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Democrats in Congress Should Rethink a Health Insurance Deal That Would Be Terrible for Many Americans

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Congress must act decisively to ensure Americans get needed health care in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, both to promote public health and to reduce viral spread. But one Democratic proposal is a massive giveaway to private insurance companies with few redeeming qualities.

Richard Eskow - The Ring of Fire Network

This proposal would require the federal government to cover the full cost of COBRA, a continuation of employer-based coverage for people who have lost their jobs or who are furloughed. Because COBRA is for ex-workers, employers do not contribute to its cost. Instead, people on COBRA are typically required to pay their entire health insurance premium, which now averages around $20,000 a year for a family.

While the government would pay COBRA premiums, this proposal still requires workers to pay out-of-pocket costs that could add up to thousands of dollars.

This approach is inequitable, expensive, and not targeted to addressing the public’s health and safety. It should be set aside in favor of direct payments to doctors, hospitals, and other providers who deliver care to those in need.

Having the government cover COBRA premiums would lock in existing health inequalities. It would not help people who worked in jobs that did not provide health care coverage or who otherwise did not have access to employer-based insurance. And, if you had employer coverage and your employer offered you a low-cost HMO with limited access to care, for example, that’s all this proposal would pay for. But if you were a highly paid employee at a hedge fund and had excellent coverage that cost twice as much, this proposal would pay for your more expensive coverage.

This plan commits tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to private health insurers, regardless of the quality or price of the coverage they offer. That is not where our public resources should be going.

And, to repeat, this proposal does not cover the high out-of-pocket costs that come with most work-based coverage. To get care, people need to be able to afford the deductibles and copays. But, even pre-coronavirus, one in four Americans with insurance went without care because they couldn’t afford these costs. Forty percent of Americans didn’t have $400 in the bank for an emergency. Today, with no steady income, more people have fewer resources and will be forced to forgo care even with COBRA.

Furthermore, this proposal does not make budgetary sense. If enacted, Congress would be paying tens of billions of dollars more for people’s coverage than it would if the federal government paid directly for their health care through Medicare, as Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Pramila Jayapal have proposed.

Why is Medicare less costly? Medicare’s administrative costs alone are more than 10 percent lower than private insurance. Medicare also reins in provider payment rates.

Paying providers directly through Medicare has additional advantages. It treats everyone equally, ensuring that all of us will get the care we need. People can see any doctor they choose. And, there are no financial barriers to care.

Moreover, covering care through Medicare provides real-time data on the scope of COVID-19 through a single electronic billing system, which is sorely lacking today. This data has helped other wealthy countries contain the spread of the virus and effectively deploy resources where they are needed.

The government picking up the tab for COBRA coverage should be seen for what it is: A handout to the health insurance industry. It rewards health insurers who offer inefficient, low-quality, high-cost health plans. And, it does far too little to ensure people get needed care, much less contain COVID-19.

Earlier in April, AHIP, the trade association for the corporate health insurers, made this same proposal in a letter to Congress. Surprise, surprise.

Some of the Democrats behind this proposal have financial ties to the health insurance industry. So, perhaps this legislation is payback for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. If so, shame on these House Democrats.

Whatever the motivation, this is the wrong way to help our nation in a time of crisis. Help should go where it’s needed and where it will do the most good, not where it’s politically expedient.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Diane Archer is a senior adviser to Social Security Works and founder and president of Just Care USA, an independent digital hub covering health and financial issues facing boomers and their families and promoting policy solutions. She is the past board chair of Consumer Reports and serves on the Brown University School of Public Health Advisory Board. Ms. Archer began her career in health advocacy in 1989 as founder and president of the Medicare Rights Center, a national organization dedicated to ensuring that older and disabled Americans get the health care they need. She served as director, Health Care for All Project, Institute for America’s Future, between 2005 and 2010.

About the Author: Richard “RJ” Eskow is senior adviser for health and economic justice at Social Security Works. He is also the host of The Zero Hour, a syndicated progressive radio and television program.


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Labor’s civil war over ‘Medicare for All’ threatens its 2020 clout

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Ian Kullgren March 9, 2018. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)Alice Ollstein“Medicare for All” is roiling labor unions across the country, threatening to divide a critical part of the Democratic base ahead of several major presidential primaries.

In union-heavy primary states like California, New York, and Michigan, the fight over single-payer health care is fracturing organized labor, sometimes pitting unions against Democratic candidates that vie for their support.

“It’s a discussion at every single bargaining table, in every single union shop, every single time it’s open enrollment and people see their costs going up,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a vocal single-payer advocate and one of a number of union officials who spoke to the divide.

The rift surfaced last week, when the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union declined to endorse any Democrat in this week’s Nevada caucuses after slamming Bernie Sanders’ health plan as a threat to the hard-won private health plans that they negotiated at the bargaining table. But the conflict extends well beyond Nevada.

On one side of the divide are more liberal unions like the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union, which argue that leaving health benefits to the government could free unions to refocus collective bargaining on wages and working conditions. On the other side are more conservative unions like the International Association of Fire Fighters and New York’s Building & Construction Trades Council, which don’t trust the government to create a health plan as good as what their members enjoy now.

“It’s an extremely divisive issue within the labor movement,” said Steve Rosenthal, a former political director for the AFL-CIO. “Nobody’s opinions will be changed during the presidential nominating fight, and unions may well be divided over Democratic candidates until the end.”

In New York, the New York State Nurses Association and Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union pressed hard in 2018 for a state single-payer system. But other unions, including the New York State Building & Construction Trades Council, joined forces with private health insurers to kill the bill, funding polling to show opposition to the tax increases needed to implement it and writing op-eds calling the plan a “folly” that would “send jobs and people fleeing” the state.

Now some of those same New York labor leaders are saying much the same about Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sanders’ Medicare for All plans. Gregory Floyd, president of the Teamsters Local 237, called the policy a “disaster” and predicted that few of his 24,000 members will vote for a candidate who supports it. Floyd declined POLITICO’s request for an interview, but said his opposition to Medicare for All is “based on what is best for our members.”

In California, the aggressively pro-Sanders California Nurses Association has long pressed for state-level single-payer, to the point of circulating in 2017 an image of the state mascot, the California grizzly bear, with a knife in its back after the state Assembly leader shelved a single-payer proposal.

The union’s parent organization, National Nurses United, is deeply involved in the 2020 race — endorsing Sanders, criticizing any candidate who doesn’t embrace Medicare for All, and sending armies of members and supporters to phone banks and doorsteps in all 50 states to press for a House vote on single-payer. Earlier this month, National Nurses United announced a new campaign to pressure presidential and congressional candidates to refuse donations from a health industry lobby group that’s spending heavily to kill any possibility of single-payer — a pledge most moderate candidates are likely unwilling to take in an election marked by record fundraising and spending.

Medicare for All is notably unpopular with swing voters in the battleground states of Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, according to a December poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Cook Political Report.

In Michigan, where 28 percent of the electorate belongs to a union, and where Sanders stunned Hillary Clinton with an upset in 2016, unions have stayed largely silent on the issue. “There is very clearly a split between union leadership and the union rank and file,” said Eli Rubin, president of Michigan for Single Payer Healthcare.

According to a poll released in July by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, a 58 percent majority of “strong Democrats” favored Medicare for All but only a 48 percent plurality of Democratic-leaning voters. Among all voters, 52 percent opposed Medicare for All. Elderly voters (who turn up at the polls disproportionate to their numbers) were especially resistant, with 59 percent opposing single-payer plans.

Reflecting the divide is Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a centrist Democrat who opposed single-payer during her 2018 campaign but has since vaguely said she supports the idea “in concept.”

Compounding this ambivalence inside the state is labor’s ties to health care. Leaders of the AFL-CIO, the Michigan Education Association, the United Auto Workers, and Teamsters serve on the board of Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest insurance company. Whitmer’s own father, Richard Whitmer, was the longtime president of Blue Cross Blue Shield, and the company was among the top donors to her gubernatorial campaign.

Meanwhile, in Nevada, the war over Medicare for All is in full swing in Nevada ahead of the Feb. 22 caucuses. Sensing an opening after Culinary 226’s public rebuke of Sanders, many of his Democratic primary rivals swiftly and loudly sided with the union, with some (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg) emphasizing that they would give labor a choice of whether to keep the health plan they bargained for or switch over to a government-run public option, and with Warren promising that unions will be at the table when the details of overhauling the U.S. health system are hammered out.

But supporters of Medicare for All have successfully persuaded some unions to back the policy, or at least remain neutral. When Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) rolled out revamped versions of their single-payer bills in 2018, they did so with the official backing of the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, National Nurses United, the American Federation of Government Employees and others.

In an interview, Jayapal said her main argument to unions is this: Even if they fear the unknown, the current system is unsustainable.

“Look, I respect where they’re coming from,” Jayapal, the lead author of the House Medicare for All bill and the health policy chair of Sanders’ campaign. “They bargained hard and gave up wages for these health care benefits and they’re worried. But health care costs continuing to rise is a certainty. And when that happens, wages are going to decline.”

Local unions, which tend to be more outspoken than their national counterparts, are playing an outsize role in the 2020 race. That’s because so many national unions have thus far held back or pledged to remain neutral in the primary. It’s a backlash from 2016, when several big unions endorsed Hillary Clinton early on, only to witness a revolt from their rank-and-file members who supported Sanders.

With locals’ growing influence is a tendency for organized labor to balkanize its support. For example, the independent group Labor for Bernie said Tuesday that more than 1,200 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have signed a petition calling on the national union to retract its endorsement for Biden.

“I don’t know where these people are coming from,” said Rand Wilson, a co-founder of the independent group Labor for Bernie and an organizer for SEIU Local 888 in Massachusetts. “Do they go to the negotiating table? Because they’re on a different planet than me.”

But Nelson, who represents more than 50,000 flight attendants across the country, says Medicare for All supporters are only hurting their own cause when they criticize labor groups that aren’t yet on board.

“If you are not approaching this as an organizer and building a supermajority for this change, it’s not going to happen,” she said. “You have to open your arms wide and give space for everyone to share their concerns and ask questions, and you provide information and find common ground. You don’t shut down conversations.”

Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.

This article was originally published by Politico on February 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Ian Kullgren is a reporter on POLITICO’s employment and immigration team. Before joining POLITICO, he was a reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. and was part of a team that covered a 41-day standoff with armed militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their efforts earned the Associated Press Media Editors grand prize for news reporting in 2017. His real beat was politics, though, and he spent most his time at the state capitol covering the governor and state legislature.

About the Author: Alice Ollstein is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering the Capitol Hill beat. Prior to joining POLITICO, she covered federal policy and politics for Talking Points Memo.

Alice graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in D.C. ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2017, she was named one of the New Media Alliance’s “Rising Stars” under 30.

Alice grew up in sunny Santa Monica, California and began freelancing for local newspapers in her early teens. When not working on a story, she can be found riding her bicycle around the region, attempting to grow vegetables in her backyard, and playing with her nephews.


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“I Would Love Medicare for All”: A Nevada Culinary Union Member on Why She Supports Bernie Sanders

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Bernie Sanders is leading in the Nevada polls, but he faces a major obstacle: One of the most powerful actors in state politics has come out swinging against his signature proposal—Medicare for All.

The 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union announced last Thursday that it will remain neutral in the Democratic primary this year. But in the past week, the union has sent out a series of communications to members warning, both directly and indirectly, that Sanders’ plan threatens its hard-won healthcare benefits.

One flyer circulated by the union read, “Some politicians promise … ‘You will get more money for wages from the company if you give up Culinary Health Insurance.’ These politicians have never sat at our bargaining table … We will not hand over our healthcare for promises.”

Sanders’ opponents have seized on the opening to double down on arguments for preserving private health insurance—a position the union shares.

“There are 14 million union workers in America who have fought hard for strong, employer-provided health benefits,” tweeted former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “Medicare for All Who Want It protects their plans and union members’ freedom to choose the coverage that’s best for them.”

Billionaire Tom Steyer, meanwhile, has started airing an ad in Nevada telling voters that “unions don’t like” Sanders’ healthcare plan.

Known nationally as a standard-bearer for militant workplace organizing, the Culinary Union hasn’t just won healthcare benefits—it runs its own 24-hour healthcare center and pharmacy, exclusively for members.

But some members are disillusioned that the union is flexing its muscle against a healthcare policy they believe could deliver a windfall to unions by freeing them to focus on other issues at the bargaining table.

In These Times spoke to Marcie Wells, a shop steward with Culinary Workers 226 who has worked at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville inside the Flamingo Hotel and Casino for 16 years. Wells discussed Medicare for All, the union’s endorsement decision and her support for Bernie Sanders.

There was a lot of speculation as to whether the union might still endorse Joe Biden. What was your reaction to the decision not to endorse anyone in the primary? 

[Union leaders] said early on that they were not sure if they were going to endorse. When they called this press conference, everyone expected that they were going to go ahead and endorse Biden, because they already said they weren’t endorsing. So why would you put together all that just to repeat yourself?

The literature they put out the night before was not so subtle. It had the words “one, two, three,” and three candidates in order [Editor’s note: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are listed first on the flyer]. Everyone knows in the caucus, you rank your top three choices. But they’re not officially endorsing.

I think it sends mixed signals, and it’s disappointing that they’re not being straightforward.

Did the union poll members about the endorsement?

No, they didn’t. Typically, I get called for those types of things, because I’m a shop steward.

Talking one-on-one, a lot of members want Bernie. But when we’re in the setting of citywide meetings or things that are exclusive to shop stewards, there’s a clear message that, “the person who wants Medicare for All wants to take away our hard work.”

It’s disappointing as a progressive.

At a town hall the union held with Sanders in December, some members heckled over the issue of healthcare. Can you describe what you saw happen?

At this type of event, all the questions are planned. When Bernie started talking about healthcare, almost on cue, a group started chanting, “Union healthcare! Union healthcare!”

When a speaker said, “I don’t want to give up my insurance,” I yelled back, “I do!”

But aside from what felt like a staged protest, Bernie got a great reception, people were cheering. I mean, he’s the frickin’ union guy.

The culinary union has the reputation of having some of the best healthcare in Las Vegas. How well does it work for you?

Relatively speaking, it is some of the best. But it doesn’t work well for me, because I have chronic illness. I have ankylosing spondylitis and bilateral uveitis that’s recurring. I’ve had this condition since high school, and I’ve been misdiagnosed, delayed diagnosed, not believed as a Black woman, told that I was exaggerating my symptoms.

Most recently, my eyes were so inflamed that my eye doctor called a rheumatologist in the Culinary network, and she wasn’t going to be able to see me for 7 months. I had to do a GoFundMe to pay for a doctor outside of my network so I could not go blind.

I don’t think the private insurance market is good for people with chronic illnesses, and I think it’s pretty ableist to pretend that it is. If I’m waiting 8 months to see a specialist but I’m having symptoms throughout that time, nine times out of 10 I’m going to get fired for missing work. And to even start getting that insurance in the first place, you have to work 360 hours within a certain time frame.

There’s also a copay every time I go to a specialist. More likely than not, I’ll skip something most months. I would love Medicare for All right about now.

Why do you think the union has come out so strongly against Medicare for All?

I think there’s a conflict of interest there. We have a labor union, and a political lobby with a PAC, and a healthcare business, all wrapped up in one.

They built the Culinary Health Center, so that’s theirs. Word on the street is they’ve already paid for the parcel of land to build the next one. So they’re in the business now—they’re the establishment to an extent. So I think capitalism is the reason that they’re coming out against Medicare for All, and it’s just really troubling.

Nevada’s uninsured rate is 14%, and there are big racial disparities in who doesn’t have insurance—in Nevada it’s indigenous people, Black people, Latino people. Medicare for All is a racial justice issue. For the union to have an 80% demographic of [people of color] and be pulling this, it’s just unbelievable. I’m disgusted.

Do you think the messaging against Medicare for All will impact how members vote in the primary?

That’s what’s shitty about this whole thing. Some of these people are going to vote against their best interest because they trusted the Culinary Union.

But a lot of members do want Bernie. The younger members, the members whose young kids are getting them involved. I think I flipped a dishwasher the other day. So we’re all doing our best, but it’s just disheartening that we’re fighting against both the GOP and the union.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 18, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.


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No One Should Have to Bargain For Health Care

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Negin OwliaeiNearly 50,000 members of the United Auto Workers are on strike, demanding that General Motors pay them their fair share of the billions in profits the company raked in last year.

The response from General Motors was shocking. The automaker, which accepted billions in government bailouts during the last recession, cut off its payment of insurance premiums for the striking workers.

As the news broke, former Vice President Joe Biden was at an AFL-CIO event, campaigning against a single-payer Medicare for All plan that would replace employer-provided insurance. “You’ve broken your neck to get it,” Biden told the crowd. “You’ve given up wages to keep it. And no plan should be able to take it away.”

But what if that’s actually the problem? Why should union workers — or anyone — be breaking their necks to get health care, a basic human right?

Health care has been a constant subject of debate among Democratic presidential candidates. Biden and others have argued that a single-payer system would be unfair to union workers who’ve taken pay cuts in exchange for better health care plans.

But, as GM showed, our current system turns health coverage into leverage for employers. What could unions could fight for if they didn’t have to constantly play defense against employers trying to gut their health care?

If we already had Medicare for All, the United Auto Workers could be using their collective power to fight for higher wages and better benefits. Instead, GM gets to use the health of its employees as a bargaining chip.

Auto workers aren’t the only union workers fighting for health coverage.

West Virginia teachers kicked off a strike wave last year thanks, in large part, to their own fight over insurance. The state offered educators two options: use a fitness-tracking app that forced them to earn a certain number of fitness points, or watch their premiums rise. They chose to strike instead.

Meanwhile, Americans already lose their health insurance all the time. That’s actually one of the biggest problems with the health care system as it stands.

Tying health care to employment is a terrible idea. In addition to failing anyone without a full-time job, it forces people to stay in bad positions just to keep their coverage. And when workers lose their jobs, they lose their insurance too.

That wouldn’t happen under Medicare for All, which would allow workers to make decisions about leaving a job or working part-time without panicking over their insurance coverage.

Then there’s the cost.

Health insurance alone makes up, on average, 8 percent of total wages and benefits, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But workers are seeing their share of the costs rise at a higher rate than their wages. They’re getting stuck with a larger chunk than ever before.

Data shows that this burden falls heaviest on low-wage workers, who are already forced to spend a much higher share of their income on extra costs like premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.

By contrast, the Medicare for All plan now before Congress would cover all medically necessary services without co-pays and deductibles — an advantage critics like Biden rarely address.

Right now, the U.S. spends about two times as much as other high-income countries on health care, only to have poorer health outcomes. It’s obvious that the current system isn’t working — for union workers, or for anyone else.

No one should have to bargain for a human right.

This article was originally printed on OurFuture on October 11, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Negin Owliaei is an Inequality Editor and Researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies. Before joining IPS, she worked as a journalist and digital producer at Al Jazeera Media Network, where she covered social movements and the internet for the award-winning program The Stream. Negin graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in International Studies and English.


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West Virginia Teachers Are About to Stage a Statewide Strike. Here’s Why.

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Teachers and service personnel across West Virginia are planning to strike on Feb. 22 and 23 in an effort to boost pay and lower their increasing healthcare costs. It will be the first statewide walkout in nearly 30 years.

The strike was announced by the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) during a weekend rally at the state capitol in Charleston that attracted teachers and other public sector employees and supporters. Hundreds also showed up at the capitol on Feb. 2, where they sang “Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, hey, hey, goodbye!” while Tim Armstead, Republican Speaker of the W.V. House of Delegates, gave a speech on the House floor. At this past weekend’s rally, WVEA President Dale Lee declared that all 55 of the state’s counties were prepared to stand united. “The entire state of West Virginia will be shut down,” declared Lee, whose union is an affiliate of the National Education Association.

According to a 2017 study that ranked each state’s average teacher salary, West Virginia is the sixth worst in the country. On average, the state’s teachers make $45,477, compared to first-place-ranking Alaska, where teachers make $77,843. W.V. teachers want the state to fund the state’s Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA) and increase their salaries. The state’s House of Delegates has voted to give public school teachers 2-percent raises next year and a 1-percent raise over the next three years, while the state’s Senate has approved a 1-percent raise, every year, over the next five years. Union representatives believe these raises are inadequate, especially when considered alongside the rising costs of healthcare.

Kym Randolph, director of communications for the WVEA, tells In These Times that dissatisfaction has been brewing for years. “It’s a number of things,” says Randolph. “PEIA, lack of salary, years of neglect, anti-worker policies … healthcare that’s inadequate.” According to Randolph, lawmakers have become “entrenched” on the issue of teacher salaries and are difficult to persuade.

One of those lawmakers is Republican Gov. Jim Justice. He has proposed freezing PEIA for a year, effectively preventing health premiums from rising, and he doesn’t believe that the 1-percent raise, every year, over the course of five years should be increased in any way. “I think the prudent thing and the smart money is to fix PEIA like we’ve done, and the smart money is to stay at 1-1-1-1-1,” said Justice at a recent press conference. However, his critics point out that a PEIA freeze is merely a short-term solution for a problem that isn’t going away, and such a temporary action could give birth to even higher healthcare costs in 2019. The teachers are looking for a long-term plan that provides security while finally making salaries competitive.

In that same press conference, Justice said that a teachers’ strike would be a “crying shame.” He also dismissed a Senate Democrat proposal that would fund PEIA by raising the state’s severance tax on natural gas as “political grandstanding.”

West Virginia is often portrayed as a steadfastly Republican state where progressive developments are nearly impossible. Nearly 70 percent of the state voted for Trump, who promised to revive the floundering coal industry, and the state’s Democratic Senator Joe Manchin votes in line with Trump almost 60 percent of the time.

However, a deeper analysis of the state’s current politics reveals a slightly more nuanced picture. Bernie Sanders won all 55 counties in the 2016 Democratic Primary, and recent data suggests that support for Trump is actually dropping. Between January and September of 2017, Trump’s level of net support in West Virginia went down by 13 points. Last month, Paula Jean Swearengin, a progressive Democrat who is running against Manchin in the primary, told In These Times, “We have fought so many labor struggles and won. This nation and state deserve true democracy. … We all struggle and are going to fight like hell. I believe a new West Virginia is being born.”

Swearengin’s assertion will be put to the test in the coming months as the state’s teachers continue to fight, through the walkout and beyond. “I think what the Legislature is doing is just despicable,” a high school science teacher named Lisa Stillion told West Virginia Public Radio at last week’s rally. “We need to vote them out. Get your heads out of your rear ends; be thinking about who you represent. You work for us. We don’t work for you.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 20, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria


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Veto the Cold-Hearted Health Bill

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Donald Trump is right. The House health insurance bill is “mean, mean, mean,” as he put it last week. He correctly called the measure that would strip health insurance from 23 million Americans “a son of a bitch.”

The proposal is not at all what Donald Trump promised Americans. He said that under his administration, no one would lose coverage. He said everybody would be insured. And the insurance he provided would be a “lot less expensive.”

Senate Democrats spent every day this week pointing this out and demanding that Senate Republicans end their furtive, star-chamber scheming and expose their health insurance proposal to public scrutiny. That unveiling is supposed to happen today.

Republicans have kept their plan under wraps because, like the House measure, it is a son of a bitch. Among other serious problems, it would restore caps on coverage so that if a young couple’s baby is born with serious heart problems, as comedian Jimmy Kimmel’s was, they’d be bankrupted and future treatment for the infant jeopardized.

Donald Trump has warned Senate Republicans, though. Even if the GOP thinks it was fun to rebuff Democrats’ pleas for a public process, they really should pay attention to the President. He’s got veto power.

Republicans have spent the past six years condemning the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which passed in 2010 after Senate Democrats accepted 160 Republican amendments, held 110 bipartisan public hearings and conducted 25 consecutive days of public floor debate. Despite all of that, Republicans contend the ACA is the worst thing since Hitler.

That is what they assert about a law that increased the number of insured Americans by 20 million, prohibited discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions and eliminated the annual and lifetime caps that insurers used to cut off coverage for sick infants and people with cancer.

The entire cavalry of Republican candidates for the GOP nomination for President promised to repeal the ACA, but Donald Trump went further. He pledged to replace it with a big league better bill.

In May 2015, he announced on Twitter: “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid.”

In September 2015, he said of his health insurance plans on CBS News’ 60 Minutes, “I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.”

In another 60 Minutes interview, this one with Lesley Stahl last November, he said, “And it’ll be great health care for much less money. So it’ll be better health care, much better, for less money. Not a bad combination.”

In January, he told the Washington Post, “We’re going to have insurance for everybody.” He explained, “There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.”

But then, the House Republicans betrayed him. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the measure they passed, called the American Health Care Act (AHCA), would cut more than $800 billion from Medicaid. It said people with pre-existing conditions and some older Americans would face “extremely high premiums.”

Extremely high is an understatement. Here is an example from the CBO report: A 64-year-old with a $26,500 income pays $1,700 for coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but would be forced to cough up more than half of his or her income – $16,000 – for insurance under the House Republican plan. Overall, premiums would increase 20 percent in the first year. And insurers could charge older people five times the rate they bill younger Americans.

House Republicans said states could permit insurers to squirm out of federal minimum coverage requirements, and in states where that occurred, the CBO said some consumers would be hit with thousands of dollars in increased costs for maternity care, mental health treatment and substance abuse services.

In the first year, the House GOP plan would rob insurance from 14 million Americans.

So much for covering everyone with “great health care at much less money.”

It’s true that President Trump held a party for House Republicans in the Rose Garden after they narrowly passed their bill. But it seems like he did not become aware until later just how horrific the measure is, how signing it into law would make him look like a rank politician, a swamp dweller who spouts promises he has no intention of keeping.

By last week when President Trump met with 15 Senate Republicans about their efforts to pass a health insurance bill, he no longer was reveling in the House measure. He called it “cold-hearted.” He asked the senators to be more “generous,” to put “additional money” into their version.

Senators told reporters that President Trump wanted them to pass a bill that is not viewed as an attack on low-income Americans and provides larger tax credits to enable people to buy insurance.

Now that sounds a little more like the Donald Trump who repeatedly promised his health insurance replacement bill would cover everyone at a lower cost. Still, those goals remain amorphous.

The House bill is stunningly unpopular, almost as detested as Congress itself. President Trump seems to grasp the enormity of that problem. But even his calling it a “son of a bitch” doesn’t seem to have been enough to persuade senators that he’s serious about getting legislation that achieves his promises to leave Medicaid intact, cover everyone and lower costs.

Republican senators deciding the fate of millions of Americans must hear from Donald Trump that passing a health insurance bill that doesn’t fulfill his campaign promises is, shall we say, a cancer on the Presidency.

A veto threat would get their attention.

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on June 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Leo Gerard is president of the United Steelworkers.


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40,000 AT&T Workers Begin 3-Day Strike

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Around 40,000 members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) at AT&T walked off their jobs Friday, for a three-day strike, as pressure continues to mount on the corporation to settle fair contracts.

In California and Nevada, around 17,000 AT&T workers who provide phone, landline and cable services have been working without a contract for more than a year. Last year, they voted to authorize a strike with more than 95 percent support. And in February, an estimated 21,000 AT&T Mobility workers in 36 states voted to strike as well, with 93 percent in favor.

Workers had issued an ultimatum, giving company executives until 3 p.m. ET on Friday to present serious proposals. They didn’t; the workers walked.

It isn’t the first strike at AT&T. Some 17,000 workers in California and Nevada walked off the job in late March to protest company changes in their working conditions in violation of federal law. After a one-day strike, AT&T agreed not to require technicians to perform work assignments outside of their expertise. Nevertheless, the biggest issues for workers remained unresolved.

AT&T has proposed to cut sick time and force long-time workers to pay hundreds of dollars more for basic healthcare, according to CWA. At a huge April rally in Silicon Valley, CWA District 9 vice president Tom Runnion fumed, “The CEO of AT&T just got a raise and now makes over $12,000 an hour. And he doesn’t want to give us a raise. He wants to sabotage our healthcare then wants us to pay more for it. Enough is enough!”

AT&T is the largest telecommunications company in the country with $164 billion in sales and 135 million wireless customers nationwide. It has eliminated 12,000 call center jobs in the United States since 2011, representing more than 30 percent of its call center employees, and closed more than 30 call centers. Meanwhile, the company has outsourced the operation of more than 60 percent of its wireless retail stores to operators who pay much less than the union wage, according to CWA.

The relocation of jobs to call centers in Mexico, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic and other countries is one of the main issues in negotiations. A recent CWA report charges that in the Dominican Republic, for instance, where it uses subcontractors, wages are $2.13-$2.77/hour. Workers have been trying to organize a union there and accuse management of firing union leaders and making threats, accusations and intimidating workers. Several members of Congress sent a letter to President Donald Trump this year demanding that he help protect and bring call center jobs back to the United States.

“We’ve been bargaining with AT&T for over a year,” CWA president Chris Shelton told the rally in Silicon Valley. “They can easily afford to do what people want and instead are continuing to send jobs overseas.”

According to Dennis Trainor, vice president of CWA District 1, “AT&T is underestimating the deep frustration wireless retail, call center and field workers are feeling right now with its decisions to squeeze workers and customers, especially as the company just reported more than $13 billion in annual profits.”

“The clock is ticking for AT&T to make good on their promise to preserve family-supporting jobs for more than 40,000 workers,” Trainor said before the start of the strike. “We have made every effort to bargain in good faith with AT&T, but have only been met with delays and excuses. Now, AT&T is facing the possibility of closed stores for the first time ever. Our demands are clear and have been for months: fair contract or strike.”

Last year, CWA members at Verizon were on strike for 49 days, finally gaining a contract with greater job protections and winning 1,300 new call center jobs. Since December, AT&T workers have picketed retail stores in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, San Diego and other cities, hung banners on freeway overpasses, organized rallies and marches and confronted the corporation at its annual meeting in Dallas.

“Americans are fed up with giant corporations like AT&T that make record profits but ask workers to do more with less and choose to offshore and outsource jobs,” said Nicole Popis, an AT&T wireless call center worker in Illinois. “I’ve watched our staff shrink from 200 employees down to 130. I’m a single mother and my son is about to graduate. I voted yes to authorize a strike because I’m willing to do whatever it takes to show AT&T we’re serious.”

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on May 19, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (2013)Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.


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A Winning Week for Corporations and Wall Street—Paid for by Your Health and Retirement

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Corporations and Wall Street won big last week, and working people will pay a high price for it. Here are three things Congress did for Big Business that will harm working people’s health care and retirement:

1. 7 million fewer people will get workplace health benefits. Last Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the so-called American Health Care Act by a vote of 217-213. This is the bill that President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) are using to repeal much of the Affordable Care Act and that will cut health coverage for some 24 million people. The U.S. Senate now has to vote.

Professional lobbying groups that represent employers, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are behind this bill because it guts the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that large and mid-size employers offer their full-time employees adequate, affordable health benefits or risk paying a penalty. According to Congress’s budget experts, within 10 years, this bill will result in 7 million fewer Americans getting employer-provided health insurance. Corporate interests also like the huge tax cuts in the House bill, especially the $28 billion for prescription drug corporations and $145 billion for insurance companies.

Big company CEOs—the people who now earn 347 times more what front-line workers earn—are probably salivating over the huge personal tax cuts they will get from the Republican bill. One estimate is that those with million-dollar incomes will receive an average yearly tax cut of more than $50,000. The 400 highest-income households in the United States get an average tax cut of $7 million.

2. As many as 38 million workers will be blocked from saving for retirement at work. The Senate voted 50-49 last Wednesday to stop states from creating retirement savings programs for the 38 million working people whose employers do not offer any kind of retirement plan. The House already had voted to do this, and Trump is expected to sign off on it.

In the absence of meaningful action by the federal government, states have stepped in to address the growing retirement security crisis. But groups that carry water for Wall Street companies, like the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, have been actively lobbying Congress and Trump to stop states from helping these workers.

3. More than 100 million retirement investors may lose protections against conflicted investment advice. The House Financial Services Committee approved the so-called Financial CHOICE Act on a party-line vote last Thursday. It now goes to the full House of Representatives, and then to the Senate. In addition to gutting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that protects working people from abusive banking practices and ripping out many of the other financial reforms adopted after the 2008 financial crisis, this bill overturns key investor protections for people who have IRAs and 401(k)s. A massive coalition of Wall Street firms and their lobbying groups has been fighting to undo these retirement protections by any means possible.

About the Author: Shaun O’Brien is the Assistant Director for Health and Retirement in the AFL-CIO’s Policy Department, where he oversees development of the Federation’s policies related to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and work-based health and retirement plans. Immediately prior to joining the AFL- CIO, he held several positions at AARP, including the Vice President for the My Money Portfolio and Senior Vice President for Economic Security. O’Brien holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from American University and a law degree from Cornell Law School.


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The Looming Writers Strike Is About Much More Than What’s On TV

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People say we’re living in the golden age of television. Fans enjoy more high-quality choices than at any time in history. But this could all grind to a halt if the Writers Guild of America (WGA) follows through with authorizing a strike, which would start May 2 barring any last-minute deals with the major studios.

In the short-term, late-night talk and sketch shows could go dark or resort to improvisation, and the fall broadcast schedule could be threatened. (The WGA covers screenwriters as well, but movies operate on such a long timeframe that a strike wouldn’t affect releases for over a year.) But more broadly, the battle would determine who benefits from the billions of dollars sloshing around Hollywood: well-off studio executives or the creators who bring unforgettable characters to life.

As Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner told colleagues in recommending a strike, writers simply want “to participate in this windfall we created in the last five years.”

Squeezed on all sides

Writers last walked out in 2007-2008, when YouTube was three years old and the concept of delivering original scripted programming over the Internet was scarcely in anyone’s head. The WGA had the foresight to secure revenues from streaming residuals in that contract. But nobody was prepared for how the industry would change.

Increasingly, scripted shows have shorter and shorter seasons. Sixty-eight percent of all programs aired 13 episodes or fewer last season, according to WGA calculations, rather than the traditional 22. Because writers are compensated on a per-episode basis, that change amounts to a halving of their pay.

In addition, studios are giving shows more time to make those limited numbers of episodes, which is great for the craft but bad for writers’ bottom line. Other behind-the-scenes talent gets paid based on their presence at work; only writers lose money when they get three weeks per episode instead of two.

You might think shorter runs allow writers to hook onto more shows over their careers. But under current terms, writers sign exclusive contracts, with an option to return to their show if it gets renewed. They can’t stack up three shows in a year to make up for lost wages. And exclusive holds can last a full year, if networks delay in confirming a definitive air date. If the delays last long enough, writers can become ineligible for union healthcare and other benefits.

In the past, writers filled these gaps with residual payments. But networks, fearful of tough competition, air far fewer re-runs now. Instead, they sell entire seasons to video-on-demand (VOD) services. Writers make less money from these formats than from network residuals. For example, a network repeat for a 1-hour show yields a writer more than $24,000, while an ad-supported VOD airing nets just $1,228 for the writer, according to union contract rates.

For movie writers, the issues are different. The big studios are making fewer movies, down to 139 releases in 2016 from 204 in 2006, limiting writers’ opportunities. Studios have also begun to reduce script “development,” even demanding free rewrites instead of offering paid time to hone and perfect a screenplay. The vanishing of DVD revenues has also taken a bite. Earnings for screenwriters today are roughly equivalent to earnings from 2000, the WGA estimates.

Finally, the WGA has a large gap in its healthcare fund: It expects a $56 million deficit over the next three years. While negotiations seem like they will yield higher base wages for writers, healthcare has become a critical sticking point. The studios have agreed to fill much of the gap, but with “wage diversions” that would effectively come out of writers’ paychecks. The WGA wants a much higher contribution from management to fund a rainy-day reserve. The two sides are roughly $45 million apart.

“A very, very big pie”

TV and film remains very profitable, at least for executives and shareholders. The “Big Six” studios (Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Disney) reported operating profits of $51 billion last year, twice as much as in 2007. Upfront TV ad rates increased last year to well over $9 billion, as live programming becomes highly valued in an era of ad-blockers and DVRs. Upstarts like Netflix or Amazon have even more riches at their disposal to pay for programming.

The studios are mostly arms of large conglomerates, whose parent companies run telecommunications or electronics businesses. Leslie Moonves, head of Viacom/Paramount’s CBS Corp., earned $69 million last year. These giant corporations with diverse, worldwide revenue streams clearly carry the ability to pay writers fairly for what they generate in value. Stories about slow growth in box office receipts or significant studio challenges mask the tremendous cash still available to multinational giants.

But the studios want to hang onto their bounty, and they have resources to take the sting out of a writer’s strike. A decade ago, the full catalogs of practically every television show ever made weren’t as readily available on demand. Plus, not incorporating reality show storytellers into the 2008 contract could come back to burn the WGA now, as this would become the non-union scab programming replacing sidelined scripted shows on many networks. Add to that a Hollywood strike’s impact on thousands of other ancillary jobs—from stagehands to catering to limo services to hair and makeup—and the WGA could have some challenges this time around.

This would be the sixth WGA strike since 1960, and previous efforts have secured important advances for the backbone of the entertainment industry. Moreover, they have become teachable moments for a country unused to labor strife—a way to directly explain the concepts of fair wages and workers demanding to share in a company’s success.

But now, writers are fighting concentrated power brokers who have devised all sorts of ways to maintain a stranglehold on the billions of people worldwide who fork over money to watch their favorite characters.

Glen Mazzara, former showrunner for The Walking Dead, perhaps put it best on the WGA website: “We’re just trying to get a little bigger piece of a very, very big pie.”

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on April 20, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

David Dayen is a freelance journalist and the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. He lives in Los Angeles, where prior to writing about politics he had a 19-year career as a television producer and editor.

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Still Getting ‘It’ Wrong

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On Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the economy gained 235,000 payroll slots in February and upped its estimates for December and January by another 9,000 jobs. Over the three-month period, that means an average job growth of 209,000 jobs a month. Including the ups and downs, over the past 30 years, the U.S. economy has averaged job growth of about 126,000 jobs a month. So this current rate of growth would suggest a strong labor market. Further, workers who transitioned from being out of the labor force into active job search were 2.3 times more likely to land a job than to be stuck unemployed and looking.  And unemployed workers were 1.3 times more likely to find a job than if they were to quit and drop out of the labor force discouraged. Over the year, average wages (not adjusting for inflation) rose 2.8%.

Watchers of the Federal Open Market Committee, the policymaking body of the Federal Reserve Board, are sure the FOMC will stick to its forward guidance and act to raise the fed funds rate; which is their tool for setting the tightness of monetary policy. Raising the rate signals faith in the strength of the recovery by the Fed; a strong sense the economy is nearing both its target for inflation and employment. And, it is likely, given recent statements from several Fed officials that these numbers may convince them that “normal” is just around the corner. But they are wrong.

Raising interest rates is a way to slow the growth of the economy. It is useful to prevent an economy from over-heating and setting price increases on a pace that would be difficult to reign in. If done properly, the Fed can guide the economy to a soft-landing, where it will sit growing at a rate just fast enough to stay at full employment.

Well, the problem is that is where the economy is now. Despite solid job growth over the past year, the unemployment rate has remained flat and annual nominal wage growth has remained steady at around 2.6%. As a simple arithmetic, if the number of jobs created slows, then the unemployment rate will have to rise, and wage growth will slow.

If the near term had great economic certainty, then it might be possible to agree that labor market might show more signs of tightening; rather than its present “goldilocks” state of flat unemployment and wages. But the near term has great economic uncertainty.

First, while wages are beginning to show growth, the share of people employed is still a significant distance from the share employed at the peak of 2007, which was below the peak of 1999. This means that household incomes have not caught up. A large share of the workforce is employed part-time, and while the recovery has seen mostly growth of full-time jobs, household incomes have not gotten back to full employment levels.

Second, a major driver of the real economy is the automobile industry sector. After over-correcting during the depths of the Great Recession and the historic collapse in demand, it has used the financial helping hand then-President Barack Obama lent, to recover and now reach record sales and a growth in employment and investment. But a substantial and rising share of auto loans have been made to African American and Latino communities using subprime lending tools.  During the initial stages of the recovery, delinquencies on auto loans declined. But, beginning in 2016, they started to rise. And they continue to rise.

The purchase of new cars has increased the supply of used cars, so the gap between new car prices and used car prices has been rising as the price of used cars is falling. Delinquencies on auto loans began when the Fed began moving from zero interest rates, since the loan rate on automobiles is tied to short-term interest rates. Higher short-term rates will further increase consumers’ costs of buying a new car, increasing the wedge between new and used car prices.

The threat is that if job growth slows, it will first affect the African American and Latino communities, already showing struggles with the onerous terms of the subprime loans. Those communities need more time for the labor market to recover. The best solution for the economy is for their income to pick up pace and out run the debt. Income-led buying leads to healthy sustainable recoveries. Raising interest rates when incomes lead the recovery simply slow the pace of buying and encourage savings rather than spending. The worse solution is to have the debt out run their income. If delinquencies increase more, the auto market will get a greater flood of used cars, driving the price of used cars down further and increasing the gap in price between used and new cars.

Over the past six months, in fact, lending activity has become more stringent for new borrowers in the auto sector and for small business. Such a credit tightening is normally associated with an economic downturn; not a healthy growing recovery about to overheat. Higher short-term rates will only exacerbate that problem.

The problem is clear, at some point the new car market will go into recession; which means the auto industry will be in recession; which means the economy will be in recession.

Third, compounding the near term uncertainty, is the war that President Donald Trump has declared on the immigrant community. Fear and uncertainty are high in communities where many workers and family members are undocumented. These workers are fully integrated into our communities. They are wives, husbands and parents of legal residents and American citizens. These households live under a cloud. Fearing deportation, or legal fees to protect loved ones, millions of households are unlikely to buy new cars, or may be deciding to horde cash and stop making payments on cars that have been purchased. This is an uncertainty with a magnitude we have never faced, and therefore is too great a threat to ignore.

Fourth, the increase in people with health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act has meant job growth in the health sector at a faster rate than the rest of the economy. The current proposals of the Republican Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act all will lead to a decrease in the number of Americans with health insurance. For this reason, the major hospital associations and the American Medical Association oppose the Republican plan. The threat to this market will have real repercussions on job growth in the one high-wage sector with fast job growth. And the wind down of federal Medicaid support to those states that extended health coverage using Medicaid will cause huge ripple effects on state budgets, which have not fully recovered from the drastic loss of revenues during the Great Recession. This will mean further pressures on recovering state investment in public colleges and universities.

Finally, the proposed budget cuts put forth by the Trump administration would gut public investment in education, housing and the environment. The austerity that has been proposed will cut federal jobs. And, just when the Medicaid cuts are going to hurt state budgets and so put more pressure to raise tuition at public two- and four-year colleges, the Trump administration is proposing cuts to Pell Grants and returning the student loan market to the more expansive private sector.

Thoughts that huge tax cuts to high-income households will offset a downturn in automobile sales, further disruption in the rising costs of college tuition or a dismantling of the health sector are irrational. We have lived through big tax cuts to the wealthy under former President George W. Bush. They were insufficient to pull the economy out of the 2001 downturn in any timely fashion; and, he had the help of low interest rates, a federal deficit swelled by tax cuts and war time expansion of military budgets, as well as a relatively healthy state unemployed insurance system. The current unemployment insurance system is greatly weakened and cannot provide the automatic stabilizer so vital to dampening a recession.

These all point to a real danger that the Fed may be a great threat to what is a more fragile economy than appears at the moment. The drive to be “normal” in a world that is clearly not normal, may put us in danger of a downturn that will be difficult to recover from given the instability shown in the White House.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on March 13, 2017.  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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