic caucus.

Despite inflation and the growing cost of living, the federal minimum wage has not been increased since July 2009.

Though he has since flip-flopped, even President Donald Trump — a fierce opponent of “socialism” — promised in his 2016 campaign that he would raise the federal minimum wage to “at least $10.”

This article was originally published at Think Progress on July 9, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Israel has been senior investigative reporter for ThinkProgress since 2012. Previously, he was a reporter and oversaw money-in-politics reporting at the Center for Public Integrity, was chief researcher for Nick Kotz’s acclaimed 2005 book Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America, and was president of the Virginia Partisans Gay & Lesbian Democratic Club. A New England native, Josh received a B.A. in politics from Brandeis University and graduated from the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, in 2004. He has appeared on cable news and many radio shows across the country. Twitter:  Facebook: 

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Raising the minimum wage doesn't hurt jobs—it improves people's lives in ways you might not expect

July 10th, 2019 | Laura Clawson

Raising the minimum wage doesn’t hurt job growth. We know this because economist after economist has produced research backing up that statement, often drawing on parts of the U.S. that have increased the minimum wage. That’s why, after the Congressional Budget Office on Monday blew off its responsibility to use the best available information and offered Republicans fuel to claim that a minimum wage increase would cost jobs, economists who study minimum wage increases are lining up to explain why the CBO is just plain wrong.

“While they are acknowledging some of the research,” the Economic Policy Institute’s Ben Zipperer told The Washington Post, “I think they are drawing on older research that the new research has pointed out is problematic.” Berkeley economist Michael Reich and UMass-Amherst economist Arindrajit Dube made similar points, with Reich saying that the CBO’s equal reliance on high- and low-quality studies “reveals an unwillingness to recognize the major differences in scientific quality among studies.”

A recent study by Dube and Zipperer, along with Dorok Cengiz and Attila Lindner, “evaluated the local effect of more than 130 minimum-wage increases since 1979 and showed the fall in jobs paying less than the new minimum wage had been fully offset by the jump in new jobs paying just over it.” One hundred and thirty over 40 years. That’s a lot of data. It’s especially a lot of data for the CBO to be more or less ignoring.

But! That’s not all! Economists have other data showing important effects of raising the minimum wage. When the minimum wage rises, suicides fall. So does recidivism for recently released prisoners. Workers are more productive and less likely to change jobs. Consumer spending rises and poverty falls. In short, the working people’s economy gets better and people get happier and more hopeful. Republicans, of course, remain bitterly opposed to this.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 9, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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Soaring summer temperatures mean danger for farm workers

July 9th, 2019 | Laura Clawson

Summer means high temperatures … and, for farmworkers, hard work in hot fields. We’re talking fields where, without proper precautions, workers die from the heat. The United Farm Workers is trying to keep that from happening, though in some states they have better options than others.

California, where so much of the nation’s produce is grown, has laws protecting workers—requiring that they get proper shade and access to “fresh, pure, and suitably cool” drinking water—but enforcement is a problem, and workers have kept dying despite the laws. The UFW is working to make sure that California workers know their rights and that the state finds out when employers don’t give their workers the shade and water they need to stay safe, as required by the law.

No matter what, it’s brutal work: The UFW Facebook page is filled with pictures of workers in 100 degree temperatures. We need a federal standard, and UFW is pushing for one, but the Trump administration and Republican-controlled Senate being what they are, more states need laws like California’s to protect farm workers—workers in southeastern states like North Carolina and Georgia, for instance, face heat risks. And in the states where those laws exist, everyone should be an ally to help ensure that farms follow the rules.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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