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Get the Federal Government to Fund Union Organizing. Now.

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Though you wouldn’t know it from the actions of the federal government over the past half century, it is the stated policy of the federal government to ?“encourage collective bargaining.” It’s right there in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Unions and their political supporters have typically taken this to mean that collective bargaining rights should be legally protected, and the fight to achieve that simple goal never ends. But as the popularity of unions relative to business hits an all time high, the time has come to interpret this directive more expansively. Because the reality is that there can be no collective bargaining without unions. Unions require organizing, and large scale organizing requires money. The money for this organizing can come from the federal government. We need to start demanding it. 

Scarcely one in ten American workers are union members. That figure has been declining since it peaked shortly after World War II. It has fallen by half since the early 1980s, as the Reagan era burst into full gear and the four-decade-long explosion of economic inequality began. You may have seen the chart showing the share of income going to the top earners rising in perfect parallel with the decline of union density, the one chart that more than any other explains the state of America today. This inequality?—?the massive trend that underlies most of our country’s most serious problems?—?will not be reversed until organized labor is strong again. Union density must first stop going down, and then it must start going up. Way up, and fast. 

Why is it so hard to make that happen? Well, part of it is the fact that labor law in America has been hammered into shape by business interests with the goal of weakening labor and making unions hard to build and maintain. The PRO Act, passed by the Democratic U.S. House, would go a long way towards changing those laws. But whether it becomes law or not, the case remains that unions will have to organize not tens or hundreds of thousands but millions of new members in order to move the needle on a national level. The limiting factor to accomplishing that is not public sentiment?—?polls show that tens of millions of workers would like to join a union if they could?—?but rather the raw ability of America’s unions to organize on such a large scale. Simply put, unions don’t have the resources to organize that many people. They don’t have enough organizers. And they don’t have enough money to hire and deploy those organizers. If they did have that money, and they deployed it wisely, there is no doubt that union density would finally turn around.

Take, for example, the Amazon warehouse union drive in Alabama that has so captivated the world. The union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), has flooded that warehouse with organizers, and other unions have thrown in organizers as well. All this, to try to unionize around 6,000 workers. Amazon has 1.3 million workers, and hundreds of warehouses across the country. The RWDSU says it has received a thousand inquiries from other Amazon workers interested in organizing. Do they have the organizing resources to run, say, ten or twenty or fifty more warehouse campaigns like the one in Alabama simultaneously? No, they do not. Not because they don’t know how, but because there are simply not enough organizers to do it, and there is not enough money in union budgets to hire the vast army of organizers necessary to do the job. Not even at Amazon?—?a single company. 

Unions are funded by member dues, but those dues do not start coming in until a first contract has been signed. That means that organizing new unions requires a large up-front investment of resources that is gradually paid back over time. Not even the biggest unions can front the money to organize a million new workers, despite the fact that the money would eventually come back in the form of dues. But you know who could give us that money without breaking a sweat? The federal government. No problem. A billion dollars to hire the organizers to unionize a million new workers is out of the reach of any union, but it is just a rounding error to Uncle Sam. 

This is not welfare. This is an investment in the ability of workers to collectively bargain, which, as you recall, is a priority of the government. It is also an excellent investment in the promotion of social and economic equality?—?handing money to the working poor is only a momentary solution, but helping those working people get a union gives them a tool that will allow them to gain money and power for decades to come. I do not want the federal government to pay all the operating expenses of a union, or to pay the six-figure salaries of union presidents. I want the federal government to provide the money necessary to organize new union members on a scale that will benefit everyone. A simple, direct investment with well-understood tangible benefits. Most good union organizers make modest salaries, work extremely hard, and achieve surprisingly powerful results. A billion dollars a year could revolutionize the balance of power between labor and capital in America. I challenge you to find a better deal anywhere. 

When you consider the fact that every industry in America has a well-funded lobbying program designed to extract money from the federal government, it is shocking that unions have not done this already. (Christian Sweeney, the deputy organizing director of the AFL-CIO, said he knows of no such efforts to get government organizing money.) Unions, of course, do all sorts of business with the federal government, and lobby for all sorts of laws and perks for their members. Airline unions just won tens of billions of dollars to cover member salaries during the pandemic, and unions just won an $86 billionrescue of their failing pension plans in the latest relief bill. Unions can get money from the government. They just do not focus in an honest way on the question of how to achieve large-scale organizing. But they could. 

While researching this, I learned that I am not the first person to come up with this brilliant (and obvious) idea. Will Bloom, a labor lawyer in Chicago, wrote an essay in 2017 calling for the government to subsidize labor organizing. His suggestion was that a grantmaking board be established under the NLRB or another agency which would fund organizing projects. One can also imagine funding with strict guidelines going directly to major unions, or even to a central organizing body created by the AFL-CIO to fund major organizing campaigns. In any case, the specific disbursement structure is less important than the fact that money is flowing from the government into labor organizing. 

Bloom told me he sees no legal reason why this funding could not exist?—?if it came in the form of government grants, it would just be reported by the union on its disclosure forms like any other grant. I also asked the labor lawyer Brandon Magner about this idea, who told me ?“I am unaware of any obvious legal obstacles that would bar such subsidizing or invoke a strong court challenge.” In other words, the barrier to getting this money does not seem to be a legal one, but rather a political one. 

At our present political moment, the failure of political will and imagination here actually rests on the shoulders of organized labor itself. Joe Biden has shown himself to be the most pro-union president in decades. The Democratic Congress and the Biden administration have shown themselves to be willing and able to appropriate trillions of dollars in social spending to promote the same sorts of goals that an increase in union density would achieve. On top of that, Congressional earmarks?—?pet funding programs that each Congressperson can request be added to bills?—?are coming back, meaning that labor-friendly members of Congress could be pressed to fund labor organizing projects in their own districts. It is no exaggeration to say that there has never been a more opportune time to get this money. It is equally obvious that this opportune moment will pass. 

A billion dollars is nothing to the government. But America would be staggered to see what 10,000 new union organizers could do with it. Please: get this money, before it’s too late.

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on March 30, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Federal government is the biggest low-wage employer in South Carolina

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Many workers whose jobs are funded by the federal government don’t work for the federal government—they work for companies with federal contracts. And many of those jobs don’t pay a living wage, effectively making the government a low-wage employer. In South Carolina, it’s actually the largest low-wage employer in the state, a new analysis by Good Jobs Nation finds:

These low-wage jobs are in occupations such as home healthcare aides (4,336), construction (1,185) security guards (876) and food service workers (444). And, just as Demos found for the nation as a whole, the 30,000 low-wage jobs subsidized by federal funding streams in South Carolina make the U.S. government the single largest creator of low-wage private sector jobs in the State, outranking Wal-Mart and McDonald’s combined, which employ an estimated 20,600 and 8,900 low-wage workers respectively within the State.

President Obama signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour in 2014, but that is going into effect gradually. And $10.10, while a big improvement over the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, is not enough.

This blog originally appeared in dailykos.com on February 27, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and Labor editor since 2011.

 


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Ahead of Pope Francis Visit, Bernie Sanders Joins Low-Wage Worker Strike in Washington, D.C.

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in these timesSen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) threw down the gauntlet for Congress and President Obama Tuesday morning, joining hundreds of low-wage contract workers from federal buildings who are striking in advance of Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C.

Speaking to the assembled workers at a nearby Catholic Church, Sanders urged U.S. lawmakers to take seriously the pontiff’s message on “social and economic justice.” He also challenged President Obama to sign an executive order raising the wage for federal contractors to at least $15 an hour and allowing them to unionize.

“There is no justice in America when the largest low-wage employer is not McDonalds, it is not Burger King, it is not Wal-Mart, it is the United States government,” he told the cheering crowd. “The United States government has got to become a model employer.”

Sanders told The Hill that as “one of the great moral forces on earth today,” any statement by the Pope on the issue of wealth inequality during his trip to D.C. would be influential.

The rallied workers later marched to the steps of the Capitol, where they held a prayer service asking for lawmakers to listen to the Pope’s words. Some workers also organized a brief sit-in at the Senate cafes.

The strike, organized by Good Jobs Nation, had been planned as early as last week to coincide with the Pope’s visit, whose various statements on inequality, neoliberalism and economic justice have pegged him as an ally of the labor movement. Striking workers had written a letter to Pope Francis asking him to meet with them in addition to those in power.

“We may be invisible to the wealthy and powerful we serve everyday—but we know we are worthy of a more abundant life as children of God,” the letter reads.

Although President Obama granted federal contractors a wage increase to $10.10 in February 2014, the workers charge this is not enough in a city that, according to one study, requires a salary of $108,092 to live “comfortably” in. Reports abound of cleaners and cooks resorting to food stamps, working second jobs and even going homeless as a result. Critics charge that the federal government bears large responsibility for this by awarding hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts, grants, loans and more to companies that pay low wages and offer no benefits.

According to a report from Demos, nearly 2 million federal contractors currently make less than $12 an hour, far less than MIT’s calculated living wage for D.C. of $20.27. At the same time, according financial data analyzed by OpenSecrets.org, the median net worth of U.S. lawmakers climbed to over $1 million.

This Blog originally appeared on In These Times on September 22, 2015. Reprinted here with permission.

About the Author: Branko Marcetic is a Fall 2015 In These Times editorial intern.


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It’s the Final Countdown: How the Government Shutdown Affects Labor and Employment Law

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HymanJonathanTIn case you haven’t heard, as of 12:01 a.m. this morning, the federal government is closed. Your business will feel this shutdown in many ways, including in your interactions with the federal agencies that enforce the various labor and employment laws. Each has posted on its website a contingency plan for operations during the shutdown.

For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

  1. Will accept and docket new charges, and examine if immediate injunctive relief is necessary.
  2. Will not conduct any investigations.
  3. Will not mediate any charges.
  4. Will not have staff available to answer questions or respond to correspondence.
  5. Will not litigate, unless a court denies a request for extension of time.
  6. Will not process any FOIA requests.

The Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board have each posted their own detailed shutdown plans. The bottom line, however, is that except for services that are absolutely essential, federal agencies will be closed until Congress works out its financial issues.

Federal courts, meanwhile, will remain open for business as usual for at least 10 business days, after which the Judiciary will reassess the situation.

Other federal services impacting employers that will be temporarily shuttered include e-Verify and the IRS.

While it difficult to predict how long this shutdown will last.The last shutdown of the federal government, spanning the end of 1995 to the beginning of 1996, lasted 28 days.

For now, if you have active matters with any federal agencies, expect for them to be on hold. Please remember is that while the EEOC and other agencies might be temporarily out of business, the laws that they enforce are not.

This article was originally printed on Ohio Employer’s Law Blog on October 1, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Hyman is a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz.


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The Other Occupation: How Wall Street Occupies Washington

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jilani_zaid_bioAs ThinkProgress has previously noted, the 99 Percent Movement has been set off thanks to long-standing economic inequities and and a recession caused primarily by Wall Street’s misdeeds.

But Wall Street did not engage in reckless financial behavior — which plunged 64 million people worldwide into extreme poverty — in a vacuum.

In order to engage in these practices that brought the world’s economy to its knees, Wall Street had to make sure that the federal government based in Washington, DC would both de-regulate the financial industry (and provide lax oversight) and that Congress and the Federal Reserve would bail out banks with few strings attached if they were in danger of failing. The way the financial industry and big banks won this kid glove treatment from the federal government is by occupying Washington — flooding it with campaign contributions, lobbyists, and its own staffers and executives to occupy key positions of power. ThinkProgress has assembled a rundown of three ways Wall Street has occupied Washington:

1. Wall Street Occupies Washington With Massive Campaign Contributions: On Nov. 12, 1999 President Bill Clinton signed into law the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, a Depression-era law that created a firewall between commercial and investment banking. Repealing this law was one of the top legislative goals of the financial industry. In the 1998 election cycle, commercial banks spent $18 million on congressional campaign contributions, with 65 percent going to Republicans and 35 percent going to Democrats. Securities and investment firms donated over $40 million. The mega-bank Citibank spent $1,954,191 during that cycle, and it was soon able to merge with Travelers Group as a result of the repeal of banking regulations. Between 2008 and 2010, when new financial regulations were being written following the financial crisis, the finance, insurance, and real estate industries spent $317 million in federal campaign contributions, with $73 million of that coming from Political Action Committees (PACs). The hold of campaign contributions is starkly bipartisan. As Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) explained to Real Clear Politics in an interview last year, he couldn’t get a vote on a windfall profits tax on bonuses at bailed out banks due to campaign contributors. “I couldn’t even get a vote,” Webb explained. “And it wasn’t because of the Republicans. I mean they obviously weren’t going to vote for it. But I got so much froth from Democrats saying that any vote like that was going to screw up fundraising.”

2. Wall Street Occupies Washington With Its Lobbyists: One way to control what Washington lawmakers do is to give them access to exclusive funding streams that allow them to finance their campaigns. But yet another is to control the stream of information. From the deregulatory period of 1998 to 2009, the financial sector spent $3.3 billion on lobbyists. In 2007, the financial industry employed 2,996 separate lobbyists, five for every member of Congress. During the debate over financial reform last year, the industry flooded the nation’s capital with its own lobbyists. On just one issue — regulating derivatives — financial industry lobbyists outnumbered consumer group lobbyists and other pro-reform advocates by 11 to 1. In fact, by 2010, the industry had hired awhopping 1,600 former federal employees as lobbyists. Included among these lobbyists were high-ranking former public leaders like former Democratic House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (MO) and Kenneth Duberstein, Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. Much of this lobbying is done through elite K Street firms that specialize in hiring government insiders. Yet there are also bank-funded front groups like the Chamber of Commerce that deploy lobbyists on behalf of the big banks.

3. Wall Street Literally Occupies Washington By Placing Its Staff In Government Positions: Shortly after Clinton signed into law the repeal of the firewall between commercial and investment banking, his Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs alumni Robert Rubin left the government to work for newly-formed Citigroup — whose merger was only possible thanks to the policies Rubin championed and enacted. His compensation at Citigroup topped $15 million, not including stock options. Goldman’s alumni are found across the government, including bailout architect and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Paulson’s bailout chiefNeil Kashkari, and Commodity Futures Trading Commission chairman Gary Gensler. The revolving door, of course, works both ways. Obama budget director Peter Orszag joined Citigroup shortly after leaving the government. This is just a small sampling of Wall Street’s staffers who found their way into government.

These three facets of lobbying do not include how these financial interests fan their funding out among nonprofits and think tanks, and how they fund media campaigns and public relations efforts within the parameters of the geographic territory of the District of Columbia. The amount of money spent on these tasks is likely formidable but is difficult to track.

There are reforms that can be enacted to combat this Wall Street infiltration of Washington. Ranging from public financing of federal campaigns to new disclosure laws to placing restrictionson lobbying from federal public officials, these reforms would blunt the impact of big money on federal policymaking. Yet only vigilance from the American public can get such reforms enacted.

This blog originally appeared in Think Progress on October 12, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Zaid Jilani is a Senior Reporter/Blogger for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Zaid grew up in Kennesaw, GA, and holds a B.A. in International Affairs with a minor in Arabic from the University of Georgia. Prior to joining ThinkProgress, Zaid interned for Just Foreign Policy and was a weekly columnist at The Red & Black, the University of Georgia’s official student newspaper. He is a co-editor at the Georgia-based blog Georgia Liberal and a regular on RT America’s The Alyona Show and The Thom Hartmann Show and has been a guest host on Al Jazeera English’s The Stream. He is also an occassional contributor to the op-ed pages of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His Twitter handle is @zaidjilani.


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