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Biden backs right of Amazon workers to attempt to organize

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President Joe Biden on Sunday offered his support for organizing efforts by Amazon workers in Alabama, though he stopped just short of endorsing the formation of a union.

“Workers in Alabama — and all across America — are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. It’s a vitally important choice — one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers,” the president tweeted. “Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union.”

His tweet was accompanied by a video in which Biden addressed the workers involved. He told them that the choice whether to organize was their choice exclusively, and that there should be “no coercion” by the company.

“I have long said America wasn’t built by Wall Street,” the president began. “It was built by the middle class, and unions built the middle class.”

Biden has long cultivated an image as a friend of organized labor but had previously largely steered clear of the efforts to organize Amazon’s workers at a location in Bessemer, Ala. Some 6,000 workers at the Alabama facility have been voting whether to organize.

“If we don’t have the leader of the free world speaking up and saying, ‘I’ve got these workers’ backs, so that they can actually freely choose their union,’ … We’re leaving them stranded,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA told POLITICO in an interview.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on February 28, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Cohen is Senior Editor at Politico. He joined POLITICO in 2010 after 25 years in the news business, including extended stints at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Nando.net (now McClatchy Interactive) and The Record of Hackensack (N.J.). He is also the author of “Rugged and Enduring: The Eagles, The Browns and 5 Years of Football,” published in 2001.


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Reversing job market opens door to larger Biden stimulus

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The latest coronavirus wave slammed the U.S. economy in December, wiping out 140,000 jobs, raising pressure to accelerate vaccinations and blowing the door open for President-elect Joe Biden and a narrowly Democratic Congress to push for even more stimulus spending within weeks.

The December employment report, the last to be released during President Donald Trump’s administration, leaves the nation around 11 million short of the level of jobs from before Covid-19 crushed the economy and wiped out around 23 million jobs. Trump’s record will now include a recovered stock market but an enormous net loss of jobs.

Most of the losses in December, nearly 500,000, came in the leisure and hospitality industries as fresh lockdowns and lower travel led to widespread layoffs. The expiration of some of the first big stimulus package, passed back in March, also left consumers with less money to spend, hitting demand in the economy.

The December tumble, which left the jobless rate at 6.7 percent, suggests the distribution and adoption of coronavirus vaccines must increase rapidly in order to avoid much worse damage and allow for potential recovery in the spring and summer. 

And it will give Biden and the Democrats wider leeway to force through trillions of dollars more in stimulus spending — by whatever legislative means available — including significant help for state and local governments. It also means the Democrats will likely be able to approve enough direct cash to reach the “$2,000 check” level they’ve long supported, when including the $600 checks approved by Congress and signed by Trump last month. 

“The economy went into reverse in December and we are still 11.5 million jobs short of where we were and the biggest problem was the virus and the expiration of stimulus,” said Harvard professor Jason Furman, who served as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama. “Much more action is needed to control the virus and support the economy. And I think that will be enough to generate large improvements over the course of 2021.”

The December jobs report cements a strange legacy for Trump. The nation will have millions of jobs fewer than when he took office, partly due to a slow and halting federal response to the coronavirus. But the stock market has regained all its losses from the spring and now is hitting records once again as many companies that thrived during lockdowns soar and investors bet on a stronger 2021.

The bifurcation has led to a stark “K-shaped” recovery in which the top level of workers have largely if not completely recovered while tens of millions of Americans in lower-paying service industry jobs suffer. Economic inequality, already bad before the virus hit, is now at levels not seen since the 1920s before the Great Depression. Reversing that trend is among Biden’s top priorities. And he now has more weapons at his disposal with the narrowest of Senate majorities following Democrats‘ two special election wins in Georgia. 

Biden will have full control of Washington — though not a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate — during the first two years of his term. And his economic advisers plan a heavy focus on spending to boost vaccination distribution, support strapped state and local governments, improve American infrastructure, further expand jobless benefits and pump more direct cash into individual households. 

Economists and Wall Street analysts say some of the recent market ebullience is based on the assumption that Biden will be able to deliver on much of this even if Democrats decide against blowing up the legislative filibuster, which requires 60 votes in the Senate to overcome. 

But they will have multiple opportunities to use the “budget reconciliation”vehicle to pass significant spending increases with a one-vote margin in the Senate. There is also the chance that more Republicans in the Senate will come around to the need for bigger stimulus spending given the wave of new coronavirus cases and the slow nature of the vaccine rollout.

“With the elections in Georgia giving control to the Democrats, we should expect to get a fairly large and targeted fiscal aid package in the first quarter of the year which investors clearly have seized on,” said Joseph Brusuelas, chief economist at consulting firm RLM. “We are going to get a targeted fiscal aid package quickly then another stimulus package and then infrastructure. And these are all huge things.” 

The state and local aid will be especially important as states are already struggling to pay billions in extended benefits approved by Congress last month, leading to several weeks of delays in payments in places like California, Michigan, Florida and Washington. Losses in state and local government jobs forced by lower Covid-era tax receipts and the need to balance budgets is also driving down the national jobs numbers. 

Failing to approve larger stimulus spending could push the economy into either a double-dip recession or a repeat of the slow, halting and unequal recovery that followed the financial crisis of 2008. The Biden team, many of whom worked in government during the Obama years, is determined to learn the lessons of the last major slowdown.

Still, even with major stimulus spending, the recovery will depend in large part on effective and widespread adoption of vaccines. And even then, it may take years to return to economic conditions before the virus hit. “I’m worried some of the scarring is extensive enough that we will be far from fully recovered at the end of 2021,” said Furman. “Today’s number expands what was already an open window for more support for the economy, but we will not be back in perfect condition until 2022 or 2023. It’s going to take a while in some places.”

Job losses in December, which ended seven months of gains following the enormous virus-induced declines, largely came in the service industry where restaurants and bars slashed 372,000 positions as cold weather and new lockdowns limited demand. Overall, employment in leisure and hospitality — which includes hotels, tourist sites and other categories, declined by 498,000. Gains in professional and business services, retail and other areas were not enough to offset the giant losses elsewhere. Government jobs declined by 45,000 amid growing budget crunches around the nation. 

There are now around 11 million unemployed and the jobless rate remained at 6.7 percent, well below its Covid-ear peak of over 14 percent but still double what it was before Covid hit. And there are still nearly 20 million Americans on some form of jobless assistance.

But Wall Street traders and many economists remain hopeful that the slide in jobs will reverse fairly early next year given prospects for vaccines and more fiscal aid. Should either of those things fail, however, the numbers could get significantly worse. 

“While we remain very upbeat on the US’ medium- to long-term prospects, we have to be braced for more bad economic data that could last well into the second half of 2021,” James Knightley, chief international economist at financial firm ING, wrote in a note to clients on Friday.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on January 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ben White is POLITICO Pro’s chief economic correspondent and author of the “Morning Money” column covering the nexus of finance and public policy.


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HOW FARMWORKERS IN MICHIGAN ARE FIGHTING FOR LABOR RIGHTS AND RESPECT

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On December 6, 2020, a federal judge heard arguments on a motion to dismiss in Reyes-Trujillo v. Four Star Greenhouse, a case brought by a group of farmworkers alleging wage and hour violations against the greenhouse company where they worked. The case illustrates why a strong Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) joint employment standard is critical to raising labor standards in the H-2A temporary agricultural visa program and providing H-2A farmworkers with a meaningful remedy for labor violations.

The plaintiffs, H-2A agricultural visa holders from México, worked for Four Star Greenhouse, a Michigan corporation that cultivates and sells plants and finished crops. Four Star engaged a farm labor contractor to recruit its workers through the H-2A visa program, which allows employers to recruit foreign nationals to the United States to work in temporary agricultural jobs.

The farm labor contractor acted as the plaintiffs’ employer by applying for their H-2A visas, transporting them to the United States, arranging for them to work at Four Star, and paying them. However, the plaintiffs worked at Four Star’s facility, under Four Star’s supervision, and for Four Star’s benefit. Four Star also arranged for their hire and paid the farm labor contractor a rate for their labor that was based on the plaintiffs’ hourly wage and hours worked.

The farmworkers allege that, while working at Four Star, they endured egregious labor violations, including not being paid for all hours worked and having their work checks bounce. The plaintiffs complained to both Four Star and the farm labor contractor that they had not been paid, after which the contractor allegedly retaliated by orchestrating the arrest and deportation of some of the plaintiffs by federal immigrant agents.

The plaintiffs, represented by the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, Farmworker Legal Services, and Centro de Los Derechos del Migrante, sued Four Star for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Act (AWPA) based on the wage violations and retaliation they endured.

Four Star filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing, among other things, that it was not the plaintiffs’ employer so was not responsible under the FLSA or the AWPA.

In NELP’s amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs’ opposition to the motion to dismiss, NELP argues that Congress intended for the FLSA and the AWPA to expand accountability for labor violations to companies that insert contractors between themselves and their laborers while maintaining the economic power to prevent FLSA and AWPA violations.

The definition of “employ” in the FLSA and the AWPA—which includes “to suffer or permit to work”—is the broadest definition of employment used in a law. It derives from state child labor laws, which used the “suffer or permit to work” language to reach businesses that used middlemen to illegally hire and supervise children.   

Given this broad definition, it is clear that Congress intended both the FLSA and AWPA to cover businesses that allow work to be done for their benefit and have the power to prevent wage and hour abuses, even if they disclaim responsibility as an employer.  Because Four Star had the power to know about and prevent the egregious violations that the plaintiffs endured, it should be considered the plaintiffs’ employer under the FLSA and AWPA. 

Because Four Star had the power to know about and prevent the egregious violations that the plaintiffs endured, it should be considered the plaintiffs’ employer under the FLSA and AWPA. 

Furthermore, there is endemic exploitation in the H-2A visa program, and this exploitation cannot be curbed unless companies that hire H-2A farmworkers through farm labor contractors are held accountable. Coming from homelands with few job opportunities, H-2A workers—most of whom come from México—often arrive in the United States in serious debt, having paid significant fees and travel costs for the opportunity to work in the United States.  

Companies like Four Star that use farm labor contractors to recruit, transport, and pay H-2A migrant workers exacerbate the workers’ vulnerability to exploitation.  Labor brokers like the farm labor contractor in this case traffic in foreign workers whom they hire out to a variety of different employers.   

The workers are dependent on the farm labor contractors for their housing, food and transportation and on the agricultural operations like Four Star for their jobs and livelihood.  Many farm labor contractors have few assets, which means workers cannot obtain legal recourse from them for violations of their rights. Meanwhile the agricultural operations can attempt to avoid responsibility for their migrant workers’ exploitation by pointing the finger at the farm labor contractor. 

Meanwhile the agricultural operations can attempt to avoid responsibility for their migrant workers’ exploitation by pointing the finger at the farm labor contractor. 

This attempt to deflect responsibility is precisely what is happening in the Four Star case. Holding farm operators like Four Star accountable to their subcontracted workers as an employer will improve FLSA and AWPA compliance in an industry with rampant worker abuse.  

It will incentivize farm operators to hire H-2A visa farmworkers directly, or to choose farm labor contractors with strong compliance records and to set up procedures that detect their contractors’ unlawful labor practices. And it will increase workers’ chances of obtaining a meaningful remedy for violations of their rights.

This blog originally appeared at NELP on December 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Padin joined NELP in 2018 as a senior staff attorney for the Work Structures Portfolio.


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Big corporations suck the marrow out of the COVID-19 economy, leaving devastation behind them

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What’s the use of a crisis if big corporations and wealthy people can’t use it to make more money, preferably at the expense of those with less than them? I ask you! 

Well, by that standard, the coronavirus pandemic has worked out quite well. A large majority of the biggest publicly traded companies were profitable between April and September, but more than half laid off workers. Meanwhile, they watched small business revenue crash and many small businesses go under.

According to a Washington Post analysis, it breaks down like this: “45 of the 50 most valuable publicly traded U.S. companies turned a profit,” with an average of 2% revenue growth through the first nine months of the year. But at least 27 of those 50 firms had layoffs, leading to more than 100,000 people losing their jobs.

At the same time, small business revenue dropped 12%, with at least 100,000 small businesses closing.

To add insult to injury for the workers laid off by these large, profitable companies, many entered the pandemic with rah rah rhetoric about protecting their workers. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff pledged “not to conduct any significant lay offs over the next 90 days.” He kept that promise. But about two months after that 90 days was up, Salesforce laid off 1,000 workers despite big profits.

This is 21st century corporate capitalism in action. Every disaster is an opportunity for more profit, and responsibility to the workers that make your company run is a meaningless concept. It’s one more reminder that claims about corporate tax cuts—like the ones the Republicans passed in 2017—meaning job creation should never, ever be believed. The tax cuts and the pandemic alike saw companies doing huge share buybacks to benefit the already wealthy, while workers reaped no benefit to speak of.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on December 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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NATCA’s Disaster Response Committee Raises Funds for Union Relief Efforts

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

With so many severe storms and wildfires having struck parts of our country over the past several months, unions are stepping up to provide relief for our members and our communities that have been impacted. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) established a fund for disaster relief in 1992, in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in Florida and Louisiana. Following the devastating 2017 hurricane season, NATCA formed its own Disaster Response Committee to manage the union’s Disaster Relief Fund and organize the relief process for NATCA members affected by a disaster. Due to the generosity of its membership, NATCA’s Disaster Relief Fund has continued to grow.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on October 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Aaron Gallant is the Communications Director and Political Action Coordinator at AFSCME Council 66


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The Movement for Black Lives and Labor’s Revival

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The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited the most widespread series of protests in U.S. history. Working people—not only Black, but people of all races—were the driving force. Even labor leaders who are usually reluctant to weigh in on hot social issues spoke out.

The challenge now is to bring the militancy and energy of this year’s revived Black struggle into the workplace—amid the coronavirus-driven economic crisis.

A deep look at U.S. labor history shows that labor can make big steps forward when Black workers are in motion in their communities. In our past, a mobilized Black community has brought the energy and self-confidence of powerful collective action in the streets into workplace organizing. It’s also brought a grassroots orientation that challenges top-down conservatism.

Will the same be true for unions today?

PANDEMIC POTENTIAL

The potential could be glimpsed in the early weeks of the pandemic, when union and non-union workers alike took action over unsafe working conditions, in worksites ranging from hospitals to Amazon warehouses to grocery stores. Because so many “essential workers” are Black and Latino, they were often at the center of the action, from Detroit bus drivers to Pittsburgh sanitation workers to Georgia poultry workers.

What makes the Black Lives Matter protests so important isn’t just their size. It’s the fact that demonstrators are linking the struggle against racist police violence to the whole racist system. The basketball players’ walkout in August highlighted the connection between racism in society and at the workplace.

Black workers have never drawn a line between civil rights in the community and worker rights on the job. That has everything to do with the central role Black labor has always played in the U.S. economy, from the unpaid labor of slavery to the low wages paid to Black workers by modern industrialists to boost profits.

STREETS TO WORKPLACE

Labor history shows that Black workers don’t protest in the streets while keeping quiet at work.

Black workers were key to labor’s 1930s upsurge in many industries, particularly in the South, even if many Southern struggles were ultimately unsuccessful. In the Midwest, the steel, auto, and meatpacking industries could not have been unionized had not rank-and-file organizers, including socialists of all currents, taken on the racism of the companies—and often of their white co-workers.

Many workplaces and unions at the time were Jim Crow—barred to Black workers. In New York City, a Black community boycott of two privately owned bus lines in 1941 forced the companies to hire Black workers.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Black workers were the driving force of the Southern civil rights movement. A key strategist of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56—the breakthrough struggle of the civil rights movement—was E.D. Nixon, the Alabama president of an all-Black railroad union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Nixon was among those who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then a dynamic but largely unknown 27-year-old preacher. The Brotherhood was a key connection between Black union members in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland and mostly non-union Southern workers.

The Southern civil rights movement prodded the highly conservative AFL-CIO bureaucracy into supporting it, even as nearly all-white building trades unions kept fighting to maintain a color bar into the 1960s. More generally, the level of mobilization in the Black community and the confidence that came with winning the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reinforced the desire to fight at work as well.

PUBLIC SECTOR STRIKE WAVE

The Southern Black struggle then came North in the form of the Black Power movement. By then Black workers represented big numbers in major industrial unions, such as auto and steel. Black workers were an essential part of—and often a leading force in—the strike wave that began in the mid-1960s.

That period saw a massive expansion of public sector unionism, with Black workers a key component. The welfare rights movement in New York City, with Black women at the center, is one example. That movement was linked to social workers’ unionization efforts in the Social Services Employees Union, an independent organization that struck in defiance of the law and got the support of King and other civil rights leaders as well as community groups. SSEU helped open the way for AFSCME’s recognition and formal public sector bargaining rights in New York.

The assassination of Dr. King led to street rebellions across the U.S. in 1968. Three months later, in auto, Black workers’ Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) led a 1968 wildcat over speedup and discrimination, which spurred similar organizations and strikes elsewhere in auto and in other industries. The workers also took on internal struggles in the United Auto Workers. The UAW had been willing to support the Southern civil rights movement and the 1963 March on Washington, but it sought to suppress Black members’ demands internally.

The 1970 national postal wildcat was strongest in the big cities of the Northeast and Midwest, strongholds for Black workers. Black workers were the absolute majority of postal workers in Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Detroit. That job action was likely the largest-ever Black participation in a strike.

Labor struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s were widespread and certainly not limited to Black workers. But the militancy of Black workers was an essential ingredient. Could that same dynamic emerge today?

AN OUTSIZED ROLE

Potentially. But this time Black workers—and their Latino, Asian, and white co-workers—will have to undertake the basic task of union organization on a much greater scale. In 1970, more than 24 percent of workers belonged to unions. The Black Power movement could therefore find a connection in heavily Black unionized workplaces in auto and the post office. Today the path from protest to the workplace is more difficult.

But the same dynamic still exists. The Fight for 15 movement, even though it did not result in union contracts, won a $15 minimum wage through legislation in some states and cities in large part because of the participation of low-wage Black workers. And Black workers are more likely to be in unions than any other group.

Certainly, Black workers have lost important footholds in the unions over the last few decades, with plant closures and shifts of production to the largely non-union South. And now the pandemic economic shutdown has hammered the hospitality and service economy, leading to layoffs in union hotels that hit Black and Latino workers particularly hard.

But Black workers are still a strong component of labor’s remaining base in the private sector, such as auto and UPS, and in the public sector, where they are 20 percent of the total. That means Black workers have an outsized role to play in any resistance to pandemic-driven government budget cuts.

The Chicago Teachers Union’s strikes of 2012 and 2019 showed how a bold union can win public support for demands that address racist realities. The CTU fought for “The Schools Our Children Deserve,” for Black teachers facing job loss, for rent control and sustainable housing and services for homeless students, and against evictions. The potential for such connections is much wider after the anti-racism protests of 2020.

It’s a huge fight. But it always has been. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 give labor activists the opportunity to revive that tradition.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tim Schermerhorn is a retired transit worker in New York City and a former vice president of Transport Workers Union Local 100. Lee Sustar is a journalist in Chicago and member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981.


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Overcoming Inequality in Unemployment Benefit Access and Utilization

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History may not repeat itself but it certainly rhymes. Today’s unemployed Black workers face a system of unequal state policies and practices that were created after the Civil War to maintain white supremacy and prevent Black Americans from obtaining wealth. These discriminatory policies drive enormous and persistent wage and wealth gaps, as well as the ongoing exclusion of Black workers from the benefits, rights, and protections we all deserve.

A reckoning is due.

Early in the pandemic, Working America — an organization that mobilizes working-class people to take action on pocketbook issues — partnered with policy experts at the National Employment Law Project, with the support of Open Society Foundations, to address a portion of this legacy: the unequal distribution of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. Black workers are not only more likely to be unemployed during the pandemic but much less likely to receive UI. Law, policy, and practice may be the problems, but the solution begins with mobilization. 

Money Changes Everything

It’s no secret that the United States has a history of exploiting Black workers. But the extent to which one can draw a direct line between the current unemployment crisis and the history of enslavement is staggering. Throughout America’s history, Black Americans, especially in rural communities, have been subjected to discriminatory laws and policies aimed at keeping them from achieving economic parity with white workers.

Unemployment insurance is a good example. The program was designed so that not all workers would be eligible for benefits — including lower-paid workers, workers with short periods of employment, seasonal workers, and workers in industries that tend to be more highly populated by people of color, such as domestic and agricultural work. As a result, many Black workers don’t expect to be eligible for benefits and, therefore, never apply. Why apply just to be denied? 

The lowest UI benefit levels are in southern states with large Black populations. In states such as North Carolina and Florida, for example, fewer than 12 percent of jobless individuals received unemployment benefits last year. When workers in many southern states do get UI, the benefits are so low that they would barely cover the essentials. The maximum weekly benefit in Florida and Tennessee is $275; in Alabama, it’s $265; in Arizona, it’s $240; and in Mississippi, it’s $235. 

Black workers are far less likely to receive UI even when they apply for benefits. In a survey our organizations conducted in July, a majority of Black workers responded that they had exhausted their savings; nearly two-thirds admitted that they were now going without necessities. In comparison, only one in four white workers said they had exhausted their savings and only one in five admitted to skipping necessities.

A major reason for this disparity was workers’ ability to access UI. An analysis by Nyanya Browne and William Spriggs of Howard University and the AFL-CIO found that, “Just 13 percent of Black people out of work from April to June received unemployment benefits, compared with 24 percent of white workers, 22 percent of Latinx workers and 18 percent of workers of other races.” What’s more, 30 percent of Black adults who filed for unemployment benefits did not receive their payments. 

The difficulties people of color — and Black people in particular — have in accessing UI are systemic and ongoing. It isn’t only that most UI systems create barriers to access, including insufficient staffing, outdated web systems, and lack of adequate explainers for claimants. Individuals with uncommon or ethnic names were more likely to be denied benefits they were entitled to. This is not a function of law or policy but of individual people practicing discriminatory conduct. This practice robs individuals and their families of the meager economic safety net our society provides, putting them at a disadvantage that is hard to recover from. That is a lot of historical rhyming.

Changing the UI Experience

Working America and NELP partnered on this project to understand the problems with UI access and utilization for Black workers, use our available toolset to mitigate harm, and assist eligible workers in enrolling in UI. For this project, Working America is leveraging its digital organizing capacity and clinical testing know-how to boost UI utilization rates among Black workers using targeted text messages, email, and phone calls that can reach three million people a week.

Listening is the key to all good organizing, so we began our project by reaching out to 14,531 workers. Our goal was to document their experiences with the unemployment system, their attitudes toward the system, and their knowledge of the application process.

A full 53 percent of people told us that they or someone in their households had lost a job as a result of the pandemic. That number rose to 68 percent when we asked them about their friends.

Ayana, a 46-year-old Westland, Michigan, resident working in health care, said, “My friends, neighbors, and family members all have had to apply to UI … They all had technical difficulties [when applying]. It seemed like no one could ever talk to a live person.”

Keshia, a 44-year-old Greensboro, North Carolina, resident who works in human resources, said, “My sister lost her job in the medical field. She had to wake up very, very early, like 3:00 a.m., in order to apply through the online portal. Otherwise, it would be so slow it wouldn’t work. She was denied because there was some discrepancy with her name and had to keep going back and forth, but she eventually got it.”

Through conversations like these, we diagnosed several problems.

First, there was a clear geographic disparity. In southern states, problems were borne of deliberate policy choices that continue the long legacy of structural racism, including restrictive eligibility and low benefit levels. In addition, those living in rural counties faced greater difficulty accessing benefits than those living in urban areas. Even with Working America’s help, unemployed Black Americans in rural communities waited seven-to-eight days longer than unemployed white and Latinx Americans to receive benefits. 

Second, most people we spoke to were not aware of program eligibility rules and benefits. This was one of the primary reasons that they did not apply for benefits. Further, many saw their hours reduced rather than being laid off; these workers were often unaware that they were eligible for unemployment benefits.

In addition to these informal conversations, our large-scale survey of 14,135 workers found alarming but unsurprising conditions. Black and brown workers were the least likely to have savings, the most likely to have lost wages during the pandemic, and the most likely to be unable to pay for essentials such as groceries, medications, and rent. Across the board, there was little knowledge about the unemployment program’s eligibility criteria or benefit amounts, confirming what we heard in our informal conversations. 

There is reason to hope, however. A majority of people we talked with were willing to take action to help their friends and family access benefits. 

Our organizers provided Ayana, Keshia, and other similarly situated “peer organizers” with information about unemployment eligibility and how to access benefits in their state. We also followed up to make sure members of their communities were accessing benefits. 

We’ve been in back-and-forth communication with almost 7,540 Black workers who are sharing information about UI in their networks. By constantly testing our outreach through randomized control trials and making adjustments based on the evidence of what works, we are finding agents of change in the community. 

One UI recipient in Pennsylvania told us, “We’re never going to get out of this mess here in Philadelphia unless we start treating Blacks like everyone else … I can tell you care, and it sounds like you’ve been helping people here, so I’m going to share your stuff because I know a lot of people that sure can use it, and you’re right, I already know a few that might get evicted.” 

Another Pennsylvania resident told us he works as a manager for a construction company that had to lay off a lot of workers. He wanted information so he could help his employees file for unemployment benefits. Yet another man told us he was a landlord, and while he didn’t need help applying for benefits, he was interested in helping his unemployed tenants get the benefits they needed to stay afloat. 

Turning Enthusiasm into Action

We know we need to scale up this program to reach more affected workers. Our goal is to build an organizing formula that measurably increases the application and filing rates — and ultimately the level of income — in these communities.

Working with the Labor Lab at Columbia University, we are implementing randomized control trials to assess the effectiveness of campaign strategies in increasing awareness of unemployment benefits and action on UI claims in Black communities. We are focusing our efforts on the 42 counties across the country with the highest concentration of Black workers. In half the counties, we’ll saturate residents with calls, digital contacts, and grasstops organizing techniques. We will then track the change in claims at the county level to get hard data on the impact of our work.

We found that there is a lot of misinformation about unemployment benefits, so we developed quiz-style engagement actions. For example: “True or false? If you were out of work but found a new job, you can still get unemployment benefits for the time you were out of work.” These types of actions tend to have greater engagement.

In phone conversations, we have found that people are much less likely to agree to help with unemployment outreach if they have not been personally impacted by the unemployment crisis. However, upon learning that only one in four eligible Black workers applies for benefits, many wonder if people they know might be missing out. Overall, 70 percent of these people agreed to help others apply for unemployment benefits.

Our next step is to follow up with these peer organizers who have been sharing UI information in their communities to connect them with fellow activists, skilled organizers, and resources to help them become more effective at reaching those who need it most. By talking directly to workers and members of the community, we are able to help them navigate the complexities of accessing regular and expanded unemployment insurance benefits. By recruiting them as community organizers, we’re creating a movement that will help many more families who have lost wages gain financial ground.

Fixing Broken Policies

At the grasstops level, Working America and NELP are collaborating with other organizations to advocate for short- and long-term policy solutions to the unemployment crisis.

In the short term, we must meet the immediate needs of unemployed and underemployed workers. Congress must not only reinstate the $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefit and other CARES Act provisions but also provide funding to state and local governments, ensure paid sick leave and child care for all working people, and deliver relief for workers ineligible for unemployment payments. USDOL’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) must also make it clear that suitable work does not include unsafe work; if employers have not taken the minimum precautions set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 workplace guidelines, workers who quit their jobs should be eligible for unemployment benefits.

In the long term, Congress should consider federalizing UI — to operate similarly to Social Security — in order to address the wide disparity across states and populations. We should have permanent levers to automatically extend benefits during a recession, make worksharing available in every state, and provide dependent allowances for people who have children. Workers who are fleeing domestic violence, following a spouse whose job has moved, or leaving a job that jeopardizes their health and safety should be able to receive UI. And we should make sure that all workers, including those with erratic or part-time schedules and those whose job categories are currently excluded, are eligible to receive meaningful UI benefits. Finally, UI information technology (IT) systems must be easier for claimants to access. Individual states can take steps now to immediately address problems.

Ground-Up Systemic Change 

Many smart organizations and people have tried to increase UI access over the years, and a lot of work has gone into improving actualization of similar programs, such as Medicaid, EITC, and SNAP. What all these programs have in common is that they can change the dynamics of personal wealth and give working people what they need to gain some stability. We aren’t the first to tackle this issue, and we won’t be the last. 

The real power of this organizing project is the movement we’re creating to fix this rigged political economy and fight for the policy changes we desperately need. By arming people with the information they need to navigate the systems that have failed them for centuries, we can begin to break down some of the barriers that have kept wealth out of the hands of Black people. The key, we believe, is organizing communities not only to demand change of their elected officials but to make change themselves.

This blog originally appeared at The Forge on October 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Matt Morrison is the executive director of Working America, a three-million-member labor organization mobilizing working people who don’t have the benefit of a union at their jobs. He is a leading political practitioner with experience working in over 500 elections throughout his career.

Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). NELP is a respected leader in federal workers’ rights advocacy and the go-to resource for state and local worker movements, providing unmatched policy, legal, and technical assistance.


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Prop 22 is Bad for Black Workers

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When the pandemic forced Cherri Murphy to stop driving for Lyft, she applied for unemployment benefits like millions of other workers. But because Lyft has refused to pay into California’s unemployment insurance fund, insisting that its workers are independent contractors rather than employees, Cherri received zero dollars in unemployment benefits.

By day, Ms. Murphy is a member of Gig Workers Rising and a volunteer social justice minister who helps people connect their faith to the fight for racial justice. By night, she is a Black working woman in America, completing more than 12,000 Lyft rides, forced to play by rules designed for her — and millions of Black workers — to lose.

“Uber and Lyft drivers are mostly folks who look like me,” said Ms. Murphy. “We’re African American and people of color. We’re on the frontlines and among the hardest hit financially. But our bosses have offered us no meaningful protections, treating us as expendable as ever.”

Now, in the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately hurting Black Americans, Uber, Lyft and other gig companies like DoorDash and Instacart are trying to roll back labor rights for app-based workers through a ballot measure called Proposition 22. That’s bad news for Black workers.

Supporters of Proposition 22 talk about innovation and jobs of the future, but there is nothing new about bosses attacking labor rights. Don’t be fooled by the misinformation campaign these companies are running — saying drivers must choose between flexibility and employee rights. Flexibility has always been at the discretion of the employer.

As a report co-authored by the Partnership for Working Families and NELP shows, Proposition 22 would lock app-based workers out of minimum wage and overtime protections, unemployment insurance, the right to form a union, and critical health and safety protections.

Proposition 22 would effectively cancel local COVID-19 emergency sick leave laws, passed in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Los Angeles, that apply to app-based workers.

Bosses have always taken too much from Black workers. And U.S. labor laws have continuously failed Black workers, leaving them out of lifesaving labor protections. Economic inequality continues to this day, with Black women earning 62 cents on the dollar, and Black families having on average one-tenth of the wealth of white families. Union membership dramatically reduces that wealth gap.

The failed response to COVID-19 has only made life worse for Black people in the U.S. Racism in the labor market has forced Black workers onto the most dangerous frontlines of essential work. Yes, Trump is a threat to our safety. But Silicon Valley has done extensive damage as well, using sly legal moves and buying off politicians to steal the benefits workers have earned.

Proposition 22 is only the latest attempt by Silicon Valley bosses to rewrite state laws. It would roll back years of court rulings, agency policy, and statutory law in California, including Assembly Bill 5, which clarified that app-based workers are employees covered by the state’s wage-and-hour laws and eligible for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.

Proposition 22 is a step in the wrong direction that harkens back to a long and shameful history of denying Black workers their fundamental rights. The measure sets a dangerous precedent; one that the Trump administration and gig companies could use as fodder for their continued nationwide attack on workers’ rights.

Ms. Murphy was among hundreds of Black Uber and Lyft drivers who penned an open letter calling out gig employers for empty lip-service to the Black Lives Matter movement. The same companies running ad campaigns in support of Black Lives are bankrolling the most expensive ($184 million+) ballot measure in history to take protections away from Black workers.

California voters must vote no on Proposition 22, and say yes to a future with universal rights and good jobs for Black workers and for every worker in the state.

This blog originally appeared at National Employment Law Project on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rashad Robinson is an American civil rights leader. He is the president of Color of Change, having joined the organization in May 2011. He has served as a board member of RaceForwardDemosState Voices, and currently sits on the board of the Hazen Foundation.

Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP).


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Unions predict a Great Awakening during a Biden presidency

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Labor leaders are eyeing a Joe Biden victory in November as the start of a union revival, one with the potential to undo decades of policies that have diminished union influence, undermined the right to organize and exacerbated income inequality.

And they’re planning on playing a central role.

“It’s clear to me it’s going to be the most significant pro-labor, pro-worker administration in a long, long, long time,” said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters — the first union to endorse Biden during the Democratic primary.

Reversing America’s decades-long decline in union membership, however, will be a difficult task for even the most labor-friendly administration. Just over 10 percent of workers were represented by unions last year, according to Labor Department data — a share that has been cut in half since 1983. And unless Democrats win the Senate as well as the White House, it will be an uphill battle for Biden to move any of the legislation union leaders are advocating for.

Labor officials have reason to be confident, though, that they’ll have a line into the Biden administration, should he win next month’s election. The former vice president and veteran senator has longstanding relationships with union leaders built over more than 40 years in politics.

He’s already named two union presidents — Teresa Romero of the United Farm Workers and Lonnie Stephenson of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — to his transition team’s advisory board. At least five others served as members of the unity task forces Biden set up with Sen. Bernie Sanders over the summer, which published formal policy recommendations that helped shape the Democratic Party’s official platform.

Many expect Biden to appoint a union leader to his Cabinet — the Departments of Labor and Education are most often mentioned — or in senior positions throughout various agencies. And he has pledged to create a Cabinet-level working group comprised of labor representatives, “that will solely focus on promoting union organizing and collective bargaining.”

His policy plans across the board are peppered with references to expanding the right to join a union. And senior campaign officials, led by Biden’s longtime confidant and campaign aide Steve Ricchetti, have been holding a biweekly evening call with union leaders to keep them apprised of campaign developments and to allow them to offer their input.

“He’s doing more of this outreach than any other candidate that I’ve known on the Democratic side,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who has been with his union since the late 1970s. “When he talks about organized labor, when he talks about the importance of unions, he really means it.”

Still, it’s an open question whether the labor movement can convince Biden and his team that it is worth spending the “political capital that will have to be spent in order to get major labor law reforms,” said Robert Reich, a former Labor secretary under Bill Clinton.

“It’s a chicken and egg problem,” Reich said. “Because right now, organized labor doesn’t have very much clout.”

And labor allies warn that Biden’s ability to enact changes will depend in large part on whether Democrats regain control of the Senate in November. Pushback from Biden supporters throughout corporate America, employers who might not want to see a resurgence of unions, could also hinder any effort.

That makes the Biden transition preparations, which involve vetting possible Cabinet appointees, plotting out policy priorities and strategizing on how to implement them, a crucial time period.

“I’m very confident that we’re being afforded and will be afforded an opportunity to offer our view and opinion on key positions and personnel that will become part of the administration,” Schaitberger said.

Saunders and other union leaders interviewed by POLITICO also said they have been engaged with senior members of Biden’s transition team, and many are preparing policy memos to share with the team if Biden wins. They emphasize their personal ties to the former vice president, and the interactions they’ve had with him, as evidence of how much he will do for them if he wins.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Biden was her union’s “go-to person” in the Obama administration, and AFT members are currently engaged with members of his transition team.

Teachers are encouraged by Biden’s pledge to tap an educator to lead the Department of Education and feel connected to his wife, Jill Biden, a longtime community college professor, said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. Construction workers are hopeful about Biden’s commitment to deliver an infrastructure plan — something President Donald Trump promised but failed to produce — and to create American jobs in the process, said Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Union.

From a labor perspective, Biden’s long record is not spotless. He voted in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement as a senator, a move some union members still hold against him. More recently, as a member of the Obama administration, he’s faced criticism for failing to push through the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for workers to form unions.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on October 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining POLITICO in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign.


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This Amazon Grocery Runner Has Risked Her Job to Fight for Better Safety Measures

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This arti­cle is part of a series on Ama­zon work­ers pro­duced in part­ner­ship with the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project.

Courte­nay Brown spends her day mak­ing gro­cery runs for oth­ers in a foot­ball-field-sized maze of nar­row aisles and refrig­er­at­ed enclaves. At the Ama­zon Fresh unit in a Newark, New Jer­sey ful­fill­ment cen­ter, she works on the out­bound ship dock, help­ing direct the load­ing of trucks and send them off on local deliv­ery routes. Brown says that after near­ly three years at the e-tail empire, her job has been “hell.”

“Imag­ine a real­ly intense work­out, like you just got off of the tread­mill, no cool down, no noth­ing,” she describes one espe­cial­ly gru­el­ing day with a resigned laugh. “That’s how my legs felt.”

Ama­zon Fresh employ­ees often have to comb through huge stocks of var­i­ous chilled and frozen items, which means they need to wear full win­ter clothes to work. The stress and phys­i­cal exhaus­tion of the job tends to wear out many new hires with­in their first few days. “You don’t have that many that have last­ed here,” she says. “It’s so hard.”

With the pan­dem­ic keep­ing con­sumers indoors, Ama­zon gro­cery sales have rough­ly tripled in the sec­ond quar­ter over last year. The num­ber of deliv­ery trucks mov­ing in and out of the Newark ful­fill­ment cen­ter has jumped accordingly.

“Every day I come in, it’s just more and more and more and more,” Brown says. “Lit­er­al­ly every day we break the pre­vi­ous day’s record for the total num­ber of routes that went out for the entire day.”

“Once we get home [from work], the only thing we can do is show­er and dis­in­fect,” she con­tin­ues. “A lot of us [are] too exhaust­ed to eat. We pass out. Then we repeat the process the fol­low­ing day.” Some cowork­ers have end­ed up over­sleep­ing, she adds, and “end up miss­ing the whole day.”

For its part, an Ama­zon spokesper­son wrote in an email that while some jobs at Ama­zon Fresh are phys­i­cal­ly tax­ing, work­ers can choose less stren­u­ous labor.

“Imag­ine your stan­dard nor­mal super­mar­ket aisle, [then] cut that in half,” she observes. “You’re expect­ed to go through that aisle with oth­er peo­ple stock­ing the shelves, or clean­ing… it’s real­ly, real­ly, real­ly cramped.”

Ama­zon boasts mak­ing 150 oper­a­tional changes dur­ing the pan­dem­ic that include dis­trib­ut­ing mil­lions of masks at work­sites, adding thou­sands of jan­i­to­r­i­al staff, and rede­ploy­ing some per­son­nel to help enforce social dis­tanc­ing rules. While it has imple­ment­ed social-dis­tanc­ing rules, and even pro­vides an elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem to help keep work­ers sev­er­al feet apart on the ware­house floor, Brown says work spaces are still too crowd­ed: “It’s pret­ty much a show…Where I work on the ship dock, we’re all mashed up together.”

The tense atmos­phere has “def­i­nite­ly changed the rela­tion­ship” among work­ers, she con­tends. Her fel­low employ­ees were friend­lier before, but now “a lot of peo­ple snap at each oth­er a bit more.”

The threat of COVID-19 has only added to the psy­cho­log­i­cal bur­den. “When the pan­dem­ic first start­ed, I remem­ber a lot of us were watch­ing the news,” Brown reflects. “I was talk­ing to man­agers and try­ing to get them [to lis­ten]. ‘Hey, you know, this is going on and we might want to start prepar­ing.’ And they [were] just [act­ing] like it [was] not that big of a deal. Peo­ple are dying, and it’s not that big of a deal?”

Although Ama­zon even­tu­al­ly enact­ed safe­ty mea­sures, Brown says she and her col­leagues spent “months com­plain­ing” about what they saw as sub­stan­dard pro­tec­tions, includ­ing inad­e­quate safe­ty gear and social-dis­tanc­ing mea­sures. An Ama­zon spokesper­son main­tains the com­pa­ny moved to pro­tect its work­ers at the out­set of the pan­dem­ic, and that masks were dis­trib­uted in ear­ly April.

But Brown bris­tles at the com­pa­ny’s claims, say­ing the response was slow and devoid of trans­paren­cy. Work­ers were espe­cial­ly upset, she recalls, when they received news of a COVID-19 infec­tion at their site two weeks after the indi­vid­ual had report­ed­ly tak­en ill.

Even­tu­al­ly, Brown con­nect­ed with oth­er Ama­zon orga­niz­ers through an online peti­tion cir­cu­lat­ed by the advo­ca­cy net­work Unit­ed for Respect. Ear­li­er this year, she began work­ing with the Athena coali­tion to pres­sure Ama­zon to rein­state some work­er pro­tec­tions that were insti­tut­ed ear­li­er on in the pan­dem­ic and then dis­con­tin­ued. The work­ers are demand­ing the restora­tion of “haz­ard pay” for ful­fill­ment-cen­ter work­ers, as well as unlim­it­ed unpaid leave for those who opt to stay home to pro­tect their health. (Over the objec­tions of its work­force, Ama­zon end­ed unlim­it­ed unpaid leave and scrapped its $2 hourly “incen­tive” bonus in May.) The coali­tion is also push­ing for more trans­paren­cy in the report­ing of new cas­es, so man­age­ment will “actu­al­ly tell us the truth about the num­bers of peo­ple that are sick.”

In April, Brown par­tic­i­pat­ed in a media con­fer­ence call with Sen. Cory Book­er, D-N.J., to pro­mote an Essen­tial Work­ers Bill of Rights that would beef up health and safe­ty pro­tec­tions, pro­vide child­care sup­port and uni­ver­sal paid leave poli­cies, and pro­tect whistle­blow­ers. More recent­ly, she was fea­tured in a New York Times video about the work­ing con­di­tions at Ama­zon. She claims her pub­lic cam­paign­ing has drawn the ire of management.

“I’m harassed every day, all day,” she says. One safe­ty super­vi­sor in par­tic­u­lar is “just watch­ing” to see if she vio­lates the company’s social-dis­tanc­ing rules.

Brown recalls a recent inci­dent in which she was speak­ing casu­al­ly with some co-work­ers about safe­ty issues when the super­vi­sor inter­vened, shout­ing at them to keep six feet apart. Although they were all main­tain­ing their dis­tance, she says, “he [yelled], ‘you’re in a group!’” They answered, “Yeah, but we’re all six feet apart from each oth­er with our masks on.” But she says the man­ag­er nonethe­less threat­ened to write them up and warned they could be terminated.

Ama­zon has stat­ed that it oppos­es retal­i­a­tion against employ­ees who voice their con­cerns about work­ing con­di­tions. But like oth­er Ama­zon orga­niz­ers, Brown believes her treat­ment reflects a broad­er cam­paign aimed at dis­suad­ing employ­ees from organizing.

“What they’ll do is they’ll find an indi­vid­ual, and they’ll kind of make an exam­ple of you. And that scares every­body else,” she says. Her obser­va­tions are affirmed by a recent Open Mar­kets Insti­tute report that finds that Ama­zon has used sophis­ti­cat­ed work­place sur­veil­lance tac­tics to intim­i­date and sup­press work­ers who seek to union­ize or chal­lenge the company’s labor practices.

Brown, mean­while, is ded­i­cat­ed to improv­ing her work­place. This is not the first time she has faced hos­tile cir­cum­stances, both inside the Ama­zon ware­house and out. For a stretch in 2018, she had to live in a motel with her sis­ter, who also works at Ama­zon, because the two could not secure a rental apart­ment with the wages they were earn­ing deliv­er­ing food for the cor­po­rate behe­moth. “We were lit­er­al­ly starv­ing,” she says. “We weren’t mak­ing enough to be able to pay for the room, eat, and make it to and from work.”

Ama­zon has denied charges of employ­ee sur­veil­lance, dis­miss­ing the Open Mar­kets Insti­tute as “a peren­ni­al crit­ic that will­ful­ly ignores” the com­pa­ny’s record of cre­at­ing jobs with “indus­try lead­ing wages and ben­e­fits.” The com­pa­ny claims that it does eval­u­ate work­ers’ per­for­mance “over a long peri­od of time,” and pro­vides under-per­form­ing work­ers with “ded­i­cat­ed coach­ing to help them improve.”

Giv­en the dan­gers of speak­ing out, Brown some­times won­ders if she might end up home­less again. But she’s less fear­ful about los­ing her job than she is about the health haz­ards she faces every day as she fights to hold her employ­er account­able. “It’s real­ly ter­ri­fy­ing,” she says, “but if I don’t do this, then I could poten­tial­ly get sick and die.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission

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

About the Author: Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer in New York, and is the author of, most recent­ly, Draw­ing Blood and Broth­ers of the Gun, (with Mar­wan Hisham). Her art is in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art. Her ani­mat­ed short, A Mes­sage from the Future with Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, has been nom­i­nat­ed for a 2020 Emmy for Out­stand­ing News Analy­sis: Edi­to­r­i­al and Opinion.


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