Baltimore Since Beth Steel: Hopkins Hospital Workers Fight for 15

Originally published in Dissent on June 26, 2014, co-authored with Shawn Gude.

In July 1959, workers at the world’s largest steel mill—the Baltimore-area Sparrows Point plant—went on strike. Hundreds of thousands of United Steelworkers members from across the country joined them, flatlining production for months. When they finally returned to work, they’d achieved another substantial wage increase, the latest in a series of impressive postwar wins. In working-class cities like Baltimore, it paid to be a steelworker.

This Friday, fifty-five years later, about ten miles northwest of Sparrows Point in East Baltimore, 2,000 low-wage workers at the internationally renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital are expected to begin their own strike—the second in as many months. Represented by 1199SEIU, the health care workers union Martin Luther King, Jr. famously referred to as his favorite union, they, too, seek higher pay. Despite working full-time hours, many earn too little to support themselves and their families—leaving them no choice but to scramble for Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance.

One of those workers is Kiva Robbins. Although she’s worked at Johns Hopkins Hospital for the past twelve years, Robbins, an environmental services employee, earns just $12.20 an hour. When her rent increased last fall, she found herself unable to pay the bills for herself and her two sons and was forced to move into a relative’s tiny apartment. Prior to losing her home, she had already been relying on food stamps and other forms of public assistance to supplement her Hopkins pay.

SEIU, still in negotiations with Hopkins Hospital, is fighting for a contract that would relieve such economic insecurity by mandating a minimum wage of $14, or $15 for employees with at least fifteen years of experience. (Currently, a quarter of unionized employees make less than $11.47 an hour.)

With Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, in conjunction with Johns Hopkins University, ranking as Baltimore’s largest private employer, the outcome of the SEIU campaign holds tremendous implications for the future of the Baltimore economy—and countless other struggling postindustrial cities.

                                                                                  * * *

On May 10, thousands convened in Baltimore’s downtown Inner Harbor to support the hospital workers’ efforts. Dubbed the “Mother’s March & Rally for Justice,” the event took place at McKeldin Square, the same spot where Occupy Baltimore camped out three years ago. Buses of SEIU members and supporters from New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, D.C. joined the local community, hoisting signs that read Prestige Doesn’t Feed Our Families! and Honor Mothers! End Poverty Pay for Families at Hopkins! Annie Henry, an elderly instrument processor who has been working with Johns Hopkins Medicine for forty-five years, recalled when Coretta Scott King came to Baltimore in 1969 to help the hospital workers in their initial unionization campaign. “Never in forty-five years did I think I’d still be doing this,” Henry said. “We want to be paid our worth.”

In 2010, Johns Hopkins employed nearly 34,000 workers in Baltimore, including 20,000 at the hospital. So great is Hopkins’ clout in the labor market that a substantial concession on wages would likely boost pay across the city. “It would have a great effect,” said John Reid, executive vice president of 1199 and leader of the negotiations with Hopkins. “Other employers would have to be as competitive as Johns Hopkins to recruit and retain staff in Baltimore.”

The economic picture in Baltimore ranks among the worst in the nation. U.S. Census Bureau data reveals that the poverty rate in Baltimore has risen by about 5 percentage points since the 2008 recession, leaving a quarter of all residents, and more than 37 percent of all children, living in poverty. The median annual income among Baltimoreans is $33,000; for those without a high school degree, that number drops down to $20,000. Of the nearly one-fifth of all adults in Baltimore without a high-school degree, some two-thirds are unemployed or do not participate in the labor force at all.

According to the Jobs Opportunities Task Force (JOTF), a policy organization that conducts research on the Maryland workforce, the Baltimore metro area lost more than 140,000 jobs between 1969 and 2009 —95,000 of them in Baltimore alone. Today, just 4 percent of Baltimore area jobs are in manufacturing.

Baltimore’s service sector—comprised primarily of the hospitality, retail, health care, and human services industries—has steadily grown while every other sector has declined. Requiring very little education or formal training, modern service sector jobs also offer few opportunities for career advancement and require skills not easily transferable to other fields. And, in contrast to the goods-producing jobs of the manufacturing era, service jobs are typically non-unionized and low-paying. The increase in demand has been greatest for health care workers; JOTF found that as of 2009, a full 20 percent of Baltimore jobs were in the health care and social assistance sector.

Former manufacturing hubs like Baltimore have given way to “eds and meds” economies, or cities where universities, colleges, and medical facilities are now some of the largest private employers. In Rochester and Baltimore, “eds and meds” make up more than 13 percent of the city’s total employment. In Philadelphia, that number hits 37 percent, and in Camden, New Jersey, a staggering 43 percent. In Cleveland, meanwhile, four of the top five employers fall into the “eds and meds” category.

An “eds and meds” unionization battle similar to the one at Hopkins Hospital is taking place at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), where SEIU is working to organize more than 10,000 of UPMC’s workers, and to push the hospital system—the region’s largest employer—to increase their pay. Health care workers in Pittsburgh echo their Baltimore counterparts, decrying the “poverty pay” that leaves them unable to afford basic necessities. “[W]hen UPMC workers succeed,” Neal Bisno, president of SEIU Healthcare PA, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “it will spark workers across the country.”

                                                                           *   *   *

Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant anchored the Baltimore economy for decades. Built in the late nineteenth century and purchased by “Beth Steel” in 1916, the mill steadily churned out steel through the 1920s, but it wasn’t until WWII that production really ramped up. Steel, central to the fight against fascism, was a coveted commodity. The increased production brought more jobs to the region, attracting thousands of workers. Black steelworkers, many of whom had migrated from southern states, endured deplorable racial discrimination—Sparrows Point was segregated until the early 1960s, and blacks were systematically passed over for promotions—but the pay was still better than down South. It was tough, grimy, dangerous work for blacks and whites alike. Longtime steelworkers bore the marks of their years in the mill—small face hemorrhages, indelible gashes, missing fingers. Its redeeming quality was the remuneration.

Yet the high pay hadn’t come without struggle. When radicals and progressive unionists split from the more conservative American Federation of Labor in the 1930s to establish the Committee for Industrial Organization (later renamed the Congress of Industrial Organizations), organizing steel—then the country’s largest industry—was at the top of their list. Sparrows Point workers faced severe intimidation during the organizing drive. Beth Steel, as veteran Baltimore journalist Mark Reutter documents in his 2004 book Making Steel, equipped company police with “several boxcars of guns and ammunition” and hired Pinkertons to spy on organizers and assemble dossiers on union-sympathizing workers. In 1941, two years after the National Labor Relations Board ordered the company to cease its illegal anti-union chicanery, Sparrows Point workers voted overwhelmingly to unionize. Over the next twenty years—abetted by absent foreign competition and hefty profits across the industry—they repeatedly struck for higher wages, better working conditions, and more generous benefits.

Industry-wide unionization and centralized labor-management bargaining—in which the negotiated contract between the United Steelworkers and U.S. Steel set the standard for the entire industry—gave steelworkers tremendous collective power. And they weren’t shy about exercising it. Between the end of WWII and 1959, steelworkers walked out six times, in work stoppages so crippling that the president repeatedly intervened. It took these militant, habitual strikes—not simply high profits or a monopolistic industry—to boost living standards; nothing was conferred on workers through sheer management magnanimity.

Sparrows Point loomed large over Baltimore, both physically and economically. Located in an unincorporated community just southeast of Charm City, the steel mill was the world’s largest by the late 1950s. Employment eclipsed 30,000. Even twenty years later, after foreign imports eroded American steel’s dominance and company shortsightedness caused Beth Steel to lose ground to competitors, Sparrows Point still employed well over 15,000, strengthening the hand of workers across the labor market. In its heyday, and even in decades of relative decline, the plant provided a “family wage”—compensation sufficient to raise a family on a single income. No doubt there was a low-paying periphery. And the model, which rendered wives economically dependent on their husbands, reinforced patriarchy in the home. But the high-wage, heavily unionized center—of which Sparrows Point was the archetype—provided the foundation for working-class prosperity.

Bethlehem Steel, in other words, played the economic role that Johns Hopkins University could play today.

                                               *   *   *

Union officials estimate that raising the wages of their members to a $14 minimum wouldadd only an extra $3 million to the Hopkins’s annual payroll expenses, when the non-profit hospital last recorded an operating surplus of $145 million. But the administration has been recalcitrant. “Hopkins has been using the excuse that the ‘economy is too uncertain’ to raise wages,” said 1199 spokesperson Jim McNeill.

Johns Hopkins Medicine spokeswoman Kim Hoppe said in an email that the hospital “strives to provide a positive work experience” for their employees through competitive salaries and benefits. And Ronald Peterson, president of Johns Hopkins Hospital, wrote in the Baltimore Sun that their “commitment to fair compensation” includes a benefits package that, among other things, supports professional development classes and money to offset the cost of their children’s college tuition. Yet, for many who live in poverty, unable to afford rent or child care, those types of benefits often look better on paper than they turn out to be in practice. “It would be almost impossible for me to take advantage of the college tuition benefits President Peterson mentions,” Kiva Robbins wrote in a response in the Sun.

Despite the workers’ compelling moral case for a raise, they could stand to be in a stronger position at the bargaining table. To be sure, SEIU membership is growing: in 2001, the last year SEIU workers at Hopkins Hospital went on strike, there were 1,600. Today, 2,000 are represented by the union. And in 2009, 1199 launched their “Heart of Baltimore” campaign, an attempt to increase the visibility and wages of area health care workers. But over the past decade, Reid admitted, “there’s been no real organizing at Johns Hopkins,” and the union still only represents one-tenth of the hospital’s total workforce.

Moreover, in contrast to other SEIU locals, 1199 has never organized Hopkins nurses. This is in part due to the general difficulty of organizing—unfavorable labor law and company intimidation doom many such attempts—but according to McNeill, there has never been a serious effort in the local’s forty-five-year history to try and bring nurses into their union. “It would make us stronger, without a doubt,” Reid acknowledged. While increasing membership anywhere in the hospital would build worker power, organizing nurses—the most sizable bloc of skilled, difficult-to-replace employees in a hospital—is especially important. It’s not an overstatement to say that organizing nurses could be the fulcrum by which Hopkins workers’ middling pay becomes standard-setting.  

Hopkins appears to recognize this as-yet-untapped power. In an April statement, the hospital said, “Our patients and their families are always our first priority, so it is important they understand that the employees represented by 1199SEIU work primarily in service and maintenance jobs and are not involved in providing direct patient care.” Employing a strategy in which SEIU would represent both nurses and maintenance workers—those responsible for “providing direct patient care” and those who do other essential, but poorly compensated work—is the only way health care workers can approximate the might that Sparrows Point workers once had.

Johns Hopkins Hospital, fulfilling its avowed mission of improving community health, could be the bulwark of a broadly prosperous, union-dense local economy. While some have charged that employment growth will eventually plateau in “eds and meds” economies, Johns Hopkins already employs enough workers to raise wages throughout Baltimore. But workers themselves must midwife this alternative model. For all its rhetoric about healthy communities, Hopkins won’t willingly pay every worker a decent wage, any more than Bethlehem Steel would have. And while in some ways the contemporary workplace is less amenable to unionization, workers at places like Hopkins Hospital do have one thing on their side: “eds and meds” institutions can’t pack up and leave. The outsourcing threat, so chastening to manufacturing workers, isn’t in play.

The endpoint of these postindustrial economies isn’t predetermined. Essential to effecting a pro-worker sea change will be dogged organizing, collective action, and political support. The right to live with dignity and economic security, in Baltimore and elsewhere, won’t be secured without a fight.

Marginalized Economists: Revisiting Robert Heilbroner

Originally published on the US Intellectual History blog on May 25th, 2014.

While historians have begun to take interest in the history of economic thought, the tendency to research the most influential figures, the “historical winners”, has persisted as the predominant scholarly trend. But there are merits to studying the dissenters, too. Following not only how the economics profession took the turn it did but also looking at those who tried to advocate for an alternative vision, can help to clarify the seeming intellectual hegemony of our economic times.

Robert Heilbroner, arguably the most prominent dissenting American economist of the late twentieth century, followed his changing discipline with despair. So great was his anxiety over the powerful trends capturing the minds of his colleagues, championed by individuals like Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman and Gregory Mankiw, that he dedicated himself to addressing what he felt were economics’ existential threats. Yet despite his efforts, with over twenty books to his name, Robert Heilbroner never gained recognition and mainstream respect. Even in 2014, there remains little work written about him. [1]

Born into an affluent German-Jewish family in 1919, Robert Heilbroner was no stranger to privilege. Yet when his father died when he was just five years old, and his family’s chauffeur then became his surrogate father, Heilbroner developed a nascent sense of class-consciousness. Heilbroner “sensed the indignity of [his driver’s] position as a family intimate yet a subordinate.”[2] Later in life Heilbroner would say that he felt the experience “explains something about my…personality and hence about my work. I’ve found myself pulled between conservative standards on the one hand, and a strong feeling for the underdog on the other.”[3]

Heilbroner went on to Harvard in 1936, and became interested in economic thought after readingThe Theory of the Leisure Class during his sophomore year. He called the experience “an awakening” and went on to graduate with majors in history, government and economics. [4] (Fortuitously: read Andy Peal’s recent post on Veblen’s “iconoclasm”.) Throughout his life one could spot the Veblenian influence in Heilbroner’s work; it was his central conviction that the “search for the order and meaning of social history lies at the heart of economics.”[5]

Heilbroner worked during an era of great political and cultural upheaval. In the late 1940s and 50s, while other European countries were suffering from the harsh ramifications of the war, American economics grew rapidly. Not only was America’s economy growing strong, but employment opportunities for economists were also expanding ever since the passage of the New Deal. Moreover, when many war veterans went off to college on the GI Bill of 1944, many of them chose to study the social sciences, creating a new demand for economics professors. Thus, economics departments grew to a size that American universities had never before seen.

Additionally, partly due to the influence of wartime planning, statistical study and empirical work became increasingly interwoven. After 1945, economics grounded itself more firmly within the confines of quantitative methods, including algebraic procedures, theoretical models, and economic statistics. When Paul Samuelson published Foundations of Economic Analysis in 1947, he constructed a persuasive framework that would guide the economic discipline towards a field defined much more through the development of testable propositions. The influence of John Maynard Keynes also helped to establish mechanisms that could be analyzed formally, setting the stage for the transition to math. [6] Economists like Milton Friedman also followed up on all this in the early 1950s, pushing for a “positivist” economic movement that would be “in principle independent of any particular ethical position or normative judgments.”[7]

As economics drifted in a more mathematical direction, the former stronghold of the institutionalist camp began to falter. Universities espousing the new mathematical approach like MIT, the University of Chicago and Berkeley rose to prominence, while former bastions of institutionalism, like Columbia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, declined dramatically in relevance and influence. [8]

Robert Heilbroner’s most famous book, The Worldly Philosophers, provides insight into what he thought about these new professional trends. Published in 1953, the book which traces the lives of economists like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and others, became one of the most widely-read texts ever written on the history of economic thought. Although Heilbroner self-described politically as a democratic socialist, he reserved immense admiration for economists like Smith and Schumpeter. In fact, realistically, he hoped to see a return to economic conversations rooted in the spirit of thinkers like Smith. That would demand, for example, that to really theorize on markets and businesses, as Smith does in The Wealth of Nations, one must also delve into topics like justice, virtue and conscience, as Smith does in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. [9] In a 1999 New York Times interview, just six years before his death, Heilbroner said, ”The worldly philosophers thought their task was to model all the complexities of an economic system—the political, the sociological, the psychological, the moral, the historical… modern economists, au contraire, do not want so complex a vision. They favor two-dimensional models that in trying to be scientific leave out too much.” [10]

To be sure, Robert Heilbroner did not oppose the entry of mathematics into economics. He felt a quantitative approach could augment the thick, social and philosophical analysis already (or at least formerly) employed. And he recognized that math is simply the only tool economists have available to answer certain questions. Heilbroner differed from his colleagues not over whether math was useful, but over what math was capable of explaining. Where colleagues like Friedman pushed a positivist agenda to avoid “normative” answers to some of society’s toughest questions, Heilbroner tried to show that all decisions carry inherently normative judgments. And when individuals like Greg Mankiw asserted that economists were capable of tackling economics with the same objectivity as that of a natural scientist, Heilbroner pushed back.

“What does it mean to be “objective” about such things as inherited wealth or immissterating poverty? Does it mean that those arrangements reflect some properties of society that must be accepted, just as the scientist accepts the arrangements studied through a telescope or under a microscope? Or does it mean that if we were scrupulously aware of our own private endorsements or rejections of society’s arrangements we could, by applying an appropriate discount, arrive at a truly neutral view? In that case, could one use the word “scientific” to describe our findings, even though the object of study was not a product of nature but of society? The answer is that we cannot.”

Heilbroner also strove for economic conversations that ended the “precipitous decrease” in the presence of the word capitalism. Without referring to the economic system by name, Heilbroner argued, we encourage individuals to forget what the system is for and in whose interests it is working. He looked to Joseph Stiglitz, who penned a 997-paged economic textbook, and found in it a grand total of zero references to the word “capitalism.” These types of absences reinforced Heilbroner’s angst that society was losing sight of a fundamental descriptor necessary to conceptualize modern economics. [11]

If these were Heilbroner’s only academic critiques, perhaps he would not have been so marginalized. But Heilbroner went further in his attempts to push social analysis into economics, suggesting that, “indeed the challenge may in fact require that economics come to recognize itself as a discipline that follows in the wake of sociology and politics rather than proudly leading the way for them.” This suggestion of inverting the disciplinary hierarchies highlighted an epistemological modesty not shared by many other economists in the field. [12]

While Robert Heilbroner never lived to see economics revert to a broader, more social analytical framework, his work nevertheless may have had some tangential influence over areas outside of economics. Cornell sociologist Richard Swedberg observed that “one of the most important developments” for the social sciences in the past few decades “has been the race to fill the void created by mainstream economics’ failure to do research on economic institutions.” For example, a new academic field began to take form in the 1980s—that of economic sociology. In 1985, Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter published an article entitled, “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness”, laying an intellectual base for the new field. Granovetter’s goal, echoing Heilbroner’s rhetoric, was to push economics from its knee-jerk emphasis on rationality towards a greater focus on the ways in which social structure and social relations factor into economic systems and power hierarchies. As Granovetter said, “there is something very basically wrong with microeconomics, and that the new economic sociology should make this argument loud and clear especially in the absolutely core economic areas of market structure, production, pricing, distribution and consumption.” [13]

New programs within graduate history departments have also emerged, designed to focus more specifically on the relationship between historical events and economics. Duke University’s Center for the History of Political Economy was founded in 2008 and Harvard University’s Joint Center for History and Economics was founded in 2007.  And, just this past springthe New School launched a new center, the Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies, which seeks to blend “the history of capitalism, economic sociology, international political economy, heterodox economics, critical theory, economic anthropology, and science and technology studies.”[14]

There is some evidence that suggests that even the economics profession might be changing. When Thomas Piketty published Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in the spirit of the worldly philosophers, he advanced an argument for a global wealth tax not only based on his analysis of quantitative data, but also from his engagement with philosophy, history, and even 19th century literature. And the Institute for New Economic Thinking, founded in 2009, is meant to support economic projects and research that challenge the traditional paradigms of rational models and markets.

More aspects of Robert Heilbroner’s work deserve revisiting. His attentiveness to history and his fundamental humility led to some very fascinating writings about the future, technology, business civilization and the capitalist order. His rich 40-year career leaves us much more in which to sift and question.


[1] The best, albeit limited, secondary sources I could find included Loren J. Okroi’s Galbraith, Harrington, Heilbroner: Economics and Dissent In an Age of Optimism (Princeton: Princeton University Press1988), Mathew Forstater’s “”In Memoriam: Robert L. Heilbroner The Continuing Relevance of The Worldly Philosophy” in Economic Issues 10.1 (March 2005) and Robert Pollin’s “Robert Heilbroner: Worldly Philosopher” in Challenge (May/June 1999).

[2] Pollin, “Heilbroner”, 34.
[3] Okroi, Heilbroner, 183.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Heilbroner, Robert L. The Worldly Philosophers. (N.p.: F. Watts, 1966.) 16.
[6] Backhouse, Roger and Philippe Fontaine. History of the Social Sciences Since 1945. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 39, 40, 46, 52.
[7] Friedman, Milton. Essays in Positive Economics.(Chicago: UChicago Press, 1953) 4
[8] Backhouse, History of the Social Sciences, 42.
[9] Dieterle, David Anthony, Economic Thinkers: A Biographical Encyclopedia. (Greenwood, 2013) 131.
[10] Backhouse, Roger; Bateman, Bradley. “Worldly Philosophers Wanted.” New York Times.November 5, 2011.
[11] Heilbroner. The Worldly Philosophers. 314, 318, 315, 318.
[12] Heilbroner, Robert L., and William S. Milberg. The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought. (New York: Cambridge UP, 1995) 126.
[13] Swedberg, Richard. “A New Economic Sociology: What Has Been Accomplished, What is Ahead?” Acta Sociologica.(1997), 161, 163, 164.
[14] Ott, Julia, and William Milberg. “Capitalism Studies: A Manifesto.” Public Seminar RSS. Graduate Programs at NSSR, 17 Apr. 2014.

Detroit is Bankrupt and Creditors Are Looking To Their Renowned Art Museum

Originally published in The JHU Politik on May 6th, 2014.

Should Detroit have to sell off its art collection in order to pay its bills? To what extent is art off limits from municipal politics, especially when worker pensions are at stake? Over the past year these thorny ethical questions have cast an uncomfortable shadow over the Motor City.

When the city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy this past summer—with debts estimated at between $18-$20 billion—many wondered how on earth the city would find the funds necessary to recover from this colossal financial crisis. With an estimated 700,000 residents, Detroit is the largest city by population ever to file for Chapter 9. The city also scored the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in United States history.

Unlike many other large art museums around the country, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is owned by the city and some of its 65,000 pieces were purchased with city funds. The internationally renowned collection includes, among others, enormous murals by Diego Rivera, famous pieces by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pieter Bruegel, Edgar Degas, Rembrandt and historic ancient sculptures. Christie’s, a fine arts auction house, appraised the art purchased with city funds to be worth between $454 million and $867 million, but some experts have speculated that the art could be worth more than $2 billion.

In March 2013, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr to serve as an Emergency Manager for Detroit’s financial operations. After Detroit filed for bankruptcy in July, Orr requested an appraisal of the city-purchased art.

Orr’s spokesman Bill Nowling told Reuters, “We obviously don’t want to get rid of art” but “if we are going to ask creditors to get a big haircut, we have to look at how to rationalize all of the city’s assets, including the artwork.”

The threat of auctioning off the city’s art has yielded great controversy.

“In the world of the great museums, this is unprecedented as far as I know,” said Ford W. Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums.

“People need to understand that this is so much more than a Matisse in a museum,” DIA Museum Director, Graham W. J. Beal said. “It’s a piece of American history.”

But, on the other side of the issue, significant problems loom. Political leaders remain struggling to figure out what will be done to meet the city’s pension obligations—benefits that retirees and other employees have been legally promised. Officials estimate that Detroit’s pension obligations could be underfunded by as much as $3.5 billion, which means the city will have to either take money previously spent elsewhere to pay for it, or somehow disclaim its payments.

Many city employees, who have planned their retirement around this expected money, argue that pensions are protected under the Michigan Constitution. Indeed, Article 24 of the Michigan Constitution states that public pensions “shall not be diminished or impaired…and the state must help to make sure pensioners are paid in full.”

A poll commissioned in late September by The Detroit Free Press and WXYZ-TV found that while 78% of Detroit respondents opposed selling DIA art to pay creditors, 75% of respondents also opposed cuts in city workers’ pensions to pay off debts.

Something’s gotta give.

Museum officials hope to reach what they are calling “The Grand Bargain” with the city: in return for helping Detroit pay off some of its pension obligations, they want the city to relinquish ownership of the DIA to a nonprofit organization. This handover would shield the museum from future financial responsibility related to Detroit’s debts.

In January, the DIA announced that it would raise $100 million for pensioners, joining private philanthropic foundations, including The Ford Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which had already pledged $370 million towards the effort. Governor Snyder also asked his State Legislature to provide an additional $350 million. The hope is that this combination of state and private money, totaling a fund of $800 million, could both protect the art collection and help the city pay off its pension obligations.

Politically, the last thing any politician, especially a Republican facing re-election, wants to be portrayed as is “bailing out” Detroit. “This is not a bailout of banks and other creditors. This is focused on helping reduce and mitigate the impact on retirees. It’s focused on protecting assets,” said Snyder in a press conference. But money is fungible, and thus it is unclear exactly what money will go where, and when. Many organizing workers groups allege that investors, bankers and international businessmen will indeed be repaid handsomely as they continue to lose their promised retirement benefits.

This “Grand Bargain” was proposed by mediators in the bankruptcy, led by Chief Judge Gerald Rosen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. In a press release, the DIA calls the deal, “a win/win/win strategy”, saying it provides for a quick exit from years of costly litigation, gives money to pensioners, and protects the museum’s valuable art.

However, it is uncertain whether this “Grand Bargain” could actually prevent creditors in bankruptcy court from demanding the art to be sold. The fact is that Detroit has relatively few assets beyond its valuable art collection and the city remains in massive debt.

But as Tom Campbell, Director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, put it, “Even in the darkest days of New York City’s fiscal crisis of 1975, and the national economic meltdown of 2008, the cultural treasures closely identified with our own city were never on the table — never considered an asset that might be cashed-in during a crunch to bridge a negative balance sheet.”

Many argue over the impact that selling the art would even have for the city of Detroit. Some say it would be a shortsighted betrayal, hurting Detroit’s ability ever to revive itself economically. Others argue that it is a move precisely for Detroit’s economic revival. Museum officials warn that selling off its precious art would hurt future donor prospects, sending a clear signal that Detroit is a failed urban experiment which cannot sustain serious investments or investors.

At the end of February the city filed a blueprint for what their plan to emerge from bankruptcy might look like, which included the Grand Bargain. The plan largely rested on steep cuts to city workers’ pensions and retiree health benefits as well as decreased payments to bondholders. It called for police, firefighters and those departments’ retirees to take a 10% cut to their current pension payment while all other city employees and retirees to accept pension cuts of 34%. Orr, in an effort to resolve this crisis as fast as possible, said that if unions drop their objections quickly, then police and firefighters would get a 4% pension cut rather than 10%, and city employees would get a 26% cut, not 34%.

“The plan is unfair and unacceptable,” Al Garrett, president of the Michigan branch of the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees, responded in a statement. “Retirees cannot survive these drastic cuts.”

By mid-April, city officials were already offering considerably greater concessions. Six more weeks of negotiations yielded a new proposal where the city offered to reduce municipal retirees’ pensions by 4.5%, down from 34%. Retired police officers and firefighters would see no cuts to their pensions. The new plan also includes the elimination of cost of living increases to municipal workers, although retired police and firefighters would continue to receive them, albeit reduced.

It remains unclear how labor unions and the committee representing retired workers will respond to the new offer. No doubt, the city and the DIA want to resolve this issue as quickly and painlessly as possible. But with many groups of creditors—with varying degrees of power—seeking retribution, Detroit’s litigious future, and its politics of art, are anything but over.

Presidents Conference Rejected J Street — and Me

Originally published in The Forward on May 1, 2014.


I’ve watched as millions and millions of dollars have been poured into youth leadership programs, summer camps, Taglit-Birthright trips and other “big initiatives” to foster identity amongst young Jews. And I’ve grown up listening to my parents’ and grandparents’ generations worrying that the Jewish community will collapse when my generation comes of age.

Well, when my friends and I, many of us products of such communal initiatives, watched as the Conference of Presidents voted to exclude J Street from their membership, we heard a loud and unambiguous message: the voices of thousands of young Jews are unwanted. It’s not very complicated: The fastest way to get Jews to disengage is through votes like this.

The Conference of Presidents vote was not a referendum on J Street representing thousands of American Jews. It was, however, a referendum on whether the Conference of Presidents wishes to be a relevant and representative body to American Jews.

While secret balloting and closed-door meetings might work for the 1950s old boys’ clubs, today it signifies weakness and decay in the Jewish community. The Conference of Presidents is supposed to be comprised of organizations with grassroots bases in order to be accountable to the American Jewish public. But an intentionally opaque voting process undercuts the Conference’s supposed representative mission and is an affront to the individuals these groups purport to represent. For example, despite the involvement of many dues-paying AEPi brothers in J Street U, AEPi is not revealing whether its leaders voted against giving their students a seat at the table. Similarly, the JFNA represents Jewish communities across the U.S., with thousands of J Street U students coming under their representative umbrella. We deserve to know if our institutions voted to bar us from admittance. Why are these organizations afraid of transparency?

While some will try to assert that this vote proves that J Street is out of the mainstream, I’d suggest checking in with Jewish students on campus. Not everyone agrees with us, but most students believe in a representative community based on the values we learned at our synagogues, Hebrew Schools, and summer camps. Similarly, some of the largest establishment Jewish organizations came out in proactive support of J Street’s admission, including the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Anti-Defamation League, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Americans for Peace Now, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and more. While the final “score” was 22-17, many organizations in the Conference just do not represent a significant American Jewish constituency, though they hold the same voting power. As Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive Vice President of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly pointed out, J Street won a landslide of the popular vote.

Our work to achieve two states and end the occupation does not end with this vote. J Street U is already in the midst of planning our Summer Leadership Institute, where students from over 60 campuses will gather in August to plan and strategize for the next school year. Every day, more students begin fighting for a community in which our commitments to Israel, to changing broken political dynamics, and to our progressive values work together in concert. As more students recognize that the state of Israel’s future is inextricably tied to the dignity and freedom of the Palestinian people, J Street U will continue to grow.

Just as lavish hasbara efforts cannot protect Israel from dealing with its serious existential crisis, neither can votes like the Conference of Presidents protect the Jewish community from wrestling with the changing sentiments of American Jewry, particularly amongst young Jews. I wish they had voted differently, and I’m grateful to and proud of the organizations that did back J Street. But, at the end of the day, our work goes on.


The National Sexual Assault Conversation Privileges College Students Over Everyone Else

Originally published in The Week on April 28, 2014.

The movement to end sexual assault on college campuses is more powerful than it has ever been. That’s extremely important. After all, a recent government report states that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted while in college, and that too many higher education institutions fail to enforce federal law when it comes to punishing perpetrators, supporting survivors, and publishing campus crime statistics.

President Obama said earlier this year that campus sexual assault is “an affront to our basic decency and humanity,” and that “college should be a place where our young people feel secure and confident, so they can go as far as their talents will take them.” Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill also recently announced their plans to take on college sexual assault. They are reportedly pushing for millions of dollars to increase the federal staff dedicated to sexual assault law enforcement and investigations.

For this graduating college senior, these are all encouraging developments. I have close friends who have devoted their entire college careers to working on this issue, whether that meant staying up late at night to help man the RAINN crisis hotline, working to push recalcitrant administrators to take sexual assault more seriously, or waging campus-wide awareness campaigns. I also have close friends who have been assaulted and raped during their time as students.

But it’s worth taking a step back to think critically about the national attention this issue has garnered, and which groups of survivors are heard the most.

There is an indisputable and often cyclical connection between poverty and sexual violence. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that individuals with household incomes under $7,500 are twice as likely as those in the general population to become victims of sexual assault. Ninety-two percent of homeless mothers experience severe physical and/or sexual assault at some point in their lives. Sexual assault is hardly a problem limited to university campuses.

Twenty percent of college women being sexually assaulted is unacceptable. But other groups are at even greater risk. Immigrants, refugeesmigrants, those suffering from addictionsminorities,LGBTQ individuals, sex workersprisonersthe homeless, and the impoverished all experience high rates of sexual assault. And, unlike college students, these groups very often lack the knowledge, credibility, resources, and federal protections to do anything about their attacks.

We should be working to end sexual assault everywhere. But we also have to ask why our political leaders are prioritizing college campuses over other high-risk environments.

Disparities in media coverage also highlight the ways in which we privilege certain groups over others. Instances of sexual assault at elite private schools frequently make national headlines whereas the violence endured by Americans living in poverty is regularly ignored. Just this month,SlateThe Washington PostThe New York TimesHuffington PostThe New RepublicBuzzFeedThe WireNewsweekNational JournalAl Jazeera Americaand others reported on developments within the campus sexual assault movement. Similar coverage for other populations was conspicuously absent.

Nobody should have to endure sexual assault, period. We need senators to launch initiatives to prevent sexual assault in low-income communities. We need Clery Act equivalents for non-traditional labor environments. We need federal task forces to study this issue beyond college campuses. We need the media to focus more consistently on marginalized groups. We cannot assume justice will trickle down.

This should be a national priority, not only for college students, but for women everywhere.

How Can Obama Fix Overtime Pay?

Originally published in The JHU Politik on April 13th, 2014.

The Obama administration recently announced plans to revise overtime pay regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Under the law, employees who work more than 40 hours per week are entitled to time-and-a-half in overtime pay, but many categories of employees—notably “executive” and “administrative”—are exempt under FLSA. Unfortunately, within the last decade many employers have found ways to misclassify their workers as executives, managers and administrators in order to avoid paying them overtime. Now the Department of Labor wants to update the regulations by both tightening the duties that employees would have to perform in order to be recognized as managers and by raising the minimum salary threshold above $455 per week.

The Obama administration isn’t the first to amend the 1938 regulations. Back in 2004, Bush administration officials raised the minimum weekly salary threshold from $250 to $455 (or yearly salaries of slightly under $24,000 per year). They also relaxed the description of duties, effectively weakening the exemption standards for managers. This meant that fewer workers were now entitled to overtime pay than before. (Some economists argued that this regulation effectively barred more than six million workers from receiving overtime.)

At an International Association of Fire Fighters legislative conference in March, U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez said in a speech, “As a result of a loophole that was written into the regulation in 2004 by the Bush administration, quite literally somebody can work 1 percent of their time on management issues, 99 percent stacking the shelves and doing other work that has nothing to do with management, and you’re considered a manager, and you are no longer entitled to overtime.”

The original law purports to prevent employers from misclassifying their workers as managers. Indeed, regulation 29 CFR 541.2 states, “A job title alone is insufficient to establish the exempt status of an employee. The exempt or nonexempt status of any particular employee must be determined on the basis of whether the employee’s salary and duties meet the requirements of the regulations.”

However, there remain enough ambiguities that employers have found ways to still misclassify their workers and avoid paying overtime. Notably, one regulation codified in 2004 states that the law will henceforth recognize employers working “concurrent duties” of “exempt and non-exempt work” on a “case-by-case basis”—meaning that one could still be considered a manager or executive even if they are not doing managerial or executive work.

The White House is also talking about raising the minimum salary threshold. According to Betsey Stevenson, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, there are 3.1 million people who would have been automatically covered by overtime provisions had the threshold kept up with inflation. 

Since 2004, the Consumer Price Index has increased by about 23.3%. So had the minimum salary threshold kept up with inflation, it would now be around $560 per week. All things considered, that’s still pretty low. The Washington Post reported that officials are considering raising the threshold to somewhere between $550 and $970 a week, or $28,600 and $50,440 a year.

The key point to understand is that just doing one of these measures is not enough to eliminate the perverse incentives in FLSA. Raising the salary threshold without tightening the duties test to be considered a manager might raise the salary of some workers but it would still allow employers to misclassify their employees as managers, and thereby skirt overtime pay.

There are also macroeconomic arguments for fixing the regulation. “By discouraging the use of overtime, we will be encouraging companies to hire more workers. This is simple logic,” wrote co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Dean Baker in an email. “If a company needs extra labor, but now has to pay a premium for working people overtime, it is more likely to fill this demand by hiring new workers. This is what we want.”

While the process of revising FLSA could extend until 2015, the administration’s initiative is good news. If the Department of Labor does this revision right, then employers will have to either pay more workers overtime, or hire additional employees. Both are desirable outcomes.     

Don’t Expect Republicans or Democrats to Tell You The Truth About SNAP Cuts

Originally published in The Washington Monthly on March 10th, 2014

Despite outrage over the recent cuts to the federal food stamp program, it’s becoming increasingly clear that these reductions in benefits are unlikely to materialize, at least to the degree most observers expected. And what’s more: we can safely assume that Republicans and Democrats knew this would be the case all along.

To recap, a month ago, the passage of the trillion dollar Farm Bill included an $8.7 billion cut to SNAP over ten years. These reductions would come from tinkering with a program, used in fifteen states and Washington DC, known as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). It was designed to help individuals who require federal fuel assistance to heat their homes become automatically eligible for SNAP benefits, too. Hence the program’s nickname: Heat and Eat.

Conservatives argued that too many people were abusing the program, and that LIHEAP’s minimum fuel assistance requirement of $1 was too low for individuals who seek to also qualify for SNAP benefits. So, under the pretense of fraud reduction, Republicans pushed for the minimum fuel assistance threshold to rise from $1 to $20. The CBO estimated that this bump would cause 850,000 households to effectively lose an average of $90 per month in food stamps.

Liberals were justifiably angered by the news, and Republicans touted the move as a victory for responsible fiscal choices. But here’s the thing: low-income households are unlikely to see that level of loss in their benefits, and fiscal hawks aren’t going to see any savings.

That’s because in January’s 2014 omnibus appropriations bill, Congress stepped in, allocating LIHEAP an additional $169 million. Consequently, last week, the Governors of Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania each announced that they would grant more of their new federal dollars to Heat and Eat so that their constituents will not lose any SNAP benefits.

Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that Republicans and Democrats probably always knew this was going to happen. But since conveying those assumptions to their constituents might get in the way of their political spin, they kept quiet.

In New York, if Governor Cuomo shells out a mere $6 million in additional federal heating assistance, he will be able to maintain $457 million in yearly food stamp benefits. In Connecticut, Governor Malloy can allocate $1.4 million in additional federal fuel assistance funds, and maintain $66.6 million in annual food stamp benefits. And, in Pennsylvania, Governor Corbett will only need to allocate $8 million of his additional federal LIHEAP funds in order to keep an estimated $300 million in annual SNAP benefits.

Even the math-haters out there can see that those are damn good deals.

It is no coincidence that the states receiving the bulk of additional LIHEAP funds are the same cold weather states that would be most affected by the Heat and Eat cuts. New York received an additional $50 million this year— a number that makes the $6 million Cuomo needs to maintain all SNAP benefits quite manageable indeed.

This was an unusually cold winter, which helped Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) increase appropriated funds to LIHEAP. It was the first increase in low income home energy spending since 2009, according to a Senate press release.

Although it’s not unfounded to worry that these additional funds might be ephemeral, given Federal Reserve reports asserting that this year’s cold weather thwarted economic growth, political support for keeping fuel assistance programs intact in the future seems feasible.

Ultimately, of course, this is all good news. Recipients of SNAP benefits will likely continue to receive their food stamps, and states will not even have to tap into their stretched budgets to pay for it.

What’s frustrating is how both Republicans and Democrats, including President Obama, politicized this whole episode, making it downright difficult for even a discerning public to gauge how much they should worry. Republicans could feel confident that states would fill in the $19 fuel assistance gap in order to continue receiving SNAP benefits given that the incentives for such a deal are so overwhelmingly in favor of the states. If Republicans were serious about cutting food stamps, they would have gone another route. (Indeed a frustrated Wall Street Journaleditorial board lambasted Republicans as “rubes” who were suckers to “cheat and eat.”) Republicans could still claim though, however spuriously, that they heroically “cut food stamps.”

Democrats, alternatively, were able to tout their handy narrative that while Republicans were “gutting” food stamps they had tried their very best to preserve all the benefits they possibly could. (Of course, some rightly called Democrats out on their pitiful lack of resolve in the negotiations process.) But rather than come out and explain to folks that these cuts are avoidable, and that they will likely be avoided, Democrats not only condemned Republicans, but also praised themselves for responsibly “addressing fraud and abuse” in Heat and Eat.

(Don’t expect to see Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, condemn the Governors of the New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania for fraud, now.)