The Biggest Strike in America Is About How Much Bosses Can Gut Your Healthcare

Originally published in VICE on September 18, 2019.
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When about 48,000 workers went on strike Monday against General Motors, they launched the largest American labor stoppage against any business since the financial crisis. The striking union—the United Auto Workers—is confronting vicious headwinds in the form of always-cheaper foreign labor, reduced car sales, and pressure to invest in electric and self-driving vehicles at a time of impending climate catastrophe.

On top of all that, workers formed picket lines because GM is trying to effectively cut their hard-fought healthcare benefits. According to the Center for Automotive Research, a Michigan-based think tank that receives some funding from auto companies, the average UAW worker pays about 3 percent of their health care tab, compared to 28 percent paid by the average American worker. Crain’s Detroit Business reported on Monday that GM’s initial contract offer asked workers to start paying 15 percent of their healthcare costs.

While such a move by an employer may seem fairly ordinary by contemporary standards, it wasn’t that long ago that Americans would have viewed this request as a huge scandal. In fact, experts said, that a once-mighty labor union is fighting tooth and nail to save generous health plans speaks to the economic precarity most Americans have grown to numbly accept.

“Having to pay large amounts of your health-care, that is still a fairly recent phenomenon,” said Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island and author of A History of America in Ten Strikes.

Loomis pointed to a 1983 labor stoppage where thousands of copper miners and mill workers went on strike for almost three years against the Arizona-based Phelps Dodge Corporation. “One of the key issues of that strike was that workers were so outraged by the request that they pay part of their health care,” he explained. “It was unprecedented, and yet today it’s become so normalized. Everyone complains about it, but employers just slowly force more and more of their costs onto their workers.”

Rather than ask why UAW workers pay so little in healthcare costs relative to others, Loomis said, the conversation should be framed around “workers defending what they have, and not letting companies cede more and more of their responsibility.”

Employer-based health insurance was actually something of a historical accident in the United States, led partly by labor unions that were barred from negotiating over wages during World War II. That led unions to begin focusing on other types of permissible fringe benefits, including employer-sponsored insurance. Many non-union companies followed suit, facing pressure to compete with unionized firms. Subsequent changes to the federal tax code made offering health insurance even more attractive for employers, so much so that 70 percent of the population was covered by private health insurance in the 1960s, up from nine percent in 1940.

Today, of course, when “job hopping” is common and the so-called gig economy means many workers are not full-time employees, it’s become painfully evident that tying health insurance to work is less than ideal.

Shaun Richman, who directs a labor studies center at SUNY Empire State College, said there is a strong case for “getting the boss out of the doctor’s office” altogether. Employer-based health insurance, he argued, “is plainly outmoded and is absolutely killing unions.” His thinking is partly strategic: Every time a union starts a round of contract negotiations, they almost invariably begin by fighting back against proposed healthcare cuts. “There’s simply no round of bargaining that employers won’t put healthcare on the table, and it’s been devastating,” Richman said.

Indeed, the fight over healthcare benefits is central to understanding the last few decades of labor disputes in the United States.

“The major issue we saw during labor walkouts in the 1990s and 2000s had to do with the restructuring of healthcare plans,” said Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis and author of What Unions No Longer Do. “Wages were really the secondary concern.”

Whether the auto workers can make their fight for affordable healthcare resonate with the broader public may be key to the UAW sustaining support for the strike in general. Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a political scientist at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, said auto workers might struggle to engender the same level of enthusiasm that striking teachers have across the country beginning last year. In fact, they might not even reach the same level of support as workers at other recent service-sector strikes like those at Stop & Shop grocery stores and Marriott hotels.

“My research and the work of others suggests that it may be easier for workers to build solidarity with their broader communities when they have daily interactions and are in the same social networks as the public,” Hertel-Fernandez said.

Still, as Rosenfeld pointed out, one thing working in the UAW’s favor is the clear profit margins enjoyed recently by U.S. auto companies. “GM is highly profitable now, and was bleeding money during the last 2007 walkout,” he said.

While the last UAW strike in 2007 ended after just two days, at least one union leader suggested Monday this labor stoppage could go on for much longer. On Tuesday, the White House reportedly began trying to broker a deal to end the strike, but GM also announced that it would be cutting off its share of strikers’ health benefits, shifting the burden to unions and telling workers they could apply for COBRA. On top of this financial blow, the average full-time UAW will be paid just $250-per-week while the strike stretches on—assuming the union’s strike fund holds up.

“They’re in a war for their lives, and the company is basically putting a gun to the unions’ head,” said Richman. “They’re saying we’ll reopen one of these factories if you agree to all these other concessions. I don’t think the UAW has much choice but to stand and fight, but this is not public education—schools can’t be shipped overseas. These jobs very much can be shipped overseas and have been. That threat is very real.”

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How Charter Schools Won D.C. Politics

Originally published in Washington City Paper on September 5, 2019

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Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism

Lobbyists mobilized quickly when they learned the D.C. Council would be proposing legislation to subject the city’s charter schools to freedom-of-information laws. The day before the bill was released in mid-March, charter leaders were armed with a list of talking points divided into two categories: “soft response” and “harder-edge messaging.”

The “soft response” included points like: “this bill cares more about paperwork than school performance” and “devoting schools’ resources to yet even more compliance will divert from more important student needs, such as mental health counseling.” The “harder-edge messaging” went further, charging the legislation with “bureaucracy-building and political playback masquerading as watchdogging.”

The legislation is intended to let parents, teachers, and journalists access more information about the schools’ internal operations, and it comes on the heels of a series of scandals that fomented public distrust. But the talking points encouraged charter advocates to tell their councilmembers that it’s insulting to suggest that the schools need additional oversight. “We resent the implication that the hundreds of community and parent volunteers who serve on charter schools’ boards are not putting students’ needs first,” the talking points read. “The real agenda that needs uncovering is the union strategy to force charter schools to behave exactly like the school district bureaucracy.”

This coordinated pushback didn’t come out of thin air. In fact, D.C. taxpayers might be surprised to learn they helped fund the lobbying themselves. Every year D.C. charter schools collectively funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars from their budgets to private organizations that then lobby government agencies against efforts to regulate the schools. Between 2011 and 2017, for example, local charters paid the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, which calls itself “the collective voice of DC’s Chartered Public School Leaders,” more than $1.2 million in membership dues for its advocacy services, at a rate of $8 per student annually.

While most D.C. charters contribute to the Association, nearly all also pay $8 per student annually to a second group called Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, better known as FOCUS. Last year all but three charters kicked over FOCUS’ “voluntary student payments,” totaling more than $340,000.

In return for their contributions, charters have received dedicated advocates in the halls of city government and in public debate. In practical terms, this has mostly entailed keeping local lawmakers off charters’ backs. A July 2018 invoice that FOCUS sent to one charter leader said that the school’s payments “have already had an impact” in 2018, securing a “reduction in unreasonable monitoring and oversight” by “blocking or fixing five major pieces of legislation.” FOCUS’ executive director thanked the school leader for their annual donation, which ensures “a strong, steady, and committed” voice “to preserve your autonomy, increase your funding and improve your access to facilities and government services.”

Documents obtained by City Paper show that these two organizations produced the talking points from earlier this year. But they’re not the only players on the charter advocacy stage, and the D.C. Council’s charter transparency bill is not the first to hit a hard wall of lobbying resistance. Under DC Code Section 1-1161.01, lobbying is defined as “communicating directly with any official in the legislative or executive branch of the District government with the purpose of influencing any legislative action or an administrative decision.” And for more than two decades professional charter school advocates have successfully marshalled powerful arguments about limiting government intrusion into charter school operations, so leaders can better focus on teaching and learning.

For those who envision public-school politics as frazzled parents huddled in middle school gymnasiums, the world of D.C. charter advocacy might come as a strange sight. It’s a place where philanthropic money, revolving political doors, high-dollar galas, and a bevy of well heeled organizations have all been deployed to help charter schools shape their own regulations—or, more preferably, keep regulation away. Now, in the face of questions and community frustration, lawmakers are again under pressure to act. But if city leaders are going to bring newfound transparency to the charter world, they’re going to have to overcome a formidable influence machine with a long history of winning fights in D.C.

***

Many factors have aided the local charter advocacy apparatus over the past two decades—from a struggling traditional school district that drove parents away, to a weakened teachers’ union consumed with its own problems, to a conflict-averse Council that largely welcomed the relinquishment of school oversight duties.

But charter advocates’ biggest asset has been the School Reform Act—federal legislation enacted in 1996 authorizing the creation of charter schools in the District. Since its passage, the law has been used to ward off attempts by local lawmakers who sought more control over the public charter schools they were funding.

Congress’ involvement did not happen overnight. DC Public Schools had been declining for decades, as families left the city or turned to private schools. 149,000 students were enrolled in 1970. That number plummeted to about 80,000 two decades later. Academic performance was also a source of embarrassment, and scandal routinely wracked the District’s school administration. In 1995, a federal body created to help restore local public school finances came to the stunning conclusion that “for each additional year that students stay in DCPS, the less likely they are to succeed.” Half of all students dropped out before graduation.

That same year, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), was elected Speaker of the House and soon announced his goal to improve D.C. schools. He pledged to transform the city into “an urban jewel” and tasked another Republican in his inner-circle, Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wisc.), with drafting education policy recommendations.

The bill Gunderson put forth originally included both the creation of charter schools and vouchers for private schools, but it soon became clear that vouchers would never garner enough Democratic support in the Senate, and were ultimately stripped. Charters were an easier sell: The nation’s first charter school had launched in Minnesota in 1992, and plenty of Democrats, including then-president Bill Clinton, were enthusiastic supporters of the idea.

Many D.C. residents balked at Congress’ actions. When Clinton signed the School Reform Act into law in the spring of 1996, it was over the strong objection of D.C.’s non-voting Congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who protested Congress’ interference in the city’s local affairs.

Josephine Baker, board chair and executive director for the city’s charter authorizer, the DC Public Charter School Board, from 1996 through 2011, reflected on this process in her 2014 memoir: “The way [D.C. charters were established] left a terrible taste in the mouths of many life-long and civically engaged Washingtonians. It also represented a selling out of sorts to some community members who felt Republicans in Congress were acting as political imperialists.”

These misgivings over home rule did not stop charters from claiming legal independence, however. Professional advocates worked for years to convince the public and elected officials that D.C. lawmakers were legally unable to regulate their city’s charter sector if doing so conflicted in any way with the letter or spirit of Congress’ law. As Baker put it, “We used the charter law, deemed one of the best in the nation by the Center for Education Reform, as our shield.”

FOCUS, the charter advocacy group, has been the driving force behind these efforts. FOCUS was founded in 1996 by Malcolm Peabody, a Republican real estate developer who had strong political relationships in Congress and the local business community. A quarter-century earlier, Peabody helped pioneer the very idea of housing vouchers for low-income renters, when he served a stint under his brother, the governor of Massachusetts, and then later at HUD under President Richard Nixon. Peabody’s belief in vouchers for housing paved the way to supporting vouchers for schooling, but he understood the lack of political support for the concept in D.C., so limited FOCUS’ focus to charters.

“We were interested in vouchers before Congress passed the law, but when it became clear that charters were a better way to go, we shifted over,” he tells City Paper.

From 1998 to 2015 FOCUS was led by Robert Cane, a former attorney and school principal from Virginia drawn to the nascent charter movement in D.C. “Robert Cane was a force,” says Kathy Patterson, D.C.’s auditor who served as the Ward 3 representative on the Council and chaired its education committee. “[Cane] and Mike Peabody, they were the ones who convinced everyone that there was no authority locally to legislate charters, and I think that’s been a myth that’s been around since 1996. They convinced councilmembers of that, they convinced people in my office [at the D.C. auditor’s] of that. I guess if you just say it over and over and over again for long enough then people will believe it.”

***

While FOCUS has long advocated on behalf of nearly all charter schools in the District, its leaders are quick to emphasize that it is not, in fact, a membership-based organization. “We asked charter schools to support our advocacy efforts, but we never wanted to be a membership organization because [they] can’t act as quickly and as decisively as non-membership organizations,” Cane tells City Paper. “And we wanted the freedom to disagree with charter schools.”

But a membership-based charter advocacy organization would eventually come on the scene, with the advent of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools in 2004. Its founders wanted to give black-led charters a more organized voice in city politics, as FOCUS’ leaders were predominantly white. “School founders and school leaders wanted to distance themselves from external advocacy groups that had their own agendas, but they wanted to improve their well-being through democratically arrived at positions,” Ramona Edelin, the group’s executive director, explains.

Still, many charters were active in both groups, and FOCUS and the Association often worked together, sometimes with the assistance of the Public Charter School Board, to fight back on legislative efforts they felt might encroach on charter freedom.

“Autonomy is everything to charter schools, and autonomy is basically nothing to the government, and that’s really the crux of it,” Cane says.

***

From the very start of D.C.’s charter movement there have been concerns about oversight. An inspection of one school in 1999 revealed poor attendance, incomplete student health records, and an “insufficient focus on the core academic subjects.” Another charter provided its students with no textbooks for a full year, with a student explaining that when visitors came in, administrators instructed them to “keep [their] notebooks open” to conceal the lack of books. At another charter closed early for financial mismanagement, officials reported that the principal had “awarded $60,000 in bonuses to himself, his wife and other staff members, and tried to hold student report cards hostage to avoid prosecution.”

In 2001, D.C.’s inspector general and its chief financial officer, Charles Maddox and Natwar Gandhi, respectively, testified before Congress asking for greater authority to oversee local charter school finances. The following year Gandhi turned to the Council to ask for legislative authority over the schools, saying that all charters should be assessed by a single auditing firm, selected by the D.C. government.

“Such legislation is completely unnecessary and is antithetical to the idea of charter schools,” Cane argued at the time. He and other advocates successfully rebuffed the idea.

Politically there were tensions from the get-go, too. During the mayoral election in 1998, one candidate ran on a charter school moratorium, two others ran on platforms to limit the number of new charters issued annually, and a fourth candidate, Anthony Williams, ran on a charter-supportive platform but said there needed to be more careful monitoring. Williams won.

In 2000, the D.C. financial control board authorized Mayor Williams to manage surplus school property, news that charter advocates cheered, as they long suspected D.C. officials had been denying them access to vacant school buildings to stymie their growth. Advocates hoped Williams would be easier to work with.

But it didn’t take long for charter advocates to get frustrated with Williams too, and charge his administration with facility sabotage. “We have a joke we always say [at charter school coalition meetings],” one leader told City Paper in 2001. “You may be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

FOCUS leaders decided to take matters into their own hands, by leveraging their power on Capitol Hill. In 2004, at the urging of FOCUS, charter supporter Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) slipped an amendment into the D.C. Appropriations Act requiring D.C. officials to give charter schools a “right of first offer”—instead of a “preference”—to purchase or lease vacant D.C. school buildings at a 25 percent discount. Remarkably, Sen. Landrieu did not consult with any D.C. officials before making this change.

Local leaders—again including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton—were outraged by this federal brazenness.

“We’ve now gotten them very angry at us, and I’m sorry about that, but each one of those councilmembers has been advocates themselves—some of them very successful at it—and I think they would have done the very same thing in our position,” Peabody told the Washington Post at the time. Perhaps predictably, the maneuver set up future conflicts. When the city opted to hang on to some empty properties for future use rather than quickly sell or lease them to charters, charter advocates responded by accusing D.C. officials of violating the law that the charter advocates themselves helped re-write behind city leaders’ backs. Such criticisms continue to this day: A video released this past summer by the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools featured Edelin, the group’s director, condemning city leaders for failing to give charters a “right of first offer” to buildings.

***

D.C. lawmakers have tried to regulate the charter sector over the years but are usually unsuccessful, like in 2006 when the majority of the Council backed legislation to improve open meeting laws. These laws dictate what exactly regular residents can access when it comes to the decision-making of public bodies.

“In our estimation, the District of Columbia has the most outdated, ineffective open meetings statute in the country,” the head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press testified at the time, urging D.C. “to catch up with the rest of the country.”

Part of the reforms would have subjected charter school boards to the city’s open meetings law. The then-chair of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Government Operations, Vincent Orange, argued that given how much public funding the schools receive, and because they would not exist without government-issued charters, they should not be exempt.

As The Common Denominator, a now-defunct local news organization, reported at the time, advocates like Edelin and Cane were some of the most ardently opposed to the bill, and ultimately succeeded in getting the government to back off open meetings for charter schools.

Charter advocates succeeded again two years later in 2008, when two councilmembers, Chairman Vince Gray and Ward 6 representative Tommy Wells, introduced legislation to increase government oversight over the city’s charters, and add new rules restricting how easily new schools could open or expand. Existing law has grown “outdated and proven ineffective to ensure the Council’s ability to provide effective oversight,” Gray argued back then. Wells stressed that there was too little coordination between the Council and the charter sector, which spends public funds.

FOCUS launched a robust campaign against the proposed legislation, recruiting parents, teachers, and students to lobby local lawmakers and deliver a pro-charter petition signed by nearly 6,000 people. The bill died, and it marked one of FOCUS’ biggest political victories to date.

“It’s hard to say exactly why it failed because so much of this stuff goes on behind closed doors,” says Mary Levy, a longtime independent budget analyst for D.C. schools. “My guess is there were all sorts of big time business people involved.”

***

Whoever killed the 2008 bill, things were only about to ramp up for D.C. charter advocacy. That year, largely thanks to the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation, FOCUS started raising a lot more money. At the turn of the century, FOCUS’ budget stood at $287,000, according to tax filings. A decade later, it would hit $2 million, and it reached nearly $3 million in annual revenue by 2016. Between 2008 and 2017, the Walton Family Foundation gave FOCUS more than $7.7 million. And with the infusion of new funds came greater capacity, with the organization taking on new efforts like data analysis, school support services, and consulting.

As FOCUS’ budget went up, so did its lobbying expenses. In 2008, the organization reported $39,000 in total lobbying expenditures. Two years later,  FOCUS hired Michael Musante to be its new director of government relations. According to city ethics disclosures, FOCUS reported $120,000 in lobbying expenses in 2013, $130,000 in 2014, $145,000 in 2017, and $165,000 in 2018.

In addition, according to congressional disclosures, Musante also spent $206,000 since 2016 lobbying Congress on behalf of American Federation for Children, a national organization that supports private school vouchers.

Another major force aiding D.C’s charter sector has been CityBridge, a foundation headed by local philanthropist Katherine Bradley. A 2015 City Paper cover story detailed Bradley’s unique influence over school policy in Washington, though the full extent of her advocacy is hard to track, as she has never registered lobbying activities with the city. “CityBridge is very familiar with D.C. lobbying laws, and our attorneys have told us that we—like hundreds of other charitable organizations in the District—do not need to register,” Bradley says.

“The threshold for registering is quite low. If you’re aware of anyone making lobbying contacts the odds are very high that they should be registered,” says Craig Holman, a registered lobbyist with Public Citizen, a nonprofit that advocates for consumer protections.

Yet another player entered the charter advocacy scene in 2015, with the founding of Democrats for Education Reform DC, or DFER-DC. Democrats for Education Reform, a major national backer of charter schools, is actually a constellation of different entities: a political action committee, a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Education Reform Now, and a second 501(c)4 nonprofit—controlled by the same people—called Education Reform Now Advocacy. This split structure enables the group to lobby and spend vast quantities of money in elections. The national organization is further divided into state chapters, of which DFER-DC is one.

Most of DFER-DC’s political spending comes in the form of independent expenditures—hiring paid canvassers, sending political mailings, and running TV, radio, and digital ads. In 2018 alone, DFER-DC raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in such funds, including nearly $200,000 from Alice Walton, the Walmart heiress tied to the Walton Family Foundation. By the time the June 2018 primary rolled around, the group had already spent $300,000, and would go on to spend at least $150,000 more during the general election.

The Washington Teachers’ Union, by contrast, spent just $2,100 in direct campaign contributions in 2018, and nothing in independent expenditures.

A woman named Catharine Bellinger directed both DC Education Reform Now, and its PAC, DFER-DC, for its first three-and-a-half years. Despite frequently engaging lawmakers both in and outside the Wilson Building, she never registered as a local lobbyist.

In one email dated May 2016 with the subject-line “DFER’s top priority this budget cycle,” Bellinger wrote to At-Large Councilmember and education committee Chairman David Grosso asking him to press Council Chairman Phil Mendelson on increasing funds for charter school facilities. “I’d like to ask you to consider personally urging Chairman Mendelson to make this [2.2%] increase,” Bellinger wrote. “My sense is that a call from you, as Ed Committee chair, would really make the difference. Is that something you might consider?” In another email sent in June 2018, a month before moving to Texas, Bellinger wrote Grosso to say, “I’d love to get together with you for breakfast or a coffee to hear about your priorities as Ed Committee chair for the next session as well as share some thoughts we have on the proposed education research entity”—referring to legislation the Council was considering at that time.

“All of my advocacy efforts on behalf of ERN [referring to Education Reform Now] were in compliance with DC Code for nonprofit organizations,” Bellinger tells City Paper.

Josh Henderson, a political consultant and the former government relations liaison for the public charter school board, then took over as acting DFER-DC director. Despite also engaging lawmakers over legislative issues, he too never registered as a city lobbyist. When asked about this, Henderson cited a provision of the DC Code—noting a lobbying exemption applicable to nonprofit social welfare organizations—to explain why DFER’s (c)3 activities would not need to be registered.

Yet it’s not clear this provision is meant to exempt DC Education Reform Now from disclosure. “This is an obviously inaccurate reading of the law,” says Public Citizen’s Holman. “All of us regular nonprofits who spend $250 or more on lobbying the D.C. government must register and disclose our activities.” Other (c)3 organizations that register their lobbying include Jews United for Justice, the Nature Conservancy, and even FOCUS. “As nonprofits, we are given a break in the lobbyist registration fee,” Holman adds.

Henderson tells City Paper that their (c)4 arm, Education Reform Now Advocacy, is a registered lobbying entity in D.C. and they hire the firm Arent Fox to lobby on specific legislation. Records show that the registration occurred in 2018, and between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2018, Education Reform Now Advocacy paid Arent Fox $72,919.00 for the “promotion of policies benefiting public education, particularly charter schools.” Arent Fox earned an additional $63,150.00 during the first three months of 2019.

In July, DFER-DC hired Jessica Giles to serve as its next deputy director. Giles came directly from Grosso’s office, serving the last four years on the education committee.

Outside of Wilson building lobbying and campaign expenditures, DFER works to cultivate relationships with political leaders by hosting them at upscale private events. For example, public records requests made by City Paper reveal that DFER invited Grosso and his wife to sit at one of its two “VIP tables” at a Howard Theatre gala in 2016. “[We] are assembling a small group of education, civic, and philanthropic leaders to join us,” Bellinger wrote in her invitation.

The next year DFER invited Grosso and his wife to another gala, this time at the Ritz-Carlton, where they had a table sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation. Bellinger likewise invited Council Chairman Phil Mendelson to join her for a dinner event in 2016 at the Ritz-Carlton, again at a table sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation. And in April 2018 she extended yet another invitation to Mendelson for a Walton-sponsored table, this time at a gala hosted at the Newseum.

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In D.C., the entity that directly oversees charters is the Public Charter School Board. Publicly funded through administrative fees charged to each school’s annual budget, the agency is the sole authorizer for D.C. charters—meaning it’s tasked with opening, closing, and monitoring the schools. But the board has also embraced a significant advocacy role, fighting back against regulatory efforts it thinks may hurt charter school operations.

Sometimes this means D.C.’s charter school board coordinates with private advocacy groups in unusual ways. In 2015, for example, according to a public records request, the board’s general counsel emailed Irene Holtzman—who had recently taken over for Cane as FOCUS’ executive director—to strategize about securing changes in a language access bill the Council was considering. “Since we still have two bites at this, in my opinion, what would be helpful now is for the Council to hear from FOCUS and more charter schools,” the general counsel wrote. She encouraged FOCUS to submit testimony, “citing its position on autonomy as it has in the past on issues such as this that try to loop charter schools in with DCPS.”

A subsequent fight over school discipline reform reveals a more extraordinary example of charter board advocacy. In the fall of 2017 Grosso was gearing up to introduce legislation that would set legal limits on how schools could discipline students. Among other things, the bill would ban most suspensions through eighth grade and cap the number of days a child could be suspended in a year.

In October 2017, according to an email obtained by City Paper, charter board executive director Scott Pearson emailed representatives from every charter school with an urgent warning to protest this forthcoming bill. Pearson also copied his director of government relations, Drew Snyder, and Holtzman from FOCUS.

“As drafted, this bill would substantially interfere with your exclusive control over school operations, and would create major reporting burdens for your school,” Pearson wrote. “We hope you can join the discipline discussion so that we can protect the foundations of the School Reform Act.” (Bold lettering matches Pearson’s original email.)

He urged charter leaders to contact Grosso’s office. “Many of you are busy with the day-to-day operations of your school but we need you to share your perspective during any and all meetings or in writing if necessary,” he wrote, adding that Snyder and Holtzman are both available to provide “information, or assistance in preparing testimony, talking points, or written submissions.”

If the call to action were not explicit enough, Pearson ended his email by requesting charter leaders “let Drew or Irene know” if they can submit testimony or attend the next Council meeting on the legislation.

Pearson acknowledges that as the city’s sole charter school authorizer, making such requests could place undue pressure on the schools he’s charged with regulating. He also notes that not all charter schools opposed Grosso’s legislation like he did.

“I don’t think I’ve ever button-holed a single school and said, ‘You need to do this,’” he tells City Paper. “Because to me that would go beyond what’s appropriate given I’m the authorizer and I know schools might feel like they need to do that to please me.” It would cross a line, he says, if he asked an individual school leader to testify, or “if I was somehow showing that we were keeping track, like here’s a list of the leaders who signed up [to speak].”

While Pearson says there have been in-person meetings where he’s encouraged school leaders to “make their voices heard” on other legislative matters, the school discipline bill is the only example he can think of where he sent an email out like that. He thought the bill represented a “five-alarm fire.”

When City Paper asked Holtzman why she didn’t just send that advocacy blast herself, she explained she felt charter leaders would be more likely to open the email and act if it was sent by Pearson. “I think Scott’s intent was to amplify my message because the truth is … I’m their friend, maybe a critical friend, but I’m not their auth[orizer],” she said. “And I said to Scott… I didn’t think at the time we were going to get a ton of traction, I think Scott was like, ‘If I send out an email, they open emails that come from Scott Pearson.’”

The lines between the two organizations have been close in other ways. The charter board’s  second-in-command from January 2012 up until this past June, Naomi DeVeaux, had come from FOCUS. “She was my right-hand person,” Cane says. Other FOCUS alums would go on to lead different parts of D.C.’s educational establishment, like Erika Wadlington, who led advocacy and outreach at FOCUS and later went on to direct the Council’s education committee.

Cane emphasizes that there were times when the charter authorizer took positions that FOCUS felt encroached on charter autonomy, and FOCUS would make their concerns known. Still, Cane “was very close” with Pearson. “I would say there’s an attempt on both sides to cooperate, a close working relationship, because both PCSB and FOCUS are interested in the survival of the public charter school movement,” he says.

Holtzman agrees there have been times when FOCUS and the charter school board were not perfectly aligned, but says she thinks “Scott and the PCSB are like the authoritarian dad … and I might be like the cool aunt … But we’re all part of one family and we all play really different roles.” (Holtzman abruptly left FOCUS at the end of June.)

Pearson recognizes that his predecessor, Josephine Baker, was less engaged in advocacy, but suggests that was easier to do when the charter sector’s market-share was smaller. Today nearly half of all public schools students in D.C. attend charters.

Pearson says he personally sees political advocacy as an essential part of his job. “To be an effective authorizer doesn’t just mean doing a great job of oversight of schools, it also means being an advocate so the schools are operating in an environment that allows them to thrive,” he explains. And unlike the DC Public Schools chancellor, who works for the mayor, Pearson and his colleagues can publicly criticize the executive branch.

***

Traditional public schools have advocates too, but they’ve struggled and have very little money.

“I remember the charter board as kind of a non-entity,” says Gina Arlotto, who in the mid-2000s led an advocacy group for D.C.’s traditional public schools, called Save Our Schools Southeast/Northeast. “They left the heavy lifting to FOCUS.” Arlotto’s now-defunct organization took a critical stance on charters. It formed around 2003, and Arlotto says many community members were not receptive to their efforts. “It was sad we couldn’t get more people to just see what we were trying to do,” she says. “We wanted people to look at charters and be a little skeptical to protect the public investment.”

In the fall of 2004, their group filed a lawsuit alleging that top city officials had neglected their duty to the traditional public schools and were violating their constitutional obligations by spending so much money to advance school choice. “Robert Cane hated us, we got into it with him a bunch of times,” recalls Arlotto. “He’d call us ‘losers,’ ‘racist,’ tell us we’re never going to win.”

They didn’t win, as their case was dismissed in 2006 for lack of standing, and the group stopped organizing in 2009. And unlike in other cities, where teacher unions have played an active role in slowing charter school growth, the Washington Teachers’ Union has been politically weakened for years, following an embezzlement scandal where union leaders diverted more than $2.5 million in membership dues.

“They had scandals, they were in disarray, we were lucky in that sense that we didn’t have to spend time on them,” says Cane.

These groups form a stark contrast with education reform-backed parent advocacy. One of the newest groups to emerge on the charter advocacy side is Parents Amplifying Voices in  Education, or PAVE, which trains local parents to advocate for school reform. It has quickly grown into a powerful force with deep pockets in the city.

PAVE was founded in 2016 by Maya Martin Cadogan, through an education reform-backed “entrepreneur-in-residence” program. She had previously worked at two local charter schools, and served on the DFER-DC advisory board.

With a first-year budget of $450,000, PAVE had the early financial backing of groups like CityBridge, the Walton Family Foundation, and DFER. By 2018, its budget had increased to $1.2 million, and today has 11 full-time staffers. While charter parents were its sole focus in year one, it’s since expanded to parents in both sectors.

Last December, the group held its inaugural PAVE Parent Power Gala at District Winery in the Navy Yard, where Grosso was awarded the “Parent PowerED Policymaker Award.” The event had many high-dollar sponsors, including Katherine Bradley and her husband who contributed $25,000, the Walton Family Foundation, which gave $10,000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave $5,000, and Pearson of the charter school board, who donated $2,500.

Since its founding, PAVE has also organized an annual “Parent Voice and Choice Week” where it hosts catered meetings between advocates and lawmakers at the Council. This past year parent leaders met with 11 elected officials and Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn. Advocates ended the week with a reception co-sponsored by PAVE, DFER, FOCUS, and the Bradleys.

In June 2018, Valerie Jablow, a DC Public Schools parent and charter critic, filed a complaint with the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, raising concerns that PAVE staff were engaged in unregistered lobbying; she noted they join parents in their meetings with lawmakers. “My complaint is not to indict the work of PAVE or anyone else for that matter, but to ensure that our laws are followed for lobbyists,” she wrote in a subsequent email to the agency. “In this case, pretending PAVE is just a group of parent volunteers specifically disadvantages actual volunteer parents like me, who approach elected officials on their own or as the unpaid representatives of groups, like PTAs, that are also unpaid and 100 percent volunteer. This is why, in fact, we have lobbying laws that define who a lobbyist is—to level the playing field to ensure those with money do not have disproportionate power.”

Holman, of Public Citizen, explains that one of the more difficult aspects of enforcing lobbying laws—both in Congress and on the local level—is monitoring who should be registered in the first place. “If you don’t register no one is going to know what you’re up to, and the way this is policed is often through self-policing,” he says. “So when I realize that I’m in a lobbying meeting with other people who aren’t registered, it’s up to me to file a complaint so the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability can pursue an investigation and even levy fines for violating the law.”

This past April, the agency’s director Brent Wolfingbarger wrote Jablow to say they had conducted a preliminary investigation and were dismissing her complaint as they found insufficient evidence to support the claim that PAVE staff should register as lobbyists. Wolfingbarger emphasized that all PAVE staffers did was set up meetings between parents and lawmakers, but never communicated with lawmakers about legislative issues themselves.

Yet emails unearthed from a public records request paint a different picture—one in which PAVE staff also meet and converse with lawmakers and their staffers alone. In one email dated Aug. 6, 2018, Kerry Savage, PAVE’s associate director of policy and advocacy wrote to the Council’s education committee director, Akeem Anderson, to say, “As we discussed, I’d love to grab coffee to learn more about you and your work. I know Councilmember Grosso shares many of PAVE’s policy priorities, including mental health supports and transparent funding, and I’d love to discuss potential opportunities to partner together.” Emails show Savage and Anderson scheduled a meeting at the Wilson Building on Aug. 8.

About two months later, Anderson emailed Savage to say, “We should grab [sic] catch up soon. Are you available Friday or sometime next week?” The next month Savage emailed Anderson asking him to “let me know if there are any good days for you to chat in the next couple weeks and I’ll compare with my schedule.” Roughly a month after that, Anderson sent an email connecting Savage with Katrina Forrest, the deputy chief of staff in Grosso’s office. “I want to connect you with Katrina in our office to discuss School Based Mental Health and our budget priorities as we move into the next Council Period,” he wrote. “Hopefully you two can find time to connect soon.” Savage wrote back to both staffers and said, “Katrina, I’d love to talk soon about our shared priorities. Is there a good time for you this week? Otherwise happy to connect after the holidays.”

“No PAVE staff have discussed specific legislative priorities one-on-one with [council] staff, and our staff, myself included, do not engage in lobbying,” Cadogan tells City Paper over email.

City Paper asked Anderson if he ever discussed specific legislative priorities one-on-one during his meetings and conversations with Savage. “Councilmember Grosso and staff met with and provided all relevant information about our meetings with parent advocates and staff of PAVE to the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, which has concluded its report,” spokesperson Matthew Nocella wrote in response.

In July, Jablow attended BEGA’s monthly board meeting to raise her concerns, and call for a continued investigation. Wolfingbarger insisted again that all PAVE staff has done is schedule meetings for parents—nothing more. “PAVE does the organizing of the meetings, but doesn’t actually present arguments or try to persuade,” he said, in an audio recording of the meeting.

Wolfingbarger tells City Paper his team found no evidence that PAVE met one-on-one with councilmembers or their staff. He did not respond to a voicemail and three follow-up emails with City Paper’s questions regarding details about their investigation, including the time period BEGA’s team studied, and whether their search involved a review of Council communications, like email.

***

The School Reform Act has protected charter schools against city interference for years, but signs are emerging that this legal armor is starting to corrode.

That’s in part due to a failed federal lawsuit brought in 2014 alleging D.C. had illegally underfunded charter schools by hundreds of millions of dollars, in violation of the School Reform Act. The Association and two local charter schools were named plaintiffs, and FOCUS helped finance the litigation.

D.C.’s then-Attorney General Irvin Nathan argued the case should be dismissed on the basis that “these are distinctively local decisions.” He emphasized that the School Reform Act does not “relieve the Council of its Home Rule Act authority” to determine school funding.

A federal judge denied Nathan’s dismissal request, but in 2017, she ruled against the plaintiffs. The charter groups appealed, and this past July, the D.C. Circuit dismissed the case for lack of federal jurisdiction.

“I think the winds have changed,” says Patterson, the auditor. “I think the litigation is informing sitting policymakers that they can do what they think is right and not run into legal problems because Congress enacted it.”

“I think for a long time the Council just really drank the Kool-Aid about charters being self-regulating and the market taking care of problems,” adds Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, an advocacy group for school facilities.

Aside from the lawsuit, Grosso has also been more willing than past lawmakers to test the limits of the School Reform Act. In 2014, before he was committee chairman, Grosso introduced legislation to restrict the number of suspensions and expulsions for preschool students. The charter sector fought the bill, leveraging their federal supremacy arguments, but Grosso went forward anyway. It passed in 2015, the year he was named committee chair. In 2017, again over the strong objections of most charter advocates, Grosso introduced his next school discipline bill to restrict suspensions and expulsions for all public school students.

“I focus the work of the Committee on Education from a perspective of what is best for students and how can I put every student in D.C in the position to succeed in school,” Grosso tells City Paper. “We always set out from that framework. When we have a priority—like [the school discipline bill]—I do a legal analysis with my office and general counsel to make sure that it’s something we can move forward with.” Since becoming committee chair, Grosso says he’s been “able to get my priorities through.”

***

Gathered on the fourth floor of the Wilson building this past June, at a Council hearing for bills to track the flow of funds to the city’s most vulnerable students, dozens of public witnesses turned out to testify about a different matter: increasing transparency in D.C.’s public charter schools.

Unlike most other cities and states, D.C.’s charter schools are not subject to public records requests, and a proposed piece of legislation, not due for a hearing until Oct. 2, seeks to change that. Supporters of that bill feared the late date was selected to neutralize their momentum, and so they came out earlier to make their case.

This local political battle comes on the heels of a recent fight in California, where advocates had also long sought to bring charters under the state’s sunshine statutes. At the end of 2018, California’s attorney general issued a sweeping opinion around charter transparency, rejecting the idea that nonprofit charters should be exempt from public record requests, and this past March the state’s governor signed a bill bringing all California charter schools under the same open meetings, public records, and conflict-of-interest laws as traditional public schools.

Grosso has already stated his interest in subjecting charters to open meeting laws, something he and other councilmembers rejected back in 2015 when government watchdogs last pushed for it.

With reform chatter in the air, D.C.’s network of charter advocates is gearing up to go to battle once again.

They call the push for public records and other transparency rules an effort by unions and charter opponents to undermine the schools, by draining charter resources and hobbling them with bureaucracy. They say that just because other states successfully apply sunshine laws to their charters does not mean D.C. would see similar success.

This past spring, Education Reform Now, DFER-DC’s affiliate, funded a text-message campaign against the proposed transparency bill, using the same internal talking points endorsed by FOCUS and the Association. “The D.C Council is considering legislation that would divert resources in quality public charter schools away from helping students achieve to completing onerous paperwork and bureaucracy,” one text read. Another encouraged recipients to click on a link, which provided them with a pre-drafted email to send to their local representatives opposing the legislation. “I am writing to express disappointment in your recently introduced bill to unfairly target public charter schools,” the form email read. “Our kids need teachers and resources not more legal burdens.” DFER-DC did not answer City Paper’s inquiries regarding how many residents received the texts.

At the June hearing some charter leaders made similar points against additional oversight.

“I see this Council and others moving in a direction that troubles me, treating public charter schools as public agencies,” testified Shannon Hodge, the executive director of Kingsman Academy, a charter located in Ward 6. “We are not public agencies and we are not intended to be.”

Royston Lyttle, an Eagle Academy principal, agreed. “We don’t need more bureaucracy and red tape.”

“We have seen the playbook of the [National Education Association] for how to act against charters, and unfortunately some of what is happening right now, it’s coming straight out of the playbook,” says Edelin, executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools. Peabody echoes her comments, saying the transparency bill is “part of what the national union is proposing to improve the charter schools, but what they’re really saying is if you weaken, surround them by red tape, then they won’t be as good as they are now.”

About three hours into June’s eight-hour hearing, At-Large Councilmember Robert White suggested that charter advocates try another approach going forward. “The biggest opposition to the FOIA piece from charter schools that I’ve heard is that it’s this huge burden. I don’t have a position on this right now, it’s something I’m still listening to, but if the strongest argument from the charter schools is that this is a burden—I don’t think that’s a strong enough argument,” he said. White invited advocates to share “more reasons, other reasons” as to why charter schools believe they should be exempt.

“Yeah it’s a burden, but is it an insurmountable burden?” he asked. “No, it’s not.”

For Kids Experiencing Homelessness, Back-To-School Can Mark A Return To Stability

Originally published in DCist on August 29, 2019
——

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On a recent Wednesday night at the Quality Inn on New York Avenue in Northeast—which the city uses as an overflow homeless shelter—parents and children poured into the motel’s community room for a back-to-school drive.

Replete with pizza, face painting, hula hoop dancing, and games, the event was one of several such drives the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project hosted this month across four local shelters, to provide families with new bookbags stuffed with school supplies. Individual donors gave Playtime funds to buy the pencils, folders, and other items, while individual groups donated the bags.

“All the backpacks are brand new. We always specifically ask for that because we feel the families deserve it,” says Melanie Hatter, the communications coordinator for Playtime. “A lot of families are dealing with hand-me-down, second-hand clothes all the time, and our goal is to give them new things, new toys.”

While Playtime distributed 300 backpacks in August, homeless advocates know they’re barely scratching the surface for the almost 6,000 students experiencing homelessness heading back to school in D.C.—a number that has risen starkly over the last half-decade, despite the city claiming a nearly 24 percent drop in family homelessness since 2015.

In 2019 there were 5,593 homeless students in the District, up from about 3,000 students five years earlier. Under federal law, students are not only considered homeless if they are living on the streets or in shelters, but also if they lack permanent housing more generally. Tierra Washington, the Homeless Children and Youth Program Specialist for D.C. Public Schools, says the increase in student homelessness is partly driven by the city’s lack of affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage, as well as D.C.’s status as a sanctuary city—which means families who may be fleeing natural disasters or other dangerous circumstances are welcome.

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Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration has claimed a steep drop in family homelessness by relying on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s more narrow definition of homelessness. Unlike most other federal agencies, HUD controversially only counts as homeless those individuals found living in shelters or on the streets. To do this, once a year communities all over the U.S. go outside and literally count how many people they can find living in those circumstances over the course of an evening, an annual event called the Point-in-Time Count. Homeless advocates have long criticized government officials for relying on this more limited metric, which ignores those who may be huddled up with others in crowded apartments or crashing in motels.

In 2019, HUD’s annual count showed only 1,606 homeless children living in D.C.

“The city numbers are inaccurate and misleading,” says Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national youth homelessness organization. “We’re seeing this same story play out nationally, where politicians claim family homelessness is going down while schools see their numbers continue to go up. Schools use a definition of homelessness that matches the reality for families and youth having to stay with other people because they have nowhere else to go.”

The Department of Human Services director Laura Zeilinger told DCist that both metrics of homelessness “are important and used to inform D.C. policy decisions.” Zeilinger says they rely on HUD’s Point In Time Count for comparison to past years because it “is most useful to capture trend data.” She says the Education Department metric “helps the District understand the broader affordable housing needs and potential inflow to the homeless service system.”

Zellinger points to programs like the Homelessness Prevention Program and Project Reconnect as examples of initiatives DHS has embraced to assist households at risk of homelessness who are not currently on the streets or in emergency shelters. “DHS serves households meeting both definitions, recognizing there is massive need and no one-size-fits-all approach to a housing emergency,” she said.

In 2018, HUD reported in its Annual Homeless Assessment Report that family homelessness had declined nationally by 23 percent since 2007, even though the U.S. Department of Education reported a 70 percent increase in homeless youth during that time. Head Start also reported 52,764 homeless students in 2017, an increase of 100 percent since 2007.

Statistics aside, back-to-school marks an important time for youth experiencing homelessness in the city, who may be returning to the classroom after several turbulent months off.

Washington, of DCPS, notes that losing access to free meals if they’re not attending summer school or school-based programming can be one of the most challenging things for homeless children over the summer. “Losing access to support staff in the school who they built relationships with” can also be hard, she said.

Heading back to school means a host of new people around to provide homeless youth with daily stability and care.

“You may not be going to the same place to sleep every night but at least you’re coming back to the same classroom,” said Duffield. “You have friends and activities that can help distract you, though the challenges you face at home also can make it hard to focus. School is of tremendous importance for homeless youth, to just to ensure one’s basic needs are being met.”

Playtime isn’t the only group to support families transitioning back to the classroom. Nearly all schools host various back-to-school events, and by law, all public schools have a homeless liaison on staff. These employees work to help homeless families track down school supplies, toiletries, as well as learn their rights.

Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a local homeless youth organization, also helps distribute school supplies and backpacks through its Teen Outreach Program. Courtney Gibbs, who has managed the program in D.C. since 2013, says ensuring homeless youth have access to clean, fitting uniforms can be an annual challenge. “Sometimes just transitioning from one grade to the next, students grow, they need new uniforms, a fresh haircut, a fresh pair of shoes,” she said. “Sometimes those basic needs get forgotten when we think of students who are homeless. And it can be very challenging, very frustrating for a young person to deal with that.”

The McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 lays out the rights of homeless students in the United States. “If we have a student who is enrolled in their school of origin and their housing status changes at any time … we are mandated to allow them to attend the boundary school based on their new temporary address,” explained Washington. “They have the option to remain in their school of origin, or if they move to another shelter or another family member’s house—they have the right to enroll in that [new] boundary school.”

To make things easier on homeless students, advocates say the city needs to do more to connect families with information and wraparound resources, as well as provide students with more accessible transportation options. All students in the city are given SmarTrip cards that can be used to ride freely on the Metrorail, bus, or circulator for school-related travel, but sometimes the distance between where a student lives and the nearest transit stop can be formidable.

Earlier this month, the executive director of Playtime sent a letter to the Council asking for the city to provide a shuttle bus or circulator to help youth staying at the Quality Inn and the Days Inn get to the nearest Metro station. More than 530 children current live in those two hotel shelters, according to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. (The city plans to move all families permanently out of those two locations by the end of 2020.)

“This area is not only a food desert but it’s also an educational desert—this is not a zoned area for schooling,” Hatter said of the region around the hotel shelters. “A lot of the families are spending money on Ubers to try to go to work or get their kids to school, and we’re really hoping the city will do more for these families, even if there’s only a year here left.”

8 Unions Have a Plan for Climate Action—But It Doesn’t Mention Fighting the Fossil Fuel Industry

Originally published in In These Times on August 26, 2019.
—–
On June 24, the BlueGreen Alliance—a national coalition which includes eight large labor unions and six influential environmental groups—released an eight-page document laying out its vision to curb climate change and reduce inequality. The report, dubbed Solidarity for Climate Action, marks a significant development in the world of environmental politics. It argues the needs of working people must be front-and-center as the U.S. responds to climate change, and rejects the “false choice” between economic security and a healthy planet.

While the report’s focus on public investment, good jobs and justice shares much in common with the federal Green New Deal resolution introduced in February, it also stands in tension with environmentalists who demand the U.S. work to transition more quickly away from oil, coal and natural gas. “We’d really like them to be stronger and more concise about what it means to move away from fossil fuels and transition to renewables,” said José Bravo, executive director of the Just Transition Alliance and speaking on behalf of the Climate Justice Alliance. Members of the BlueGreen Alliance say the ultimate goal should be to decarbonize the economy—to reduce CO2 emissions, but not necessarily end the fossil fuel industry itself, with its tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. Other climate groups say that won’t be enough, and humanity cannot afford to preserve industries that have caused so much environmental harm. This difference in vision will stand as one of the most fundamental political questions facing progressives in the next decade.

The report spells out a series of principles, including limiting warming to 1.5°C, expanding union jobs, modernizing infrastructure, bolstering environmental protections and rebuilding the nation’s manufacturing sector with green technologies. It also elevates the issue of equity, calling to “inject justice into our nation’s economy by ensuring that economic and environmental benefits of climate change solutions support the hardest hit workers and communities.” The BlueGreen Alliance emphasizes the disproportionate impact low-income workers and communities of color will face, and says those affected by the energy transition must receive “a just and viable transition” to new, high-quality union jobs.

To make its platform a reality, the BlueGreen Alliance endorses a host of specific policies and timetables, like reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, while being “solidly on a path” to that goal by 2030. Among other things, the report calls for measures like restoring forests and wildlands, cracking down on empl­oyee misclassification, making it easier to unionize one’s workplace, winning universal access to high-speed Internet, and “massive” economic investing in deindustrialized areas, “including remediating any immediate loss of tax base or public services for communities.”

Labor groups in the coalition include the United Steelworkers, the Utility Workers Union of America, the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, the Communications Workers of America, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, the Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers. The environmental organizations include the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Environmental Defense Action Fund, and the League of Conservation Voters.

Following the 2016 election, the coalition organized listening sessions with workers in communities that voted for Donald Trump, like in Macomb County, Michigan, and the Iron Range in Wisconsin. After those discussions, leaders started investing in broader polling, message-testing and focus groups. While opponents of regulating greenhouse gas emissions relish exploiting tensions between environmentalists and labor unions, Mike Williams, the deputy director of the BlueGreen Alliance, said it became clear from the research “that working people do quite care about climate change, but they also believe they should not be forced to make a choice between that and having a good job.”

“We went through a lot of iterations and a lot of conversations,” said Sara Chieffo, the vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. “There was real unanimity that we were solving the twin crises of inequality and climate change.”

Jeremy Brecher, the co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability, which supports organized labor in tackling climate change, tells In These Times that he sees the Solidarity for Climate Action report as “quite a significant stepping out” for the BlueGreen Alliance. “The BGA was basically [created in 2006] to advocate for the growth and quality of jobs in the clean economy,” he said. “It did not take positions on targets and timetables for carbon reduction, clean coal and the KXL pipeline. It was a green jobs organization, which is important in terms of understanding where the BGA was coming from.” Brecher says the BlueGreen Alliance’s new statement “about the pace of greenhouse gas emission reductions and the absolute centrality and necessity of it is an extremely positive development.”

Evan Weber, the political director and co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, agrees. “I think the platform represents a really historic step forward for a number of the nation’s largest and most influential labor unions,” he said. “It leaves some questions about what needs to be done, and we’d like to see more ambition, but it is really meaningful that these groups and unions have come to the table and shown that they’re willing to move forward and not stay in the ways of the past.”

The Green New Deal resolution was introduced in Congress as the BlueGreen Alliance hashed out its own proposal. The leaders of some labor unions in the BlueGreen Alliance that represent workers in the fossil fuel industry—including the Steelworkers and the Utility Workers—have publicly voiced criticism of the Green New Deal, blasting it for a lack of specifics. The federal resolution “certainly took over a big portion of the national climate conversation, and a few of our partners were supportive, but there is also skepticism from the labor side,” said Williams. “As we were working we said we need to focus on our own process to see where we can forge alignment.”

Some hope the BlueGreen platform can serve as a policy blueprint for moving forward on the Green New Deal. SEIU, which represents 2 million workers, is both a BlueGreen coalition member and the first international union to back the federal Green New Deal resolution. “SEIU members know that we must take bold, immediate action on climate change, including holding corporations accountable for rampant pollution and ensuring good union jobs as we transition to a clean energy economy,” president Mary Kay Henry told In These Times. “That’s why we are proud to support both the Green New Deal, our North Star for what needs to be accomplished on climate change, and the BlueGreen Alliance’s platform, a roadmap for how we can get there.”

The League of Conservation Voters also endorsed the Green New Deal resolution back in February, and Chieffo told In These Times that her group sees the Solidarity for Climate Action report as “a really essential addition” to the conversation. “We are proud to endorse the Green New Deal and I think it’s incredibly valuable to have these eight powerful unions at the table laying out a proactive vision for how we tackle climate change.”

In These Times reached out to the original co-sponsors of the Green New Deal, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey of (D-Mass.), for comment on the BlueGreen Alliance’s report.

Anika Legrand-Wittich, a spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez, said while she was unable to reach the Congresswoman for specific comment, she “confirmed with our staff that we have indeed worked with BlueGreen Alliance and share many of their goals.”

Giselle Barry, a spokesperson for Sen. Markey, pointed to a supportive tweet the senator posted following the report’s release. It signal boosted the BlueGreen Alliance platform, and reads, “Transforming our economy and combatting climate change will create millions of jobs, but it won’t be possible without our workers and their families. Great to see our allies in organized labor continuing to make climate action a top priority.”

New Consensus, a think tank working to develop policies for the Green New Deal, said in an email “We don’t have any comment on the BGA report at this time.”

Fossil fuels

Despite its generally positive reception, the Solidarity for Climate Action has not gone without critique — and some environmental groups and labor leaders have raised issues and questions about the platform.

“I don’t think it goes far enough in terms of moving us definitively off fossil fuels at the speed that is required,” said Weber of the Sunrise Movement.

Brecher, of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said while overall the report marks a “very big step forward” for unions, he thinks its language “can use a little tightening up” to prevent groups from having too much “wiggle room.” He specifically pointed to language that America should be “on a pathway” to reducing its emissions, and suggests that be more specific. “It is overall quite close to the Green New Deal resolution, which also has a little wiggle room,” he said. (For example, most action items in the Green New Deal come with the caveat of “as much as is technologically feasible.”)

Julian Brave NoiseCat, the director of Green New Deal strategy at Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, said his organization’s vision for climate action shares a lot of overlap with the BlueGreen Alliance platform. But he noted BlueGreen Alliance’s does not include a 100% clean energy commitment, nor explicit provisions to phase-out fossil fuels, and it does not include a 10-year mobilization, in line with the Green New Deal. He also said he wonders whether the BlueGreen Alliance would support a federal jobs guarantee, or some other federal work provision.

Erich Pica, the president of Friends of the Earth, a climate group, said while it’s significant to see the labor movement taking proactive steps on the environment, as well as seeing the report’s emphasis on justice and equity, he protested its lack of mention of fossil fuels, natural gas, oil or coal. “How do you have solidarity for climate action when you’re not proactively calling out the very fuel sources that we have to eliminate from the U.S. economy?” he asked. “It says a lot of great things about how we want the economy structured, but in many ways it papers over where some of the greatest disagreement is between parts of the labor movement and the environmental community.”

Pica also acknowledged that the Green New Deal resolution did not make any mention of fossil fuels. “We were critical of that, too,” he said.

Mike Williams, of the BlueGreen Alliance, said while he understands that critique, he also thinks “it’s a bit much” to expect this platform to call for banning fossil fuels. “Our goal is to get climate pollution out of our economy by a certain time to avoid as much warming as possible, so we established our platform with the methods we think will help get us to those goals,” he said. “The banning of fossil fuels — that’s pretty controversial to expect of the people who represent the human beings who work in that sector. This is tens of thousands of people who work in these industries, and for a union to step out and say we’re going to end your job and the promise of a new job is a wink and a nod and a handshake. Well America has never before followed through on any proper transition, save for maybe the New Deal for white dudes.”

From Williams’ perspective, demanding unions call for ending their own jobs, before any sort of real alternative agreement is in place, is simply unrealistic. “It’s so mind boggling to think that people who represent folks who work in those industries would jump so far out ahead of where their membership is, and without any real forthright and immediately implementable solution,” he said.

Pica, of Friends of the Earth, also critiqued the BlueGreen Alliance for making no gesture toward campaigns to keep fossil fuels in the ground. “It’s been the divestment fights, trying to get universities and cities to divest their money from fossil fuel companies, that has been the fuel of the climate movement over the last decade,” he said.

Williams said the absence of certain “buzzwords” doesn’t diminish from what the document accomplishes. “We’re on the same side, and I truly respect [the environmental critics] and I hear them, but this is about building a broader movement that can get bigger solutions across the line,” he said.

Carbon-capture technology

Perhaps the most polarizing policy endorsed by the Solidarity for Climate Action report is that of carbon-capture technology, a method backed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and supported by most of the labor movement. But among environmentalists it’s more divisive, as some argue it will prolong dependence on fossil fuels, be too costly, and make it harder to reduce emissions overall.

“The fact that it’s included in the BGA report I think is very unfortunate and something that realistically has no chance of making a significant contribution to climate protection,” Brecher said. “Some of the other environmental groups are more squishy.”

Pica called carbon-capture “an expensive detour to nowhere” that’s a “nonstarter and at worse feeds kind of feeds false hope.” In January more than 600 environmental groups sent a letter to Congress saying they will—among other things—“vigorously oppose” federal climate legislation that promotes “corporate schemes” like carbon-capture and storage. Brecher and Pica’s groups were among the signatories. While the Green New Deal resolution is ambiguous on carbon-capture, last week Sen. Bernie Sanders released his presidential climate plan, which includes opposition to the technology.

Phil Smith, a spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America, a labor union not represented in the BlueGreen Alliance, tells In These Times that there are aspects of the report his union agrees with, “especially with respect to carbon-capture technology.” But he critiqued it as not specific enough when it comes to defining what a “just transition” means. The platform calls for “guaranteed pensions and a bridge of wage support, healthcare and retirement security” until an impacted worker finds a new job or retires.

“Coal miners want to know what the hell you mean when you say you want a ‘just transition,’” Smith says. “Training to drive a truck is not a just transition. Training a miner to earn half of what they’re making now is not a just transition. … Our concern is once laws get passed to phase out carbon dioxide in 10 years, if we’re going to have a ‘just transition’ then we needed to be working on that 15 years ago. It’s just meaningless words on paper right now, and we keep seeing it over and over.”

Moving forward, members of the BlueGreen Alliance plan to promote the policies outlined in their new platform through legislative advocacy and local community organizing. In late July, the coalition sent a letter to the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), and its ranking member, John Shimkus (R-Ill.), encouraging them to consider the Solidarity for Climate Action platform as they proceed in Congress.

“I think the next phase of work is educating elected officials on what’s in the platform,” said Chieffo. “And then really rolling up our sleeves to craft the legislation and hopefully future executive branch options needed to deliver it.”

How Democrats Plan to Win Wisconsin in 2020

Originally published in The Intercept on August 23, 2019.
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DEMOCRATS, LABOR UNIONS, and progressive groups are investing heavily in new organizing techniques in Wisconsin, where electoral victory is considered crucial to the party’s path to the White House. They are hoping to boost voter turnout in a state that the national party took for granted in 2016.

The efforts, spearheaded by Wisconsin leaders and liberal donors across the country, include massive new investments in field organizing, a targeted focus on communities of color, and capitalizing on the Democratic Party convention that will be held in Milwaukee next July.

“I think the whole country recognizes that Wisconsin is not only a necessary state, but may be the necessary state to stop Trump and elect a Democratic president,” said Ben Wikler, the former D.C. director of the national progressive group MoveOn, who was elected chair of Wisconsin’s Democratic Party in June. “Activists, small donors, large donors, and independent groups are all looking at Wisconsin for 2020.”

By all indications, the state’s election is going to be decided by a narrow margin. A new poll released last week by Crooked Media and Change Research found Donald Trump trailing a Democratic candidate in Wisconsin by just 1 percentage point. Independents — who make up more than a third of the Badger State’s electorate — lean Trump 43 to 41 percent, the survey found, and 2016 third-party voters and nonvoters lean Democratic.

For more than three decades, Wisconsin had not elected a Republican as president. That, combined with Barack Obama’s sweep of the state in 2008 and 2012, led to party complacency in 2016, and shock when Trump won Wisconsin by just under 23,000 votes. A careful look at the state’s more recent history, however, underscores that the party never should have taken the state for granted — a lesson it appears Democrats are learning.

“I think people outside the state don’t appreciate that our 2000 election was decided by less than 6,000 votes, and 2004 was decided by less than 13,000 votes,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Milwaukee-based Marquette Law School Poll. “So as close as 2016 was, it was actually the third-closest race since 2000.”

In addition, Republicans held trifecta control over Wisconsin’s state government from 2011 to 2018, and Gov. Scott Walker decisively won his recall election in 2012 and reelection in 2014. Under his leadership, the state not only passed the notorious Act 10 — legislation that stripped public school teachers of their right to collectively bargain — but also right-to-work, undermining the financial base of labor unions across the state. Union membership has plummeted in Wisconsin, going from 13.3 percent of workers in 2011, to just 8.1 percent in 2018.

The decimation of labor unions likely played a role in the 2016 election and will be a factor in 2020. One study published last year estimated that the enactment of right-to-work laws across the U.S. had reduced Democratic presidential vote shares by a staggering 3.5 percentage points. Overall turnout decreased by 2 percentage points after the passage of right-to-work laws, and that’s in part, the researchers say, because labor’s ability to contribute politically was weakened.

“The decline of labor has been a big blow to the state’s Democratic party in terms of fundraising,” said Franklin. “National unions have come in and invested some because of the symbolic value of Wisconsin and Scott Walker, but the teachers union and AFSCME are far weaker, and there’s no question there’s been a substantial political impact in terms of boots on the ground.”

IN INTERVIEWS, STATE leaders recognized that the challenges — which, in addition to a weakened labor movement, include gerrymandered maps and racist voter ID laws — are real. But they say the opportunities to mobilize better and differently are real, too.

“It’s true our membership is down, but the remaining members we have are the most engaged, hyper-involved that we’ve ever seen,” said Valerie Landowski, the spokesperson for Wisconsin’s affiliate of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME. “And as the fights changed, the energy was forced to be ramped up.”

For Our Future, a national super PAC venture that formed in 2016 between AFSCME, AFL-CIO, NEA, AFT, SEIU, and NextGen America, is investing more heavily this cycle in a campaign strategy known as “relational organizing.”

Relational organizing — which involves leveraging one’s own social network to persuade and mobilize voters — has been employed in Wisconsin by political campaigners since 2011. But after the 2016 election, For Our Future ran a test with Analyst Institute to formally study its impact and found it was notably effective, despite not being used on a very large scale. Joe Zepecki of For Our Future told The Intercept that after that study, progressives in Wisconsin more than doubled the number of volunteers using relational organizing tools in 2018, and aim to surpass that in 2020.

“People talking to people they know is one of the oldest political technologies in existence,” said Wikler, “but doing it through apps and digital tools is still pretty new.”

There is also new money pouring into the state from Priorities USA, the primary super PAC that supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, and did not target Wisconsin at the time. It is spending $100 million on early campaign ads in Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

The state Democratic Party, for its part, is emphasizing a return to campaign strategies it relied on when Obama ran for president, where organizers mobilized and supported local teams of volunteers who then knocked on doors in their own communities. The Clinton campaign employed a more traditional voter turnout effort — where canvassers were hired to do voter persuasion.

“We’re doing a massive neighborhood team-based field program and that is a sharp contrast from 2016,” Wikler told The Intercept. After the loss in 2016, he said, the then-chair of the Wisconsin Democratic party, Martha Lanning, did a deep dive into winning elections after Trump, and discovered there were still some neighborhood teams barely alive from the Obama years that weren’t being properly supported. Starting in the spring of 2017, the state Democratic Party switched to rebuilding its neighborhood field program, and by 2018 had 250 such teams on the ground. “Those teams knocked almost twice as many doors for half the cost than they did in the presidential,” Wikler said.

Wikler said they are also taking a different approach to their field organizers this time around. By the spring of 2016, the Clinton campaign had hired just a few field organizers in Wisconsin, and they were mostly individuals who lacked deep roots in the state. “Although they did a lot of wonderful work, some of it was at cross-purposes with what local activists and local parties were doing,” he said. By contrast, Wikler says his party has already hired 13 field organizers for 2020, and they are starting early to most effectively mobilize those areas. “It’s like planting trees,” he said. “The earlier you start, the more you can grow. And if you come in with a really short time, you wind up missing a lot about people’s specific preferences.”

Wikler also pointed to Organizing Corps 2020, a Democratic National Committee-led effort launched in February across seven states, including Wisconsin, to recruit and train students expecting to graduate by June 2020. The goal is to put them through an eight-week organizing program while they’re still in school, so that when they graduate, they can start working as full-time field organizers. The program has the goal of training 1,000 young people, and Wikler said this past summer they had 29 such fellows in Wisconsin, who, among other things, knocked on 2 percent of all Milwaukee’s doors. “That early work is tremendous, not only to improve our data but also identify new volunteers and activists,” he said.

NEW GRASSROOTS COMMUNITY organizations are also working to complement the efforts of the party infrastructure, with the explicit goal of mobilizing communities of color. In 2016, the black voter turnout rate dropped nationwide, but the drop was even steeper in Wisconsin, where it declined 19 percentage points compared to 2012. While one study found thousands of registered Wisconsin voters were kept from voting due to the state’s new restrictive voter ID law, local activists say voter suppression doesn’t capture the full story, and the chronic disinvestment in the needs of black communities wrought consequences.

One such group is Black Leaders Organizing for Change, or BLOC, which formed in November 2017 and is run by Angela Lang, a Milwaukee native who worked as the For Our Future Wisconsin political director in 2016.

“Essentially we’re a response to the 2016 election,” Lang, the group’s executive director, told The Intercept. “A lot of folks were blaming our community for not turning out to vote and essentially blaming us for why Donald Trump got elected, and I found those attacks to be a very dangerous narrative.”

Lang said a lot of their work has been about rebuilding political trust within the black community, and learning more specifically what black residents feel they need in order to thrive. BLOC is taking a different approach to field organizing, Lang says, through its “BLOC Ambassadors” program, which aims to train local community residents with the kind of knowledge that may empower them to pursue organizing as a meaningful career path even after the election. “Part of our training is we educate our ambassadors about the roles and responsibilities of each particular office, so then they can go out and explain to voters why they should specifically care about the sheriff’s office, the district attorney’s office, or the county executive,” she said. Eighteen BLOC ambassadors are currently being trained on a 12-week paid fellowship program.

In addition to its focus on federal races, BLOC is working to educate community members about the city budget process and upcoming local elections. “We’re making sure that not all the oxygen is getting sucked up by the presidential, because the general election for mayor and county executive is the same day as the presidential primary,” Lang said.

“People talk a lot about presidential coattails,” — the tendency for a strong presidential candidate to attract votes for other candidates in their party — “but energizing down-ballot races actually drives presidential turnout too,” said Wikler.

Leaders Igniting Transformation, or LIT, is another new group in Milwaukee taking a similarly unconventional approach to political organizing. LIT launched in January 2018 with the goal of mobilizing and training young people of color to engage civically and advance a progressive policy agenda.

During the 2018 election, according to LIT’s executive director Dakota Hall, young people knocked on over 35,000 doors and collected over 10,000 voter pledge cards. The group specifically targets voters under 30, and like BLOC, LIT is focused heavily on youth leadership development. Its “Black Hogwarts” program for example was a six-week training program to train 25 youth of color on the basics of community organizing, and its  “cultural organizing” program seeks to bring in local Milwaukee artists, performers, musicians, and influencers into the civic sphere.

“Black turnout was down because there wasn’t necessarily a candidate or organization speaking to the hearts and minds of the black community,” Hall said, noting that Milwaukee youth are particularly concerned with affordable and debt-free pathways to college, the humanitarian and moral crisis at the southern border, and health care. “I think we’re going to see a resurgence of the black vote in Wisconsin and Milwaukee because of groups like LIT and BLOC that are doing things differently.

These efforts have garnered attention from liberals outside the state. Both BLOC and LIT are supported by the Center for Popular Democracy, an umbrella group for national progressive organizations. They will also receive funds from a new initiative spearheaded by actress Alyssa Milano, who announced she would be partnering with the Movement Voter Project, a progressive donor organization, to help raise $1 million for nine local grassroots groups in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

THESE EFFORTS ARE, in many ways, building up to the DNC’s 2020 convention — a tremendous Milwaukee-based opportunity being held next July. One study published in 2014 found Democrats are more likely to gain support in convention host communities than Republicans.

“Volunteers for the convention become volunteers for the general election,” said Wikler. “There will be literally thousands of people volunteering, many of them possibly for their first time.”

Leaders Igniting Transformation intends to organize around the party convention, according to Hall. “If candidates are going to come to Milwaukee, one of the most segregated metros in the nation, one of the worst places to raise a black child with one of the highest racial and educational disparities, well, we are looking to make sure their plans will not just use Milwaukee as some grandstanding opportunity to show support for the Midwest,” he said. “We plan on taking action to ensure that whatever candidates make it to the convention are put on notice that they will not ignore black communities in their platforms.”

The Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization, or MASH, a new union that launched in 2018 and has already organized 1,200 workers in the city, also plans to organize around the convention. MASH is led by Peter Rickman, a local labor activist who led Bernie Sanders’s Wisconsin delegation to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Crucially, MASH is focused on sectoral bargaining, which would allow workers in the same industry to bargain with their employers alongside each other, and was integral in negotiating a labor agreement for the new Milwaukee Bucks arena where the party convention will be held. (In 2018, MASH worked with the Fight for $15 coalition to get out the vote for then-gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers.)

“Going into 2020 we are ramping up what our political operation looks like,” Rickman told The Intercept. “And yes, let’s use the place of this convention to tell the nation the story of how in Milwaukee we are building new forms of worker organization to raise wages and living standards. Candidates have to do more than simply pledge to roll back right-to-work. Even if we got rid of right-to-work, it wouldn’t address the fact that we’ve got thousands of workers and contractors now spread across hundreds of different worksites.”

Recent elections in the state indicate just how narrow the margin will be in 2020. In last November’s midterm elections, Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin sailed to reelection by 10 percentage points, but in the gubernatorial race, Democrat Tony Evers ousted Walker by just over 1 percentage point, or 29,000 votes. While he outperformed Walker in suburban areas, as well as in Wisconsin’s most populous counties, Walker exceeded expectations in more rural parts of the state.

“At the end of the day, you want to have higher turnout in core Democratic areas, and you want to persuade more voters in exurban areas,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist who did polling for Evers’s campaign. “That’s how Gov. Evers won, and that’s really what the formula is.”

An April election for Wisconsin’s Supreme Court also demonstrated how Republicans can still wield considerable electoral power. A conservative defeated a progressive judicial candidate by a margin of just 6,000 votes, out of 1.2 million ballots cast. The narrow victory GOP considered the result of a last-minute push by conservatives, which included tying attacks on the Republican candidate to attacks on Brett Kavanaugh, more than $1 million spent by the Republican State Leadership Committee in the week before the election, and conservative talk radio hosts spending hours urging Wisconsin Republicans to turn out and vote.

“Look, in some places they talk about the pendulum ‘swinging back,’ but in Wisconsin, our pendulum is just stuck,” said Zepecki. “Wisconsin is always going to be incredibly competitive. No presidential candidate is going to earn 60 percent on either side, that’s just not who we are.”

Amid Conservative Assault on Organized Labor, Democratic Lawmakers Are Advancing Laws to Expand Workers’ Rights

Originally published in The Intercept on August 5, 2019.
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PUBLIC-SECTOR EMPLOYEES IN states with Democratic majorities have made significant legislative gains in recent months, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2018 decision in Janus v. AFSCMEwhich found that unions could no longer collect bargaining fees from workers who do not pay membership dues.

More than 22,000 state workers in Nevada and Delaware gained the right to collectively bargain this year thanks to recently passed legislation. Colorado, home to more than 26,000 state employees, is expected to follow suit next year.

With Nevada and Delaware’s new legislation, passed this summer, there are now 26 states that recognize state employee bargaining rights, as do Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, according to a spokesperson for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME. Twenty-four states either outright prohibit collective bargaining or do not authorize meaningful bargaining, such as Wisconsin, which heavily curtailed the ability of public-sector employees to negotiate in 2011.

On the federal level, congressional representatives are also working to bolster the rights of public-sector workers, though any chance of enacting legislation is highly unlikely unless Democrats win the White House and the Senate and maintain their hold on the House of Representatives in 2020. On June 25, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Penn., reintroduced the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which would, for the first time, set a minimum nationwide standard of collective bargaining rights for the nation’s 17.3 million public employees. Among other things, public employees would be required to recognize their workers’ unions if they’re “freely chosen” by a majority vote, and employers would be required to bargain with workers over wages, hours, and other terms of employment. If public employers refuse, then the legislation grants the federal government the authority to intervene.

The bill is backed by 2020 presidential candidates, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker.

This legislative push comes as organized labor was bracing for the worst following the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, which was expected to significantly deplete union coffers. In its 5-4 decision, the court struck down more than four decades of legal precedent and concluded that unions could no longer collect payments from non-dues-paying members in exchange for collective bargaining services. This opened the door not only for nonmembers to stop paying fees, but also for union members themselves to opt out altogether.

While the full extent of Janus’s blow to the labor movement may not be felt for several years, at a labor conference in February, public-sector union leaders said the first year’s impact had been less devastating to membership than expected. AFSCME President Lee Saunders said that while his union had lost 100,000 agency-fee payers since the court’s June decision, they had also managed to flip 310,000 agency-fee payers into dues-paying members. “For every member that we lost, we gained seven,” Saunders declared. Other unions reported relatively minimal losses, like the American Federation of Teachers, which lost 84,500 agency-fee payers after Janus, but also gained 88,000 new members between November 2017 and November 2018.

Still, many experts say the drop-off in membership could happen slowly, rather than an immediately significant decline. Michigan, which became a right-to-work state in 2012, has lost nearly 130,000 union members over the last seven years, or 16 percent of union membership. This year, Michigan unions have reported at least $20 million less in revenue than they did in 2012.

There’s also the risk that unions will have trouble recruiting new members moving forward. Mike Antonucci, a teachers union analyst, said recently that “current members are unlikely to resign in any great numbers. Over time, however, they will retire. The burden will be on the unions to recruit new members in the same percentages as they enjoyed pre-Janus.” The National Education Association saw a 0.5 percent increase in its membership compared to the year before, Antonucci found; however, New York accounted for 80 percent of that nationwide growth. By contrast, 10 state affiliates saw membership drops of 3 percent or more, including North Carolina, which saw a 6.8 percent drop in 2018.

IN THE FACE of the conservative assault on organized labor, workers and lawmakers in blue states are experimenting with new laws and forms of organizing to make it easier to unionize and negotiate on the job.

In Nevada, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, signed a bill in June granting Nevada’s more than 20,000 state workers the right to collectively bargain, a right they’ve been denied since 1965. Sisolak, who was elected in 2018, pledged in his first State of the State address in February to get this legislation passed. His election placed the state government fully in Democratic control for the first time since 1992.

According to AFSCME, the legislation marks the largest expansion of collective bargaining for state workers anywhere in the country in the past 16 years. It benefits a broad swath of workers, including nurses, caretakers, and correction officers.

Conservative opponents of the bill argued that granting collective bargaining rights to state workers would hurt taxpayers and Nevada’s budget, even though there is little empirical evidence in support of that assertion. Local government workers in Nevada have been able to collectively bargain since 1969.

According to researchers at the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, state employees in Nevada earn between 1 and 13 percent less than their private-sector peers in total compensation, and their health care benefits are less generous compared to state workers in other parts of the country. Workers who advocated in Carson City for the legislation, however, went to great lengths to say that it was not just about wages and benefits, but also things like working conditions and safety. Rick McCann, head of the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers, said for example that now his members can bargain over things like body-worn cameras and dashcams.

In order to get the bill passed, Nevada workers had to make some concessions. The legislation includes an amendment that grants lawmakers and the governor the final say over things like pay raises, regardless of what the workers negotiate. Compromises like this are common for public-sector unions. Still, labor leaders say that even having a seat at the table will be a huge step forward, and they will push for improvements to the law in the years ahead, if necessary.

Workers saw similar success this year in Delaware, where Democratic Gov. John Carney signed a bill in June granting collective bargaining rights to more than 2,000 state employees.

Since signing the law, state workers in Delaware have already begun to organize new unions. In late July, 340 workers at the Delaware Department of Motor Vehicles voted to form a union for the first time. They are joining Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 1029. Additionally, according to Michael Begatto, executive director of Council 81 AFSCME AFL-CIO in Delaware, dietary workers at the Delaware Veterans Home just voted to join AFSCME, and workers at the Office of the State Fire Marshal recently filed for an election.

Delaware Democrats have had a governing trifecta since 2009, but in the past, state workers faced “a reluctance” by some lawmakers and individuals in the executive office, Begatto said, noting that Gov. John Carney’s election in 2016 worked in their favor. “They balked at being able to go to the table as equals with workers,” he said. “This governor was more understanding; without him, this would not have happened.”

Unions in the state saw less of a decline in membership post-Janus than they had been expecting. “We were pleasantly surprised, as we were expecting a 20 to 25 percent reduction,” Begatto said. “Out of 7,000 members, we had only about 180 members opt-out.”

COLORADO WILL LIKELY be the next state to expand bargaining rights to state employees.

In this year’s legislative session, lawmakers in Colorado came close to achieving collective bargaining rights for its roughly 26,500 state employees, but the bill came to a halt because Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who was elected last year, said he wanted more time to figure out how it would work in practice. In 2007, Colorado’s then-Democratic governor issued an executive order giving state workers the right to form a union, but not to collectively bargain. This bill would have codified and expanded that order.

Hilary Glasgow, executive director of Colorado Workers for Innovative and New Solutions, the state employee union, told The Intercept that she’s confident the bill will be passed in the next session.

“We know Governor Polis believes in collective bargaining, so where we’re at is him needing to understand all the ins and outs of what this means and how it can benefit not only the state and state employees, but also the citizens we serve in Colorado,” she said. “We’re going to be meeting regularly, as much as it takes, as often as it takes, to get to a place where we can introduce a bill on the first day of the next session that the governor and the union are behind.”

Glasgow and Polis released a joint statement at the end of April pledging to “enter into discussions to address outstanding issues surrounding House Bill 1273 and other issues affecting the state workforce and the people of Colorado that cannot be resolved in the few remaining days that exist in the legislative session.” The statement adds that “we are confident that we will successfully resolve these outstanding issues before the 2020 legislative session.”

Polis’s office declined to comment beyond the April statement.

Glasgow said collective bargaining rights are an important factor in addressing the state’s staffing crisis, which has escalated since 2009. A report published by the Economic Analysis and Research Network, a Colorado WINS partner, finds over the last decade that turnover among state employees increased by 73 percent. Colorado’s Department of Personnel reported last June that roughly one in every five positions in the state government was vacant. The high number of vacancies can place additional strain and responsibility on the workers who remain. A number of research studies support the idea that collective bargaining can help to reduce employee turnover.

“We’re seeing a steady decline in state workers and an alarming increase in vacancies,” Glasgow said. “We’re running roughly 10 percent behind the private sector on their total compensation plan, and what I think people don’t understand about state services is that a lot of them are highly dangerous behind-the-scenes work. There is expertise at the front-line level that can inform how they do their work in a way that makes it safer and better.”

The push for collective bargaining, Glasgow said, is rooted in a desire to make sure that this firsthand knowledge is taken seriously. “Workers need to have a venue to have those conversations so changes in their workplace can actually be implemented,” she said. “Right now, you’re at the benevolence of the governor and the cabinet as to whether they’ll hear you out.”

Fear Is Not a Good Principle

Originally published in Jewish Currents on July 25, 2019.
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FOR THE FIRST TIME in many years, court-ordered desegregation is generating national headlines. The most heated moment of the June 27th Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami came when Kamala Harris unapologetically criticized Joe Biden for his past efforts to derail integration. Harris, who is black, noted that she herself was bussed as a young girl as part of an effort to integrate Berkeley public schools.

Reporters immediately dug in, analyzing the social science research on segregation, the available legal options for pursuing integration, and the stubborn historical myths about how it worked in the past. But while many Americans are just waking up to the topic, squinting and bleary-eyed at what they could have sworn was just a 20th century footnote, one woman living in Minnesota is hardly fazed.

Tucked away in the cozy Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis lives 84-year-old Barbara Bearman, who has been actively working on school desegregation for more than five decades. She’s been involved with three separate lawsuits to integrate her city’s public schools, with the latest one filed in November 2015. The plaintiffs for that ongoing case, Cruz v. Guzman, scored a victory last summer at the Minnesota Supreme Court, and are now in mediation.

“Barb was with us when we filed our Minnesota desegregation case in 1995, and the one we filed in 2015, twenty years later, she helped us find people willing to be plaintiffs,” says Daniel Shulman, the lead attorney on both suits. “You can’t do anything more important than that. She’s been in constant communication with us, she always has ideas. If I had one word to describe her and civil rights it’s ‘indefatigable.’”

Bearman’s tireless focus is wrapped up with her complicated Jewish identity. Growing up in Minneapolis, she remembers being active in United Synagogue Youth, attending “Council Camp” (run by the National Council of Jewish Women) during the summer, and being reprimanded regularly by her Hebrew school teacher. “I just wouldn’t shut up and apparently I wasn’t a dedicated Hebrew learner,” Bearman says with a laugh.

She didn’t stay involved with Jewish organizations as she grew older, but says she feels Jewish to her core, and expresses her religiosity through ethics and civil rights.

“You want to know who my Jewish idol was? The only thing I can remember from Sunday school?” she says. “Abraham breaking the idols.”

While Bearman’s Jewishness has undergirded her activism, Jewish groups in the Twin Cities never got very involved in school desegregation, a fact that both Bearman and Shulman recount with frustration. “It’s a disappointment,” says Shulman.

“Jews weren’t involved,” says Bearman. “I don’t associate it with Jews.”

It was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 that propelled her own involvement. That year, Bearman help co-found the Committee for Integrated Education, a volunteer group that worked with the local NAACP chapter to pressure the Minneapolis School Board to desegregate its public schools. When their efforts for voluntary action failed to gain traction, they recruited an attorney, Chad Quaintance, to file suit against the district.

Quaintance was a civil rights lawyer who had previously litigated desegregation cases for the US Department of Justice in Alabama and California. He had recently moved to Minneapolis, where he lives to this day.

“She was fantastic, high-energy, very smart and hardworking,” Quaintance tells me, describing how Bearman helped him gather and analyze research about the city’s school system. “Maybe the lawsuit would have happened without her, but she was a very significant part of the case.”

That lawsuit was Booker v. Special School Dist. No. 1, and in 1972, Minnesota’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding the Minneapolis school district in violation of the 14th Amendment for its segregated schools. The segregation was partly due to residential housing patterns, but was also caused, the judge found, by intentional decisions from school district leaders. For example, the school district continued to add classrooms to overcrowded and predominantly black schools, while nearby white schools remained under-enrolled. While nonwhite students then amounted to less than 10% of Minneapolis’s student population, they comprised more than 70% of the enrollment in just three schools. More than 11,000 students were eventually bussed as part of the court order, which remained in effect until 1983.

To some, Bearman’s commitment to school integration was perplexing, even exhausting and irritating. “Now what is a nice, middle-class white wife of an attorney with three cute kids and a house in Kenwood with everything going for her doing mixed up in fighting city hall, the school board, and the citizenry to get massive busing in the schools?” a 1972 Minneapolis Star article began. The piece reported that local school officials often called Bearman a “bitch” because of her advocacy.

Bearman regularly wrote letters to newspapers, collected petition signatures, convened meetings, and escalated political pressure wherever she could. Some of her friends eventually grew tired of this and stopped talking to her.

“I don’t know, I just had this drive, and that’s why I was called a bitch,” she tells me. “I had a big mouth, I know I came out like a sledgehammer to everybody, I’m sure. But you just don’t compromise on this one.”

Boxes at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul contain records upon records documenting Bearman’s involvement with local desegregation efforts—from legal correspondence linked to the Booker case, to school board meeting minutes, to a host of district planning documents and reports. Bearman also spent decades as an active member and officer of the city’s NAACP chapter. When Minneapolis schools started to resegregate, beginning in the 1990s, due to lawmakers easing up on civil rights enforcement and elevating school choice policies, Bearman worked with the NAACP to file another suit.

Most of the racial justice activists Bearman worked most closely with have since passed away, and when she reflects on her life, she says she recognizes her dedication to desegregation sometimes caused her to miss out on other things going on in her home and community.

“But if I wasn’t being headlong . . . well this takes a lot of energy—it takes a lot of psychic energy to keep going against all odds,” she says. “If you stop too much and consider walking away, well, that’s not how I was operating. Throughout my life, I could be a slow starter, but once I started, then I boarded in.”

For Bearman, even to walk away now, as the Cruz v. Guzman case marches on, would amount to a betrayal of herself. “I’m not perfect, but I’m most proud of the things I’ve stayed true to,” she explains.

As to whether she’s surprised that school integration has resurfaced in our national politics, she shrugs. “It’s like antisemitism,” she says. “These issues never really go away, they just exist right under the surface, and certain things can bring them into focus.”

What’s needed now, Bearman says, is what’s always been needed—courage. She hopes our political leaders will educate themselves and buck up. Racial integration “gets to the very heart of what this country is and what we say this country stands for,” she says. “At the end of the day there is just so much fear, and fear is not a good principle on which to live.”

The Future of the Forward

Originally published in Jewish Currents on July 31, 2019.
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The Jewish Daily Forward recently announced that Jodi Rudoren, one of the highest-ranking women at the New York Times, would serve as its next Editor-in-Chief. Rudoren, who joined the Times in 1998, served as its Jerusalem bureau chief between 2011–2015, and has also worked as its Chicago bureau chief, as an editor on the Metro desk, and as a correspondent on the 2004 presidential campaign. Contributing writer Rachel Cohen talked to Rudoren about her vision for the Forward at this tumultuous moment for journalism, for the American Jewish community, and for the nation. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Rachel Cohen: What are you most excited about coming to the Forward?

Jodi Rudoren: The last couple of years I’ve been working in strategic roles at the Times, focused on digital transformation and audience engagement and just really thinking about what the newsroom of the future is all about. And the New York Times is in a really good place in that landscape—we have a model that seems to be working. There are a lot of challenges ahead, and we all face an industry that’s constantly in flux, but the Times is in a pretty good place. I’ve just grown increasingly aware that the really urgent crisis in journalism is finding new models for local outlets. The Forward isn’t really a local news organization—it’s nationally focused—but it’s local in the sense that it’s niche, community-based, and identity-based. I just started realizing that that’s the place in journalism that needs the most attention, creativity, and ambition. I am really energized by that challenge

The Forward has made an incredibly bold choice to end its print version altogether, to really face the digital moment. That was courageous and risky and complicated, but I felt it was a clear sign that its board and CEO were serious about reinvention. The Jewish world is in such an interesting and challenging moment, the American Jewish story is so interesting and urgent. The rise of antisemitism and the collapse of civil debate around Israel—it’s an incredibly challenging time for journalism and also a real opportunity.

RC: It’s no secret that the Forward has faced financial challenges recently. Why do you think Jewish philanthropists are less likely to fund journalism than say, Birthright or an art museum renovation? 

JR: I’m new to this space, and there are some people who know more about Jewish philanthropy and journalistic philanthropy than me, so in some sense I’m just hazarding a guess. But it’s probably a confluence of things.

The idea of nonprofit journalism is not that well established. In the print era, people paid for a newspaper, it wasn’t something they thought required philanthropy. There were a few models, like NPR, but there weren’t that many nonprofit models before ProPublica came along, and their model has spawned a huge movement. We are very much still in the process of either teaching readers or learning from readers about how journalism is going to be supported in the future.

The New York Times is a leader in the idea of paying for news, but I don’t think that’s the only model, and I think there will be a new model of local and identity-based news supported by philanthropists who say, this work is vital to our community and should be supported, like the opera or after school programs. I think we have to keep making the clear case that the Forward has a real financial need, but also that there’s a need of the Jewish people for the Forward, that it can make the Jewish world better by [making it] more informed and engaged.

I’m also glad you mentioned Birthright. It’s a very complicated organization but one of its basic value propositions is that it adopts the broadest possible definition of Jewish identity and tries to bring everyone one step closer to their Judaism by bringing them to Israel. I’m not sure that’s how Steinhardt would put it but I think that’s one way of interpreting it. And I think that same value proposition is central to the future of theForward too: to use the broadest possible definition of Jews and people interested in Judaism and bring them one step closer to what they define as Judaism. That’s also a lot less expensive than bringing people to Israel for ten days, and I do think that should appeal to Jewish philanthropists.

RC: In 2017 you gave an interview where you noted that journalists can sometimes come under attack by pro-Israel groups for frank and honest coverage of Israel, which can then distort the language reporters use and negatively impact the overall quality of the debate in the United States. I imagine these dynamics will be present for you at the Forward, if not more intensified now that you’re likely in a fundraising role.

JR: My job is not fundraising, my job is to keep our editorial content ambitious, fair, and creative. I am going to be involved in fundraising and I’m happy to evangelize about the cause of investing in the Forward but we have a development department and a publisher.

What I want to say is that while Israel will be a serious part of our coverage and something we will be super engaged in, the bigger crisis I think right now for American Jews is our inability to talk civically to each other about it. When I was the Jerusalem bureau chief, after working in journalism for years, I found the decline in civil discourse around the conflict to be completely unique, unlike anything else I had ever covered before. And then I came back to the United States, and now it’s like every issue is the same as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. People are reading different sources, having different narratives, and not talking to each other.

And many, many American Jews are very troubled about the decline in civil discourse as it pertains to American politics. But I think they should be equally concerned about our debate around Israel. A lot of my friends, and people I go to synagogue with, are having this happen in their very own families, with their own college-aged children. They’re having trouble finding common ground, and their sources and framing are so starkly different.

RC: Yeah, it’s definitely a mutual feeling. I know a lot of people who dread going home for the holidays for fear that Israel may come up at the dinner table. But how can theForward help?

JR: This is the very crisis the Forward is poised to address. We can be a place where people come and share their views and [access] fact-based reporting. That is my profound goal, to create a forum for serious civic engagement. That’s the thing I’m most qualified to do, and it is urgent. It’s not okay the way people talk past each other and over each other.

RC: Piggybacking off of that, this past May, Nylah Burton, a black Jewish writer and past contributor to the Forward wrote an essay for Jewish Currents about how the practice of publishing all viewpoints can also come at a real cost, especially for writers of color. She recounted an explosive twitter exchange between the Forward’s opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon and Representative Ilhan Omar. Sargon charged Rep. Omar with antisemitism and compared her to David Duke, and the Forward soon ran a fundraising email endorsing Ungar-Sargon’s charge. The congresswoman was bombarded with abuse.

This was not under your leadership, but it’s a context you’re walking into. And since this happened, the bigotry against Rep. Omar and others has only intensified, with President Trump telling lawmakers of color to “go back where they came from” and continuing to attack Rep. Elijah Cummings and Baltimore. How are you thinking about these criticisms and the role of the Forward in covering both real concerns of antisemitism while also recognizing how the institution’s work and staff can be used to further racism and Islamophobia in this very fraught political moment?

JR: So I am not talking about that incident because I don’t have the facts and I am just starting my relationship with the staff. A lot of people in the last two weeks have told me both how great they think Batya is, and other people have raised concerns that she has positioned the Forward way too far to the left. And now you’re talking about criticisms of her from the left. There’s some version of this where that is a sign of a good opinion department. But the version of it where people are not feeling comfortable writing is not okay. I want people to feel comfortable writing and I want to be known most of all as a place that publishes a range of opinions respectfully.

I do think you are right that concerns around antisemitism have played into this Trump conflict with Ilhan Omar in particular and “The Squad” more generally. This morning theForward published Peter Beinart on the ways in which the right wing is invoking Israel against The Squad. There are all these ways in which Jews and Israel are being played off one another in this debate over race and immigration. I haven’t thought about this in terms of an argument, but it’s not disconnected from the “Ferguson is Palestine” movement that has divided a lot of young Jews from their natural constituencies or historic relationships on campus with people of color. So those cleavages of how liberal Jews and people of color, are uniting and dividing over issues of race, immigration, race politics, and antisemitism, I feel those are really ripe issues for the Forward to cover both in the news space and the opinion section. And it’s also super fraught.

But you know, the real challenge of a great opinion section is how do you truly have a big tent that publishes a ton of super challenging opinions from all over the map without offending people so much that they then don’t read it. Offending people does not help. Clearly I do not want to offend people and I do not want people to turn away. I do want to feature provocative opinion writing and be cutting edge.

RC: I think a particular issue from that episode was how the Forward sent out a fundraising email that seemed to take a very clear position on Rep. Omar’s comments, and land on one side of a very polarized debate.

JR: The Forward doesn’t have a house editorial opinion. It can certainly be hard for news readers sometimes to distinguish between news and opinion, and we should do our best to make really clear lines for readers, including looking at our fundraising emails and how they relate to news content.

On the other hand, activist Jews, left-wing Jews, they were among the people up in arms about whether the New York Times should be labeling Trump’s tweets as racist. And one of the interesting things in that debate at the Times was to look back at how we characterized Ilhan Omar’s comments. Our headlines said that her comments “had been condemned as antisemitism.” And the very people who were telling us that “condemned as racist” is not strong enough said nothing about “condemned as antisemitism.” Often what seems like a debate about language is actually about where you line up on the political map.

The Forward’s role is to help Jews think through this complicated situation. What do you do if you support Ilhan Omar and you’re uncomfortable by what she said—how should you think about that? We should have opinion writers saying how they think about it, who may then help people learn and think and understand why exactly it was offensive to so many, and also help Ilhan Omar understand why, what are the triggers, what is the context.

I want to push people, make people react, but not turn away. Anything that makes that wall go up says to me that was not a successful piece of journalism.

RC: When I think back on some of the most impactful work of the Forward over the last few years I think of its reporting around Sebastian Gorka and his Nazi ties, and Josh Nathan-Kazis’s reporting on the anti-BDS movement on college campusesThe Forward has unfortunately laid off and lost a lot of its veteran reporters. I know it was recently awarded a $500,000 gift from Craig Newmark. Are you looking to expand the Forward’s reporting capacity?

JR: So Josh left after nine years, and I’m sorry he left because I think he’s great, and I do hope he continues to grow in his career and do great stories elsewhere. But we are hiring behind him and we have great candidates—I have an interview for that later today—and we’ll continue doing that kind of reporting. The Forward has gone through very difficult financial circumstances while maintaining its strong commitment to reporting. It’s run by people who care about strong independent journalism. And I’m really excited about how smart and creative and ambitious the reporters and editors that we have now are.

But the Forward is not in a position to be on a big hiring spree now. I have some promises about some growth over the next couple years, but I’m just being realistic, I don’t think our short-term goals are going to be about adding more journalists. I think we’re going to do some things differently with the resources that we have, and I think we are going to expand in some new ways that will not be about additional reporting but will be about other ways to engage people in the conversation.

RC: Like events?

JR: Like events, new reader engagement initiatives, some user-generated content. There’s a lot of ways to use the platform to collect and share information, and to use our audience. We really need to grow our audience significantly and do deep engagement with them. I think we have a lot of work to do and we don’t need more reporters to do that kind of work, we need to work on our distribution.

That’s not very sexy sounding, but it will make a big difference. I think if we do this, we will attract investment, we’ll grow the audience, people will be excited, and then we’ll be able to hire more people. Some of those will be investigative reporters, and some will be podcasters, or event programmers, or cartoonists. We’ll try a lot of things to broaden who the Forward reaches.

 

The Just Transition for Coal Workers Can Start Now. Colorado Is Showing How.

Originally published in In These Times on July 24, 2019.
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This past May, Colorado’s Democratic governor Jared Polis signed a series of new environmental bills into law, with the enthusiastic backing of the state’s labor movement. Legislation ranged from expanding community solar gardens to establishing a “Just Transition” office for coal-dependent communities.

Organized labor in Colorado hasn’t always been an ally in the fight against climate change, but beginning in 2018, a Democratic messaging bill that called for 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 forced local unions to start having some tough conversations.

“Republicans controlled the Senate, so the bill had no chance of passing, but it forced the conversation on our end as to what do we need to do to get behind these bills in the future, instead of just blocking them or delaying,” explained Dennis Dougherty, the executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO, which represents approximately 165 unions representing more than 130,000 workers. “It was really the first time we asked ourselves, well what’s our game plan?”

In February 2018, Colorado activists launched a state-based affiliate of the Peoples Climate Movement, a coalition of community, faith, youth and environmental groups focused on promoting an equitable response to climate change. Dougherty, who worked for years as a federal mediator before joining the labor movement, soon became co-chair of the Colorado coalition. “This was the first time labor has really stepped out in leadership on climate,” he told In These Times.

What followed were a series of organized talks between unions and environmental groups. With resources from its parent organization, the Peoples Climate Movement Colorado even hired a skilled facilitator from the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University to help guide its conversations. The work culminated in a Climate, Jobs and Justice Summit last September.

Democrats won a majority of seats in the state Senate after the 2018 midterms, giving them trifecta control over Colorado politics, and the ability to pass many climate-related bills this year. Those bills included two pieces of legislation advocates hope can serve as a model for climate, jobs and justice organizing in other states.

One is HB-1314, which establishes a Just Transition Office in the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The first-of-its-kind office, which will have both a dedicated staff and an advisory committee of diverse stakeholders, is charged with creating a equitable plan for coal-dependent communities and workers as the state transitions away from fossil fuels. The goal is to mitigate the economic hardship that will accompany this energy transition. A draft plan is due by July 2020, and by 2025, the state will start administering benefits to displaced coal workers, and provide workforce retraining grants to coal-transitioning communities like Pueblo, Larimer, Delta, Morgan and others.

As part of the legislation, labor unions successfully pushed for language around “wage differential benefits” for those workers who end up in jobs that may pay less than the jobs they currently have in the fossil fuel industry. The Just Transition office would provide “supplemental income” to cover “all or part of the difference” between a coal worker’s old job and their new one.

Dougherty said they pushed for an office precisely because they thought it would be stronger than an advisory board or a task force. “I’m not worried it will be something without teeth,” he said. “There’s also so much groundswell to keep up pressure.”

The second bill, SB-236, includes language to authorize the so-called securitization of coal plants, as a way to hasten their retirement and to bring additional funds to coal-dependent communities. The idea is to allow a utility company to swap its remaining coal plant debt for a ratepayer-backed bond. Twenty other states have bond securitization laws, and they have been used by governments to close a nuclear plant in Florida and a coal plant in Michigan. The twist in Colorado is to use some of the millions of dollars in savings from securitization to reinvest back in workers and vulnerable communities.

The bill sponsor, Democratic State Rep. Chris Hansen, first introduced the idea in 2017. While his bill passed the House, it died in the then-GOP-controlled Senate.

Labor and environmental groups supported the securitization bill this year, though Dougherty emphasized that the savings it could generate would not be enough on their own to fund the kind of just transition they’re looking to see. “We see it as just one funding mechanism for communities and workers,” he said. (A separate bill also passed this year by Colorado lawmakers enables the state’s public utilities commission to distribute some of the securitization savings to vulnerable communities.)

According to the Colorado Mining Association, Colorado is the 11th largest coal-producing state, with six active coal mines, employing a little over 1,200 mine workers. The National Mining Association estimates that nearly 18,000 people across Colorado are employed directly by the state’s mining industry.

For both the Just Transition office and the coal plant securitization bill, leaders say key to passage was a lot of education, research and tough, honest dialogue.

Rep. Hansen, who has a PhD in resource economics and worked in the energy sector before running for office in 2016, said getting his bill passed was a multi-year process of stakeholder engagement. “I also really had to educate my own colleagues about securitization,” he told In These Times. “Some folks in Colorado thought this was a giveaway to the utilities industry, but it’s really the opposite of a bailout because for the securitization to work the companies have to walk away from significant amounts of revenue.”

Rep. Hansen said he’s been trying to be honest with people that major economic transitions are coming, and the best thing leaders can do is proactively plan ahead. “There will be dislocation and disruption but the alternative is to let what we’ve typically had happen in this country which is just kind of a free-fall for transitioning communities with no real help from government,” he said. “I much rather try and prepare then be reactive after-the-fact.”

Within the Just Transition office, Dougherty said labor unions plan to push for the wage differential benefit to cover a transition of up to three years. For example, if someone was earning $100,000 in a coal-industry job, and retrains for another position that pays $60,000, labor wants to see the state cover that difference for several years.

Dougherty said at first unions thought a “just transition” could mean demanding jobs at the same level of pay and benefits that workers are currently earning in perpetuity, but after doing research into the issue and assessing the political realities, they modified their demands.

“We hired someone to research every ‘just transition’ that’s been done across the world,” he explained, adding: “We said, okay, well what can we realistically do at the state level that we think is fair while also not coming out and demanding something that’s never going to happen?”

“I think what happened in Colorado is really, really important,” said Paul Getsos, the national director of the Peoples Climate Movement. “It’s a real example of union leaders who are really willing to educate other union leaders about the issues to see how they can move their institutions forward.”

Getsos added that Colorado’s experience reflects how successful legislative victories are not won overnight. “It takes a lot of relationship building,” he said. “A lot of trust.”

A California Bill Could Transform The Lives of Gig Workers. Silicon Valley Wants Labor’s Help To Stop It.

A BILL WITH potentially huge implications for the so-called gig economy is making its way through the California state legislature this summer, laying bare cleavages within the labor movement. Companies like Uber and Lyft are seeking a workaround to the legislation, which would classify their drivers as employees rather than independent contractors, opening the door to a host of employment benefits. Some prominent labor unions, meanwhile, have been in talks with Silicon Valley, even as they voice their commitment to securing workers’ rights.

Sponsored by Lorena Gonzalez, a Democratic assemblywoman from San Diego, the bill, known as AB 5, seeks to codify and expand Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles. The landmark 2018 California Supreme Court decision made it much more difficult for companies to classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees, who have access to workplace protection laws like minimum wage, overtime, unemployment insurance, and the right to join a union.

At the center of the debate over AB 5 is its impact on “gig economy” companies like Uber and Lyft, though it would also affect older, more established industries like retail and trucking. There’s a practical reason for California to enact the legislation: The state estimates it loses $7 billion in payroll tax annually due to companies misclassifying employees as independent contractors.

Uber and Lyft have been forthright about their desire to come up with some sort of compromise deal, under which they could continue to classify their workers as independent contractors, in exchange for some additional driver benefits. They insist that the flexibility that attracted drivers to their companies in the first place would vanish if all those people were to claim employee status.

Gig economy workers who support the legislation view it as a necessary step toward their ability to collectively organize. Both the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters union have played leading roles in advocating for the legislation. They have publicly said they will fight a watered-down AB 5, but a series of private meetings between labor leaders and tech companies have raised suspicion that the unions are more open to leaving gig workers as independent contractors than they’ve formally let on.

Opponents of AB 5 recognize its proposed classification standard could extend well beyond the Golden State and have been lobbying hard —both in California and Washington, D.C. — to stop it. Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate after Dynamex came down to narrow the definition of independent contractors, legislation that is backed by other leading presidential candidates Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.

AB 5 passed the California State Assembly in May, and last week the state’s Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee passed the bill, moving it on to the Senate Appropriations Committee for further revisions. It’s unlikely to reach the full Senate floor until late August or September, and both sides are planning to ramp up their advocacy in the coming weeks.

The Dynamex decision laid out a three-prong test to separate independent contractors from employees. Under the court ruling, independent contractors are workers who have relative independence from the entity paying their wages, whose work is separate from the type of business the entity is typically engaged in, and who typically do the type of work that the entity hired them to do. Uber and Lyft’s pursuit of a carve-out under AB 5 is part of a larger fight over exactly which industries can claim exemption from that test.

A number of occupations already have. The bill originally exempted certain workers who set their own rates like licensed insurance agents, certain health care professionals, and some hairstylists and barbers. Last week, the state Senate labor committee added a host of additional categories for exemption, including freelance writers, grant writers, and private investigators.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democratic ally of both the tech industry and labor unions, has not taken a formal position on AB 5 but said on a podcast last month that he’s “into compromise” and has “been trying to seek it for many, many months.” The Los Angeles Times editorial board recently endorsed some sort of gig economy carve-out, calling AB 5 in its present form “overkill.”

SHORTLY AFTER THE Dynamex decision came down, the California Chamber of Commerce formed the I’m Independent Coalition to fight the new worker classification standard. Coalition members include the California Hospital Association, the California Restaurant Association, the California Retailers Association, Handy, Lyft, Uber, and Instacart. The Internet Association, a group that includes Google, Amazon, LinkedIn, and Facebook, is also a member.

As Bloomberg reported in August, the business groups mobilized to quietly lobby lawmakers for new legislation or executive action that could neutralize the consequential Dynamex decision.

At the same time, Uber and Lyft were gearing up to take their companies public, which meant they faced increased pressure to mitigate their labor costs. Barclays recently estimated that classifying California drivers as employees could cost Uber and Lyft, respectively, $500 million and $290 million annually.

In an April Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Uber bluntly wrote that reclassifying its drivers as employees “would require us to fundamentally change our business model, and consequently have an adverse effect on our business and financial condition.” Lyft laid out similar concerns in its March SEC filing, acknowledging that while “we continue to maintain that drivers on our platform are independent contractors in legal and administrative proceedings, our arguments may ultimately be unsuccessful.”

Pressure is also mounting as drivers of these ride-hailing services ramp up their own activism, in response to falling pay rates and rising expenses. The tech giants anticipate this to continue. In its SEC filing, Uber wrote that “driver dissatisfaction will generally increase” going forward, as they “aim to reduce Driver incentives” to boost their financial performance.

Konstantine Anthony is one of those dissatisfied drivers. He’s been working full-time for Uber over the last 4 1/2 years in Los Angeles County, and when he first started out, he said, he used to make almost $26 an hour before expenses. That figure has now fallen to about $22. Anthony has gotten involved with the SEIU-backed Mobile Workers Alliance to support both AB 5 and the right of drivers like him to form a union.

He doesn’t buy Uber’s line that they’re trying to protect drivers who wish to work just a few hours a week. “The way they reward you on the app is you get higher and higher bonuses when you drive 60 or 70 hours a week,” Anthony said. “They’re giving lip service about protecting part-time workers, but their actual practices are about incentivizing those driving 40+ hours a week.”

IN A STUNNING example of how much pressure the ride-hailing companies are under, Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, and Logan Green and John Zimmer, the co-founders of Lyft, collectively wrote a June op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle saying their companies are “ready to do our part for drivers.” While the tech leaders argued against reclassifying drivers as employees, they said they were open to amending existing law to allow independent contractors access to benefits like paid time off, education stipends, and retirement planning, as well as better rates for time spent driving passengers (but not time spent transitioning between passengers). And rather than a union, the tech executives said they’re open to some sort of “driver association” that can advocate for the needs of workers.

To bolster their case, Uber and Lyft say that most drivers don’t actually want to be classified as employees, as most just drive occasionally to pick up some extra, flexible income. The companies point to a 2018 statewide survey of California independent contractors, which found that only 7 percent of independent contractors wanted to be classified as employees. That poll, notably, was conducted by EMC Research and sponsored by the Chamber-backed I’m Independent Coalition. It included a sample size of 1,040 respondents, including 387 gig economy workers, a majority of whom had not heard about the Dynamex decision.

A 2018 nationwide poll yielded similar results. The Rideshare Guy blog surveyed approximately 1,200 Uber and Lyft drivers and found about 76 percent of respondents said they’d prefer to remain independent contractors, including a majority of full-time drivers.

A spokesperson for Lyft said 91 percent of their drivers across the country drive fewer than 20 hours a week, and 76 percent drive less than 10 hours. They said they suspect their California-specific numbers “are the same or very similar” to their national figures.

Uber and Lyft warn that the flexibility drivers say they highly value would be lost if they were no longer independent contractors — adding that they’d likely need to limit drivers’ hours and institute shifts. They also say wages could fall further. “Lyft would only need a fraction of the drivers it has now if it moved to an employment model, meaning thousands would lose their opportunity to earn with Lyft entirely,” a company spokesperson added.

Uber did not return multiple requests for comment.

While it may be true that most drivers who sign up for Uber and Lyft drive just a few hours per week, industry researchers say the full-time drivers account for most of the revenue generated for the companies. Recent data collected by the JPMorgan Chase Institute found that almost 57 percent of transportation platform earnings go to the top 10 percent of earners.

“These data and other combine to make me believe that the majority of TNC trips are provided by drivers who rely on TNC earnings for most or all of their income,” transportation policy expert Bruce Schaller told The Intercept over email, using the initials for “transportation network company,” an industry term for ride-booking companies.

Anthony, the Uber driver, doesn’t buy the argument that he’d lose his flexible work schedule if he were classified as an employee and calls that a “false narrative.” Treating workers fairly, he argues, doesn’t inherently change the nature of a flexible business. “If Uber and Lyft tried to take that flexibility away, I don’t know any driver who would still work with them,” he said. “And there are a dozen companies that are coming up that will maintain that flexibility and pay workers as employees.” (Via is an example of a ride-sharing company that pays its drivers an hourly wage.)

Other pro-AB 5 advocates concede that some things about Uber and Lyft’s business models would likely change, but they say these changes would ultimately be for the better. For example, it’s true that the companies might employ fewer people, since the cost per trip would increase. The upshot is that the companies could also create a more environmentally-friendly business. Having fewer drivers on the road could also increase earnings for workers. The JPMorgan Chase Institute found that the growth in supply of online platform transportation drivers between 2013 and 2017 led earnings to fall by 53 percent.

The National Employment Law Project, a union-backed legal advocacy group, also notes plenty of examples of flexible work environments where workers are classified as employees. “Cake decorators, home researchers, nurses, couriers, and restaurant workers have all been found to be employees, despite the fact that they could choose their own schedules,” a recent NELP fact sheet says. “Laws don’t force workers into choosing between having basic workplace protections and having flexibility; companies do.”

Uber and Lyft’s “status as employers is really quite clear,” according to David Weil, who led the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division during the Obama administration. While there are some cases where companies really do have workers operating in an ambiguous space between employees and contractors, he wrote in a recent LA Times op-ed, “Uber and Lyft are not among those close, gray area cases.”

GIG ECONOMY WORKERS backing AB 5 have been calling both for AB 5’s passage and the path for them to form a union under state law, particularly in light of barriers recently erected by the federal government. In May, the Donald Trump-appointed general counsel at the National Labor Relations Board issued a memo saying Uber drivers are contractors, not employees. The U.S. Department of Labor came to a similar conclusion in April, in an opinion letter saying gig workers are contractors.

“It’s really hard to organize under federal labor law, and if federal law says the drivers are not covered then they could be covered under state law,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “California has established its own protections for agricultural workers, so there does seem to be that precedent.”

Representatives from SEIU and the Teamsters have been meeting with tech companies and lawmakers over the last several months to discuss the proposed legislation.

Late last month, the New York Times reported that the AB 5 meetings organized by the tech companies “have created deep rancor within the labor ranks and set unions against one another.” Some workers have raised alarm at the prospect their unions may be selling them out.

The unions have defended themselves against critics who are wary of those talks. The companies emphasize that they were just invited to attend the meetings, did not organize them themselves, and were not there to negotiate any sort of watered-down proposals. As part of their efforts to support gig workers, Bob Schoonover, president of the SEIU California, told The Intercept over email that they and other labor leaders have been working “across government, labor, private, and non-profit sectors to open the door for robust conversations and the sharing of ideas and concepts.” He stressed that “these are just ideas and concepts that have been used to collaborate with partners on how we might be able to help workers find the best path forward – they are nothing more and should not be misconstrued as such.”

Doug Bloch, the political director for the Teamsters Joint Council 7, which represents 23 locals in Northern California, has also been in meetings with Uber and Lyft to discuss AB 5. He did not return requests for comment.

Though labor is taking pains to say they’re not negotiating any sort of compromise, the tech companies have depicted the meetings in different terms.

“We’ve been working with lawmakers and labor leaders on a different solution to AB 5 so drivers can continue to control where, when, and how long they drive,” a Lyft spokesperson said.

“Industry is at the table with labor and ready to find a path forward to modern protection for independent contractors that preserve their ability to work independently,” added Courtney Jensen, the executive director for California and the Southwest for the trade group TechNet.

In June, Héctor Figueroa, then president of SEIU 32BJ in New York, co-wrote a New York Daily News op-ed criticizing his state’s labor federation for backing a bill that would let unions collect dues from gig workers without giving those workers full rights as employees. He called the New York proposal “a giveaway to gig companies” and then went on to criticize his colleagues in California for “working to cut a backroom deal” that would also exempt app drivers from employee status. Last week, at age 57, Figueroa unexpectedly died from a heart attack.

The day after his death, Caitlin Vega, the legislative director for the California Labor Federation, tweeted about honoring Figueroa’s legacy, and noted that he used his power to stand with vulnerable taxi workers, gig workers, and immigrant workers.

In an interview with The Intercept, California Labor Federation spokesperson Steve Smith explained that representatives from SEIU and Teamsters have met with the tech companies, and then have come back to share with other unions in their federation what they learned and how those conversations went.

“SEIU and the Teamsters are not at a point of some imminent deal, the discussions that we’ve had have been primarily about some outlines of the proposals that SEIU and the Teamsters have been discussing with the tech companies,” he said. “We’ve had some honest and open discussions in labor, and I think generally people have been appreciative of the SEIU and the Teamsters for being able to share with other unions what is happening and the progression of those discussions.”

Smith said the labor movement is “completely unified” around efforts to pass AB 5, but he suggested that unions may be open to alternative paths for drivers of ride-hailing apps specifically. “AB 5 is much broader than just TNCs, and we understand, as I think those unions do, that AB 5 serves a purpose that’s much bigger than anything that happens with the TNCs,” he said.

While there are different ideas on the table, Smith said labor “wants to make sure we’re giving workers the opportunity if they so choose to join a union and that we’re setting a floor — not a ceiling — for the rights they’re entitled to.”

He dismissed the idea that there’s a serious divide in the labor movement over this. “I think that’s been overblown to an extent,” he said. “Obviously we’re a big movement, and we have a lot of thoughts and opinions, sometimes strong opinions, but our goal is always to come together as a movement to do what’s best for the largest amount of workers that we can.”

DRIVERS ON BOTH sides of the issue are expected to ramp up their advocacy as the bill continues to make its way through the state Senate. In late March, hundreds of Uber and Lyft drivers in Los Angeles went on strike(and turned off their apps) to protest Uber’s recent 25 percent per-mile rate cut. Drivers launched another one-day strike on May 8, timed with Uber’s IPO, and were joined by fellow drivers in Boston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, D.C., San Diego, San Francisco, and Chicago.

Then last week, hundreds of drivers from across California went to Sacramento to rally for and against AB 5. Drivers who came out to protest the bill were reportedly offered up to $100 in extra pay from Uber and Lyft, the Los Angeles Times reported. Recode previously reported that some drivers felt misled by in-app messages and emails sent by Uber and Lyft urging them to sign petitions or call their legislators to protest the legislation.

One driver who went to Sacramento to support AB 5 was Ann Glatt, who drove for Lyft for four years before recently quitting due to burnout from falling wages. Though Glatt, who is 62, is looking for other jobs now, she’s stayed involved with Gig Workers Rising, an organizing group in Northern California backed by SEIU and the Teamsters.

Glatt said she doesn’t trust any sort of Uber and Lyft compromise deal. “I don’t take much credence in what they say; they’re not for drivers, their business is not to have drivers make a living wage,” she said. “They come out in the media and stay stuff, but they’ve never offered to meet with us. If they say they’re willing to give us a living wage, then do it now. You don’t have to have AB 5 passed to just pay the living wage you were paying us a few years ago.”