Archive for February, 2017
Tuesday, February 28th, 2017
In one of his first acts of business, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt directed his new staff to delay a initiative that would require mining companies to prove they can clean up after themselves.
The order would require companies to prove they will be able to clean up the damage caused by routine mining activities. The order is an effort to reduce liability to taxpayers and improve environmental practices at mines.
But mining interests?—?such as coal companies?—?have fiercely objected to the Obama-era proposal, which was developed after environmental groups sued for better enforcement of Superfund regulations. Pruitt on Friday delayed consideration of the order for an additional four months.
“It appears the new EPA administrator is already favoring industry over public interest with this delay,” Earthworks’ Bonnie Gestring told the Associated Press.
Republican Environment and Public Works chair Sen. John Barrasso (WY) requested the delay in a letter to the EPA last month so that states and businesses would have more time to comment. Per court order, the rule must be finalized by December 1.
Mining companies have historically left a mountain of cleanup costs to state and federal governments. Before the days of environmental responsibility, mining companies would just walk away from their destruction. In more recent years, some companies have declared bankruptcy before they get around to cleaning up.
A 2015 report from the Center for Western Priorities found that cleaning up mines in Western states could cost taxpayers up to $21 billion. Under the Superfund law, the report notes, federal and state governments can be held accountable for mining clean up on public lands, where much of U.S. mining takes place.
“The hardrock mining industry, the nation’s largest toxic polluter, has already burdened taxpayers with a $20 [billion]-[$]54 billion cleanup bill and left communities with widespread water pollution,” Gestring said earlier this year.
Gestring’s statements echoes environmentalists’ primary concern about Pruitt, who, in his third tweet as administrator?—?after saying he was honored to lead and looked forward to working with staff—characterized the agency’s stakeholders as “industry, farmers, ranchers, [and] business owners.”
Traditionally, the EPA’s stakeholders have also included the U.S. public and environmental groups.
Pruitt also has deep ties to industry groups. His confirmation was marked by allegations of working on behalf of fossil fuel companies as Oklahoma attorney general, and there is an ongoing court case to force the release of emails between Pruitt’s office and oil and gas companies.
A 2014 New York Times investigation revealed that lawyers for Oklahoma-based Devon Energy had drafted a letter Pruitt sent on state letterhead to the EPA. Earlier this month, a judge ordered the AG’s office to comply with a two-year-old Open Records Act request, and a first tranche of emails was released last week, just days after Pruitt was confirmed.
The emails, requested by the Center for Media and Democracy in January 2015, show a friendly, close relationship, marked by happy hours and exchanged favors, between Pruitt’s office and a number of oil and gas executives.
But the release of a second tranche of emails has been delayed, and Pruitt’s successor has requested a stay of the judge’s order to release them. A hearing on the stay is scheduled for Tuesday in Oklahoma City.
“This maneuver is just more stonewalling by Team Pruitt to prevent the American people from seeing public records of national interest that should have been turned over prior to Pruitt’s confirmation as head of the EPA,” said Lisa Graves, CMD’s executive director. “Pruitt’s office had many months to provide his emails with corporate polluters, but is now complaining they don’t have enough time.”
Pending dismissal of the stay, the next set of emails is set to be released March 3.
This post appeared originally in Think Progress on February 27, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
Samantha Page is a Climate Reporter at @ThinkProgress. Contact her at email@example.com
Monday, February 27th, 2017
The United States is heading for a major retirement crisis, with the shift from pensions to 401(k)s leaving at least half of households in danger of running short of money in retirement. There are a lot of possible solutions to that, and one of them doesn’t even involve employers paying their workers more:
What if people who wait tables, wash cars, take care of children, or perform other low-wage jobs for small businesses—which often don’t offer 401(k) savings plans—could have money taken out of every paycheck and deposited into a low-cost retirement savings account operated through the state government? Five states have enacted plans that are making this possible, and 28 states are at various stages of considering such plans. If all of these states did enact these laws, 63 million people could have access to retirement savings options.
This was the goal of the Obama administration, which put in place regulations to help states that wanted to provide retirement savings options. Though some states had set out on this path before, this new policy that made it easier and safer for states to offer these plans, paved the way for this positive development in the states. This was great news for millions of workers! Make it easy for people whose employers don’t offer retirement savings option to do the responsible thing: put away money every month toward their retirement in a way that limits the amount of their savings that is lost to fees and commissions. It helps people prepare for their old age. It chips away at a looming retirement crisis. What’s not to like?
You know where this is going, right? Of course you do. Republicans don’t like it because of this part: “in a way that limits the amount of their savings that is lost to fees and commissions.” Those fees and commissions don’t vanish into thin air, they go into the bank accounts of rich people. Plus, letting workers save their own money toward retirement creates a little extra work for employers, and there are a lot of crappy bosses out there who’d rather not bother, even if it means their workers will suffer in retirement. So the regulation helping states offer this retirement option is one more regulation being slashed by congressional Republicans.
This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on February 25, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.
Thursday, February 23rd, 2017
President Donald Trump issued a memorandum last month freezing the hiring of civilian employees throughout the federal government with the exception of military personnel and “to meet national security or public safety responsibilities.” The order specifies that contracting “to circumvent the intent of this memorandum shall not be permitted.” In addition, it directs the Office of Management and Budget to come up with a plan to reduce the size of the federal government through attrition. Under this order, except in “limited circumstances,” any federal agency jobs vacant as of noon on January 22, 2017 cannot be filled.
The hiring freeze is item No. 2 on Trump’s “Contract with the American Voter,” highlighted as a measure “to clean up the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, DC.” But economic analysts say it will do nothing to boost the overall job market. And a look at those who will be hardest hit by the freeze shows that it will disproportionately impact rural communities and communities of color.
According to the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), more than 85 percent of federal workers live and work outside of Washington, D.C. Among the states that rely most heavily on federal jobs are Alaska, Wyoming, Mississippi, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Montana, Alabama and New Mexico. These jobs are lifelines in places where there are few other options.
How will blocking the hiring of a school bus driver for the Tsiya Day School in Zia Pueblo, New Mexico, address corruption? A special education teacher at the Ojibwa Indian School in Belcourt, North Dakota? A Department of Interior park guide in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, or a Veterans Administration food service worker in Chillicothe, Ohio? All are current job openings the president’s action will leave unfilled.
The freeze, said public services workers union AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) president Lee Saunders in a statement, “will make federal agencies less effective, hurting people and communities that depend on efficient public services. It may mean unsafe workplaces aren’t inspected, lower quality health care for our veterans, and longer wait times at Social Security Administration offices.”
“This really affects small communities,” says Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation. He points out the order will also affect a lot of veterans, who have priority for hiring in federal agencies.
“This is a short sighted and bad policy,” says Stettner. “It’s a giant axe that comes down and ends up hurting the kinds of communities Donald Trump said he was going to support.”
Ballooning federal employment a myth
Press secretary Sean Spicer has said the hiring freeze “counters [the] dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years.” But according to the federal Office of Personnel Management, the federal government workforce made up of civilians has remained more or less consistent for the past 50 years. While there have been ups and downs in federal hiring, if postal service workers are included and U.S. population growth is factored in, “the federal government has barely grown in recent years,” explains PolitiFact. Currently, less than 2 percent of American workers are federal employees.
Loss of access to jobs under a federal hiring freeze will hit black Americans, and black women, particularly hard. Office of Personnel Management statistics show that blacks make up a higher proportion of the federal workforce than the private sector, and more than half of these workers are women.
Also among the hardest hit are communities that rely on federal land management agencies—among them the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management—and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service. Communities that rely on federal prison and veterans center employment will also suffer potential job losses.
On February 1, Democratic members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs wrote to Trump urging him to exclude from the freeze federal agencies providing essential services to Native communities, especially the Indian Health Service (IHS), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Bureau of Indian Education (BIE).
“Even before the hiring freeze was announced, Federal agencies that provide these services were struggling to recruit and retain a qualified workforce,” wrote the senators, led by committee vice-chairman Tom Udall.
As the letter explained, IHS medical facilities, which provide primary and preventative health care to about 2.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, predominantly in rural areas, regularly face 20 percent or greater vacancy rates for doctors, nurses and other clinical staff. On February 17, the Department of Health and Human Services responded saying that IHS clinical staff would be exempt from the federal hiring freeze. The committee Democrats called this “a step in the right direction.”
Other community programs may still be subject to the freeze. On January 31, the Office of Personnel Management issued guidelines about exemptions but they have not yet been clarified. “We have no idea how broadly these agencies will be able to construe that guidance. It does not appear to answer the question of whether positions like teachers or other education personnel could receive an exemption,” Udall’s communications director, Jennifer Talhelm, explained in an email. “We remain hopeful that President Trump will reconsider the hiring freeze as it applies to all Indian programs,” the Democrats said in a statement.
At the same time, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) executive director Jeff Ruch, staff shortages are also a serious problem throughout the agencies responsible for public lands and wildlife management. In a PEER survey, 84 percent of national wildlife refuge managers said they don’t have enough staff to meet their “core conservation mission.”
“This freeze means that the thin green line protecting America’s natural resources will get thinner and, in some places, it will snap,” Ruch in a statement. “How this will affect fire crews, especially on wild land fires, is of particular concern,” he said in a phone interview. “As a management tool, it seems kind of crude and misguided.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) called the hiring freeze “a critical first step toward reining in Washington bureaucracy.” But even Chambers of Commerce in Texarkana, Texas and Charleston, South Carolina have expressed concern about what the freeze will mean for local employment.
Freeze will hamper economic recovery
A consistent theme in the 2016 election was the inequity in economic recovery since the Great Recession. The federal hiring freeze won’t help, says Stettner.
“Government employment hasn’t recovered as much as private—at all levels, local, state and federal … You have a president saying he wants to create 25 million jobs in five years but if you don’t want to include government employment, they’re just wrong on what it takes to grow an economy,” Stettner says of the Trump administration.
At the same time, Trump’s base of support was those who identified themselves as struggling to find good, living- and family-wage jobs. Federal government jobs, with benefits that include health insurance, retirement savings programs, paid holidays and sick leave, typically fit that description. With the hiring freeze, “government workers are being pitted against other workers,” says Stettner, a tactic organized labor advocates say has been used to undermine unions.
“One way to see this is a kind of distribution of wealth issue,” says Loyola University College of Law professor Robert Verchick.
If the federal government steps back further as an employer, communities that need these benefits most are likely to suffer. Government jobs, says Stettner, “are a strong set of public goods.”
This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on February 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.
Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017
Uber is under fire after a former engineer made headlines for publishing a detailed account of her experiences with sexual harassment—and Uber executives not addressing it. The timing seems particularly awful for Uber, which just lost 200,000 customers for the way it handled President Donald Trump’s immigration ban. But Uber has been one of the few holdouts not tackling the problems of diversity and inclusion that ail much of Silicon Valley. Now, the company has to pay for it.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick quickly responded to former engineer Susan Fowler’s claims that her supervisor made sexual advances toward her, and that the behavior went unchecked when she reported it to human resources. Kalanick called sexual harassment “abhorrent” on Twitter and then sent a memo to employees Monday announcing that the company was assembling a legal investigation into Fowler’s claims, spearheaded by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Fowler’s post seems to have triggered an about-face in Uber’s approach to claims of the company’s wrongdoing, unearthing a new company mission to root out “injustice.”
“I believe in creating a workplace where a deep sense of justice underpins everything we do,” Kalanick wrote in his memo to employees. “It is my number one priority that we come through this a better organization, where we live our values and fight for and support those who experience injustice.”
Kalanick’s justice-focused position also promised to look into the “many questions about the gender diversity of Uber’s technology teams.”
But the toxic culture Fowler described at Uber isn’t news. While Kalanick has previously denounced drivers’ acts of violence against women, the CEO has also made misogynistic comments. In a GQ profile, Kalanick referred to the company as “Boober” to denote how his success has helped his sex life.
During Uber’s rise, there have been sexist ad campaigns and executives suggesting the company should “dig” into a journalist’s personal life for criticizing Uber’s culture. Uber brushed off criticism that the company was violating customers’ privacy with its “God View” capabilities, and fought the unionization of and granting employee-status and fair pay for drivers?—?many of whom are immigrants and people of color.
So while it’s not brand new that Uber suffers diversity issues, the sexual harassment allegations could push the ride-sharing app to be more transparent. In the past, Uber has been one of the few tech companies that hasn’t released a diversity report, refusing to acknowledge requests for more transparency.
In January, Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, which pressured Google to be the first tech giant to release its diversity report, urged Kalanick to reveal Uber’s demographic breakdown of employees, leadership, and new hires. Uber refused Jackson’s and the coalition’s request for 2015 data last year.
But following Fowler’s blog post, Uber might change course. Kalanick revealed in his memo to employees that the company’s number of female technical employees hasn’t budged.
“If you look across our engineering, product management, and scientist roles, 15.1% of employees are women and this has not changed substantively in the last year,” he wrote. “[Human resources head Liane Hornsey] and I will be working to publish a broader diversity report for the company in the coming months.”
But if Kalanick is dedicated to ridding the company of “injustices,” there’s a lot of material to work with.
This post appeared originally in Think Progress on February 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
Lauren C. Williams is the tech reporter for ThinkProgress. She writes about the intersection of technology, culture, civil liberties, and policy. In her past lives, Lauren wrote about health care, crime, and dabbled in politics. She is a native Washingtonian with a master’s in journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor’s of science in dietetics from the University of Delaware.
Tuesday, February 21st, 2017
Donald Trump isn’t getting stuff done because Donald Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing—or even what he would need to do to get stuff done.
Take infrastructure. Jonathan Cohn lays out the differences between how Barack Obama put together a major infrastructure package and got it passed despite Republicans refusing to work with him, while Trump has failed on infrastructure despite some Democrats being willing to work with him.
Newsflash: Obama put work into his plans, and had a big staff of experts meeting and researching and trying to figure out what would work. Whereas:
During the presidential campaign, Trump mocked Hillary Clinton for her wonkishness: “She’s got people that sit in cubicles writing policy all day,” he said during one interview. “It’s just a waste of paper.” At one point, Trump’s own policy advisers quit because nobody was paying them or taking them seriously.
Trump was too busy proposing—in broad, flashy terms—an infrastructure plan that could have been popular and good for the economy. You know, a Democratic-style one, involving spending lots of money to fix or build bridges and schools and hospitals, and creating jobs doing just that. But:
In a December interview with The New York Times, Trump confessed that he was still figuring out exactly what he wanted to do ? and that he hadn’t realized FDR-style infrastructure building might alienate conservatives. “That’s not a very Republican thing ? I didn’t even know that, frankly.”
So once Trump realized that today’s Republicans are opposed to rebuilding America’s bridges and schools and hospitals, he came out with an infrastructure plan that was a giveaway to big business. But even then, he wasn’t really going to put any work into it—not when he could be tweeting attacks on the media and signing horrible executive orders.
This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on February 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.
Monday, February 20th, 2017
Andy Puzder, President Trump’s pick to run the Labor Department, didn’t really bow out. He was fired.
But even though Trump made the phrase “you’re fired” his motto, he didn’t force Puzder out. We did. Working people sent him the pink slip.
When Trump was inaugurated less than one month ago, he figured he could dictate his policies and ram his appointments through the Republican-run Congress. Being the least popular president elected since polls began recording public sentiments apparently didn’t faze him.
Trump loaded his proposed cabinet with billionaires, cronies and crooks, goading his opponents.
One of the Worst
Of all the unqualified and inappropriate crew of cabinet nominees, Puzder was one of the worst. As the CEO of the parent company of the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast-food chains, he has both personal and political beliefs that clash with public values. He opposes raising the minimum wage or requiring that restaurants pay servers the same minimum wage as other workers earn and he routinely violated labor laws at his own restaurants. He behaves in a sexist way and defends the sexist behavior of his subordinates. And yet had he become the next Labor secretary, he would have been required to enforce the labor laws he flouts.
It’s no surprise that low-wage workers and the labor movement found Puzder unacceptable. Ahead of his scheduled Senate hearings, thousands of workers — including people who work at Puzder’s own restaurants — protested the nominee in front of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants from coast to coast.
Puzder has also enraged women and advocates over his use of sexualized images of women in Carl’s Jr. ads. In his own words: “We believe in putting hot models in our commercials, because ugly ones don’t sell burgers.”
Saru Jayaraman, Executive Director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, said on Democracy Now!,
You’ve seen these ads of Carl’s Jr. restaurants in which they have nearly naked women holding up burgers in front of their breasts or lying on the floor eating a burger or feeding burgers to each other in naked positions. And then you look at the data from our report and other reports showing that young women, often very young women, 16-, 17-, 18-year-old girls, were harassed, grabbed, assaulted in various ways, as I said, told by customers, “Why aren’t you dressed like the girls in the ads?”
(ROC United is an affiliate of People’s Action.)
In Trouble from the Beginning
Puzder’s nomination was in trouble from the beginning. His hearing was postponed at least four times because the nominee failed to provide required paperwork to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
What eventually forced Trump to demand Puzder’s withdrawal was the growing opposition to Puzder’s nomination among some GOP senators. Those Republicans were angered, not by his sexism and abuse of working people, but his hiring of an undocumented woman to clean his home. Politico reports that some close Trump advisor’s didn’t fully back Puzder’s nomination because he supported moderate immigration reform.
Puzder’s anti-worker behavior should disturb every American. Over the past few years, amid rising inequality, the plight of low-wage workers has become a central issue in economic debates. There’s broad support for increasing the minimum wage nationally to begin to address the stagnation of real wages. In state after state, voters have approved ballot initiatives that boosted the minimum wage within their borders, and in Seattle, Los Angeles and now New York State, voters have embraced a pay floor of at least $15 per hour.
Opposition to Puzder generated an organized barrage of calls to senators and the White House, petitions, protests and more. The repeated delays of his confirmation hearing might have hurt Puzder as well. Senate Republicans tried to rush all the cabinet confirmations because they knew due diligence and scrutiny would expose the questionable records of Trump’s team. As the delay dragged on, more and more revelations, like the damning tape of his ex-wife appearing in disguise on the Oprah Winfrey show describing how Puzder physically abused her, came to light. (She later retracted the charges and said she regretted her Oprah appearance.)
It’s no accident that Puzder bowed out just two days after National Security Adviser Gen. Mike T. Flynn’s resignation. The Trump administration’s confidence is shaken. GOP unanimity is broken. Just last week, Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, couldn’t be confirmed without Vice-President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote when two Republicans voted against it.
Thousands of local protests as part of the #ResistTrumpTuesdsays campaign and in response to the outrageous immigration orders have fueled public rage against the administration and its supporters. Boycotts of Uber, Disney, Tesla and other corporations cooperating with Trump’s economic agenda have also alarmed business leaders.
Plus, the past two weeks have GOP senators feeling the heat as their constituents have showed up at town halls meetings and Senate offices demanding opposition to dismantling Obamacare and Trump’s crooked cabinet.
All of that pressure brought on Puzder’s demise. The people sent him packing.
Within a day of Puzder’s bowing out, Trump named Alexander Acosta, dean of Florida International University College of Law, as his new nominee for Labor secretary. Acosta is sure to also get strong scrutiny from people who work for a living and their advocates.
The people have begun to slow the momentum of the Trump/GOP anti-people agenda. And the resistance to their agenda has only just begun.
This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on February 16, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.
Friday, February 17th, 2017
There is definitely lots of talk about how President Donald Trump and Congress are planning to make major changes to Americans’ health benefits. That’s because Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have said that repealing the Affordable Care Act is one of their top priorities. Although it is not clear when they will act or exactly what they will do, here are three things to know right now:
1. Your health benefits are at risk, no matter where you get them:
- Medicare: A straight-up repeal of the ACA would eliminate some Medicare benefits by reinstating the full Medicare prescription drug donut hole and taking away free preventive care. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is still pushing his plan to turn Medicare into a voucher system, meaning benefits would no longer be guaranteed and health costs for seniors and people with disabilities would go up dramatically.
- Workplace Health Benefits: Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the powerful chairman of the tax writing committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, wants to tax part of the cost of workplace health benefits by including the cost in working people’s taxable income. So does the person Trump hired to be in charge of health care, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. If you get your health benefits on the job, this will raise your taxes and lead to even higher deductibles and co-pays. Some employers could even cancel their health plans in response.
- Health Insurance You Buy Yourself: Most media coverage is focused on what impact repeal of the ACA will have on the approximately 10 million people who now buy individual health coverage through the ACA’s health insurance marketplaces, often with the help of federal tax credits. A straight-up repeal of the ACA would not just take away the tax credits that help people buy health insurance. Full repeal also would eliminate the ACA’s protections that require insurance companies to treat people fairly, to give them meaningful insurance without tricks and traps, and not to discriminate against anyone because they have a pre-existing condition or even because of their gender.
- Medicaid: Medicaid is the health plan run by states with significant federal funding that enables 74 million people to get the medical care they need. One-in-three kids in the United States get their health coverage from Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Plan. Millions of seniors and people of all ages with disabilities also count on Medicaid for nursing home care and the long-term supports and services that allow them to live independently in their homes and communities. A straight-up repeal of the ACA would take health coverage away from some 11 million people who now have benefits because the ACA allowed states to expand Medicaid. Trump and Republican leaders in Congress also want to cut Medicaid for everyone who receives it by imposing new limited caps on what the federal government will contribute, even if the cost of health care keeps going up much faster than prices in the rest of the economy. That will shift costs onto states and likely force cuts in benefits.
2. People are speaking up, and that’s having an impact on Washington: Lots of people are showing up to meet with their members of Congress about health care and to let them know just how important it is to them personally. Many people are asking their members of Congress tough questions. For example, check out this article about a Tennessee high school teacher who attended a town hall and watch the video showing her tough question for Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), Meet the Teacher Whose Powerful, Christian Defense of Obamacare Made a GOP Town Hall Go Viral. The hard questions and strong show of concern from voters are affecting what’s going on in Congress. What once was a mad dash to repeal the ACA right away has slowed to a crawl for the moment, and there now is a split among Republicans in Congress. While many congressional Republicans still want to repeal the ACA immediately regardless of whether they have a replacement, at least a few are saying they want to figure out what the impact will be on real people and how they might address the harm that will do.
3. We’re still waiting to hear what the plan for repealing and replacing the ACA is: In mid-January, Trump said he had a plan that was finished except for some finishing touches and that he was just waiting for Price to be confirmed by the Senate as his HHS secretary. Price was confirmed last Friday, so maybe we will see his plan soon. Congressional Republicans are still trying to figure out what their plan should be. Some Republicans want to go ahead with repeal of the ACA now and figure out whether and how they might replace it later.
This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 16, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
Friday, February 17th, 2017
DES MOINES, Iowa – Lawmakers in Iowa have voted to dismantle the state’s 40-year-old collective bargaining law, dramatically weakening the power of public sector labor unions and leaving some 185,000 public workers unable to bargain over benefits, healthcare, vacations, retirement, and nearly all workplace issues outside of wages.
Iowa is a right-to-work state, and the new law would prevent voluntary union dues from being deducted from a public employee’s paycheck. It would also require regular recertification votes. Police officers, firefighters and transit workers are exempt from most of the bill’s provisions.
Republican lawmakers introduced their union-busting bill on February 7 and fast-tracked it through the legislative process. Both the House and Senate, which are controlled by the GOP, approved the bill Thursday, passing the most sweeping and impactful changes to Iowa law in decades. Gov. Terry Branstad is expected to sign the bill soon.
During the 10-day stretch before lawmakers voted, Iowa saw its largest labor mobilization in years, with thousands of union members standing up, speaking out and taking action. The weekend before Valentine’s Day, workers and their families packed legislative forums and town hall meetings in districts across the state. Teachers and their allies rallied and marched at the state Capitol.
A union rally and public hearing Monday drew scores of demonstrators so dense that the Iowa Capitol was packed shoulder-to-shoulder on every floor. Firefighters wore their iconic helmets. Nurses showed up after their shifts in scrubs. Workers continued to pour into the Capitol for hours after the event started, with lines of people spilling out of the statehouse entrances. More than 4,600 people went through the Capitol security checkpoints, Radio Iowa reported. Thousands more Iowans flooded statehouse switchboards and lawmakers’ emails.
Minority Democrats in both chambers managed to briefly slow down the bill’s passage, extending debate over three days of marathon sessions and raising important questions about outside influence by corporate interests like the Koch Brothers, ALEC and Americans for Prosperity.
“We’re talking about people’s lives, their kids, and their homes,” said Candace Acord, an AFSCME member and community-based corrections officer from Iowa City. “I don’t understand what the problem is here when we just want health insurance for our families.”
“My main concern is insurance may now become so unattainable due to the cost that I may not be able to afford healthcare for me and my family,” said Lynette Halsted, an SEIU member and emergency room nurse at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. “Staffing ratios are no longer permissible subjects of bargaining, but evidence-based practice shows that the more patients a nurse has the worse the outcome can be for patients.”
The nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project weighed in with a report on the impacts of the new law, stating it will:
“exacerbate existing trends—low and stagnating wages, growing uncertainty about access to affordable health care, and increasing income inequality—that are already accelerating downward mobility for many Iowa households. And these effects are likely to disproportionately harm rural communities, low-income workers, and to threaten the quality of the health care, public safety, and public education systems upon which all Iowans depend.”
Thousands of people also submitted written comments opposing the union-busting bill.
Carrie Dodd, a junior high English teacher from rural Madrid, wrote: “My husband and I both work in school districts and we will be financially devastated if we lose our insurance, receive lower pay, and have to work more for less.”
T.J. Foley, a senior at Valley High School in Des Moines, wrote: “Union power is key to effective teachers, and effective teachers mean Iowa’s students are successful and our future as a state is secure.”
The recent demonstrations highlighted the power, however diminished, that labor still has to educate, organize, and mobilize workers and their families, and the critical role unions play in bringing every day, regular people into social justice movements.
But the future of organized labor is now more uncertain than ever, and the path forward is unclear. Many workers at the demonstrations said they believe the next step is to re-elect Democrats into the majority in 2018. That task will be even more difficult now that Iowa’s public sector unions have been severely weakened, arguably the real purpose of the new law.
There is also no guarantee a Democratic majority would restore collective bargaining rights. Democrats controlled the Iowa Senate in 2013, and collaborated with a Republican governor and House Republicans to pass the largest corporate property tax cuts in state history, cuts which caused a budget shortfall that Republicans are now using to justify their attacks on labor. Unions were unable to expand their collective bargaining rights even when Democrats held a trifecta of political power in 2008.
But workers aren’t giving up.
“We will resist and persist in the face of these neoliberal attacks,” said Naoki Izvmo, a teaching assistant and UE-COGS member at the University of Iowa. “Workers are the true source of power in society, not the law.”
This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on February 16, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
David Goodner is a writer, organizer and Catholic Worker from Iowa City. Follow him on twitter .
Wednesday, February 15th, 2017
Along with hundreds of workers rights organizations and millions of workers (whether they realized it or not!) Workplace Fairness is applauding the withdrawal this afternoon of Andrew Puzder’s nomination as Secretary of Labor. Puzder announced the following this afternoon (February 15):
“After careful consideration and discussions with my family, I am withdrawing my nomination for Secretary of Labor. I am honored to have been considered by President Donald Trump to lead the Department of Labor and put America’s workers and businesses back on a path to sustainable prosperity. I want thank President Trump for his nomination. I also thank my family and my many supporters—employees, businesses, friends and people who have voiced their praise and hopeful optimism for the policies and new thinking I would have brought to America as Secretary of Labor. While I won’t be serving in the administration, I fully support the President and his highly qualified team.”
Puzder could not have been a worse fit for the position he aspired to hold, as throughout his career, he has made his hostility to pro-worker policies abundantly clear. We can all (at least temporarily, until we see the next nominee) breathe a sigh of relief that Puzder will not be making policy decisions at the Department of Labor which will roll back workplace protections and risk workers’ lives. This stunning defeat would not have been possible but for all the working people around the country who banded together and said NO! to someone who was clearly unfit for the job.
Puzder’s withdrawal comes on the eve of his planned February 15 confirmation hearing before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee – the first step toward confirmation that any Labor Secretary nominee will have to face. Once Puzder was nominated, groups familiar with his anti-worker views began assembling a record of his appalling views towards and treatment of his own employees at CKE Restaurants, Inc., the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast food restaurants. It wasn’t that hard to do.
Even in an industry known for its low pay, overtime violations, sexual harassment, and health and safety concerns, CKE stood out from the rest, with about 60 percent of the U.S. Department of Labor’s investigations into CKE restaurants turned up at least one violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Female CKE employees reported sexual harassment at a rate 150% higher than other fast food establishments.
Puzder’s response was to blame his franchisees, yet the amount of control CKE exercised over its franchisees in virtually every respect but employment policies was clearly an effort to avoid legal liability. CKE’s official response: “We’d like to offer a reminder that CKE Restaurants is nearly 95 percent franchised. Each of these 2,769 franchise stores are run independently and solely responsible for their employees, management and adherence to regulations and labor practices.” It’s very convenient for CKE to disavow all liability when it comes to adhering to employment laws, when it exerts control over virtually every other aspect of its operations.
Puzder has also been very vocal about his contempt for his own workforce and active in an industry group that lobbied hard against legal protection for workers. In 2011, he was quoted, when speaking about the Hardee’s workforce, as saying “you’re hiring the best of the worst. You know, it’s kind of the bottom of the pool. And at Hardee’s it was so bad, we were hiring the worst of the worst and hoping they would stay.” He also once mused about replacing his workers with robots, in a March 2016 interview with Business Insider. Of automated replacements to real live workers, he said “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”
A place I frequent – which employs only real live humans – has a sign with this statement. This seems appropriate for the CKE workforce as well, except that some of these things are very predictable when you violate the law and mistreat workers.
If all that Puzder had working against him was his anti-worker hostility, in all honesty, he probably would have been easily confirmed. After all, Betsy DeVos was just approved as Secretary of Education despite her documented history of hostility to public education and lack of any experience working in the education field. At least Puzder had some experience with labor and employment laws, if only to violate them and constantly decry their enforcement. But between ethics concerns over how he would divest his CKE Restaurant holdings, his recent admission that he had hired an undocumented worker and not paid her payroll taxes while claiming he thought she had a legal working status, and allegations of domestic violence raised by his ex-wife during their divorce and custody proceedings, Puzder’s nomination was ultimately doomed.
Workplace Fairness was part of a coalition of over 100 groups nationwide in opposition to the Puzder nomination. The coalition, led by the National Employment Law Project and Jobs with Justice, ensured that Puzder’s record of extreme hostility to the rights of workers it would be his job to protect came to light and that workers who would be most impacted by Puzder’s views were equipped with the ability to speak out in response. A rally planned in opposition to Puzder before his planned February 15 hearing is now a victory celebration.
We will have to wait and see who the next Labor Secretary nominee will be. Will it be someone with views as extreme as Puzder’s, but without such a paper trail? Or will an Administration that has claimed to support the rights of working people actually nominate someone who believes in those rights? Time will tell, but today we celebrate a hard-fought victory by workers’ advocates to prevent the #AntiLaborSecretary from taking office.
Paula Brantner recently stepped down as Executive Director of Workplace Fairness after serving in that position since 2008. She served as the Workplace Program Director from 2003 to 2007, writing legal content for the Webby-nominated site www.workplacefairness.org. Paula was the Program Director for Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, and the Working America Education Fund, from 2007-2008. From 1997-2001, she was the senior staff attorney at the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), heading NELA’s amicus, legislative/policy, and judicial nominations programs. An employment lawyer for over 23 years, Brantner has degrees from UC-Hastings College of the Law and Michigan State University’s James Madison College. She continues to advise the organization on website strategy and content and oversee WF’s 0.1.2.3 Content Licensing for Legal Websites program through her business PB Work Solutions, LLC.
Wednesday, February 15th, 2017
The fight against President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, fast food CEO Andy Puzder, is shaping up to be as intense as opposition to Betsy DeVos’ nomination for education secretary. Puzder’s long delayed confirmation hearing is set for Thursday, and a few Republican senators are already signaling they may vote against him.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Sen. Lisa Murskowski (R-AK), Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) are withholding their support of his nomination. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) made it clear through a 28-page letter with 83 questions for Puzder that she will ensure his confirmation process will be a knock-down, drag-out fight. Other prominent Democrats have spoken out against his record as an employer, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has called on President Trump to withdraw Puzder’s nomination.
DeVos ultimately squeaked through a Senate floor debate, but only after an unprecedented tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence. For weeks before that vote, thousands of people flooded Senate offices with calls against her nomination, and teachers and their allies protested.
Two Republican senators, Sen. Collins and Sen. Murkowski, who now represent half of the Republican senators withholding support for Puzder, voted against her confirmation. Now that twice as many Republicans have already voiced apprehension regarding Puzder, his chances of being confirmed appear even lower.
In her letter, Warren mentioned his “record of prolific labor law abuses and discrimination suits” and “a sneering contempt for the workers in your stores, and a vehement opposition to the laws you will be charged with enforcing.”
Puzder’s CKE Restaurants, which owns fast food restaurants such as Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., has been the subject of class action lawsuits over the denial of overtime pay as well as lawsuits accusing the company of discrimination. Workers also allege that they were fired for protesting as part of the Fight for 15 campaign.
ROC United, a restaurant employee advocacy group, released a report last month showing that many of the over 500 workers surveyed experienced sexual harassment and unsafe conditions working at CKE restaurants. Sixty-six percent of female CKE employees said they had experienced sexual harassment at work, compared to 40 percent of women who reported such incidents across the entire industry. Puzder has also opposed a $15 per hour minimum wage.
Puzder’s nomination has also been plagued with reports of domestic abuse against his first wife, Lisa Fierstein. On Tuesday, a Missouri judge will rule on whether to unseal records from Puzder’s 1987 divorce, just two days before the nominee’s confirmation hearing. Republican and Democratic senators have also received a tape from the Oprah Winfrey Network that shows a 1990 episode titled, “High-Class Battered Women,” in which Fierstein appeared to discuss the alleged domestic abuse. Fierstein has since retracted the domestic abuse allegations.
Collins has seen the tape, according to Bloomberg, and said, “I am reviewing the other information that has come to light and I’m sure all of this has been explored thoroughly.”
Like the teachers unions that opposed DeVos, which often work with the Fight for $15 campaign, labor groups also have the power to galvanize opposition to Puzder. Last Thursday, thousands of workers protested against his nomination across the U.S., a spokesman for the Fight for 15 campaign told The New York Times. Some of the protesters demonstrated at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s locations.
The passionate response to DeVos’ nomination, and eventually confirmation, may also be owed to the broad appeal of protecting public school funding, since plenty of middle class Americans of all political stripes send their kids to public schools or know someone who is a teacher. There is a possibility that a broad swath of Americans would similarly oppose a nominee for labor secretary whose record suggests that he will trample on labor protections.
This blog originally appeared at Thinkprogress.org on February 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
Casey Quinlan is an education reporter for ThinkProgress. Previously, she was an editor for U.S. News and World Report. She has covered investing, education crime, LGBT issues, and politics for publications such as the NY Daily News, The Crime Report, The Legislative Gazette, Autostraddle, City Limits, The Atlantic and The Toast.