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A Debate Over Carbon Capture in the Infrastructure Bill Could Test the Labor-Climate Alliance

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In late March, President Joe Biden unveiled a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, the American Jobs Plan, that his administration hopes to move forward this year. The plan would make major investments in improving physical infrastructure such as roads, schools and bridges while also creating good-paying jobs, expanding collective bargaining rights and funding long-term care services under Medicaid. 

The president’s plan also endorsed another proposal that a group of bipartisan lawmakers hope makes it into a final bill: expanding carbon-capture utilization and storage (CCUS) in the United States. The SCALE Act, introduced in mid-March by eleven senators and six House representatives, represents the country’s first comprehensive CO2 infrastructure and jobs bill. In describing the president’s infrastructure plan, the White House said it ?“will support large-scale sequestration efforts” that are ?“in line with the bipartisan SCALE Act.” 

The legislation, which would authorize $4.9 billion in spending over five years, would create programs to transport and store carbon underground. Its provisions include establishing low-interest loan programs modeled off of federal highway development programs, increasing EPA funding for permitting carbon storage wells, and providing grants to states to create their own permitting programs. Advocates point to countries such as Canada, Norway and Australia where elected officials have made similar investments in carbon storage infrastructure. 

The SCALE Act is notable both for the support it has, and hasn’t, received. Its early endorsers include a half-dozen industrial labor unions, centrist climate groups like the National Wildlife Federation, and energy companies like GE Gas Power and Calpine. Fossil fuel industry support for carbon-capture has historically been a top reason why progressive climate groups, meanwhile, remain skeptical of the idea, wary of subsidizing anything that amounts to corporate giveaways to some of the world’s worst polluters. While carbon-capture has long been a flashpoint in Democratic climate politics, most critics of the policy have stayed quiet on the SCALE Act for now.

Modeling released in December by the Princeton Net-Zero America Project found that construction of nearly 12,000 miles of pipelines capable of storing 65 million tons of COper year would be needed by 2030 for the United States to reach net-zero emissions by 2050?—?a stated goal of the Biden administration. The Clean Air Task Force, a climate advocacy group, says the SCALE Act programs are ?“consistent” with the quantity and timeline of infrastructure deployment needed to meet those goals.

To date, nearly all U.S. carbon-capture projects are situated near existing CO2pipelines and Lee Beck, the CCUS policy innovation director at the Clean Air Task Force, says the SCALE Act’s goal would be to capture emissions from multiple sources and then transport the COfor storage elsewhere, as is currently being carried out through Canada’s Alberta Carbon Trunk Line System and Norway’s Northern Lights Project.

Supporters point to a number of recent scientific analyses that make the case for greater investment in carbon-capture. In February, the National Academies of Sciences released a report on decarbonizing the U.S. energy system which recommends that, over next decade, officials should focus on increasing deployment of carbon-capture technologies by a factor of ten while investing in permanent CO2 storage infrastructure. In 2020, the International Energy Agency warned that it would be ?“virtually impossible” to reach net-zero emissions without carbon capture technology, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said carbon capture is likely necessary to meet global climate targets. Supporters note that renewable energy sources like wind and solar are not viable alternatives for reducing carbon emissions in the industrial sector, which account for 32 percent of the United States’ energy use and nearly a quarter of its direct greenhouse gas emissions. 

President Biden’s campaign climate plan called for accelerating development of carbon-capture and he included Brad Markell, the executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council, on his Department of Energy transition team. Markell endorsed the SCALE Act in March and said it ?“will be crucial to meeting President Biden’s goals of reaching net-zero emissions in the power sector by 2035 and economywide by 2050.”

In addition to Biden’s support, the Congressional politics bode well for SCALE Act advocates. Introduced by Sens. Chris Coons (D?Del.) and Bill Cassidy (R?LA) in the Senate, the bill would first go through the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where Joe Manchin (D?W.V.), a co-sponsor of the bill, serves as chair. The House version of the bill was introduced by Reps. Marc Veasey (D?TX) and David McKinley (R?W.V.) and the chamber passed several carbon-capture bills last year. In March, Democratic governors of Pennsylvania and Louisiana (Tom Wolf and John Bel Edwards) joined the Republican governors of Oklahoma and Wyoming (Kevin Stitt and Mark Gordon), in writing a letter to Congress urging the passage of the SCALE Act in any future infrastructure package.

In an email, Sen. Coons told In These Times that he ?“appreciates [Energy] Secretary Granholm’s public statements in support of CCUS, including CCUS transport infrastructure, and am encouraged by my conversations with the Biden administration over the last several months.” 

Perhaps the biggest asset working in the SCALE Act’s favor is the support of organized labor. Biden has faced heat in the media in recent weeks over whether he can truly deliver an ambitious climate agenda while supporting unions. The SCALE Act has endorsements from labor groups including the Utility Workers Union of America, IBEW and North America’s Building Trades Unions. And the BlueGreen Alliance?—?a coalition of labor and environmental groups?—?supports CCUS, though has not yet taken a position on the bill. One analysis commissioned through the Decarb America Research Initiative estimated that the SCALE Act would generate roughly 13,000 jobsannually over the 5?year period, though many unions are excited by the prospect of simply maintaining existing jobs.

“We see carbon-capture technology as a way to retain jobs in industries that are core sectors of our union,” said Anna Fendley, the director of Regulatory and State Policy for the United Steelworkers. ?“It feels like the conversation around reducing emissions in the U.S. has been so focused on the power sector for so long and now a lot of groups and advocates are learning more about the industrial sector.” 

A false solution?

Carbon-capture opponents have described the policy as one of several ?“false solutions” to the climate crisis. Though many of these activists typically say that we can’t afford not to invest in fighting climate change, on matters of CCUS, they argue the technologies are too expensive, too under-developed, and will detract from other important investments that government needs to make in order to transform the economy. At worst, critics fear investments in carbon-capture could prolong overall dependence on fossil fuels. 

Last September, the House of Representatives passed a clean energy package, but after a coalition of progressive climate groups?—?including Sunrise Movement, Friends of the Earth, and the Climate Justice Alliance—protestedthe bill’s inclusion of pro-carbon capture provisions, 18 Democrats, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D?N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D?Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D?Minn.), and Ayanna Pressley (D?Mass.), voted against it. In These Times reached out to a number of climate groups that have opposed carbon-capture infrastructure in the past, including Sunrise Movement, Friends of the Earth, and the Labor Network for Sustainability. Most have not spoken publicly on the SCALE Act to date and declined to comment for this story. 

Limited organizational capacity for rapid legislative analysis is one possible factor for the silence. Joe Uehlein, president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said their group had not heard about the SCALE Act prior to In These Times’ inquiry. While noting they are ?“not in the CCUS camp,” Uehlein said the group hasn’t yet decided how it plans to respond to the bill. The Sierra Club declined the Charleston Gazette-Mail?’s request for comment on the SCALE Act. 

Some left-wing organizations, like Sunrise Movement and Evergreen Action, have previously acknowledged that industrial carbon capture could be acceptable, and others have expressed more interest in direct air capture, a method that sucks COout of the atmosphere. 

Basav Sen, the Climate Justice Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies and the co-chair of the Energy Democracy Working Group at the Climate Justice Alliance, told In These Times that rather than protesting individual pieces of carbon-capture legislation?—??“which would make it a game of whack-a-mole”?—?environmental justice groups in his coalition are focused on educating members of Congress and their staff on why they should avoid such ?“false solutions” altogether. He added that putting new demands on the electrical grid through CCUS, direct air capture, and even industrial production of steel and cement at current levels was misguided at this stage of the transition away from fossil fuel energy.

Sen also criticized carbon-capture advocates for citing the 2018 IPCC report as evidence that CCUS is needed, as opposed to reforestation which the IPCC also explored. Reforestation, or replanting an area with tress, is another way to remove COfrom the air. Research suggests this solution can also offer significant short-term emissions reductions, but a 2019 IPCC report also warned that planting large-scale forests for carbon-removal efforts could lead to increased food insecurity and other environmental issues.

Beck, of the Clean Air Task Force, argued that it would be irresponsible to take any decarbonization options off the table in 2021, and emphasized that building out COinfrastructure would not help keep aging or non-economical facilities online. Shannon Heyck-Williams of the National Wildlife Federation agreed that ?“when it comes to coal power generation, there really is no future for coal power in America and carbon-capture doesn’t change that.”

But Beck and Heyck-Williams also maintained that, since there are so many existing natural gas facilities in the United States, it does makes sense to try and capture the carbon coming out of those plants?—?at least for now. ?“It would be faster to retrofit some of these facilities than expect they will be all phased out in the next decade in the current climate policy environment,” argued Beck.

SCALE Act supporters know they’ll have to tread carefully with language around COpipelines, given the years of dedicated activism in the climate movement against new oil and gas pipelines. Advocates of CCUS prefer to focus on phrases like ?“COinfrastructure” and ?“carbon management,” which they hope will steer the conversation away from flashpoints like Keystone XL. Beck notes that carbon infrastructure includes not just pipelines but also shipping, rail and barge. ?“COpipelines are very different in terms of size and safety,” added Jessie Stolark, the public policy and members relations manager for the Carbon Capture Coalition. ?“But to be completely honest, I do think we have an uphill battle in terms of reassuring people and conveying that kind of information.”

Whether progressive climate groups will choose to rally opposition to a congressional infrastructure bill that includes the SCALE Act?—?like they did for the clean energy package in 2020?—?remains unclear. It will undoubtedly be tougher to pressure lawmakers to vote against a package that includes so many other key priorities. For now, rather than take aim at Biden’s new infrastructure plan for its support for carbon-capture, progressive climate groups have stuck to criticizing the package for committing too little spending on climate change mitigation efforts overall, with some advocates calling for a minimum of $10 trillion in spending over the next decade.

“It’s up to us to ensure that this proposal is strengthened, becomes law and that it is the first of many pieces of legislation that will address the many crises facing our generation,” said Deirdre Shelly of the Sunrise Movement. 

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

About the Author: Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington D.C. 


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Biden administration weeks behind on Covid-19 workplace safety rules

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The federal worker safety watchdog is weeks behind on President Joe Biden’s deadline for the agency to issue mandatory workplace safety rules that experts say will fight the spread of the coronavirus and protect workers.

Shortly after taking office, Biden gave the Labor Department a March 15 deadline to decide whether such emergency rules were necessary, and it was widely assumed the department would recommend moving forward with them. But three weeks later, newly minted Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is asking the agency to continue reviewing the rule.

“Secretary Walsh reviewed the materials, and determined that they should be updated to reflect the latest scientific analysis of the state of the disease,” a Labor Department spokesperson told POLITICO. “He has ordered a rapid update based on CDC analysis and the latest information regarding the state of vaccinations and the variants. He believes this is the best way to proceed.”

Biden campaigned on making Covid-19 guidelines — currently just optional recommendations for employers — into mandatory rules. Business groups and unions have been bracing for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to release an emergency workplace safety standard that would immediately require employers to take steps to protect their workers from exposure to the virus.

The rule was expected to at least mandate CDC guidelines on mask wearing, which some industry groups have warned would create headaches for businesses in the states that have already moved to rollback social distancing and mask requirements for businesses. It also would likely require employers to develop a Covid-19 response plan, similar to a required fire drill, for how the businesses would respond if someone was exposed to the virus at work.

The delay is raising concerns among former workplace regulators and worker advocates, who fear Biden may be dropping an essential piece of his Covid-19 response plan, as well as sowing confusion in the business community.

“I’m concerned that there are administration staff who incorrectly believe that the pandemic is under control and that an ETS isn’t necessary,” said David Michaels, who led OSHA during the Obama administration.

“The CDC director is pleading with the country to take precautions, but workers can’t take those precautions” without an ETS, said Michaels, now a professor of occupational health at George Washington University.

Business groups are also scratching their heads after broadly expecting the rules.

“I’m as in much of a befuddlement as anyone,” said Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the Chamber of Commerce. “This sounds like Secretary Walsh and the DOL are grappling with what everyone else is seeing — the increasing success of the vaccines raises serious questions about whether an ETS is justified, such as whether employees are still in ‘grave danger,’ and an ETS can be called ‘necessary.’”

The longer it takes for the Biden administration to release the rule, the harder it could be for the rule to stand up to legal challenges, according to Freedman and attorneys who specialize in workplace safety law.

OSHA only has the authority to issue an “emergency temporary safety standard” if it determines that workers are “in grave danger” due to exposure to something “determined to be toxic or physically harmful or to new hazards.” But that justification could be slipping as the Biden administration rushes to get Americans vaccinated against the virus.

While Biden administration officials have been warning that more contagious strains of the virus are taking hold, the president has been moving to expand access to the vaccine and was optimistic in his last message to the nation, promising Americans a return to some sense of normal life by Independence Day.

Republicans, who have been broadly opposed to any mandatory safety rules, are criticizing what they see as a mixed message from the administration.

“The Biden administration is speaking out of both sides of its mouth,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee. “The President claims every adult will be eligible for a vaccine in May and then argues an immediate ‘emergency’ standard is necessary to curb the crisis.”

“This politicized process highlights the Biden administration’s blatant incompetence and hypocrisy. The federal government must not add more uncertainty and bureaucratic red tape for job creators, workers, and consumers as we continue to emerge from this crisis.”

But worker-safety experts say that the longer the Biden administration waits, more workers will get sick with the virus and could die.

“We are deeply concerned about when the standard is coming out. Basically workers have been going for a year facing untold numbers of illnesses and deaths without just a basic agreement that employers need to create a safety plan,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

“It’s essential, it’s life saving and it needs to come out now,” she said. “We can’t wait another day for this.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 7, 2021. 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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‘The president’s committed to raising the minimum wage,’ Labor Sec. Marty Walsh says. He should be

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The Senate voted against including a minimum wage increase in the American Rescue Plan in March, and as long as Republicans have the option of filibustering it, they will block any meaningful increase in what’s now a poverty-level federal minimum wage. But because $7.25 an hour is a poverty-level wage—and because raising it is proven popular with voters—Democrats need to find a way to make it happen, and happen in a form that isn’t an insult to the workers such a policy should be helping.

“When you think about raising the minimum wage, it’s really about raising the opportunity for families to earn a living,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi on Saturday. “Most families can’t live on $7 an hour—no family can live on $7 an hour. It’s pretty hard to live on $15 an hour.”

“The president’s committed to raising the minimum wage,” Walsh continued. “I’m committed to raising the minimum wage, there are members of Congress committed to raising the minimum wage.”

What a minimum wage increase looks like is the big question. The Raise the Wage Act of 2021 would raise it in steps, going from $7.25 to $9.50 later in 2021, then $11 in 2022, $12.50 in 2023, $14 in 2024, and $15 in 2025. After that, the minimum wage would be indexed to median wage growth, so that we wouldn’t again have a minimum wage that hadn’t changed in more than a decade thanks to Republican obstruction. Importantly, the Raise the Wage Act would also raise the tipped subminimum wage from $2.13 an hour, where it has been since 1991, bringing it equal with the full minimum wage in 2027; the much less frequently used youth wage would also match the minimum wage in 2027.

One alternative you’ll hear mentioned a lot is a regional minimum wage, with lower-cost states having a lower minimum wage than higher-cost ones. There are a lot of problems with this. First of all, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, the only state in the country in which a living wage for one adult with no children is currently below $13 an hour is South Dakota. $15 an hour in 2025 is likely to be the equivalent of $13.79 in today’s dollars. So when people tell you that $15 in 2025 is too much, too fast … they’re sure not talking about what’s fair or right.

Second, consider how many states have already raised their minimum wages—and that it’s not just deep blue and expensive states like California, New York, or Massachusetts. In 2018, voters in Arkansas and Missouri raised their states’ minimum wages to $11 in 2021 and $12 in 2023, respectively. In 2020, more than 60% of Florida voters passed an amendment raising their state’s minimum wage to $15 by 2026. The Democratic senators most likely to stand in the way of a meaningful minimum wage increase are West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema. Arizona voters in 2016 passed increases to $12 in 2020, with the minimum wage indexed to the cost of living after that. West Virginia’s minimum wage is $8.75 an hour.

But third, the history of proposals for a regional minimum wage is instructive.

“When the first federal minimum wage was being debated in the 1930s, Southern congressmen strongly opposed the federal standard, concerned that it would upset the white supremacist plantation system that dominated the South’s economy,” David Cooper and Lawrence Mishel write at the Economic Policy Institute. “In fact, Southern lawmakers insisted that the federal wage standard should be adjusted by region to account for differences in costs of living. What ultimately led to the minimum wage law’s passage as a single national wage floor was a “compromise” with Southern Democrats to exempt agriculture, restaurants, and a host of other service-sector industries that disproportionately employed Black workers. Even after it was amended in 1967 to cover more of these industries, the law still exempted most farmworkers—who today are majority Latinx—and allowed employers to pay a subminimum wage to tipped workers—who today are overwhelmingly women.”

Huh. What do you know. The early attempts for a regional minimum wage were about keeping wages low for specific people—as evidenced by the fact that the acceptable compromise was the one that wrote Black workers and Latino workers and women workers out of the policy. And once again we’re seeing efforts to keep wages low in ways that would, according to a 2019 analysis, disproportionately hurt Black workers and women of color. More than one in three of the workers who would lose out from a regional proposal similar to one suggested by Third Way would be women of color. Black workers would, on average, get half the raise they would get from the Raise the Wage Act.

Raising the minimum wage would lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty. The best available economic research, drawing on actual real-life minimum wage increases that have already happened, tells us that it would not cost jobs. It’s a matter of basic fairness, allowing workers to get a small share of increased productivity. By raising wages disproportionately for women and people of color, it would promote equity. It’s popular. This should be a no-brainer as an issue even for the likes of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and a sledgehammer for Democrats to use against Republicans, not an issue to muddle with talk of a regional increase or other insulting compromises.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on April 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Unions demand Biden cancel student debt for public service workers

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Labor unions are making a new push to get the Education Department to use executive action to forgive the student loans of Americans working in public service jobs — the latest pressure from the left for the Biden administration to act more aggressively on student debt relief.

A wide range of unions representing teachers, fire fighters, health care workers and government employees on Thursday called on Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to fully erase the debt of borrowers who have worked for more than a decade in public service jobs.

The unions say the relief is needed because the Education Department’s existing Public Service Loan Forgiveness program has been plagued by problems and mismanagement. More than 98 percent of applicants seeking loan forgiveness have been rejected by the program.

“The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need for immediate action,” the unions wrote to Cardona in a letter, which was shared with POLITICO. “Public service workers who should have already benefited from the Department of Education’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program are serving on the front lines of our pandemic response — caring for patients, teaching our students, and delivering essential services in communities across the country.

The letter was led by the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, and signed by 14 other unions collectively representing more than 10 million public service workers. They include the American Federation of Government Employees; American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; International Association of Fire Fighters; United Auto Workers; and Service Employees International Union.

Democrats for years have raised concerns about the difficulty that public service workers have had navigating the federal government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. They sharply criticized Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ oversight of the program, which the Trump administration had proposed eliminating.

“After four years of scandal and allegations of widespread mismanagement, it is clear to our organizations that the federal government has fundamentally failed to deliver on this promise,” the unions wrote in the letter to Cardona on Thursday.

On the campaign trail, President Joe Biden vowed to fix the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, and he backed legislation that would expand the benefits.

Now the unions are pressing the Biden administration to go further and use executive action to swiftly provide automatic relief to public service workers. The letter says that the Education Department should use its emergency powers during the pandemic to waive any necessary regulations or laws to carry out the loan forgiveness.

But Biden has been skeptical of the notion of using executive powers to unilaterally write off federal student loan debt. Earlier this year, Biden said he would not take executive action to wipe out $50,000 of debt per borrower, as many progressives and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are urging him to do.

The White House has said that the president has not ruled out taking some type of executive action to cancel student loan debt, and his advisers are reviewing the issue.

The Biden administration over the past week has announced a series of “targeted” relief to federal student loan borrowers, though consumer advocates have criticized the policies as far too narrow.

The Education Department canceled the debts of some students who were defrauded by their for-profit college and waived some of the paperwork requirements to ease loan forgiveness for borrowers with severe disabilities. In addition, the department earlier this week halted collections on more than 1 million borrowers who had defaulted on federally-guaranteed student loans held by private entities.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 1, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Stratford is an education reporter for POLITICO Pro. He most recently covered federal higher education policy and student loans at Inside Higher Ed, with previous bylines at The Associated Press, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. 


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Universal Health Care Is a Popular Idea in America—Will Biden Keep Enriching Private Insurance or ‘Go Big’?

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on people’s lives, President Joe Biden has been on a victory tour to promote the American Rescue Plan, a hefty $1.9 trillion spending package that not only sends direct stimulus payments to struggling Americans, but also greatly expands health care options through the Affordable Care Act (ACA). “We’re becoming a nation where health care is a right and not for the privileged few,” said Biden in his remarks at a hospital on the campus of Ohio State University. Eleven years after the ACA was first passed into law as President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform, it has survived relentless Republican attacks in the form of legal challenges and defunding attempts. Preserving and expanding it under Democratic leadership certainly constitutes a win against Republican obstructionism and a refusal to offer better alternatives. But this latest strengthening of the ACA is first and foremost a victory for the health insurance industry.

The American Rescue Plan includes tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to substantially lower premiums for insurance options purchased through the ACA health exchanges. Additionally, it covers 100 percent of the cost of COBRA coverage for those who have been laid off during the pandemic. Even the New York Times characterized it with the headline, “Private Insurance Wins in Democrats’ First Try at Expanding Health Coverage.”

Dr. Paul Song, co-chair of the Campaign for a Healthy California, and board member of Physicians for a National Health Program, explained to me in an interview that, “that’s money that’s just going to the private insurance industry.” He asked, “why not say to anyone who lost their job during the pandemic and lost their health care coverage, that you would automatically be enrolled in Medicare until you found your new job?” Such a move would cost significantly fewer taxpayer dollars but would have boosted the arguments in favor of a Medicare for All program, which centrist Democrats like Biden have vehemently railed against for years. Ironically, insurance industry loyalists cite high costs as central to their opposition to Medicare for All.

new poll by Morning Consult and Politico finds that a majority of Americans—55 percent—support Medicare for All. Strangely, the pollsters headlined their results by saying, “Medicare for All Remains Polarizing.” Nearly 80 percent of all Democrats support it, and even among Republicans, more than a quarter back the idea of a government-run health plan for all.

As Biden touts the success of the ACA (without mentioning the high cost of supporting it), a growing number of Democratic lawmakers are refusing to fall in line. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) dismissed the health care subsidies in the American Rescue Plan, saying, “I don’t think this was the most efficient way to do this,” and had instead called for exactly what Song suggested: that unemployed Americans sign on to a Medicare plan rather than their former employer’s plan.

Jayapal recently introduced the Medicare for All Act of 2021, which was co-sponsored by more than half the House Democratic Caucus. Her office released a statement explaining that the bill “guarantees health care to everyone as a human right by providing comprehensive benefits including primary care, vision, dental, prescription drugs, mental health, long-term services and supports, reproductive health care, and more with no copays, private insurance premiums, deductibles, or other cost-sharing.”

Dr. Song is hopeful, saying there is “more momentum every year” for such a program. Whereas in previous years Democrats like former Congressman Joe Crowley would have railed against Medicare for All, “they’ve all been voted out by the AOCs, by the Jamaal Bowmans,” said Song, referring to the freshmen representatives from New York who in recent years ousted centrist incumbents like Crowley from their party in primary challenges. Now, “for the first time, the entire New York delegation has supported Medicare for All,” he said.

The timing for a bold and comprehensive health care plan is ideal. According to Axios, Biden “loves the growing narrative that he’s bolder and bigger-thinking than President Obama.” Democrats are looking to distinguish themselves from Republicans in willingly spending what it takes to care for a population battered by the pandemic after years of austerity measures that have whittled away safety net programs. Criticism of Medicare for All from a cost perspective will not only be deemed hypocritical, but it will also sound Republican-like in its callous calculation to prioritize private interests ahead of human needs.

According to the advocacy group Public Citizen, the U.S.’s private health insurance-based system put the nation at such a deep disadvantage during the pandemic that according to a new analysis, “millions of Americans have contracted COVID-19 unnecessarily and hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been prevented.” This estimate is not based on people dying because they did not have health insurance. On the contrary, the government rightly stepped up to ensure that COVID-19 related treatments for the uninsured would be covered by taxpayers (yet more proof that lawmakers are willing to cover everyone’s health care costs if the crisis is dire).

Rather Public Citizen found that our entire health care infrastructure failed because “hospitals focused on profit and revenue were unable to respond to COVID-19 while safety net hospitals faced closure.” The patchwork of private health insurance systems and limited public systems left the nation in a confusing mess at a time when streamlined approaches to a deadly pandemic required systematic testing, contact tracing, and now, vaccine distribution. In contrast, as per Public Citizen, “Countries that had more unified systems were better able to roll out testing, track the spread of the disease via a central information hub, and intervene appropriately.”

Given the fact that Democrats require either some Republican support or an end to the Senate’s filibuster rule in order to pass any major legislation, Jayapal’s bill is likely to remain aspirational. However, newly seated Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra may be able to offer another pathway to a government-run health system. Backers of such a system ought to take heart from Becerra’s confirmation hearing where the likes of Republican Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said to him, “Your long-standing support for single-payer, government-run health care seems hostile to our current system from my perspective.” Of course, Becerra said what he had to in order to win confirmation and toed the Democratic party line by responding that he would be enacting President Biden’s agenda, not his own.

Still, according to Dr. Song, “Secretary Becerra has been very public in saying that he thinks states should be afforded waivers, and now he has the ability to do that.” One of the positive aspects of the ACA is that states have the right to apply for federal waivers and that the HHS secretary oversees the granting of such waivers. According to the New York Times, “Because these waivers do not require congressional approval, they could become a crucial policymaking tool for the Biden administration,” regardless of which party controls the Senate.

“States like California could set up their own state-based health care system if it at least met the standards determined by the ACA,” explained Song. Just like their federal-level centrist Democratic counterparts, California Governor Gavin Newsom (and before him, Jerry Brown) spoke out in favor of Medicare for All while they were candidates only to back off from taking a strong stand on the issue once they had the power to do something about it. Newsom, who is facing a Republican-led recall effort, is now facing a push from his Democratic colleagues in California’s legislature to keep his promise on health care.

Regardless of how we arrive at a government-run health care plan, there is growing momentum for it. Scientists worry that the next pandemic is just around the corner. Instead of throwing taxpayer dollars into the pockets of private health insurance industry executives, a government-run plan would not only be more efficient and cheaper but also save lives—which is ultimately what should be the most important consideration.

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

About the Author: Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.


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‘Bellwether’ for unions: Amazon battle could transform Biden’s labor revival

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Sen. Bernie Sanders on Friday thrust himself into the middle of a bitter labor dispute at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama where union leaders are locked in a two-month drive to organize workers.

But the stakes in this battle go far beyond the struggle involving nearly 6,000 workers at the fulfillment center in Bessemer.

“What you’re doing is for workers across the country,” Sanders declared during a rally of dozens of workers at a union hall in Birmingham, just a 20-minute drive from the Bessemer facility. “They know if you succeed here, it will spread all over the country.”

If the push in red-state Alabama is successful, it could galvanize more organizing efforts at Amazon and other large retailers across the country. If it fails, it could become a lightning rod for Democrats’ efforts to push through one of the broadest expansions of collective bargaining rights in nearly a century — yet, at the same time, embolden a triumphal business community to harden its stance against organized labor.

“The implications of this election transcend this one warehouse, and even this company,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is organizing the workers. “It’s about the future of work, and how workers are going to be treated.”

The visit by Sanders, a Vermont independent, comes at a pivotal moment for Democrats’ and President Joe Biden’s sweeping efforts to rebuild the middle class by empowering workers and unions. Their proposals to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 and make it easier for employees to unionize are being met by a wall of opposition from Republicans and the business lobby, who say such moves would cripple the economy and bleed American jobs. And the Democrats’ lack of a clear majority in the Senate will make passage of any far-reaching legislation difficult.

The employees at the Amazon warehouse — a majority of them women and minorities — were considered “essential” during the coronavirus pandemic and ordered to continue working as much of the rest of the economy shuttered. Workers say they began organizing over concerns about the spread of the virus, and their frustration over racial injustice sparked by the George Floyd protests last spring. But the complaints go beyond the pandemic to what some say are onerous conditions.

“Amazon is a big plant, about the size of a football field. They want us to go to the bathroom and come back to the machine in five minutes,” said Linda Burns, who was injured on the job at the Bessemer facility. “They say we have quote unquote good insurance. I’m still getting bills in the mail off y’alls good insurance.”

Jennifer Bates, who also works at the facility, brought her case to Washington.

“Amazon’s going to poor communities claiming that they want to help the economic growth,” Bates said during a recent congressional hearing. “That should mean … a living wage and benefits that truly match the cost of living, and ensur[ing] workers work in safe and healthy conditions, because we are not robots designed to only live to work.”

Amazon responded to the union drive by requiring workers to attend “union education meetings,” Bates told members of Congress, as well as posting “anti-union” signs around the fulfillment center and sending messages to workers’ phones.

Amazon declined to comment for this article. But the e-commerce giant’s corporate Twitter account in recent days has directly addressed Democrats’ criticism about working conditions at its facility.

Sanders “has been a powerful politician in Vermont for 30 years and their min wage is still $11.75,” the company tweeted on Friday. “Amazon’s is $15, plus great health care from day one. Sanders would rather talk in Alabama than act in Vermont.”

The National Labor Relations Board will begin counting the votes on March 30, a process that could take a week or longer. The voting itself spanned two months because it was done by mail-in ballot as a safety precaution during the pandemic. In-person voting might have taken a few days.

Those critical of labor unions caution that such drives are often heavily influenced from elsewhere and can leave local workers caught in the fray.

“There are definitely concerted, planned, well-financed campaigns by major labor unions to come in from the outside and organize new, high-profile workplaces, and the Amazon campaign is a great example of that,” said Maxford Nelsen, director of labor policy at the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit that’s critical of unions. “And employees are in the middle of trying to pick between the two sides.”

Nelsen rejected the idea that the union vote carried any broader significance for American labor policy.

“If the employees at the end of the day vote against unionization. I think that means a majority of the employees weren’t convinced by the union’s arguments,” Nelsen added. “That doesn’t mean anything more, anything less than that.”

The landmark labor law overhaul bill backed by Biden and unions, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, would prohibit companies from requiring their workers to attend anti-union meetings, Sanders told reporters after the rally.

It would also call for management to go to mediation and arbitration with the union if the two sides are unable to reach an initial collective bargaining agreement.

That bill passed the House earlier this month with just five GOP votes in support, making it a long shot in the 50-50 Senate.

But union and worker advocates say the unusual public attention on the union drive and the conditions at the fulfillment center have captured the moment and are emblematic of how weak federal labor laws and widening economic inequality have stacked the odds against workers.

“There has never been a greater argument for labor law reform and the PRO Act than this election,” said Appelbaum, the union leader.

Alabama is one of 27 states that have enacted right-to-work laws, meaning that workers can opt out of union membership if they choose. The PRO Act would allow unions to override those laws and collect “fair share fees” from non-members for the costs of collective bargaining.

Unions say they are already seeing momentum from the effort in Bessemer, and that the drive could also mobilize hesitant workers in states with stricter collective bargaining laws as well as younger workers who may be unfamiliar with unions after years of declines in membership.

And their next target may not be far away. Amazon already has plans to expand in Bessemer and neighboring Birmingham later this year.

“I think this campaign can be seen as a bellwether for things to come,” said Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director for the AFL-CIO. “We’re seeing more interest on the part of workers in the South in lots of different sectors, from manufacturing to higher education to health care.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 26, 2021. 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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How Employers Punish Workers for Forming Unions

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Workers at Solvay’s Pasadena, Texas, plant voted overwhelmingly to join the United Steelworkers (USW) in 2017 and looked forward to sitting down with the company to quickly negotiate a fair contract.

Solvay decided to play games instead.

Company representatives canceled some bargaining sessions at the last minute, took two-hour lunches on days they did show up, dithered for weeks over the union’s proposals and pulled every stunt imaginable to drag out the talks and frustrate the workers into giving up.

“They were angry that we actually had the audacity—in their mind—to challenge them with a union. This was their way of getting back at us,” said USW Local 13-227 President Steve “Tote” Toto, noting the spiteful antics cost him precious time with his wife, Mary, who was dying of pancreatic cancer about 1,500 miles away.

The U.S. House just passed bipartisan legislation to end shenanigans like this and help ensure that workers achieve the fair contracts they earned.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which faces an uphill battle in the Senate because of a lack of Republican support, would better protect workers from illegal bullying and retaliation during the organizing process.

And once workers vote to form a union, the PRO Act would set timelines for progress toward a contract and impose mediation and binding arbitration when employers stall and delay.

Although Toto and his coworkers achieved an agreement in January 2019—after more than a year of fighting—corporate foot-dragging on contract talks continues to worsen nationwide.

Right now, companies resort to stall tactics so often that about half of all workers who organize still lack a contract one year later. Worse, 37 percent of workers in newly formed private-sector unions have no agreement after two years. And some continue fighting for a first agreement long after that.

The PRO Act, which President Joe Biden hails as essential for leveling the playing field for workers and rebuilding the middle class, will spur employers to show up at the bargaining table and reach agreements as expeditiously as possible.

That’s exactly what would have helped Toto and his colleagues four years ago.

The workers at Solvay organized to obtain safer working conditions and a voice at the chemical plant, recalled Toto, who relocated to Pasadena after the company closed the Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, facility where he originally worked. His wife, already battling cancer, remained in the couple’s Philadelphia area home to be in comfortable surroundings and to stay close to her doctors.

Talks stretched out month after month as Solvay’s negotiators refused to schedule regular bargaining sessions, made onerous proposals solely intended to bog down the discussions and even balked at excusing workers for jury duty. But nothing infuriated union members as much as finding the company’s chief negotiator asleep one day in a room where he had ostensibly gone to study union proposals.

“It’s about discouraging you,” Toto said of the company’s ploys. “It’s about breaking you down. It was also frustrating for me because it was taking time away from the last year I had with my wife.”

Just like Toto and his colleagues, workers at the Bishop Noa Home in Escanaba, Michigan, made modest demands that they expected to speedily resolve at the bargaining table.

Yet more than three years after voting to join the USW, the 55 certified nursing assistants and dietary, environmental services and laundry workers continue fighting for a contract even as they put their lives on the line to care for the facility’s residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The home refuses to accept the workers’ choice to organize. It brought in a union-busting attorney who belittles workers at the bargaining table, makes unreasonable proposals, spurns efforts to bring the parties together and drags out talks to try to break the workers’ morale.

Marcia Hardy, a dietary worker who has dedicated 35 years to Bishop Noa, said she and other negotiating committee members repeatedly made good-faith compromises that they felt certain would speed talks along.

“That didn’t happen,” she said, noting the home not only rebuffed the workers’ goodwill but refused to budge from its own proposals.

“They don’t want to have to answer to anybody but themselves,” Hardy said of the facility’s efforts to silence workers. “They will not give that up for anything. It’s just so disheartening because you’ve put your heart and soul into the place.”

Throughout the pandemic, workers have been putting in extra hours, taking on additional responsibilities and serving as surrogate family members to residents cut off from loved ones, all so Bishop Noa can continue providing a top level of care. And although a contract would afford opportunities for building on that record of excellence, Hardy said, Bishop Noa prefers to wage war on workers instead.

She and her colleagues, who have widespread community support, will keep fighting for the agreement they earned. “If I give up,” Hardy said, “they win.”

Solvay, Bishop Noa and other employers that drag out negotiations squander resources that could be better used to provide safe working conditions, serve customers or otherwise improve operations.

Toto said workers want to put contract talks behind them and “live our lives.” And he predicted that the PRO Act would hold employers’ feet to the fire and finally force them to approach contract talks with the urgency the task requires.

“It puts accountability back at the bargaining table,” Toto said. “The job is to go in there and get it done in a timely fashion.”

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).


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‘A creature of white supremacy’: AFL-CIO targets filibuster

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The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions, called on Democrats Thursday to reform the filibuster, the Senate rule standing in the way of enactment of some of their top priorities for the Biden administration.

“The very survival of our democratic republic is at stake. And standing in its way is an archaic Senate procedure that allows the minority to block the majority—the filibuster,” the AFL-CIO’s executive board said in a statement. “An artifact of Jim Crow. A creature of white supremacy. A procedure that was said to encourage robust debate but has turned into an instrument of government paralysis.”

POLITICO was the first to report the effort.

The labor federation’s lobbying could move the needle significantly on efforts to weaken or eliminate the filibuster, as President Joe Biden — a self-described union man — has firmly aligned himself with the labor movement, a large fundraising source for Democrats. Biden, a former longtime senator, has so far not endorsed efforts to get rid of the filibuster, with the White House saying his “preference” is to keep it.

The AFL-CIO’s statement didn’t suggest any specific changes.

The group’s executive council discussed the issue during meetings this week and was planning on speaking out to reaffirm its past stance against the filibuster, sources told POLITICO prior to the statement’s release.

“The abuse of the filibuster doesn’t just threaten our progressive agenda; it threatens our democracy and must be challenged,” the powerful union federation said in a statement in 2010, shortly after a union-backed labor reform bill, The Employee Free Choice Act, failed to gain enough Democrats to overcome a Senate filibuster in 2009.

At the time, the union federation’s executive council called on the Senate “to reform and democratize its procedures and rules.”

But this statement is much more forceful, deriding the filibuster as “a tool used by those seeking to preserve the social, economic and political status quo, that the AFL-CIO has long opposed, as a matter of principle as undemocratic and rooted in racism.”

Already, Biden has demonstrated the influence that organized labor has on his administration, nominating a former union president to be his Labor secretary, firing former Trump officials from the National Labor Relations Board, and releasing a video in support of workers organizing in Alabama.


The new president also has pledged to see the pro-union PRO Act — which would broadly expand workers’ ability to organize — enacted and to more than double the federal minimum wage to $15, which organized labor has sought for years.

However, those changes require approval from Congress. Eliminating the Senate rule — which allows unlimited floor discussion on a bill unless 60 senators agree to limit debate — is likely the only way for union-backed measures like the $15 minimum wage and an expansion of collective bargaining rights to pass.

While Democrats control both chambers, the Senate is tied 50-50. Scrapping the filibuster would allow Democrats to pass legislation through the Senate with just a simple majority of 51 votes, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as a tie-breaker.

“I don’t want to hear, ‘Oh my, we don’t have 60 votes, woe is we,’” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told POLITICO last week. “Figure out a way to do it. Let’s figure out a way to do it.”

However, two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema — have said they oppose doing away with the filibuster.

Two AFL-CIO affiliates — National Nurses United and International Union of Painters and Allied Trades — had already released public statements against the filibuster ahead of the union federation’s move Thursday. 

House passage of the PRO Act Tuesday provided an impetus for unions to come forward. The legislation, which advanced mostly along party lines, would make it easier for workers to form and join unions by empowering the NLRB to levy fines on employers and by extending collective bargaining rights to independent contractors, among other things. Its lack of Republican support — the vast majority of GOP lawmakers deride it as anti-business — means it is extremely unlikely to win the 60 votes in the Senate needed for passage.

A coalition of groups, including IUPAT, Communication Workers of America and progressive organizations such as the Sunrise Movement, are planning to launch a mobilization campaign in support of the PRO Act in the coming weeks targeted at swing-state senators, said a person familiar with the effort.

NNU called for abolition of the filibuster ahead of Tuesday’s vote, calling it “an undemocratic rule that has long been used to block legislation that has widespread public support and is in the broad public interest.”

“It is a sad reality that the Republican leadership used the filibuster to make the Senate almost ungovernable during the prior Democratic administration, and it threatens to act in a similar manner today,” NNU President Jean Ross said in a statement. “We cannot let the minority hold our democracy hostage.”

In addition to the PRO Act and the minimum wage, eliminating the filibuster would also allow potential passage of health care reform, voting rights reform, and workplace violence protections, among other things, NNU said.

IUPAT joined NNU’s stance on Wednesday.

“The time is now for the United States Senate to stop hiding behind arcane rules that have prevented pro-worker legislation from being passed for decades,” the union said in a statement. “Our union has been spearheading the campaign to pass the PRO Act and we are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure its passage — not just for our 160,000 members, but for the 90% of US workers who are not afforded the protection of a union.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 11, 2021. 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.

About the Author: Holly Otterbein is a reporter for POLITICO Pro.

About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.


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The Filibuster Is a Labor Issue

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On Tuesday, the House passed the PRO Act, the sweeping labor law reform bill that would re-energize unions in America. If it were to become law. Which it will not, as long as the filibuster remains in place in the Senate. The situation now is very simple: destroying the filibuster is a labor issue. 

The Senate, an anti-democratic institution by design that exists to squash the dreams of the majority of our nation’s citizens, is evenly split, controlled by Democrats by only a single vote. It currently takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, meaning that ten Republicans would have to join all of the Democrats to push through the PRO Act. There is zero chance of this happening. (Frankly, I doubt that every Senate Democrat would even line up behind the PRO Act if the Chamber of Commerce lobbyists really started putting the screws on them, but that is purely academic at this point.) On top of that, it is hard to imagine any Congressional election in the coming decades that would change the composition of the Senate enough to allow the bill to pass with the filibuster in place. The PRO Act is not bullshit?—?it is serious, historic, pro-worker reform. That is something that is not now and will never be an issue that a large chunk of Republican senators will flock to support. The donors who pay to elect Republican senators, as a rule, are spending money to prevent a bill like this from ever passing. 

So here is where we are: A) Organized labor went all out to get Joe Biden and a Democratic Congress in place, and they know they are owed payback; B) The PRO Act is labor’s highest priority; and C) The PRO Act has virtually no chance of becoming law as long as the filibuster stays in place. To be very gauche and transactional about all of this, words from Senate Democrats now about how pro-union they are do not mean anything at all if they are not accompanied by a commitment to end the filibuster. I would venture to say that it is time to start painting Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, the two most outspoken Democrats committed to preserving the filibuster, as anti-union. They will certainly protest, but reality tells its own truth. We need the PRO Act. There is only one way to get it. Being unwilling to do something completely within their power to get the bill passed is indistinguishable from being against the bill. And if you’re against the bill, you are not pro-union. 

The filibuster is a barrier to progress in worker rights, just like union-busting law firms and greedy bosses are. A barrier is a barrier is a barrier. It is absurd to treat this barrier as sacrosanct, and then declare that you are, nevertheless, strongly in support of doing the thing that the barrier is preventing. Get real!

The AFL-CIO’s executive board is meeting this week, and they are considering the possibility of taking a formal position on the filibuster. They should. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has said ?“The PRO Act is our litmus test,” which should imply that opposition to the filibuster is a litmus test as well. At this point, eliminating the filibuster is part and parcel of the progressive reforms that we are all trying to get passed. Claiming to support the PRO Act, or a strong green infrastructure bill, or the voting rights bill, without supporting the end of the filibuster, is like claiming to support going into a building but refusing to open the door. Assuming that you don’t enjoy banging your head against the wall endlessly, you must do one in order to do the other. 

It’s good that major unions are running publicity campaigns touting the PRO Act. It will also go down as a lot of wasted effort if we are not able to do away with the filibuster, as it seems rather futile to do all this work to promote a bill that will just languish in a Senate drawer. Ending the filibuster is a labor fight. It is an environmental fight. It is a healthcare fight. It is equivalent to the substance of all these issues themselves, because it is the thing that enables them to happen. There is a coalition to be built on this issue?—?of every progressive in America who wants tangible gains in the next two years?—?that is broad and powerful enough to push the Democratic Party where it needs to go. 

Any Senate Democrats who don’t like this ultimatum should consider themselves to be on the other side of working people. And we should be sure to tell them that, loudly. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 10, 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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Gig workers could end up losers in Covid relief bill

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Airbnb, Etsy and other pillars of the gig economy are shaping up to be rare losers in Democrats’ coronavirus relief package.

Buried in the legislation are provisions that will require them to provide a lot more information to the IRS about the money millions of people earn through their platforms, which is likely to bring in billions of dollars more in federal taxes.

That will generate cash Democrats can use to reduce the total cost of their stimulus plan.

But the industry says it’s getting ambushed, complaining it didn’t even know lawmakers were planning the tax crackdown until shortly before it was approved last week by the House. Company officials worry that asking people for their Social Security numbers — which the companies will need to produce the tax documents — and raising the specter of the IRS will scare many away from their platforms.

“We’re concerned that the proposal could unintentionally dissuade many casual and one-time sellers, who could be forced to share their Social Security number with online platforms before listing anything for sale,” said a spokesperson for Etsy. That could “turn away would-be entrepreneurs at a time when many desperately need the extra income.”

It’s not entirely clear who pushed for the provisions, though efforts to require more reporting by the industry aren’t new. A spokesperson for the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee did not respond to a request for comment.

The wrinkle comes as Senate Democrats debate the stimulus plan, which lawmakers aimed to get to President Joe Biden’s desk by March 14, when expanded jobless benefits expire. Much of the focus on the stimulus has been on its winners, though there would be a few losers as well.

For those in the sharing economy, the issue is provisions that would dramatically reduce the threshold at which companies like eBay, GrubHub, Doordash and others would have to report to the IRS the earnings of people who use their platforms to make money. The users would also have to be given the information.

Currently, that’s only necessary when someone earns more than $20,000 through at least 200 transactions. Democrats would drop that to anyone earning more than $600, regardless of the number of transactions.

That’s projected to generate a lot of money — $8.4 billion over the next decade, according to an official forecast — because people are more likely to pay taxes on their earnings when they know someone else is telling the IRS how much they made.

Unlike more traditional jobs, there is relatively little independent reporting of how much people in the gig economy earn. Many in service-related businesses are treated by their employers as contractors, for example, so they may not be having taxes withheld from their pay. They’re supposed to instead be paying estimated taxes each quarter.

Others, like people selling goods on eBay, Etsy or Facebook, are just average people trying to make some extra cash.

Many may not track how much they’ve earned or realize that it’s subject to tax, in part because they don’t make enough to trigger the current income reporting requirements, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said in a report last year.

“Platform workers may not receive information on their earnings, creating compliance challenges for them and enforcement challenges for IRS,” GAO said.

That makes the area ripe for tax cheating.

The issue has been on lawmakers’ radar for several years, though much of the focus had been on a competing proposal by Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). He has a more sweeping plan that would deal with things like worker classification rules while also imposing tougher income-reporting requirements, although not as stringent as Democrats are proposing.

Industry lobbyists say they did not anticipate Democrats swiping Thune’s idea and repurposing it for their coronavirus measure.

Said Thune: “I will continue to support a comprehensive approach to truly help workers in the gig economy.”

Proposals to raise money via so-called third-party reporting have long been popular with lawmakers searching for cash because they generate revenue but are neither tax increases nor spending cuts. And the $8.4 billion the gig worker proposal raises helps keep Democrats within their $1.9 trillion budget for the coronavirus relief.

The industry says it does not condone tax cheating. But it says Democrats’ reporting threshold is too low and would affect too many people who only sometimes use their platforms.

The companies say the tax requirements may come as a surprise to many, who might not understand what is being reported. The IRS form the companies would use — the 1099K — would report the gross amount of money someone has earned.

That isn’t necessarily what they’d have to pay tax on, though. The tax would only apply to their profits, after their own costs or expenses are deducted.

So if someone sold a bike on eBay for $800, for example, they’d get a form showing that. But if they had originally paid $1,000 for the bike, they likely wouldn’t owe the IRS.

“This is not about skirting tax obligations,” said Katie Vlietstra, vice president for government relations and public affairs at the National Association for the Self-Employed.

“A lot of people are cobbling together different ways to make it to the next paycheck,” she said.

“And this is going to be whiplash for a whole community of people.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brian Faler is senior tax reporter at Politico. Before coming to Politico in 2013, he was a congressional reporter at Bloomberg News. Before that, he was an assistant to the late, great David Broder at the Washington Post.


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