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Trump appointees hand McDonald’s a win in labor case, this week in the war on workers

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Donald Trump’s conflict-of-interest-plagued National Labor Relations Board handed McDonald’s a big win in the fight over whether the company shares responsibility for workers and working conditions in most of its restaurants. The board allowed a $170,000 settlement between McDonald’s franchisees and workers, overruling an administrative law judge who had said the settlement was inadequate.

The lone Democrat on the NLRB dissented, saying that the judge “reasonably exercised her discretion to reject settlements that fail to resolve the joint-employer status of McDonald’s, and instead serve to advance the policy view of the current General Counsel, who has attacked the Board’s current joint-employer standard at every opportunity as he litigated this case brought by his predecessor.”

Under Trump, the NLRB has moved to let companies like McDonald’s off the hook as a joint employer of workers who work in their facilities but on paper are employed by franchisees, temp services, or other third parties. McDonald’s notoriously exerts tight control over every detail in its restaurants, including details about workers, yet claims not to be their employer when it comes to labor law violations and other problems. And the Trump NLRB agrees.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on December 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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Bosses Are Charged with Breaking the Law in Over 40% of Union Campaigns

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Labor unions are more popular than they’ve been in over 15 years. Yet a record-low number of workers belong to them. The gap between the public perception of unions and their actual membership illustrates just how difficult it’s become for workers to organize.

In a new report, the progressive think tank Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found evidence that employers are increasingly brazen in seeking to obstruct workers’ attempts to unionize. Records of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees private-sector labor rights and union elections, reveal that in more than 40% of the 3,260 union elections during 2016 and 2017, employers have been charged with unfair labor practices aimed at undermining electoral procedures and retaliating against pro-union workers.

About 30% of unfair labor practice (ULP) charges analyzed by EPI involved allegations of threats, surveillance or harassment of workers. Another 30% involved allegations of illegal discipline, with one in five elections marred by the charges of illegally firing workers for supporting the union. Workforce size is a factor: the highest rate of ULP claims—more than 50%—was seen among firms with potential bargaining units of 61 workers or more. The anti-union actions occurred at a higher rate during the two-year period than during the early 2000s.

This pattern of union busting could help explain why private-sector unionization has dwindled to just 6.4% in 2018. Ben Zipperer, co-author of the report, told In These Times that the study suggests “the hostile atmosphere towards labor, or basically the employer aggression against workers trying to form unions, is the main obstacle.”

In one case of election-related ULP claims, workers at Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, who sought to unionize with UNITE HERE in 2016, just ahead of Trump’s election, charged their employer with a number of retaliatory actions, including tightening supervision or increasing the workload of some employees, and “disparately enforc[ing] its new Grooming Policy” to coerce targeted workers into changing their hair color.

Although EPI does not cover the outcome of the cases (charges are often dropped and litigation might drag on for years), the prevalence of ULP charges is telling. It’s likely that the employees who file a formal legal charge represent only the fraction of workers who have the resources and wherewithal to wage a legal battle with their employer. After all, the most successful union-busting campaigns may be the ones that never come to light because the workers have been thoroughly suppressed—or ousted.

“Employers pursue a variety of tactics that would otherwise be illegal or unfair, that never make it to the charging stage,” says Zipperer, “because it’s a very difficult and lengthy process with little reward for the worker at the end.”

Filing an unfair labor practice charge is the basic tool that workers have to hold employers to account under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). To protect workers’ right to organize and maintain the integrity of union elections, under the law, employers cannot threaten to shut down a plant, or fire workers or take away their benefits if they seek to unionize. Bosses are barred from coercively interrogating workers about their union activities, or attempting to spy on them. The NLRA also broadly prohibits employers from discriminating against workers who support unionization—for example, by demoting or laying off workers who promote unionization to their coworkers.

While the NLRB should act as the central arbiter of labor relation, the agency has little leverage over employers that engage in union-busting. Typically, even if a company is proven to have acted illegally, the NLRB cannot force it to pay damages, beyond back wages and reinstatement. On top of those structural barriers, the current Republican majority on the NLRB ensures that whatever cases do go before the Board, there is a good chance they will result in an anti-worker ruling.

The overarching weakness of the NLRA is what it does not cover. Employers are free to deploy various anti-union tactics on their worksites, including broadcasting arguments against unionization and launching smear campaigns against the “third party” union organizers who threaten to undermine the workers’ relationship with their boss.

The market for anti-union tactics has given rise to a cottage industry of union-busting firms. Overall, EPI estimates that companies pour an estimated $340 million every year into “union-avoidance” consultants. Among the top spenders are Nestle, Fedex, Mission Foods and Trump International Hotel Las Vegas. The anti-union consultancies specialize in flooding workplaces with propaganda as well as orchestrating so-called “captive-audience” meetings, in which companies pressure workers to attend anti-union lectures.

Allegations of intimidation, retaliation and disinformation are at the center of recent clashes at GoogleHousing Works and Johns Hopkins University Hospital—a purportedly progressive tech giant and two nonprofits—where workers have accused their employers of using dirty campaign tactics to crush union drives.

The current unionization drive by Hearst employees has prompted the company’s executives to set up a microsite featuring pointedly biased explanations of the consequences of unionizing, according to Vice. Workers were warned, “All terms of pay, benefits, and working conditions would be up for discussion. No one can guarantee in advance what that contract would include.”

Last April, Labor Notes reported that at a captive-audience meeting at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, workers were bombarded with pro-business messaging from Gov. Bill Lee, who sang the praises of Volkswagen for bringing jobs to the state and telling workers it was best to “have a direct relationship” with the automaker, free of union interference.

While some aggressive anti-union practices are perfectly legal, EPI notes that the NLRA’s protections for workers’ organizing rights can be strengthened simply by giving the law real teeth. The recently introduced Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would create civil penalties for abusive employers, ban captive-audience meetings and allow workers to press unfair labor practice claims in civil courts, rather than just the NLRB.

“One of the simplest things that we can do,” Zipperer said, “is we can actually make labor law matter by attaching meaningful and significant penalties to employers when they violate that law.”

Under the current legal framework governing union elections, the fact that unions remain so popular in public opinion surveys shows that despite the hostile political climate, workers still believe in the power of collective action. Imagine what might be achieved if labor law stopped getting in the way.

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.


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Why Did Democrats Give Trump a Win on NAFTA 2.0?

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On Tuesday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that Democrats had reached a deal with the Trump administration to advance the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), also referred to as “NAFTA 2.0.” In explaining the deal, she said: “There is no question of course that this trade agreement is much better than NAFTA.”

Progressives have criticized Pelosi for potentially handing President Trump a political victory during both an impeachment process and an approaching election. After all, Trump ran on the promise that he would renegotiate NAFTA and now it seems that, with help from the Democrats, he will. That could mean more GOP votes in swing states that have been wracked by the damage of the original NAFTA deal. “It does appear that if Trump gets a win on this new NAFTA, his chances of reelection go up considerable,” wrote The Intercept’s Ryan Grim. “He can say he delivered on his promises, and that Democrats don’t really think he’s that corrupt after all, or they wouldn’t have delivered him such a major victory.”

For her part, Pelosi appears to believe that the deal might ultimately be beneficial for moderate Democrats at election time, and many House Democrats certainly seem happy with the final version of the agreement. “You know what I’ve said: These have been the fights,” Pelosi reportedly told party members during a caucus meeting after the agreement was secured. “And we stayed on this, and we ate their lunch.”

The political implications of USMCA remain to be seen and, since the final text of the agreement hasn’t yet been released, it’s hard to assess its full impact. But we already have a pretty good idea of what kind of relief it will supply for workers: not much. A report by economists Thea M. Lee and Robert E. Scott at the Economic Policy Institute concedes that USMCA is a big improvement from the 2017 version, but concludes that it ultimately adds up to “Band-Aids on a fundamentally flawed agreement and process.”

Using statistics from the U.S. International Trade Commission, Lee and Scott point out that, at best, the deal will only create about 51,000 jobs over the next six years and could raise the GDP by a few tenths of a percentage point. These potential jobs would come in farming, manufacturing and mining. The report cites an International Monetary Fund (IMF) working paper which predicts nothing but bad news for the (already beleaguered) auto-industry. That same paper concludes that, “At the aggregate level, effects of the USMCA are relatively small…effects of the USMCA on real GDP are negligible.”

Trump continually referenced the devastating impact of NAFTA on the campaign trail, while arguing that it desperately needed to be renegotiated. However, the new agreement does nothing to reverse the damage. While USMCA might generate 51,000 jobs, NAFTA eliminated over 680,000 of them.

Still, USMCA was ultimately endorsed by the AFL-CIO, which also infamously supported the construction of the Keystone pipeline and has criticized the Green New Deal. Not only did the AFL-CIO back the agreement, its President Richard Trumka was instrumental in securing an agreement between Democrats and Republicans.

piece detailing the negotiations by Politico’s Megan Cassella reveals that Pelosi refused to move the agreement forward unless Trumka signed off on it. She knew that an endorsement from the group would give pro-labor Democrats enough cover to come out in support of it. “I think everyone would acknowledge that Trumka is key,” working group member Rep. John Larson (D-CT) admitted during the process.

Cassella reports that Pelosi ultimately had Trumka come to Congress to assure lawmakers that he was on the verge of supporting the deal. Ultimately, he got on the phone with Trump and after the president agreed to think about moving a pension bill forward, Trumka slapped the deal with an AFL-CIO endorsement.

At least one AFL-CIO member isn’t waiting for the final text to decide whether or not the agreement is worth supporting. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) released a statement declaring its opposition to the agreement, citing the fact that it does nothing to stem the outsourcing of jobs abroad. “Our ability to comment in detail on this agreement is impaired because in the rush to consider such a proposal, we have not even been given the opportunity to review the full agreement in writing,” said the group’s International President, Robert Martinez Jr. “U.S. workers have been waiting for over 25 years for a responsible trade deal that puts their interests ahead of corporations who are fleeing our shores. They are still waiting. The IAM will oppose NAFTA 2.0.”

Robert E. Scott, co-author of the aforementioned EPI report, told In These Times that IAM’s opposition to the deal wasn’t surprising based on what NAFTA has done to the industry. “The aerospace has been hard hit by outsourcing to Mexico,” said Scott, “Their members are very concerned. I don’t think there’s anything in there for them. Very transactional deal.”

While Pelosi worked diligently to pass USMCA, she’s failed to move a robust pro-labor bill forward in the House. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) was introduced in May by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA). The bill would make it easier for workers to join unions, extinguish right-to-work laws, crack down on union-busting, address employee misclassification and provide new protections for collective bargaining. The bill already passed the House Committee on Education and Labor earlier this fall.

“I don’t know exactly what the holdup is—it is taking longer than it should given the number of co-sponsors that we have,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) told The Intercept’s Rachel Cohen earlier this month, “Many other bills have come to the floor with fewer co-sponsors than this one.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 11, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: “Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria.


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Even in Bankruptcy, Coal Companies Can’t Stop Selling Out Workers

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After key environmental protections were rolled back by the executive order of President Donald Trump in March 2017—including the Obama-era Clean Power Plan—coal magnate Robert E. Murray cheered the news. “I think it’s wonderful, not just for the United States coal industry, our miners and their families, but it’s wonderful for America,” said Murray, then-CEO of Murray Energy, the largest privately owned coal company in the United States. Murray had aggressively lobbied for the rollbacks, and In These Times published photos of his secret meeting, earlier that month, to deliver a four-page rollback wish list to Energy Secretary Rick Perry. It was sealed with a hug between the two.

Murray has portrayed himself as a champion of coal miners against environmentalists. “I live among these people,” he told the Guardian just before Trump signed the order. “These are the people who fought the wars and built our country and they were forgotten by Democrats who had gone to Hollywood characters, liberal elitists and radical environmentalists.”

But Murray Energy’s 2019 bankruptcy filings tell a different story. Authored by Murray’s nephew and new CEO, Robert Moore, they point to other coal companies that “used bankruptcy to reduce debt and lower their cost structures by eliminating cash interest obligations and pension and benefit obligations.” Reneging on workers’ hard-earned pensions and benefits has left competitors “better positioned to compete for volume and pricing in the current market.”

The language suggests Murray Energy intends to follow the example of companies like Westmoreland Mining and Blackjewel, using bankruptcy to evade coal miners’ healthcare and pension costs. In a particularly dastardly case, in 2007, Peabody Coal created Patriot Coal, a doomed-to-fail spinoff company, and dumped 10,000 retirees there; they lost their pensions after Patriot promptly filed for bankruptcy. But these bankrupt companies still manage to make good on their debts to banks and hedge funds.

Gary Campbell, 37, a member of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and worker at the Murray Energy-owned Marion County Coal Company in West Virginia, is scared for fellow workers who have retired. “The retirees are too old to go back to work,” Campbell says. “So what happens when they can’t afford their house payment or car payment or medical bill? They’re being thrown to the curb. It’s horrible to see people treated like this.”

There’s no question that coal workers face an uncertain future, but a phaseout of coal is a necessity: Coal is the highestcarbon-emission fuel source. A 2015 study found that to prevent the worst effects of climate change, the vast majority of fossil fuels—including 92% of U.S. coal reserves—must stay in the ground. That precarity will be felt most by the poor and working class who, unlike Robert E. Murray, won’t be able to retire to a secluded mansion when heat and natural disasters threaten their homes.

The way to champion coal workers is not to save the industry from environmental regulation, as Murray would like us to think, but to ensure a just transition from a fossil fuel economy—something coal companies have no interest in, but environmentalists and labor unions do. The Green New Deal resolution put forward in February 2019 by Rep. Alexandria OcasioCortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) calls for the United States “to achieve netzero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.” Such a shift could bring coal miners dignified, union jobs in another sector—whether it’s coal cleanup, renewable energy, public transportation, healthcare or another field.

Stanley Sturgill, a retired UMWA coal miner and climate justice activist, advocates a just transition away from fossil fuels as part of a Green New Deal. “As far as a just transition, the only way to look at it is you have to find something equal or better paying than [the jobs] they’ve got right now,” Sturgill says. And it will be workers, not companies, who become the critical leaders in this process.

The just transition can start immediately: Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and a vocal supporter of the Green New Deal, has repeatedly called on climate activists to support the 2019 American Miners Act (AMA), supported by UMWA. It would protect the pensions of more than 100,000 coal miners whose retirement fund was depleted by the 2008 crash and rescue the healthcare of miners whose companies went bankrupt.

The AMA is only a first step. In a just world, a full transition would include not only the dignified union jobs called for by the Green New Deal resolution, but shut down the coal companies and redistribute their assets to workers before they can go bankrupt and abandon their obligations—or further harm the climate.

At the very least, the Robert Murrays of the world should be recognized for what they are: enemies of the working people who, as Campbell puts it, “made them their fortune.” Coal companies treat their workers just as they treat the earth: something to extract value from, then discard.

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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Pelosi brokers deal with liberals on drug pricing bill

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Sarah FerrisAdam CancrynHouse Democratic leadership on Tuesday clinched a deal to win progressive leaders’ support for a sweeping drug pricing bill that could clear its path for passage in the full House on Thursday.

The pact between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and progressive leaders includes an agreement to expand the government’s authority to directly negotiate drug prices under the legislation, ultimately requiring federal officials to hammer out the cost of at least 50 medicines a year, from the original 35.

“We’re likely to see the minimum number lifted, probably to 50,” said Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, a member of Pelosi’s whip team. “My impression is that progressives will be good on this.”

Top Democrats are also restoring a progressive provision previously cut from the bill that would mandate the federal government eventually issue regulations restricting drugmakers’ ability to raise prices above the rate of inflation in workplace health plans, the largest source of coverage in the country.

The House Rules Committee later Tuesday night approved, 8-3, the rule that sets up debate on the bill, putting it on track for floor consideration. The panel also permitted a separate vote on Republicans’ bill, a measure GOP lawmakers have championed this week as a bipartisan alternative.

The chamber’s liberal wing had threatened to stall Pelosi’s bill if she refused to make a series of last-minute changes to the legislation, throwing the fate of Democrats’ top health care priority into doubt.

But the two sides brokered a tentative resolution this afternoon during a closed-door meeting that included Pelosi and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-leaders Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.).

Jayapal called the deal a “huge win,” adding in a statement that “it shows what we can do when we stick together and all push hard for the American people.”

The changes represent a major victory for progressive leaders following a rare public showdown with Pelosi. They also come just one day after Pelosi and other senior Democrats warned progressive members against taking a hard-line stance on the bill.

Democratic leaders had long resisted making changes to the legislation that would push it further to the left, in part due to fears it could cost support from the dozens of moderate lawmakers key to keeping control of the House.

Many of those Democrats campaigned on lowering drug prices, and had pressed for weeks for a vote on the drug bill before the end of the year — while also warning against any last-minute efforts to make it more ambitious.

Yet top Democrats enraged progressives last week after eliminating the language authored by Jayapal that would have expanded certain price restrictions into the private sector, sparking talk of a rebellion aimed at tanking a procedural vote needed to put the bill on the floor.

In public, Democratic leaders this week expressed confidence that the bill could pass as originally written, insisting that it already represented “transformational” step toward slashing drug prices and that liberal lawmakers’ opposition would eventually collapse.

But Democratic leadership internally took the prospect of mass defections seriously, discussing it at several closed-door meetings on Tuesday.

Before leadership altered the bill, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told reporters Tuesday she would vote no on the legislation without changes. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, an outspoken critic of the bill as far too timid, had also previously threatened to vote against it. And progressive leaders in recent days warned they had enough votes to stop the key Democratic priority in its tracks with just days left on the congressional calendar this year.

Few if any of the chamber’s Republicans are expected to support the package, and it won’t get any traction in the GOP-controlled Senate. The White House on Tuesday issued an official veto threat against the House bill.

Sarah Owermohle contributed to this report.

This article was originally published by the Politico on December 10, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Ferris covers budget and appropriations for POLITICO Pro. She was previously the lead healthcare and budget reporter for The Hill newspaper.

A graduate of the George Washington University, Ferris spent most of her time writing for The GW Hatchet. Her bylines have also appeared at The Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Raised on a dairy farm in Newtown, Conn., Ferris boasts a strong affinity for homemade ice cream, Dunkin Donuts coffee and the Boston Red Sox.

About the Author: Adam Cancryn is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro. Prior to joining POLITICO, he was a senior reporter for S&P Global Market Intelligence, covering the intersection of money, politics and regulation across the financial services and insurance industries. He’s also written for The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires, and got his start at the Philadelphia Business Journal.

Adam is a graduate of Washington & Lee University and a proud New Jersey native.


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Economy Gains 266,000 Jobs in November; Unemployment Down Slightly to 3.5%

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The U.S. economy gained 266,000 jobs in November, and the unemployment rate was essentially unchanged at 3.5%, according to figures released Friday morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In response to the November job numbers, AFL-CIO Chief Economist William Spriggs tweeted:

 

Last month’s biggest job gains were in manufacturing (54,000), health care (45,000), leisure and hospitality (45,000), professional and technical services (31,000), transportation and warehousing (16,000) and financial activities (13,000). Mining lost jobs (-7,000). Employment in other major industries—including retail trade, construction, wholesale trade, information and government—showed little change over the month.

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for teenagers (12.0%), blacks (5.5%), Hispanics (4.2%), adult men (3.2%), whites (3.2%), adult women (3.2%) and Asians (2.6%) showed little or no change in November.

The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) declined in November and accounted for 20.8% of the unemployed.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on December 10, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.


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Is It Time To Regulate Or Nationalize Facebook?

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Image result for thom hartmann

I was oblivious to the real significance of Facebook in everyday life until the company disabled my personal, private thomhartmann account. The list of “possible” reasons they posted for doing this included “impersonating a celebrity,” so maybe they shut me down because they thought I pretending to be that guy who’s a talk show host and author. (Facebook, if you’re reading this, I am that guy.)

It’s also possible somebody at Facebook took offense to my interviewing Judd Legum around that time about the groundbreaking research he’s been publishing over at popular.info pointing out the right-wing slant Facebook’s corporate management and founder have taken. Fact is, though, I have no idea why they did it.

When they first disabled my account and asked me to upload my driver’s license (which I did at least seven times over several weeks), I figured it was a mistake. Then, a month or two ago, they delivered the final verdict: I was out. I could “download” all my information if I wanted before they finally closed the door, but even when I tried to create a new account using my personal email address, they blocked my attempt saying that I already had a (disabled) account and thus couldn’t create another.

My first response was to say, on the air, the truth that I only checked Facebook once a week on average, and only followed close friends and my widely scattered relatives, having configured my personal account to be as private as possible. I figured I could do without knowing what my cousins’ kids, or my nieces and nephews, were up to; I could just call them or send them Christmas cards, after all. And the Salem International private group of international relief workers I was a member of could keep me up to date through our email listserv.

What I’ve discovered in the weeks since, particularly when one of my Salem friends in Germany was badly injured in a car accident last week, is that I was shockingly reliant on Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends. As the Joni Mitchell song goes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Which raises for me the question—has Facebook gone from merely being a destination on the internet to something so interwoven in our lives that it should now be considered part of the commons and regulated as such?

Is it time to discuss taking Facebook out of private, for-profit hands?

Or, alternatively, is it time for the federal government to create a national town square, an everyperson’s civic center, to compete with it?

The history of Europe and the United States, particularly throughout the 19th century, often tells the story of how wealthy and powerful men would congregate in exclusive membership-only men’s clubs to determine the fate and future of governments, businesses, and even local communities. You’ll find them woven into much of the literature of that era, from Dickens to Doyle to Poe.

Because these clubs had strict membership requirements, they were often at the core of governmental and business power systems, helping maintain wealthy white male domination of society. The rules for both initial and continuing membership were typically developed and maintained by majority or even consensus agreement of their members, although the homogeneity of that membership pretty much insured that women, men of color, and men of “lower” social or economic status never had a say in public or private institutional governance.

Then, at the cusp of the 20th century, things changed.

The Panic of 1893 crashed over 600 banks, closed 16,000 businesses, and pushed one in five American workers out of a job. That, in turn, provoked a strong progressive backlash in the United States, including a celebration across the nation when, following the 1901 death of President McKinley, his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, came out publicly as a progressive himself.

The first decade and a half of the 20th century saw an explosion of progressive reforms, best remembered as the time when Roosevelt and progressive Republican President Taft (who followed him) engaged in massive trust-busting, breaking up America’s biggest monopolies to make room for local, small, and medium-sized businesses to grow.

An often-overlooked phenomenon that also spread across the nation during that era was the creation of egalitarian, public civic centers, usually built and owned by local or regional governments.

While men’s clubs still were places where the brokers of great power and wealth could congregate and socialize (and still are today), these new publicly owned and open-to-all (or, until the 1960s, open-to-all-white-people) civic centers replaced the much smaller and less comfortable public parks and private pubs as places where average citizens could socialize, strategize, and form political movements at no cost.

Heavily used (along with public schools—many states passed laws authorizing their auditoriums to be used as civic centers) by progressive political movements like the suffragists, these public squares became an essential building block of movement politics.

Today, the public dialogues and even local or regional discussions about local and national politics have moved from the men’s clubs (1700-1900) to the civic centers (1901-1990s) to the internet. And the largest host of them is Facebook.

While Facebook is currently embroiled in a controversy over whether it’s wrong for it to allow Trump’s political advertising that contains naked lies, the debate over fully or partially nationalizing the platform has gotten much less coverage.

But it’s an important issue and deserves more attention. Facebook was so critical to Donald Trump’s 2016 election efforts, for example, that his Facebook manager, Brad Parscale, has been elevated to managing the entire Trump 2020 effort—again, with Facebook at the center of it.

Political change flows out of public dialogue.

The American Revolution would probably never have gotten off the ground were it not for public meeting places—the most famous being Sam Adams’ tavern. Similarly, churches open to the public (although privately owned but regulated on a nonprofit basis) were the core of the 20th century’s Civil Rights movement.

Facebook has, for millions, replaced these public places—from pubs to churches to civic centers—as a nexus for social, cultural and political interaction. As such, it’s come to resemble a public communications utility, a part of the natural commons.

When radio achieved the equivalent of four hours of “face time” a day for the average American, in 1927 and 1934 we passed comprehensive regulation of the industry to prevent the spread of disinformation and mandate responsible broadcasting practices.

Similarly, our nation’s telephone systems have been both nationalized (during World War I) and repeatedly heavily regulated since 1913 to ensure users’ privacy and prevent the exploitation of customers by “Ma Bell.”

Facebook has, for many Americans, become a primary source of news as well as a social, political, and civic activity center. It controls about a third of all web traffic.

If starting from scratch, it would be hard to imagine such a central nexus for such critical interactions without envisioning it as a natural commons, like a civic center or broadcasting service.

The company’s control of that commons in ways that invade Americans’ privacy and disrupt democracy have been so egregious that Senator Ron Wyden, one of America’s most outspoken digital privacy advocates, has openly speculated about sending Mark Zuckerberg to prison. As Senator Wyden and others point out, we regulate radio, TV and newspaper advertising; how did Facebook get a free pass when they have a larger “news” reach than any other medium?

One solution is to regulate Facebook like a public utility. Alternatively, the federal government could take majority ownership of the company—or fund an alternative to it—so it or the government version of it can be run not just to enrich executives and stockholders but, like the Ma Bell of old, to also serve the public good.

At least in the days of Ma Bell, I had access to a phone regardless of my politics, and the company couldn’t sell access to the contents of my phone calls.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

This article was originally published at OurFuture on December 10, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Thomas Carl Hartmann is an American radio personality, author, former psychotherapist, businessman, and progressive political commentator.

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Will The 2020 Contenders Take On Inequality?

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This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on December 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: A veteran labor journalist, Sam Pizzigati has written widely on economic inequality, in articles, books, and online, for both popular and scholarly readers. Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.


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The Food Stamp Work Requirement Is a Scheme to Punish Hungry Americans

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Growing up in Boonville, California in the 1990s, a friend of mine would sometimes jokingly use the phrase “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” If people are feeling bad, what better incentive to change their mood than getting repeatedly whacked with a stick?

The recent proposal by Congress to add work requirements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) reminded me of that phrase. In the 2018 Farm Bill currently under consideration in the House, Republicans have proposed new conditions for SNAP that would block many people from receiving food assistance if they are unemployed. While at first glance this may appear like a policy to encourage greater employment, it would actually make it harder for people to find a job, while taking away crucial support from more than one million hungry Americans.

While setting more unemployed Americans on a path to employment and economic self-sufficiency is a positive goal, the threat of withholding food is a highly ineffective way to encourage workforce participation. Some of the most common barriers to employment are insufficient education or skills, mental health issues, hiring biases and a lack of job opportunities. Fear of not having enough to eat does nothing to overcome those obstacles.

When people are hungry, they’re frequently unable to focus, which makes it harder for them to get a job, not easier. Instead of boosting employment, this proposal would act as a barrier rather than an incentive.

The actual impact of this policy change would be to punish hungry Americans. In many regions of the country, people are struggling to find full-time work, but can’t. While the overall unemployment rate sits at a low 3.8 percent, the rate of involuntary underemployment is more than twice that, and exceeds 10 percent in many states and counties. This proposal would leave those who are unable to find a job with neither income nor food assistance.

Instead of adding poorly-designed restrictions to SNAP, we should be pursuing evidence-based policy changes to increase the effectiveness of our social programs. As someone who works on universal basic income policy, I’ve spent years studying the effects of unconditional benefits, i.e. what happens when you offer people support without any requirements on their behavior. Every analysis has arrived at the same conclusion: When you give people benefits without strings attached, they use them for productive purposes. The vast majority of people want to do well in life, and they’ll make the most of any support they receive.

When we layer on restrictions and bureaucratic hoops that recipients must jump through, not only does this not improve people’s behavior, it actually blocks many people from receiving much-needed support. Even without the new work requirements, SNAP already has many barriers to access that make it difficult to enroll. In California, the latest estimates finds that only 70 percent of eligible residents receive SNAP benefits—due in large part to the challenging enrollment process.

SNAP has a profound positive impact on hungry families. Beyond just providing food security, recent research has found the program reduces healthcare costs and increases economic self-sufficiency for women who received benefits as children. We should be striving to boost participation by removing onerous participation requirements, with the goal of ensuring that every hungry American has access to the program.

Our social safety net is far from perfect—there are many needed changes that can help lift more people out of poverty and set them on a path for long-term success. But if we want to do better, we should aim to remove barriers to access, not punish struggling Americans by taking food assistance away from those who can’t find work.

This piece was originally published at In These Times on June 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at [email protected].David Moberg has worked with In These Times since its inception in 1976.  During that time, he has established himself as one of the country’s leading journalists covering the labor movement.

As a senior editor for In These Times, Moberg has written about new battlefronts for labor, examined the past and present strategy of the labor movement and profiled many labor fights before they were covered in the mainstream media. Additionally, his areas of expertise encompass globalization and trade, economic policy, national politics, urban affairs, the environment and energy.

Moberg has been awarded numerous accolades for his journalism efforts, including the Max Steinbock Award from the International Labor Communications Association, (2003); Forbes MediaGuide 500: A review of the Nation’s Most Important Journalists (1993, 1994), and a Project Censored Award in 1995. He has also received fellowships from organizations such as The Nation Institute (1999-2001) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (1995-1997).

Moberg has also written for The Nation, The American Prospect, The Progressive, Salon, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune Magazine, the Chicago ReaderChicago, The New Republic, Dissent, L.A. Weekly, World Policy Journal, Newsday, the Boston Globe, Utne Reader, Mother Jones, and others.

Moberg has also contributed to a series of books including: Appeal to Reason: 25 Years of In These Times (Seven Stories, 2002); The Next Agenda (Westview Press, 2001); Which Direction for Organized Labor? (Wayne State University Press, 1999); Not Your Father’s Union Movement (WW Norton & Company Inc., 1998); Can We Put an End to Sweatshops? (Beacon Press, 2001); Making Work Pay: America After Welfare (WW Norton & Company Inc., 2002); The New Chicago (to be released); Encyclopedia of Chicago History (2004), and others.

In addition to his work at In These Times, Moberg has taught sociology and anthropology at DePaul University, Roosevelt University, Loyola University, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and Northeastern Illinois University.


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Building Power And Raising Voices Of Rural Women

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Here in North Carolina, like many other rural areas around the country, reactionary forces have used trends like the decline of jobs, infrastructure, and public services to consolidate power, advance racist and misogynist narratives, and erode public confidence in the power of government to work for the common good.

The impact is real: every day, people in rural areas of North Carolina get sicker, die sooner, and have less access to what they need to thrive than their counterparts in the rest of the state.

Women in rural communities are most affected by these crises. And we are uniquely positioned to be a key part of the solutions.

For rural women in Appalachia, life is a juggling act of caring for family, friends, and community. The many different roles that rural women play in their communities and organizing spaces can be woven together like the quilts that have been beautifully crafted by the women before us. For as long as I can remember, my Nana and Granny and Mimi and all the women in my life have been the pillars that hold up their loved ones and hold folks together — raising the children, keeping everyone fed and clean, and carrying the traditions of our history.

In the past decade, the right wing capitalized on a void in North Carolina left by the lack of progressive investment in rural and small-town communities. Where progressive organizing might have offered working-class residents of rural counties opportunities for engagement, white supremacist and neo-Confederate groups stepped in. Today, progressive community organizing led by rural women is emerging as a tool to keep one another alive through times of desperation and struggle.

Down Home North Carolina, part of the People’s Action network and a founding member of the Rural Women’s Collaborative: Uniting Across Race and Place for Racial and Economic Justice, is organizing working people to grow democracy and improve the quality of life, so that our grandbabies inherit a state that is healthy and just. We are shifting what’s possible in rural America by building the feminist leadership of rural women and promoting values of inclusion in communal life, interdependence, care for the elderly, love of earth and humanity, dignity of all work, and protection of the vulnerable.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. What I have noticed from the rural women in my life is that they come together as a village to care for one another. They know what it means to be stronger united, to put their brains and bodies together to do what needs to be done to keep moving forward with all the weight that they are carrying.

In the 1970s, the women of Harlan County catalyzed the multi-gender, multi-racial solidarity and civil action that won recognition for striking coal miners. In the 1960s, it was Ollie Combs, a rural woman, who laid her body on the line in front of a bulldozer to save the foundation of her family’s livelihood and led to the first stripmining legislation. It was rural women like Judy Bonds who risked everything to pioneer the fight against mountaintop removal.

Today in Down Home Alamance County, the story of our rural women looks like Robin Jordan, who lost her daughter in 2018 because she didn’t have access to the healthcare that she desperately needed. Robin fights to protect families across North Carolina from experiencing the loss that she had to go through, while she — like many rural women I know — raises her granddaughter.

In Down Home Jackson County, the rural women’s story looks like Kellie Smith, who still has her waitress apron tied around her waist from working her 8th shift trying to catch up on rent after relentlessly searching for jobs in a depleted market for months, but who shows up anyways because there’s nothing left to lose and “we can’t afford to keep sitting around not doing anything.”

The story looks like Carrie McBane, who despite facing the views against her as an “outsider” for the brown hue of her skin, still pushes against the struggle to communicate with her neighbors and to build bridges across her community because “we are all stronger when we work together.”

In Down Home Haywood County, the story of rural women is painted by Natasha Bright, who brings her two kids with her to organizing meetings after spending a whole day working full-time to support her family and her husband, who is a veteran. Natasha, who doesn’t have health care for herself, fights for her community because “no one is going to fight for us.”

Building on these legacies, our Radical Hope Fund grant has allowed us to invest in the feminist leadership of a multiracial cohort of rural women to lead transformative campaigns bridging urban and rural communities across race and gender, while restoring democracy, confronting corporate abuse, and helping build models of community control of the economy.

Rural women have served as the educators, healthcare givers, nurturers, and fighters for our community for generations. Now the women of Down Home are carrying forward this torch.

This piece is part of the NoVo Foundation’s Radical Hope Blog Series, a platform for social justice movement leaders from around the world to share learning and insights, hear what’s working and what’s not, build solidarity, and spark opportunities for collaboration. Amid daily headlines of division, this blog series is intended to serve as an active and dynamic beacon of hope, possibility, connection, and healing.This piece was published by the AFL-CIO on December 4, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 


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