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THINK YOUR RIGHTS ARE SAFE? THINK AGAIN…

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Julia Roberts has delivered a lot of great lines. One of my favorites is from Erin Brockovich: “By the way, we had that water brought in specially for you folks. Came from a well in Hinkley,” she tells the alarmed corporate lawyer about to take a sip.In the movie, Roberts’ character meets with moms, dads, and children who’ve become sick after the local utility let poisons leak into their small town’s drinking water. “You want their diseases?” she asks after rattling off a list of people affected by the spill.

Roberts’ character helps the people of the town band together to sue the company. This type of lawsuit—called a class action—has been used by Americans of all stripes for the past 50 years to fight back when an unethical business or unjust government policy is making them sick, cheating them of their money, or otherwise screwing them over.

But now, because of corporate special interests and their influence over some members of Congress, class actions are in grave danger of becoming a thing of the past.

Late in the evening on Feb. 17, when the rest of us were distracted by Trump’s latest tweet, a bill got served up in Congress that would sound the death knell for class actions. Through a long list of new rules (that sound almost innocent to the non-lawyer, but are anything but), the bill would make it so class actions essentially become extinct. The House is set to vote on this bill (H.R. 985, the misnamed “Fairness in Class Actions” bill) next week, probably on Wednesday, March 8.

I work at a small nonprofit that supports David v. Goliath type cases like the one in Erin Brockovich. Some of the cases are famous—think the 21st century equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education or the multi-state case against Big Tobacco. Others you’ll probably never hear about, but they fight against injustice (and win!) for groups who too often have no power: foster kids, immigrants, Native Americans, the sick, and seniors.

Without this essential check in place, our delicately balanced system would tip over and land with a heavy thud onto the side of corporate special interests. Sure, the vast majority of businesses are ethical and most government policies are fair—but what about when they aren’t? What about when the poisons in the groundwater give us cancer, or when our employer refuses to promote women because they have this annoying habit of getting pregnant, or when our bank creates a bunch of fake accounts or cooks the books or destroys our retirement in some other new way they’ve dreamt up? What would we do then, if class actions were impossible?

We could still sue individually, but that assumes anyone could afford to foot the legal bill. Do you know how much it costs to hire your own lawyer for a lawsuit like this? $10,000? That barely gets you started. $100,000? Maybe. But if your case stretches on for a decade, as some cases do, try over $1,000,000—what with depositions and electronic discovery to conduct, motions to dismiss to fight off, and appeals on top of appeals on top of appeals.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a million dollars (or even one-tenth that) to devote to suing anybody. Right now there is no line item in my family’s budget for “lawsuits.” So basically, in a no-class-action future scenario, if I get screwed over by a company or the government, there will be absolutely nothing I can do about it. This would be a huge win for anyone itching to start their own Ponzi scheme, but a terrifying disaster for the rest of us.

Listen, I understand. There are a lot of crazy things going on right now, and we’ve all got a lot to worry about. But this is important. We all need to stop reading this article and immediately call/email/fax our Congressional representatives and tell them to vote NO on H.R. 985.

Otherwise, when the excrement hits the air conditioning (thanks to Kurt Vonnegut for that delicate phrasing), we regular Americans will have no power to fight back. And call me cynical, but there sure does seem to be a lot of excrement flying around these days. This is no time to allow our elected officials to take away one of our most significant tools of self-protection.

I hope I never have to band together with thousands of my fellow Americans to sue a corporate giant or branch of government, but I most definitely want to retain the right to do so.

Click here to find out more about H.R. 985 and what you can do to stop it.

This blog originally appeared on impactfund.org on March 2, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Amy Daniewicz is the Grant Program Administrator at the Impact Fund. Prior to working at the Impact Fund, Amy worked in a similar capacity for the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, where she managed grants supporting children in the Austin community. Prior to that, Amy worked as a non-profit communications director, an entrepreneur, and a blogger. Amy holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas at Austin and a bachelor’s degree in English from Trinity University. Amy’s favorite joys in life are spending time with her husband and three children, making and eating good food with friends and family, and enjoying the beauty of nature.


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House GOP’s Bill to Eliminate Nearly All Class Actions Would Encourage More Ponzi Schemes & Other Corporate Cheating

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There was a lot of national attention when Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme collapsed and it became clear that he had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from investors around the country. Many thousands of stories were written about how he went to prison, the SEC investigated both the scheme and how the scheme had been able to go on so long, and a number of private lawsuits tried to recover money for investors from various people who enabled his scheme.

But in all of the coverage of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, I never saw a single story that said “this is actually good for the free market; what we really need is for Congress to try to block lawsuits that would let investors recover their money from the crooks and discourage these schemes.”

A couple of years later, enter Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-Corporate Lobbyist Heaven), with his ironically titled “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act,” which passed through the House Judiciary Committee two weeks ago. Its passage was a remarkable feat of avoiding public notice or debate, with Goodlatte ramming through the legislation in the middle of the night, voting down all amendments along party lines, and refusing to even hold a hearing on the bill, which had at least ten new provisions never included in the previous version passed by the Committee.

Now, the bill is expected to be voted on by the full House next Tuesday.

Goodlatte’s bill was drafted by corporate lobbyists to eliminate the vast majority of class action lawsuits. It would roll back protections for defrauded investors, cheated consumers, people whose privacy has been violated, small businesses harmed by price fixing, workers cheated by wage theft, and pretty much anyone harmed in any way by corporations that break the law.

The legislation has been opposed by nearly every major civil rights organization in America (including Public Justice, the public interest law firm which I head), nearly every major consumer advocate in the nation, the Committee on Rules of Practice & Procedure of the Judicial Conference of the United States (America’s federal judges see the abuse of separation of powers of this ham handed meddling in the ways courts operate), the normally very business-oriented American Bar Association (business lawyers have joined with lawyers for individuals in seeing the mischief here; after all, many small businesses will be harmed by this bill), and numerous academics (their letter are available here, here and here).

Among other things, the lawsuits it would wipe away include cases against Ponzi schemes. While Madoff may have been the biggest corporate criminal in that field, a number of other crooks have cheated American investors in Ponzi schemes, and class action lawsuits have repeatedly successfully recovered investors’ money.

In McGrew v. Harris Bank, for example, a case pursued in Washington State, a successful class action recovered more than $14 million for investors cheated in a Ponzi scheme. Similarly, in Getty v. Philip Steven Harmon, lawyers for investors identified a key person responsible for this scheme who was affiliated with SunAmerican Securities, Inc. – which knew or should have known that securities laws were being violated. The suit recovered more than $5 million for cheated investors. Under Rep. Goodlatte’s bill, these investors almost certainly would have been out of luck. (The legal explanation is set out in painful detail in the letters attached above in this piece.)

Corporate lobbyists might say this pair of successful class actions taking on Ponzi schemes are anecdotes. For people who like data, though, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau did a careful study of 400 class actions against banks and payday lenders. In those cases, the CFPB found that more than 13 million customers received more than $2.7 billion in recoveries. One of the many lies that Congressman Goodlatte likes to say about class actions is that they don’t actually help cheated consumers, and instead just enrich the lawyers. But the CFPB study of the actual results in these class actions against lenders found that the total attorneys fees in the cases amounted to 16% of the gross relief received by the consumers.

It’s hard to tell right now whether this bill has any serious chance of becoming law. A much milder, more competently drafted version of the Bill was opposed by 17 House Republicans in the last Congress, and never moved in the Senate. Presumably every, or nearly every, Senate Democrat and some moderate Republicans will vote against a bill that would (among other things) make it impossible to bring most lawsuits that offer relief when corporations pay female employees less than male ones, or protect the public from defective products. But the emboldened corporate lobbyist class has spent a lot more money to try to move the bill in this Congress.

The best way to ensure this terrible bill gets blocked is if a large number of Americans contact their legislators and urge them to vote to defeat it.

This time around, we can’t count on President Obama’s veto pen. President Trump has not said anything about the bill one way or the other. We can only hope he might feel constrained by his often-repeated promises not to side with corporate lobbyists against regular Americans, and decide not to sign this monstrosity if it does make it to his desk. But we can’t rely on that scenario, either, and need to stop this bill before it makes its way to the White House.

Rep. Goodlatte’s timing is less than ideal, too. He’s trying to eliminate class actions just a couple of months after the revelations that Wells Fargo had cheated two million of its customers by creating false and unauthorized credit card and checking accounts in their names. That news came not long after Volkswagen was caught rigging its pollution control devices not to work (after prominently advertising to consumers how environmentally friendly its cars were), and a short time after hundreds of thousands of American consumers got refunds or had their homes repaired as a result of class actions, following the discovery that defective Chinese dry wall was damaging their homes. It’s an odd time for the House Republican leadership to decide that Americans should not be able to pursue their rights against corporations that break basic consumer protection, employment and securities laws.

Battling big business can be a herculean task in today’s Congress. Yet it is essential that every American understand the direct, and damaging, impact this particular legislation will have on countless consumers.

This bill isn’t about “fairness.” It’s about giving a gift to corporate lobbyists on Capitol Hill.

This blog originally appeared in Huffington Post on March 2, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Paul Bland, Jr., Executive Director, has been a senior attorney at Public Justice since 1997. As Executive Director, Paul manages and leads a staff of nearly 30 attorneys and other staff, guiding the organization’s litigation docket and other advocacy. Follow him on Twitter: .


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Interviews for Resistance: The March 8 Strike Is About Building Feminism for the 99%

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Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: I am Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. I am the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and an assistant professor of African American studies at Princeton University.

Sarah Jaffe: You were one of the original people who called for a women’s strike on March 8th. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Keeanga-Yamahtta: The idea for the women’s strike actually didn’t originate in the United States, but it is a call in solidarity with women organizations from 30 different countries who put out a call for a strike on International Women’s Day, March 8th. This is our effort at trying to explain why it was important that American feminists sign on to this call and really try to be a part of this movement that is trying to, in this country, part of our intention is to bring politics back to International Women’s Day by turning it into a political event, by highlighting the ways that women continue to suffer from misogyny and sexism in the United States and to give concrete descriptions of that.

But also, the strike is about highlighting the ways that “women’s work” or “women’s labor” is at times unseen. It can be undervalued, underpaid. The strike is about drawing attention to that by, in effect, extracting those many different manifestations of women’s labor on March 8th to highlight the extent to which women’s labor continues to play a central role in the political and, I would say, social economy of the United States.

Sarah: The call to strike that you co-authored talks about building a feminism for the 99%. Can you talk a little bit about what that means?

Keeanga-Yamahtta: I think part of what we were reacting to—there are a couple of things. Part of the reaction is against the prevailing notion of “lean-in feminism,” which has been a popular idea, most notably in support of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president. The idea that the last frontier for women to challenge are these glass ceilings that block the ascension of women in electoral politics or in corporate America. I think for us, that actually is not the last frontier for ordinary and working-class women. The traditional shackles on poor and working-class women are still in effect and actually have to be responded to and attended to. The feminism for the 99% is about rejecting that idea that women are only or primarily concerned with their role in the elite male world, but that there are still very basic issues, such as access to reproductive healthcare, access to abortion, wage differentials. Black women make $0.63 for each dollar that white men make, for example, which, of course, is lower than the usual barometer that people use, the $0.78 to the dollar that white women make. Black women make substantially less than that.

There is still the issue of childcare. There is no access to public or state funded childcare. The attacks on public education. The attacks on the public infrastructure. All of these have disproportionate impact on the lives of women. On a very basic level, we need a feminist politics that responds to these issues as the most urgent. I think we saw that the outpouring around the January 21st protest showed that there is actually quite vast support for a resurgent feminist movement. Part of our objective is to argue for a certain kind of radical politics within that and not for a political agenda that is quite limited and has these kind of narrow goals about the social mobility of women within corporate America as a sole objective.

Sarah: Some of the women’s strikes that we have seen just in the past year have come around explicit attacks in different countries. Can you talk a little bit more about the connection with these other international women’s movements and the connection back to the history of International Women’s Day?

Keeanga-Yamahtta: I think probably the most well-known example involves the women’s strike in Poland in response to the attempt of the state there to impose a ban on abortion. I think that it shows the power of political protest, political demonstration, as opposed to the usual default of embroiling oneself in the formal political process. That was a powerful example. I think the women’s mobilizations, women-led mobilizations for abortion rights in Ireland have helped to create the conditions where there is an actual struggle for, not just abortion rights but to access to birth control. There are other examples of organizing in Argentina and South Korea and Italy where it is really about women trying to harness their social power outside of the electoral realm, through street demonstrations and organizing to fight for what I would consider to be basic rights.

It does really harken back to the origins of International Women’s Day, which, of course, have become lost over time. It has become this odd Hallmark holiday that has no connection to its radical roots. International Women’s Day came out of a demonstration of working class and poor women in Petrograd in Russia in 1917 in opposition to the first World War, to end the first World War and to fight for the redirection of resources out of war back into the lives of regular people. The slogan was, “Demonstration for Peace and Bread.”

Sarah: Talk about the organizing that is going on to make the strike happen and the connection with the Women’s March organizers.

Keeanga-Yamahtta: The organizing has been fast and furious because we have a limited amount of time before March 8th. There is some local organizing happening. I know there have been on-the-ground meetings in Philly and New York and Chicago and Berkeley, Pittsburgh, and other places that have called organizing meetings, but on a national level I think it was an important development that the organizers of the Women’s March—there is one person who was part of that organizing team who has been an active participant in the women’s strike organizing. There was an agreement that we would work together.

The women’s strike national coordinating committee has been working with the Women’s March, the January 21st organizers, in terms of trying to put out some joint statements in trying to bring attention to the women’s strike, but also, they are planning what they refer to as “A Day Without A Woman” also for March 8th, which has a different set of politics and a different platform than the women’s strike, but there is a sense that it is better to work together and try to combine our forces than to call a bunch of separate days of action. That is how we have proceeded.

Sarah: Many of the people, including yourself, that are involved with the call for a women’s strike are socialists. Can you talk about the role of socialism and socialist feminism in this country after the 2016 elections?

Keeanga-Yamahtta: At a very basic level, there is an understanding that the problems experienced by women in our societies today are rooted in an economic system that privileges the 1% over the 99% and that sometimes we think of women’s issues unto themselves, but really these are issues that arise out of an inherently unequal economic arrangement in this country. The fact that women make less, that women don’t have access to childcare provisions, that women don’t have access to reproductive healthcare. They are not just economic questions, but they are related to an economic arrangement that relies on the free labor of women to, in fact, reproduce itself as a political system.

In some ways, as this economic inequality, people have really been talking about with greater specificity and focus since the eruption of the Occupy movement in 2011, that within that context, those unequal economic relationships have disproportionate effect in the lives of women. I think that in this past election where you literally have a billionaire who has made his money through exploiting loopholes in the system and who has sort of ascended to the political top through his abusing women and his visceral sexism and hatred of women—it is not surprising given the centrality of sexism in Donald Trump’s campaign that the very first protests have been organized by women, mostly attended by women, that have become a focal point of the resistance movement.

Sarah: You wrote a wonderful book about the Black Lives Matter movement, putting that in historical context. I wonder what your thoughts are in how that movement is changing and shifting under Trump.

Keeanga-Yamahtta: I think that Trump put Black Lives Matter as a movement and the activist organizations affiliated with it in the crosshairs early on. I think his entire posture around law and order was created in opposition to Black Lives Matter and what he called a climate that was anti-police. That has had a particular impact. For the President of the United States and his supporters to refer to political activists and the political movement as terrorists, which they have done around Black Lives Matter, means a particular thing in the security state atmosphere of the United States.

I think it has put activists on the defensive and in some ways has created a situation where people have almost become internalized, meaning that they are looking inside of their organizations to figure out how to, perhaps, tighten things up and how to politically respond to Trump. It is understandable, but I think we are at a moment where now is the time to look outward and connect with other groups of people who are experiencing some of the same attacks.

There has been a lot of discussion about solidarity and what that looks like. In this climate, it has to look like the collaboration and coordination between groups of people who have all of the interest in the world in working together. So, police abuse and violence is not just an issue affecting African American communities, but that we have seen very early on that Trump is trying to expand the powers of the police, expand the responsibilities of the police, and in doing so, putting other groups of people in the crosshairs.

Obviously, the attacks on the undocumented and the attempts of the Trump administration to deputize police officers in the efforts to roundup undocumented immigrants, the attacks on Muslims and Arabs, also calls on greater powers of the state and its armed agents to do that. These create an almost natural alliance of people to stand up against policing and police abuse.

I think what all of this means is that we need a much bigger movement to confront the police. We need a movement that tries to connect the issues and by doing so, is actually connecting activists and putting people together to build the largest possible resistance. That also has to be connected to the other attacks that are coming from the Trump administration. That it is not just about policing, but it is also about how this lays the foundation for an attack on organizing, resistance organizing, opposition organizing, in the first place, by empowering the police to be able to have expansive and intrusive powers. It creates a problem for all of us.

I think there has to be a great effort among folks from Black Lives Matter and other organizations that have been at the center of fighting these things to make these connections with other groups for the sake of expanding the movement, while also preserving the space and understanding that these policies continue to have a disproportionate impact in black communities, but understanding that we need a much bigger movement to win.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. 

This article was originally printed on Inthesetimes.com on February 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.


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Trading Rules for Workers

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President Donald Trump met with a bunch of CEOs at the White House last week, prompting the same old, tired and untrue round of assertions that America lost millions of manufacturing jobs because of automation, regulation, illegal immigration and lack of education.

The real culprit is globalization – fostered by a series of bad trade deals. That’s not what the CEOs talked about, though, mainly because a huge portion of them already have moved factories from America to low-wage, high-pollution countries.

Bad trade is, however, what President Trump talked about constantly on the campaign trail. He repeatedly assured cheering crowds he would stop corporations from offshoring factories. A new report from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation proves his diagnosis was right – bad trade caused the vast majority of the job losses. He was right when he said the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal and NAFTA had to go. Offshoring CEOs are trying to bamboozle the administration about the cause of job loss to prevent President Trump from keeping his promises to industrial workers.

And those CEOs are wrong about automation. Robots didn’t do it. They didn’t kill 5.7 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010. That’s the bottom line in research published this month by Adams Nager, an economic policy analyst for the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation and in another report by economists Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute.

If robots were responsible, then manufacturing productivity would have grown substantially during that period, as fewer people would have been needed to perform the same work. But that didn’t happen. Manufacturing productivity actually declined. It was 25.8 percent in the 1990s and dropped slightly to 22.7 percent between 2000 and 2010.

During that decade of lower productivity, manufacturing job losses were 10 times greater than during the 1990s. Those massive losses could be attributed to robots only if productivity had risen dramatically.

Mishel and Shierholz put it this way in their report: “We need to give the robot scare a rest. Robots are not leading to mass joblessness and are not the cause of wage stagnation or growing wage inequality.”

Undocumented immigrants didn’t take those lost manufacturing jobs either. Those jobs disappeared from the United States. No one in America has them, documented or undocumented. In addition, the vast majority of undocumented aliens work in low-paid agricultural, cleaning and food service jobs, and their share of the work force has declined since 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.

Regulation-kills-jobs is another trope CEOs cite incessantly. They brought it up again in their meeting Thursday with President Trump. They want to neglect their duty to protect air and water from toxic industrial pollutants. They want to disregard the health and safety protections established to prevent workers from dying on the job or from job-induced illnesses. And they certainly want to ignore the safeguards that enable workers to organize and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions.

The government, they contend for example, has no right to oversee corporate use of toxic chemicals that can kill workers and neighboring community members because those protections cut into profitability. To CEOs, it’s always profits before people.

In addition, CEOs say American workers are just too stupid to work in manufacturing. Some CEOs told Trump there are hundreds of factory job openings, but not enough qualified workers to fill them.

One CEO complained, for example, that most high school graduates lack the math and English skills necessary for his company’s apprenticeship.

These CEOs didn’t offer to provide the remedial skills. They didn’t step forward to pay for the training they say workers don’t have. They want the government – that is taxpayers – to foot the bill. That is the same taxpayers who CEOs say should not get government protection from toxic manufacturing chemicals.

If CEOs would raise the pay for manufacturing work, more workers might be willing to invest in training themselves. Most of those high school graduates who the CEOs derided possess sufficient math skills to perform the cost-benefit analysis on self-training. They have figured out that paying $25,000 to $100,000 in tuition to a technical school to get a low-pay, no-benefits job that a corporation may ship offshore at any time does not add up.

Still, the CEOs called American workers stupid.

These workers, unlike the CEOs, know the truth. They know what killed their jobs. It was bad trade deals and violations by exporting countries like China. They saw the likes of Carrier, Caterpillar and Dana, whose CEOs attended Trump’s manufacturing meeting Thursday, close American factories and open them in other countries. They know that many countries, but particularly China, disregard international trade regulations then dump artificially underpriced products on the American market, killing U.S. manufacturing jobs.

The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation study provides the statistics to back up workers’ experience. “It is important to recognize how global competition contributed to upwards to two-thirds of the manufacturing jobs lost from 2000 to 2010,” the author Adam Nager, wrote. During that time, he said, “China ramped up its mercantilist policies – from currency manipulation to forced intellectual property transfers and government subsidies – all of which hurt U.S. manufacturing employment.” All of which also violate trade rules.

The day after his meeting with CEOs, President Trump repeated the promise he made many times on the campaign trail: “the forgotten men and women of America will be forgotten no more.” This was compelling to manufacturing workers who had lost their jobs and felt their plight was ignored.

But these workers know from bitter experience that CEOs don’t have their best interests in mind. They know the problem with the TPP and NAFTA is that they were drafted by CEOs for the benefit of CEOs and 1 percenter shareholders. Workers never got an equal seat at the negotiating tables.

They know that Donald Trump listened to 24 CEOs on Thursday but not one manufacturing worker.

Just like with TPP and NAFTA, it matters who is giving advice. Just like with bogus trickle-down economics, the advice given by CEOs doesn’t trickle down to benefit workers on the line. It only bubbles up to line executives’ pockets.

Workers need a seat at the table when the new rules for trade and restoring American manufacturing are written.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on February 28, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.


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