Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for July, 2019

Inside the Bitter Battle to Defend Workers and Patients at a Low-Income Clinic

Wednesday, July 31st, 2019

Image result for nan levinsonWhen Whittier Street Health Center unveiled its glass-sheathed, six-story, environmentally-advanced, state-of-the-art, new facility in 2012, it was seen by its Boston community as a commitment to the neighborhood and the people it serves. With brightly painted walls and expansive views across the city, it sits at the heart of Roxbury, extending an invitation of convenience and care to a population that is mostly Black or Latinx and among the poorest and least healthy in the city.

Of Whittier’s patients, 91 percent live in poverty; 50 percent deal with food insecurity; two-thirds have been diagnosed with diabetes, hypertension, cancer, asthma or obesity; 35 percent of adults are without health insurance; and life expectancy for the area served is 58.9 years. Everyone agrees that this is a vulnerable population in need of highly trained, consistent and committed healthcare. Not everyone agrees that this population is getting it.

The reasons are a mix of difficulties shared by many community health centers, including political maneuvering, funding constraints and societal disregard for the poor. But some problems are distinct to Whittier: Staff and patients have complained that ill-advised, high-handed and destabilizing management practices interfere with and disrupt clinical care.

The dominant feelings among the many employees who have left or were pushed out seem to be anger and disappointment, much of that aimed at Frederica Williams, the president and CEO of Whittier since 2002. Last summer, increasingly sour management-clinician relations led to the formation of the first labor union of professional staff at a community health clinic in Massachusetts. The union became necessary, its supporters say, to protect their patients, their jobs and even the health center itself.

Through her then-P.R. consultant, Williams cited restrictions on what she can say about patients under HIPAA or the unionization effort under the Wagner Act. She responded to some questions in writing last October, but declined repeated requests to comment further, instead referring In These Times to the health center’s published reports and her public statements and letters to patients and staff. That left medical providers who have moved on, been fired or forced to leave—and unhappy patients—to largely tell the story. That story is one of alleged intimidation and union-busting by Williams and her administration, which has roiled the health center and highlights the challenges to providing good patient care to an underserved community. It also points out the limitations of current labor laws to protect workers at any level.

Last month, a year since the union became a reality, the antagonism between its supporters and Whittier management reached a climax, as a trial, an advanced step in the National Labor Relations Board’s unfair labor practice determination, got underway in Boston.

Organizing drive

The union came from the organizing efforts of John Jewett, a doctor; Bill Dain, a clinical social worker; and Caitrin MacDonald, a nurse practitioner. Dain, who had been at Whittier for 14 years, had experience with another union, so he was all in when Jewett and MacDonald said, “Let’s do it.” In March 2018, the trio began getting signatures on cards authorizing a union election under the guidance of 1199 Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents some 56,000 healthcare workers in Massachusetts. In mid-May, they filed notice with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to begin a union campaign among Whittier’s professional clinical staff. The goal was to foster a working partnership with management, which would involve the entire staff, then numbering about 300, in the organizational decisions that controlled their work environment and the healthcare they provided. But as a practical decision, Jewett says, they started with this smaller, collegial group, several of whom had had issues with management and felt particularly frustrated by the responses they got. When the union began, it had more than 60 members; as of this May, it had 50. (The decrease reflects cutbacks in Whittier staffing

Jewett, age 62, has a degree in medicine with a focus on public health. He came to Whittier because he was fed up with the paperwork in private care and liked the one-to-one interaction in community health. Dain, 77, who loved the intense relationship of individual therapy and the chance to use his fluency in Spanish, also fell into this older category. Younger providers, including MacDonald and Sherar Andalcio—a doctor who was active in the union organizing from a different community health center, having been fired from Whittier the year before—were no less committed.

MacDonald, 40, came to Whittier in 2016, and said, “My dream work is community health…serving patients who represent all of Boston, not privileged people like me.” For Andalcio, 36, who grew up nearby, “My dream job was to come back and give back to the community.” These are highly-trained professionals who could opt for easier, more remunerative positions, but chose to work under the demanding and difficult conditions of community health care, where burnout is common.

Asked last November about the dissatisfaction among the clinicians, Williams answered in an email to In These Times,“Whittier Street is far from alone among Massachusetts health centers in experiencing financial challenges and employee turnover. … We have been enhancing our recruitment efforts to ensure that we are hiring staff who truly understand and are committed to fulfilling our mission of providing quality care to the vulnerable populations we serve.” But the dispute, which resulted in the organizing drive, seemed less about mission buy-in on the part of providers than about how that mission would be carried out day-to-day. The providers charged that problems arose when they made suggestions, challenged abrupt and unexplained changes in policies, asked for greater involvement in decisions affecting their work and their patients, or held management to the terms of their contracts.

Williams’ description of the difficult context in which Whittier exists is accurate. Since it began as a well-baby clinic in 1933 and even in the late 1960s when Boston led the nation in neighborhood health centers, funding has been a challenge. Today, it relies heavily on grants and federal funding. Still, Williams could point then with well-earned pride to her accomplishments: running a health center with a $25 million budget, over 30,000 patients a year, some 40 programs, and a perfect score on its most recent federal audit measuring statutory and regulatory compliance; and building the new facility, which no one had managed to do before. “She’s really brilliant at building programs and getting money for them,” said Jewett. “She’s great on the language of poverty and economic disparity,” noted Andalcio. MacDonald added that when she interviewed for her job, Williams “seemed like an engaging and compelling human being.”

Williams was born in 1958 in Sierra Leone and studied management in England and Massachusetts. As one of the city’s few women of color in top management positions, she is a highly visible, much-awarded champion of women in leadership. She sits on corporate boards, appears on notable-leader lists, and cultivates friendships with local politicians and powerbrokers. She even appeared in Mitt Romney’s infamous “binders full of women.” It cannot be easy to be a powerful black woman in a Boston still reckoning with racism and sexism, but her detractors charge that having to deal with these obstacles doesn’t excuse what they see as her demoralizing management style and actions; they claim these undermined their work at Whittier. Andalcio, who is also black, summed up this sentiment by saying, “If a man was doing what Frederica is doing, it would still be 110 percent wrong.”

Mass firings

A typical response to feeling that you’re losing control is to try for more control. In June 2018, less than a week before the union vote was scheduled, Williams abruptly fired Jewett, Dain, MacDonald and 11 others whom Jewett knew to be union supporters. They say they were hustled out of the building as their patients waited for appointments. Williams maintained that the firings were necessitated by a budget shortfall, and cited the loss of two anticipated grants, which she declined to name, equaling over $600,000. By the end of that fiscal year, the deficit would reach $1.35 million, Whittier’s first operating loss in 18 years.

The next day, Friday, Whittier staff, patients, supporters and local politicians demonstrated resolutely outside the building, demanding that the staff members be rehired immediately. It was hard to miss the swarm of purple SEIU T-shirts, and the media soon arrived to cover the protest. In response to the outcry and bad optics, Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh, stepped in to craft a settlement, which Williams described in a letter to the WSHC community as “a pathway forward that will put Whittier on a stable financial footing for now.” The employees were told on Sunday that they had been reinstated, though it is unclear by whom, as became clear in the  testimony and cross-questioning of Ragan McNeely, a behavioral therapist, at the NLRB trial, and Williams announced publicly that she would take a voluntary pay cut. According to a report on WBUR, a local NPR station, her salary before the cut outstripped those of CEOs at community health centers in similar Boston neighborhoods, although they served more patients.

The drama continued on Monday, when several of the supposedly rehired staff tried to inquire about their status and, as McNeely testified, were not allowed to enter the building past the security desk. The employees were finally permitted to return to work on Wednesday, when the vote took place as planned. It was 50 to 9 in favor of unionizing. Less than three weeks later, in a remarkably tone-deaf move, the board of directors voted to honor Williams by naming the building after her.

Like most stories with differing perceptions of what’s fair, right or necessary, trying to pin down who did what to whom is a study in yes-buts. Williams emailed, “The primary reason for this deficit was the failure of specific staffers to reach industry-standard productivity levels.” Data compiled by Jewett for the pro-union website, “Whittier staff, union and community news,” show WSHC’s expected productivity levels for 2017 to 2018 to be higher than Massachusetts and national levels. Jewett worked with data from a 2017 report by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). However, both the Health Center Program at HRSA and the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, where Whittier is a member and Williams was on a board, said in separate emails that they have no productivity standards for providers.

And while there had been a decline in clinic visits from 2016 to 2017, they rose slightly to 115,448 in 2018. Jewett calculated that Whittier doctors generate significantly more revenue than they cost, so he argues that cutting their number is counterproductive to attracting and retaining patients.

In the summer of 2018, Williams eliminated the center’s urgent care clinic and the orthodontics program that fall, cut some clinical and administrative positions and instituted a hiring freeze, defending her decisions, for instance, in a December 2018 letter to staff, as necessary cost-cutting measures. She announced then that Whittier was on a “break-even budget,” and some vacancies have since been filled, though the current WSHC website shows a stripped-down clinical staff.

The targeted employees, however, read those moves as the kind of retaliatory measures that had been going on for a long time and added up to what MacDonald described as a toxic workplace. When Andalcio, the doctor who had come on staff with high expectations, felt underprepared to treat his HIV-positive patients and requested more training, he contended that his request was denied. When Jewett suggested ways to engage management productively—for example, instituting set meeting times for staff to exchange ideas and discuss problems—he was criticized for not going through channels and asking questions out of turn, a claim he reiterated in his affidavit for the NLRB. And MacDonald reported that after a goodbye party for Andalcio, a doctor and another staff member were sent a photograph taken there of the staff in attendance, with a black arrow and a question mark pointed at her head. Given the tensions at Whittier, it looked to her like a threat.

Perhaps most telling was the unusually high rate of turnover among clinicians. By Andalcio’s count, 20 doctors, nurses and physician assistants in primary care and obstetrics left between October 2016 and October 2018. Of the 22 who had worked there in 2016, only three are still at Whittier less than three years later. Because new hires are less productive than experienced providers, Jewett estimated that the cost of turnover in primary care in that time was at least $1.4 millionOther, unquantifiable losses included institutional memory and shared knowledge of how things work, but a bigger problem was the damage to patients, who were shuffled from provider to provider, with missed follow-ups and tracking of cases.

Patients impacted

Whittier touts its high scores on patient satisfaction surveys, but some patients have been skeptical of their validity. They lauded their providers, but complained about the culture. Shondell Davis came to Whittier in 2013 after a difficult search for responsive care. Her son had been killed and she was close to a breakdown when she found Ragan McNeely, the behavioral health therapist. He was a godsend. Over the next several years, Davis said, he provided “a comfort zone every Tuesday.” Just looking at his phone number between appointments made her feel better. McNeely was fired last October, which Davis said she learned only when she came for her appointment. “No calls, no follow-up, no warning,” she said a couple of months later. “To me it was unethical. I don’t have a therapist now. I don’t want to start over again. I just know from my experience, I really felt hurt. I don’t think I will ever trust there again.”

Marlon Wallen, a multiracial, HIV-positive activist from Trinidad, who lived nearby, became a patient at Whittier in 2016. Wallen reported that he was asked to be an outreach worker and appointed to the Patient Advisory Board. But when he objected that it was a conflict of interest for the chair of Whittier’s board of directors to also sit on the patient board, in addition to raising other grievances, he said he was “fired”—from the board and as a patient—and banned from the building. With HIV patients, especially, he maintained, the constant shifting of doctors undermines trust and treatment. He suggested grimly that Whittier’s patients put up with it because, “Where they come from, they’re used to this stuff.”

At a “patient rights hearing” organized by the labor-friendly coalition, Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, this past March, Davis and Wallen were among the some 60 people who testified about their experiences at Whittier. Nearly all talked of feeling betrayed and abandoned and reiterated complaints about valued clinicians disappearing without warning or explanation; difficulty getting someone to answer the phone, let alone getting an appointment; and undue burdens caused by closing urgent care and the orthodontics department. Some managers attended, but Williams did not.

Local politicians had rallied in support of the fired clinicians the summer before and met with union activists afterwards, but of several who were asked to speak to the issues in the following months, the only one who agreed to talk with In These Times was the doyen of Boston politics, Mel King, a former legislator and respected community activist. In a phone interview last October, he summarized the Whittier situation simply: “It’s an incredibly important institution in the community. To have an issue like this continue is unconscionable. People’s health is at stake.”

Contract fight

Forming a union is one thing; successfully negotiating a contract is another.

Unlike many union fights, salaries are not a central concern here. Last fall, Filaine Deronnette, vice president of Health Systems at 1199SEIU, said in a phone interview, “The issues are dignity and respect.” She emphasized that they were aiming for respectful lines of communication between management and staff. “The goal is to utilize the union to make it a better place for patients and staff.” In the early days, management met with the union and its members as scheduled. Then, according to Marlishia Aho, regional communications manager for 1199SEIU, the union stopped talking publicly, management started challenging who could be on the union’s negotiating committee, and one-by-one, union activists were pushed out. Dain and McNeely were fired; Jewett was placed on administrative leave, then laid off and also banned from the building; and MacDonald, needing stable employment, left for another job, albeit sooner than she wanted. By late October 2018, Jewett counted only a handful of the union supporters who had been fired and rehired that previous June still at Whittier.

Last fall, the union filed a series of complaints about unfair labor practices at Whittier with the National Labor Relations Board, charging that three members—Jewett, Dain and McNeely—had been laid off in retaliation for their union activities. The NLRB eventually determined that 30 of the 32 complaints about how Whittier responded to the unionization effort, an unusually long list, were substantiated enough to be brought to trial. While not a finding of guilt, this was a significant step, since the vast majority of complaints the board receives are dismissed, withdrawn or settled out of court.

As the trial began on June 17, both sides had dug in: Jewett described intense negotiations between the union and management the week before as progressing from very far apart to merely far apart, and at the trial, Jim Lee, Whittier Vice President, CFO and part of the management team representing the health center, declined to comment on the proceedings or a desired outcome.

For three intense days, the fired clinicians testified and were cross-examined by Whittier’s legal team. Then, on the morning of the fourth day of testimony, the judge, Paul Bogas, put the trial on hold to allow for further negotiations. According to Laura Sacks, a regional attorney of the NLRB, administrative judges can have many reasons for temporarily disrupting a trial for settlement discussions, but it may be because they expect it to be extremely long and complicated with risk for both sides. Sacks outlined the many potential steps to a final decision, which include appeals, briefs, and an open-ended timeline for a judge to issue an opinion. “I can only agree that it’s a lengthy process,” she concluded.

Most everyone else involved seems to have underestimated how lengthy this particular process would be. Originally calculated in months, it is now talking several years. In a difficult conversation, Jewett, McNeely and Dain considered their options. What made it so hard was that all three had to agree to the same response and, until recently, they had held out hope of returning to their jobs, their patients and their colleagues. Ultimately, they bowed to reality and forged a settlement: They would not return to Whittier and Whittier would pay each 15 months’ salary. When those pay-outs are added to Whittier’s legal fees for the case, resisting a union will have been an expensive battle to pursue.

On the rest of the NLRB charges, Whittier must post at the health center a short list of employee rights and a long list of “we will nots.” A few provisions are ameliorative, while most are pledges that Whittier will not do in the future what the NLRB alleged they had done in the past to discourage the union and punish its supporters. It is not clear what would happen if the health center did not live up to these promises. Williams, through her former P.R. consultant, again respectfully declined to comment.

Last winter, Jewett said he would go back to Whittier in a heartbeat. “I feel like I started something,” he explained. “It’s an opportunity to build something I could be proud of, if it gets done.” He fluctuated then between hope that pressure from the NLRB and the union would result in providers having a greater say in how care is delivered at Whittier and worry that Williams would just wait out the union until no supporters were left working there. He recalled “shooting the bull with [Williams] in the hall,” when he claimed she said, “John, I will never negotiate with the union.”

These days, contract negotiations are progressing, and one of the most postive outcomes of the settlement is that Whittier agreed to meet for bargaining sessions more than twice as often as before. But with so many of the original members gone and a significantly smaller staff, it’s an open question how committed to the union new hires or those who have stayed will be.

“You can’t just assume that if you vote for a [union] election it’s going to work out,” Jewett said, ruefully, a few days after agreeing to the settlement. “One sobering realization is that the NLRB legal system is not really set up to protect workers. It was fairly amazing to me to learn that that safety net isn’t there.”

Jewett’s partners in the labor complaint aren’t exactly singing a rousing chorus of “Union Maid” either. McNeely—who likes to quote Dain’s saying about the drawn-out NLRB process, “Slow justice is no justice”—is ready to move on. “There’s nothing to go back to,” he said. He and Dain count only four people remaining of the 18 who were in their Behavioral Health department when they formed the union. “I’m fearful for what’s left,” he concluded.

Dain, has a slightly more optimistic take on the outcome. Although their agreement allows Whittier to avoid culpability for the way they were fired, he believes they are vindicated because it points up the contradiction in Whittier’s public statements. “Their claim was that they needed to cut back on staff, unrelated to union activity,” he said. “Then why would you pay us off not to come back when you have all these job openings?”

As for the other problems the dispute highlighted—the high rate of clinician turnover, fraught management-staff relations, inconsistent patient care—it appears to be a matter of solving the legal issues while leaving the human ones raw. Yet, when asked if their fight was worth it, all three men give a qualified yes. For McNeely, because it can encourage “professional and knowledge worker groups” to organize, which he thinks is the future for unions. For Dain, “You keep up the struggle, even if you lose a particular battle.”

And for Jewett, who had staked so much on the success of the union? “Yes, it was worth it,” he agreed. “But it was much harder than I ever imagined.”

This blog was originally published at In These Times on July 30, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Nan Levinson is a journalist in Boston. Her latest book is War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built.

Arizona governor gets caught in a lie over Nike incentives controversy

Wednesday, July 31st, 2019
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) claimed this week that he never ordered the withdrawal of Nike factory incentives in his state, following the brand’s decision to pull a Betsy Ross flag-themed sneaker.

This was a lie — and the tweet in which Ducey announced that order is still up on his official account.

“I’d direct you to re-read the tweet,” the governor said Tuesday, when pressed by reporters on his decision to order the incentives withdrawal earlier in July. “Try to be accurate.”

Ducey suggested he had “advocated” for the move but had not ordered it.

Nike had initially planned to build a new manufacturing plant in Goodyear, Arizona, scheduled to open in 2020, which would create 505 jobs over three years. The company made an initial investment of $184.5 million into the plant, while the Arizona Commerce Authority said it was willing to provide a $1 million grant to help sweeten the deal.

In early July, Nike made the decision to cancel distribution of a Fourth of July-themed sneaker which was emblazoned with the Betsy Ross flag. The move came after former NFL quarterback, social-justice advocate, and Nike endorser Colin Kaepernick reached out to company officials to note that the flag had connections to slavery and white supremacy.

Conservatives, including Ducey, who went on a 2 a.m. Twitter rant on the topic, were outraged.

“Instead of celebrating American history the week of our nation’s independence, Nike has apparently decided that Betsy Ross is unworthy, and has bowed to the current onslaught of political correctness and historical revisionism,” he wrote. “It is a shameful retreat for the company. American businesses should be proud of our country’s history, not abandoning it.”

Ducey announced he would reverse the incentives previously promised to the company, as a result of its decision. “Nike has made its decision, and now we’re making ours,” he said. “I’ve ordered the Arizona Commerce Authority to withdraw all financial incentive dollars under their discretion that the State was providing for the company to locate here.”

Ducey’s fellow conservatives also criticized Nike’s decision as an example of over-the-top political correctness.

Ducey has wavered on the controversy since then. Two days after his initial rant against Nike, the governor was spotted wearing a pair of Nike shoes at a Fourth of July event. Ducey was also eager to promote the company a week after the online kerfuffle when Nike officially announced it would move forward with its Goodyear plant.

“This is good news for Arizona and for @GoodyearAZGov,” Ducey tweeted on July 11. “500 plus jobs. Over $184 million in capital investment. Arizona is open for business, and we welcome @Nike to our state.”

Ducey has become a close ally of Trump, vocally supporting the president’s decision earlier this year to declare a national emergency on the border. Trump also selected Ducey to sit on the national Council of Governors, a bipartisan advisory group. When Ducey visited the White House in June, Trump lauded the “fantastic job” the governor  was doing to help create jobs in his state.

“We hope that other states are going to follow Arizona’s lead,” Trump said. “You really have been at the forefront and we really appreciate that.”

This blog was originally published at Think Progress on July 31, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Luke Barnes covers politics and the far right. He previously worked at MailOnline in the U.K., where he was sent to cover Belfast, Northern Ireland and Glasgow, Scotland. He graduated in 2015 from Columbia University with a degree in Political Science. He has also interned at Talking Points Memo, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and Narratively.

Trump's 2016 'America First' energy speech was edited and preapproved by UAE and Saudi Arabia

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump was set to do a speech on energy in which he was going to start pitching the phrase “America First,” but before he went onstage to talk about his plans for American energy production, one of Trump’s advisers ran the speech past officials from the United Arab Emirates. And then copies were sent to Saudi Arabia. So it was America first—so long as the UAE and Saudis are okay with that. When he finally got around to sharing the speech with Americans, some of the language in Trump’s “America First” speech actually came from the UAE.

According to ABC News, it was Trump adviser Thomas Barrack who arranged to give representatives from the UAE a preview of the speech two weeks before Trump delivered it. An associate of Barrack’s provided the speech to both Saudi and UAE representatives, still before Trump had delivered it to Americans. Finally, Barrack worked with Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort to insert revisions made by the UAE into the speech that Trump actually delivered. Manafort wrote back to Barrack confirming that the final version of the speech included the language requested by the UAE.

Why is this coming to light now? Because investigators for the House Oversight Committee—the committee chaired by Rep. Elijah Cummings—have unearthed a trove of communications featuring Manafort, Barrack, and representatives from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Though Trump’s attack on Rep. Cummings appears to have been tied to a Fox News hit piece, the idea of going after the Oversight Committee chair might very much have already been on Trump’s mind.

The recommended language from Barrack’s UAE contact at one point included suggesting that Trump directly mention Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, but that apparently didn’t mesh too well with the screw-the-world tone of the speech that included Trump’s declaration that he would withdraw from the Paris agreement. The final speech included a toned-down version of the text requested by the UAE that said that Trump wanted to “work with our Gulf allies to develop a positive energy relationship as part of our anti-terrorism strategy.”

Barrack seemed to realize that this communication between the Trump campaign and a foreign government over the future of U.S. energy policy was problematic at best. In an exchange with Manafort, he noted that the language he was proposing to add to the speech was “probably as close as I can get without crossing a lot of lines.” Whether he’s concerned about crossing U.S. law, or crossing Mohammed bin Salman, isn’t clear.

Investigators for the Oversight Committee have collected more than 60,000 documents showing “intermingling of private interests and public policy decisions” by Trump both before and after the election. Some of this information was released in a report on Monday, and follows similar information released by the House in February after whistleblowers discussed these connections between the Trump White House and foreign governments.

The request to mention Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, along with the crown prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is of great interest. At the time of Trump’s speech, Mohammed bin Salman was not the crown prince. He wouldn’t assume that position until an internal “mini-coup” in 2017, immediately following Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Since then, Jared Kushner has made multiple trips to visit him, delivering to him classified information to use against his enemies. Trump has issued two vetoes of bills designed to halt arms sales used in Mohammed bin Salman’s expansive war in Yemen.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 30, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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

The First Labor Plans of the 2020 Race Just Dropped. Here’s What to Make of Them.

Monday, July 29th, 2019
Image result for Shaun RichmanIt was a tale of two cities’ mayors (with presidential ambitions) this week. South Bend, Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg and New York’s Bill de Blasio—the two active-duty mayors among the 20 Democratic presidential candidates still on the debate stage—released their labor and workers’ rights platforms.

Both mayors include fairly robust proposals to overhaul and modernize our nation’s main labor law, the National Labor Relations Act.

But that should no longer be considered good enough. Given that Congressional Democrats’ official proposal right now, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, essentially overturns the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, adds card check under some circumstances and imposes meaningful financial penalties for employers who violate their employees’ rights, woe to the candidate who doesn’t propose to outdo it. Only one mayor, de Blasio, breaks new ground with his proposal; the other, Buttigieg, offers a survey course of think tank white papers and moderate reforms.

I’m actually uncharacteristically optimistic that we may get the PRO Act—or something close to it—if the Democrats win big in 2020. However, we won’t end our country’s crisis of economic inequality and creeping fascism without a legal framework that puts workers’ rights and union power into every workplace on day one.

This may be hard for union leaders and activists who have been in the political wilderness for four decades to understand. Most of us have experienced begging for scraps like card check and banning permanent replacement scabs as the best we could expect Democrats to meekly fight for (and then fail to deliver). Now the stakes are higher, the essentiality of unions to working-class political education and voter turnout is obvious, and overturning Taft-Hartley is the consensus position of Democratic leadership across the political spectrum. Which means that putting the labor movement’s foremost political demand of the last 70 years in your platform is suddenly Not. Good. Enough.

Fine. This is Fine.

Buttigieg’s platform attempts soaring rhetoric with a preamble about “the verge of a new American era” calling for “a fundamentally new and different approach to fix our broken political and economic system.”

Good, fine so far. The solution, Buttigieg says, requires going “above and beyond existing legislative proposals like the ‘Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.’” But instead of doing that, Buttigieg’s labor platform goes sideways with extra footnotes.

He wants to plug holes in the law that allow employers to mischaracterize workers as independent contractors and fix the weak “joint employer” standard that allows large corporations like McDonalds to avoid bargaining with hundreds of thousands of their employees. He proposes to correct one of the original sins of the National Labor Relations Act by finally expanding its protections to farm and domestic workers (whose exclusion was a racist concession to Dixiecrats), and to improve upon the Act by imposing multi-million dollar penalties “that scale with company size” for violating workers’ organizing rights, giving unions a right to “equal time” on during election campaigns and creating a certification process for industry-wide bargaining.

He endorses the Paycheck Fairness Act and a host of other anti-harassment and gender discrimination bills that were already on the shelf, waiting for a government that will finally pass them.

He also has a pretty detailed proposal for paid sick and family leave. Actually, it’s virtually identical to Bill de Blasio’s proposal (which I’ll get to below), except that he must feel some supernatural neoliberal impulse to refer to it as “access” to those things. That’s a red flag for me. And if those of us who wave the red flag were to engage in a drinking game that called for doing shots every time a politician proposed “access” to a vitally important thing that should be a “right,” we’ll all be hammered for the duration of the primaries if we don’t die of alcohol poisoning first.

But, in general, Pete Buttigieg’s “New Rising Tide” labor platform is … fine. It’s clear that he got a lot of really good advice from a lot of the smartest people trying to tackle the problem of the legal restrictions on workers’ rights and the economic inequality that results from it. But it’s equally clear that he glommed on to the narrowest, most technical tweaks to a broken system and studiously avoided a more radical rethink of our labor relations system.

Buttigieg’s presence in the race as a media darling is slightly annoying. It’s as if the D.C. establishment convinced themselves of their own nonsense that the reason so many voters supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries was because he’s a white guy, and if only they could find a younger, charismatic white guy (with just a twist of diversity) that they can garner enough votes for the status quo ante.

It’s nice that he reads books (in self-taught Norwegian, no less!) and speaks “in lucid paragraphs.” But most of his actual contributions to the discourse–like every candidate who’s in the race to thwart popular demands to expand government services–wind up questioning the value of living in a society at all. Take his opposition to free college. “As a progressive,” he explained to an audience of undergraduates in Massachusetts, “I have a hard time getting my head around the idea of a majority who earn less because they didn’t go to college subsidizing a minority who earn more because they did.” There’s nothing remotely progressive about a “hOw d0 Y0u PaY fOR iT?” argument that could just as easily conclude, “Why have any public education at all?”

Bill de Blasio’s presence in the race is also annoying. He has no shortage of critics at home who point to our crises of mass transit, affordable housing and police accountability as  campaigns the mayor should be running to the state capitol to fix. But he also has an impressive track record of delivering wins for New York’s working families and, we learned this week, an impressively bold workers’ rights agenda for the nation.

The right to have workplace rights

De Blasio begins his 21st Century Workers Bill of Rights with an issue that’s near and dear to a lot of us here at In These Times: The Right to Due Process at Work. Simply defined, due process at work, or “just cause,” is the principle that an employee can be fired only for a legitimate, serious, work-performance reason.

In last August’s special issue, “Rebuilding Labor After Janus,” Bill Fletcher proposed a labor movement for just cause laws as a way to “end the tyranny of the non-union workplace,” one that “actively disrupts the strategy of corporate America and its right-wing populist allies.”

And in a recent piece marking ten years of the magazine’s Working blog, Jessica Stites noted that I’ve been using this platform to wage a lonely crusade on this issue for four years now.

Fellow ITT contributor Moshe Marvit and I carried that crusade into an op-ed in the New York Times in December of 2017. We were building support for an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act that then-Rep. Keith Ellison was drafting. (If any presidential candidates who are currently serving in Congress want to see a copy of that bill, slide into my DM’s…)

Although Ellison’s move to the Minnesota Attorney General’s office has momentarily orphaned a federal bill for a “right to your job,” the crusade was revived by a New York City Council push for fast food workers that progressive city council member Brad Lander is doggedly shepherding to Mayor de Blasio’s desk. (The bill’s true champion was SEIU local 32BJ’s recently departed and dearly missed president, Hector Figueroa.)

To be sure, de Blasio happened to propose my hobbyhorse. But the reason I’ve been arguing for Right to Your Job law is that it is a reform on another scale. It would increase the bargaining power and legal rights of every worker in America. It has the potential to put union representation in every workplace and gives unions new and creative ways to organize.

The rest of de Blasio’s platform is similar to Buttigieg’s except for one key distinction: A number of proposals highlight concrete improvements that the city of New York has made in the lives of low wage workers during de Blasio’s two terms as mayor.

Like Buttigieg’s, De Blasio’s labor platform includes a right to paid time off, including paid sick days, paid family and medical leave and the right to at least two weeks of paid vacation per year. Buttigieg proposes something similar, but de Blasio actually implemented a paid sick leave law that entitles workers to up to 40 hours a year of sick time, paid through an insurance fund.

De Blasio also proposes a fair scheduling law—modeled on one that fast food and retail workers won in New York—and a $15 minimum wage and new protections for gig workers.

Labor wants more!

Unlike many on the left who are in the “Bernie or Bust” crowd, I don’t have a horse in this race—yet. We’re months away from the Iowa caucuses and I won’t even have a vote in New York’s April 2020 primary (I’m registered in the Working Families Party).

But I’m enjoying the race to the left on policy, and watching candidates like Buttigieg reveal the emptiness at the heart of business-friendly centrism.

No one can doubt Bernie Sanders’ labor bona fides. He has been on the front lines of workers’ struggles for half a century, and the way that he has used his 2020 campaign infrastructure to lift up specific organizing campaigns and strikes and to use his bully pulpit to pressure massive corporations like Amazon and Walmart to raise their workers’ pay should be a model for all the candidates. But he is a blunt force instrument, and his indifference to policy details is frustrating on issues as complicated as how to restore the legal rights and collective power of workers.

Elizabeth Warren’s whole stock in trade is that “she has a plan for that.” As a Senator, she bucked the “think tank industrial complex” by developing a team of experts on her staff who reached out far and wide to progressive thinkers for policy ideas. Her staff have been picking the brains of In These Times writers on policies to tip the scales in favor of workers for years. She would enter office with a slew of policies to empower unions and worker centers to carry out the Robin Hood role the economy needs.

Any other candidate who wants to appeal to voters on labor issues has to propose bold solutions to even be noticed, standing next to Bernie and Warren. Pete Buttigieg has fallen short of that mark. Bill de Blasio has introduced a bold new workers’ right that no candidate was talking about. He’s earned your $3 donation to keep him on the debate stage, if only to ask the question: Why should your boss be able to fire you for no reason at all?

Update: Later in the day on July 26, Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) released the third labor planof the race. Like de Blasio’s, it includes just cause protections.

This article was originally published at In These times on July 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Authors: Kate Bronfenbrenner is director of labor education research at Cornell University, Chris Brooks is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes and Shaun Richman is a former organizing director at the American Federation of Teachers.

DoorDash changes its tip-stealing policy after outcry, this week in the war on workers

Monday, July 29th, 2019

Delivery app DoorDash decided to change its ways after getting some very bad publicity this week around its policy of taking tips that customers thought were going to workers. The way the policy went, “dashers” got a set rate for a given delivery, and if that rate was $6 and a customer tipped $4, well, the dasher still got $6 but DoorDash only had to pay $2. Now, tips entered in DoorDash will go to workers.

“The new model will ensure that Dashers’ earnings will increase by the exact amount a customer tips on every order. We’ll have specific details in the coming days,” the company’s chief executive tweeted. But the devil may be in those specific details, because Dashers aren’t convinced the company will do right by them.

On a forum for DoorDash workers on Reddit, some Dashers greeted the news with concern that DoorDash would simply pay them less to make up for the revenue it expected to lose after no longer being able to subsidize labor costs with tips.

“I’m worried that the orders will guarantee less now, but we get all the tips,” wrote a Reddit user named Dmillz648. “Meaning a previously guaranteed 10-dollar order might now only guarantee 5 bucks, and you get a 2 dollar tip, meaning you got 7 bucks for that order.”

If so many people who order delivery didn’t fail to tip, there’d be less of an issue (seriously, tip your delivery person!), but this is very much on the company as well.

Here are the tip policies of some other delivery apps.

 

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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

New Collective Bargaining Law Paves the Way to Worker Justice at Delaware DMV

Friday, July 26th, 2019

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After Delaware Gov. John Carney signed a bill to expand collective bargaining rights for public employees in June, workers have begun organizing at state agencies. Employees of the Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles voted last week to join Laborers (LIUNA) Local 1029, establishing a union there for the first time.

Gurvis Miner, business manager for Local 1029, said the organizing win was hard earned and well worth it.

“Employees at the DMV now have a voice on the job, and I commend the state Legislature and Gov. Carney for changing the law to expand our rights and making this all possible,” he said.

The new bargaining unit includes 340 workers at the DMV.

SB 8, the bill that provided these employees their new collective bargaining rights, was made possible through the diligent advocacy efforts of the Delaware State AFL-CIO and others. The law expanded collective bargaining rights for about 2,000 workers across the state.

“We congratulate LIUNA Local 1029 and all of the DMV workers, and we welcome these brothers and sisters to our growing labor movement in Delaware,” said Delaware State AFL-CIO President Jim Maravelias (LIUNA).

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on July 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Gillis is a writer at AFL-CIO.

 

Scalia’s challenge: Fiery old writings in a new era of #MeToo

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

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

Two decades before being nominated as President Donald Trump’s Labor secretary, Eugene Scalia was at war with the lion of the Senate.

In 2001, Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Democratic chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, expressed skepticism of then-President George W. Bush’s decision to nominate Scalia as the Labor Department’s top legal official. In his opening statement at Scalia’s confirmation hearing, Kennedy criticized a 1998 essay in which Scalia said that a form of workplace sexual harassment known as quid pro quo “should be eliminated as a functional category of discrimination” under the law.

But Scalia had a formidable ally: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice and close friend of fellow Justice Antonin Scalia, Eugene Scalia’s father. In a letter to the committee, Ginsburg said the younger Scalia’s essay was “written with refreshing clarity and style. It is informative, thought-provoking, and altogether a treat to read.”

“She thought very highly of him. Ruth appreciates good lawyering,” Bill Kilberg, a partner at Gibson Dunn who considers both Scalia and Ginsburg close friends, said in a phone interview.

Scalia’s strongly worded essay is among key pieces of his record set to resurface as he faces confirmation in a #MeToo world. His views aired in that hearing 18 years ago were just a small piece of a career-long commitment to conservative legal theory and a penchant for rhetorical flair that echoes his father — but also present a potential liability in the Senate, which is more discerning toward sexual harassment issues than it was two decades ago.

“The Senate’s changed dramatically in the years since that confirmation hearing occurred,” said Jim Manley, Kennedy’s press secretary at the time and later a senior strategist for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “What may not necessarily be a big deal then could be a big deal this time around. The people have changed and the issues have changed over the years, and he’s going to get some scrutiny on this.”

Scalia has represented a range of corporate clients in complaints related to workplace sexual harassment. As recently as 2015, he briefly worked for the global bank HSBC in a case involving current and former employees who accused a senior executive of repeated and unwanted sexual advances. Trump announced Scalia’s nomination last Thursday — a week after the ouster of Alex Acosta, who resigned amid scrutiny over his role in brokering a 2008 plea deal with wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, arrested in New Jersey earlier this month on new charges of sex trafficking.

Some liberal groups have already seized on Scalia’s prior writings, arguing they should disqualify him from serving in Trump’s cabinet. Allied Progress director Derek Martin said Scalia “may be a gifted legal mind, but his moral compass clearly needs some calibration.”

“The Senate should reject this nominee and demand a Labor secretary who will look out for all Americans in the workplace, not just the ones that sign the checks,” Martin said.

Scalia’s nomination was quickly celebrated by conservatives who see him as a warrior against regulations and a defender of business freedom.

“The confirmation process has gotten so silly that people will make something out of the most ridiculous things and attempt to block a nominee, but I will tell you that I know Gene Scalia would never tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace,” added Helgi Walker, a longtime colleague of Scalia’s at Gibson Dunn.

Scalia was narrowly approved by the Senate panel in 2001, despite the controversy stirred by his previous writings on sex discrimination. He was appointed to the position four months later during the Senate’s recess after Democrats, who controlled the upper chamber, refused to hold a confirmation vote.

The 7,000-word opinion piece, which Scalia published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, a common resource for conservative legal scholarship, was cited by the Supreme Court in Burlington Industries v. Ellerth, a case that sought to clarify the legal exposure companies face amid instances of sexual harassment. The decision came a little over a year after the justices decided Clinton v. Jones, another landmark case involving former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones’ sexual harassment claim against then-President Bill Clinton.

In the essay, Scalia does not endorse leniency for harassers. But he does argue that quid pro quo harassment, the illegal practice of soliciting sexual favors in return for professional advancement, shouldn’t be distinguished from generalized harassment in the workplace.

“His point was only that employers should be liable and you don’t need a new doctrine to make it liable,” Kilberg said.

Scalia declined to comment on the record. White House spokesperson Judd Deere said his “past experience in the federal government … makes him the right choice to lead the [Labor] department.”

“Eugene Scalia is one of the most experienced and respected labor and employment lawyers in the country, which is why President Trump has expressed his intent to nominate him,” Deere added.

Still, many of the passages in Scalia’s essay — though part of a larger and more complex legal argument — are likely to draw criticism from opponents.

“Saying ‘You’re an incompetent stupid female bitch’ a single time is not actionable environmental harassment,” Scalia wrote in one of his most emphatic lines. “Why should suit lie for saying ‘I don’t have time for you right now, Kim, unless you tell me what you’re wearing,’ a statement that Judge Flaum found to be a quid pro quo proposition in his Jansen opinion?”

Kennedy and his Democratic colleagues accused Scalia of arguing that employers should not be liable when executives or supervisors promise perks and promotions in exchange for sexual favors, or when they threaten adverse employment actions if a subordinate declines to engage in sexual activity.

“[Scalia] has said that employers should not be strictly liable in sexual harassment cases unless they expressly endorse the conduct of the harasser,” Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in his opening statement, according to a transcript of the confirmation hearing. (Kennedy died in 2009.)

To combat the onslaught of criticism from their Democratic colleagues, the panel’s Republican members frequently referred back to Ginsburg’s letter.

“I do not think she would have written that if she thought you were off the world somewhere in your views on that,” then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said of Ginsburg, whom he referred to as “the most ardent defender of women’s rights on the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Scalia ultimately overcame the controversy in 2001 and was approved by the Senate panel 11-10, with Vermont independent Jim Jeffords casting the deciding vote.

When Scalia started his new job, he boasted the essay as one of his top legal writings on the Labor Department website.

Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.

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

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

About the Author: Gabby Orr is a White House reporter for POLITICO. She previously covered Donald Trump’s ascension to power for the Washington Examiner, from the day he announced his campaign to his transition to the White House. She spent one month in 2016 embedded in New Hampshire, where she covered several Republican candidates prior to the state’s first-in-the-nation primary. Orr has also worked for The New York Post and Fox News’ digital platform. Originally from Sonoma, Calif., she graduated from George Washington University in 2015 with a degree in political science.

Maine Union Members Answer the Call on Path to Power

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

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Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1253 member Tina Riley never had any desire to get involved in politics until she was recruited to run for the Maine Legislature in 2015.

She knew it would be a challenging race. The district was traditionally a union stronghold, but it had been trending conservative in recent years due to a decline in union membership caused by union busting, layoffs and mill closures. But with strong union support and preparation, Riley said, she had the tools she needed to run her first successful campaign in 2016, narrowly winning by 57 votes.

Riley was instrumental this session in requiring the use of registered apprenticeship programs on larger renewable energy projects as a way to build good jobs in the energy sector and blocking attempts to weaken electrical licensing standards.

“The state employees union and the teachers union are quite visible to the Legislature. They’re focused on the kinds of jobs in which their members are engaged. Most people are less aware of how trade unions operate,” Riley said. “Sometimes legislators would speak disparagingly of short-term construction jobs. They needed to hear that thousands of construction workers depend on those jobs to feed their families—and they did hear it. And it changed their thinking at times.”

Riley herself came into the union through an IBEW apprenticeship nearly 30 years ago and has worked as a maintenance mill electrician as well as run her own contracting firm with her husband, who is a union worker at the Rumford Mill.

For union members considering a run for office, she encourages them to take the Maine AFL-CIO Worker Candidate Training as well as meet with party leaders and local legislators to learn about the job.

“I think it’s essential that we, as a legislature, be extremely cost-conscious, but foremost, we need to consider the overall well-being of the people we serve,” Riley said. “Good jobs, with good pay and dignified treatment by our employers, is a critical piece of that overall well-being, and it is always the union voice that brings that perspective to the table.”

When Rep. Scott Cuddy, an IBEW 1253 member, talks about the need for more labor voices in the Maine Legislature, he gets pretty passionate.

“You can serve in the Legislature,” he advises union members. “Every union member that I’ve met who has shown any interest in politics could absolutely do a great job in the Legislature. And I really hope they do, because there needs to be more of us.”

Cuddy knew he wouldn’t have an easy path to the Statehouse when he made the decision to run. After losing his initial race in 2016, he persisted and won his seat in the 2018 election. He had just started a night job installing lighting on the Bar Harbor Airport runway, but he was able to campaign during the day and take candidate training offered by the Maine AFL-CIO.

“It was actually the best job I could have had in terms of getting the time to knock on doors,” he said. “So by the time I was done with that, I was so happy when the election rolled along.”

Cuddy says union members bring a unique perspective to government in that they have a sense of class consciousness and understanding of the employer-employee relationship. He says that many union members are uniquely suited to legislating because they understand how to negotiate, so they can prevent bills from getting watered down in the political process.

Cuddy emphasizes that union members also can have a positive influence on their colleagues. He noted that while some legislators may not want to listen to a union staffer, they are more willing to hear from other legislators on important labor bills.

“A lot of decisions get made in the caucus room,” Cuddy said. “People stand up, they make their pitch, and when you have union members in the room who can talk about the importance of collective bargaining rights, it carries a lot of weight.”

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on July 24, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Gillis is a writer at AFL-CIO.

As the coal industry collapses, miners face losing their pensions

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Image result for molly taftJune, the Trump administration unveiled one of its largest environmental rollbacks to date: replacing the Obama administration’s  rule, which regulated carbon pollution from power plants. The rule had been a favorite target of President Donald Trump as he stumped on the campaign trail and held presidential rallies. “We’ve ended the war on beautiful, clean coal and we’re putting our coal miners back to work,” he said during a  in West Virginia last November.

But Trump’s promises to save coal have yet come to pass — and miners are becoming increasingly worried for their future.

This week, coal miners from across the country will visit Capitol Hill to demand that Congress protect their pension plans. The visit comes amid grim news for the industry.  have declared bankruptcy since October, with   going under in this month alone.

Coal workers, in turn, are pushing Congress to pass the , which would transfer federal funds into the troubled . But even if lawmakers figure out a solution for the problems plaguing the pension plan, it will be just the beginning of solving a larger issue. Thousands of retirees across the country are on the brink of losing healthcare and security in various pension and retirement plans as the industry takes a nosedive.

The pension plan dates to 1946, when the federal government  with the miners that required coal companies to provide pensions and health care for retired miners. In exchange, miners agreed to end a nationwide strike. The current formation of the fund was negotiated in 1974.

The fund guarantees  for working a dangerous job that often can take a serious toll on their health. But miners are now worried that guarantee won’t last. The fund lost  in the 2008 recession and took additional hits over the next few years after several coal companies went bankrupt. Since January, when Mission Coal went , only one of the original companies in the 1974 pension fund plan, , has been paying dues into the fund.

If lawmakers don’t stabilize the pension fund, the union expects nearly 100,000 miners will lose pensions and health care benefits around 2022. But if Murray Energy collapses, that could happen much sooner.

“If [Murray Energy] were to file bankruptcy — and a lot of coal companies are filing bankruptcy these days — the fund would collapse within a matter of six months,” said Phil Smith, director of communications and governmental affairs at UMWA. The 2022 expiration date, Smith explained, assumes no more coal bankruptcies over the next two years — an optimistic scenario. “We don’t believe we have that much time to wait,” Smith said.

Even if lawmakers shore up the UMWA pension plan, that will only cover some miners. Even more who belong to other pension plans negotiated by the union risk losing health care and retirement benefits as the industry plummets.

For nearly a year, miners at s mines in Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana have faced an uncertain future as the company, which does not contribute to the UMWA fund but does pay into a pension plan for its workers, goes through bankruptcy proceedings. In March, a bankruptcy judge ruled that the company  to freeze its current pension plan as it negotiated a contract with a buyer.

Companies often shed pension plans, health care benefits, and union contracts during bankruptcies, as they restructure and attempt to find new buyers. Bankruptcies also provide coal companies the opportunity to duck out of other financial liabilities, including environmental . This can free up money for costly executive payouts.

Bankruptcy filings show that Westmoreland  $10.2 million to executives in severance payments, salary bumps and bonuses a year before the bankruptcy, and short-shifted miners are calling foul.

“Coal miners, both underground and surface miners, are the hardest working people in America, and their safety and working conditions are the most dangerous in this country, with black lung, silicosis, and other breathing disorders, and from a safety standpoint, falling roofs, rocks, slips, falls, equipment mishaps, and working around beltlines, pulleys and other pinch points,” retired miner Jim Villos wrote in a  sent to the bankruptcy judge. “We, the miners, kept our end of the deal and Westmoreland needs to keep their promise, too!”

Over the past few years, coal companies in the West have largely  while Appalachian firms struggled, partially because western mines produce cleaner-burning coal that can be more easily mined. But now, even the western mines aren’t safe. And as Wyoming author Bob LeResche pointed out in a  in WyoFile, as the industry continues to collapse, companies are using bankruptcy proceedings to eke out money for those at the top while leaving miners without a safety net.

After the bankruptcy of a big coal company, LeResche wrote, those who move in to clean up the damage “will bleed the mines’ remaining assets and escape liabilities to workers, communities and the environment; liabilities that have accrued over decades. They tend to be litigious, and are not strangers to the world of serial bankruptcies and corporate manipulation. Their environmental records are seldom clean. These are not the operators and corporate neighbors one would normally invite into the neighborhood.”

As the 2020 election looms and conversation continues around the Green New Deal, the UMWA has invited presidential candidates to visit coal mines, where they will speak to  about their futures. What remains to be seen is how miners will cope with the death of their industry.

“The problem is bankruptcy laws are made for corporations,” UMWA’s Mike Dalpiaz  in March. “They’re made by rich guys in Congress for rich guys that own corporations.”

Molly Taft writes for , a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow her .

This article was originally published by Think Progress on July 24, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

FTC strikes $5B Facebook settlement against fierce Democratic objections

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Nancy ScolaSteven Overly The FTC on Wednesday officially unveiled its $5 billion data privacy settlement with Facebook — adding to the outrage of Democratic lawmakers and regulators who called the provisions far too mild to hold the social media giant accountable or deter future misdeeds.

In addition to the fine — by far the largest privacy-related settlement the FTC has ever won from a company — the agreement calls for Facebook to establish an internal privacy oversight committee, according to the agency, “removing unfettered control by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg over decisions affecting user privacy,” the FTC said in a statement Wednesday that came just as special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s long-awaited testimony in Congress was commanding people’s attention throughout Washington.

“The magnitude of the $5 billion penalty and sweeping conduct relief are unprecedented in the history of the FTC,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons when announcing the settlement. “The relief is designed not only to punish future violations but, more importantly, to change Facebook’s entire privacy culture to decrease the likelihood of continued violations.”

The settlement, though, does not hold Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, personally liable for privacy violations at the company. (The extent of Zuckerberg’s personal exposure under the settlement is a requirement that he certify to the FTC on a quarterly basis that the company is carrying out a privacy program for assessing and disclosing privacy risks.) And the $5 billion fine is far lower than the sum that agency employees had initially discussed seeking to collect from Facebook — a figure that could have been greater than $30 billion, according to a House Judiciary Committee aide briefed on the negotiations.

FTC officials “had been discussing a much more substantial fine, so I’m very disappointed” with the $5 billion figure, House antitrust subcommittee chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.) told POLITICO in an interview Tuesday.

Wednesday’s FTC announcement confirmed that the two commission’s two Democratic members, who favored stiff punishment for Facebook, had voted no when its five-person board approved the deal behind closed doors earlier in July.

Democrat Rohit Chopra explained Wednesday that he voted against the deal in part because of its treatment of Facebook’s top officials.

“It doesn’t fix the incentives causing these repeat privacy abuses. It doesn’t stop $FB from engaging in surveillance or integrating platforms. There are no restrictions on data harvesting tactics — just paperwork,” Chopra said on Twitter. “Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and other executives get blanket immunity for their role in the violations. This is wrong and sets a terrible precedent. The law doesn’t give them a special exemption.”

And the commission’s other Democrat, Rebecca Slaughter, said in a statement, “I believe we should have initiated litigation against Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The Commission would better serve the public interest and be more likely to effectively change Facebook by fighting for the right outcome in a public court of law.”

The FTC case, inspired by Facebook’s involvement in last year’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal, was widely viewed as a test for the agency and its Trump-nominated chairman, Joe Simons, on their ability to hold tech companies accountable for their privacy practices. But early rumblings about the outlines of the settlement in mid-July prompted Facebook’s stock price to jump — a sign that investors believe the company had escaped serious harm — and brought criticism from lawmakers of both parties.

Under the settlement, which binds the company for 20 years, Facebook agreed to restrictions on specific data-handling practices. The company, for example, may not use phone numbers collected from users for security reasons to advertise to them. And it must both make plain how it is using facial recognition technologies in its products and ensure that user passwords are encrypted.

Facebook, for its part, said the deal would reform how the company handles user privacy — while also making clear that it’s being held to a higher standard than other U.S. corporations.

Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch said in a statement, “The agreement will require a fundamental shift in the way we approach our work and it will place additional responsibility on people building our products at every level of the company.” Added Stretch, “The accountability required by this agreement surpasses current US law and we hope will be a model for the industry.”

But critics who believe the agency failed its test to make a tech giant answer for privacy failures may have to turn to Congress as their best hope for doing what they believe the Trump administration won’t.

“This fig leaf deal releases Facebook without requiring any real privacy protections — no restraints on future data use, no accountability for top executives, nothing more than chump change financial fines,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement. “This tap on the wrist, not even a slap, makes Congressional action all the more urgent to set strong privacy rules and enforce them vigorously.”

The FTC case was provoked by last year’s revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct political consulting firm that had worked for President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, gained improper access to information on tens of millions of Facebook users.

The scandal prompted additional federal action announced in tandem with the FTC’s settlement Wednesday. The agency also said it’s suing Cambridge Analytica after the firm, which is no longer in operation and filed for bankruptcy last year, didn’t settle allegations that it engaged in false or misleading behavior about its actions and lied about complying with the EU-U.S. privacy shield agreement, a legal safe harbor for transatlantic data transfers. In announcing the lawsuit, the FTC said further that it did settle with two central figures in the scandal — former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix and app developer Aleksandr Kogan — who agreed to accept restrictions on future business dealings and delete and destroy any personal data collected.

Separately, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced Wednesday that Facebook will pay $100 million to resolve charges that it withheld information about the Cambridge Analytica flap from shareholders. The company for more than two years failed to properly disclose that Cambridge Analytica had compromised Facebook user data, the SEC had alleged.

The FTC action against Cambridge Analytica drew unanimous support from the commission, throwing into sharper relief the partisan split on the larger move against Facebook itself. That divide echoes a broader dynamic of Washington in the Trump era, in which members of both parties have castigated abuses by the tech industry but Democrats accuse Republicans of taking actions that only further empower the moneyed giants of Silicon Valley. The president has pilloried the tech industry time and again, accusing Amazon of skimping on its taxes and ripping off the U.S. Postal Services, and alleging that Facebook, Twitter and Google censors conservatives. Yet none of the president’s critiques have resulted in action, and the industry has ultimately prospered under the administration’s 2017 tax overhaul.

And tech has spent recent years amassing an army of allies to try and ensure that its Washington fortunes remain rosy despite criticism from both sides of the aisle. Companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon have spent record sums bankrolling lobbyists, trade associations and think tanks with influence across the political spectrum — with Facebook and Amazon each spending more than $4 million on federal lobbying alone during the quarter that ended on June 30.

Some industry critics fear U.S. regulators remain outmatched by Silicon Valley’s deep pockets and technological savvy. Facebook alone is worth a half-trillion dollars and has nearly 30 employees for every one of the FTC’s.

Still, the FTC action could give new momentum to the efforts of lawmakers eager to check the power of big tech companies.

Members of both parties routinely condemn the data-collection practices of the big internet firms, and bipartisan negotiations are underway in Congress to develop a national data protection law. Despite early optimism on both sides, those talks have dragged on without results as partisan sticking points have emerged. In particular, many Democrats want a law to let Americans sue corporations over privacy failures, and they oppose any federal measure that would weaken privacy rules in California and other states.

The settlement, however, could help lawmakers break through their apparent impasse, giving Democrats — and the handful of GOP critics of the settlement, such as Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee — an even greater sense of urgency behind the need to get firm privacy rules on the books.

For now, the biggest privacy gauntlet that U.S. tech firms face is in Europe, where a sweeping privacy law enacted last year gives regulators the authority to impose multibillion-dollar fines over data violations. European regulators have faced accusations of failing to wield that power aggressively, but the law opens an additional dimension to the scores of EU investigations and massive fines that Silicon Valley firms have faced over issues like antitrust.

Trump has shown some signs of favoring a European-style approach. Asked in a June CNBC interview about the market power of U.S. tech giants, the president suggested following Europe’s lead.

“They get all this money,” he said. “Well, we should be doing — they’re our companies. So they’re actually attacking our companies. But we should be doing what they’re doing.”

John Hendel and Zachary Warmbrodt contributed to this report.

This article was originally published by Politico on July 24, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Nancy Scola is a senior technology reporter for POLITICO Pro. For more than a decade, Scola has covered the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy for a wide variety of outlets. She has served as a tech policy reporter for the Washington Post, a contributing writer at Next City, and a tech and politics correspondent for the Atlantic. As a freelance writer, she has contributed to the Atlantic, Washingtonian, Reuters, and many other publications.

Scola grew up in northern New Jersey and is a graduate of both the George Washington University and Boston University, with degrees in anthropology from each. She lives in Capitol Hill.

About the Author: Steven Overly covers technology policy and politics for POLITICO with a special focus on the industry’s effort to influence decisions in Washington. He previously spent seven years as a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. Steven holds a degree in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s degree from Columbia University, where he studied as a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economics and Business Journalism. A native of the Washington metro region, Steven currently resides in the District.

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