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Biden signs executive orders aimed at combating hunger, protecting workers

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President Joe Biden signed two executive orders on Friday aimed at fighting hunger, protecting American workers and providing economic relief to families whose jobs and livelihoods have been destroyed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The measures ask agencies across the government to expand, extend and at times re-examine guidelines to find ways to provide further aid for Americans while working within existing authority, including by strengthening worker protections and increasing food benefits.

While they are not meant as a stand-in for the nearly $2 trillion economic relief package Biden proposed last week, the orders reflect the White House’s efforts to shore up the economy while lawmakers debate whether to enact a new, massive aid package — a process that could take months.


“These actions are concrete and will provide immediate support to hard-hit families,” Brian Deese, the head of the White House’s National Economic Council, told reporters on a call Thursday evening. But, he added, “They are not enough. And much, much more is needed.”

Through one executive order, Biden asks the Department of Agriculture to consider increasing food assistance benefits and money to help families with schoolchildren buy groceries. He also asks the Treasury Department to consider taking action to ensure that more Americans who are eligible to receive economic relief checks are able to get them.

And he is calling on the Labor Department to clarify guidelines that until now had forced American workers who refused an offer to return to work to lose their unemployment benefits, even if heading back to the workplace would have put them or their families at heightened risk.

“This is the United States of America, and they are waiting to feed their kids,” Biden said. “These are not the values of our nation. We cannot, will not let people go hungry.”

The second order is focused on protecting federal workers and contractors, in part by restoring collective bargaining power and worker protections by revoking measures that President Donald Trump had signed. It also eliminates Schedule F, a class of worker that Trump had established that stripped many federal civil service employees of job protections.

It asks agencies to take a look at which federal employees are earning less than $15 per hour and come up with recommendations to get them above that wage.

The orders are the latest in a blitz of executive actions that Biden has taken since he took office on Wednesday. The more than two dozen measures he has signed have been aimed in part at turning around the pandemic, tackling climate change and reversing some of Trump’s policies, including the so-called Muslim ban on travelers from certain countries.


Deese called on Congress to pass the American Rescue Plan that Biden laid out last week, which proposed $1.9 trillion in additional federal funding to tackle the pandemic, provide another round of direct payments to working families and extend unemployment benefits, among other priorities. But Republicans have panned that proposal, saying it is too expensive and comes too soon after the $900 billion aid package that Congress passed last month.

During the signing ceremony for the executive orders Friday, Biden pushed back on those concerns: “While the Covid-19 package that passed in December was the first step, as I said at the time, it’s just a down payment. We need more action, and we need to move fast.”

“We’re in a national emergency,” he added. “We’ve got to act like we’re in a national emergency.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on January 22, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro.

About the Author: Matthew Choi is a breaking news reporter.


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Essential food workers strike over $1 in New York City, this week in the war on workers

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Remember back in April when everyone suddenly realized that food chain workers are essential workers? A group of workers in the Bronx is trying to make good on that realization as they negotiate their next contract—and it’s led to a strike, as the bosses at the Hunts Point Produce Market refuse the workers’ call for a $1 an hour raise and added help with healthcare costs. Union representatives say that hundreds of workers have gotten COVID-19 and six have died, but New York City has gotten the food it needs—the 1,400 Teamsters workers at the market handle around 60% of the city’s produce.

“We’re working in a pandemic, now risking our life, every day, and you want to give us less than what you gave us the last time in a normal situation?” union trustee Charles Machadio told Gothamist. Pointing out that management rhetoric about the “continued uncertainty surrounding the pandemic” is in sharp contrast with the fact that the produce market has remained open throughout, Machadio thinks this is more than just a normal wage dispute: “I think they’re using the pandemic to try and get out of the contract.”  

The market is offering 32 cents in added pay and 60 additional cents toward healthcare coverage.

Rallying with the workers on Wednesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said “Our entire city needs to stand by our essential workers. And it’s not enough for us to just say it and it’s not enough for, you know, we have to say thank you to all of our essential workers from our nurses to our food workers to the folks loading the trucks. But it’s not just enough to say thank you. We have to support them in their demands for a better life.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Chicago Teachers Are Voting on Whether to Defy Monday’s Reopening Order

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Delegates of the Chicago Teachers Union have just sent a referendum to members: shall we all work remotely starting Monday, January 25?

That’s the date when many were assigned to return to schools. If the district retaliates, delegates will reconvene to take a strike vote.

The plan was voted up by a large majority in an emergency meeting. It’s CTU’s boldest official move yet against reopening; the union has had to walk a difficult legal line.

But militancy has bubbled up from the rank and file. The members who were assigned to return in earlier waves of the mayor’s divisive reopening plan have been organizing their own resistance actions, school by school.

With the pandemic death toll in the U.S. now more than 400,000, Covid positivity rates in Chicago have climbed above 10 percent—double the target rate the city has set for itself—and in some neighborhoods, 15 percent. Yet the city is trying to force its educators back into classrooms.

RESISTING DIVISION

Clerks were ordered back into the school buildings last fall, followed January 4 by pre-K and special needs educators, followed January 11 by their students, to be followed by an ongoing rollout of returns by grade level.

Educators applying for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act due to their own vulnerabilities or those of household members have been rejected at alarming rates.

The entire system is designed to push individuals to make choices for themselves—do I try to get an ADA exemption, or brave the reopening, or quit?—rather than as a collective. But educators are working through these challenges.

Ana Bolotin, a special education teacher, said she was one of many teachers “who felt alone and did not know how to proceed as we were facing bullying from CPS.” She connected via Facebook with others from across the district who were ready to refuse to go into buildings. “Because of the pandemic, we didn’t know each other in real life. All of the relationships were forged virtually,” said Bolotin.

The group called a Zoom meeting, attended by 30 people, and talked about how they could organize to refuse to enter. Their next meeting had 100. These meetings were designed to support people to go back out and organize actions at their own schools.

LOCKED OUT

Staff members at Brentano Math and Science Academy decided that, beginning on January 4—the date they were ordered back—they would bring their laptops and teach from outside the school building.

And that’s what they did, despite below-freezing temperatures. “We are all scared,” said Pre-K teacher Kirsten Roberts. “All of our families have been directly impacted by Covid—by loss and illness.”

So far only pre-K and special needs educators had been called back, but other Brentano teachers turned up throughout the day to support them.

The next day when Roberts attempted to log on to Google Classroom, she was denied access—to her students, her email, and her pay. Management had blocked her.

At Suder Montessori, educators bought their own protective gear and used a CTU-provided checklist to do safety inspections. Educators at other schools donned masks during remote learning so that parents would have a better idea of what students would be experiencing in the classroom.

Some planned to get appointments to test before returning to school, which would require them to stay out of buildings until the results came back negative.

News reports suggest up to 60 percent of the educators who were told to return did not enter their buildings on the first day back.

That’s when Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced it would be cutting off access to remote teaching for any educators like Roberts who were, by district rules, supposed to be inside. As of this writing, some are still locked out; an end to the lockout has been added to the union’s demands.

Still the organizing continued. The key, said Bolotin, “was brainstorming ways to increase solidarity and help people see that individual educators needed to support each other.”

STILL NOT SAFE

Mayors, governors, and other policymakers across the country continue to insist that schools are not sites of Covid infection, even as growing evidence suggests they are wrong. A study in the medical journal The Lancet noted that previous studies showing low or no school transmission had missed asymptomatic students and included schools with low attendance.

Recent reports from around the world suggest that open schools strongly correlate with hospitalizations and community spread. England, Germany, and South Korea initially reopened schools, but have since closed them again in the face of rising positivity rates.

But here in the U.S., where the government has been slow to provide relief for workers, policymakers continue to beat the school-reopening drum. That means educators’ lives are being put at risk—along with the lives of students and their families.

Many of the arguments made for reopening school buildings speak only to the health of students. And some of the most-cited reports of successful reopenings in the U.S. ignore the measures taken—smaller class sizes, robust testing and contact tracing—that are absent in most U.S. schools.

NO GOOD OPTIONS

Organizing against the reopenings has been tough for unions. Educators want to do what’s best for students, and everyone can see how inadequate remote teaching is—especially when many families have limited WiFi access and parents are juggling work and childcare. The stream of mixed messages about school transmission hasn’t helped.

CTU has been demanding testing, contact tracing, vaccinations for educators and other school staff, and the enforcement of safety protocols such as adequate protective gear, air-quality systems, and cleaning schedules before educators go back into the buildings.

The union has been holding virtual town halls with educators and providing checklists for building safety. It has garnered the support of 33 aldermen to say it’s not safe to reopen the buildings. Meanwhile, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has refused to negotiate with CTU about the reopening plan.

The Illinois legislature recently passed a law which would make many of the issues involved in reopening mandatory subjects of bargaining. The measure would repeal a section of the Illinois Educational Relations Act passed in 1995 that has allowed the district to refuse to bargain with the union over issues including class sizes, layoffs, subcontracting, and charter schools. That law is now sitting on the governor’s desk, waiting to be signed.

COMPETING FEARS

For Dennis Kosuth, a school nurse and Roberts’ partner, solidarity has meant working with members who were both afraid of getting sick and afraid of the district, in varying degrees. “We don’t trust CPS,” he said. So organizing required “finding the place where the person’s fear about the virus and readiness to risk their job met.”

To start, Kosuth struck out alone. He started doing his work outside the school building—checking on students, completing paperwork—and livestreamed it. Over the course of a week, more and more educators stopped by to show support. For him, the present challenge for organizers is, “How do we lead without getting out ahead?” 

Kosuth was one of 150 Chicago school nurses who signed a letter to the district saying that schools are unsafe. National Nurses United and the Illinois Nurses Association have backed up their concerns.

While the district is trying to pit parents and teachers against each other, Roberts said the message from the union to students’ families is: “We are exactly like you as workers. We want for you what we want for ourselves.”

‘OUR ONLY POWER’

At the end of the second week of forced return, some CTU members took personal days off and led a car caravan though the streets of Chicago to City Hall and the homes of members of the Board of Education while a board meeting was in session.

“Lori Lightfoot and the Board of Education seem to want there to be a corrosive atmosphere,” said Roberts. “In any rational world we would have collaboration. But they are creating a situation where our only power is to show them they cannot run the schools without us.”

Now the proposed January 25 stay-at-home is up to a member vote. A strike threat forced the city’s handback in August and kept schools remote.

Under Illinois law, public sector unions are banned from striking while under a collective bargaining agreement. CTU’s contract expires in 2024. The law also bans the city from locking workers out.

If CTU were to strike, it would be a safety strike. That, notes Roberts, would be uncharted territory.

But so are 4,000 deaths a day.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Barbara Madeloni is Education Coordinator at Labor Notes and a former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.


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The “Essential Worker” Swindle

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Politicians, pundits, CEOs and think tank staffers have spent the past 10months effusively praising the heroism and sacrifice of essential workers. ?“I’m not alone in being grateful for the work you are doing,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos declared in a March 2020 open letter to the company’s workers who have labored throughout the pandemic, risking their lives to deliver hand sanitizer, face masks and baby formula (and increased Bezos’ personal fortune by 65%). Walmart has taken out television ads praising and thanking essential workers (even as it has imperiled and underpaid those under its employ). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D?Calif.) tweeted in July 2020, ?“Frontline and essential workers across the country have performed heroically since the start of the COVID-19pandemic.” Former President Trump, who oversaw 400,000 Covid deaths in the U.S. alone, ran a taped segment during the Republican National Convention in which he said to essential workers, ?“Thank you all very much. Great job.”

But beneath this praise is a troubling truth: Whatever mitigation of suffering and hardship has been achieved during the pandemic, it’s been built on the backs of an ?“essential” workforce that is hyper-exploited, under-paid, placed in extreme danger, and nowhere close to fairly compensated. The endless praise of these essential workers, from the very architects of their exploitation, only serves to justify and normalize a social order in which people who are disproportionately Black, Brown and low-wage are sacrificed. Instead of talking about how workers are being economically coerced into laboring under deadly conditions, we’re talking about heroism. Instead of criticizing policies and political decisions that send workers to their deaths, we are fawning at workers’ voluntary self-sacrifice. The ?“essential worker” discourse has the effect of enforcing discipline on a labor force that CEOs and politicians have decided is dispensable. This is not the language of gratitude?—?it’s the language of throwing people away.

A recent report on Chicago-area workers in the food industry shines new light on the conditions these ?“essential workers” face. In December, the workers’ rights organizations Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) and Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC) interviewed 90 Chicago-area workers in food production, distribution and logistics (10% of those interviewed are white, 42% are Black and 48% are Latino). Eighty-five percent of the workers interviewed said that when employees raised Covid-19 safety concerns, bosses either failed to respond to complaints, retaliated against people who spoke out, or took actions that were not helpful. Sixty-one percent said they had to go without pay when they were ill or forced to undergo quarantine. Eighty-three percent of the workers who were infected with Covid-19report that ?“they did not receive paid sick leave from their employer or government assistance.” And a stunning 96% of workers interviewed said they were not receiving hazard pay. 

These workers are being asked to risk their lives every time they clock in to the job, but in return they are receiving no social support or meaningful compensation. One anonymous worker told the researchers, ?“I had the virus in April and had to quarantine for a month. Without insurance or quarantine pay, I had no choice but to stay home and suffer through it.” Another anonymous worker told researchers of a coworker who ?“got sick with Covid and passed away.” The person who died had been working while ill and, according to the interviewee, ?“The company never addressed the death or told us a coworker had died.”

The ?“essential workers” who are dying or going without pay so they can quarantine were already severely underpaid when the pandemic began, particularly those in the food industry. In 2019, the median wage for food and agricultural workers, for example, was just $13.12, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Meanwhile, just 8% of workers in this sector were represented by unions. Once the pandemic broke out, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out health and safety ?“guidance” for essential workers. However, according to a research brief from The Shift Project, which collects and analyzes survey data, ?“The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency ordinarily tasked with enforcing regulations to protect workers, has largely left safety standards and protocols up to individual employers.” (On Thursday, President Biden instructed OSHA to issue new guidelines to protect workers from Covid-19.)

Essential workers themselves have been some of the loudest critics of the effusive praise with which their exploitation has been met. ?“We are tired of taking the risk,” said San Jose, California McDonald’s worker Maria Ruiz, while on strike in April 2020for hazard pay of an additional $3 per hour. ?“I’m kind of afraid” to go on strike, she added in an interview with In These Times, ?“but I’m more afraid to lose my life.” A cashier at a New Seasons Market in Portland, Oregon told In These Times in March 2020, ?“I don’t really know if any amount of money would make working in this environment and being exposed to this level of risk feel worth it. Personally, I live with my grandmother and mother so it’s just really hard to know if continuing to come to work is the right choice.”

Meanwhile, Koch-funded think tank staffers, Wall Street bankers and even Reagan-era economist Art Laffer have emerged as some of the biggest cheerleaders of sending workers into deadly conditions. ?“We need to get production back?—?period,” Laffer proclaimed just weeks into the U.S. pandemic (Trump gave Laffer the presidential medal of freedom in 2019).

Of course, there is a conversation to be had about the need to keep people fed and cared for during the pandemic, a feat that almost certainly requires some degree of sacrifice and hard work in the service of the common good. Food must still get to people’s homes, health workers must still care for the sick and dying, farms must keep growing produce so that people can live. And indeed, many workers are acting heroically, as illustrated when they’ve stood up again and again to defend their lives, and the lives of their coworkers, under harrowing conditions.

But 10 months into this crisis, U.S. society has not had a meaningful collective conversation about what a just, shared sacrifice could look like. We have not talked about how to evenly distribute the burden of danger, how to make sure that each human life is valued as we tackle the mammoth challenges before us. With no real public debate, we are operating under the assumption that if sacrifices must be made, it is the most exploited sectors of the working class that should make them?—?an attitude that prevails during ?“normal” times, but now with brutal efficiency. As Hamilton Nolan pointed out in March, we’re not asking Art Laffer to wait tables. We’re not asking politicians to send their children to work the checkout lines in grocery stores. The idea that those options would even be on the table is laughable. 

If we continue on the current trajectory, when this is all over, the pandemic is going to be the story of how, in the face of social crisis, an entire class of people was abused, discarded and left to die. All the while, we were told that the only way through the crisis was for the workers who have always been sacrificed for the profits of the few to make greater sacrifices than ever before. And as Black, Brown and poor people disproportionately perished from Covid-19, as Chicago-area food workers languished without sick pay, we were reassured not to be outraged. Because this is noble sacrifice, and essential workers are ?“heroes.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 22, 2021. 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 InterceptThe Nation, and Tom Dispatch.


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Trump plan to politicize key civil service jobs has run out of time

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It looks like one of Team Trump’s last-minute efforts to destroy the civil service has fizzled. With less than a day to go, the plan to strip protections from tens of thousands of career federal employees hasn’t been put into effect at any federal agency. 

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Personnel Management had rushed to list many of their jobs in the new Schedule F, a new classification for jobs involving policymaking. That means that career civil servants who have served under both presidents from both parties would be more like political appointees, vulnerable to being fired for insufficient loyalty. It’s a plan that would gut expertise in the federal government and remake it into Donald Trump’s loyalty-obsessed image.

But it’s a plan that, fingers crossed, isn’t going into effect anywhere. The Office of Personnel Management’s list of positions to move into Schedule F didn’t move forward, The Washington Post reports, and Budget Director Russell Vought reportedly told staff that there wasn’t time to put the changes into place at the OMB.

“It logistically was never going to be possible for this to be put into effect,” a senior administration official told the Post. The prospect was scary enough, though, that a lawyer for a federal workers union said, “I’m holding my breath until we’re out of the woods”—as in, when Trump is officially and finally out of office.

lf workers aren’t shifted into Schedule F before noon on Wednesday, then President-elect Joe Biden inherits an executive order calling for those changes, but nothing concrete to undo or be stuck with. It’s just a really good thing that Team Trump hasn’t been as competent as they have been evil—they’ve done enough damage as it is.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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How Chicago Teachers Are Resisting the City’s Dangerous School Reopenings

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This week, the first wave of children, teachers and clinicians in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system were required to appear at their schools for the first time in nearly a year. While Covid-19 cases and deaths have only increased (and increased dramatically) across the country since last spring, CPS officials and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot insist on reopening schools. What’s worse, teachers who fear for their safety and the safety of their students and coworkers are being locked out of their employee accounts and having their pay docked if they refuse to return from teaching remotely. In this urgent mini-cast, we talk to Paula Ladin and Mariana Ruiz, two CPS special-ed educators, about the city’s dangerous, reckless and unnecessary reopening plan and the impact it is already having on students, teachers, their families and their communities.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, ?“a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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U.S. Chamber calls for governments to fund rapid training programs

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U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue said Tuesday that a broad-based economic recovery in 2021 depends on reskilling and supporting workers. The usually conservative Chamber is embracing a radical shift on skills policy. “Our lawmakers should fund rapid training programs to connect the unemployed with jobs in new sectors,” Donohue said in a State of American Business address. 

Employers should take a lead in designing these programs, Donohue said, but said the benefits to workers would be clear-cut: “If we do this right and do it quickly, we will improve the living standard for millions of Americans.”

Trade unions agree, but insist the federal government thinks big. “We can’t think about (it) employer by employer,” said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union. Six million fast food and care workers “are living in poverty and have irregular schedules,” leaving them without access to lifelong learning opportunities in the current system, she said. 

“Imagine a system where the company, the government and the workers together thought about how to unlock those four million people, and train them to do the work that’s emerging in the future,” Henry said. Singapore’s citizens don’t have to imagine it: that’s what SkillsFuture, the country’s adult education government agency, delivers. 

Ong Tze Ch’in, who leads the Singaporean program, told POLITICO’s Global Translations podcast that the Singaporean government has built “a national movement about the pursuit of skills mastery and allowing every individual to achieve the maximum potential.”

At the heart of Singapore’s training efforts is a credit offered to every adult in the country, of between $375 and $950, and “absentee payroll,” a system of government funding for up to 90 percent of a worker’s salary covering work-time missed attending training.

Singapore also subsidizes its education providers up to 90 percent of the cost of delivering a course. The courses range from two-day workshops to months-long programs. The original intent was ensuring Singapore’s quick transition to a digital economy. To cope with the additional disruption of Covid-19, the government increased subsidies for mid-career workers and for courses focused on job skills for workers and industries hit hardest by the pandemic such as accommodation and aviation. 

It takes a whole-of-government mindset to implement a comprehensive system like Singapore’s, and also a new outlook on education, Ong said. School and universities aren’t considered the sum of Singapore’s system, they’re “pre-employment training,” he said. It’s a necessary distinction in Ong’s view because working lives are getting longer, and “that education alone no longer sustains you for your entire career, simply because industry cycles are changing so much faster.”

The biggest winners in Singapore’s system are smaller businesses and their workers, which lack the “critical mass and the capacities” to match the training programs of multinational companies, he said. 

Ong, who was Singapore’s director of military intelligence before taking charge of SkillsFuture, advised American policymakers not to delay their efforts. “You don’t grow an army in a day. You grow it over years so that when you need it, you have it.” 

Can the Singapore model scale across the United States?

The key is re-imagining education as a broader set of services beyond school and college, say many labor experts. “Lots of skills workers have, or need, are not about getting more degrees,” said McKinsey Global Institute’s James Manyika.

Ravi Kumar, President of Infosys, the Indian company that became famous for encouraging the tech outsourcing boom, told POLITICO that Infosys now runs “the largest corporate training university in the world,” in Bangalore, India. 

Each market has to be treated differently, according to the local skills base, Kumar said. In the U.S. he said he hires based on a student’s capacity to learn, rather than the brand name of their degree. “We’re moving from degrees to skills with our digital apprenticeship program” — which includes “a finishing school infrastructure,” of eight to 10 weeks of tailored training, at a cost of around $20,000 per student.

“We’re hiring from community colleges, and putting them in the apprentice program, so they can move from operations to a data scientist, and from cyber operations to a cyber security consultant. You give them stackable credentials.” Over the next few decades, Kumar believes the changes will be so specific and frequent that individuals won’t be able to manage them on their own. 

P-TECH is a large-scale public-private partnership trying to take on this challenge. Started by IBM in Brooklyn a decade ago, the partnership now operates in 28 countries. 

Joel Duran was part of the first class to graduate from P-TECH’s six-year program in 2017, with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. Duran, now 23, landed a technical consultant job working for IBM’s federal government clients, an outcome he said would have been harder to achieve without the structure and safety net provided by P-TECH. 

“From the first day that you started out at P-TECH in ninth grade, you are paired with a mentor,” he told the Global Translations podcast, and take part in regular work placements where “you are depended upon by the business.” With a salary of $14 an hour as a teenager in these work placements, Duran said he also had income to help support his wider family, some of whom immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic when Duran was in primary school, and some who remained behind. 

Duran said the skills he’s learned are portable in a fast-moving labor market. Some of his graduating class “took their two-year technical degree and they went on to med school, they went on to be lawyers. I know there was one student who went and studied wildlife.” For Duran, the lasting effect has been on his approach to work. “I’ve picked up the mindset to always keep learning, to show up in a room humble and be able to say, ‘I don’t know about this, but I can get back to you’ and I’m pretty confident that I can learn it.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on January 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ryan Heath is the author of Global Translations, POLITICO’s global newsletter and podcast, and previously authored POLITICO’s U.N. Playbook, Brussels Playbook, and Davos Playbook. 


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Alaska Public Employees Pay Off Student School Meal Balances

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

With the pandemic hitting everyone economically, the members of the Alaska Public Employees Association/AFT elected to do what they could, paying off thousands of dollars of school meal balances.

“The Juneau Education Support Staff (JESS) Local 6096 Executive Board started thinking about how to use the money in April. We all wanted to help families and students in the community, and as the pandemic continued we started realizing how everyone needed to have some kindness come into their lives—they needed good news,” said Catherine Pusich, the board’s public relations officer.

The union paid off the balances for 564 students, totaling $7,446. Letters went out in the days before Christmas letting students and families know of the donation.

“We have been able to see firsthand how this pandemic has affected some of our more vulnerable students, and this donation from JESS will at least take one thing off the table that they will not have to worry about,” said Elizabeth White, a union member and meal cashier at Sayèik: Gastineau Community School. “We are pleased that they saw fit to use the money to take care of the families that are close to our hearts.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on January 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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In America, Business Profits Come First Over the Pandemic

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Los Angeles, California, is now considered one of the worst COVID-19 hotspots in the nation. LA mayor Eric Garcetti assessed grimly that there is one new infection every six seconds and a death every 10 minutes from the virus. Hospitals are turning away ambulances, and health facilities in LA County are quite literally running out of oxygen. But last spring, as the pandemic was first declared, the city was an early adopter of mandated mask wearing and benefitted from California enacting the first statewide shelter-in-place order that helped curb the worst spread of the virus. So, what happened?

There is a possibility that the deadly surge in cases may be a result of a new, more transmissible strain of the virus circulating in the area. But more likely the spread is the result of the message that authorities are sending of a premature return to normalcy. As social media platforms are filled with angry Angelenos blaming and shaming one another for brazenly vacationing and flouting social distancing guidelines, in truth, the burst of infections is the price that officials are willing to pay for ensuring that corporate profits are protected.

California’s latest shelter-in-place order is quite different from its first one. Whereas in March 2020 the state ordered all non-essential businesses to remain closed, in early December, at the peak of the holiday shopping season, all retail stores were allowed to remain open, even as outdoor parks were closed. So outraged were Californians by the obvious double standards that state officials caved and reopened parks—instead of shutting down retail stores.

Predictably, infections at malls soared as shoppers, eager to salvage Christmas, rubbed elbows with one another in their rush to fulfill holiday wishes. After all, authorities had okayed such actions, so they must be safe, right? Rather than enact strict rules to prevent such congregating, some Californians rightfully terrified of the disease simply blamed the shoppers. Even LA County health services director Dr. Christina Ghaly told the Los Angeles Times, “If you’re still out there shopping for your loved ones for this holiday season… then you are missing the gravity of the situation that is affecting hospitals across LA County. Though they may seem benign, these actions are extremely high-risk.” LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said to Angelenos, “stay home,” but has refused to consider shutting down non-essential businesses.

In other words, officials kept retail stores open but then chastised residents for shopping. There are two ways to interpret the muddled messaging. If authorities are allowing all businesses to remain open, surely it must be safe to frequent them. Or, authorities are being driven by financial stakes, not public health, so surely it is not possible to trust them.

Hollywood is another exercise in contradictions. While new films and TV shows were not considered essential last year, production has now resumed. Why? Simply put, “there is too much money at stake,” in the words of one TV producer. State and local authorities have the power to stop production in the interest of public health, but rather than exercise that power, they asked companies to volunteer to halt their projects. Now that the virus has spread so far and has caused so much suffering and death, even Hollywood has decided maybe it is not a good idea to continue filming. But is it too late?

American society is ruled by the right of businesses to make money above all else. And while for a few months in 2020 it seemed as though we prioritized public health and well-being by shutting down large swaths of the country and passing the modest CARES Act, that did not last. Lost in the horrifying surge of cases and mounting death toll is the stark fact that authorities have chosen to sacrifice human life at the altar of corporate profits. By their logic, if anyone is to blame, it is the individual American who has brought the disease upon themselves by simply making the wrong choices. It is the American way.

Take John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, an elite grocery chain favored by wealthy and health-conscious Americans. According to Mackey, there is no need for health care services. “The best solution is to change the way people eat, the way they live, the lifestyle, and diet,” he said in a recent interview. He added, “There’s no reason why people shouldn’t be healthy and have a longer health span. A bunch of drugs is not going to solve the problem.” Tell that to the seemingly healthy people among us who contract dangerous diseases like cancer and need the kind of chemotherapy drugs that do precisely that—help “solve the problem” of cancer.

Mackey’s logic is consistent with that of the new pro-business “shelter-in-place” orders in California, which effectively send the message that if you catch COVID-19, it is your fault, not the fault of the indoor mall that was allowed to remain open.

Businesses do need to continue operating if they want to make money. But large corporations have amassed so much wealth through the Republican Party’s tax giveaways that surely those in non-essential industries can survive for a year or two while remaining closed and dip into their assets without threatening their bottom line.

The situation is of course far different for small businesses that operate on razor-thin margins and are easily plunged into bankruptcy with just a few months of forced closures. But surely the world’s richest government can pay such businesses to remain closed so that they can reopen safely once the danger is over. European nations have paid workers to stay at home—an obvious solution to curbing the virus.

An NBC News article compared the U.S. response to other nations, making the point that “unlike Western Europe and Canada, the U.S. is asking citizens to face the COVID-19 pandemic without any additional financial cushion from the government.” One epidemiologist told the outlet, “I know multiple industries have been lobbying governors to stay open because closing means a huge loss of income to business owners and employees, even if it would be the best thing to do from a public health perspective.”

Indeed, California has allowed businesses to remain open in part because of a dangerous decline in tax revenues and a lack of federal government funding to states to make up for pandemic-related losses. Again, authorities have chosen the sink-or-swim approach to business and public health. Why pay people to stay at home and remain safe when those individuals can simply risk their lives in the service of profit? After all, it is the same logic that has driven the relentless shredding of the pre-pandemic safety net programs for economically struggling Americans.

There is much hand wringing, blaming and shaming the individual, and general confusion over why COVID-19 is continuing to claim so many lives. But to understand the real reason for the ever-increasing death toll, look no further than the American way of leaving citizens to fend for themselves in the service of capitalism.

This blog originally appeared at Independent Media Institute on January 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations.


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Economy Loses 140,000 Jobs in December; Unemployment Remains at 6.7%

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The U.S. economy lost 140,000 jobs in December, and the unemployment rate remained at 6.7%, according to figures released Friday morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The losses reflect an increase in cases related to the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to respond to the pandemic.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler (IBEW) pointed out the important takeaway from the new numbers:

In response to the December job numbers, AFL-CIO Chief Economist William Spriggs tweeted:

Last month’s biggest job losses were in leisure and hospitality (-498,000), private education (-63,000), government (-45,000) and other services (-22,000). Gains were seen in professional and business services (161,000), retail trade (121,000), construction (51,000), transportation and warehousing (47,000), health care (39,000), manufacturing (38,000) and wholesale trade (25,000). Employment in other major industries, including mining, information and financial activities, showed little change in December.

In December, the unemployment rates increased for teenagers (16%) and Hispanics (9.3%). The jobless rates for Black Americans (9.9%), adult men (6.4%), adult women (6.3%), White Americans (6%) and Asian Americans (5.9%) showed little change.

The number of long-term unemployed workers (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) rose slightly in December and accounted for 37.1% of the total unemployed.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on January 11, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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