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The Fiscal Myth That’s Killing The Economy, In 7 Steps

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

RichardEskowA new economic working paper reinforces an important reality: We need more government spending to repair the economy for millions of working Americans. Unfortunately, our political debate is being held back by an economic myth – one that has yet to be challenged in political debate, despite an ever-growing body of evidence against it.

The paper, by L. John Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute, is called “Why is recovery taking so long – and who’s to blame?

The myth is called “austerity,” and it can be roughly defined as “the persistent but false belief that government spending cuts are always a good idea.”

Here are seven things about austerity worth knowing:

1. Our current recovery is too slow, and isn’t reaching everybody it should.

As Bivens points out, employment took longer to reach its pre-recession levels this time around than it did in the previous three recovery periods. Perhaps even more significantly, the rate of job creation remained slower after the recession officially ended.

What’s more, the jobs created after the 2009 crisis were weighted heavily toward lower-income professions. Labor force participation for people of working age remains low, even though it has improved somewhat.

And, as the Center for Economic and Policy Research recently reported, the percentage of people who are involuntarily working part-time rather than full-time is 25 percent higher now than it was before the recession.

As CEPR’s Nick Buffie notes, “Over 6 million people are working part-time involuntarily, and on average they work 23 hours per week. Because full-time workers are typically employed 42–43 hours per week, this is effectively a wage cut of almost 50 percent for the affected workers.”

2. The weak recovery affects a lot of full-time workers.

It is not just the unemployed and underemployed who are affected by the weak recovery. Many full-time workers are earning less than they would be if the economy had rebounded at a faster pace, creating more and better jobs than it has.

The American middle class needs a raise. But millions of people won’t get their raises until the economy is stronger and the demand for workers goes up. And demand will remain low until there are more jobs to fill.

3. We know what to do about it.

Government has two tools at its disposal in situations like this: monetary policy and fiscal policy. Monetary policy was promptly deployed after the latest crisis, both to bail out Wall Street and to improve the overall economy. The Federal Reserve should have been more attentive to the Main Street economy, using some of the creativity it used to rescue the financial sector, but it did cut interest rates and that helped.

Unfortunately, fiscal policy, in the form of job-creating government spending initiatives, was used only sparingly at the federal level. Over the past seven years there have been spending cuts at the federal, state and local levels. That’s the opposite of what’s needed, especially in an economy like this one.

As Bivens points out, it’s necessary to increase demand under conditions like those we see today. A simplistic overview of the process: The government creates jobs, the people who get those jobs spend more, the economy’s “pump” is primed and growth follows.

We aren’t talking about radical, far-left ideas here. This approach has been mainstream economic thinking for many decades, and was successfully applied under Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

4. We relied on the myth of austerity instead.

But recent years have seen the rise of different ideas – ideas that were tended and nurtured by right-wing institutions like the Peterson Foundation, and by conservative economic thinkers too numerous to mention. “Austerity economics” – the belief that governments can cut their way to growth – became conventional thinking in the halls of academe and the halls of power. It is obsessed with deficit spending, to the exclusion of other concerns that are often more pressing.

Austerity-driven cuts have hurt the U.S. economy. Austerity’s done even more damage in Europe. When the global financial crisis of 2008 struck, multilateral decision-makers (including the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, or IMF) imposed a harsh austerity regimen on Greece and other struggling European economies. The result, as we now know, was disastrous.

To its credit, the IMF conducted an internal review of its actions during this period. The report found that IMF officials ignored a number of warning signs and had a “strongly optimistic bias” about the effects of austerity. The report also agreed with an earlier investigation that found “a high degree of groupthink, intellectual capture … and incomplete analytical approaches.”

That’s pretty much what happened here, too.

The crisis of 2008, and the events that followed, disproved austerity economics and other hallmarks of conservative economic thought. But it remains popular in powerful circles – perhaps because, as Upton Sinclair said (in the gendered language of his time): “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

5. It’s mostly a Republican problem …

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, Republicans remain steadfast in their opposition to government spending – even for government jobs like teaching, firefighting, and emergency management.

As Bivens explains:

“We are enduring one of the slowest economic recoveries in recent history, and the pace can be entirely explained by the fiscal austerity, particularly with regard to spending, imposed by Republican policymakers, members of Congress primarily but also legislators and governors at the state level.”

The Republican Congress can even take much of the blame for state-level spending cuts, since transfers from the federal government account for more than 20 percent of state and local spending.

Bad economies aren’t an act of God. They are a result of human action – or inaction.

6. … but a lot of Democrats have bought into the myth, too.

A number of top Democrats echoed the rhetoric of austerity, too. That led to weaker political support for the spending we needed, and probably clouded the judgment of Democratic leaders when it came time to make the case for needed spending increases.

President Obama spent far too much time fighting for a “grand bargain” on spending with congressional Republicans that was rooted in austerity thinking, and too little time challenging that thinking. He also had the habit, especially in his first term, of echoing the false economic tropes of the austerity crowd by saying things like “just like every family in America … the Federal government has to live within its means …”

National budgets don’t work like family budgets at all – that is, unless the family in question issues its own sovereign currency.

There are strong hints of austerity-oriented thinking in Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric, too. That puts her at odds with enthusiastic backer Paul Krugman, who wielded a poison pen on her behalf during the Democratic primaries but is currently making the case for borrowing and spending.

Austerity thinking was highlighted at last month’s Democratic National Convention when Gene Sperling, a senior economic advisor to former presidents Clinton and Obama, was featured in a humor-oriented anti-Trump video produced by “Funny or Die.” Whether or not hilarity ensues must remain a matter of personal opinion, but the video clearly relies on austerity economics – specifically, an exaggerated fear of deficits – to scare viewers.

There has never been a better time for the federal government to borrow money and invest in the economy. It can obtain very low interest rates, the economy would respond very well to job creation, and we urgently need to spend money on repairing and expanding our national infrastructure. (The American Society of Civil Engineers says we need to spend $3.6 trillion by 2020.)

7. We need a national debate about austerity economics.

Hillary Clinton has proposed modest levels of infrastructure investment and other government spending – modest, but better than nothing. President Obama put forward similar spending proposals. But these proposals suffer from a fatal flaw that renders them useless in today’s climate: They’re too large to get past the Republicans in Congress and too small to change the political debate.

Democrats have not directly challenged Republicans on government’s proper role in the economy. Too often, they have tried to co-opt the rhetoric (and sometimes the policies) of austerity instead.

Republicans, on the other hand, offer a clearly articulated and internally coherent (if utterly fallacious) economic perspective. Democrats can also offer a coherent perspective, too – one with the added advantage of having been proven by experience. That perspective can make life better for millions of people.

This is the economic debate this country needs. But we won’t get it until someone challenges austerity economics and the conservative philosophy behind it – directly, unambiguously and fearlessly.

This article originally appeared at Ourfuture.org on August 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Richard Eskow is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and the host of The Zero Hour, a weekly program of news, interviews, and commentary on We Act Radio The Zero Hour is syndicated nationally and is available as a podcast on iTunes. Richard has been a consultant, public policy advisor, and health executive in health financing and social insurance. He was cited as one of “fifty of the world’s leading futurologists” in “The Rough Guide to the Future,” which highlighted his long-range forecasts on health care, evolution, technology, and economic equality. Richard’s writing has been published in print and online. He has also been anthologized three times in book form for “Best Buddhist Writing of the Year.”

Union Summer Hits the Doors After Learning Lessons in Solidarity and the Spirit of the South

Monday, July 4th, 2016

FullSizeRenderUnion Summer, the cadre of young activists that is training to be the future leaders and union organizers of the labor movement, are hitting the doors hard. After a couple of weeks on the ground, Summeristas have spoken with 300 people one-on-one and engaged 100 of them to commit to forming a union.

Forty students from 25 different colleges and universities are organizing across five major cities in the South, including Atlanta; Anniston, Ala.; Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Jackson, Miss.; and Houston. They are working with AFSCME, IUE-CWA, MASE-CWA, RWDSU, Texas AFT, and UAW.

During their orientation in Jackson, Miss., Summeristas learned how to engage working people on what matters most to them, as well as encourage them to come together to collectively make changes in the workplace.

Michael Gordon says the field training with local working people in hospitality was his favorite part, “I got my first card signed and what really connected me to the worker was when we switched gears from talking about the job to talking about his family.”

This year Union Summer is taking over the South.

As corporations keep coming to the South to exploit cheap labor, Union Summer takes on the South to help build solidarity!

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, who has been one of the biggest advocates of organizing the South, shared with the interns, “Activism is when we take action of any kind to change a situation that is unjust or unfair… and solidarity is when a whole lot of us take action together. Nothing is more powerful.”

That’s why the Union Summer program is building capacity and leadership by directly recruiting and training young activists from the region, as well as placing them on important strategic campaigns.

While Summeristas learned about how to help build unions of working people and solidarity in the workplace, they also grappled with tragedy and committed to solidarity across borders and across movements.

Union Summer in Solidarity with Orlando

In the first week of Union Summer, 50 lives were tragically cut short in a shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando. Jeremy Wells from Pride at Work took the time to help interns process their emotions.

Wells also noted how three of the most stigmatized groups were intermingled in this terrible tragedy. LGBTQ lives lost during Pride. Latino lives lost amidst racist rhetoric on immigration. Muslim people living in fear of violence as millions fasted around the world for Ramadan.

Annette Hall says she found herself right at home in this diverse cohort of young people with different backgrounds yet with the same passion for activism and championing causes of marginalized groups. “The Orlando nightclub shooting on Latin night struck a chord with all the interns on some level. However, I have never been prouder as a queer woman of color as I stood in solidarity with my fellow interns behind the banner we made for Orlando.”

Eryn Scott had concerns about traveling to a not-so-LGBTQ-friendly Mississippi. “As a queer woman of color who often experiences intersectional oppression, I cannot begin to express how important this safe space is to me. I am grateful to work with so many fiery young minds who truly want to contribute to the movement.”

Megan Jordan was also moved. “I lost a friend [who worked on a military base] to gun violence at the hands of someone found to be mentally ill. It’s important that at Union Summer we are talking about real topics that matter right now. I was also really impacted by Harvest of an Empire on Latin America and how the U.S. government affected labor and deaths, the racism, and the terrible working conditions.”

Gordon agrees, “Now I understand what the phrase means ‘We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.’ It opens your eyes on why unions are important around the world.”

Learn more about Union Summer or like us on Facebook!

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on June 30, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Sonia Huq is the Organizing Field Communications Assistant at the AFL-CIO.  She grew up in a Bangladeshi-American family in Boca Raton, Florida where she first learned a model of service based on serving a connected immigrant cultural community. After graduating from the University of Florida, Sonia served in the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps and later worked for Manavi, the first South Asian women’s rights organization in the United States. She then earned her Master’s in Public Policy from the George Washington University and was awarded a Women’s Policy Inc. fellowship for women in public policy to work as a legislative fellow in the office of Representative Debbie Wasserman (FL-23). Sonia is passionate about working towards a more just society and hopes to highlight social justice issues and movements through her writing.

Baltimore May Be the Next City to Adopt a $15 Minimum Wage

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016

Bruce Vail

The national movement toward a minimum wage of $15 an hour is picking up steam in Baltimore, with a key test of strength for the local movement expected before the end of the summer.

The City Council’s Labor Committee met this week to begin the process of moving legislation to a vote, hearing testimony from supporters and opponents, and setting the stage for a full Council vote in late July or August.

“We’re making progress. I’m encouraged,” says Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D), the chief sponsor of the legislation. Powerful opposition from Baltimore business interests is apparent, she tells In These Times, but that is to be expected. On the other hand, support is strong from a majority of the members, Clarke adds, so proponents are pushing forward for a full Council vote just as soon as practical.

“We hope to get this passed in August or September,” says Ricarra Jones, a political organizer for 1199SEIU. Opponents are “trotting out the same old discredited (economic) theories,” she says, but the momentum of successful $15 minimum wage fights in California, New York, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., should help push the Baltimore effort forward.

Jones says local labor unions are rallying in favor of the higher minimum wage. Aside from SEIU, prominent in the coalition are the Baltimore Teachers Union (an affiliate of American Federation of Teachers), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and UNITE HERE. Ernie Grecco, President of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council AFL-CIO Unions, adds that support is “unanimous’ among the 160 local labor organizations affiliated with the group.

As reported earlier at In These Times, Clarke’s bill would raise the minimum wage in steps from the current $8.25 an hour to $15 by 2020. It would then establish a cost of living adjustment (COLA) so that the wage would rise annually thereafter, based on inflation statistics. Significantly, it would also eliminate the so-called “tipped wage,” the special sub-minimum of $3.63 an hour that applies to waiters, waitresses, bartenders, and other servers who receive tips as part of their daily work.

Melvin R. Thompson, a lobbyist for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, focused on the tipped wage during his testimony to the Labor Committee June 15. “Passage of this legislation will force many employers to eliminate jobs because paying such high minimum wages to unskilled, entry-level workers will be unsustainable for businesses that utilize such labor. If passed, this legislation will ultimately hurt the very people it is intended to help,” he told the committee.

The Restaurant Association commissioned a study that found the $15 minimum would cause the loss of about 3,500 jobs in the city, Thompson added. One restaurant manager, identified as an official of the Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain, asserted that the chain would close at least one, or possibly two, of its locations in the city if $15 legislation passed.

These voices against raising the wage were joined by executives from the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, two influential Chamber of Commerce-like organizations representing business owners.

In sharp contrast to the well-tailored suits and slick presentations of the lobbyists was the testimony of Vonzella Barnes, a housekeeper at the Horseshoe Casino, a recently-opened gambling palace controlled by the multinational Caesars Entertainment Corp.

Hired at the opening of the casino two years ago at a wage of $9.50 an hour, she has had no raises, the 46-year-old mother of two testified to the Labor Committee. The cost of the two children, and other regular monthly expenses, means that “I constantly have to borrow money from my Mom to pay the rent,” she said. “At her age, I should be giving her money, not borrowing from her.”

Barnes wore her red UNITE HERE union t-shirt as she testified, signifying that many union workers in Baltimore would benefit from the $15 minimum wage. UNITE HERE and several other unions represent workers the casino, but even union wages in some of the lower-pay positions leave workers at near poverty levels.

Indeed, 1199SEIU members launched a series of short strikes against Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital in 2014 over a demand for a $15 minimum, but failed to achieve that is the final settlement. During that fight, it was exposed that hundreds of employees of the wealthy Hopkins Hospital were forced to rely on Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies, or other anti-poverty programs, to make ends meet.

Councilwoman Clarke linked her minimum wage proposal to Baltimore’s race riot last year, which exposed the dismal living conditions in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. “We’ve had this debate about minimum wage in Baltimore before, and the actions of the city have not been enough. This year has to be different – because last year was different. Baltimore has to change its ways,” she says.

This blog originally appeared at inthesetime.com on June 20, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’sDaily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

The Anti-Job-Creation Party Wants Welfare Recipients To Work

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

Isaiah J. PooleHouse Speaker Paul Ryan ended up overshadowing his own efforts Tuesday to highlight the Republican Party’s proposals for overhauling aid programs for low-income people by telling reporters that he was still planning to endorse and vote for a presidential candidate that had earlier uttered what he called “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

The Speaker of the House shredding his moral credibility – in the heart of one of Washington D.C.’s historic African-American communities, no less – to remain loyal to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was indeed far more worthy of media attention than the ostensible purpose of his crossing the Anacostia River, which was to use a church-based substance abuse treatment center as a backdrop for his effort to rebrand the Party of the 1 Percent as the party that cares the most about the poor.

Nonetheless, the package of proposals that Ryan began unveiling this week, under the branding of “A Better Way,” should not be ignored, even though many of their tenets will be familiar to people who have followed what passes for anti-poverty policy in the conservative movement. What Ryan hopes is that at least Senate and House candidates will use the “Better Way” proposals to give the impression that the Republican Party is more than the “Party of No” and a party that thinks the solution to every economic problem is a tax cut for the wealthy.

People who are interested in a detailed rebuttal of the “Better Way” anti-poverty proposals should refer to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which has posted a series of commentaries on Ryan’s plan.

Much of the analysis is around the ways Ryan and his Republican allies try to avoid the fundamental truth contained in a statement issued Tuesday by Deborah Weinstein of the Coalition for Human Needs: “It costs money to give people the tools to escape poverty” – and Republicans just don’t want to spend that money. Weinstein notes that this year, under Ryan’s leadership, House Republicans proposed cutting low-income programs “by $3.7 trillion over 10 years, mostly in health care, but also cutting [Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits, commonly known as food stamps] by $150 billion (a 30 percent cut between 2021-2026), and cutting Pell Grants and other low-income education programs.”

There is another familiar theme that will jump out if you look at Ryan’s plan: the insistence that “our welfare system should encourage work-capable welfare recipients to work or prepare for work in exchange for benefits.”

The principle that every person who wants to work should have a job is one that progressives and conservatives could unite around – if conservatives believed that government had a role to play in helping to create the jobs that they are so adamant that people take in lieu of being “dependent on government.”

But there is nothing in the 35-page report on poverty programs and the Republican alternative that speaks to actual job creation. There is a lot of righteous hectoring about how people receiving government assistance – whether it’s the now-rare cash assistance, SNAP benefits, or housing aid. But the section of Washington Ryan chose as the setting for his news conference has an unemployment rate of 12 percent, more than two-and-a-half times the national average.

What the people in the community don’t need is to be lectured about the value of work. They need jobs. And this is where the Republican rhetoric does not match reality, since the Republican Party has dramatically cut spending on every economic development program that would support job creation, ranging from badly needed infrastructure investment to the kinds of economic development programs that enabled communities to improve themselves without the destructive, zero-sum game of gentrification.

Ryan and his party also does not believe that the federal minimum wage should eventually be raised to $15 an hour, so that people who work and raise a family can actually rise above poverty through their wages. It is the double-whammy that renders all of Ryan’s posturing about “a better way” to deal with poverty just that – election-year posturing. It’s just like his attacks on Donald Trump’s “textbook” racism – designed to project an air of moral probity to cover immoral actions.

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on June 7, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Isaiah J. Poole worked at Campaign for America’s Future. He attended Pennsylvania State University and lives inWashington, DC.

Verizon Unions Deliver For American Middle Class

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

Dave JohnsonThe long Verizon strike has ended, and the unions won. This means that the American middle class won, too.

Verizon is an extremely profitable company. But even with massive, astonishing profits the company was demanding that its workers provide givebacks, allow employees to be separated from families for months at a time and on top of that allow the company to send more and more call center jobs out of the country. The workers are lucky enough to have unions to fight this – The Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). They voted to strike, it was a long, hard struggle, and in the end they won.

Here is a description of what Verizon’s workers achieved for all of us, from the IBEW:

Under the terms of the proposed agreement, Verizon agreed that no additional jobs will be outsourced overseas, while increasing the number of calls routed to domestic call centers. This will result in the creation of 1,300 new call center jobs with 850 in the Mid-Atlantic region and 450 in the Northeast.

“This was the major issue for my members: protecting American jobs and keeping them here at home,” said East Windsor, N.J., Local 827 Business Manager Robert Speer, who represents IBEW Verizon employees in New Jersey. “This agreement makes a lot of progress in reversing the outsourcing trend.”

Verizon also agreed to drop its demand that technicians had to be available to travel outside their home areas for up to two months at a time.

“Our members aren’t just Verizon employees, they’re moms and dads as well,” said Calvey. “We’re glad that we’re able to make sure our members are able to come home to their families every night.”

Also included in the tentative four-year agreement are:

• Wage increases of 3 percent for the first year and 2.5 each year after

• No cap on pensions and three 1 percent increases over the life of the agreement

• Retaining competitive health benefits

• Strong job security language

Why We Need Labor Unions

This shows exactly why we need labor unions.

Verizon did not need to outsource call-center work overseas. Verizon didn’t need to set up highly disruptive work schedules in which workers would be away from their families for weeks at a time. Verizon didn’t need to put a cap on worker pensions. Verizon tried to get these things from their workers anyway, because they are wealthy and powerful. If this sounds like everything you see around all of us with giant corporations trying to snatch more and more away from all of us, just because they can use their enormous wealth and power to do that, you are getting the picture.

Verizon’s workers stood up, banded together in unions, and forced the company back to the drawing board. The company had to come back with a proposal that worked for both the workers AND Verizon’s bottom line. Verizon was hoping to increase its profits even more; but over time the lower-than-hoped-for could likely be overtaken by the increased productivity of a more loyal workforce. (Depending, of course, on whether management follows up with the right strategic decisions and investments.)

This is why all of us need unions. Otherwise we are alone, on our own up against the aggregated wealth and power of giant corporations. Alone we don’t stand a chance. Verizon’s proved that the American middle class can fight back – if they join unions.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on May 31, 2016. Reprinted with Permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

New Study Reveals Just How Brutal Meat and Poultry Work Is for Workers

Friday, May 27th, 2016

elizabeth grossmanThe meat and poultry industry remains exceptionally dangerous, despite a decline in reported injuries and illnesses over the past 10 years, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. Further, says the report, the injury and illness rates reflected in Department of Labor numbers are significantly underreported. As a result, these figures do not fully represent what is actually happening within this industry that employs about 526,000—including many recent immigrants and noncitizens. The report also found evidence of workers being denied proper medical treatment on the job and that they often fail to report injuries for fear it will cost them their jobs.

Released Wednesday by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA), the report notes that working conditions in the industry have not improved substantially since the GAO examined the industry in 2005. Workers in poultry and meat processing plants, says the report, “continue to face the hazardous conditions the GAO cited in 2005, including tasks associated with musculoskeletal disorders, exposure to chemicals and pathogens and traumatic injuries from machines and tools.”

“Today’s report makes clear that workers still face hazardous conditions that put their health and safety in jeopardy,” said Senator Murray on a call with reporters. “In our country every worker should be able to earn a living with dignity and without worrying that their work will make them sick or injured,” she said.

“The pain never really went away. It just went up my arms and elbows,” said former Nebraska meatpacking work Jose Gaytan on the call. “The work speeds of the plant were so fast that my hands would swell up and lock up,” he said. Gaytan described how the plant processed 1500 to 1800 head of cattle a day, so that each worker processed 250 to 300 “loins” per day—each about 80 pounds of “frozen cow meat and bones” —or almost one per minute. There were “falls slips, burns and cuts and crippling injuries to co-workers,” said Gayton. “I saw two different saw operators cut off fingers because the line was coming too fast,” he said.

Line speed is a huge problem in these plants where poultry workers typically handle 30 or more turkeys and 100 or more chickens a minute.

Omar Hassan, who worked at a Jennie-O turkey plant in Minnesota for over two-and-a-half years described how when he came back to work after a finger and shoulder industry with a doctor’s note saying he could not do the same level of work as before, the company refused to accommodate him. “I tried talking them into placing me on light duty,” he said. But the company refused, “and they fired me after that,” said Hassan, speaking on the call through an interpreter who translated from Somali.

Also contributing to the injury undercount, says the GAO, is that injuries and illnesses suffered by workers hired through labor contractors may not be properly accounted for. Contributing to these problems is the industry’s high turnover rate—“often 100 percent or more annually,” said Southern Poverty Law Center staff attorney Sarah Rich.

Poultry and meat plant workers often include “refugees, undocumented immigrants and prisoners,” said Rich. These workers, she said are “often fired and treated as disposable by these companies.” And all this contributes to “a climate of fear that prevents workers from speaking out,” she said.

Musculoskeletal disorders rampant in meat and poultry processing but underreported

The GAO also reports that injuries included in official records cover only those for which workers took time off. This means they fail to account for many of the musculoskeletal disorders that are widespread throughout the industry.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that musculoskeletal disorders account for many of the injuries that create a serious injury rate for the meat and poultry processing industry that is more than 3 times higher than other U.S. industries. In a 2015 report, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found 81 percent of the poultry plant jobs it evaluated exceeded recommended limits for hand activity and that 34 percent of employees had symptoms qualifying as carpel tunnel syndrome.

“We should have no confidence about industry’s assertions about their injury rates,” says Celeste Monforton, professorial lecturer in occupational and environmental health at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. She describes a NIOSH investigation finding that a Maryland poultry plant logbooks showed only four cases of carpel tunnel syndrome over four years while NIOSH found 18 workers with those injuries at the same plant.

She also described an OSHA Alabama poultry plant investigation that found a worker who was seen 94 times by a company nurse before being referred to a physician for treatment. “The industry games the system,” says Monforton, explaining that first aid is not recorded in company logs.

Well-documented history of high hazard

“The GAO report reinforces and validates reports released by independent groups for over ten years,” says Rich, listing reports by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Oxfam America, by Alabama Appleseed, Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Centerand others as well as investigations by NIOSH and OSHA.

“We uncovered many of the same issues the GAO has now confirmed. Workers have told us about the same conditions that the GAO detailed in their report today,” Oxfam America senior advocacy advisor Oliver Gottfried told reporters. In addition to denial of medical care, fear of retaliation, and lack of reporting on industry logs, Oxfam America has recently reported on how poultry plant workers’ are denied adequate bathroom bathroom breaks.

Speaking in Hmong, through an interpreter, a Tyson foods poultry plant worker called May, explained that the company only allows her to use the bathroom twice per night. “That is not enough for people,” says May, who works cutting meat. She also described how people who work close to meat get chemicals sprayed on their hands and face.

In stark contrast to the report’s details, the meat industry seized on the GAO report’s note of the decline in reported injury rates—from 9.8 cases per 100 workers in 2004 to 5.7 cases per 100 workers in 2013.

The report, “highlights the greatly improved worker safety record of the meat and poultry industry over the last 10 years,” said the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) in a statement. “There is always room for improvement and we will look closely at the GAO recommendations to see how they can best be implemented in the industry,” said NAMI president and CEO Barry Carpenter.

“We are pleased to see the report emphasizes the fact that injuries and illnesses have decreased dramatically in the poultry processing industry over the past several years,” said the National Chicken Council in its statement. “Perhaps more than any other industry, the poultry industry has focused its energies on the prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses, especially musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) like carpal tunnel syndrome,” said the council.

So what happens next? 

Sen. Murray voiced support for OSHA’s new rule that will provide workers with more protection from retaliation against injury reporting and improve OSHA’s access such records. “In our country every worker should be able to earn a living with dignity and without worrying that their work will make them sick or injured,” said Murray.

“We’re taking it to the public,” Berkowitz tells In These Times. “Consumers have a tremendous influence on this industry,” she says. “We are hoping consumers are starting to take a look … at the inhumane conditions of workers and that industry has to respond by lifting standards.”

And Gottfied says reporting on industry conditions is already prompting workers to seek help in speaking out about workplace health and safety.

This blog was originally posted on inthesetimes.org on May 27, 2016. 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.

The New Agenda For Taking On Wall Street

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

poole-60x60More than 20 progressive organizations representing millions of voters are putting their weight behind a five-point agenda for the next stage of Wall Street reform. What these groups will formally announce Tuesday, in an event featuring Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, sets a high but practical standard for what a candidate would have to embrace to be considered a progressive on reining in the financial sector.

The Take On Wall Street campaign says it intends to ensure that the voices of working people and consumers are heard above the power and influence of Wall Street. The Washington Post reports that Take On Wall Street will combine the efforts of “some of the Democratic parties biggest traditional backers, from the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO to the Communications Workers of America.”

The campaign is pressing five changes that the coalition says would lead to a fair financial system that works for Main Street and working families, not just Wall Street billionaires. Most are embodied in legislation that is currently pending in Congress:

? Close the carried interest loophole. That’s the tax code provision that allows hedge fund and private equity managers to pay a lower tax rate on their earnings than what ordinary workers pay on what they earn. The Carried Interest Fairness Act (H.R. 2889) would end this inequity.

? End the CEO bonus loophole. That loophole allows corporations to write off a large share of CEO pay as a tax deduction – by calling it “performance-based” pay. The result is that taxpayers are subsidizing CEO pay to the tune of $5 billion a year. That amount of money would cover Head Start for more than 590,000 children, or pay the health care costs of more than 480,000 military veterans, or fund full scholarships for more than 600,000 college students. The Stop Subsidizing Multimillion Dollar Corporate Bonuses Act (H.R.2103) would end taxpayers subsidizing CEOs and allow those dollars to be used for such priorities as education and health care.

? End “too big to fail.” Both Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, say they agree with the principle that banks that are “too big to fail are too big to exist,” but Clinton is adamantly opposed to the one thing many economists and banking experts believe would help avert the need to bail out a “too big to fail” bank: a legal wall separating consumer banking from high-risk investment and trading activity. The Return to Prudent Banking Act of 2015 (H.R.381) and 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act (H.R. 3054) would bring back a version of the Glass-Steagall Act, which was repealed in the 1990s under President Bill Clinton.

? Enact a Wall Street speculation tax. It’s not right that consumers pay a sales tax on most things they buy, but traders don’t pay a sales tax on the stocks they buy. A tiny tax on the sale of Wall Street financial products – like the one envisioned in the Inclusive Prosperity Act of 2015 (H.R.1464) would raise billions of dollars for critical public needs, and could serve as a brake on high-speed computerized speculation that risks destabilizing markets. This tax would go farther than a narrowly targeted tax that Clinton has proposed.

? End predatory lending and offer alternatives for the “unbanked.” The coalition is throwing its support behind efforts by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to enact tough new regulations against payday and title lenders, which frequently entrap low-income borrowers in a quicksand of debt through sky-high, often three-digit interest rates and exorbitant fees. It also champions such “public option” alternatives as allowing the U.S. Postal Service to offer basic banking services.

All of these ideas have been proffered by progressive financial reformers even as the Dodd-Frank financial reform law squeaked through Congress in 2010. But this promises to be the broadest effort yet to combine these proposals into a singular reform push, and it comes as jockeying begins to shape the Democratic Party platform. As The Post notes, “Unlike previous anti-Wall Street campaigns such as Occupy Wall Street this group hopes to organize a campaign that will span state houses and as well as the halls of Congress, potentially forecasting a big fight on financial reform in 2017.”

It also comes as many in the Wall Street financial community turn to Clinton as the sane alternative to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in the general election campaign. These money interests will want Clinton to assure them that her get-tough rhetoric is nothing more than political red meat to assuage an angry populist electorate; their hope is that if the pivot to a centrist posture doesn’t happen in the general election, it will surely happen once she secures the presidency. But broad support for the Take On Wall Street agenda will limit Clinton’s ability to pivot, especially if this agenda helps elect new Senate and House members committed to not allowing Wall Street to keep rigging the economy against the rest of us.

This blog originally appeared at ourfuture.org on May 23, 2016, Reprinted with permission.

Isaiah Poole Worked at Campaign for America’s Future, attended Pennsylvania State University, and lives in Washington, DC.

New Report: 90 Percent of the World’s Domestic Workers Lack Social Security Protection

Friday, April 15th, 2016

elizabeth grossmanNinety percent—or 60 million of the world’s estimated 67 million domestic workers, some 80 percent of whom are women—labor without any basic social security protections, says a new International Labor Organization (ILO) report. Developing countries have the biggest gaps in coverage but wealthier nations are not immune to this problem.

According to the report, 60 percent of domestic workers in Italy are outside the country’s social security system, as are 30 percent of domestic workers in France and Spain. And here in the U.S., domestic workers—housekeepers, house cleaners, nannies, child and elder care providers among others—are not covered by many of the basic workplace protections that most employees take for granted.

“I would like that we stop being invisible to society,” says Maria Esther Bolaños, who works as a housekeeper in Chicago. Domestic workers “want to be respected and valued,” says Magdelena Zylinska, a domestic worker, also in Chicago who’s been cleaning homes since 1997. “That’s so little really, just to be treated with respect,” says Zylinska. “Everybody who works wants that. We’re not asking for anything extraordinary.”

Historically, most U.S. domestic workers have been excluded from labor protections granted other workers, explains Zylinska. But “we are normal people with children and financial responsibilities,” she says. “That’s why I think it’s important that people recognize us as workers in general and give us more support and rights just as regular workers.”

Both Bolaños and Zylinska are working with groups that are part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance for passage of an Illinois state law that would extend basic employment protections to domestic workers. Among these provisions are written contracts, schedules that specify work hours, meal and other breaks and coverage by state laws that guarantee minimum wages, one day of rest in seven and those of the Illinois Human Rights Act.

If passed, the Illinois bill—known as the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (HB1288)— would be the seventh such U.S. state bill. So far only California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon have comparable laws.

Nationally, U.S. domestic workers are covered by Social Security but not by the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Nor do they receive benefits of the Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. And until 1974, when Congress extended the Fair Labor Standards Act to cover domestic workers, U.S. workers employed directly by households were without minimum wage and overtime protections. In 2013, a new Department of Labor rule revised regulations to better cover domestic caregivers under the Fair Labor Standards Act, but leaves U.S. domestic workers without many basic employment protections.

“We have no basic benefits like sick leave,” explains Sally Richmond, who has worked for years providing child care and is a community organizer with the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment (AFIRE).

Poor working conditions, long hours and low wages

As described by the ILO report, “Domestic work has traditionally been characterized by poor working conditions, long hours, low wages, forced labor and little or no social protection. In other words, domestic workers are exposed to conditions that are far from the concept of decent work promoted by the ILO. This situation largely reflects the low social and economic value societies usually place on this activity. This is often reflected by the absence of adequate laws and the lack of effective enforcement of those that do exist.”

While domestic work is some of the lowest paid and least protected in the world—in some places earning no more than half the average wage—so many people do this work that, according to the ILO, “if all domestic workers worked in one country, that country would be the world’s tenth largest employer.” Domestic workers also have some of the longest and most unpredictable work hours of any employees.

Add to this, the fact that most of the world’s domestic workers are women, makes this workforce socially and economically vulnerable to additional discrimination, says the ILO. Extending basic social protections to domestic workers is key to fighting poverty and promoting gender equality, said Philippe Marcadent, Chief of the ILO’s Inclusive Labour Markets, Labour Relations and Working Conditions Branch in a statement. The ILO report also points out that many of the estimated 55 million women engaged in domestic work around the world—a number that is likely an undercount—are also migrants, which adds to their vulnerability to discrimination and unfair labor practices.

“Most of us are immigrants and come from really poor countries,” says Zylinska. There are many domestic workers that are supporting “not only their families here but also families in their [home] countries.” Language differences and concerns about immigration status add to the daily employment uncertainties for many domestic workers, say Bolaños and Zylinska.

ILO agreement on domestic workers rights—not ratified by the U.S.

As part of its efforts to improve working conditions and labor protections for domestic workers, in 2011 the ILO adopted what’s called the Domestic Workers Convention that requires countries that ratify the agreement to ensure that domestic workers labor rights are no “less favorable” than those of other workers—including with respect to social security protection and maternity protections. The Convention outlines basic labor rights to include working hours, wage, occupational health and safety, child and migrant workers protections. It also underlines the importance of organizations that represent both domestic workers and those who employ them. But so far, only 22 countries have ratified the Convention. The United States is not among them.

Unlike those employed by more formal workplaces—those outside private homes—around the world, domestic workers typically lack comparable enforceable policies on working hours, occupational health and safety protections, maternity leave, workplace inspections and access to information on labor rights—including the right to organize and form unions.

Many domestic workers “are afraid to complain for fear of losing their job,” says Richmond. “My hope is for this work to be professionalized,” she says. Working with the Union Latina, helps “teach us how we can protect ourselves against abuse and wage theft and how we can take sick days,” says Bolaños. “We don’t have contracts, today I have a job, tomorrow I don’t have a job. It’s a very unregulated business,” explains Zylniska.

But all these basic workplace and labor protections are feasible and affordable, says the ILO report—even for middle and low-income countries. Yet while it documents increasing social security coverage for domestic workers worldwide, these policies often exclude migrant workers who make up at least one-sixth of this global workforce. While fixing these problems can’t be accomplished by one single policy model, said senior ILO economist Fabio Duran-Valverde in a statement, “mandatory coverage (instead of voluntary coverage) is a crucial element for achieving adequate and effective coverage under any system.”

While U.S. law provides protections for domestic worker not guaranteed in other countries, this household-based workforce still lacks coverage provided to other American employees. And given the nature of the domestic workplace ensuring change even when policies shift can be difficult.

“The laws on the books are one thing, but we’ve always been really aware that conditions for domestic workers don’t automatically change when a bill is signed into law,” says National Domestic Workers Alliance campaign director, Andrea Mercado. To make these changes, “It’s going to require a culture shift and a public conversation around domestic work and care work and why we should value it,” she says. “That’s kind of our struggle,” says Zylinska.

The Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights now has 21 Senate and 33 House sponsors. A spokesperson for lead sponsor state Senator Ira Silverstein said the bill is expected to be reintroduced this month and could move swiftly toward a vote.

This blog was originally posted on inthesetimes.org on April 12, 2016. 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.

Is Your Workplace Wellness Plan Worth the Risk?

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

Tina Bio picAs healthcare costs continue to soar, many employers are using wellness programs as a way to help curb their costs. In addition, employees who enroll in wellness programs also enjoy the program’s great health incentives and rewards, however, unbeknownst to them, the personal information collected may also be used for other undisclosed financial or discriminatory purposes.

This is important as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) generally protects employees from discrimination based on health status or disability. The ADA specifically prohibits employers from generally requiring mandatory health examinations and also prohibits the disclosure of an employee’s protected health information. However, these exams are allowed if they are part of a voluntary employee health program or if classified as a “business necessity.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or the federal agency that enforces these federal laws also recently raised concern about wellness programs

and published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) explaining how ADA applies to employer wellness programs that are also apart of group health plans. The NPRM explicitly prohibits employers from requiring employees to participate in a wellness program and also prevents the employer from disciplining or denying health coverage based on refusal. Although other federal laws prevent discrimination, the existing laws only apply to certain wellness programs under certain circumstances and as a result, some employers allow wellness program companies to share and use an employee’s information. Therefore, the proposed rule would not only help align federal laws to cover most wellness plans but would also require confidentiality and provide employees notice on how information is used and collected.

In a recent example, Houston city employees who participated in a wellness program were required to disclose their disease history, blood pressure, weight, drug and seat belt use to a wellness company. However, unknown to the employees, the contracted wellness company was also permitted to share the data with “third party vendors acting on [their] behalf.” Although the employees were permitted to refuse or opt out of the screening, they were subject to a $300 a year penalty for medical coverage. Therefore, the employees who “voluntarily” participated in the program in order to avoid the penalty, also unknowingly waived their privacy rights as the information shared could lead to discrimination by employers, lending institutions or even life insurance companies.

In another example, an employer required an employee to submit to medical testing and assessment in connection with a wellness program or “face dire consequences.” When the employee refused to comply with the mandatory program, the employer shifted responsibility for the payment of her entire health insurance premium and ultimately fired the employee shortly thereafter. This initiative unfortunately has many unintended consequences and as the Regional Attorney for the EEOC in Chicago noted, “having to choose between responding to medical exams and inquiries — which are not job-related — in a wellness program, on the one hand, or being fired, on the other hand, is no choice at all.”

While wellness programs have positive effects on employees and the workplace in general, these programs should not provide barriers to healthcare benefits or force penalties on those who cannot participate. Instead, these programs should also provide alternatives for employees who have disabilities and should not be implemented as a new way to determine insurance premium rates.

Another closely connected issue relates to privacy and the disclosure of employee data. Data companies such as Castlight Health, praised for their ability to help inform smarter decisions, are being hired by employers or wellness program companies to handle and process employees’ data. Whether it is being used, correctly or incorrectly, to identify which employees are likely to get sick, have surgery or get pregnant, these companies are using personal data and third party healthcare apps to monitor an employee’s personal information. However, even more concerning is how unregulated access to big data is.

Although some may think that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) applies, the privacy rule in HIPAA only applies or protects an individual’s identifiable health information held by either a covered entity or business associate. Therefore, depending on how the wellness program is administratively structured and whether the wellness program is offered as part of a group health plan, the identifiable health information may or may not be protected under HIPAA rules.

While some employers have structured wellness program incentives to comply with some federal laws, the exceptions in others have made achieving privacy while protecting civil rights difficult. Despite the EEOC’s best efforts to strike a balance between encouraging workplace wellness plans and compliance with federal laws, the “results appear to please no one, as the EEOC’s efforts to ensure only voluntary disclosure of private health information…drew sharp criticism from agency stakeholders.” In addition, despite legislation such as the “Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act” introduced by Representative John Kline to offer clarity on incentives consistent with the ACA final rule not violating the ADA, the effect of these promulgated rules remains unknown as poorly designed wellness programs continue to have unintended consequences.

Although wellness programs offer attractive health and wellness benefits, until the various issues with discrimination, data privacy, and uniformity with all federal laws are addressed, employees may still be at risk of discrimination.

Tina Jadhav is an attorney barred in Maryland. Tina is actively involved in health law as a member of the American Health Lawyers Association as well as the American Bar Association-Health Law section. Tina recently earned her Law and Government LL.M. degree from American University Washington College of Law in 2014 and her Juris Doctor degree from Florida Coastal School of Law. Tina also served as a Health Policy Fellow for U.S. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Legal Intern at Inova Health System Office of General Counsel and the Office of the Attorney General for Commonwealth of Virginia.

Interfaith Coalition Calls for Moral Action on the Economy

Monday, April 4th, 2016

The largest employer of low-wage workers in America is the federal government. U.S. government contractors employ over two million workers in jobs that pay too little – $12.00 an hour or less – to support a family. Contract workers – organizing under the banner of Good Jobs Nation – have walked off of their jobs repeatedly in protest, demanding a living wage and the right to a union.

This Monday, on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death, this movement will gain a powerful ally. Led by Jim Winkler, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, an interfaith coalition of religious leaders is issuing a call for “moral action on the economy.” They will seek to meet with presidential candidates, asking each to pledge that, if elected, he or she would issue an executive order to reward model employers “that pay a living wage of at least $15.00 an hour, provide decent benefits and allow workers to organize without retaliation.”

The movement for living wages is taking off. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 for nearly seven years. Unable to provide for their families, fast food and other low-wage workers began to demonstrate, even at risk of losing their jobs. “Fight for 15” – the demand for a $15.00 an hour minimum wage and the right to a union – swept across the country. And is beginning to win.

In Seattle, a coalition of union, community and business leaders helped pass legislation putting the city minimum wage on a path to $15. From Los Angeles to Chicago to New York, other cities joined. In the last few days, California legislators reached a deal to move the state minimum wage to $15 by 2022. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed through reforms that will move that state’s minimum wage to $15, starting in December 2018 in New York City.

The pressure of the government low-wage workers moved President Obama to act. He issued three executive orders, raising the minimum wage to $10.10, cracking down on wage theft and other workplace violations, and providing paid leave. The workers continued to demonstrate, calling for “more than the minimum,” seeking $15 and a union.

Senate cafeteria workers – the people who prepare the senators’ food and clean up after them – joined the protests. Their plight – one was homeless, others on food stamps, one moonlighting as a stripper to feed her children – was embarrassing. Democratic Senate staffers organized to support them. Democratic senators like Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Brian Schatz (Hawaii) demanded action. When the cafeteria contract was up for renewal in December, workers were granted pay increases of $5 an hour or more. It took more pressure and Labor Department investigation to make the raises stick, but today workers are finally receiving their pay.

Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, who has documented the struggle highlighted one beneficiary, Bertrand Olotara, a cook in the Senate cafeteria. His wage went from $12.30 to $17.45 an hour. He was able to quit his second job at Whole Foods and stop working seven days a week. That gave him more time with his five children. He’s even thinking of using the extra time to write a book. A living wage makes real differences in people’s lives.

Now the interfaith coalition joining with these workers and calling on those contending for the presidency to promise to do more. Republican contenders are still opposed to raising the minimum wage. Bernie Sanders has made a $15 an hour minimum wage a central plank in his platform. Hillary Clinton has supported lifting the national minimum wage to $12.50, accepting that some states and cities might go higher.

The interfaith alliance is calling on the presidential candidates to pledge moral action on the economy. When Ronald Reagan came to office, one of his first acts was to fire and replace the striking PATCO air controllers. He sent a message to employers across the country that it was open season on workers and their unions. Imagine the next president taking office and issuing an executive order lifting the wages of millions of contract workers and guaranteeing a right to organize without retaliation. Again a signal would be sent across the country.

“This election is fundamentally about whether the next president is willing to take transformative executive action to close the gap between the wealthy and workers – many of whom are women and people of color,” argues Jim Winkler, secretary general of the National Council of Churches. It’s time to take the pledge.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on April 4, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Robert Borosage is a board member of both the Blue Green Alliance and Working America.  He earned a BA in political science from Michigan State University in 1966, a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1968, and a JD from Yale Law School in 1971. Borosage then practiced law until 1974, at which time he founded the Center for National Security Studies.

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