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Koch-Funded Think Tanks Are Lobbying to Send Workers to Their Deaths

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It’s no mystery what will happen if we rush to reopen the economy and send people back to work before epidemiologists say it is safe to do so. A model produced in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in March projected a worst-case scenario of 1.7 million Americans killed. Another estimate by the Imperial College London put this number at 2.2 million. We know that COVID-19, which has already taken more than 40,000 U.S. lives, is disproportionately killing African Americans. Poor people are already bearing the brunt of this crisis—and will die in even larger numbers if they are prematurely sent back to wait tables and crowd together in warehouses and factories.

Amid this climate, a small army of right-wing think tanks and conservative organizations is cynically invoking the plight of the downtrodden to make the case for swiftly reopening the economy and sending workers into deadly conditions. Some of the organizations beating this drum the loudest—the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—are behind the most anti-worker measures of our times, from the anti-union Janus Supreme Court ruling to the Trump administration’s work requirements for food stamps. As Trump, the GOP, CEOs and now billionaire-backed “protesters” call for the economy to reopen, these think tanks are working fervently behind the scenes, crafting talking points, speaking with legislators and building coalitions aimed at boosting Wall Street’s profits, at the expense of ordinary people.

“The people running these organizations are going to remain safely ensconced in gated mansions with little danger of getting infected themselves, while they make millions of Americans go back to work standing shoulder to shoulder,” Carl Rosen, general president for the UE union (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America), told In These Times.

On April 16, Kay Coles James, the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, praised President Trump for issuing guidelines for states to reopen their economies in three phases. “The administration is rightly working to restore livelihoods in the midst of catastrophic job losses while also taking care to balance Americans’ health and safety,” said James. “The Heritage Foundation’s National Coronavirus Recovery Commission is also working quickly to deliver additional recommendations to governments at every level, the private sector, and churches, charities, and other parts of civil society on a pathway to reopen America.”

James was listed as a thought leader on Trump’s dubious “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups”—likely at least partially a P.R. stunt, but nonetheless, a measure of influence and power. For the Heritage Foundation, it’s a sign that the organization’s campaign to reopen the economy might be paying off. The group announced a “National Coronavirus Recovery Commission” on April 6 and, soon after, issued a five-phase plan for reopening America. According to the Washington Post, the Heritage Foundation is working with other conservative groups including FreedomWorks and ALEC as part of an informal “Save Our Country” coalition aimed at reopening the economy. With funding from the Koch Foundation, ExxonMobile and a bevy of wealthy donors, the Heritage Foundation is at the center of political efforts to prematurely restart the economy.

Remarkably, the organization is citing the well-being of the poor people it wants to send into treacherous conditions when issuing this call. On April 13, James declared, “Keeping the American people at work and prosperous is what will produce better health outcomes for our citizens. A growing economy has the money for research and development into new medical innovations and cures; has more resources to better educate and train medical personnel; and creates greater capacities of beds, equipment, medicines, and personnel to handle the sick. It’s also an economy where abundance allows us to have the resources to help poorer citizens get the medical help that they need.” In other words, she is arguing that reopening the economy will make people sick, but market forces will somehow offset this catastrophe by providing the things we need to treat them—a claim made without evidence, and against the advice of epidemiological experts.

This insistence on sending workers into treacherous conditions “for their own good” stems directly from the organization’s history. The Heritage Foundation was heavily influential in the Reagan administration and right-wing Tea Party movement, and was a major influencer in the Trump administration’s transition team. It is vehemently anti-union, a fierce opponent of a $15 minimum wage, a fervent supporter of the 2018 Janus ruling, which pummelled public-sector unions, and a proponent of so-called right-to-work laws, which say workers don’t have to pay dues to the unions that represent them. Heritage has  made gutting public programs for the poor a central focus throughout its existence, and opposes expanding healthcare access.

The organization saw one of its cruelest agenda items come to fruition in December of 2019, when the Trump administration placed further restrictions on who can receive assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, declaring that able-bodied adults without children in places that have an unemployment rate below 10% have to work 20 hours a week to qualify. This rule was approved by Trump despite warnings that 700,000 people would lose their food stamps. Maggie Dickinson, a researcher who studied SNAP in New York City from 2011 to 2013, wrote that “work requirements have been shown to not help unemployed people find work and to make it more difficult for them to feed themselves. But taking people who are unemployed off SNAP often does harm to more than just those who directly receive food assistance.” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the rule change “appears to base its intellectual underpinning on policy developed at the conservative Heritage Foundation, experts say.” The Heritage Foundation, for its part, claimed credit in an article titled “Heritage Research Influences Food Stamp Eligibility Rule.”

According to Rosen of UE, “The only thing these corporations want to achieve is corporate profits as usual. That’s their real goal—not making sure working people have an income, not to make sure health and economic needs were taken care of. If those were their goals, they would support much more robust policies right now that make sure everyone has a full income and full healthcare through Medicare for All. These are the steps that have been taken in many european countries.”

“People need to be paid to stay home right now—that’s the only way we can recover as a country,” Rosen added. “Attempts to force people to go back to work when it’s not safe for them to do so is a horrendous, murderous policy.”

When it comes to the push to reopen the U.S. economy, the Heritage Foundation is not going it alone. As the Associated Press notes, the Koch-backed AFP was “one early shutdown opponent,” making the case that business should be allowed to “adapt and innovate.” Intercept reporter Lee Fang noted on March 26 that AFP, which calls itself a political advocacy group, “wants employees to return to work despite desperate pleas from public health officials that people should stay home as much as possible to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.” State chapters of AFP have also joined in the effort.

Like the Heritage Foundation, the AFP cites the hardships of poor people when pushing for the economy to reopen. “We can achieve public health without depriving the people most in need of the products and services provided by businesses across the country,” the organization said on March 20. “If businesses are shut down, where will people who are most in need get the things they need to care for themselves and others? Rather than blanket shutdowns, the government should allow businesses to continue to adapt and innovate to produce the goods and services Americans need, while continuing to do everything they can to protect the public health.”

Yet AFP, described by In These Times writer Mary Bottari as “the Kochs’ ‘grassroots’ lobbying arm,” has played a tremendous role in gutting public programs aimed at protecting ordinary people, including the CDC, and social welfare programs, particularly Medicaid. In recent years, the organization has gone on a blitz trying to pass right-to-work laws, seeing some success.

Before the COVID-19 crisis began, AFP was mobilizing against the PRO Act, which passed the House in February. This legislation would strengthen the right to strike, override “right-to-work” laws, and punish bosses who retaliate against workers for attempting to form a union. While the legislation is not perfect, it would “go a long way toward reversing decades of GOP-backed efforts to grind unions into dust,” Jeremy Gantz wrote in February for In These Times. AFP is presently circulating a letter which declares, “This legislation would turn back the clock on workers’ rights by undermining many pro-worker successes of recent years, just one year after the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision that affirmed union membership is a choice for all government workers nationwide.” AFP is not only pushing to send workers into dangerous conditions: It also wants to erode their right to collectively fight back.

But perhaps the biggest villain of all is ALEC, the Koch-backed “nonprofit” model-legislation shop that has devoted its nearly half-century of existence to eroding workers’ rights. ALEC has been active in efforts to reopen the economy. Its CEO Lisa B. Nelson told Newt Gingrich on March 27, “We believe preparations need to be made for a clarion call to get Americans back to work, and so the economy can start its rebound.” ALEC hosted a March 21 conference call featuring ALEC Board of Scholar Member Art Laffer, a right-wing economist and key figure behind the Reagan-era tax cuts for the rich. “We need to get production back—period,” declared Laffer, who was awarded the presidential medal of freedom by Trump last year.

As ALEC has called for policies that would endanger society’s most vulnerable, the organization has sought to portray itself as a victim. On an April 1 legislators call, ALEC Chief Economist Jonathan Williams said: “I think we all know how times of crises like these can be very dangerous times for those of us who believe in the ALEC principles of free markets and limited government and federalism.” Meanwhile, the organization is pushing for a host of other goals, including deregulation of telecommunications and supporting “federalism” and “state’s rights.”

In an interview, Laffer cited the plight of poor people when staking out his political positions. Reuters paraphrases, “‘I think it’s really important to balance out the economic consequences with the health consequences,’ Laffer said, adding that increased poverty from an extended shutdown could mean lower life expectancy, more suicide and a jump in child abuse.” (Notably, robust social programs, which Laffer opposes, are proven to reduce suicides during times of economic downturn.) And in a podcast interview, Nelson cited “working” as a public good: “Open america and get America working again,” she declared.

ALEC’s current advocacy emanates from a long history. As Mary Battari noted in a February 2018 story for In These Times, “ALEC was founded in 1973 as a venue for politicians and corporate lobbyists to meet behind closed doors and draft cookie-cutter legislation, known as ‘model bills,’ that promote corporate interests.” Today it boasts a massive network of 2,000 legislative members and 300 or more corporate members, according to The Center for Media and Democracy, which says, “ALEC is not a lobby; it is not a front group. It is much more powerful than that.” Aided by funding from corporations, corporate trade groups and the Koch Foundation, its bills have aimed to undermine unions, criminalize protests and privatize public goods. Over the past 15 years it has worked closely with conservatie advocacy groups, including AFP, to undermine unions.

According to Rosen, groups like ALEC are a big reason why we are so ill-prepared to meet the COVID-19 crises. “Over the last 50 years,” he says, “we’ve allowed corporate forces to systematically destroy the social safety net. There was no preparation done for a pandemic like this, even though it was clear that something like this could happen. The groups demanding we reopen are the ones that destroyed the social safety net, thereby creating the pressures making some people want to start up again.”

These three think tanks are pillars of a much broader effort to “reopen the economy,” which is another way of saying “treat workers as disposable widgets in service of corporate profits.” The oversized role of wealthy people in pushing this effort calls into question any claims that local protests for reopening constitute an organic, working-class movement. As the Guardian reports, “The Michigan Freedom Fund, which said it was a co-host of a recent Michigan rally against stay-at-home orders, has received more than $500,000 from the DeVos family, regular donors to rightwing groups.” The DeVos family is one of the richest in Michigan.

Joining in the cacophony are individual CEOs, who occasionally put conservative organizations’ talking points in cruder and more honest terms. Billionaire Tom Golisano, founder and chairman of Paychex Inc., told Bloomberg in late March, “The damages of keeping the economy closed as it is could be worse than losing a few more people. I have a very large concern that if businesses keep going along the way they’re going then so many of them will have to fold.” He added, “You have to weigh the pros and cons.”

Of course, for him, the “pro” is that he will not be the one serving tables, stocking warehouses or struggling to get healthcare once the economy reopens: When he talks about the costs, he’s talking about other people. The same can be said about the leaders of the conservative think tanks and organizations that are leading the push to send workers into danger: It will cost them nothing. The price for ordinary people will be immeasurable.

Lu Zhao and Indigo Olivier contributed research to this report.

This article was published at In These Times on April 20, 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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Trump’s Bid to Pit Black and Brown Workers Against Each Other

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President Trump has resurrected an old canard in his effort to sell a new effort to restrict immigration into the United States. The legislation he backs, he said at a White House ceremony, was necessary in part to protect “minority workers competing for jobs against brand-new arrivals” under the current immigration system.

This theme is a hardy perennial in right-wing media and think-tank reports, often featuring members of a small but persistent cadre of conservative black people willing to be the face of the pernicious idea that in order to boost the fortunes of African Americans, we have to keep new immigrants out of the country.

This notion keeps getting debunked, but Trump trotted it out anyway as his administration launches key assaults against the core concerns of African-American people.

This comes the same week as news reports that the Justice Department is gearing up a new assault on affirmative action programs at colleges, based on the lie that these programs discriminate against white and Asian college applicants.

Career civil-rights lawyers in the Justice Department are so aghast at the idea that their agency’s efforts are being redirected from addressing the continuing effects of structural racism that Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to use political appointees and outside lawyers to lead the effort.

Remember that this pronouncement also is in the shadow of a speech Trump gave before police officers in Long Island, New York, in which he encouraged police officers to rough up criminal suspects.

“[W]hen you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon — you just see them thrown in, rough — I said, please don’t be too nice,” Trump told the assembly of law enforcement officers.

Even people in his own administration denounced the speech as inappropriate, as did prominent police chiefs. Later, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed Trump’s comment as a joke.

But in African-American communities around the country, where the drumbeat of stories of police officers using clearly unwarranted deadly force against African Americans continues to reverberate, no one was laughing.

Vice senior editor Wilbert Cooper convincingly took on the black-people-harmed-by-immigration myth in a 2016 essay. Not only is it false that immigration of lower-skilled people harms African-American employment prospects, he wrote that “counter to what Trump and others contend, there’s evidence that immigration can actually help low-skilled blacks get back to work.”

Denver University economist Jack Strauss analyzed a wide breadth of data from metropolitan areas across the US in 2013 to determine whether blacks in particular lose out when it comes to immigration. He found there to be a “one-way causation from increased immigration including Latinos to higher black wages and lower poverty.” In other words, immigration is good for black workers. According to Strauss’s summary of his findings, a “1 percent rise in Latino immigration contributes to a 1.4 percent increase in employment rates among African Americans,” and “for every 1 percent increase in a city’s share of Latinos, African median and mean wages increase by 3 percent.”

The reality is, as Cooper writes, cities like Cleveland and Detroit are working to attract immigrants, because of the impact immigrants have on the overall economic vitality of the communities they make their home.

Jobs Tell The Story

On Friday, the federal government will release an updated picture of the nation’s employment situation. The previous report, covering June, showed that the nation’s unemployment rate was 4.4 percent, and African-American unemployment was 7.1 percent, down significantly from 8.8 percent in June 2016.

The significant decrease in black unemployment is in itself a direct rebuke to the idea that drastic measures to restrict immigration are necessary to lower unemployment rates in African-American communities.

What that progress affirms that economic growth combined with economic justice and fairness is essential to closing the gaps between black, brown and white employment prospects.

What The Nation Needs

What the nation needs is not an assault on immigration, but an assault on the effects of structural racism and economic inequality. Instead of dismantling affirmative action, we need investments in schooling for African-American children that start at preschool – and before.

We need to reinvest in communities that have been left behind by the free-market idolatry of too many state governments and, now, the federal government itself. We need every worker to have a living wage and access to affordable housing.

Above all, we need to end the assaults on the fundamental dignity of African-American people – from the coded reference to “thugs” who need to be roughed up by police to the active exalting by White House officials of the nostrums of white nationalism.

Thanks but no thanks, President Trump. The overwhelming majority of African Americans don’t want your faux paternalism at the expense of our immigrant brothers and sisters.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on August 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Isaiah J. Poole is communications director of People’s Action, and has been the editor of OurFuture.org since 2007. Previously he worked for 25 years in mainstream media, most recently at Congressional Quarterly, where he covered congressional leadership and tracked major bills through Congress. Most of his journalism experience has been in Washington as both a reporter and an editor on topics ranging from presidential politics to pop culture. His work has put him at the front lines of ideological battles between progressives and conservatives. He also served as a founding member of the Washington Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.


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The Federal Reserve and Black Unemployment

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The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (FOMC) that determines U.S. monetary policy met in July.  Its job is to weigh the state of the American economy, both the labor market and inflationary pressures to set policy.  In an interesting note, its discussion of the labor market explicitly noted the condition of the African American and Hispanic unemployment rates.  More than just an aside, reflecting on the status of June’s labor market the minutes of the meeting show the following note:

“The unemployment rates for African Americans and for Hispanics stayed above the rate for whites, al­though the differentials in jobless rates across the different groups were similar to those before the most recent recession.”

While it is good the FOMC notes the damage its policies may be doing to the African American community, it unfortunately appears too simplistic in understanding the dynamics of the market and how the growth in labor demand affects the African American community.  It is simplistic because it appears to say that nothing has changed; that while the African American unemployment rate of 8.6% was on par with its pre-recession level of 8.4% in March 2007, when the white unemployment rate was 3.8%, little different than June’s 4.3%.  This suggests, the relative position of African Americans is fixed, immutable by macro-economic dynamics, so this lamentable gap corresponds to the best level of African American unemployment that can be reached.  In short, we must be near full employment.

Here is what the June report showed in detail.  The unemployment rate for adult African Americans (older than 25) with Associates Degrees was 3.0%, well below the unemployment rate for white high school graduates 4.2% rate.  This was a first since the recession began, for better educated African Americans to have unemployment rates lower than less educated whites.  In July 2015, African Americans with Associate Degrees had a 4.8% unemployment rate compared to white high school graduates lower 4.4% rate.

Further unnoticed, is that at the depths of the labor market downturn, the employment-to-population ratio for African Americans (the share of people with jobs) fell to 51.0% in July 2011, but had grown by June to 56.1%, a five percentage point gain, but a 10% increase.  For whites, on the other hand, the EPOP had grown only from 59.3% to 60.2%, less than one percentage point.

So, the change in unemployment rates is deceptive.  The African American unemployment rate is improving on a strong growth in employment and in the relative improvement resulting from less discrimination in hiring.  That success has further encouraged the rise in labor force participation for African Americans; which has the perverse effect of fighting against a lower unemployment rate, because it increases the number looking unsuccessfully.

The problem for African Americans is that they face much higher probabilities of enduring long spells of unemployment.  African Americans, of the same educational attainment and with the same cognitive skill levels (the so-called test score gap often mistakenly attributed as a measure of inferior schooling) as whites, face a fifty percent greater chance of being thrown into a long spell of unemployment.  And, once having fallen into that labor market quicksand, face about a third less chance of escaping.  The result is that massive levels of unemployment, like the Great Recession spawned, result in a very long queue of unemployed African Americans.  That long line can only clear by a similarly long and sustained recovery to pluck the unemployed back among the employed.

Put it simply, the unemployment rate is a snapshot composed of the probability of becoming unemployed plus the inability to escape unemployment; so it is a much more complex picture when large numbers of people are unemployed for long periods, as they are more likely to be captured by the snapshot.  When unemployment spells are very short, people move out of the frame before the snapshot can be taken.

The unemployment gap is not one of skill, it is the very real and present discrimination prevalent in a labor market where demand for workers is low and the power and caprice of employers is high.  The relative size of the gap can change, if policies push beyond conventional measures of unemployment and underutilization of workers; it is possible to see another answer is possible.

So, it is good that the FOMC at least is aware that macro-economic policies can have a good or bad effect on African Americans.  The next step is for the FOMC to further understand how much a difference it can make.

This is not just important for African Americans.  It is important for the health of the national economy.  First, everyone benefits if we push the labor market to its true and full level of maximum employment; it means more jobs and opportunities for everyone.

Second, because the African American community has such little wealth, when the economy expands, it is a community very sensitive to the interest rate movements and credit availability to catch-up on purchases like cars and making home improvements.  These purchases are fueled by rising employment opportunities and the easing of credit when the FOMC acts to lower interest rates and stimulate economic growth.  But, in such a leveraged position, it means that a slowing economy and the loss of jobs quickly turns auto loans and home borrowing into severe household balance sheet nightmares.  Those bad effects spill over to the broader the economy.

Since African American employment is more sensitive to a slowing economy, it means the FOMC has to get it right about understanding when African Americans have reached full employment.  So far, they have consistently guessed at a number that is too high, ending labor market recoveries too soon—and economic expansions too soon for everyone.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on August 22, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

William E. Spriggs serves as Chief Economist to the AFL-CIO, and is a professor in, and former Chair of, the Department of Economics at Howard University. Follow Spriggs on Twitter: @WSpriggs.


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African-American Unemployment Rate Was ‘Virtually Unchanged’ In 2011

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Tanya SomanaderAs 2011 progressed, Americans overall saw a slowly decreasing unemployment rate, ticking down from 9.1 percent in January to 8.5 percent in December. However, a new report from UC Berkeley reveals that the unemployment rate for African Americans stayed almost exactly the same. In January of 2011, the unemployment rate for African Americans stood at 15.7 percent. In December, it stood at 15.8 percent.

Even as the underlying factors affecting the overall unemployment rate (employment level, unemployment level, and number of people not in the labor force) changed, African-Americans saw “virtually no movement” in their official rate. The report compares the unemployment rate change by race:

Many factors are contributing to the stubbornly high unemployment rate of African-Americans. Since the recession began, at least 600,000 public sector jobs have been sacrificed for budget cuts. These layoffs fall heaviest on African-Americans, as “about one in five black workers have public sector jobs, and African-American workers are one-third more likely than white ones to be employed in the public sector.” Economists also note that the younger age of the African-American workforce, the lower number of college graduates, and the larger number living in low-income areas that were harder hit by the recession are all keeping the rate as high as it is.

Whatever the reasons, the trend is certainly disturbing. As the report notes, “Black male unemployment rates have fallen slightly and Black female unemployment rates have risen. In contrast, unemployment rates for white men and white women have fallen over the same time period.”

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on January 19, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tanya Somanader is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Tanya grew up in Pepper Pike, Ohio and holds a B.A. in international relations and history from Brown University. Prior to joining ThinkProgress, Tanya was a staff member in the Office of Senator Sherrod Brown, working on issues ranging from foreign policy and defense to civil rights and social policy.



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