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Democrats in Congress Should Rethink a Health Insurance Deal That Would Be Terrible for Many Americans

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Congress must act decisively to ensure Americans get needed health care in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, both to promote public health and to reduce viral spread. But one Democratic proposal is a massive giveaway to private insurance companies with few redeeming qualities.

Richard Eskow - The Ring of Fire Network

This proposal would require the federal government to cover the full cost of COBRA, a continuation of employer-based coverage for people who have lost their jobs or who are furloughed. Because COBRA is for ex-workers, employers do not contribute to its cost. Instead, people on COBRA are typically required to pay their entire health insurance premium, which now averages around $20,000 a year for a family.

While the government would pay COBRA premiums, this proposal still requires workers to pay out-of-pocket costs that could add up to thousands of dollars.

This approach is inequitable, expensive, and not targeted to addressing the public’s health and safety. It should be set aside in favor of direct payments to doctors, hospitals, and other providers who deliver care to those in need.

Having the government cover COBRA premiums would lock in existing health inequalities. It would not help people who worked in jobs that did not provide health care coverage or who otherwise did not have access to employer-based insurance. And, if you had employer coverage and your employer offered you a low-cost HMO with limited access to care, for example, that’s all this proposal would pay for. But if you were a highly paid employee at a hedge fund and had excellent coverage that cost twice as much, this proposal would pay for your more expensive coverage.

This plan commits tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to private health insurers, regardless of the quality or price of the coverage they offer. That is not where our public resources should be going.

And, to repeat, this proposal does not cover the high out-of-pocket costs that come with most work-based coverage. To get care, people need to be able to afford the deductibles and copays. But, even pre-coronavirus, one in four Americans with insurance went without care because they couldn’t afford these costs. Forty percent of Americans didn’t have $400 in the bank for an emergency. Today, with no steady income, more people have fewer resources and will be forced to forgo care even with COBRA.

Furthermore, this proposal does not make budgetary sense. If enacted, Congress would be paying tens of billions of dollars more for people’s coverage than it would if the federal government paid directly for their health care through Medicare, as Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Pramila Jayapal have proposed.

Why is Medicare less costly? Medicare’s administrative costs alone are more than 10 percent lower than private insurance. Medicare also reins in provider payment rates.

Paying providers directly through Medicare has additional advantages. It treats everyone equally, ensuring that all of us will get the care we need. People can see any doctor they choose. And, there are no financial barriers to care.

Moreover, covering care through Medicare provides real-time data on the scope of COVID-19 through a single electronic billing system, which is sorely lacking today. This data has helped other wealthy countries contain the spread of the virus and effectively deploy resources where they are needed.

The government picking up the tab for COBRA coverage should be seen for what it is: A handout to the health insurance industry. It rewards health insurers who offer inefficient, low-quality, high-cost health plans. And, it does far too little to ensure people get needed care, much less contain COVID-19.

Earlier in April, AHIP, the trade association for the corporate health insurers, made this same proposal in a letter to Congress. Surprise, surprise.

Some of the Democrats behind this proposal have financial ties to the health insurance industry. So, perhaps this legislation is payback for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. If so, shame on these House Democrats.

Whatever the motivation, this is the wrong way to help our nation in a time of crisis. Help should go where it’s needed and where it will do the most good, not where it’s politically expedient.

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

About the Author: Diane Archer is a senior adviser to Social Security Works and founder and president of Just Care USA, an independent digital hub covering health and financial issues facing boomers and their families and promoting policy solutions. She is the past board chair of Consumer Reports and serves on the Brown University School of Public Health Advisory Board. Ms. Archer began her career in health advocacy in 1989 as founder and president of the Medicare Rights Center, a national organization dedicated to ensuring that older and disabled Americans get the health care they need. She served as director, Health Care for All Project, Institute for America’s Future, between 2005 and 2010.

About the Author: Richard “RJ” Eskow is senior adviser for health and economic justice at Social Security Works. He is also the host of The Zero Hour, a syndicated progressive radio and television program.


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What Workers Have Already Won in the Face of Coronavirus

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The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the stark reality of the United States: our inadequate, for-profit health care system, our precarious employment conditions, and the deep inequality that is foundational to our society. But it’s also shown us that when things get dire enough, the working class fights back. Over the last few weeks, in dealing with the outbreak of the coronavirus, people across the United States have organized at their workplaces, and also won major reforms in the housing sector. Workers’ consciousness about the cruelty of our profit-driven society—and about their own power—is being raised by the day, thanks to the failure of government leadership. While it’s likely that we will enter a recession or even depression soon, workers are still fighting for what they deserve—and that struggle must continue after the pandemic passes.

While many workers have lost hours or even been laid off in the last few weeks, others have made advances in various industries amid the crisis, including securing paid time off and health and safety guarantees. Teachers in New York City forced Mayor Bill De Blasio to close city schools under threat of a mass sick-out, workers shut down a Chrysler plant near Detroit over concerns about how the company was dealing with the virus, and workers at McDonald’s won 14 days of paid sick leave, albeit only at corporate stores which account for about 5% of the fast food giants’ restaurants.

In Philadelphia, city library workers moved a petition among themselves, patrons and the larger community to demand both the closure of public libraries and paid time off for all workers, even those who are not members of the union. The petition dropped in the morning on Monday, March 16, and by Tuesday evening, it had over 4,000 signatures, and the workers won their demands. Terra Oliveira, an after-school leader at the Philadelphia Free Library, told In These Times, “Our access to paid leave and our basic rights shouldn’t be something that we have to fight for every single time there’s a crisis.” Non-union library workers have been organizing with their union colleagues for about a year, building the infrastructure necessary to deal with our current crisis.

Similarly, the housing movement has long fought for moratoriums on evictions and utility shut-offs. Both have felt like far-off possibilities, the absolute peak of what we could win in a perfect storm of political will and power. But Tara Raghuveer, campaign director of the Homes Guarantee Plan at People’s Action, told In These Times that “the pandemic is showing us what has always been possible, and what that means is that it’s always been possible to end the practice of eviction.” Because of the seriousness of coronavirus, organizers and activists have won either moratoriums on evictions or utility shut-offs in cities and states across the country, including Philadelphia, San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, Massachusetts, and Kentucky. The coronavirus crisis is revealing what was true before: It is unconscionable to abandon people who are houseless or without work.  “This has opened up tremendous space to ask for more and win more,” Raghuvver said.

The apparent ease with which these long fought for reforms were granted demonstrates that it is—and has always been—well within the power of the state and corporations to acquiesce to our demands. It also shows that it isn’t the benevolence of politicians and CEOs that has secured these victories, but worker organizing. If workers hadn’t been demanding paid sick time and eviction moratoriums for years, we never would have won them now. “Now that these demands have been won during this emergency crisis, there is so much more solidarity and communication among library workers that wasn’t there before. We will continue to fight,” said library worker Oliveira.

The state spends exorbitant amounts of money when it’s capital that’s feeling the pain, a fact illustrated by the dramatic financial actions being taken or considered to keep the economy afloat during the pandemic: a $1.5 trillion loan by the Federal Reserve to inject into capital markets; an $8 billion spending package to fight the coronavirus; and a nearly $1 trillion stimulus bill being considered at the time of this writing. These options obliterate the notion that money doesn’t exist to pay for programs like a Green New Deal, free college, free childcare, housing for all and various other social programs.

When it comes to spending to meet the needs of the millions of ordinary people who are hurting right now, politicians can’t muster the will. While the Democratic Party postures as recognizing and responding to this need in contrast to Trump, the proposals they’ve so far offered have been offensively mediocre and inadequate. H.R. 6201, trumpeted by Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats, offers paid sick leave benefits to only 20% of U.S. private sector workers—a figure that does not include informal economy workers. Former presidential candidate Kamala Harris also promoted a bill she had introduced that would give workers $500 each month—a pittance compared to the $2,000 per month cash payments to U.S. households floated by sen. Bernie Sanders.

We are heading into almost unprecedented economic territory—a potential 20% unemployment rate if our leaders don’t act now. More and more workers are facing the prospect of losing hours and even being laid off, as many major cities, municipalities and states impose shut downs for businesses except those classified as essential industries. Already, nearly one in five U.S. workers reports losing hours or work altogether since the onset of the coronavirus crisis earlier this month. We can expect that number to balloon in coming weeks and months as the public health crisis—and the ensuing economic crisis—continues to deepen. 

Some are trying using this crisis to fortify the tyrannical power employers have over workers’ lives. In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz just suspended some collective bargaining rights for state employees, citing the need for “flexibility… during this peacetime emergency.” As workers unite to demand what we’ve always deserved, and the crisis deepens, some politicians and bosses will undoubtedly use this as an opportunity to ram through more neoliberal reforms that dismantle our rights and public institutions.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that in times of economic hardship, workers have the least power and leverage based on the scarcity of jobs and desperation for whatever we can get to provide for ourselves and our families. But strike activity and worker organizing is on the rise, the Bernie Sanders campaign program is raising political expectations, and workers are winning in the face of this pandemic. It’s reasonable to believe that when things “return to normal”—if that ever happens—politicians and bosses will attempt to take back all that we’ve won. They’ll try to strip paid sick leave from workers, and to reinstate evictions. But we mustn’t let them. Like Oliveira said, “It feels like only the beginning.” 

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on March 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.



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Coronavirus Shows Capitalism Is a Razor’s Edge

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My best friend works as a standardized patient, which means she is a practice patient for medical schools to train and test students. One day she’ll play an older woman with a pulmonary embolism, her face stricken with worry, the next someone with depression, limp and listless. Each workday medical students fumble at her bedside, and at her body, some nervous and gentle, others over-confident and brusque, as she guides them through learning their craft. It’s not bad for wage work, with each gig paying somewhere between $16 and $25 an hour, although this doesn’t always cover the time spent learning the part, let alone biking miles through Chicago’s potholed streets so she can make it from one 3-hour gig to the next.

Even though it’s not bad, she’s living—like most people in this country—on a razor’s edge. One of her gigs this week was cancelled because of the COVID 19 outbreak, which is now officially a global pandemic. Her employer paid her for the job, because she got less than 24-hours notice, but she will receive no pay for the other upcoming events this and next week that have been cancelled. One of her other gigs (all her jobs are non-union) has a two-week cancellation policy, a source of comfort to her. But what if that workplace gets shut down for more than two weeks? What if all of her jobs are shut down for six? If her income dries up, there’s no designated person to swoop in and help her, no bailout or government agency that has her number and will make sure she’s okay. She’s about two months out from not being able to pay rent or buy food.

My friend’s situation is unremarkable. She’s slightly better off than many Americans, 40% of whom don’t have enough money in the bank to weather a $400 emergency. She’s got $1,960 in her checking account, and $2,010 in her savings—although the latter will all go to her taxes, which are high because she’s classified as an independent contractor at some of her jobs. Perhaps most critically, she has access to extended networks of white wealth that people of color don’t have, and she can call on them in a pinch.

But like 27 million Americans, she doesn’t have health insurance. Of the last two bike accidents she got in, one was serious, but she couldn’t afford to go to the doctor, so she instead relied on friends who are nurses. One diagnosed her with a concussion over the phone. According to a Gallup poll from 2019, 25% of people in the United States say they or a family member “put off treatment for a serious medical condition in the past year because of the cost.” My friend, like all these people, can’t afford to miss work due to sickness, let alone treat what’s wrong with them when there’s not a global pandemic. What will she do if she gets COVID 19?

The GOP just blocked an emergency paid sick leave bill from advancing in the Senate. Oil and gas companies are pressing the White House to grant them a bailout from a downturn linked to COVID 19, and at the same time urging the Trump administration to avoid supporting any paid sick leave policy. Just like we lack a federal paid sick leave law, we have no guaranteed paid bereavement leave in this country. And in case we’d forgotten our precarity, Joe Biden just reminded us by suggesting that if he were president he’d veto Medicare for All—a universal, single-payer healthcare program—because it’s too expensive.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, higher-earning wage workers are “more than three times as likely to have access to paid sick leave as the lowest paid workers.” But only 30% of the lowest paid workers—who are more likely to have contact with the public in restaurants, daycares and retail outlets—get paid sick leave. Workers are not taking this sitting down. In New York, Chipotle employees are walking off the job and publicly protesting the company for allegedly penalizing workers who call in sick. “They want us to shut up,” worker Jeremy Pereyra, who says he was written up by Chipotle for calling in sick, told Gothamist. “They want us to stop. But we’re not going to stop until things get better.”

The first round of job losses is already here. The Washington Post reports that some drivers at the Port of Los Angeles were sent home without pay, others laid off. Travel agencies in Atlanta and Los Angeles let people go, as did a hotel in Seattle, a stage-lighting company in Orlando, and Carson’s Cookie Fix bakery in Omaha, hit by declining customers. “If my job’s laying off people, I can only imagine other employers are as well,” said Baiden King, who lost her job at the bakery, telling the Post she plans to move back in with her parents. “I’m not sure anyone will be hiring.”

Even before this crisis, workers were held captive by the stock market—most gaining nothing directly from its rise, which largely lines the pockets of rich people and distributes wealth upwards when it’s doing well. But workers feel its decline in the form of lost jobs and increased precarity. Now that stocks are tumbling amid the virus outbreak, this extortion racket is escalating, and the fundamental instability and savagery of capitalism is being laid bare.

The systems that are breaking down in this crisis were already broken before it began, and a radical reimagining of what could replace them is the best and only option—for this public health crisis, and for the ordinary, everyday crises that go unremarked. Universal income, Medicare for All, an immediate end to the brutal sanctions regime worsening the outbreak in Iran and around the world, a moratorium on evictions, the freeing of prisoners: Anything less than full social mobilization in the name of solidarity will leave us falling without a net. Or biking without health insurance, to a job that could evaporate.

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 12, 2020. 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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Southern Workers Unite Around Medicare for All: “A Tremendous Liberation From Your Boss”

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Image result for Jonathan Michels freelance journalist based in Durham, N.C."A line of cars rolls up to the government center of the largest city in a state tied with neighbor South Carolina for least unionized in the country. Members of the Southern Workers Assembly (SWA) emerge from the cars and join a picket line of Charlotte city workers. They hoist a banner declaring “The City Works Because We Do” and chant “What do we want? Medicare for All! When do we want it? Now!”

SWA is a coalition of worker committees and labor unions, including National Nurses United (NNU), the International Longshoremen’s Association, and United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. Members from across the South converged September 21 to kick off a campaign for the immediate passage of Medicare for All, known in the House as H.R. 1384.

Although unionized workers typically have access to some type of employer-based insurance (and often pay less in deductibles than nonunion workers), skyrocketing premiums and poor coverage continue to ignite unrest in all types of workplaces. An estimated 23.6 million U.S. workers with employer-based coverage spend at least 10% or more of their income on premiums and out-of-pocket costs, while wages remain stagnant. According to a new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average worker contribution for family coverage increased 25% since 2014 to a whopping $6,015 annually.

In Charlotte, Dominic Harris, 31, works as a utility technician and also serves as president of the Charlotte City Workers Union. Without Harris and his fellow workers, the gilded financial hub nicknamed Wall Street of the South could not function.

“We only have something to gain,” Harris says. Harris and other members of the SWA make it clear this is a worker-led fight to sever the chain between healthcare and employers.

Harris and other members of the SWA made it clear they do not see this as a fight for a handout; it’s a worker-led fight for a universal health program to sever the chain between healthcare and employers.

“Having Medicare for All is a tremendous liberation from your boss,” says Ed Bruno, former Southern regional director of NNU.

When nearly 50,000 United Auto Workers (UAW) walked off in September, one of their major grievances was the rising cost of health insurance. General Motors (GM) responded by canceling their benefits in an attempt to force workers back. GM restored health benefits 11 days later, and UAW finally reached an agreement with GM after more than five weeks of striking.

SWA members believe a worker-led campaign for Medicare for All has the potential to galvanize a working-class movement in the South after decades of anti-union legislation like so-called right-to-work laws. Just 2.7% of workers in North and South Carolina belong to unions. Meanwhile, health outcomes in the South lag too, and infant mortality rates remain the highest in the nation.

“Healthcare is a human right,” says Leslie Riddle, a state employee who traveled from West Virginia to join the picket line. Riddle, 44, receives coverage from the Public Employees Insurance Agency, the same state-based healthcare whose program incited West Virginia teachers to walk out in 2018. Riddle has Type 1 diabetes and is allergic to some forms of insulin, which means she could die without the correct formula. When Riddle’s insurance reclassified her insulin as non-formulary, her out-of-pocket cost rose dramatically. She survived only with financial support from her parents and free samples from her doctor.

Under Medicare for All, copayments, premiums and deductibles would be eliminated, removing financial barriers to care. This is vital for people with chronic health conditions.

SWA is focusing its efforts on reaching the overwhelming majority of Southern workers without a union. The group sets up workplace committees that help workers calculate how much of their wages are eaten up by healthcare expenses, demonstrating why Medicare for All would be a huge win. As the 2020 Democratic primary season draws closer, SWA members plan to organize town halls and petition government officials to pass resolutions in support of Medicare for All, to keep issue at the forefront of the debates.

Sekia Royall agreed to organize a workers’ committee in support of Medicare for All after she realized that guaranteed health care would allow her to focus on her dream job.

Royall currently works in the kitchen at the O’Berry Neuro-Medical Treatment Center in Goldsboro, N.C., preparing meals for patients with mental disabilities and neurocognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

In her free time, though, Royall runs a catering business specializing in Kansas City barbecue, a rarity among the famous smokehouses that dominate eastern North Carolina. While Royall appreciates the important role she fills for her patients at O’Berry, her passion lies in running her own company. But pursuing her dream feels unrealistic to Royall, in part because it would mean losing her healthcare coverage provided through her employer.

“One of the reasons that I haven’t tried to quit my job and go full-time with my catering is because I do need healthcare coverage,” Royall says.

roadening the labor struggle through the right to healthcare is what inspired Bruno and other veteran activists, like Black Workers for Justice co-founder Saladin Muhammad, to throw themselves into SWA’s campaign.

“Legislation has never preceded the social movement,” Bruno says. “It was always the upheaval that preceded legislation. You can pretty much take that to the bank.”

Though still in its infancy, the Southern Workers Assembly campaign could prove to be a critical test case for building the kind of large, grassroots movement that past campaigns have shown will be necessary to overcome the powerful corporate interests bent on defeating a universal, national health program.

Medicare for All supporters face stiff opposition from drug companies, private insurers and other medical profiteers who are already well-financed and unified in attacking reforms that would decrease their profit margins. One example is the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a corporate front group created to stymie the growing Medicare for All movement by pressuring Democratic lawmakers to protect the Affordable Care Act, steering the party away from Medicare for All in 2020.

SWA members believe they can overcome their well-heeled opposition by mobilizing enough workers.

“If we can get every worker in every workplace to support just one thing, then that thing will get passed,” Harris says. “There’s nothing that a combined group of workers can’t accomplish.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on November 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Michels is a freelance journalist based in Durham, N.C.

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49,000 Striking Auto Workers Should Vote No on “Two-Tier.” Here’s Why.

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Image result for jane slaughter writerAuto workers on strike since midnight at General Motors are between a rock and a hard place—a hugely profitable company making outrageous demands for concessions and a union leadership that made no plan for winning a strike and has not even told members what they’re going out for. Picket signs say simply “UAW on Strike.”

Over the last decades many other unions have taught themselves how to do contract campaigns and strikes, with members on board from the get-go. But to look at the UAW’s confrontation with GM this week, you’d think none of that experience had ever happened.

Not a button was distributed in the plants. Members heard not a word from leaders about bargaining goals. There was no survey of the membership, no contract action teams, no bargaining bulletins to keep members in the loop. No “practice picketing,” no turn-down of overtime, no outreach to the public, no open bargaining.

As they have for decades, UAW officials played their cards close to the vest, with only management allowed a peek. Members knew only what they read in the media, explained materials handler Sean Crawford in Flint.

And yet 49,000 UAW members are angry enough with GM’s arrogance and downright oppression that they are ready to strike.

BIG CONCESSIONS DEMANDED

Local 598 in Flint broke the embargo when it reported that GM wants members to pay more for health insurance and is offering a less-than-inflation raise. Worse, it wants no movement on its odious tiered system that has flooded the plants with lower-paid outside contractors, a subsidiary called GM Subsystems, and temps—GM employees with no rights.

Beth Baryo, a former temp and now an “in progression” (second-tier) worker in Burton, Michigan, said that temps are allowed to miss only three days of work per year, unpaid, with advance approval, and can be forced to work seven-day weeks.

At the GM Tech Center where she works, outside Detroit, said Jessie Kelly, there are 1,300 workers employed by GM and 550 employed by Aramark, doing work that used to be GM workers’.

GM was bailed out by taxpayers to the tune of $50 billion in 2009. It made over $8 billion in profits last year, while paying no federal income taxes yet gifting CEO Mary Barra $22 million. For GM to demand concessions from its overworked employees now is a sign that it thinks the UAW is an easy foe.

After all, UAW President Gary Jones may be distracted. His house and that of former President Dennis Williams were both searched by the FBI August 28. Jones’ top lieutenant before he became president, Vance Pearson, was charged with using union funds for personal luxuries, and it’s widely believed that Jones and Williams will be next. Pearson was the sixth UAW official to be recently charged or convicted of graft.

Crawford said as the strike kicked off, “Yes, the UAW is corrupt. It’s disgusting beyond belief. But this is not about them. It’s about us. We can and will clean house. But we have a more immediate fight on our hands right now.”

Kelly too wanted to rally the troops against GM: “If somebody in the union abused their power, their future is already set out for them. Ours is not, ours is up in the air. All we can do is be there for each other because if we lose sight… GM will win because we were focusing on the wrong fight right now.”

Mitch Fox, now at Romulus Engine, his third GM plant after shutdowns and layoffs, is sickened by the corruption. He hopes leaders’ disrepute could be a motive for the strike: “With everything that’s going on, maybe they’ll try harder to gain our respect back; hopefully that’s the plan.”

But if past contracts are an indication, the pact Jones negotiates is sure to be weak.

YOU CAN VOTE NO

With top leaders discredited but refusing to step away, GM strikers have just one tool to use between their rock and their hard place: their right to vote no. They can do what Chrysler workers did in 2015: organize to turn down a contract that enshrined the two-tier system.

In 2015 rank-and-file Chrysler workers, with no union support, made leaflets and T-shirts, created Facebook groups to share their stories, and rallied outside informational meetings.

They did what no one thought possible in the UAW and voted Williams’s offer down 2-1, overcoming his defiant declaration that “ending two-tier is bullshit!” and winning a partial victory. The offer was improved, establishing a grow-in for second-tier workers to full pay (though still without pensions or the same health care plan).

Soon after the Chrysler vote, perhaps emboldened by the “no” vote at Chrysler, GM skilled trades workers rejected their pact as well, by almost 60 percent, winning some improvements. (Production workers voted yes by 58 percent.)

In 2015 what the automakers did with one hand they took away with another, though—a less-noticed provision also increased the use of temps.

“I’m voting no on any contract proposal that doesn’t give a pathway to equality for every GM/ UAW member,” said Crawford. “This is a sacred principle. It is the very meaning of the word union. This opportunity might not come again.”

This story first appeared at Labor Notes.

This article originally appeared on Inthesetimes.com on September 17, 2019.  Reprinted with permission.

Jane Slaughter is the author of Concessions and How To Beat Them and co-author, with Mike Parker, of Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept and Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, and Monthly Review, among others. Jane Slaughter  works for Labor Notes in Detroit.


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Discrimination complaints hit group fighting Trump’s health policies

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Rachana PradhanSome of its employees have described an environment allowing mistreatment of minority and LGBTQ employees.

A legal aid organization leading the fight against several Trump administration policies, including health care for LGBTQ and low-income people, is facing its own internal allegations of discrimination.

The National Health Law Program, or NHeLP, was founded in 1969 to advocate for health care rights of underserved people. It has grown more prominent in the Trump era, taking on causes like fighting Medicaid work requirements. But some of its employees have described an environment allowing mistreatment of minority and LGBTQ employees, including instances of bullying black women; employees telling “off-color jokes” about women and Jewish people; and a “sense of not belonging among LGBTQ staff,” according to a 2018 assessment on its workplace culture obtained by POLITICO.

Elizabeth Taylor, a former Justice Department attorney who became the group’s executive director in 2014, said leadership has worked, and continues to work, to fix problems flagged by the 53-pageassessment, which the organization commissioned amid high staff turnover and concern about workplace culture.

“We appreciate the urgency of addressing racism both internally and in our outward facing work,” said Taylor. She said remedies include diversifying leadership, bringing in a human resources company to do management training, convening all-staff retreats focused on equity issues and establishing ground rules for conduct during meetings and other workplace interactions.

But a half dozen individuals who work or have worked for the social justice nonprofit claimed workplace inequities persist. All of them worked there after the January 2018 report.

NHeLP employs roughly three dozen attorneys, policy experts and administrative staff across its three offices in Washington, Los Angeles and CarrboroN.C.

“They say we hear you and we understand you but then don’t see results,” said one employee who called the pace of change too slow. “Things have to change.” That employee, as well as other current and former employees who spoke to POLITICO, asked to remain unidentified.

Taylor acknowledged that improvements may not occur quickly enough for certain employees — but that the changes can’t be rushed if they are to be done correctly and sustainably.

The January 2018 report, in addition to interviews with several former and current employees, depict an organization struggling to create an equitable workplace even as it battles the Trump administration over policies it says are discriminatory or punitive to low-income people and other marginalized groups.

The legal group is not alone in grappling with these issues; many sectors of society including Hollywood, Congress, the media and both the corporate and nonprofit worlds are uncovering mistreatment, abuse andemployee discrimination.

Since 2016, 14 people have left NHeLP, including eight people of color, according to figures the organization provided to POLITICO. Four of them left this year, including two individuals who are ethnic minorities.

It is unclear whether all these departures were related to the issues raised in the report. POLITICO was unable to reach some of the people who left in recent years; others did not respond to queries.

One employee who left after the 2018 assessment told POLITICO there were challenges around the retention of minority staff and lack of leadership opportunities.

“I think that there are situations that they are trying to improve. I just think it’s a long road ahead,” said the individual who left after concluding there was no opportunity for advancement.

NHeLP for decades has fought in court for patient access to a range of health care services, such as medications for severe chronic illness, children’s mental health benefits and abortion. It has also advocated for legislation expanding health insurance coverage. The group’s profile — along with its fundraising — has grown in the Trump era, its work seen as indispensable among health care advocates who oppose a range of Trump policies they believe will weaken the health care safety net for millions of people.

The organization has led successful lawsuits blocking the Trump administration from allowing the first-ever Medicaid work requirements in three states, though the Justice Department has appealed and other states are still planning on adding work rules. NHeLP is also likely to challenge the administration’s looming rollback of civil rights protections for LGBTQ patients, which the nonprofit helped shape as part of the Affordable Care Act.

The organization raised $8.3 million in 2017, more than triple the $2.6 million it raised in 2014, according to tax documents (though below the nearly $11 million that came in during 2013.) In 2017, as Republicans in Washington sought to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the group hired 11 people, about three times as many as the year before. Despite staff turnover, the organization grew.

NHeLP has stood out as a rare legal organization that is primarily led by womenYet it has struggled with retaining a diverse staff, even as it expanded.

“We know that we still have work to do and we’re doing it,” Taylor said.

Many nonprofits as well as for-profit entities struggle with boosting diversity and installing leadership that is more representative of the populations they serve.

“This is something that’s urgent and most every nonprofit in the country is struggling with,” said one individual in the nonprofit sphere who has worked with NHeLP for years. “Figuring out a way to address it is vital.”

Taylor said the departures in 2016 of three employees of color who worked on policy issues was one reason NHeLP stepped up its diversity and equity efforts, including hiring an outside firm to examine its workplace culture. That review by the Management Assistance Group produced the January 2018 assessment.

“There were certainly things in it that resonated with me,” said Wayne Turner, a senior attorney based in Washington, declining to give specifics. But he added, “I think for people who have been here for a while, it’s kind of history and we’ve moved beyond that.”

The group’s board in 2017 also adopted a strategic plan that included priorities to boost equity internally as well as in other areas, including partnering with organizations that represent the interests of people of color.

Then the January 2018 report came. The report, which is based on interviews and observations provided by current and former staff as well as board members, detailed management styles that alienated staff of color and LGBTQ workers.

The report noted the perception among some employees that “there were instances where women of color had more experience but white staff were identified as more capable.” It also relayed descriptions of instances when individuals acted “surprised when a person of color is a good writer.”

“Management issues are so bad and pervasive,” the report quotes one employee saying. “While I’ve benefited from being a white woman, it is hard to see it because it is such a challenge. It is worse for people of color.”

The report said people observed “bullying” of black female employees, but it did not provide details or indicate how many individuals witnessed it. Nor did it provide more details about off-color jokes.

“There were things in there that were shocking as leaders of the organization to read,” Taylor said.

The report said NHeLP’s emphasis on maintaining a workplace culture of “niceness” and avoiding conflict can prevent employees from raising concerns related to treating workers equally. Managers also “often” meant to create an inclusive atmosphere, but those efforts backfired at times, the report said.

“We learned that managers often have the best intentions to make staff feel included and welcome, however due to miscommunication, disparate management styles, and assumptions about what people want, are skilled at, and need, their actions do not land as intended, and too often create an atmosphere of unintended hostility,” the report reads.

Not all employees perceived that hostility; the report found most staff believed NHeLP’s offices were pleasant and knew their colleagues had “the best intentions in mind.” Many of the current and former employees interviewed by POLITICO, who represented a diverse group, also had a positive impression.

“It was a pretty decent organization,” said one former employee who nonetheless witnessed staff turnover and people of color voicing concern about the workplace environment. This individual said that managers attributed staff departures to millennial “job hop,” rather than looking at deeper issues.

“There was definitely that brush off — ‘oh, that age group,’” the former employee said.

Taylor said she had never heard anyone on the management team make such a remark.

She said the organization views the effort to improve workplace culture as a “long-term commitment.” Employees said NHeLP set up committees to address various issues, from improving partnerships with organizations led by people of color to hiring, retention and office culture.

“I feel like staff was given a lot of leeway from management to come up with a staff-driven process on how to address these issues that were going on,” said one employee who had not personally witnessed bullying but did occasionally hear off-putting jokes at work. This individual was concerned that co-workers might be impatient and “lose faith.”

“It’s not a short-term process,” the person said. “Doing something on a consensus basis, staff-led process is going to be slower.”

Two individuals who work or have worked at the organization viewed some of the remedies as inadequate. “We have all of these committees and I honestly just don’t know why,” said one.

NHeLP’s director of health policy Leonardo Cuello said the organization is making changes deliberately and doesn’t view improving diversity and equity as “a check the box thing.”

“You have to do things in the right order and you have to do it with professional support, and you have to do it thoughtfully and kind of in accordance with the model practices. And that takes time,” he said.

“We’ve been working on it for two years and there’s a reason for that.”

This article was originally published by Politico on August 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rachana Pradhan is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before coming to POLITICO, she spent more than three years at Inside Health Policy focusing on implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Prior to that, Pradhan worked at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va., and spent most of her time covering city government (with the occasional foray into stories on urban chicken-keeping and the closure of neighborhood pools).

Pradhan is a rare local of the Washington, D.C., area and graduated from James Madison University. She was also news editor of JMU’s student newspaper, The Breeze.


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Massive grocery chain is denying HIV prevention drugs to its employees — and it won’t explain why

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Publix, a massive grocery store chain across the southern U.S., is refusing to provide its employees coverage for the HIV-prevention medicine known as PrEP. According to a new report from TheBody.com, a Publix employee filed multiple appeals to have his PrEP prescription covered, but the company repeatedly refused, and the insurance company indicated it was because Publix did not want the medication covered.

PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a daily pill that people who are HIV-negative can take that reduces the risk of contracting HIV by more than 90 percent. It has massive potential to help reduce infection rates. Last year, for example, clinics in London reported noticing a significant drop in new HIV infections among gay men, speculating that it was because many were taking PrEP. In the U.S., PrEP use has increased significantly in major cities, but less so in other parts of the country — particularly the South, where Publix operates. North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida (where Publix is based) ranked in the top ten states with the highest number of HIV diagnoses in 2016.

Publix’s refusal to cover PrEP was first reported back in 2016, but to this day, the company refuses to publicly explain why it denies coverage. It offered TheBody.com a brief statement describing its health plans as providing “generous medical and prescription coverage” and noting that “there are numerous medications covered by the plan used in the treatment of HIV.”

With no explanation available, many advocates are speculating that the company is imposing its moral authority, not unlike Hobby Lobby refusing to cover contraception for its employees. Cost doesn’t make sense as an explanation, because it would cost Publix far less to cover PrEP than it would the medications necessary if someone were to contract HIV.

The company is known for its conservative values. Its political action committee donates significantly more to Republican candidates than Democratic candidates, and CEO Randall Jones likewise favors Republicans with his donations.

Publix refuses to participate in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which scores businesses on how they treat their LGBTQ employees and customers. It is conspicuously one of the only companies in the Fortune 1000 not to participate. In 2013, a company spokesperson reportedly claimed, “We are inundated with survey requests… and actually participate in very few due to the volume.” There have been, however, multiple reports of anti-LGBTQ discrimination at Publix stores.

Publix has 1,169 stores across seven states, employing some 188,000 workers.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 30, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Zack Ford is the LGBTQ Editor at ThinkProgress.org, where he has covered issues related to marriage equality, transgender rights, education, and “religious freedom,” in additional to daily political news. In 2014, The Advocate named Zack one of its “40 under 40” in LGBT media, describing him as “one of the most influential journalists online.” He has a passion for education, having received a Bachelor’s in Music Education at Ithaca College and a Master’s in Higher Education at Iowa State University, and he relishes opportunities to return to classroom settings to discuss social justice issues with students. He can be reached at [email protected]


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Trump’s new rule allows employers to drop birth control coverage with no oversight

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New contraception rules outlined by the Trump administration will allow employers to stop covering birth control — with zero government oversight.

The administration announced on Friday that, effective immediately, it was rolling back federal requirements introduced under the Obama administration which require employers to include birth control in their health insurance plans. Under the new rules, employers can simply self-exempt, citing religious or moral objections, and tell their workers that their birth control is no longer part of their health-insurance coverage.

Those employers are not required to tell the government either, according to PBS NewsHour correspondent Lisa Desjardins. They need to notify the insurers, and can send an optional note to the government.

The new rules fulfill a key campaign promise the Trump administration made to social conservatives, who have continually voiced dissent with the Obama-era federal requirement and challenged it in court. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said it was a “landmark day for religious liberty” and would ensure that people “can freely live out their religious convictions and moral beliefs.”

But the rules are deeply damaging to women’s reproductive health, and reflect a wider trend of the Trump administration attempting to dismantle women’s access to health care by opposing abortion rights and cutting grants aimed at tackling teen pregnancy.

“They like to talk about these policies in isolation,” Adam Sonfield of the Guttmacher Institute told ThinkProgress’ Amanda Gomez. “They are not just trying to undermine contraceptive coverage. They’ve tried to cut Title IX funding, Planned Parenthood funding… you have to see it as a coordinated campaign.”

The ACLU, along with the Center for Reproductive Rights, Americans United for Separation of Church, and the state of California, have all said they intend to sue the Trump administration for denying birth control to women.

Conservatives have long insisted that the birth control rollbacks are designed to protect the religious liberty of groups who believe providing contraceptives would violate their moral beliefs. However, data provided by the Center for American Progress to Vox in August showed that the majority of the companies that had applied for and received exceptions were for-profit corporations. They included companies that worked in human resources, industrial machinery, and wholesale trade. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed within CAP.)

According to Jamila Taylor, a senior fellow at CAP, the rules suggested Trump’s rollbacks “will open up the floodgates for nearly anyone to force women to pay out of pocket or navigate hurdles to obtaining additional cost for contraception… and simply chalk it up to moral opposition.”

About the Author: Luke Barnes is a reporter at ThinkProgress. 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.


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The GOP’s Trojan Horse on Health Care Repeal

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On Tuesday, 50 Republican senators showed contempt for their constituents by voting to move forward on repealing our health care, with Vice President Mike Pence stepping in to break the tie.

Nine GOP senators later broke ranks in a late-night session to vote down the Senate’s toxic version of the bill, the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) – which would have rolled back much of the Affordable Care Act and gutted Medicaid, ending coverage for 22 million – but there are more votes to come, including one that may simply repeal care and and strip coverage from 32 million.

The final version of the bill may be nothing more than a placeholder – a Trojan horse for setting up a Republican Senate-House conference committee that will use yet another secretive, undemocratic process to craft yet another version of health repeal.

GOP leaders will want the new version to look just like their previous versions: cut taxes for corporations and the rich, raise the price of coverage for the rest of us, unravel Medicaid, and take health care from 22 to 24 million people.

Among Republicans, only Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen Lisa Murkowski of Alaska had the courage to stand with their constituents and vote no on moving forward.

By voting to move ahead on the health care debate, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada caved to pressure from Trump and casino mogul Steve Wynn. Almost 630,000 Nevadans get their health care through Medicaid and are now in jeopardy.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia caved under the weight of right-wing donor money and attack ads. With three in 10 West Virginians getting their health care through Medicaid, Capito’s state will be harder hit than almost all other states the country.

Ohio’s Sen. Rob Portman also caved, representing a state where hundreds of thousands of people finally got coverage because of expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

It was extremely irresponsible of Portman, Capito, and Heller – who have all expressed concern for constituents enrolled in Medicaid – to throw their weight behind this reckless process without a clear plan for protecting Medicaid coverage.

In statements, Capito and Portman have both said they’ll make good on their concern in the days to come, but both voted with their GOP colleagues for the BCRA on Tuesday night. Heller, who voted against the BCRA, said he wants the bill to be improved.

They need to show this is more than talk. Now more than ever, their constituents need them to stand strong, resist any bullying, and protect Medicaid and health care overall. They’ll do that, if they really do care about their constituents.

And let’s not forget the true heroes in this fight.

These heroes include the West Virginians who’ve been holding Capito’s feet to the fire for months with creative protests and civil disobedience. They also include the Mainers who delivered messages in a pill bottle to Sen. Collins and tracked Rep. Bruce Poliquin down at a Boston fundraiser and reminded him who he’s supposed to represent. And let’s not forget the seniors who braved a Great Lakes blizzard to protest in front of Speaker Paul Ryan’s Racine office.

Like these heroes, tens of thousands of people have shown up at protests and town halls, often speaking up for the first time in their lives. In every corner of the country, people have put their senators on speed-dial, camped out in congressional offices, and rallied friends.

We really are in a fight for our lives. Yet we’re motivated not just by fear but also by moral outrage. We know how fundamentally wrong it is to deprive people of health care.

And our fight isn’t over. Republican leaders wanted to put health care repeal on Trump’s desk in January. It’s the end of July, they’re still scrambling. That’s because of us.

In the coming days, let’s keep making calls and showing up at rallies and protests. Let’s track every vote this week, and raise the pressure on senators and representatives alike if repeal moves to a conference committee.

We’ve shown an incredible persistence in our fight. We’ll show plenty more when it comes to holding politicians accountable for a vote that favors big-money bullying over the people they’re supposed to represent.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on July 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Julie Chinitz is lead writer for People’s Action.


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