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California proves it’s not as liberal as you think

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OAKLAND, Calif. — The myth of lockstep liberal California took a hit this election.

Voters in the deep-blue state rejected a progressive push to reinstate affirmative action, sided with technology companies over organized labor and rejected rent control. They are poised to reject a business tax that had been a decadeslong priority for labor unions and Democratic leaders.

President Donald Trump regularly portrays California as a land of complete liberal excess, and Democrat Joe Biden currently has 65 percent of California’s vote. Yet decisions on ballot measures this week reflect a state that remains unpredictable, flashing a libertarian streak with a tinge of fiscal moderation within its Democratic moorings.https://e3b374dfacf220d92b4c6008a9eb8004.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

“We’re not going to go for everything that’s progressive,” said Mindy Romero, head of the University of Southern California’s Center for Inclusive Democracy. “We think of ourselves as such a progressive state, and I’ve always said we’re a blue state but really we’re many shades of blue.”

California has long been an incubator for policies that go national, so industries and labor unions know that winning a ballot fight here has much wider implications. Already, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said Thursday that he wants to build on his California success by pursuing the same law in other states and nations. And just as the state’s 1996 affirmative action ban touched off a similar set of laws across the nation, the California vote this week could deter other states from trying to reinstate racial or gender preferences.

The ballot outcomes underscore that California voters are not a liberal monolith even as Democrats enjoy unprecedented control in the state that produced Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.

Liberals thought 2020 was their moment to secure long-desired changes: California’s electorate has steadily more diverse and Democratic in recent decades, relegating its once-mighty Republican Party to the political margins. A deeply galvanizing presidential election tantalized liberal groups as a potential high-water mark for turnout and a chance to enshrine ambitious ideas.

Decades after a more Republican California electorate curtailed property tax increases in 1978 and banned affirmative action in 1996, campaigns believed that demographic shifts would produce different outcomes a generation later.

But they seemingly miscalculated. There was no bigger example than voters’ decisive rejection of Proposition 16. The ballot measure would have reinstated affirmative action and directly repudiated what liberals consider a racist chapter of California’s recent past.

State lawmakers, inspired by a summer of racial justice activism, saw a rare window to repeal Proposition 209, the 1996 law backed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican widely blamed for turning Latino voters against the GOP for good in the state. The affirmative action ban passed when California still had a white majority population, and it was the second major wedge issue initiative that Wilson championed.

Many of the Democratic lawmakers of color who placed the repeal measure on this year’s ballot were inspired to enter politics during that divisive era. They saw Proposition 16 as not only a legal change but a moral imperative — and figured voters would as well.

The ballot measure had a clear cash advantage with $31 million from wealthy activist donors and foundations, compared to only $1.6 million raised by opponents. Yet it failed badly, securing only 44 percent support as of Thursday.

California is not uniformly liberal. It is still home to millions of Republicans, while the ever-larger Democratic tent includes plenty of moderates. And the state’s booming minority population still lags in voter participation.

“We have a history of being a more red state,” Romero said. “A big reason why California is blue is because of the growth of communities of color, most dominantly because of the growth of the Latino community,” but “it does matter the shape of the electorate. We still have a voting electorate that is white, wealthier, better educated than the rest of our population.”

Democrats saw a chance to go after another long-sought target: commercial property tax hikes.

Since its passage in 1978, Proposition 13 has been blamed for starving governments and schools of tax dollars by keeping property taxes low relative to the soaring value of housing and commercial real estate in California. Liberals acknowledge the political reality that they can’t convince homeowners to repeal Prop 13 provisions on residential property, often called the third rail of California politics. But they have long wanted to untether business property from the same protections.

Unions, education groups and the foundation started by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg were so convinced that November 2020 was their best opportunity that they gathered enough signatures for the ballot twice, the second one taking revisions they believed were an easier sell. It landed on the ballot as Proposition 15.

They presumed that high turnout from liberals and anti-Trump voters would translate into an anti-business vote; their ads regularly featured white businessmen in board rooms as a foil. Yet the initiative is poised to lose, trailing with only 48.3 percent of the vote.

Former Assemblymember Catharine Baker, a moderate Republican who was the last GOP lawmaker from the Bay Area, suggested Prop 15’s failure could “be an example of how a gigamajority Legislature might have not its finger on the pulse of the California electorate.”

The pandemic loomed inescapably over the election and reshaped campaigns’ appeals to voters. On Proposition 15, for example, backers argued they needed the money more than ever during a debilitating recession, while opponents countered that it would be foolish to further burden reeling businesses. The message of economic caution appeared to resonate, Baker said.

“There’s just no embrace right now for Californians, many of whom are suffering economically, for more taxes, the possible cost of that, and any closure of economic activity,” Baker said. “It’s made all the worse by the pandemic, in a time like this you want people to be able to make a living and be able to afford living here.”

Yet, the California electorate defies easy conclusions. The criminal justice landscape was a mixed bag after a year of surging activism. Voters handily rejected law enforcement’s effort to increase property crime sentences and limit early prison releases. They overwhelmingly voted to enfranchise felony parolees. Progressive Los Angeles district attorney candidate George Gascón built an early lead over incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey in a bellwether contest for criminal justice reform.

But Californians voted to keep cash bail, repudiating a 2019 law that sought to prohibit it and undercutting a state-by-state movement to eliminate the practice. In rejecting Proposition 25, the electorate sided with bail companies that spent millions to stay in business. They also vindicated civil libertarians and criminal justice advocates who warned a replacement system of predictive algorithms would perpetuate discrimination.

Those dynamics led the bail bonds industry to adopt the rhetoric of criminal justice reformers in warning about systemic bias — a tactic that reflected a calculation that progressive messages would resonate with voters.

“I think they knew they had to in order to win,” said Democratic strategist Katie Merrill. “You can’t win statewide in California on issues unless you are appealing to Democrats and progressives, and they knew they had to do it.”

Those licking their wounds this week pointed to one thing: money.

They said massive campaign spending can be a better predictor than partisan affiliation when it comes to ballot initiatives. Health care unions failed again to rein in kidney dialysis providers after they were outspent enormously by the dialysis industry’s $100 million counterattack. Real estate groups poured money into defeating a second consecutive rent control initiative.

But nowhere was cash clout more evident than in a battle over the tech industry’s employment practices. Homegrown Silicon Valley giants like Uber shattered state spending records by plowing more than $200 million into Proposition 22, which allows them to circumvent a state mandate to convert their independent contractor workers into employees. That massive outlay was enough to surmount unified labor opposition.

“I don’t know if we should be looking at this as progressive versus not progressive or if we should be looking at the overwhelming impact that money has in campaigns,” said Sandra Lowe, a Democratic consultant and former top California Democratic Party strategist. “It’s pretty hard to compete against $200 million of advertisements and most of the people that’s the only thing they know, is what they’re seeing on their television.”

Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo echoed that sentiment, noting that for all of organized labor’s political California clout, “labor’s money isn’t infinite.” Well-funded special interest groups were better able to sway critical Democrats, he said.

“California’s a liberal, Democratic state so if Democrats want to get an initiative passed it’s really on the backs of Democrats,” Trujillo said, and “for the most part, the folks that were able to get their message through in a very expensive state like California tended to do well.”

Some campaigns likely had a harder time breaking through airwave saturation and mailbox inundation of other big-money measures, said Public Policy Institute of California president Mark Baldassare. That may have been the case with affirmative action, which failed despite polls showing widespread support for racial equity measures. Though backers had $31 million, that was a fraction of the money other campaigns had to blitz voters.

“It was a very difficult landscape for other ballot initiatives to get attention and get support for voters,” which often means people default to voting no, Baldassare said. “The connecting of dots in some cases just didn’t take place.”

Still, Republican consultant Rob Stutzman pushed back on the notion that cash mismatches were the sole determining factor in organized labor getting “creamed at the ballot.”

If money exclusively swung elections, Stutzman argued on a post-election panel, “there would be 60 Democratic senators as well,” referring to cash-soaked challenges to GOP senators like Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn and Lindsey Graham, all of whom won.

This article was originally published by Politico on November 12, 2020 Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeremy B. White co-writes the California Playbook and covers politics in the Golden State. He previously covered the California Legislature for the Sacramento Bee, where he reported on campaigns, myriad nationally significant policy clashes and multiple FBI investigations of sitting lawmakers.

He has a bachelor’s degree in English from Tufts University and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. A native of Bethesda, Maryland, one of his life dreams is to throw out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals game — although he would settle for winning a playoff series. He lives in Oakland with his partner and his cat, Ziggy Pawdust.


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The next blow for businesses: Tax hikes that threaten more layoffs

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Businesses across the nation could soon face state tax increases to pay for the surge in Americans filing for unemployment benefits this year, further straining employers at a time when many are fighting for survival.

Massachusetts, New Jersey and Alabama are among the states looking at tax hikes that could cost employers billions of dollars. It would be a gut punch for businesses struggling because of the pandemic — and some fear it could trigger even more layoffs or prevent new hires.

Governors have been pressing the federal government to come through with more funds, but talks between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House over a new economic relief package have dragged on for months with no deal in sight, and state aid is one of the major sticking points.

“We’re in a situation where we’re trying to actually get employers to bring people back to work,” said Rachelle Bernstein, vice president and tax counsel at the National Retail Federation. “You certainly don’t want to increase the taxes on employment, which is in essence what’s happening here.”

Both the federal government and states tax the wagesbusinesses pay in order to build up a store of funds in case of mass unemployment. Yet the extraordinary increase in the number of workers filing jobless claims since the pandemic hit in March caught the states by surprise, and the scale of layoffs sparked by the crisis already dwarfs those lost in the Great Recession, which lasted more than twice as long.

As a result, 21 states and the Virgin Islands have already exhausted the money in their accounts that pays for jobless benefits and are tapping into the U.S. Treasury-managed Unemployment Trust Fund for billions of dollars in federal loans to stay afloat. Congress waived interest on these loans in March for all states until the end of the year.

Once a state’s unemployment account dips into the red, it has little choice but to borrow from the Treasury or from private entities, because they are required under federal law to pay unemployment benefits.

Many states will need to cut benefit levels or raise taxes on employers to replenish those funds. The process is fairly routine: 27 states have a tax in place that automatically kicks in when the unemployment fund drops below a certain amount, according to the Tax Foundation. Thirteen of the states that are borrowing from the Treasury have laws on the books that call for an automatic tax hike. They include New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas and Massachusetts.

“It’s going to take many years for states to pay this back,” said Jared Walczak, vice president of state projects at the right-leaning Tax Foundation. “It’s going to mean higher [unemployment insurance] taxes for a very long time; it’s going to mean all of the costs associated with borrowing will be a fiscal constraint on states for many years to come.”

Glenn Spencer, executive vice president of employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said tax increases are inevitable given that more than 20 states are already borrowing tens of billions of dollars.

“That number is only going to go up,” he said. “So the potential tax burden on businesses across the board is only going to go up.”

In Massachusetts, businesses are staring down a tax hike of nearly 60 percent for 2021.

The state had a healthy balance in its unemployment trust fund in February, but job losses from the pandemic dried it up by July. The state now projects that the unemployment fund will have a nearly $2.5 billion deficit by the end of 2020.

Businesses will have to set aside on average $858 per employee in 2021, compared to $539 now. The costs will continue to rise, albeit at a slower pace, until 2024.

Christopher Carlozzi, the state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said Massachusetts is hurting the job creators at the worst possible time.

“The state is looking to these small businesses to create jobs, but in the same breath, you’re making it more expensive to create that job,” said Carlozzi, whose group represents small businesses.

In New Jersey, unemployment insurance tax rates for employers could increase on average from 0.7 percent of payroll to 1.1 percent in July 2021. In total, businesses would see a hit of $919 million, according to an analysis by the state’s nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.

A bill that’s working through the state Legislature would spread out the increase over a few years.

At a September hearing on unemployment issues, the state’s Labor Commissioner, Robert Asaro-Angelo, said what New Jersey really needs is help from the federal government in the form of cash assistance and extending the interest free loans that it’s getting from Treasuryinto next year.

“We are hopeful that there’s going to be relief for trust funds; we’re not the only state requesting this,” he said. “We hope that there will be direct funding for unemployment trust funds because that will ease the burden on employers in New Jersey and across the country.”

New Jersey is not alone. States across the country are seeking a life preserver from Washington with another aid package that could be used to bolster the unemployment trust funds. But President Donald Trump and Republican leaders are balking at giving money to Democratic-governed states like New York, California and Illinois, which they say are mismanaged.

Conservatives also argue that Washington shouldn’t give more money when states haven’t even spent all of the $150 billion that Congress set aside for them in March in the CARES Act to shore up their dwindling trust funds.

“There are a lot of states still sitting on coronavirus relief fund money that they’re allowed to be spending on unemployment compensation benefits right now and are not,” said Walczak of the Tax Foundation. He argues that states have been holding onto the CARES Act funds hoping Congress will pass another aid package that would forgive the loans or provide more flexibility for them to use the money for other priorities.

The New Jersey Business & Industry Association and other business groups have been lobbying for the state to put CARES Act money into the unemployment fund, but to no avail.

“The quicker the fund returns to good health, the more likely it is that the worst of the automatic tax increases can be avoided,” Christopher Emigholz, vice president of government affairs for NJBIA, said in testimony before the Legislature this month.

However, more than three-quarters of state and local governments recently surveyed by the Government Finance Officers Association said they have plans for the money and anticipated spending their share of the aid before the end-of-the-year deadline to use it.

At least a dozen states, including Georgia and Tennessee, used CARES Act funds to replenish their unemployment accounts.

But in some states, the aid wasn’t enough to stave off tax hikes. In Alabama, corporations are still staring at a 200 percent tax increase, even after Republican Gov. Kay Ivey put $300 million in CARES Act dollars into the fund.

Still, this tax rise will be much less severe than it would have been without the money. Alabama’s unemployment insurance tax rate was scheduled to go up from 0.65 percent to 3.95 percent, a more than 500 percent increase. Instead, the rate will increase to 1.95 percent.

“Without this infusion, employers could be facing an unemployment insurance tax increase of more than 500 percent, which could very well force many businesses to close their doors forever, resulting in even more job losses in Alabama,” Alabama Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington said in a statement.

On top of the increase in state taxes, businesses could be hit with a tax hike from the federal side as well.

States with dried-up unemployment funds have already borrowed more than $38 billion in interest free loans from the federal government. But the decision to eliminate interest on the loans was a temporary one, and starting next year, states will start accruing interest on what they borrow.

If they haven’t paid back the cash they owe by 2022, businesses in those locations will see a .06 percent increase in their base federal unemployment tax.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007-2009, 26 of the states and territories that borrowed from the federal government saw their federal unemployment tax go up because they didn’t pay back their loans in time, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute’s Wayne Vroman.

“Many states had debts for multiyear periods, and 11 programs were still making debt repayments in April 2016,” he wrote.

In a letter to congressional leaders earlier this month, the National Association of State Workforce Agencies urged lawmakers to extend the interest moratorium on unemployment insurance trust fund loans through 2021.

“With extreme claim loads, many states are borrowing in order to make UI payments,” the group, which represents unemployment agencies in every state and territory, wrote. “Given the continued economic stress, all state workforce agencies agree that a continued moratorium on interest accrual and payments is critical in order to avoid significant increased taxes and assessments on employers.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on October 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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Study: Repeal Of Wisconsin’s Prevailing Wage Law Led To Drop In Wages For Construction Workers

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A new study from the Midwest Economic Policy Institute (MEPI) released exclusively to Wisconsin Public Radio finds the repeal of Wisconsin’s prevailing wage laws has resulted in lower wages for construction workers in Wisconsin, despite having no statistically significant impact on the cost of public construction projects.

Prevailing wage laws set minimum pay requirements for wages paid to workers on public construction projects, like school buildings or highway construction. 

Former Gov. Scott Walker along with GOP lawmakers in the state Legislature repealed Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law for local construction projects in 2015. Two years later, the GOP repealed Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law for state construction projects. 

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the study shows that before the laws were repealed, the average annual income for full-time construction and extraction workers was close to $49,000. After the laws were repealed, average annual income was a little over $46,000, a drop of more than 5 percent. When the study removed factors such as education and age, the average annual income for workers was 6 percent less than income pre-repeal.

“Prevailing wage provided ladders of access into the middle class for Wisconsin construction workers,” Frank Manzo IV, policy director for the MEPI, said, adding that repealing it has had negative consequences for those same workers. 

Two of Wisconsin’s neighboring states with prevailing wage laws in place showed a smaller drop in annual average income between 2015 and 2018. In Illinois and Minnesota, annual incomes dropped by under 2 percent combined.

The study further found that at the same time, construction industry CEOs saw an increase in pay after the repeal of the prevailing wage, worsening economic inequality, according to the authors. Researchers estimate construction industry CEOs in Wisconsin saw slightly more than a 54 percent increase in inflation-adjusted total income after the laws were repealed.

The data also showed that, following repeal, there was a decrease in the likelihood that skilled construction workers had employer-sponsored health insurance. 

“Repeal has lowered wages and reduced health coverage for skilled construction workers, and resulted in less work for local contractors,” Manzo said. “At the same time, repeal has failed to deliver cost-savings on public projects and to increase bid competition — both of which were promised by politicians.”

Kevin Duncan, an economics professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo who was part of the study’s research team, said when construction workers have a lower income and less health insurance coverage, it has broader effects on local economies.

“When income goes down for construction workers they have less to spend in local retail and service industries,” Duncan said. “And then also with a decrease in health insurance … benefits, that results in greater reliance on public assistance. When construction workers are paid less they have to rely more on public assistance — (food stamps), that sort of thing — so that tends to increase the taxpayer burden.”

Fewer Wisconsin Contractors, No Effect On Construction Costs

At the time of the repeal on state construction projects, many Republicans criticized the law, saying itinflated the costs on public projects, and arguing that repealing the laws would save taxpayers money. 

But researchers with MEPI said the data shows repealing prevailing wage had no statistically significant effect on the costs for public construction projects.  

Researchers also found that the Wisconsin Department of Transportation saw fewer bids from Wisconsin-based contractors after the laws were repealed compared to before. Between January 2015 and September 2017, more than 2,600 bids for DOT projects came from Wisconsin contractors. But between October 2017 and December 2019, following the repeal of the laws, that number dropped to a little over 1,700 bids.

The drop meant the share of bids from out-of-state contractors increased from 9 percent to 13 percent in the same timeframe.  

“What that means is … Wisconsin tax dollars that previously went to Wisconsin contractors and construction workers, (are) now being used to pay workers from out of state,” said Duncan. “When that happens, Wisconsin tax money leaks out of Wisconsin and it stimulates economies in neighboring states instead of supporting the local economy.”

The MEPI study also found there was no statistically significant impact on the racial or ethnic diversity of construction workers before and after repeal. The study did find a drop in the share of women working in construction in Wisconsin after the repeal of prevailing wage, despite that number being extremely low prior to the repeal. 

This blog originally appeared at Wisconsin Public Radio on October 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rachel Vasquez is a producer at Wisconsin Public Radio.


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Trump is putting the shock doctrine in action, using COVID-19 as an excuse to slash regulations

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It’s not just immigration. Donald Trump plans to use coronavirus as an excuse to weaken environmental, labor, health, and other regulations in exactly the ways he’s wanted to all along. While the White House negotiates with Congress, including Democrats, over what the next round of coronavirus relief could look like, regulatory changes can be made without congressional approval.

The administration already decided not to enforce air quality standards—during a respiratory disease pandemic. Now, Trump and advisers like director of the United States National Economic Council Larry Kudlow, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and incoming chief of staff Mark Meadows are talking about ideas like suspending regulations on small businesses—an absolute invitation to wage theft and dangerous working conditions, among other things—and “expanding an existing administration program that requires agencies to revoke two regulations for every new one they issue,” The Washington Post reports. Because nothing says “we’re serious about making good policy” like arbitrary rules limiting what the government can do on a strictly numeric level.

“This sounds exactly like the type of opportunistic political move that absolutely should not be attempted right now,” Jared Bernstein, who was the chief economic adviser to Joe Biden during his time as vice president, told The Washington Post. “Correlations between regulations and economic activity are far shakier than they assume, and I don’t believe this idea will help at all.”

According to Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen, “all attention should be focused on improving the regulatory state to protect the public. We should be focused on the crisis at hand, not loosening standards.” There’s a great example of someone saying something that is 100% true and 100% not what is on the table in the current administration. Protecting the public? Ha ha. Focused on the crisis at hand rather than on loosening standards—indeed, rather than using the crisis as an excuse to loosen standards? Bitter laughter to infinity.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 21, 2020. 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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Is It Time To Regulate Or Nationalize Facebook?

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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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Undermining Worker Safety — Despite Laws and Shutdowns

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Regulatory doo doo — to use the technical term — seems to be where the Department of Labor is finding itself these days.  And Democrats in Congress along with the Department of Labor’s Inspector General are not amused.

At the request of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Congresspersons Bobby Scott (D-VA), Mark Takano (D-CA), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), DOL Inspector General Scott Dahl has agreed to Audit the Department of Labor’s regulator process. The main focus will be on the Wage and Hour Division’s proposal to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to operate power-driven patient lifts in nursing homes without supervision, as well as OSHA’s recent decision to roll back parts of the agency’s electronic recordkeeping regulation.

Regulations (and OSHA standards) are important. Congress passes laws like the Occupational Safety and Health Act or the Mine Safety and Health Act or the Clean Water Act, which give agencies a general mandate to protect workers and the environment. But regulations put meat on the bones of the laws. The OSHAct gives employers the legal responsibility to maintain safe workplaces and gived OSHA the authority to set standards and cite employers who violate those standard. And it’s the regulatory process that enables OSHA to issue those specific standards — like those protecting workers from falls, amputations, silica or asbestos exposure.

Rolling back “burdensome” regulations (along with cutting taxes and appointing more conservative federal judges) are the main reasons that otherwise more-or-less sane Republicans continue to support an ignorant, racist, malignant narcissist in the White House.

The business community and Republicans in Congress generally hate regulations, which is why you almost never hear them mention the word “regulation” without the words “job-killing” preceding it. In fact, rolling back “burdensome” regulations (along with cutting taxes and appointing more conservative federal judges) are the main reasons that otherwise more-or-less sane Republicans continue to support an ignorant, racist, malignant narcissist in the White House.

And there’s a process for issuing regulations and standards.  All government regulatory activity falls under the Administrative Procedure Act which ensures that agencies follow some basic steps when they issue new regulations or change existing regulations and lays out the basis for regulatory actions in the public record. New regulations or regulatory changes may not be “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion” and must be based on evidence on the record. The Occupational Safety and Health Act has many additional rules for issuing OSHA standards.  Regulations that were not developed (or rolled back) according to proper administrative procedure can be struck down by the courts.

In addition, the Data Quality Act requires the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to issue government-wide guidelines that “provide policy and procedural guidance to Federal agencies for ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by Federal agencies.”

The legislators’ letter asked the Labor Department’s Inspector General (OIG) to investigate whether DOL had deviated from agency regulatory and data quality requirements when it issued the patient lift proposal. According to Deborah Berkowitz at the National Employment Law Project

In order to support this proposal, the Labor Department cited a ‘survey’ of Massachusetts vocational programs that purportedly demonstrated that the current policy ‘restricts’ young teens from being hired to work in nursing homes. Although the Department has ignored repeated requests from Congress and advocates to provide the survey for public review and comment, NELP has obtained a copy.

It became immediately clear why the Department wouldn’t produce the document. This seven-year-old survey, conducted using Survey Monkey, compiled responses from a scant 22 vocational programs in Massachusetts. Half the respondents did not even know what the policy was in the first instance.

The bottom line is that in this administration, when it comes to undermining worker safety and health, neither shutdowns, nor furloughs, nor well-established federal laws governing regulation can stop or even slow the priorities of the business community.

And as Suzy Khimm at NBC News points out, the child labor proposal is not the only area in which DOL is having problems:

The Labor Department is facing legal challenges over other deregulatory actions affecting workers. Last week, the department undid an Obama-era regulation requiring certain employers to submit detailed reports of workplace injuries electronically, arguing that it risked violating workers’ privacy. Last year, the department made it easier for small businesses and self-employed people to buy health insurance that does not comply with the Affordable Care Act. Both changes have spurred lawsuits alleging that officials failed to follow legally required procedures for rule-making.

Dahl is already investigating the Labor Department’s handling of a proposal to allow restaurant managers and owners to take workers’ tips and place them in a tip-sharing pool that includes bosses. Bloomberg Law reported last year that the administration hid its own projection that the change would allow management to skim $640 million in gratuities. (The administration later backed off the change.)

Meanwhile, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) has come under criticism not only for how agencies regulate, but when the regulate. As we’ve noted several times before, OSHA — and apparently the White House — were in such a hurry to roll back OSHA’s electronic recordkeeping rule that they managed to rush it out right in the middle of the government shutdown.  As House Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott said in a statement

“It is notable that despite the many important issues being neglected during this partial government shutdown, the administration found time to finalize a rule that shields employers from accountability for the health and safety of their employees. President Trump pledged to defend the American worker, but this is yet another decision that violates that promise.”

OIRA decided that it was allowed to move regulatory actions forward during the shutdown as long as the regulatory actions came from a funded agency (like the Department of Labor).  Some find that interpretation rather dubious. Quoted in Government Executive, Sam Berger, an attorney who worked for OMB during the 2013 shutdown now with the Center for American Progress,

pointed to the shutdown procedure standard being used in the Federal Register, as published in a bulletin by the National Archives and Records Administration. Under the Jan. 14 Justice Department guidance, he said in an email to Government Executive, “funded agencies [must show] delaying publication until the end of the [shutdown] would prevent or significantly damage the execution of funded functions at the agency.”

For OIRA, he said, the standard “is the same for any part of government that isn’t funded, but that works with funded agencies. If the rule is excepted (for example, necessary to protect life and property) then OIRA can bring staff on to review,” he added, arguing that OIRA can’t justify bringing back furloughed employees to process the OSHA rule. If the agency is funded (as is the Labor Department), “then OIRA can only bring staff on if not moving forward with the rule during the shutdown would prevent or undermine the funded function.”

The bottom line is that in this administration, when it comes to undermining worker safety and health, neither shutdowns, nor furloughs, nor well-established federal laws governing regulation can stop or even slow the priorities of the business community.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on February 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 
About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and I spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

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How “Right to Work Shirk” Laws Kill Jobs – and Hurt All of Us

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Michigan’s recent battle makes this a good time to explain the union movement’s important role in our economy’s overall health. We’re about to explain why today’s war on unions is bad for all of us, no matter what we do for a living, and we’ll do it in four steps.

But first a word about language: “Right to work” is a misnomer for laws which let employees enjoy the benefits of union membership – at least for a little while, until they’re stripped away – without joining or contributing.

So we’ll call them “right to shirk” laws instead. And we’ll call the people who back these laws Shirkers.

And while we’re at it, let’s stop calling the states that have adopted this legislation “right to work.” They don’t give people any new rights. They take rights away, by making it illegal for employees to organize and negotiate together. They even take away employers‘ rights – to sign a certain kind of contract.

So let’s give the other states a name instead: In a nod to the Jim Crow origin of these laws, let’s call the ones which don’t have these laws “free states.”

Free Ride

Right to Shirk laws allow freeloaders to profit from the efforts of others – without contributing to the effort, and in a way that harms the common good. The billionaires and corporations behind these laws wouldn’t deliberately do anything like that, would they? Why, that would be like letting people make billions from the works of government – things like roads, the Internet and publicly-educated customers – without paying their fair share of taxes.

Oh, wait.

Right to Shirk laws are job-killers. Here are four steps to understanding why:

1. Think nationally, not just locally.

Advocates say these laws create jobs. They don’t. Their “evidence” is based on studies which show modest job growth in Right to Shirk states when compared to free states.  But all that proves is that places that are politically hostile to organized labor also offer other types of corporate favoritism.

It also suggests that Right to Shirk states can steal jobs from free states — as long as the jobs last, anyway.

The Shirker movement was started in the late 1940s by a handful of Southern politicians who were in the palm of big textile mills. They were able to draw textile jobs away from free Northern cities like my hometown of Utica, NY – until those jobs left this country altogether.  That’s not “creating” jobs — that’s killing good jobs and replacing them with ones that don’t pay enough.

The concept of “solidarity” has been tarred with McCarthyite smears. But “solidarity” is just another way of saying “We’re all in this together.”  The Right to Shirk crowd wants to stop that kind of thinking so it can pit state against state and employee against employee, shredding our social fabric for personal gain.

It’s no accident that the Shirker movement was started by the reactionary white politicians of the Jim Crow South. Back then they were still pining for the days when they could offer some folks the “right to work” … for nothing.

2. We’re fighting over a shrinking pie instead of making the pie bigger.

Things are bad. We need millions of jobs – and the jobs we do have don’t pay enough.

The graphic which Business Insider likes to call “the scariest chart ever” shows how far we are from creating the number of jobs needed to make this country’s economy grow and thrive again.  Job growth like that we’ve seen recently is always welcome, but it’s not nearly enough to get us out of this ditch. How do we get moving again?

To answer that question we need to know what’s worked in the past.

3. The real “job creators” are people with jobs – good jobs.

How did this nation finally escape the after-effects of the Great Depression and begin its greatest decades of economic growth? Government spending  – on roads, bridges, schools, and other vitally needed services – played a key part.

Unions were a crucial part of this process, too. By fighting for higher wages and better benefits, unions ensure that working people have the means to purchase consumer items, housing, and other goods and services.  Companies have to hire more people to keep up with demand – and the good jobs keep coming.

That’s why the Republican Party platform of 1956 boasted that “unions have grown in strength and responsibility, and have increased their membership by 2 millions” during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first term. Back then Republicans understood that a growing middle class was good for the entire economy.  That party platform also said that “America does not prosper unless all Americans prosper.” Their rule: No shirkers.

But then in those days our economy wasn’t dominated by Wall Street megabanks – institutions that don’t build or sell anything. And politicians weren’t completely in bankers’ pockets back then, because the public wouldn’t have tolerated it.

We shouldn’t tolerate it now.

4. When you kill unions, that reduces consumer income – which kills jobs.

The Shirker assault on unions has taken its toll. Only 25 states remain free to unionize, and union membership has fallen dramatically:

 

Their logic would suggest that the plunge in union membership we’ve seen since 1960 must have led to a rise in good jobs.  Did it? Let’s take a look at manufacturing:

That’s my freehand drawing (and therefore not exact) of the trend line in union membership, superimposed by the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States.  Manufacturing jobs kept on increasing for more than twenty years, even as union membership increased. These jobs experienced periods of decline and stagnation as union membership fell, even before the devastating impact of NAFTA.

Consumer demand is vital to growth. That demand is tied to consumers’ income, and to their belief that life in the future will be as good or better than it is today.  Those are the two things we need to reinforce, and unions are crucial to that effort.

We need to get our economy growing again. Until then most Americans, unionized or not, will continue to struggle with stagnating wages and an ongoing economic drag that can feel a lot like a recession.  As Paul Krugman likes to say (he said it in our radio interview), This isn’t rocket science. We know how to do this.

Destroying unions is just another way for the Shirkers to make sure that we never do.

This post was originally posted on Our Future on December 13, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Richard Eskow is a well-known blogger and writer, a former Wall Street executive, an experienced consultant, and a former musician.  He has experience in health insurance and economics, occupational health, benefits, risk management, finance, and information technology.  He has a somewhat unique perspective on the current financial crisis, since he worked for AIG for a number of years (although not in its infamous Financial Products division). Richard has consulting experience in the US and over 20 countries. Past clients include USAID, the World Bank, the State Department, the Harvard School of International Public Health, the Government of Hungary, as well as corporations and investors. He has experience in financial and data analysis, systems design, operations, and management.


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What You Need To Know About The Michigan GOP’s ‘Right-To-Work’ Assault On Workers

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On Thursday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) backtrackedon his commitment to avoid so-called “right-to-work” legislation and by the end of the day, both the Michigan House of Representatives and the Michigan state Senate had introduced and passed separate bills aimed at the state’s union workforce.

Michigan Republicans claim the state needs the measure to stay competitive with Indiana, where lawmakers passed “right-to-work” last year. In reality, though, such laws have negative effects on workers and little effect on economic growth. Here is what you need to know about the state GOP’s campaign:

THE LEGISLATION: Both the state House and state Senate passed legislation on Thursday that prohibits private sector unions from requiring members to pay dues. The Senate followed suit and passed a different but similar measure that extends the same prohibition for public sector unions, though firefighters and police officers are exempt. The state House included a budget appropriations provision that is intended to prevent the state’s voters from being able to legally challenge the law through a ballot referendum. Due to state law, both houses are prevented from voting on legislation passed by the other for five days, so neither will be able to fully pass the legislation until Tuesday at the earliest.

THE PROCESS: Union leaders and Democrats claim that Republicans are pushing the legislation through in the lame-duck session to hide the intent of the measures from citizens, and because the legislation would face more trouble after the new House convenes in January. Michigan Republicans hold a 63-47 advantage in the state House, but Democrats narrowed the GOP majority to just eight seats in November. Six Republicans opposed the House measure; five of them won re-election in 2012 (the sixth retired). And Michigan Republicans have good reason to pursue the laws without public debate. Though the state’s voters are evenly split on whether it should become a right-to-work state, 78 percent of voters said the legislature “should focus on issues like creating jobs and improving education, and not changing state laws or rules that would impact unions or make further changes in collective bargaining.”

THE CONSEQUENCES: While Snyder and Republicans pitched “right-to-work” as a pro-worker move aimed at improving the economy, studies show such legislation can cost workers money. The Economic Policy Institute found that right-to-work laws cost all workers, union and otherwise, $1,500 a year in wages and that they make it harder for workers to obtain pensions and health coverage. “If benefits coverage in non-right-to-work states were lowered to the levels of states with these laws, 2 million fewer workers would receive health insurance and 3.8 million fewer workers would receive pensions nationwide,” David Madland and Karla Walter from the Center for American Progress wrote earlier this year. The decreases in union membership that result from right-to-work laws have a significant impact on the middle class and research “shows that there is no relationship between right-to-work laws and state unemployment rates, state per capita income, or state job growth,” EPI wrote in a recent report about Michigan. “Right-to-work” laws also decrease worker safety and can hurt small businesses.

Union leaders are, of course, aghast at Snyder and the GOP’s right-to-work push. “In a state that gave birth to the modern U.S. labor movement, it is unconscionable that Michigan legislators would seek to drive down living standards for Michigan workers and families with a law that will do nothing to improve either the state’s economic climate or the quality of life for Michigan residents,” RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of National Nurses United, said in a statement.

This post was originally posted on December 7, 2012 on Think Progress. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Travis Waldron is is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Travis grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and holds a BA in journalism and political science from the University of Kentucky. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he worked as a press aide at the Health Information Center and as a staffer on Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway’s 2010 Senate campaign. He also interned at National Journal’s Hotline and was a sports writer and political columnist at the Kentucky Kernel, the University of Kentucky’s daily student newspaper.


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How A Proposed Pennsylvania Law Would Make Workers Pay Taxes To Their Boss

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According to Good Jobs First, an organization that promotes accountability in economic development, several states allow corporations to literally pocket their employees’ tax payments. Rather than having those taxes go towards public services, the companies withhold money from their workers’ paychecks and just keep it, never remitting it to the state, under the guise of a job creation program.

Good Jobs First found that “nearly $700 million is getting diverted each year. And it is very unlikely that the affected workers are aware, given that no state requires that the diversion be disclosed on pay stubs.” Now, Pennsylvania is considering becoming the latest state to participate, as the Philadelphia City Paper reported:

Republican Governor Tom Corbett is deciding whether or not to sign legislation that would require some workers to pay taxes to their bosses. Yes, you read that right. The bill, which would allow companies that hire at least 250 new workers in the state to keep 95-percent of the workers’ withheld income tax, is an effort to to recruit Oracle to the state.

Your taxes would get withheld by your boss like normal, but they would then keep them and spend it on private jets or monogrammed bathroom fixtures or whatever instead of turning them over to the state–turning your tax dollars over to the state being the whole reason they were ostensibly “withheld” in the first place.

“These deals typify corporate socialism, in which business gains are privatized and costs socialized,” wrote Reuters David Cay Johnson. “Leaders in both parties embrace these giveaways because they draw campaign donations from corporate interests and votes from people who do not understand that they are subsidizing huge companies.” The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center listed a host of reasons that Gov. Tom Corbett (R-PA) should reject the law, including its effect on state revenue and its loopholes that will allow companies to collect their workers’ tax payments even if they create no new jobs.

This post originally appeared in ThinkProgress’s Wonk Room on October 24, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Pat Garofalo is an Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Pat’s work has also appeared in The Nation, U.S. News & World Report, The Guardian, the Washington Examiner, and In These Times. He has been a guest on MSNBC and Al-Jazeera television, as well as many radio shows. Pat graduated from Brandeis University, where he was the editor-in-chief of The Brandeis Hoot, Brandeis’ community newspaper, and worked for the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life.


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Inferior workplace health and safety regulations are killing us (literally!)

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Image: Kate ThomasOn Monday, May 16, SEIU member Cathy Stoddart, RN, BSN spoke at a briefing with U.S. Senate staff about the importance of strong health and safety workplace regulations. The briefing familiarized HELP committee staff with the benefits of regulations for American consumers and workers, as well as the costs of government’s failure to ensure a safe workplace.

In her dual role serving an Executive Board member of her SEIU Healthcare PA and as a nurse at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny General Hospital, Cathy is no stranger to making her voice heard on workers’ rights and workplace safety issues. She spoke in detail on Monday about how we might easily and affordably strengthen health and safety regulations to prevent injuries and illnesses, save lives, and improve patient care. “Regulations don’t kill jobs,” Cathy pointed out, “but a lack of workplace health and safety regulations does kill workers.”

The reality is much more needs to be done to regulate hazards that healthcare workers face. The statistics speak for themselves…

Healthcare workers have higher injury and illness rates than workers in mining, manufacturing or construction; yet very few health and safety standards for these caregiving workers exist.

For example, there are currently no standards to protect healthcare workers from the leading hazard they face: an epidemic of neck, back and shoulder injuries from manual patient handling. A Safe Patient Handling regulation that required the provision of lifting devices to protect healthcare workers from career-ending back, neck and shoulder injuries would go a long way towards solving this pervasive problem. With the recent anti- worker rhetoric combined with staffing cutbacks, we are also seeing an alarming increase in workplace violence. We need a national OSHA workplace violence prevention standard to protect healthcare workers from getting assaulted by patients, residents and clients.

A bill that’s currently making the rounds in the House Judiciary and Rules Committees presents a huge potential barrier to removing the threats healthcare workers still face on the job. H.R. 10 (the REINS Act) would require both Houses of Congress to approve virtually all new major regulations before they go into effect, which means that any new regulation would get caught up in Congressional gridlock.

What would passage of the REINS Act specifically mean for working people? Nothing good, that’s for sure. HR 10, if enacted, would essentially make it impossible to ever issue another regulation to protect workers from on-the-job hazards. Consider that in the year 2010 alone, federal agencies issued more than 90 major new rules that could likely have been subject to the REINS Act’s requirements. There are simply not enough hours in a day to allow Congress to allot the time necessary to consider and approve even the most important rules (much less 90 of them).

The OSHA standard setting process currently in place is essentially broken. Standards that previously took a year to promulgate now take decades, if they come out at all. We need to expedite rulemaking, not slow it down, like the REIN Act aims to do.

This article originally appeared in SEIU Blog on May 19, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kate Thomas is a blogger, web producer and new media coordinator at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor union with 2.1 million members in the healthcare, public and property service sectors. Kate’s passions include the progressive movement, the many wonders of the Internet and her job working for an organization that is helping to improve the lives of workers and fight for meaningful health care and labor law reform. Prior to working at SEIU, Katie worked for the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) as a communications/public relations coordinator and editor of AMSA’s newsletter appearing in The New Physician magazine.


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