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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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AFL-CIO to explore taking a stance on eliminating filibuster

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The AFL-CIO’s executive board will meet next week to determine its position on eliminating the filibuster, the labor federation’s president, Richard Trumka, told POLITICO Thursday.

Two of organized labor’s highest priorities in Congress — boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour and legislation containing a long list of union priorities known as the PRO Act — are unlikely to garner the 60 votes needed for passage in the Senate.

“There are several ways to get them done,” Trumka said. Ending the filibuster “is one of them.”

“And quite frankly, we — we being my executive board — are going to have a discussion about that next Wednesday,” he said. “We’re going to have that discussion [about] where we ought to be on that very issue.”

If organized labor coalesces around overturning the filibuster, a priority for many progressives, it could give the movement significant momentum. A major ally of Democrats and the president’s election campaign, unions have seen early success in lobbying the Biden White House. Unions pressed Biden, after weeks of silence, to speak out on a high-stakes union election at an Amazon factory in Alabama — which some say was the most pro-union statement a president has ever made.”

The Raise the Wage Act, which Democrats had been hoping to clear as part of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief bill, would hike the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 and eliminate the subminimum wage for workers who earn tips. But the Senate parliamentarian last week ruled the wage provisions ineligible for enactment via the budget reconciliation process Democrats are using to shield the relief legislation from a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

The PRO Act would dramatically expand workers’ ability to join and form unions, including by empowering the National Labor Relations Board to levy fines on employers who retaliate against workers for attempting to organize, and by extending collective bargaining rights to more workers.

“The PRO Act is our litmus test,” Trumka said. “It has to get done.”

“I don’t want to hear, ‘Oh my, we don’t have 60 votes, woe is we.’ Figure out a way to do it. Let’s figure out a way to do it.”

The White House is weighing whether to compromise with Republicans — who recently offered their own, scaled-down minimum wage hike — in order to get a raise enacted once Congress passes its Covid relief bill. But asked if he would be willing to back down from $15 an hour, Trumka was blunt: “I’m not willing to move from it.”

“I think that’s the absolute minimum that’s necessary to dignify people, reward work and help a family get out of poverty,” he said. “The easiest path forward would be for [Republicans] to come to their senses and say, ‘$15 by 2025.'”

In addition to eliminating the filibuster, the labor federation will also explore whether Democrats can “find another bill that the Republicans want and append” the wage increase to it, Trumka said, “or do three or four other kinds of machinations that we can do.”

Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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.

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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Working Life Episode 216: Wealth Tax on the Table; Two Trillion for the Global Poor; Joe Biden and Union Organizing

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The number that sticks in my mind today, and has since I heard it, is 40 percent. While over half a million people in the U.S. have died of COVID in one year, while millions of people have become sick, while millions of people have lost their jobs, savings and homes, and many people have been forced to wait in long food lines to get enough to feed their families—while all that was happening, the billionaires—the top 0.05 percent in the country, the Waltons, the Jeff Bezos’ of the world—saw their collective wealth go up 40 percent. Which is one good reason to have a wealth tax.

This week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Pramila Jayapal rolled out an “Ultra Millionaire’s Tax”. The tax would only be on the wealthiest 100,000 households in America, or the top 0.05%, who have a net worth of $50 million, and it would raise $3 trillion over a decade. Since, and I’m just spit balling here, I don’t think my audience falls into the over $50 million-net-worth category, I figured it would be safe to engage the always-brilliant Amy Hanauer, executive director of the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, in a conversation about the great benefits of a wealth tax.

Some good news! Last May, I talked about an effort to raise two trillion dollars for poorer countries to battle the pandemic and the economic collapse. The money, so-called Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), can be created by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) but the Trump Administration blocked the move—even though it comes at no cost to taxpayers here. But, now, there’s movement: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen appears to be in favor of some level of the SDRs, if not the full two trillion now in the newly resurrected bills in the Senate and House. Mark Weisbrot, co-director of CEPR and an expert in international affairs who has been leading the campaign since last year, joins us for an update.

I also have a few thoughts about the video Joe Biden made about the rights of workers to have a union. It’s a good thing—but it also shows how narrow the debate is about true union organizing rights. Check it out—and let me know your thoughts!

This blog originally appeared at Working Life on March 3, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years.


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Labor watchdog backs calls for binding Covid-19 workplace safety standard, slams Trump’s policy

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The Labor Department’s independent watchdog recommended that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration consider issuing Covid-19-specific safety rules employers would be required to follow, saying that would better protect Americans from exposure to the coronavirus.

The recommendation adds weight to calls by President Joe Biden, other Democrats and labor unions for the agency to issue such emergency protections, which business groups and many Republicans oppose.

In a report released Tuesday, the department’s Inspector General said mandatory rules “could be of importance” because it’s extremely difficult for the agency to cite employers for safety risks without them.https://953a1f8cee7a9b5ef151aee5a2980011.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

If OSHA issued a Covid-19-specific emergency temporary standard, “employers would be legally obligated to comply with it,” the IG said, and OSHA inspectors “may not be hampered by a lengthy process” when it comes to proving a violation.

OSHA has already issued Covid-19 guidance under a January executive order from Biden and published numerous documents detailing ways that employers can protect their workers from exposure. But the guidelines are not enforceable and do not require companies to comply.

OSHA inspectors in area offices across the country told the IG that a coronavirus-specific safety standard would be helpful to identify safety hazards during Covid-19-related inspections and make it easier to issue citations.

“Guidance in and of itself cannot operate in lieu of an [emergency temporary standard] as an enforcement tool,” the IG report said.

The Trump administration took the position that a Covid-19-specific safety standard wasn’t necessary because the agency could use other safety rules, like its requirements to provide workers personal protective equipment, to police businesses during the pandemic.

Biden took a different approach with his executive order, which directed the agency to decide by mid-March whether it was necessary for OSHA to issue an emergency standard.

The agency, currently being led by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Jim Frederick, released stricter guidelines in January for employers on how to protect their workers from the coronavirus.

But so far, there hasn’t been any sign of whether OSHA will issue a safety rule or simply release more non-mandatory safety recommendations for workplaces, although Frederick has said that the January guidance was “not going to be the last step in the process” of responding to Biden’s order.

The IG’s findings could help the Biden administration justify the emergency rulemaking, which Republicans and the business community have opposed, warning it could increase liability and costs for already-struggling businesses.

However, the IG’s audit Tuesday found that the Trump administration’s business-friendly approach at OSHA did not provide the level of protection workers needed during the coronavirus pandemic and left workers’ safety at increased risk.

The report noted that while OSHA has received an influx of safety complaints during the pandemic, the agency suspended most of its on-site safety inspections last year, instead opting for informal inspections that typically result in a phone call to the facility, putting employees’ safety at greater risk.

“While remote inspections might help mitigate potential transmission of Covid-19, a reduction of on-site inspections could result in more work-site accidents, injuries, deaths or employee illnesses,” the IG report said.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 2, 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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One of the most pro-worker moves Biden could make might surprise you

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One incredibly important move to help workers that the Biden administration has signaled didn’t necessarily look like a pro-worker move. Even before President Biden was inaugurated, his incoming White House counsel started asking for suggestions for judicial nominees who would be diverse not just on race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion, but on professional background. Specifically, more candidates who have been public defenders or civil rights attorneys (a group that also happens to be more diverse in other ways).

How’s that a pro-worker move? According to a new study by Emory University law professor Joanna Shepherd, judges appointed by former President Obama who had corporate backgrounds with Obama-appointed judges were 36% less likely to rule for workers over bosses in workplace disputes. Obama-appointed judges with backgrounds as prosecutors were 50% less likely to take the side of workers than were non-prosecutors. 

Advocacy groups like Demand Justice, which helped fund Shepherd’s study, are working to keep the pressure on the Biden administration to follow through on this and make the federal judiciary more diverse in this key way.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 27, 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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Biden backs right of Amazon workers to attempt to organize

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President Joe Biden on Sunday offered his support for organizing efforts by Amazon workers in Alabama, though he stopped just short of endorsing the formation of a union.

“Workers in Alabama — and all across America — are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. It’s a vitally important choice — one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers,” the president tweeted. “Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union.”

His tweet was accompanied by a video in which Biden addressed the workers involved. He told them that the choice whether to organize was their choice exclusively, and that there should be “no coercion” by the company.

“I have long said America wasn’t built by Wall Street,” the president began. “It was built by the middle class, and unions built the middle class.”

Biden has long cultivated an image as a friend of organized labor but had previously largely steered clear of the efforts to organize Amazon’s workers at a location in Bessemer, Ala. Some 6,000 workers at the Alabama facility have been voting whether to organize.

“If we don’t have the leader of the free world speaking up and saying, ‘I’ve got these workers’ backs, so that they can actually freely choose their union,’ … We’re leaving them stranded,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA told POLITICO in an interview.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on February 28, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Cohen is Senior Editor at Politico. He joined POLITICO in 2010 after 25 years in the news business, including extended stints at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Nando.net (now McClatchy Interactive) and The Record of Hackensack (N.J.). He is also the author of “Rugged and Enduring: The Eagles, The Browns and 5 Years of Football,” published in 2001.


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‘Can we find a deal?’: Coronavirus sparks debate over paid leave

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Democrats, Republicans and corporate America are coalescing behind a federal paid leave policy for the first time in the U.S., one of few rich nations where workers aren’t automatically provided the benefit. But as they hammer out the details, fracture lines are already emerging that could derail the decades-long effort once again.

President Joe Biden’s support for a federal program, combined with public frustration at a lack of paid leave during the pandemic, has Democrats reaching for a robust policy. Republicans and employers, many of whom balk at the potential cost to businesses and the government, are seeking a more targeted approach.

“We’re closer to a federal paid leave policy than we’ve ever been,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All, an advocacy group. “This is the time when we can push it to the finish line.”https://a4c41b575340f869f83742e574252ee9.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

But negotiating the specifics, she acknowledged, will be an uphill battle: “There’s a lot of questions and various paths forward, and a lot of real-time chess being played.”

There is already a wide gap between what Biden campaigned on, what Republicans are amenable to and what employers think is workable. The president wants to provide all workers with a week of paid sick leave to care for a personal illness, and 12 weeks of longer-term paid family and medical leave to care for themselves or a family member. Some GOP members have floated a narrower approach, while others remain wary of a universal standard that could burden businesses.

“[A] permanent one-size-fits-all federal mandate being pushed by Democrats is not the answer,” House Education and Labor ranking member Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said. “New and small businesses are the least equipped to deal with sweeping national mandates during the best of times, let alone a pandemic, and the last thing we want to do is pile on yet another.”

But some advocates say a paid leave policy would have saved the government a load of money during the pandemic. Before the crisis struck, nearly 1 in 4 U.S. workers lacked access to paid sick leave, while 4 in 5 lacked access to paid family leave. More than half are estimated to lack access to paid medical leave.

“We did sort of a back-of-the-envelope analysis of this, and it would have saved the federal government a trillion dollars to have had a federal national paid leave program in place before this pandemic hit,” said Maggie Cordish, who advised Ivanka Trump on paid leave during the Trump administration. “A lot of people would be able to have kept their jobs, taking the time off they needed to deal with caregiving responsibilities, to reorganize their sort of carefully constructed caregiving infrastructure.”

For its part, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce prefers that lawmakers hold off on paid sick leave but would be open to a paid family leave policy.

“We are no longer in the ‘just say no’ mode, which we had been for a long time,” said Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the Chamber. “We are now in the ‘can we find a deal?’ mode.”

Deciding the length of leave is “the least difficult thing to figure out,” Freedman said. Even if Congress and the White House can manage to reach an agreement on the breadth of a policy, other, more complicated questions abound. Who pays for it? Would a federal policy preempt the web of existing state and local requirements? What type of employers would be covered, and what kind of workers could be eligible?

In search of answers, policymakers and businesses are looking to state and local governments that have implemented policies “to see how they have impacted workers and employers,” said Ben Brubeck, vice president of regulatory, labor and state affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors.

The skeleton of a paid leave policy in the U.S. was first erected in 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act. It entitled employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for personal illness, the illness of a family member or military deployment.

But the last three decades have seen no further federal action outside of a successful 2019 push to provide federal employees paid parental leave.

In the absence of congressional action, state and local governments took matters into their own hands.

Joshua Seidman, an attorney who represents employers, said that in a matter of years, businesses have seen new laws pop up in Washington state, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon and Colorado, among others. And that’s “just in the paid family leave space,” he said.

“This year, we’ve seen the paid sick leave landscape explode,” Seidman said, as the pandemic prompted a flurry of legislative activity.

Over the past decade, unions and labor activists have accelerated their lobbying activity at the municipal and state levels. Their efforts were fruitful: 12 states and the District of Columbia have implemented their own versions of paid sick leave; nine states and D.C. have rolled out a form of paid family and medical leave.

“As we win and study more of the laws that have passed at the state level, it does help to make the case federally,” said Jared Make, vice president for A Better Balance, a national nonprofit advocacy organization for workers.

Make, who works closely with paid leave advocates in statehouses, said his group will push for Congress to enact a law similar to what was just implemented in Colorado. That law, considered to be the most robust in the nation, covers all workers.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) have been fighting to establish permanent paid sick leave and family and medical leave at the federal level — most notably via their FAMILY Act, which they reintroduced earlier this month and would give workers 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. Then-Sen. Kamala Harris unveiled a plan from the campaign trail that would give workers six months of paid family and medical leave. And Democrats fought to include a permanent paid leave policy in rounds of coronavirus relief legislation.

With the support of the Trump administration, Republicans began to warm to the idea. Ivanka Trump’s lobbying for the benefit contributed to its inclusion in the Families First relief package, which provided half the workforce with two weeks of coronavirus-related sick leave at full pay and up to 12 weeks of family and medical leave to care for family members at two-thirds pay.

The Families First program was a statistic-backed success: States that gained access to paid sick leave experienced about 400 fewer cases of Covid-19 per day, researchers at Cornell University and the Swiss Economic Institute found.But the tax credit portion of the program alone was extended in December — not the actual teeth of the policy, the mandate — and language to renew it was dropped from Biden’s rescue plan. The version of the bill moving through the House would once more extend the tax credits only.

At least one state, New Jersey, decided to give state workers coronavirus sick days after the federal provision lapsed, on top of the state’s other existing paid leave programs.

With a paid leave advocate in the Oval Office and narrow majorities in both chambers, Democrats are redoubling their efforts for a permanent policy.

“This shouldn’t be a partisan issue — it isn’t for families, and I’m going to keep making it clear that it’s not and trying to get this done,” said Senate HELP Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney rolled out a bill last month alongside DeLauro and others that would provide federal employees with 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, which she said she hopes can serve as a model for a similar program covering the private sector.

Still, Republicans remain concerned about how the policy could be funded in a way that does not place too much pressure on employers. In part, this is why employers and Republicans are more amenable to paid family leave over paid sick leave: Not only does FMLA provide an existing structure, but many states have rolled out paid family leave programs that are paid for in whole or in part via employee contributions, a model that would place less of a burden on businesses. The cost of paid sick leave, on the other hand, “is basically stuck on the employer,” Freedman said.

It’s a key example of wait-and-see at the state level: “Two of the biggest and what might be considered to be the most left of center states, New York and California, both are over 100 percent, employee-funded programs,” said Glenn Spencer, senior vice president of employment policy at the Chamber of Commerce.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on February 25, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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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‘Union guy’ Joe Biden keeps his distance from Amazon union fight

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When Joe Biden was running for president, he promised union members that he would be the “best friend labor has ever had in the White House.”

Now in office, Biden is keeping his distance from the biggest union fight of his early presidency, one involving a powerful company that gave to his inauguration and has pledged to help his administration fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

The White House on Wednesday declined to directly endorse the union election at the e-commerce giant Amazon’s Alabama warehouse, telling POLITICO that, It’s the president’s position — and the policy of the U.S. government — to encourage union organizing and collective bargaining.

A Biden spokeswoman stressed that it’s also White House policy not to comment on the merits of specific cases that are currently before, or likely to be before, the National Labor Relations Board, which adjudicates unionization campaigns.

“President Biden has urged employers not to run anti-union campaigns or interfere with organizing and bargaining, and has called for holding employers accountable and increasing penalties when they do,” the spokeswoman said.

The comments from the White House underscore the delicate political dynamics that exist around the election in Alabama — an election that could result in Amazon’s first unionized factory in America. And they quickly drew a rebuke from labor advocates who still haven’t forgotten about the time former President Barack Obama rebuffed calls to join thousands of public workers protesting against a GOP-led state law that restricted state employees’ ability to unionize, despite previously pledging to walk the picket line on behalf of labor.

“If we don’t have the leader of the free world speaking up and saying, I’ve got these workers’ backs, so that they can actually freely choose their union … We’re leaving them stranded,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA told POLITICO in an interview. “I mean this is a real opportunity for the President to say, I mean what I say… when I put forward the ideals that I have in my labor platform.”

Biden’s labor platform includes passing an historic overhaul of federal labor law that would broadly expand workers’ ability to form unions. And so far the new president has appeared to keep his promises to fight for collective bargaining rights. Last month, Biden fired the labor board’s Trump-appointed general counsel and his replacement, the first time in more than 70 years a president has exercised that power over the agency.

The situation in Alabama presents a different set of challenges, however. The factory workers, Nelson added, are “taking on incredible power, and they need to know that they’ve got the president of the United States who has their backs and they’re going to have a fair chance.”

Some 6,000 full-time and part-time factory workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama fulfillment center have been voting throughout February on whether to join The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

If workers vote in favor of union representation, it would be a massive win for organized labor against a company that has been largely hostile to unionization efforts in the past. In recent days, organized labor’s allies in Washington have thrown their weight behind the union drive, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), former state Rep. Stacey Abrams (D-Ga.), as well as actor Danny Glover, releasing a video in support of the election on Wednesday.

“I think it’s important for the administration to demonstrate during this campaign its support for unionization,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, said in a published interview earlier this week. Appelbaum declined requests to speak for this story, and the RWDSU instead directed POLITICO to his statement specifying that the Alabama election “is a great opportunity for the administration to show working people what’s important to them.”

Amazon has reportedly encouraged workers to vote “no” in the election, including posting flyers in bathroom stalls at the warehouse. The company also sought to delay the Alabama warehouse election, and requested that the vote take place in person, rather than by mail, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

The company has a fair bit of political heft in Washington, D.C. It was one of many that contributed to the president’s inaugural ceremonies, and it employs former top Biden and Obama White House spokesman Jay Carney, who bundled money for Biden’s election. On the day that Biden was sworn into office, Amazon sent a letter to him offering its help with Covid vaccine distribution.


Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox declined to comment on recent calls for President Biden to weigh in on the union vote.

“We don’t believe the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees’ views,” Knox told POLITICO. “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”

During the campaign, Biden took aim at companies like Amazon for not paying corporate taxes, riffing on the disparity on the trail and in tweets. “I have nothing against Amazon, but no company pulling in billions of dollars of profits should pay a lower tax rate than firefighters and teachers,” he said at one point during the primary. “We need to reward work, not just wealth.”

He also ran for president as an unapologetic champion of unions, often citing the dwindling number of unionized workers as the primary reason for the shrinking of America’s middle class. Shortly after his election, Biden relayed that he had explicitly told corporate leaders that he was “a union guy.”

“They just nodded,” he said. “They understand. It’s not anti-business. It’s about economic growth.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on February 24, 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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Joe Biden Has a Golden Opportunity to Strengthen Public Education

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In picking Connecticut Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona to be his nominee for U.S. secretary of education, President-elect Joe Biden appears to have made a Goldilocks choice that pleases just about everyone. People who rarely agree on education policy have praised the decision, including Jeanne Allen, CEO of the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit group that advocates for charter schools and school choice, who called Cardona “good news,” and education historian Diane Ravitch, who also called the pick “good news” because he does not seem to be aligned with advocates for charter schools and vouchers. Sara Sneed, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation, a public charity founded by educators, called Cardona an “ideal candidate,” in an email, and hailed him for “his emphasis on the need to end structural racism in education and for his push for greater educational equity and opportunity through public schools.”

But as Biden and Cardona—should he be approved, as most expect—begin to address the array of critical issues that confront the nation’s schools, there’s bound to be more of a pushback. Or maybe not?

After decades of federal legislation that emphasized mandating standardized testing and tying school and teacher evaluations to the scores; imposing financial austerity on public institutions; incentivizing various forms of privatization; and undermining teachers’ professionalism and labor rights, there is a keen appetite for a new direction for school policy.

Due to the disruption forced by the pandemic, much is being written and said about the need to “restart and reinvent” education and a newfound appreciation for schools as essential infrastructure for families and children. With an incoming Biden administration, Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, and the influence of incoming first lady Jill Biden, a career educator, we may be on the cusp of a historic moment when the stars align to revitalize public schools in a way that hasn’t happened in a generation.

Among the promising ideas that appear to have growing momentum behind them are proposals to fund schools more equitably, to expand community schools that take a more holistic approach to educating students, to create curriculum and pedagogy that are relevant to the science of how children learn and the engagement of their families, and to reverse the direction of accountability measures from top-down mandates to bottom-up community-based endeavors.

In her email, Sneed praised Biden’s commitment to expand the community schools model to an additional 300,000 students. She said, “My hope is that his effort will bring community schools to every part of the country, including the American South which is so often under resourced.”

Where’s the opposition to these ideas?

In her farewell address to the Education Department, before she tendered her resignation with a mere 13 days left, outgoing secretary Betsy DeVos told career staff members to “be the resistance” to an incoming Biden administration, Politico reported. In her farewell letter to Congress, she urged lawmakers to “reject Biden’s education agenda,” according to the Washington Post.

Does anyone really think there are any federal officials who will heed this advice?

During her tenure, DeVos cut more than 500 positions from her department, 13 percent of its staff, and proposed enormous funding cuts to programs. Employees accused her of “gutting” their labor agreement, reported the Washington Post, and replacing it with new rules that stripped out worker protections and disability rights, among other provisions. Employee morale “plummeted” under her management, Education Week reported, and she threatened to suspend an employee who leaked her plan to slash the department’s resources.

In Congress, DeVos was constantly besieged—from her approval, which required a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence, a historic first, to her contentious final in-person hearing. Her proposals to dramatically shrink federal spending on education went nowhere, and her many proposals for a federal school voucher program were never taken up by Congress.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten captured most people’s sentiments when DeVos resigned, saying just two words: “Good riddance.”

Instead of taking up DeVos’s calls for “resistance,” Capitol Hill seems much more likely to welcome Biden-Cardona with open arms.

An “early test” for Cardona, as Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post reports, will be deciding whether or not to let states opt out of administering federally mandated standardized tests to every student. In 2020, DeVos had let states waive the mandate, but she announced she would enforce the requirement in 2021 should she remain in office.

As Strauss reported, should Cardona decide to waive the order, he would please a broad consensus, including state and local superintendents, teachers’ unions, state and local boards of education, and federal and state lawmakers “from both sides of the political aisle.” At least one national survey has found that a sizable majority of parents want the tests canceled.

Another potentially contentious issue will be Biden’s “pledge to reopen most schools” for in-person learning within the first 100 days of his administration. Attempts to reopen schools during a pandemic have caused teachers in many school districts to rebel by writing their obituaries, staging mock funeralsresigningcalling in sick, and organizing strikes and other labor actions.

However, the operative word in Biden’s pledge to reopen is “safely.” His proposal rests on key conditions, including getting the virus under control in surrounding communities, setting health and safety guidelines recommended by experts, and providing sufficient funding to protect returning students, teachers, and support staff.

This is the complete opposite of Trump and DeVos, who simply demanded schools reopen and then did nothing to support the reopening process.

When a reporter from the Associated Press asked Weingarten to comment on Biden’s proposal to reopen schools, she replied, “Hallelujah.”

In his leadership of Connecticut schools, Cardona has taken a similarly non-ideological stance on keeping schools open in the pandemic, as Education Week’s Evie Blad explains in a video (beginning at 5:57), by “[encouraging] schools to keep their doors open” and “providing resources” and “support.” But he “never mandated” schools to deliver in-person instruction.

Congress, where Democrats have a small majority in the House and a razor-thin margin in the Senate, may be resistant to provide the necessary funding Biden wants. But as Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa explains, Democrats are mostly united in getting a “big new relief package” passed and have a way to overcome Republican opposition using budget reconciliation.

On the issue of charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of “school choice,” which was DeVos’s signature issue, Biden has stated he does “not support federal money for for-profit charter schools,” and said they often “[siphon] off money from our public schools, which are already in enough trouble.”

Based on this measured stance, some, including Trump, have warned Biden would “abolish” charter schools and school choice, which is simply not true.

Cardona has taken a similarly evenhanded view of charters, the Connecticut Mirror reports. Under his leadership in Connecticut, existing charters were renewed while no new ones were approved. “Asked about charter schools during his confirmation hearing [for Connecticut commissioner of education],” the article notes, “Cardona said he’d rather focus his energy making sure neighborhood public schools are viable options.”

This is a refreshing change, not only from DeVos’s rhetoric for privatization, but also from previous presidential administrations, including Obama’s, that openly advocated for charter schools. It foretells that perhaps what Biden-Cardona might bring to the policy discussion over charter schools and other forms of school choice is some genuinely honest conversation rather than sloganeering about charters.

Where Biden and Cardona are most likely to encounter headwinds to their education policies are from Republicans stuck in the ongoing culture wars.

Eight days before a mob of Trump supporters, driven by the president’s tirades against losing reelection, broke into the nation’s Capitol, sent lawmakers into seclusion, and desecrated the building, Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House, reminded us that public education has long been a public institution in the crosshairs of right-wing ideologues. Asked by Guardian reporter David Smith, “where does the Republican party go from here?” Gingrich replied, “What you have, I think, is a Democratic party driven by a cultural belief system that they’re now trying to drive through the school system so they can brainwash the entire next generation if they can get away with it.”

Evidence of that “brainwashing” in public schools, supposedly, is the emphasis on the fully supportive inclusion of all students and protection of their civil rights that was behind many of the policy guidelines laid down by the Obama administration. DeVos rescinded many of those guidelines, but Biden has vowed to restore them.

Another source of potential discontent with the new energy that Biden and Cardona will likely bring to education policy are the holdovers of the “education reform” movement, who want to bring back in full force the top-down mandates from the Bush and Obama administrations, including charter school expansions, tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, and closing public schools based on their test scores.

For this crew, the central problem in education will always be “bad teachers,” and nothing but the most punitive accountability measures will do.

A case in point is a recent piece in New York Magazine extolling charter schools in which columnist Jonathan Chait writes that “the core dispute” in education politics is “a tiny number of bad teachers, protectively surrounded by a much larger circle of union members, surrounded in turn by an even larger number of Democrats who have only a vague understanding of the issue.”

In other words, if you don’t think cracking down on teachers and their unions is critical to improving schools, then you’re just not informed.

For decades, education policy has largely been a compromise between these two dominant factions of right-wing Republican ideologues and Democratic neoliberals, according to David Menefee-Libey, a professor of politics at Pomona College in Claremont, California. In a podcast hosted by journalist Jennifer Berkshire and education historian Jack Schneider, Menefee-Libey explains that charter schools and many other prominent features of federal education policy are the results of a “treaty” among these Republican and Democratic factions.

But as Menefee-Libey, Berkshire, and Schneider explain, in so many ways, the treaty has been broken, and after decades of attacks on public schools, we’re seeing the necessity of investing in public institutions, especially now, given the strains put on parents and communities by COVID-19.

“We are now at a point,” Menefee-Libey states, “where all of those large-scale, long-term public institutions are clearly at risk during the pandemic and the economic crash. [And] there are a lot of people [who] are discovering that maybe these institutions won’t automatically survive.”

Therein lies the golden opportunity for Biden on public education. Should he decide to go bold—not just by reopening schools with additional funding but also by proposing an ambitious investment in school infrastructure and community schools; not just by lifting burdensome accountabilities but also by actually listening to what teachers, parents, and students say they need for their schools to work; and not by trying to appease the tired, old arguments carried on by right-wing factions and reform fans in the Democratic Party—there is some likelihood he may get exactly what he wants. And that’s what our schools really need.

Source: Our Schools

This article was produced by Our Schools

About the Author: Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.


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Why U.S. Labor Laws Need a Major Update—The PRO Act Is a Great Start

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When workers at Orchid Orthopedic Solutions tried to form a union, the company quickly brought in five full-time union-busters to torment them day and night.

The hired guns saturated the Bridgeport, Michigan, plant with anti-union messages, publicly belittled organizers, harangued workers on the shop floor and asked them how they’d feed their families if the plant closed.

The months of endless bullying took their toll, as the company intended, and workers voted against forming the union just to bring the harassment to an end.

“Fear was their main tactic,” recalled Duane Forbes, one of the workers, noting the union-busters not only threatened the future of the plant but warned that the company would eliminate his colleagues’ jobs and health care during a labor dispute. “Fear is the hardest thing to overcome.”

Legislation now before Congress would ensure that corporations never trample workers’ rights like this again.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, introduced on February 4, will free Americans to build better lives and curtail the scorched-earth campaigns that employers wage to keep unions out at any cost.

The PRO Act, backed by President Joe Biden and pro-worker majorities in the House and the Senate, will impose stiff financial penalties on companies that retaliate against organizers and require the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to fast-track legal proceedings for workers suspended or fired for union activism. It also empowers workers to file their own civil lawsuits against employers that violate their labor rights.

The legislation will bar employers from permanently replacing workers during labor disputes, eliminating a threat that companies like Orchid Orthopedic often use to thwart organizing campaigns.

And the PRO Act will empower the NLRB to force corporations into bargaining with workers if they interfere in union drives. That means an end to the mandatory town hall meetings that employers regularly use to disparage organized labor and hector workers into voting against unions.

Orchid Orthopedic’s union-busters forced Forbes and his colleagues into hour-long browbeating sessions once or twice a week for months—and that was on top of the daily, one-on-one bullying the workers endured on the production floor.

“There was nowhere to go,” Forbes, who’s worked at Orchid Orthopedic for 22 years, said of the relentless intimidation. “You couldn’t just go to work and do your job anymore.”

growing number of Americans, many of whom saw unions step up to protect members during the COVID-19 pandemic, seek the safe working conditions and other protections they can only achieve by organizing.

That includes Forbes and his colleagues, who endured years of benefit cuts but still put their lives on the line for the company during the pandemic.

They launched an organizing drive to secure a voice in the workplace. They also sought job protections to prevent the company from discarding them “like a broken hammer”—as one worker, Mike Bierlein, put it—when it’s done with them.

But as more Americans seek the benefits of union membership, employers’ escalating attacks on labor rights make the PRO Act ever more important.

Corporations drop hundreds of millions of dollars every year on “union-avoidance consultants”—like the ones Forbes and Bierlein encountered—to coach them on how to thwart organizing drives.

The higher the stakes, the dirtier employers play. Tech giants Google and Amazon used their vast technology and wealth to propel union-busting to a new level.

Google not only electronically spied on workers it suspected of having union sympathies, but rigged its computer systems to prevent them from sharing calendars and virtual meeting rooms.

Amazon developed plans for special software to track unions and other so-called “threats” to the company’s well-being. In Alabama, where thousands of Amazon warehouse workers just began voting on whether to unionize, the company showed anti-union videos and PowerPoints at mandatory town hall meetings, posted propaganda in bathroom stalls and sent multiple harassing text messages to every worker every day.

“It really opened my eyes to what’s going on,” Bierlein, who’s worked at Orchid Orthopedic for 18 years, said of the unfair tactics his company employed against organizers. “The deck is stacked against workers.”

The PRO Act will help to level the playing field and arrest the decades-long erosion of labor rights that significantly accelerated under the previous, anti-worker presidential administration.

It will require employers to post notices informing workers of their labor rights, helping to ensure managers respect the law. The legislation will enable prospective union members to vote on union representation on neutral sites instead of workplaces where the threat of coercion looms.

And the PRO Act will make it more difficult for employers to deliberately misclassify employees as contractors with fewer labor rights. That change will give millions of gig workers, including those driving for shared-ride and food-delivery companies, the opportunity to form unions and fight for better futures.

Right now, employers often stall negotiations for a first contract to punish workers for organizing or frustrate them into giving up. The PRO Act will curb these abuses by requiring mediation and binding arbitration when companies drag talks out.

Orchid Orthopedic’s campaign of intimidation and deception lasted until the very end of the union drive.

As the vote on organizing neared, Forbes said, the company promised it would treat workers better in the future if they decided against the union.

Instead, after the vote fell short, the company quickly increased the cost of spousal health insurance. That left Forbes more convinced than ever that workers need changes like those promised in the PRO Act to seize control of their destinies.

“I’m all about right and wrong,” Forbes said, “and the way we were treated was wrong.”

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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