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Amy Coney Barrett could influence workers’ rights, other economic issues if she joins Supreme Court

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The debate surrounding Amy Coney Barrett’s potential appointment to the Supreme Court has focused largely on the fate of abortion rights. But her tenure could significantly affect workers’ rights as well, experts say. 

While no one can predict how justices will ultimately rule once they have a seat on the nation’s highest court, their past records offer a meaningful window into how they interpret the law. And in cases ranging from harassment on the job to debt collection, Barrett’s opinions have often tilted toward bosses and business.

“Through her record on the Seventh Circuit … her rulings have favored employers as opposed to workers,’’ says Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, referring to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Chicago.

Barrett’s appointment could have a particular influence on the most vulnerable in the workplace, says Judy Conti, government affairs director for the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group.

“They’re the final arbiter of whether legislation that is designed to help workers is read expansively or narrowly, and everything about her record tells me that she will view things narrowly,” Conti says. She adds that she worries that the balance of the court would tip further from the needs of people who earn lower wages and who are vulnerable to workplace abuse.

But Noah Finkel, a partner in the labor and employment department of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw, says that while Barrett will likely typically side with the five current conservative members of the bench, she will not push the court in a dramatically more right-wing direction.

“I don’t really see her as all that radical,” he says. “I don’t see her bringing a lot of change in the employment sphere. Obviously, Justice (Ruth Bader) Ginsburg is well known for some opinions that are pro-employee, but many are dissents that she offered. So ultimately what it might mean is there’s a 6-3 decision instead of a 5 to 4.” Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.

Finkel added that Barrett’s record on the 7th Circuit is “fairly even-handed.” And he noted that it was Justice Neil Gorsuch, a conservative, who wrote the decision that enshrined workplace protections for the LGBT community because he stuck to the letter of the law as defined in the statute. Barrett would do the same.

“While many times that results in a pro-employer decision, it doesn’t necessarily,” Finkel says. “It could also be pro-employee. And she’s demonstrated great respect for jury decisions that are in favor of employees and has not upset those decisions.’’

Workplace discrimination 

In the case of Terry L. Smith vs. the Illinois Department of Transportation, a district court ruled against Smith, an emergency traffic patrol worker, who said he had dealt with a hostile work environment and was fired after he complained about being subjected to racial bigotry on the job.

In an August 2019 ruling upholding the lower court’s decision, Barrett wrote that even though Smith had been called the ‘N’ word by Lloyd Colbert, a supervisor – “an egregious racial epithet” – Smith didn’t prove that the slur caused him another type of distress or increased the stress he was already under.

“That won’t do under Title VII,” Barrett wrote, referring to the section of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits workplace discrimination based on factors like race or religion. “Without evidence that Colbert’s outburst changed Smith’s subjective experience during his last two weeks at the department, a reasonable jury could not resolve the hostile work environment claim in Smith’s favor.”

That ruling is troubling, Conti says.

“For a white woman to say a Black person hearing the ‘n’ word doesn’t change their experience at the workplace,” she says, that it “doesn’t make it subjectively hostile to that person and abusive … shows me that she is deeply out of touch with the experience that certainly Black people, and other people of color experience when they’re the victims of that sort of harassment and verbal violence.”https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

‘A hostile work environment’ 

But Barrett has sometimes sided with workers. 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued on behalf of a one-time Costco employee named Dawn Suppo, who said she endured a hostile work environment when she was harassed by a customer for more than a year.

A district court ruled in favor of Suppo, and Barrett later agreed, writing in a 2018 decision that “a reasonable jury could conclude that” the harassment “was severe or pervasive enough to render Suppo’s work environment hostile.”

Age and the workplace

In a decision that was not unanimous, Barrett joined fellow judges in ruling against a then 58-year-old attorney, Dale Kleber, who accused CareFusion Corporation of age discrimination when Kleber applied for a job that went to a 29-year-old instead.

The “disparate impact” Kleber was alleging applied to employees, not job applicants, the decision said.

“As a judge, her rulings have sided with corporations over people 76% of the time,” says Maggie Jo Buchanan, director of legal progress at the Center for American Progress.

Debt collection 

In the case Paula Casillas v. Madison Avenue Associates Inc., Casillas filed a class-action suit against a company that was trying to collect a debt but had failed to specify that if she wanted to seek verification of what she owed, her request had to be in writing.

Barrett wrote in the June 2019 decision that Casillas did not have grounds to bring that suit based on “a bare procedural violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.” 

“Casillas caught the defendant in a mistake, but it was not one that hurt her,” Barrett concluded. 

Three of Barrett’s fellow 7th Circuit judges disagreed.

“It is a fair inference from Casillas’s complaint that Madison’s omissions at a minimum put her in imminent risk of losing the many protections in the act that are designed to regulate the debt?collection process as it goes forward,” they wrote in a dissenting opinion.

Barrett’s ruling could affect many others, Buchanan says, making “it more difficult for people to protect themselves against abusive debt collection practices.”  

Health care

In her writings, Barrett has been critical of the reasoning that led Chief Justice John Roberts to cast a pivotal vote preserving the Affordable Care Act. And just two years after the act passed, she signed a petition against the law’s provision stating employers should cover birth control in their insurance offerings.

Now, one week after Election Day, the Affordable Care Act will once again be before the justices, and if appointed to the court, Barrett “might well join a majority to basically strike down what’s left of the ACA,” Tobias says. 

“Not only would this mean people would have their health insurance ripped from them,” Buchanan says, “but insurers could once again charge women more just for being a woman, which could cost women $1 billion more annually than men.”

Unions and dues

The funding of unions may also be among the issues Barrett helps decide if she gains a seat on the nation’s highest court.

In June 2018, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 that public sector workers did not have to pay the fees that fund the work of their collective bargaining units, on the grounds that such mandatory payments violated workers’ First Amendment rights. 

Justice Samuel Alito Jr., who wrote the majority opinion “signaled he’s willing to consider that same rule for private-sector unions,” Conti says, “and I certainly worry about where Judge Barrett would come down on that issue should she be a member of the court.’’ 

This blog originally appeared at USA Today on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Charisse Jones covers retail and workplace issues for USA Today.


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The Nightmare Facing the Poor and Working Class If There’s Not Another Stimulus

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As mil­lions of U.S. work­ers face unem­ploy­ment, food inse­cu­ri­ty and evic­tion amid the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic, the lim­it­ed aid pro­vid­ed by the fed­er­al government’s flawed CARES Act from March has long since dried up. 

Last week, fol­low­ing more than six months of stalled nego­ti­a­tions with con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats over a new eco­nom­ic relief pack­age, Pres­i­dent Trump abrupt­ly announced he was halt­ing talks until after the Novem­ber election.

While the pres­i­dent quick­ly back­tracked and is now report­ed­ly con­tin­u­ing to nego­ti­ate, the fed­er­al government’s ongo­ing fail­ure to pass a new relief pack­age spells cat­a­stro­phe for a U.S. work­ing class already pushed to the brink by an eco­nom­ic cri­sis seem­ing­ly on par with the Great Depression. 

Here’s a break­down of what the con­tin­ued lack of fed­er­al help means for workers:

Sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduced unem­ploy­ment checks

Per­haps the most ben­e­fi­cial part of the CARES Act was the extra $600 a week it pro­vid­ed to work­ers on unem­ploy­ment—a tem­po­rary life­line that the GOP-led Sen­ate allowed to expire on July 31. 

Week­ly unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits vary wide­ly by state, rang­ing from $44 in Okla­homa to $497 in Wash­ing­ton. The $600 week­ly sup­ple­ment was an across-the-board ben­e­fit that ensured unem­ployed work­ers in any state main­tained a decent income despite los­ing their jobs due to the pandemic.

The Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute found that the con­sumer spend­ing gen­er­at­ed by that extra $600 per week sup­port­ed over 5 mil­lion jobs, and that con­tin­u­ing the sup­ple­ment through the mid­dle of next year would have raised U.S. gross domes­tic prod­uct (GDP) by a quar­ter­ly aver­age of 3.7 percent.

After this ben­e­fit expired, rather than agree to Democ­rats’ demands to extend it, Pres­i­dent Trump signed an exec­u­tive order slash­ing it by 50 per­cent—allow­ing states to use fed­er­al funds to pro­vide only a $300 week­ly unem­ploy­ment sup­ple­ment. At least sev­en states have already exhaust­ed these funds. 

Mean­while, by los­ing the week­ly $600 boost, unem­ployed work­ers saw their incomes drop by two-thirds, mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult to pay the bills and afford gro­ceries. There are cur­rent­ly 25.5 mil­lion work­ers receiv­ing unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits. With at least 14 mil­lion more job­less work­ers than job open­ings, mil­lions will be forced to rely on unem­ploy­ment insur­ance for the fore­see­able future—but now with a great­ly reduced check.

Mass fur­loughs in the air­line industry

Anoth­er one of the CARES Act’s most help­ful pro­vi­sions was the Pay­roll Sup­port Pro­gram (PSP), which pro­vid­ed $32 bil­lion in grants to the avi­a­tion indus­try for the sole pur­pose of keep­ing work­ers on pay­roll and pro­vid­ing ben­e­fits dur­ing the Covid-19 cri­sis. The avi­a­tion indus­try employs 750,000 work­ers, many of them union­ized, and accounts for 5 per­cent of GDP.

The Sen­ate allowed the PSP to expire on Octo­ber 1, result­ing in 40,000 air­line work­ers imme­di­ate­ly being fur­loughed with­out pay or health insur­ance. The industry’s unions are wag­ing an aggres­sive cam­paign to extend the pro­gram. With­out the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment con­tin­u­ing the PSP, more fur­loughs are like­ly to come as pas­sen­ger air­lines suf­fer a loss in busi­ness due to the pandemic.

More lay­offs at small businesses

The Pay­check Pro­tec­tion Pro­gram (PPP), anoth­er com­po­nent of the CARES Act, offered up to $659 bil­lion in for­giv­able loans to small busi­ness­es to keep work­ers on pay­roll. The pro­gram has been crit­i­cized for allo­cat­ing mil­lions of dol­lars to large cor­po­ra­tions and com­pa­nies con­nect­ed to politi­cians, but it has also offered much-need­ed finan­cial sup­port to small busi­ness­es across the country.

The appli­ca­tion dead­line for PPP loans was on August 8. While the Trump admin­is­tra­tion claims the pro­gram saved 51 mil­lion jobs, econ­o­mists have put that num­ber at any­where from only 2.3 mil­lion to 13.6 mil­lion.

What­ev­er the pre­cise num­ber, the PPP’s impact is quick­ly run­ning out of steam. Bor­row­ers say they expect to lay off work­ers with­in six months, while a Nation­al Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion sur­vey indi­cates that a whop­ping 40 per­cent of all U.S. restau­rants could go out of busi­ness in the com­ing months, lead­ing to mil­lions of more layoffs. 

No sec­ond $1,200 stim­u­lus check

While Sen. Bernie Sanders and pro­gres­sive Democ­rats have been call­ing on the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to pro­vide a $2,000 month­ly check to every U.S. adult for the dura­tion of the pan­dem­ic, the CARES Act instead pro­vid­ed a one-time check of $1,200—which exclud­ed many undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants and col­lege-age adults. Econ­o­mists report that the checks did vir­tu­al­ly noth­ing to stim­u­late the econ­o­my, though they did help poor and unem­ployed work­ers par­tial­ly cov­er a few weeks’ worth of basic expenses.

Pres­i­dent Trump and con­gres­sion­al lead­ers have been say­ing for months that a sec­ond $1,200 check is on the way. But with­out anoth­er relief bill, even this mea­ger finan­cial assis­tance will not materialize.

An uncer­tain future

On Octo­ber 1, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic-con­trolled House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives passed a scaled-down ver­sion of the HEROES Act, an eco­nom­ic relief pack­age they orig­i­nal­ly passed in May that extends the lim­it­ed aid from the CARES Act. 

Among oth­er things, the $2.2 trillion bill would con­tin­ue the $600 week­ly unem­ploy­ment sup­ple­ment to the end of Jan­u­ary (mak­ing it retroac­tive to Sep­tem­ber 6), allo­cate anoth­er $25 bil­lion for air­line work­ers, allow small busi­ness­es to apply for a sec­ond PPP loan, send out a sec­ond $1,200 stim­u­lus check, pro­vide $50 bil­lion in emer­gency rental assis­tance, and give an addi­tion­al $10 bil­lion to the Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram (SNAP).

Over the week­end, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion coun­tered with a small­er, $1.8 trillion pro­pos­al that would include a $400-per-week unem­ploy­ment sup­ple­ment, $20 bil­lion for air­lines, anoth­er $330 bil­lion for PPP loans, and a sec­ond $1,200 check, among oth­er mea­sures—but nei­ther House Speak­er Nan­cy Pelosi nor Sen­ate Repub­li­cans appear ready to push this bill in their caucus.

While mil­lions of U.S. work­ers are left in the lurch and mass lay­offs con­tin­ue to mount, Trump and Sen­ate Repub­li­cans are instead focus­ing their atten­tion on ensur­ing right-wing, anti-union judge Amy Coney Bar­rett is hasti­ly con­firmed to the Supreme Court in time for the election.

“If this gov­ern­ment doesn’t work for us, then we need to focus on the fact that it is our labor that gives all the val­ue to this coun­try,” Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants pres­i­dent Sara Nel­son—who famous­ly called for a gen­er­al strike to end Trump’s fed­er­al shut­down in Jan­u­ary 2019—said last week. “This coun­try doesn’t run with­out us as work­ers. So we have to think about that option as well.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke.


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The Details of Worker Abuse at One of the World’s Largest Logistics Companies Are Appalling

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XPO Logistics flies under the radar. The company is one of the ten largest logistics companies in the world, with 97,000 employees and over 1,500 locations, operating in thirty countries. Last year, XPO, led by billionaire CEO Bradley Jacobs, reported over $16 billion in revenue. While you may never have heard of the company, the brands it services are more familiar: Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot, Starbucks, and Peloton, among others.

But according to a new report compiled by the XPO Global Union Family, a network of unions representing workers in countries where XPO Logistics has its largest operations, business as usual at XPO deserves more attention.

“Behind the glossy marketing,” write the report’s authors, “are supply chains mired in worker exploitation, a cavalier and even negligent approach to safety that has led to injury and death, and a company where workers who protest against pregnancy discrimination and harassment are met by retaliation.” The report, titled “XPO: Delivering Injustice,” compiles workers’ stories from around the globe, painting a picture of the logistics company’s flouting of the law and blasé attitude toward worker safety, even as the global coronavirus pandemic hit. (XPO has not responded to a request for comment, but told Motherboard, “The report repeats wholly inaccurate allegations that have been entirely debunked.”)

Even as Jacobs told shareholders in April 2020 that “We’ve deliberately built XPO like a bulletproof tank to surmount all kinds of challenges,” workers at the transportation and logistics giant, which specializes in last-mile delivery, were in crisis.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

As the report details, a March 2020 survey of XPO/ASOS workers at a 4,000-person warehouse in the United Kingdom found that 98 percent of respondents felt unsafe at work, emphasizing management’s failure to provide them with personal protective equipment (PPE), ensure social distancing, and provide handwashing facilities and sufficient supplies of soap. In July 2020, the company refused to shut down another distribution center in the country, even as sixty-four workers tested positive for COVID-19.

In the United States, a survey conducted by the Teamsters found similar concern and uncertainty among XPO’s workers. Asked to rate the company’s performance in addressing COVID-19 risks on a scale of 1 to 10, 24 percent of respondents gave XPO a 1.

The situation is, if anything, even more dire in Europe. According to the report, XPO’s use of Eastern European subcontractors leads to rampant labor-law violations, leaving workers stranded abroad with fake documentation. In interviews conducted in June 2020, Ukrainian drivers told Stichting VNB, the research and enforcement arm of Dutch union FNV, that they “live for months in the cabin of their trucks, do not get paid the agreed Lithuanian salary, and are even given false attestation de détachement documents in France stating that they get a much higher €10 hourly wage.” The report continues,

The drivers told VNB that they had begged their Lithuanian employer to allow them to go home but that the company ignored their requests. For their time on the road, the drivers only receive enough money for food — with too little to enable them to leave their trucks in France and go home of their own free will.

One Ukrainian driver employed in Lithuania told VNB in June 2020 that he had not been home since December 2019, despite begging his employer, the subcontractor, to send a replacement driver. “Luka was forced to live illegally in his truck the whole time, isolated and alone,” write the report’s authors.

These exploitative conditions didn’t begin during the pandemic either. A New York Times story from October 2018 revealed rampant pregnancy discrimination against workers in a Verizon warehouse operated by XPO in Memphis, Tennessee. There, working conditions led to several miscarriages. In response to the story, XPO established a new pregnancy policy. “While the new policy appears progressive on paper and seems to be a large improvement of the former policy,” write the report’s authors, it “lacks any oversight or enforcement mechanism.” Further, shortly after rolling out the new policy, XPO closed the Memphis facility, a move Senator Richard Blumenthal, who represents Connecticut, where XPO headquarters is located, said “reeked of retaliation.”

As the report notes, XPO workers in the United States have filed 120 unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against XPO since 2014. As Lafe Solomon, a former acting general counsel of the NLRB, concluded in 2018:

The sheer number of unfair labor practice charges filed and complaints issued by NLRB regional directors against XPO, resulting in numerous board decisions and settlements, are extraordinary and outside the norm of employer opposition to its employees’ organizing efforts, and evidence XPO’s intent to flaunt its obligations under the NLRA to deny its employees their right and ability to form and join a union.

Despite this resistance, which includes the hiring of anti-union consultants, workers have unionized at seven XPO facilities in the United States. Not one of these, however, has ratified a union contract yet.

“Unions representing working people at XPO are greatly concerned that XPO’s business model is based on exploitation, illegal underpayments, and a callous approach to safety,” conclude the report’s authors. They have repeatedly demanded to meet with the company to discuss workers’ concerns, but so far, they say, XPO has refused.

This blog originally appeared at Jacobin on October 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alex Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Vox, the Nation, and n+1, among other places.


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How Unions Can Bridge the Gap Between Climate and Labor Movements

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While U.S. union den­si­ty hit an all-time low in 2019, the non­prof­it sec­tor appears to be one area where work­ers are union­iz­ing. The Non­prof­it Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Union (NPEU) brought sev­en new work­places into their union dur­ing a 16-day peri­od in April, includ­ing the envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion Friends of the Earth. And while there is no offi­cial data on non­prof­it unions yet (many of them are fair­ly new), cli­mate jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions are some of the many work­places that have scram­bled to union­ize both pri­or to and dur­ing the pan­dem­ic for the same rea­sons as oth­er work­ers: pay, ben­e­fits and job security. 

Cli­mate activists have often been denounced by trade union­ists who believe they are out to destroy work­ers’ well-pay­ing jobs. There’s an old joke that goes, “Are you an envi­ron­men­tal­ist, or do you work for a liv­ing?” But what hap­pens to the often fraught rela­tion­ship between unions and envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions when green staffers become union mem­bers too?

Unions’ pri­ma­ry pur­pose is to give work­ers the abil­i­ty to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain around work­ing con­di­tions—so it’s not hard to under­stand why many work­ers would want to be union mem­bers. In fact, labor unions cur­rent­ly have a 65% approval rat­ing. As the econ­o­my is in sham­bles, labor’s sup­port has been steadi­ly increas­ing, per­haps because mil­lions have been laid off, many of whom lost their health insur­ance and received no sev­er­ance. Non­prof­its, which can be financed through a mix of fed­er­al and state fund­ing, pri­vate grants and indi­vid­ual dona­tions, are also in a Covid-induced pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion. Work­ers who may have felt that their jobs were pre­vi­ous­ly secure thanks to an air of pres­tige have seen col­leagues fur­loughed or laid off—or have wit­nessed lead­er­ship make big changes in their orga­ni­za­tions with­out involv­ing staff. 

Char­lie Jiang, a cli­mate cam­paign­er at Green­peace USA, an envi­ron­men­tal non­prof­it, told In These Times that staff there “have been orga­niz­ing for quite some time, and the pan­dem­ic strength­ened our resolve. We’re fight­ing for more clear and con­sis­tent poli­cies and more orga­ni­za­tion­al trans­paren­cy.” The Green­peace USA Work­ers Union, affil­i­at­ed with Pro­gres­sive Work­ers Union (PWU), was vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nized in August. Jiang said that union mem­bers “are look­ing ahead to meet­ing man­age­ment with good faith at the bar­gain­ing table… We formed a union to fight for fair and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, and for a cul­ture root­ed in justice.”

Unions do far more than allow work­ers to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain. They give peo­ple the abil­i­ty to prac­tice democ­ra­cy in the work­place, they have the pow­er to change our polit­i­cal sys­tem, and they chal­lenge cor­po­rate prof­it and pow­er—mak­ing them poten­tial allies for envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions that do the same. Groups like Green­peace, the Sier­ra Club and 350.org often fight big cor­po­ra­tions over their dan­ger­ous dis­pos­al of chem­i­cal waste, fos­sil fuel emis­sions, fac­to­ry farm­ing and more. Work­ers for these cor­po­ra­tions are the ones who han­dle tox­ic waste, breathe dirty air and process chick­en at poul­try plants. 

Envi­ron­men­tal groups and work­er orga­ni­za­tions are aligned on many issues, and some do work close­ly togeth­er. Accord­ing to Rebec­ca Wolf, a senior orga­niz­er on the fac­to­ry farm team at Food and Water Watch and a mem­ber of NPEU, “Our true focus is cor­po­rate con­trol. Union­iz­ing work­ers inher­ent­ly beats back against cor­po­rate con­trol and con­trol of the food sys­tem. I see envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions all the time in cor­po­rate part­ner­ships, and we have a hard line against that.” 

While unions are fund­ed only by mem­bers’ dues mon­ey, many envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions take mon­ey from cor­po­rate donors—some of which face off against unions in their own work­places. This dynam­ic can cre­ate ten­sion between staff and lead­er­ship at envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, which may have dif­fer­ent priorities.

Elon Musk, bil­lion­aire CEO of Tes­la, anony­mous­ly donat­ed over $6 mil­lion to the Sier­ra Club. But in the sum­mer of 2018, after com­ing under fire for a $40,000 dona­tion to a Repub­li­can-allied group, Musk asked Sier­ra Club exec­u­tive direc­tor Michael Brune for pub­lic sup­port. A stew­ard at PWU who asked to remain anony­mous for fear of retal­i­a­tion told In These Times that “PWU kicked that tough dis­cus­sion off. [We] help them stay ground­ed on work­er issues.” While Brune ini­tial­ly shared words of sup­port for Musk on his per­son­al Twit­ter account, lat­er that year, the Sier­ra Club released a state­ment in sup­port of work­ers orga­niz­ing at Tes­la—some­thing union mem­bers believe can be attrib­uted, at least in part, to the union. The anony­mous stew­ard told In These Times, “It’s impor­tant for unions that rep­re­sent work­ers at pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions to hold those orga­ni­za­tions account­able.” With­out a union, it may have been more dif­fi­cult for Sier­ra Club staff to push back against lead­ers and ensure that they pub­licly sup­port­ed Tes­la work­ers instead of their CEO, that stew­ard underscores. 

And while unions are able to win impres­sive gains around wages, ben­e­fits and a voice at work, their true pow­er lies in their abil­i­ty to shut down the econ­o­my if nec­es­sary. On the whole, work­ers at non­prof­its and oth­er pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions are not nec­es­sar­i­ly in a strate­gic posi­tion to exert lever­age to secure the biggest wins for the cli­mate—their going on strike would not have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on the broad­er econ­o­my. Work­ers in logis­tics, health­care and edu­ca­tion have far more pow­er to throw a wrench in how our econ­o­my and soci­ety func­tions. And build­ing trades work­ers, who are like­ly to have more work if leg­is­la­tion like the Green New Deal is passed, could be very influ­en­tial in cli­mate pol­i­cy. Their unions are large and pow­er­ful, and their mem­bers are con­struc­tion work­ers and elec­tri­cians, whose work will be direct­ly impact­ed by both cli­mate change and cli­mate leg­is­la­tion. While build­ing trades work­ers tend to be more con­ser­v­a­tive, the poten­tial for more work and larg­er mem­ber­ship rolls could make them the decid­ing fac­tor in the pas­sage of a Green New Deal.

But envi­ron­men­tal staffers’ iden­ti­ty with the broad­er labor move­ment and the sol­i­dar­i­ty that can be strate­gi­cal­ly expressed—such as in the case of the Sier­ra Club and Tes­la work­ers orga­niz­ing—could forge more ties between the work­ers’ move­ment and the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment as more of these work­ers orga­nize at their work­places. It’s also unde­ni­able that the expe­ri­ence of act­ing col­lec­tive­ly with cowork­ers can deep­en polit­i­cal con­scious­ness, no mat­ter one’s work­place or pri­or polit­i­cal commitments.

Wolf, who was on her union’s orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, told In These Times that “even though we work to make people’s lives bet­ter every day at work, col­lec­tive action is the expe­ri­ence you need to tru­ly under­stand pow­er-build­ing. Form­ing a union takes all the messy and good bits of expe­ri­ence, val­ues, and polit­i­cal con­scious­ness and brings them togeth­er in a patch­work that moves every­one along.”

But a fac­tor that may dimin­ish the influ­ence of these envi­ron­men­tal staff unions is the unions they are tied to. NPEU is affil­i­at­ed with the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Pro­fes­sion­al and Tech­ni­cal Engi­neers (IFPTE), which is a mem­ber of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor fed­er­a­tion in the coun­try. In con­trast, NPEU is a fair­ly small union, with “rough­ly 250 to 300 dues-pay­ing mem­bers, about 500 work­ing on their first con­tract, and hun­dreds more that are in the process of orga­niz­ing,” accord­ing to Katie Bar­rows, vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the union.

In con­trast, PWU, which also orga­nizes envi­ron­men­tal non­prof­its, is an inde­pen­dent union, which means it’s not affil­i­at­ed with any oth­er union or any labor fed­er­a­tion. (PWU’s bar­gain­ing units include staffers at Sier­ra Club, 350.org, Green­peace USA and the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists.) Accord­ing to the anony­mous Sier­ra Club stew­ard, this inde­pen­dence from the AFL-CIO has actu­al­ly helped the union: PWU is free to run its own pro­gram, which focus­es on anti-racism and social jus­tice. He told In These Times that “the mem­bers of PWU are first-time union mem­bers. They nev­er knew what was pos­si­ble in a union, so there are no lim­i­ta­tions. Our pow­er is in the involve­ment of our mem­bers and their creativity.”

How­ev­er, there are ben­e­fits to being part of a larg­er fed­er­a­tion. Only AFL-CIO affil­i­ates are able to shape the federation’s strat­e­gy and elect its lead­ers, which means that PWU won’t have a say in whether the AFL-CIO ever sup­ports the Green New Deal. Bar­rows believes that “if envi­ron­men­tal pro­fes­sion­als orga­nize, they’ll be a grow­ing part of the labor move­ment, and they’ll have a voice in deci­sions, espe­cial­ly if they’re in the AFL. Hav­ing envi­ron­men­tal work­ers orga­nize will be help­ful to bridg­ing that gap, and to unit­ing labor and envi­ron­men­tal groups.”

While envi­ron­men­tal staffers have formed unions for the same rea­sons most work­ers do, their unions may be a tool for some­thing greater. The anony­mous stew­ard told In These Times, “Our mem­bers are at the inter­sec­tion of labor and envi­ron­men­tal work. They work on behalf of envi­ron­men­tal caus­es, but they’re work­ers as well. They’re try­ing to weave their beliefs about the impor­tance of work­ers into cli­mate leg­is­la­tion and con­ver­sa­tions with politi­cians and union lead­ers.” The stew­ard point­ed to a pro-union video that PWU mem­bers made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Sier­ra Club about the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court deci­sion, which made it ille­gal for pub­lic sec­tor unions to col­lect fees from non-mem­bers. He also told In These Times that the Sier­ra Club and union also worked togeth­er to release a state­ment about the deci­sion, which quotes exec­u­tive direc­tor Brune as say­ing, “Today’s deci­sion does the bid­ding of the very same cor­po­ra­tions that have pol­lut­ed our com­mu­ni­ties, but we will march on.” 

While it is unde­ni­able that the rift between labor and envi­ron­men­tal orga­niz­ing runs deep, the staff at cli­mate orga­ni­za­tions join­ing the ranks of the labor move­ment could help bridge the divide between these two crit­i­cal move­ments. As Wolf at Food and Water Watch told In These Times, “We can always be doing bet­ter, and while greens in gen­er­al are doing bet­ter, we need to be much more pub­lic about our con­nec­tion to labor, and a broad­er con­nec­tion to and with all social movements.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


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Unemployment Systems Floundering Without Worker-Centered Design

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New York, NY—The Century Foundation, the National Employment Law Project, and Philadelphia Legal Assistance today released the findings of an intensive study of state efforts to modernize their unemployment insurance benefit systems. This is the first report to detail how technology modernization has altered the experience of jobless workers.

The report, which was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, draws lessons from state modernization experiences and recommends user-friendly design and implementation methods for future projects.

Read the new report, “Centering Workers: How to Modernize Unemployment Insurance Technology”

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the struggling technology holding up our unemployment systems and the harm to workers when they cannot navigate or access their unemployment benefits.  Many state systems were programmed with COBOL, a long-outdated computer language.  While some states have undertaken modernization projects, many encountered significant problems and workers paid the price through inaccessible systems, delayed payments, and even false fraud accusations. The COVID-19 pandemic, which led to an unprecedented spike in unemployment claims, has further exposed the weaknesses in these systems and the difficulties workers face with their unemployment claims.

State officials have at times been candid about the deep flaws in their systems. Pennsylvania’s labor secretary described their 50-year old computer system as “held together with chewing gum and duct tape.”  Florida’s own state auditor found numerous flaws in the state’s new computerized system that went unfixed through multiple administrations. States and the private companies that develop these systems failed to consistently seek worker input and build systems focused on user experience.

The report also explores how modernization and controversial new technology like predictive analytics can affect access to benefits.

“Much remains unknown about how state unemployment agencies are using technology like automated decision-making, predictive analytics, and artificial intelligence,” added Julia Simon-Mishel, supervising attorney of the Unemployment Compensation Unit of Philadelphia Legal Assistance and principal investigator for the report. “While these tools can sometimes be helpful, we remain concerned about fairness, accuracy, and due process.”

“The pandemic has underscored that unemployment insurance is a lifeline for workers, yet state systems are rarely built with workers’ needs in mind,” said?Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst with NELP and a co-author of the report. “Our report finds that Black and Latinx workers are particularly poorly served by unemployment insurance systems. We have to do better.”

To date, fewer than half of states have modernized their unemployment benefits systems. Several have plans to modernize or are already in the midst of modernizing. The report provides guidance for them, as well as for modernized states looking to improve their systems.

The report also recommends six steps states can take right now, to expand access to benefits during the pandemic:

  1. provide 24/7 access to online and mobile services for unemployed workers;
  2. mobile-optimize unemployment websites and applications;
  3. update password reset protocols;
  4. use call-back and chat technology;
  5. adopt a triage business model for call centers; and
  6. comply with civil rights laws requiring that websites and applications be translated into Spanish and other commonly spoken languages.

“Modernization needs to be approached carefully to avoid creating new problems for workers,” noted?Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a co-author of the report. “Our analysis shows that states were able to pay benefits more quickly after modernizing their systems, but workers were more likely to be denied assistance and too many of these denials were inaccurate. These problems have been magnified during the pandemic when no one should have to choose between paying rent, putting food on the table, and good health.”

The findings and recommendations in the report are grounded in publicly available data on unemployment insurance system performance, interviews with officials from more than a dozen states, and in-depth case studies of modernization in Maine, Minnesota, and Washington, conducted from October 2018 to January 2020.

This blog originally appeared at National Employment Law Project on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed?workers. For more about NELP, visit?www.nelp.org. Follow NELP on Twitter at @NelpNews.


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Restaurant Workers Are Building Solidarity Amid the Pandemic

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BOISE, IDA­HO—It was rain­ing light­ly June 29 when Geo Eng­ber­son, own­er of the Pie Hole pizze­ria, con­vened an emer­gency staff meet­ing. He had intend­ed a quick con­fer­ence in the park­ing lot behind the restau­rant, known for its steady stream of week­end bar-goers. Giv­en the weath­er, Eng­ber­son fer­ried the hand­ful of work­ers into his trailer. 

Ear­li­er that month, work­ers at the piz­za joint peti­tioned for an hourly wage bump. Wor­ried that Pie Hole was pre­pared to replace them, for­mer employ­ee Kiwi Palmer says, she and her cowork­ers refused to train new hires. This refusal trig­gered a conflict. 

In a record­ing of the trail­er meet­ing obtained by In These Times, Eng­ber­son says, “Kiwi, yes­ter­day you told [the man­ag­er] you wouldn’t train new hires, any scabs. That still how you feel?” 

When Palmer and fel­low work­er Mar­shall Har­ris reaf­firmed they would not train new hires, Eng­ber­son fired them. 

In the weeks since, the Pie Hole work­ers have orga­nized a series of pick­ets in front of the restau­rant. Call­ing them­selves the Pie Hole Work­ers Union, they filed a com­plaint with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board alleg­ing the fir­ing was retal­ia­to­ry and vio­lat­ed their right to par­tic­i­pate in “con­cert­ed activ­i­ty” with­out reprisal. 

Eng­ber­son rejects the claim that Palmer and Har­ris were fired for orga­niz­ing and that the busi­ness planned to replace them. “We got busy, and we need­ed to hire more peo­ple,” Eng­ber­son tells In These Times. He adds, “I treat my employ­ees like fam­i­ly … and I don’t ever hear from them that they’re dis­grun­tled about their wages.” Eng­ber­son also says that, when he used the word “scabs,” he was quot­ing Palmer— not con­firm­ing the new work­ers were, in fact, scabs. 

The Pie Hole work­ers have found sup­port from the Boise chap­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), which has aid­ed in pick­ets and con­nect­ed them with DSA’s nation­al Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project. 

Beyond Boise, mul­ti­ple left-wing labor groups have tak­en on the cause of restau­rant orga­niz­ing. In addi­tion to its Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project, DSA has col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE)—a demo­c­ra­t­ic, rank-and-file union—to advise work­ers on union dri­ves and work­place actions. Between the DSA projects and UE’s orga­niz­ing, the Left has tak­en a cen­tral role in pan­dem­ic-era organizing.

“We’ve seen a sig­nif­i­cant uptick in work­ers con­tact­ing us about orga­niz­ing from the restau­rant indus­try, and in the food ser­vice [and] hos­pi­tal­i­ty sec­tor more broad­ly,” UE orga­niz­er Mark Mein­ster says. “Work­ers are very con­cerned about the lack of safe­ty pro­tec­tions regard­ing Covid, the lack of paid sick leave and the drop in income many antic­i­pate as a result of serv­ing few­er customers.”

This wave of labor activism in hos­pi­tal­i­ty has already ush­ered in wins. In March, a coali­tion of New Orleans ser­vice and hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers cam­paigned to dis­burse reserves from the city’s con­ven­tion cen­ter direct­ly into the hands of work­ers; by April 22, the city agreed to pro­vide $1 mil­lion in grants to work­ers affect­ed by the pan­dem­ic. Some restau­rants in Philadel­phia, where hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers have orga­nized to end the sub­min­i­mum wage for servers and bar­tenders, have increased wages dur­ing the pandemic.

But the restau­rant indus­try remains dif­fi­cult to orga­nize, and union shops are still the extreme minor­i­ty, with union den­si­ty in accom­mo­da­tion and food ser­vice hov­er­ing around 2.1%.

At Augie’s Cof­fee, a chain in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, work­ers demon­strat­ed 70% sup­port for the Augie’s Union (rep­re­sent­ed by UE) and request­ed the com­pa­ny vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nize their bar­gain­ing unit. The com­pa­ny then shut down oper­a­tions and laid off every­one in the cafés. Now, for­mer work­ers are cam­paign­ing for union recog­ni­tion and to be rehired.

“Peo­ple are so atom­ized, and the job they do is so tem­po­rary,” says Matthew Soliz, a barista orga­niz­ing with Augie’s Union. “I think for peo­ple my age and younger, unions aren’t real­ly a con­cept, right? Like, in talk­ing to my cowork­ers, the most com­mon response is, ‘I don’t real­ly know what that is.’ ”

Giv­en the chal­lenges, restau­rant work­ers are band­ing togeth­er across restau­rants and across cities. In Chica­go, New Orleans, Den­ver and Boise, restau­rant work­ers have formed city­wide sol­i­dar­i­ty orga­ni­za­tions. On July 24, work­ers around the coun­try marched to demand expand­ed ben­e­fits from unem­ploy­ment insurance.

“The fact that [DSA’s Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project] is grow­ing is evi­dence [that] A, we’re not crazy, and B, we’re not alone, and C, that there is sol­i­dar­i­ty that is grow­ing rapid­ly,” Har­ris says. “Inside of five weeks, I’ve gone from nev­er hav­ing done any of this to attempt­ing to orga­nize oth­er people.”

This article originally appeared at In These Times on September 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fel­low, as well as a writer based in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, where she works at a restau­rant. She con­tributes reg­u­lar­ly to Isth­mus, Madison’s alt-week­ly, and The Pro­gres­sive magazine.


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What are the best and worst states to work in during the coronavirus pandemic?

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The coronavirus pandemic has dealt blow after blow to U.S. workers. The two biggest: Unemployment is sky-high, and many of the jobs that are left are suddenly unsafe. 

But as with so many things, from minimum wage to paid sick leave to enforcement of existing laws, how bad workers have it varies dramatically from state to state. Now, you can find out how your state ranks on labor protections in the era of COVID-19, thanks to a new report from Oxfam America. Oxfam ranked states by worker protections, healthcare, and unemployment, coming up with an overall ranking that puts Washington State, New Jersey, and California at the top, and Alabama, Missouri, and Georgia at the bottom.

At $275, Alabama’s maximum unemployment benefit is only a little higher than the minimum of $240 in Massachusetts—and in Puerto Rico, the maximum is just $190. But that’s not the only way Alabama is committed to hurting working families: “Alabama has no moratorium on evictions or utilities being shut off; no mandated paid sick or family leave; and no requirements for personal protective equipment for workers. In addition, the governor issued an executive order to protect businesses and health care providers from lawsuits resulting from COVID-19.”

Oxfam America is calling on states to:

  • Improve worker protections to ensure paid sick time, paid family and medical leave programs, and childcare for all workers
  • Expand Medicaid
  • Increase unemployment payments

Regardless of what state you live in, employers are going to vary in how much they’re doing to protect workers’ safety. The AFL-CIO has a new checklist to determine how safe you are at work, with information about workplace safety—including how to organize for it.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on September 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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New York City could see 400,000 workers return next month in first phase of a long recovery

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As many as 400,000 workers could head back to work when New York City begins the first phase of its reopening in June, as the national epicenter of the crisis looks to begin a long recovery from the coronavirus shutdown. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday laid out guidelines for businesses that will be allowed to open their doors in the coming weeks, and estimated that 200,000 to 400,000 more people will be reporting to work in person when the restart begins.

But a litany of unanswered questions remain, chief among them being how those workers can safely get around amid concerns about packed subways and buses being a conduit for the spread of Covid-19. 

De Blasio punted when asked about transportation options for a city so reliant on public transportation. 

“For the next few months, people are going to make their own choices,” he said. “Some people are going to be comfortable on mass transit, some are not.”

New York City is the only region in the state that remains under a full-fledged shutdown order. Officials estimate that some time in the first two weeks of June, it will hit the public health benchmarks needed to kick off the first phase of a gradual reopening.

When that happens, construction, manufacturing, wholesale and retail pickup will be allowed to reopen — but with a host of restrictions meant to reduce transmission of the disease.

“We’ve come a long way. We’re not going to blow it now,” de Blasio said.

Since March, all nonessential businesses have been ordered closed in the city. The resulting loss of tax revenue has cratered the city budget and put New York on track to adopt 1970’s-era budget fixes to fill what is now an estimated $9 billion hole. 

Those industries slated for the first phase of the restart include all construction sites; clothing, electronics, furniture, machinery, printing and textile manufacturing; wholesalers for chemical products, household appliances, apparel and metals; and stores selling office supplies, clothing, electronics, furniture and sporting goods. Regular retail stores will only be allowed to offer curb-side or in-store pickup.

Businesses will be mandated to keep people six feet apart, with only one person allowed in tight areas like elevators and check-out counters. They’ll have to make sure employees wear masks, and check them for symptoms each day.

The city plans to publish a detailed rule book next week, and launch a hotline for business owners with questions, de Blasio said.

Officials will do random inspections of reopening businesses, starting with warnings to correct safety violations that will escalate to fines if they don’t comply. While a handful of businesses have begun to reopen in defiance of shutdown orders, de Blasio called it “idiotic” not to wait for the official go-ahead.

The mayor did not give a specific date for when the restart will begin. “The day it happens is the day the numbers tell us we’re there,” he said.

When that happens, more riders are expected to head for the subway system, where ridership has already begun to rebound from the rock bottom levels it hit at the height of the pandemic.

De Blasio had little advice to offer New Yorkers wary of risking their health with more people on the subways and wondering how they can get around safely.

“You may see people use their cars more in the short term, if they have a car, or use for-hire vehicles for example,” he said “But that’s a short-term reality.”

The mayor said he plans to meet Thursday with MTA chairman Pat Foye and discuss setting limits on how many people the subway system can safely carry. The state-run agency has not given any estimates on passenger limits. Cities like London have said they can only carry 15 percent of their normal passenger load. 

“You’re going to see a certain number of people who their only option is to take a subway or bus, and they’ll need to come back to it,” de Blasio said. “There’s some people who are just not going to be comfortable in the short term. And I think to some extent, it will be a little bit of natural sorting out.”

More than half of city households do not own cars. De Blasio did not respond when asked if the city has any plans to use its own streets to provide safe transportation options. With billions in tax revenue lost to the crisis, he has proposed almost $11 million in cuts to existing bus and bike lane programs.

“He’s planning to fail at this moment,” said Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance. “A plan of inaction is a plan for gridlock.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Erin Durkin is a reporter for POLITICO New York and the co-author of New York Playbook. Before joining POLITICO, Erin wrote for The Guardian and was a City Hall reporter for the New York Daily News, where she covered the de Blasio and Bloomberg administrations and the City Council. She also reported on urban development and local politics in Brooklyn.


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The Pentagon Wants to Sacrifice Mexican and Indian Workers for U.S. Arms Industry Profits

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Sarah Lazare | Al Jazeera America

On March 20, the Pentagon issued a guideline stating that U.S manufacturers of missiles, warships and fighter jets should stay open during the Covid-19 crisis. The rationale is that the “defense industrial base” constitutes “essential” critical infrastructure for the United States. Yet we have every reason to believe that U.S. militarism, propped up by the arms industry, is making the world far more vulnerable to the pandemic.

Five years of devastating airstrikes, primarily carried out with U.S.-made weapons, have decimated Yemen’s health system just in time for Covid-19—and the bombs did not stop when the pandemic began. Instead of global cooperation, we’ve seen the United States tighten sanctions on Iran, one of the countries hardest hit by Covid-19, deploy ships to the caribbean to provoke Venezuela, and take a confrontational posture towards China. Now, U.S. workers are being asked to risk their lives—or, as one union that represents General Dynamics workers in Maine put it, become “sacrificial lambs”—so that the U.S. war machine can keep humming. Meanwhile, far from the assembly lines and plant floors, the CEOs of companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are safeguarding their profits. These are the same executives who enjoy influence in the Trump administration, whose Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, is a former lobbyist for Raytheon.

But now we are seeing a new dimension to this injustice. To protect the flow of supplies to U.S. military contractors, the Pentagon is pressuring Mexico and India to keep factories open, at the peril of Mexican and Indian workers. However bankrupt the argument that U.S. weapons manufacturers must stay open to protect American interests, it is outright brutish for the Pentagon to impose this standard on other countries. Workers in Mexico and India have no say in the actions of the U.S. government or military, yet they are being asked to put their lives at risk for America’s “national security.”

Covid-19 is spreading rapidly in Mexico, where factories are sources of major outbreaks. In mid-April, Mexico’s Undersecretary of Health, Hugo López-Gatell, warned that factories that continued to operate, despite orders for non-essential businesses to shut down, threatened to become major vectors of the disease and unleash an outbreak in northern border states.

Yet, just days later, in an April 20 press briefing, Undersecretary of Defense Ellen Lord said that “several pockets of closure internationally” are impacting the “aviation supply chain, ship-building and small space launch.” She stated, “I spoke with our U.S. Ambassador to Mexico on Friday, and today, I am writing the Mexican Foreign Minister to ask for help to reopen international suppliers there. These companies are especially important for our U.S. airframe production.” While Lord did not specify which U.S. companies she was referring to, several U.S. military contractors have subsidiaries in Mexico, including Lockheed Martin and Honeywell, according to a U.S. International Trade Commission report from 2013. In an April 21 earnings call, a Lockheed Martin official indicated that the company sees it as a priority that vital suppliers in Mexico stay open.

The Pentagon was not the only powerful U.S. entity that joined in this pressure campaign. In an April 24 special briefing, Michael Kozak, acting Assistant Secretary at the State Department, said, “Our embassy and here in Washington has been working very closely with Mexico, advocating for American firms.” He added, “And I think we’re making progress on that.” Meanwhile, on April 22, more than 300 corporate presidents, chairs and CEOs wrote a letter to Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), to keep open manufacturers deemed by the United States to be “essential and critical.”

These joint efforts appear to have been effective. Ten days after her initial remarks about Mexico, Lord indicated in another press briefing that U.S. pressure had been successful. “While I won’t provide any numbers, we have seen positive results,” she said. “I am thankful to our U.S. ambassador in Mexico, and to the government of Mexico, who has taken great strides to evaluate firms and their contribution to U.S. National Security requirements.”

Her admission that Mexico is being compelled to put its workers at risk in the service of U.S. “national security” is striking. What’s more, Lord revealed that U.S. corporations had a seat at the table when this pressure was discussed. “I have had ongoing conversations with our U.S. ambassador to Mexico, U.S. corporate CEOs, members of the House and Senate, as well as other officials in the State Department over the past two weeks to highlight key companies constraining our domestic defense supply chain in order to catalyze re-openings in Mexico,” she said. “We appreciate Mexico’s ongoing positive response.” (The Washington Post reported on May 1 that Mexico’s President AMLO “has not clarified whether U.S. defense or health-care manufacturers should remain open.”)

In a statement for a Defense News article published April 21, Eric Fanning, the president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, attempted to present the subservience of Mexican workers’ lives to U.S. arms manufacturers’ interests as a form of mutually-beneficial synchronization in the spirit of the Trump administration’s new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal, slated to take effect July 1. “To restore certainty and keep goods and services moving, all levels of government within the U.S., Canada, and Mexico must work together to provide clear, coordinated, and direct guidance about how best to protect our workers, while ensuring aerospace and defense is declared an ‘essential’ function in all three countries,” he said.

The claim that a few months of slowed or stopped production presents a threat to the U.S. military apparatus is untrue on its face. The United States, by far, has the largest military in the world: In 2019 the country accounted for 38% of all global military spending, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The United States is also the top arms exporter by a long shot, delivering weapons to 96 countries from 2015 to 2019, according to a separate SIPRI finding. What’s more, this industry has grown significantly over the past five years, with U.S. arms exports from 2015 to 2019 23% higher than 2015 to 19. The idea that this massive industry can not pause to protect the lives of workers without threatening the U.S. military fails on its own, violent logic.

Meanwhile, some Mexican workers have vociferously objected to being asked to work during the pandemic for U.S. companies. In mid-April, protests took hold in Ciudad Juárez, near the U.S. border, after workers for U.S. companies died, as Reuters reports. “These companies are worried about their supply chains, but it’s the workers who are dying,” Susana Prieto Terrazas, a labor activist in Ciudad Juárez, told the Washington Post amid protests against the Michigan-based Lear Corp., which makes car seats. “And if all they do is export, how is that essential to Mexico?”

It is not immediately clear which suppliers or subsidiaries to U.S. military contractors in Mexico have remained open as a result of pressure from the Pentagon, and whether any deaths can be directly attributed to the Pentagon’s actions. However, even keeping a single factory open for the good of U.S. military contractors presents an unacceptable risk to the workers being asked to clock in.

Mexican workers don’t appear to be the only ones being asked to make a sacrifice for the U.S. military industry. In her April 30 statement, Lord indicated, while providing no details, that the United States is applying similar pressure to India. “We’re also watching India very closely,” she said. “India has mandated closure of businesses, which is impacting defense sector primes. India is a major defense partner, and we hope they can all stay safe while transitioning back to an operational status.” This followed a brief statement she made in her April 20 remarks: “Mexico right now is somewhat problematical for us, but we’re working through our Embassy, and then there are pockets in India, as well.”

According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, there are currently 42,836 confirmed Covid-19 cases in India, yet it has one of the lowest testing rates in the world, so numbers could be far higher. With a population of 1.3 billion and just 0.55 hospital beds per 1,000 people, a full-blown outbreak in the country could be catastrophic.

The U.S. military was already in the business of sacrificing the wellbeing of ordinary people all over the world to maintain its dominance. We see this in its 800 military bases across the planet, which erode self-determination and environmental safety around the world. We also see it in the military’s ongoing wars, occupations, drone strikes and proxy battles—which have persisted, and in some cases escalated—during the pandemic. And we have seen this in the Pentagon’s request for billions in the next stimulus package, demanding a bailout for arms industry CEOs while 30 million people in the United States are newly unemployed. That the Pentagon is now demanding workers in other countries risk their lives for the sake of protecting its U.S. contractors shines new light on the cruelty of the U.S. military, and on the folly of allowing systems designed to carry out war to determine what constitutes “essential” work.

This article was published at In These Times on May 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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Search Results Web results Workers Won’t Quit Just to Get a Marginally Increased Benefit

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Unemployment insurance (UI) is a program designed to keep workers connected to the workforce. It is an earned benefit that allows workers to receive income while they are looking for a job. Any notion that workers will not return to work when it is safe to do so ignores not only evidence but also the intention of the unemployment insurance system.

UI benefits have always been a critical, yet insufficient wage replacement. The weekly benefit in states with the best benefits generally covers around 50 percent of a worker’s lost wages, allowing for some income during instances of unemployment, while remaining woefully inadequate to cover all expenses. This is particularly true if unemployed people worked in jobs that paid minimum or low wages.

Making ends meet when making 100 percent wages is hard enough for underpaid workers, never mind trying to do so making only – or less than – half of that. That is why the new Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) program, which temporarily provides an additional $600 weekly to qualified unemployed workers (on top of their regular state unemployment benefits) is so important to workers – and to our ability to counter this economic downturn.

We should be asking ourselves why underpaid workers – who will hopefully be making closer to or above their regular wages, allowing for greater economic stability in these uncertain times – are being expected to labor for too little money in the first place. Wages have stagnated for decades. People cannot live on the wages they are making, much less on an unemployment benefit that is a fraction of that.

Right now, our concern should be focused on making sure that workers are able to maintain an adequate income. This benefit boost is necessary in part because states have lowered their unemployment insurance benefit levels to the point where they cannot effectively provide countercyclical stabilization during a recession.

As NELP has reported repeatedly, the real problem is that too many workers who qualify for benefits cannot access them. As we have seen across the country, filing for unemployment insurance can be arduous.

When we see workers standing in line for paper applications for unemployment insurance, workers spending hours on hold while trying to apply over the phone, or the crashing of computer systems, we should focus on making sure everyone who lost work can get their benefit instead of worrying about the extremely unlikely scenario that underpaid workers will quit to get unemployment benefits.

There are more than a few reasons to call this idea into question. First, of all, under every state unemployment law in the country, a person who quits work in order to receive an unemployment check will be found ineligible for benefits. There are some situations (mostly adverse changes in wages, hours, and working conditions) that can be regarded as good cause to leave a job; the prospect of a higher unemployment benefit is not one of them.

Second, several guidance letters issued by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration have made it clear that quitting work to receive unemployment benefits can be fraud – workers know this because the few stories about fraud are used by anti-worker, anti-UI proponents to represent all workers and hurt a system that can support all. Workers are informed before applying that they cannot claim benefits for which they do not qualify and if they do, they will need to pay them back, and may even face steep financial penalties.

Moreover, it’s short-sighted to overlook how critical it is for workers to maintain their connection to a job right now. For so many people, there is more to a job than the paycheck. Workers can share a sense of camaraderie with their coworkers. They can find personal meaning in their jobs. If nothing else, work can provide a sense of stability for individuals and families.

In these highly uncertain times, the reassurance of continued work is something that more and more workers can no longer count on. It may be the source of health care benefits, retirement security, and possibly equity in the company. Workers are also well aware of how resume gaps can harm long-term job prospects, even in this era.

Policymakers need to learn the lesson of the last recession, which many individuals,  families and communities,  never recovered from. The response to the last recession did not inject enough money and was not sustained enough to ensure that communities actually recovered.

The families and communities that were most harmed in the last recession, unsurprisingly, were disproportionately people of color and women – who already were dealing with generational racial wealth gaps and gender wage gaps. Today, we are in an economic crisis with workers in a worse place economically than before. Communities cannot afford for policymakers to aim low in terms of emergency aid.

It is concerning that states like Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee are “re-opening” their economies and encouraging workers to go back to work. If shutting off access to unemployment insurance is any motivator behind this decision, it is sure to backfire. As public health officials warn, the more people who are forced to go back to work, the greater the risk to their health and safety and the cascading effects.

As we see shockingly disproportionate numbers of Black people dying, we know that racism and classism are not only the root cause of economic abandonment but also encapsulate our entire response in this moment.

More workers getting sick and overwhelming the health care system will prolong the duration of the pandemic and the number of people being infected, while also exacerbating economic problems in the future. The rush to reopen will ironically lengthen the duration of the crisis and worsen long-term economic conditions – particularly for underpaid workers of color and women of color.

Any argument being made that is not focused on ensuring all workers have the income needed to survive in this moment is ignoring a very important lesson: providing people with economic security is the answer to economic stability in good times, and to recovery after times of crisis. After all, the economy doesn’t exist without workers.

This article was originally published at NELP on April 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michele Evermore joined NELP in 2018 as a senior policy analyst for social insurance. She has worked to promote worker power as a legislative advocate for labor unions, including the Service Employees International Union District 1199 New England and National Nurses United. She also worked for the Obama Department of Labor to advance sound benefits policy, employment policy for people with disabilities, and equal pay for equal work. Prior to that, she worked in Congress for a decade, primarily for Senator Tom Harkin and also for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. In those roles, she worked to advance worker protections, organizing rights, and improving retirement security in a variety of private pension plan designs, as well as Social Security.


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