Liberty University is resisting pressure from students to refund room and board costs during the coronavirus crisis

Originally published in Business Insider on March 27, 2020.

Earlier this week, Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, announced that students would be welcome to return back to campus after spring break, despite the worsening COVID-19 pandemic. Classes will be held online, but academic and residential buildings are open.

“Our thinking was, ‘Let’s get them back as soon as we can—the ones who want to come back,” he said in a statement on Monday. About 1,700 students were on the Lynchburg, Virginia campus by Wednesday, according to a spokesperson.

Falwell’s move sparked immediate backlash from state and local officials, including Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who has limited public and private gatherings in his state to ten people, and Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy, who called the decision “reckless.”

Liberty University, a private evangelical college, is one of the largest Christian colleges in the world. More than 15,000 students are enrolled at its Lynchburg campus, with an additional 94,000 students enrolled virtually across the country.

Many observers, including Liberty University students, have argued that Falwell’s latest decision is politically motivated, as he’s long been one of President Trump’s most ardent and high-profile supporters. Two weeks ago Falwell went on “Fox and Friends” to suggest the media’s focus on the pandemic was just a new tactic to bring down the president. Earlier this week Trump made it clear he’d like to see America’s economy back up and running by Easter, in mid-April.

Yet recent statements from Falwell and other university officials suggest the decision might be less about standing in solidarity with Trump and more about protecting the university’s cash flow.

Across the country as colleges and universities have closed in response to COVID-19 and required students to go home, families have been calling for meal plan and housing refunds. While most higher-education institutions have signaled they won’t be refunding tuition since they’re still offering online instruction, many have said they will move to refund room and board where possible.

But so far, despite pleas from Liberty University families, Liberty has bucked pressure to offer any direct refunds.

On Sunday the school released a statement saying “there is no obligation to generally offer pro-rated refunds for unused room and board.” The university added that while officials are considering if and how Liberty could financially assist students, “many operational costs for the university do not decrease with fewer students on campus.” (On Friday this statement was taken down.)

Over the last week on a Facebook page for Liberty University parents, many have argued that Falwell’s latest move to open residential halls was designed to make it easier to reject calls to refund families the cost of room and board. They pointed to a campus-wide email sent on March 17, during Spring Break, by Liberty’s office of residential life. “While students are currently allowed to return to live in the residence halls, we are encouraging you to consider staying home,” the email said. However three days later, as The Daily Beast reported, the office sent a new email that said: “[T]he intent of encouraging students to consider remaining at home was to simply advise students to think carefully about their choice and discuss the matter with their parents. It was not an endorsement or recommendation of that particular course of action.”

“It seems as if they are leaving the loophole of ‘allowing’ students to come back just to be able to not give refunds saying that you ‘elected’ to stay home,” wrote Debbie Turkington Schoeffler, a Liberty University parent, on the Facebook page. “Saying ‘we’re open so it’s your choice’ to come back or not as a way to keep from refunding room and board fees is truly awful,” Kaysie Durden Routh added.

“We, as Christ followers, are to be examples of His love, generosity and compassion,” Melissa Burkholder commented. “In my opinion, this is horrible that the university stands to profit on this as they will have far fewer mouths to feed, rooms to heat/cool, perhaps lower labor costs all because of something that was not the fault of these students. LU, with its endowments and other funding received can stand to shoulder the burden of this far easier than many of the families.”

On Wednesday a verified Liberty University Facebook moderator responded to some of the concerns raised by parents, saying that, “LU is still considering things.” By Friday morning, the school announced it would give just a $1,000 credit toward the fall semester, and nothing to students who choose not to return in the fall. Housing and dining plans range between $8,700 and $12,450, according to the university website.

“I was not trying to be rude or start drama on the page it is just lots of families are asking about it and we were told they are just not giving any refunds,” Schoeffler, the mother of a Liberty freshman, told Business Insider. “These kids pay thousands and thousands of dollars to go to [L]iberty and a big chunk of that is room and Board which they are not even able to use for the last two months.” Routh and Burkholder did not return requests for comment.

Students mounting protest

Students on campus also have been organizing for refunds. Liberty student Nathan Todd launched a petition five days ago calling for a fall semester credit, like the one Liberty just agreed to, but also for a refund for those who do not return in the fall. Calum Best, a member of the Liberty University student government, posted the petition on his Facebook page and urged his college to “make the responsible, caring move and provide refunds to affected students.”

Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb did not comment on the concern that residential halls may be open so the university could more easily deny families refunds. A spokesperson for the university’s Student Service Center also did not respond to Business Insider.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Liberty said, “Our students are part of the Lynchburg community! They work jobs, have apartments, make economic contributions and pay taxes. That they should be banned or discouraged from choosing to utilize the shelter and food sources that they paid for in a time of crisis is unthinkable.” And on Monday Falwell told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he believes “we have a responsibility to our students—who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here—to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board they’ve already paid for.”

Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education finance at Seton Hall University, told Business Insider that in general, colleges “with more money, more resources, will be able to offer refunds quickly.” Less wealthy private colleges and many public colleges may take longer to come up with the funds, or they may have to get approval from a governing board.

But all universities, he said, are trying to determine how to get through this crisis in the best financial position possible. “Colleges are concerned that even if things open back up as scheduled next year, will students want to go? Will they want to stay close to home?”

Falwell’s public comments suggest these concerns have influenced his decision to welcome students back to campus now. “We think Liberty’s practices will become the model for all colleges to follow in the fall if coronavirus is still an issue,” he said.

To Develop A COVID-19 Vaccine, Pharma And The Federal Government Will Have To Break Old Patterns

Originally published in The Intercept on March 27, 2020. Story was produced in partnership with the Open Markets Reporting Fund.

IN 2016, AFTER years of effort and millions of dollars in government investment, a team of Texas scientists finally developed a promising vaccine for SARS, the deadly strain of coronavirus that had infected over 8,000 people worldwide in the early 2000s. But the outbreak that triggered the research had begun and ended, and no one was contracting new cases of the disease anymore. Private industry and governments responded to the request to fund the human clinical trials with unanimity: not interested. And so the SARS vaccine was shelved. “If investments had been made previously, we potentially could have a [coronavirus] vaccine ready to go now,” lead scientist Dr. Peter Hotez told Congress earlier this month.

Scientists are now racing to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, the strain of coronavirus that has quickly upended the world. At least a dozen companies have joined the effort, from multinational giants like GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi, and Johnson & Johnson, to smaller biotech firms like Inovio and Moderna. The latter became the first to give its working vaccine to a healthy adult last week, entering clinical trials with unprecedented speed. The public discourse has revolved mainly around how soon a vaccine could feasibly be ready (at least 18 months) and how much it would cost (unclear).

But if and when a vaccine candidate does get approval from the Food and Drug Administration — or even multiple get approved — then what? Will distributing a vaccine resemble the embarrassing efforts to distribute coronavirus tests? Does the government even have the capacity to manufacture a vaccine as quickly and widely as needed? Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, asked this question in a coronavirus hearing on March 3, and the answers weren’t encouraging.

Dr. Robert Kadlec, the Health and Human Services assistant secretary for preparedness and response, testified that the U.S. lacks the capacity for manufacturing the kinds of Covid-19 vaccines the federal government is currently pursuing. “We’d have a longer than a six-month wait to basically produce vaccines on scale,” he told Romney.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases added that it will essentially come down to the pharmaceutical companies. “The federal government is not going to be able to make hundreds of millions of doses,” he said.

IN SOME WAYS, we’ve been here before.

In October 2004, as Americans began gearing up for flu season, Britain announced that it would be suspending the license for Chiron Corporation, one of just two flu vaccine manufacturers for the United States. British regulators had found bacterial contamination in Chiron’s Liverpool factory, just as the U.S. had been waiting for it to ship 48 million doses over the Atlantic. In one fell swoop, America’s vaccine supply was cut nearly in half. Policymakers were left scrambling, but there was little they could do. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention apologized and said the scarce supply would be prioritized for those who were at a particularly high risk of getting sick.

What came next was vaccine price gouging, long waiting lines for the elderly and chronically ill, and threats by the government to jail or fine doctors who vaccinated those deemed not high-risk. Federal prosecutors launched an investigation into Chiron, and the shortage became a late-stage crisis for George W. Bush on the campaign trail.

Relying on just two companies to produce the seasonal flu vaccine had left the U.S particularly vulnerable. (Britain, by contrast, used five different suppliers.) And despite warnings for years about the dwindling number of U.S vaccine manufacturers, the federal government had done little to intervene. According to a report released by the Institute of Medicine, in 1973, 25 companies produced vaccines for the U.S, but three decades later just five remained. It was a classic market failure: Many drug companies had decided that vaccines were not profitable enough — they were too costly to develop and too underpriced to sell.

Following the colossal 2004 shortage and pressure resulting from SARS, the federal government vowed to take action. In December 2004, Congress approved $99 million for flu vaccine production and in 2005, Congress passed a law to provide vaccine manufacturers with immunity from tort lawsuits. By 2006, Congress passed the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act, which created the new assistant secretary for preparedness and response in HHS, the same role Kadlec has today. It also established the Biomedical Advanced Research Development Authority, which works with industry to develop so-called medical countermeasures against public health and bioterrorism threats.

“The Bush-era initiatives to improve vaccine availability and medical surge capacity domestically were good starts but underfunded, as are most public health initiatives,” said Dr. Adva Gadoth, an epidemiologist at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

The weaknesses were evident by 2009, the next time the U.S. grappled with an embarrassing vaccine shortage. H1N1 — also known as swine flu — emerged that spring in Mexico, and the U.S government promised a vaccine would be ready by October to blunt a second wave of infections.

But when October rolled around, U.S. health leaders were only then waking up to the fact that their expected supply was not on schedule to arrive. CDC officials hadn’t realized vaccine yields were lower than expected, because the tests used to measure those yields had also been delayed. The new machines that manufacturers installed to put the H1N1 vaccines into vials also ended up being glitchy, which caused more bottlenecks.

The rollout was complicated further by the fact that patients were asked to get both the H1N1 flu vaccine, on top of their seasonal flu vaccine, which weren’t ready at the same time. And when it became clear that the H1N1 shipments would be delayed, manufacturers halted producing the seasonal vaccine to help ramp up H1N1 production.

“Having two flu vaccines to receive was confusing enough to patients — usually there’s only one cocktail vaccine delivered per season — and staggered timing in their availability made things worse,” said Gadoth. “We ended up with a lot of lopsided protection: Those who visited their doctors early in the season and couldn’t return were only protected against seasonal flu, and those who visited once the H1N1 vaccine became available could no longer access the seasonal flu vaccine.”

One of the major lessons of the H1N1 shortage, says Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine, is to under-promise and over-deliver. “When the first batches of vaccine finally came off the line, the public health community was trying to communicate who should get it and where to go, but that message was completely drowned out because all the media focused on was that the vaccine was late,” he said. “It undercut the whole introduction and confidence in the government response.”

In August 2010, prompted by the vaccine problems from H1N1, President Barack Obama’s team of science advisers released a report outlining ways the government could speed up production in the future. This had come a year after Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, successfully stripped $870 million in flu pandemic preparation money out of the 2009 stimulus. The administration recommended spending roughly $1 billion per year for the next several years to implement its ideas, which included developing faster potency tests and better machines to do vial-filling. This joined a separate 2010 HHS review, which had concluded that the U.S. “lacks the domestic manufacturing capacity to rapidly produce and package a vaccine for the American public in the face of a pandemic.”

But many of those Obama-era proposals were never fully executed, and four new vaccine manufacturing sites the federal government did invest in beginning in 2012 have barely been utilized to respond to Covid-19. The Washington Post reported recently that two of the four sites are currently taking no role in developing a vaccine, and the other two only have plans to conduct “small-scale” testing.

The U.S. government has been relatively successful though in attracting more private vaccine manufacturers, through a combination of financial incentives and accelerated pathways to approval. “We tried to entice manufacturers who might have additional capacity that were manufacturing for other parts of the world, and we tried to make it easier for them to get FDA approval,” said Jesse Goodman, who served as FDA’s chief scientist between 2009 and 2014 and led the Obama administration’s H1N1 response.

In 2005, only three of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies had significant investments in vaccines. But by 2012, that was up to eight out of 10, including players like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. Companies began realizing they could bring more expensive vaccines to market faster.

Dr. Ken Kaitlin, director of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, said the increase in companies focused on vaccines was partly driven by the growth of immuno-oncology drugs, which target a patient’s immune system to fight cancer. “Those drugs stimulated broader interest among firms in the immune system, and scientists realized there were other diseases they could focus on using similar techniques,” he said. The Human Genome Project, which was finished in 2003, also spurred new interest. “That increased our understanding of disease and allowed scientists to search for vaccines in areas that previously seemed intractable,” Kaitlin said.

Yet more pharmaceutical companies being interested in vaccines is no guarantee that a Covid-19 vaccine would be affordable, as vaccine prices have soared over the years. While Democratic politicians are sounding the alarm, saying that any coronavirus vaccine should be free or very affordable, pharmaceutical execs have already been questioning that.

“Nobody is going to embark as a large company if there is not a certain return that you can get for your investment and the risks you have been taking,” said David Loew, an executive vice president at Sanofi, in an interview with Financial Times last week.

And given how little we currently know about Covid-19, if the outbreak peaks and panic wanes, investors and the government could lose interest in funding further stages of Covid-19 clinical trials, just as they did for SARS in 2016.

“We’re still very, very reactive when it comes to what we pour research dollars into and sustain,” said Dr. Jason Schwartz, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health who studies vaccine development. “When the immediate need dissipates, those research efforts can drop off quickly.”

ASSUMING THAT COVID-19 continues to spread, research dollars don’t disappear, and a vaccine or two or three is eventually approved, there are some things we can expect now about how that delivery process will play out.

One is that no matter how many pharmaceutical companies work to produce the coronavirus vaccine, and even if the federal government’s four manufacturing sites do end up assisting with production, there simply will not be as many doses as needed in the beginning. The vaccine will come in waves, in a series of shipments.

“Leaders will have to decide who gets it first, and where to send it, and whoever does that should do it very transparently,” said Schaffner.

While the federal government will likely set broad guidelines and principles, each state will be tasked with designing their own vaccine distribution system, a process spearheaded by the directors of immunization who work in each state’s health department.

Dr. Kelly Moore was working as Tennessee’s director of immunization during the H1N1 outbreak, a role she was particularly well suited for after having served for years as her state’s pandemic influenza planning coordinator.

The first step for vaccine distribution in an emergency, Moore said, is figuring out which medical providers will give it — including who wants to give it and who has clinics equipped to store it.

“Any vaccine that comes out for Covid-19 I anticipate will be distributed through existing federal vaccine distribution channels, namely the Vaccines for Children program,” Moore said. The Vaccines for Children program, administered by every state, provides federally funded vaccines to volunteer clinics to give to basically any child who doesn’t have private health insurance. “In an emergency we’d much rather build off what already exists than create something from scratch, and all states already manage partnerships with private clinics, health departments, and hospitals to give vaccines to children, so they’re already used to the ordering and the distribution,” she explained.

Each provider that participates in VFC typically orders vaccine doses through an online portal managed by their state, and Moore said it would not be difficult to add coronavirus vaccines to those portals.

But since right now only clinics that serve children are part of the VFC system, each state would need to enroll more adult providers and pharmacies that might be able to help administer coronavirus vaccines. In 2009, Moore had invited interested H1N1 vaccine providers to sign up on Tennessee’s online registry and also made separate distribution arrangements with big pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens.

Back then, using pharmacies to administer vaccines was relatively uncommon, and most people still went to their doctors’ office or state health department to get vaccinated. “But our experience of working with pharmacies was so great, and we realized how valuable it is for people to just be able to walk in without making an appointment,” said Moore.

In the decade since, most states have passed new laws to make it easier for pharmacies to administer vaccines — something physician groups had long fought for territorial reasons. “We have more than 360,000 pharmacists who have completed training in vaccinations and immunizations across the lifespan and are ready to help when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available,” said Mitch Rothholz, chief strategy officer from the American Pharmacists Association.

From an access point, pharmacies will surely play an important role in distributing any Covid-19 vaccine. Nearly 95 percent of the U.S. population lives within 5 miles of a pharmacy, and many people feel more comfortable walking into one than setting up a doctor’s appointment.

Some states may also opt for a more centralized vaccine distribution system compared to what was used in Tennessee. In 2009, for example, Rhode Island set up H1N1 clinics at every public school, and Chicago had mass clinics at its six city colleges. Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor of health policy and management at the City University of New York who has studied vaccine supply chains said some states may decide that they need bigger channels to get the vaccine out, like churches or Central Park. “You can start preparing now,” said Lee. “You know where the population is and that some people will vary significantly in terms of how reachable they are.”

Immunization program managers began talking about these state distribution plans on a conference call last week, according to Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers. “We’re encouraging them to start looking into this, to determine what their coronavirus tracking system will look like, and to begin reaching out to providers who will help administer the vaccine.”

EARLIER THIS MONTH, reports emerged that President Donald Trump had offered a Germany-based biopharmaceutical company money to secure a Covid-19 vaccine that would be exclusively for the United States. The U.S denied the reports, but senior German government officials confirmed them and stressed that any vaccine would be for the entire world, not for individual countries.

While the U.S. does have some domestic manufacturers, most giant pharmaceutical companies — with the real muscular production capacity — are multinational. “If we need a large-scale rollout, how are those initial hundreds of thousands or millions of doses distributed?” asked Schwartz.

Past history doesn’t lend the most encouraging examples of equity, as rich countries have dominated the marketplace and most countries have prioritized national sovereignty over international fairness. In 2009, developed countries placed large advance orders on H1N1 vaccines and purchased nearly all the doses companies could produce, leaving low-income countries, including Mexico, in the lurch. Under pressure, a group of at least nine countries offered to donate a percentage of their H1N1 doses to poorer nations, but some then backtracked when faced with unexpected shortages. The U.S., for example, pledged in September 2009 to donate 10 percent of its 195 million doses, but about five weeks later said it would wait until all at-risk Americans had access first.

“Pandemics really call for global health solidarity, to determine where the outbreak is most active, and where those vaccine doses can do the most good and prevent the most suffering,” said Schwartz. “But it could be every country for itself.”

State Workers Seek to Protect Labor Rights As Coronavirus Spreads

Originally published in The Intercept on March 21, 2020.

On Tuesday, a week after declaring a state of emergency due to the spread of Covid-19, Minnesota’s Democratic Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order pertaining to his state’s 50,000 executive branch employees. The order extended paid leave to all state employees for absences like caring for children due to school closures, and authorized agency heads to waive parts of collective bargaining agreements so as to more easily deploy workers where and when needed. Minnesota law grants the governor such powers during such emergencies.

Publicly, unions representing these workers praised Walz for his action on paid leave, and offered only muted concerns about the collective bargaining measures — stressing they will monitor the situation to ensure employers do not abuse their new authorities.

Privately, though, unions were taken off guard by the governor’s actions, and were unable to get the state to agree to establishing guardrails in the order itself around preventing employer abuse.

Workers are concerned that other states, especially less labor-friendly ones, may follow Minnesota’s lead, and use the pandemic as a pretext to weaken unions in the long term. In California, some employers have been lobbying for a similar executive order, to free themselves of public-sector bargaining restraints. While state employees have made clear they’re committed to flexibly responding to the crisis, unions understand anti-labor managers have wielded emergencies to their benefit in the past.

On Thursday March 12, state union representatives had an in-person meeting with the Minnesota Management and Budget — an agency that governs personnel and finance issues — to check in about the novel coronavirus. In that meeting, which was described as “friendly and nonproductive” by an individual involved who was not authorized to speak about the discussions, union reps talked primarily about paid leave, and also raised concerns around telework, and safety equipment for health and correctional workers.  There was no discussion then of potentially waiving aspects of collective bargaining, and they all planned to meet again on Tuesday, March 17.

But on Monday, March 16, with less than an hour’s notice, the MMB emailed the unions an invitation for a conference call. It was on that call that state officials announced the draft of their forthcoming order, though they did not provide anyone on the call with a written copy of the text.

“It was received as a great surprise,” said one of the participants on the call. “A lot of questions were thrown out, and because we did not have the physical document in front of us, a lot of the questions were just like, ‘What did you say? What’s that phrase?’”

A few hours later union senior staff organized another call among themselves to discuss how to respond. They were less concerned about Walz and far more worried about how agency heads below him might interpret their new broad authorities. Many leaders of individual state agencies have been in charge since Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s tenure, and are not supportive of unions. Under the new order, employers can change schedules, work locations, or work assignments without notice, whereas in the past employees were given a notice period to rearrange their lives.

On Monday evening, union leaders emailed MMB officials and Walz’s chiefs of staff to request the administration publicly commit to “working with union representatives to swiftly and fairly address issues that may come up as a result” of this proposed order. The unions specifically requested a sentence be added to this effect, and that the administration commit to saying this in a press conference.

But all they were able to win was the addition of a vague line saying, “When circumstances allow, Minnesota Management and Budget will work in partnership with the labor unions affected by any adjustments to the provisions of collective bargaining agreements or memoranda of understanding.”

When the executive order was signed on Tuesday, union leaders largely bit their tongues. “We are thankful for the Governor’s action in authorizing this new policy specifically to address COVID-19 leave,” stated the Inter Faculty Organization, which represents employees at Minnesota’s seven state universities. Walz was elected in 2018 with strong union support, and the IFO praised the paid leave measure for “setting the standard for the rest of the nation.”

The executive directors of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees also issued a joint statement that recognized the “magnitude” of the executive order. “We won’t stand in the way of the state’s powerful response to the crisis, but we won’t idly sit by if that power is abused,” they said. The unions emphasized they had “worked with the State” to ensure the changes would be only limited to dealing with Covid-19.

In an emailed statement MMB Commissioner Myron Frans said his agency “is working in strong partnership with our union partners during this rapidly evolving emergency situation. We continue to work together with the shared goals of preventing the spread of COVID-19, keeping employees healthy, and providing critical services to the people of Minnesota.”

So far, rank-and-file members have not reacted negatively to the order — and have been focused more on the new expansive rights around paid leave, which they are happy with. Union leaders suspect the rubber will hit the road if and when cases of coronavirus ramp up in Minnesota, and working conditions start to change.

“We’re particularly concerned about things like conditions in prisons, where workers already deal with severe understaffing,” said the union source. And while their grievance procedures are technically unaffected by the executive order, the reality is the standard grievance process doesn’t move quickly enough during emergencies, meaning workers could be left without recourse in the event of employer abuse.

Some unionized state workers in California were recently threatened that their collective bargaining rights were soon to be waived too.

Ashley Payne, a state worker in Contra Costa County, one of the nine counties in the Bay Area, has been increasingly alarmed by the lack of safety protections for workers like herself who have been required to come into the office. She works in her county’s Employment and Human Services division, where she helps administer welfare.

As an elected officer for her union, SEIU Local 1021, Payne has been fielding concerns from colleagues about the lack of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and masks — including for social workers who have to do home visits.

On Wednesday, Annie Barrett, the division manager for Payne’s department, emailed staffers about working conditions under Covid-19, and said they were “exploring temporary telecommuter opportunities.” Payne forwarded the email to Jeffrey Bailey, her county’s labor relations manager, to say that while her union strongly supports this step, she wants to make it clear in writing that SEIU 1021 does not agree to making this change permanent. “We will not allow the County to exploit this crisis as a pretext for ushering in permanent changes,” she wrote. “We continue to expect timely notice of upcoming changes so we can Meet and Confer over changes to wages, benefits, and working conditions.”

In his emailed response, Bailey agreed the assignment of staff to work from home was temporary, but emphasized that things “are different” under emergency conditions (Emphasis in original).

“Furthermore,” Bailey wrote, “the state of California has informed us that the Governor intends to pass an executive order to temporarily suspend many of the provisions of the MMBA [Meyers-Milias Brown Act, the state law governing public sector collective bargaining] during this emergency period.”

Upon receiving this email, Payne reached out to her local’s leadership, who reached up the chain to the state level. Soon after Rene Bayardo, a lobbyist with SEIU California, emailed to say his team had looked into this threat, and suggested Bailey was wrong. “The indication from the [Newsom] administration is that public employers are asking to suspend MMBA but this is NOT under consideration,” Bayardo wrote.

Payne, who has worked at her job since 2014, said her employer has grown far less responsive to union concerns since the Janus v. AFSCME decision in June 2018. “Knowing what their track record is I’m not surprised they’re trying to bust the union,” she said. Rather than distancing itself from unions during the pandemic, Payne added, local government should lean into “much closer collaboration because we know our work best and we know how best to ensure safety.”

Bailey told The Intercept that he doesn’t have “any direct knowledge” of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plans with respect to MMBA. “I heard about it, as we say, ‘through the grapevine,’” he wrote in an email. “This has been discussed widely among public agencies, but I don’t have any specifics or inside information. … We are all assuming that the suspension would apply to things like the meet and confer obligations and notice requirements.”

Crystal Page, a spokesperson with California’s Labor & Workforce Development Agency, said Newsom “has been clear that California needs flexibility to respond” and that he “understands the importance of collective bargaining and the need to ensure workers have a voice on the job.”

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at University of California, Santa Barbara told The Intercept he hadn’t heard anything about moves to suspend collective bargaining in California, though acknowledged it is certainly not unprecedented for anti-union leaders to try and exploit crises to weaken labor.

Lichtenstein pointed to the aftermath of 9/11, when Congress created the Transportation Security Administration. Using legislative authority, a George W. Bush-appointed TSA administrator denied the 40,000 TSA workers collective bargaining rights, claiming it was necessary for national security. It wasn’t until 2011, under a new Obama appointee, that TSA workers finally won the right to bargain.

Another example was following Hurricane Katrina, when Bush unilaterally suspended federal law governing workers’ pay on federal contracts in areas of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Bush justified his move by calling Katrina a “national emergency” and said ignoring federal rules around construction costs “will result in greater assistance to these devastated communities.”

“People were outraged, it was just so obvious he was using it opportunistically,” said Lichtenstein. About six weeks later, in response to the backlash, the White House reversed course.

Payne said she worries that if labor-friendly California does follow Minnesota’s example, it would quickly motivate many other states to follow, particularly Republican-controlled states. “This is why I feel we have to hold the line,” she said. “If California does it, then everyone else will be like, ‘We should have been doing this a long time ago.’”

Despite Public School and Library Coronavirus Closures, D.C. Still Won’t Order Public Charter Schools to Close

Originally published in Washington City Paper on March 13, 2020.

In an effort to mitigate the growing threat of coronavirus, D.C Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Friday morning that she would be closing D.C. Public Schools between Monday, March 16 and Tuesday, March 31. The news sparked immediate questions for families and students who rely on public schools for food, internet access, and basic childcare during the workday.

But the mayor notably did not close the city’s 123 charter schools, which educate roughly 44,000 students. On Twitter Bowser wrote that “charter schools are advised to conform with this directive and reopen on Tuesday, April 1; however, teacher professional development, remote learning preparation, and spring break determinations may vary by local education agency.”

While many charter schools are planning to follow suit, they don’t have to, and in D.C. these publicly funded schools are permitted to design their own public health response to the global crisis.

A spokesperson for the Deputy Mayor of Education said they’re working to support charters and provide them with resources and guidance, but suggested the mayor does not have the legal authority to actually tell charters what to do.

It’s not clear if this is true. Bowser has the legal authority to close city agencies under a section of the D.C. Code that outlines her powers in a state of emergency. (She declared a state of emergency on Wednesday.) One provision says the mayor has the authority to “exercise operational direction over all District of Columbia government departments and agencies during the period when an emergency executive order may be in effect.” Another provision says the mayor can “reduce or otherwise alter the hours” in which any person or group “conduct business or similar activity at premises established and maintained for a business.”

Bowser’s interpretation of the law is in contrast to many other cities and states, where leaders have been exerting greater control over their charter schools as fears of the pandemic grow. On Thursday Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced that all K-12 schools—including traditional public, charter, and private—will close for three weeks beginning on Monday. Shortly after Ohio’s announcement, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced all schools across his state will close for two weeks, until March 27, a move that also includes charters. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer followed suit late Thursday night, saying all schools—traditional public, charter, and private—will be closed until April 5. New Mexico joined in, too, announcing closures for all traditional public and charter schools until at least April 6.

Other leaders of big urban cities have also taken steps to close schools. In Washington state, four large school districts announced on Wednesday their plans to close down all schools (Seattle, Bellevue, Northshore and Lake Washington). The following day Governor Jay Inslee announced via executive order that all traditional public, charter and private schools in King, Snohomish, and Pierce Counties will be closed through April 24.

City Paper has reported before how D.C.’s charter sector has an unusual amount of autonomy from city laws and rules, even more so than charters in other states. Autonomy in exchange for academic results has long been regarded as the grand bargain of charter schooling, and many D.C charter advocates balk at any attempt to take away their powers, insisting that any reduction could lead to  a slippery slope.

Bowser’s resistance to closing charters is also different from her actions around D.C. public libraries, which, like charters, are publicly funded and managed independent of local government. (The library system, created by an act of Congress in 1898, is run by an unpaid board of D.C residents appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the D.C Council for a maximum of two five-year terms.)

On Friday morning, Bowser announced that she would be closing D.C. public libraries beginning on Monday. They will reopen on April 1.

Texas, meanwhile, is adopting a similar approach as D.C. At least as of Thursday, Texas officials told individual charters they have the authority to decide whether or not they remain open.

The DC Public Charter School Board is keeping a running list of what each individual charter is planning to do with respect to closures. But not all schools have shared their plans, and it’s not clear yet if all will follow the mayor’s order.

The announced school closures in D.C will impact at least 52,000 students across DCPS. The mayor also moved up DCPS’ scheduled spring break from April to March 17–23. The other days of the school closure will be dedicated to “distance learning” or virtual education.

Iris Bond Gill, a parent of two at Washington Latin Public Charter School told City Paper that “As a taxpayer and parent, I’m looking to the mayor to show leadership around schools as we are a city under mayoral control. That she only wants to show leadership over one [DCPS] is a system failure.” Bond Gill added that parents are in and out of charters and DCPS all the time, and “right now, it is no one’s job to publish a list of all of services [local education agencies] will continue running while kids are out of school.” Her children’s charter, Washington Latin, sent out an email at 9:55 a.m. Friday morning saying it will (voluntarily) follow the mayor’s directive and close from March 16 through March 31. KIPP, the city’s largest charter network, also announced Friday it would honor the mayor’s recommendation.

Etai Mizrav, a D.C. resident, parent, and educational consultant said he was surprised the mayor was not exerting control over charters. “Charter schools are public schools, and abiding by government guidance at especially at a time of crisis is just sensible, and is more important than any politics of autonomy,” he said. “Breaking the management of the city to almost 70 independent districts is inefficient and unhelpful for the improvement of the city school system any day, but the reluctance to assume the necessary governance over these schools during this public health crisis is especially troubling.”

Christian Herr, a former charter school teacher at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School and now a DCPS teacher at McFarland Middle School said his students on Friday were “really stressed” by all the news.

“If a charter can keep their kids at school while we send ours home, what good will it be for us to be closing when their older brother or younger sister will come home exposed to the virus?” Herr asked. “We need to have accountability where someone says this is how all schools across the cities will respond.”

Working Families Party: “Warren is a Progressive And Will Work To Ensure We Have a Progressive Nominee.”

Originally published in The Intercept on March 3, 2020.

The last few days have seen a rapid consolidation of the establishment behind Joe Biden, following his expected but decisive win in South Carolina. Both former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar dropped abruptly out of the race and threw what weight they had behind the former vice president. Many of their high-dollar donors announced they’d be following suit. Beto O’Rourke and a host of other high-profile Democrats, including former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, then came out with their own public endorsements of Biden. After months of indecision, the Democratic establishment had made up its mind — though the question of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his billions still looms.

Some on the left, in turn, ramped up their calls for Sen. Elizabeth Warren to drop out and endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders. Since Sanders is leading, their argument goes, the progressive movement needs to show a unified front against the newly formed establishment bloc. Warren staying in, then, risks splitting the progressive vote. Ahead of Super Tuesday, some voices on the left equated her refusal to drop out with a betrayal of the progressive movement — amplified further by her recent embrace of Super PAC assistance. They even go so far as to suggest that Warren is only in the race to undermine Sanders at this point and perhaps to win some consolation prize from Biden.

Joe Dinkin, a spokesperson for the Working Families Party, which backed Sanders in 2016 but is behind Warren in 2020, argued that such an assessment was confused on multiple fronts. Sanders and Warren, he said, still need each other both in the race, and when it comes to the convention, Warren’s delegates will wind up on the progressive side of the equation in the end.

“If you’ve watched Warren closely, you know she first came into public life to destroy Biden’s bankruptcy bill. She’s been in a fight with the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party for about 15 years,” Dinkin said. (The Intercept has previously written on the bankruptcy bill fight.) “It’s totally obvious to me that Warren is a progressive and will work to ensure we have a progressive nominee.”

THE ARGUMENT THAT Warren should drop out rests on a few assumptions that could very well be mistaken. The first is that her doing so now would be better for Sanders than it would be for Biden — an assumption that involves complicated assessments of delegate math and second choices.

A Quinnipiac poll from early February showed that 33 percent of Warren supporters said Sanders would be their second choice. That’s substantial, but about 7 percent of Warren voters said they’d pick Klobuchar as their second choice, 25 percent said they’d pick Buttigieg, and 8 percent said they’d go for Biden. So Sanders could get a third of Warren votes if she dropped out now, but, if Biden receives the bulk of the Buttigieg and Klobuchar votes, Biden could get 40 percent.

Sanders has significantly consolidated the left and is likely to remain viable — that is, collect delegates — just about everywhere in the country. If a candidate comes in below the 15 percent threshold of viability, their delegates are distributed to other viable candidates. In California, Texas, and Virginia, Warren is on the cusp of viability. If she ends up collecting those delegates tonight, she can hold on to them until the convention and release them with an endorsement of Sanders. If she drops out or falls below viability, those delegates get split between Sanders, Biden, and Bloomberg — with Sanders taking roughly 30 percent, if the polls hold, and the rest going to the establishment candidates. That gives the moderate wing of the party a clear path to a collective majority of delegates, which they could and would use to deny Sanders the nomination.

Voters who are still with Warren, Dinkin argued, are voters she is keeping away from Biden.

“Warren is providing more on-ramps for the progressive movement. If Warren is picking up delegates tomorrow, more progressive delegates headed to the convention is a good thing for all of us, whether you support Warren or Sanders,” he said.

Indeed, we’ve known for months that Warren, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar have been fighting over the same mix of college-educated voters. And Warren does have some key electoral advantages over the remaining frontrunning competitors. She’s the only woman running, and she’s the youngest candidate in the race.

“One of Warren’s unique talents is that she is bringing new people into the progressive movement. She’s been attracting voters who could have been supporting Biden or Pete behind a candidate who’s for Medicare for All, a wealth tax, the Green New Deal, and universal child care,” Dinkin said.

That’s a point that another pro-Warren group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, is now making as well.

Another Quinnipiac poll from February found that 26 percent of Buttigieg voters ranked Klobuchar as their second choice, and 26 percent ranked Warren. Biden by contrast, was next with 19 percent, and Sanders a mere 11 percent.

Sara Nelson, the head of the flight attendants union and a rising progressive star, said she’s worried that the left isn’t thinking strategically about delegate accumulation in an environment where the establishment is determined to prevent a single candidate from crossing the 50 percent threshold. “I’m not sure why people are jumping right over the strategic question about how we get enough delegates for a progressive candidate,” Nelson, who has not endorsed a candidate, said. “Any candidate who accrues delegates now or up to the convention has the ability to tell those delegates how they think they should vote. If that candidate never has the chance to accrue those delegates, then they have to just leave it up to somebody else to decide.”

She said that she talks regularly to Larry Cohen, a longtime union leader and a Sanders backer who is chair of Our Revolution. Cohen has been arguing for months that in order for the left to acquire 50 percent, both might need to stay in. “If you actually look at how rules work and you look at Larry Cohen’s explanation of that on Nomiki’s show, posted from four days ago, and you actually listen to that and understand how this works, the candidates who stay in have a hell of a lot more control of the outcome.”

If it’s the case that Sanders is better served by Warren staying viable but trailing him, did the campaign make a mistake holding rallies in Massachusetts? “No comment,” Nelson said.

There has been some speculation, including from vocal Warren supporters, that Warren’s strategy is to go to the convention to convince Biden delegates to support her as a compromise candidate to stave off Sanders’s nomination. Her campaign manager, Roger Lau, even sent out a memo on Sunday that said “the convention in Milwaukee is the final play” for their campaign, and they aim to “ultimately prevail at the national convention in Milwaukee.”

It’s not hard to understand why some read that as Warren saying her strategy rests on convincing superdelegates in the second round to back her, even if she doesn’t win a single state and even if the Democratic establishment makes their preference for Biden decidedly clear.

But this forgets a campaign truism: Every candidate is 100 percent in-it-to-win-it until the very second they drop out. Just moments before Buttigieg suspended his campaign, for instance, he was pledging to go all the way to the convention. There’s no other way to keep supporters committed and fired up. Signaling a possibility that you’ll soon drop out sends voters fleeing for more stable candidates. The rationale a candidate gives for staying in a race should not be taken either seriously or literally; candidates are simply in until they’re not.

Backers of Sanders, and those who hope progressive infighting doesn’t hand the nomination to Biden, worry that Warren’s recent attacks on Sanders suggest she won’t be an ally in the end. That’s a misreading too, Dinkin said. “Her stiffest criticism of Bernie is effectively that they agree on everything, and she thinks she can get it done better,” he said.

Still, the stiff criticism is creating real consternation. “Senator Warren has been an ally of the progressive movement throughout her entire career. But I hope she stops attacking Senator Sanders and publicly commits to give her delegates to him if he has more votes to ensure a progressive wins the nomination,” Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, told BuzzFeed News in a statement Monday.

“I’d say the same to Bernie,” Rojas added. “Pursuing the nomination through a contested convention without accumulating the most delegates would be harmful for our movement, our party, and the policies she’s spent her life fighting for.”

If Warren did make such a commitment though, she’d risk the support of voters who prefer her to Biden or Bloomberg, but prefer Biden or Bloomberg to Sanders.

ANOTHER REASON IT could be more helpful for progressives for Warren to keep competing, rather than duck out now, is because Warren has shown her ability to go hard on her opponents and create tests for them that they fail. While Biden did fine in the South Carolina debate, the media, fundraising class, and Democratic establishment are now hoping nobody remembers his abysmal, sleepy, awkward performances over the last year and previous nine debates. Sanders also has legitimate trouble going after Biden, due to the fact that he has trouble attacking people he considers friends. (See also: Warren.) While Sanders’s campaign surrogates have attacked the former vice president for his decadeslong support for cuts to Social Security, Sanders himself has kept his criticisms extremely mild, even apologizing for an op-ed one of his surrogates wrote that argued Biden had a corruption problem. “It is absolutely not my view that Joe Biden is corrupt in any way,” Sanders said.

On Monday night in Minnesota, on the eve of Super Tuesday, Sanders said this of Biden: “I mean this very sincerely: Joe Biden is a friend of mine, I’ve known Joe for a very long time. Joe is a decent guy. He’s just wrong on the issues. He’s just wrong with his vision for the future.” That might not be the most compelling argument for an electorate that wants more than anything to beat Donald Trump.

Warren spent much of this campaign laying off Biden, which has fueled the skepticism that she’ll truly take him on. But on Saturday night, she accused Biden of being someone “so eager to cut deals with Mitch McConnell and the Republicans that he’ll trade good ideas for bad ones.” And on Monday night rally in Los Angeles, she whacked him again.

“No matter how many Washington insiders tell you to support [Biden], nominating their fellow Washington insider will not meet this moment,” she warned. “Nominating a man who says we do not need any fundamental change in this country will not meet this moment. Nominating someone who wants to restore the world before Donald Trump, when the status quo has been leaving more and more people behind for decades, is a big risk for our party and our country.”

A final advantage to both candidates staying in could be on the debate stage. An affair that pits Bloomberg as a Sanders attack dog and leaves Biden as a statesman could be a disaster for Sanders. With Sanders laying out his vision for the country and Warren attacking Biden and Bloomberg, the playing field is leveled, if not tilted toward the progressives.

“When you think about the March debate,” Dinkin said, “wouldn’t it be great to see Warren and Sanders team up to give Biden’s record the scrutiny it deserves?”

All of that, of course, depends on Warren continuing to win delegates. If on Tuesday night, Klobuchar and Buttigieg refugees pushed Warren slightly higher, she has reason to stay in. If not — if she bottoms out instead — there’s little reason to persist.

A Good Fight to Have About Medicare for All

Originally published in The New Republic on February 20, 2020.

Last week, the Las Vegas–based Culinary Union, Unite Here Local 226, found itself in the middle of a political fight after its leadership released a flyer singling out Bernie Sanders, saying that to elect him would “end Culinary Healthcare.” (“Culinary Healthcare” refers to the high-quality health insurance Nevada hospitality workers and their family members receive through the union.) The message was distributed to the union’s 60,000 members by text and email and followed another union flyer that had taken more subtle aim at Sanders and Elizabeth Warren the previous week. “We will not hand over our healthcare for promises,” that flyer read.

The drama set in motion some familiar arguments, with candidates like Pete Buttigieg jumping in to say that his health care proposal would give union members the “freedom to choose” their plan. Tom Steyer began airing an ad in Nevada that said “unions don’t like” Medicare for All and attacked its cost. Others, including many rank-and-file union members, came out to say how single-payer health care would empower unions, giving them the ability to focus on other issues at the bargaining table.

The response to that news cycle then became its own news cycle: Ryan Grim, the D.C. bureau chief at The Intercept, tweeted that Culinary Union members should “not be afraid” they’ll lose their private health insurance because “there are not 60 votes in the Senate” to ban it, “nor will there be after the election.” The next day, HuffPost reporter Matt Fuller published a story candidly laying out the barriers to passing Medicare for All in Congress: It would require not just 60 votes in the Senate but also 218 in the House, and right now the federal bills have zero Republican co-sponsors and 145 Democrats still haven’t signed on. Even high-profile Medicare for All advocate Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sounded a note of caution in Fuller’s piece. “A president can’t wave a magic wand and pass any legislation they want,” she said. “The worst-case scenario? We compromise deeply and we end up getting a public option. Is that a nightmare? I don’t think so.”

This all led to some justified grumbling from Warren supporters, who saw their candidate slammed, back in the fall, for saying there wouldn’t be enough votes in 2021 to ban private health insurance. This ongoing tension in the field was made extremely clear on Wednesday night, on the Las Vegas debate stage, when Warren criticized Sanders’s campaign for “relentlessly attack[ing] everyone who asks a question or tries to fill in details about how to actually make [Medicare for All] work.” Amy Klobuchar, who opposes Medicare for All, emphasized on stage that “two-thirds of Democratic senators are not even” signed on to Sanders’s bill and that “a bunch of the new House members who got elected see the problem with blowing up the Affordable Care Act.” Sanders, for his part, tried to assuage some concerns, promising that he would never sign a bill that would reduce union members’ health care benefits.

While opponents pick plenty of bad-faith fights over Medicare for All, these concerns are worth taking seriously. Reckoning with the political hurdle of Congress is actually quite valuable, since supporters will need to bring more people on board to push the policy forward. As Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants and a backer of single-payer, put it after the Culinary Union dustup: “If you are not approaching this as an organizer and building a supermajority for this change, it’s not going to happen.”

At this point, it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that most people don’t really like the private insurance status quo, which can trap us in jobs we hate, keep us from getting the care we need, and has premiums that grow more costly each year as the benefits grow increasingly meager. But people are justifiably scared of getting sick or hurt and being left in a situation that may be worse than the one in which they currently find themselves. When considering these fears in the context of Medicare for All, advocates often underestimate just how distrustful people are of politicians, including Democrats. (According to Gallup’s annual poll, 45 percent of Democrats said they had trust in Congress, and just 33 percent of independents said the same.)

So it might not be so much that people—in unions or otherwise—don’t support Medicare for All as that they don’t trust elected officials to make it happen. This isn’t a phenomenon unique to health care debates, and back in January, New York Times reporter Astead Herndon took a look at the skepticism and doubt black voters were voicing about the detailed platforms of presidential hopefuls like Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg. “Plans and rhetoric are one thing, but to trust a candidate to deliver—or the government at all—is entirely another,” Herndon wrote. “In a community all too familiar with legal discrimination and unequal access to public services, believing in ‘big, structural change,’ as Ms. Warren likes to call it, is a gamble.”

Sanders, according to several new polls issued this week, is the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination. That’s a huge boon for the single-payer movement. (As is a new study out last weekend from Yale epidemiologists that found Medicare for All would save $450 billion and prevent 68,000 unnecessary deaths every year.) Polls also show that voters generally trust Bernie Sanders; people think he’s honest and says what he means. His long record of standing with labor unions and advocating for single-payer health insurance is also well documented.

But because the success of Medicare for All will rest primarily on Congress, many voters are likely asking themselves: Can I trust the Democrats in Congress to pass the bill as written? Do they also seem willing to fight for me? Do they have a record of fighting for workers during legislative negotiations? What about Republicans? The answers to those questions are much, much more mixed.

There’s a lot a savvy president can do in terms of agenda-setting, but there’s a lot a recalcitrant or dysfunctional Congress can do to hobble a president’s agenda. Trump was able to get through some of his biggest initiatives, like tax reform and trade, largely thanks to the unusual willingness Democrats showed in working with him. Voters should know by now that Republicans cannot be counted on to work with Democrats in return.

Earlier this week, when asked about Ocasio-Cortez’s public option remarks, Sanders told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that his Medicare for All bill is “already a compromise.” That makes clear sense to me, but while there will be no shortage of disingenuous opponents, advocates should understand that not all those who express fear or doubt are trolls. They don’t back “needless death,” as some supporters like to charge, because they’re worried about conservative Democrats like Kyrsten Sinema or Joe Manchin, who won’t face reelection until 2024. Democrats like these will be an obstacle to enacting progressive policy. It’s on the Medicare for All movement to organize those who are nervous or skeptical and to build a coalition strong enough to achieve its goals.

No one knows what health care will look like in five years—but what we do know is that five years ago, no one was talking about single-payer. Conventional wisdom in D.C changes fast. That we can trust.

In Final Weeks of Heated Texas Congressional Primary, Unions and Progressive Groups Throw $350,000 Behind Jessica Cisneros

Originally published in The Intercept on February 17, 2020.

A COALITION OF progressive groups and labor unions announced on Monday they’ll be spending at least $350,000 in support of Texas congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros, ratcheting up the momentum in the final two weeks ahead of her high-stakes primary against Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress.

The groups behind the independent campaign effort are the Working Families Party, the Communication Workers of America, the Service Employees International Union, and the Texas Organizing Project. All have previously endorsed Cisneros, a human rights lawyer and 26-year-old first-time candidate for the House of Representatives. The money will be going toward funding canvassers in Laredo, phone banking, direct mail, and digital and radio ads that will be running in both English and Spanish, according to the groups, whose plans have not previously been reported.

“Since we endorsed Jessica we’ve been spreading the word to our members and volunteers over Texas who have been sending text messages to folks in their community,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party. “Now we’re stepping it up with a pretty robust and intense campaign effort in support of her. Jessica’s race is a top priority for us because of what she stands for and because we think this is the right fight to have.”

The outside spending comes after Cuellar, who has represented Texas’s 28th Congressional District since 2005, has received nearly a million dollars in support from conservative groups. Last week the Brownsville Herald reported that the U.S Chamber of Commerce launched a six-figure TV ad buy for Cuellar. The big business lobby, which is shelling out $200,000 on the ads, hasn’t spent so much on a Democrat since 2014. The Chamber is joining a dark-money group, American Workers for Progress, which has reportedly spent over $700,000 to tout Cuellar’s record on health care. The American Banking Association, a lobby group for the financial industry, jumped in the race last week too, spending $60,000 on pro-Cuellar radio ads.

Cuellar’s campaign has also ramped up its own efforts, running its first negative ad against Cisneros last week, attacking her for supporting abortion, taking money from outside the district, and claiming her opposition to the oil and gas industry will cost residents of the district jobs.

Though Cisneros is severely outgunned by Cuellar, who had $2.9 million in cash-on-hand at the end of 2019, she has demonstrated remarkable fundraising prowess. In the fourth quarter of 2019, she raised more than $513,000, exceeding Cuellar’s Q4 haul of $431,000.

In her bid to unseat the 15-year incumbent, Cisneros landed early endorsements in the fall from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Working Families Party, EMILY’s List, and the Communications Workers of America District 6. By December, she had earned the added backing of J Street, MoveOn, NARAL, and Planned Parenthood. In late January, she got the endorsement of the Texas AFL-CIO, a major coup as big labor groups rarely buck the party establishment in favor of insurgent candidates. Three days later, she was endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, followed quickly by Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal. SEIU announced its endorsement of Cisneros on Friday, as did former Housing and Urban Development secretary and presidential candidate Julián Castro.

With the backing of both the labor movement and high-profile liberal politicians and organizations, progressives are hopeful they can unseat an anti-choice Democrat who has taken significant campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry and big business, and has voted for funding a border wall in his own southern Texas district. Most recently, Cuellar voted against the PRO Act, a major labor reform bill with bipartisan support, because, among other things, he didn’t like that it would overturn right-to-work laws.

IN ADDITION TO the planned spending blitz, other progressive allies of Cisneros have been ramping up their support for the home stretch. NARAL dispatched a full-time organizer to Laredo last week who will work with the Cisneros campaign through the remainder of the election. And a week before the primary, according to NARAL spokesperson Kristin Ford, the organization’s president Ilyse Hogue will be traveling to the 28th District, where she will hold public events and knock on doors for Cisneros.

EMILY’s List has also been working to train and support Cisneros’s campaign staff, and spokesperson Benjamin Ray said their supporters have been “very excited” to help unseat the last two anti-choice Democrats in the House: Cuellar and Rep. Dan Lipinski in Illinois. Texas Forward, a super PAC affiliated with EMILY’s List, has spent at least $1.2 million on advertising to support Cisneros. One ad compared the two candidates, and argued there’s a “damn big difference” between the Democrats.

J Street, which doesn’t typically wade into Democratic primaries, has already bundled over $30,000 for Cisneros’s campaign. “We’re going to keep pushing our top donors in these last few weeks so I expect that number to rise,” said Ilya Braverman, J Street’s national political director. “Unlike other groups that do independent expenditures, we focus on direct contributions the campaign can spend directly on staff and pizza and things like that.”

Other statewide unions in Texas are also focusing on Cisneros’s primary.

Rick Levy, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, told The Intercept that their federation has been communicating with its members about their Cisneros endorsement and why it is so important. “We have been very active in pointing out contrasts with Cuellar and we’ve had demonstrations in Laredo and San Antonio to highlight his opposition to the PRO Act,” he said. His federation doesn’t have a federal PAC so they’re not giving direct financial contributions, but Levy said union members from all over the state are going door-to-door to canvass. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had real contested primaries, and we as a labor movement are trying to be really strategic about what our goals and interests are,” he said. The Texas AFL-CIO is focused primarily on flipping the Texas House, and while they’ve endorsed in other congressional races, Cisneros is also the only candidate they’ve endorsed for Congress who is taking on an incumbent Democrat.

“Jessica just exemplifies the kind of person we need more in Congress,” said Shane Larson, the senior director of government affairs and policy for Communications Workers of America. “It’s one thing for our union to want to see Henry Cuellar replaced because he votes with corporations and Wall Street time and time again, but Jessica is really such a phenomenal person and phenomenal candidate, and she represents the kind of people who just do not have representation in Congress today.”

Covering education in a unionized newsroom

Originally published in The Grade on February 19, 2020.

In recent years, education reporters in cities such as Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles have found themselves spending days or even weeks covering tumultuous work stoppages and teachers strikes. More than half of all workers on strike last year were teachers, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released last week.

As education journalists, we report on these teachers strikes, covering a workforce that’s heavily unionized, and many political battles under our purview necessarily involve unions.

And we have not been immune from the direct effects of this wave of worker activism. Increasingly, to provide additional security in a volatile industry, several media outlets have formed new unions over the last five years, and other long-standing unionized newsrooms have been flexing their collective muscles in new, public ways.

That raises the question: Does reporters’ membership in unions aid, or complicate, this reporting?

In general, the answer appears to be no — though at least one education reporter says he takes precautions to avoid any appearance of conflict.

While an ethics expert thought unionized newsrooms should at least pay attention to potential conflicts of interest and consider disclosing union ties to readers, education reporters interviewed for this piece saw few or no issues with belonging to a union and covering teachers unions. Nor had they received any flak from readers or sources who might not approve of their union membership. Most viewed union membership as a nonissue.

In the last year alone, journalists at companies like NBC News, Buzzfeed, the Ringer, and Hearst Magazines announced their plans to unionize, and more than 300 Vox Media staffers walked off the job this past summer to pressure their managers to come to a contract agreement.

More recently, unionized journalists at the Washington Post issued a statement in support of colleague Felicia Sonmez after she had been publicly disciplined over a tweet in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death.

With labor activism up for both teachers and reporters, it’s worthwhile to better understand how these issues intersect for education journalists covering the beat.

I come to this story with personal experience. I write about labor and education and have written about teachers strikes. In 2017, I helped organize my then-newsroom at the American Prospect, which had been nonunion for 27 years. I take pride in knowing that those who have my old fellowship receive a starting salary that’s $5,000 higher than I had, and that all workers now have access to some severance and retirement benefits.

As a freelancer, I am now part of the Freelance Solidarity Project, a new effort affiliated with the National Writers Union. I have never felt my own union involvement has impeded my ability to report on other unions — and I have written some highly critical stories on teachers unions over the course of my career.

Most education reporters I spoke with shared similar views.

Howard Blume, who has been covering education for more than a decade at the Los Angeles  Times, said he saw little effect on his work as an education writer when his newsroom voted to unionize in 2018. Reporters negotiated their first contract there in the fall of 2019, less than a year after Blume covered the six-day teachers strike in his city.

The main change since unionizing, Blume said, is generally “that editors seem to think twice now before asking reporters to regularly work long hours without extra pay – because, technically, that would be a contract violation.” He said he has faced no pressure or criticism from readers or sources who might otherwise oppose the city’s teachers union.

Rebecca Klein, an education reporter at HuffPost, is also a member of a recently organized newsroom. When Klein and I spoke, her Twitter avatar had been changed, along with those of all of her colleagues, to show support for her union, which was then in the heat of contract negotiations. This has become a common practice for journalists on social media when they’re organizing newsrooms or in the midst of bargaining. (The HuffPost union reached an agreement on Feb. 1, and Klein’s avatar has since reverted back to a photo of her.)

In terms of how and whether her union affects her education reporting, Klein said she believes her union functions tremendously different from teachers unions, “but just as if being a teacher in a past life could help you contextualize things as an education reporter, I think having some understanding of what is to be in a union and understanding the way it operates can only enhance your work.”

Not everyone sees such a direct connection between being in a union and covering unions.

“It’s always felt like a whole separate thing — kind of like health insurance,” said New York Times education reporter Erica Green in an email. Green, who is in her staff union and was also active in her union at the Baltimore Sun, reported that she has “never seen my membership as having any bearing on my role, responsibilities, or reporting as an education journalist.”

Patrick O’Donnell, who covers education for Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, said being in his union “makes it a little easier” to cover the beat, because “it familiarizes you with the way unions work, how contracts work, and the different issues that can be important to union members.”

At the same time, O’Donnell stood out from education reporters I interviewed in that he imposes some rules on himself to more carefully ensure impartiality. For example, when members of his newsroom have asked him to join them marching alongside other unions during the Cleveland Labor Day parade, he has declined.

“Cleveland is a union town, it has a strong manufacturing history, so a union is not an unusual thing to be part of here,” he said. “But I’d be very hesitant to go and be part of a rally that includes the unions I cover. I talk to unions all the time, we have a good working relationship, but I can’t go to a rally that involves them any more than I could go to one that involves the school district.”

His colleagues don’t mind that he skips out, he said, adding that some know he generally draws stricter boundaries for himself than most reporters. O’Donnell almost never votes in any election, rarely posts personal things on Twitter, and manages two Facebook accounts, one for his reporting and one for personal use.

Kelly McBride, the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership, told me that in her 18 years of working at Poynter in media ethics, the question of covering unions while being in one has never come up.

But McBride said that union newsrooms might want to consider some kind of disclosure to their audience when covering labor stories.

“How you talk to your audience is really important, because they are going to want to know if you are coming at the reporting from a point of view, and if you are coming at it from a position, they’ll want to know what that position is,” she said.

McBride suggested perhaps some kind of short note at the bottom of a union-related story explaining to a reader that the reporter of this story is in a union, and the editors editing the story are not in the union, and then laying out their process for ensuring the reporting is as fair and accurate as possible.

“When you don’t explain where you are as an organization or as an individual, people will make assumptions,” she said. For print and broadcast, she added, the journalist could say at the end of a segment that viewers could go to their website to learn more about how union affiliation is handled.

But McBride rejected the idea that an education reporter should abstain from being in a union if given the choice or refrain from participating in actions like labor strikes.

“That would be silly, and in general, journalists should be good citizens, and being a good citizen means doing the right thing,” she said. “If you genuinely believe your union has a just cause and is trying to make things better for everybody, then of course you would participate in that.”

When I queried my old editor at the American Prospect, Harold Meyerson, about disclosing union affiliation to readers, he largely dismissed such a move. “I think it’s only necessary [to disclose] if you’re writing about your own union, because then it’s something you’re close to, and there may be an element of self-interest,” he said.

Meyerson, who has reported and edited labor issues over the last three decades but never as a union member, also pointed to journalists’ political affiliations. “You could raise the same thing about being a registered Democrat,” he said. “Most journalists we know from surveys are liberals and have an affiliation with the Democratic Party. Hundreds, if not more, people cover the Democratic presidential campaign. Do you think at the bottom we need to say ‘Joe Blow is a registered Democrat?’ Come on.”

People will surely have differing views on these questions and reaching a consensus might not be possible right away. Still, thinking through the issues is valuable, especially as newsrooms continue to try to rebuild trust with readers.

Though trust in mass media is up from its record low of 32 percent in 2016, it still hovers at 41 percent, according to Gallup.

McBride, who thinks erring on the side of disclosure can’t hurt, says the general principle of “transparency builds trust” is a good one.

I’m not convinced disclosures about union affiliation are necessary on the stories themselves, but reporters can be more transparent with readers and sources about what belonging to a union means to them.

That way, if education journalists have to deal with unexpected blowback or what they view as arbitrary punishment from management, readers can better understand what it means to have union protection.

Bloomberg Campaign Ran Ads Asking Voters How He Should Spend His Money

Originally published in The Intercept on February 6, 2020.

BILLIONAIRE MIKE BLOOMBERG’S presidential campaign has been running targeted ads on Facebook inviting people to “tell him where his money should go.” Last week, in three separate ads targeted to California, Michigan, and Florida, the campaign issued the following appeal to potential voters: “EMERGENCY: Mike is planning his next round of climate crisis spending. Tell him where you think his money should go. We’re giving him a list of concerns next week.”

The California ads, which first appeared on January 29, were illustrated with blazing trees and text that said “OUR PLANET IS BURNING.” The ads were branded clearly with the Mike Bloomberg 2020 logo and read, “This can’t wait, California.” Clicking on the ad took viewers to a short, three-question quiz to “Prove to Trump that Americans understand the climate crisis” and to sign up for his campaign.

The Florida ads were largely the same, except depicting the ocean at high tide far up the shore, with text that reads “THE CLIMATE CRISIS DEMANDS ACTION.”


The Michigan ads, which reference the Flint water crisis, were illustrated with dirty and clean drinking water, and read “EVERY HUMAN DESERVES CLEAN WATER.” Clicking the ad took viewers to a campaign petition demanding a plan to address the climate crisis.


Another ad that read “THE CLIMATE CRISIS IS AMERICA’S BUSINESS” ran in all three states.

With an estimated net worth of over $61 billion dollars, Bloomberg stands as the 9th richest person in the world. Bloomberg Philanthropies, which governs all of his charitable giving, is the 12th largest foundation in the United States. In 2018 Bloomberg, a former New York City mayor, donated $767 million in charitable donations, including $458 million to his family foundation, a subset of Bloomberg Philanthropies. Environmental issues are listed as one of the foundation’s five core areas of giving.

Bloomberg’s personal wealth is also fueling his campaign, which he launched in November. By the end of December, he had already spent over $200 million on his candidacy, far outspending any of the other presidential candidates. He has already spent at least $47 million on Facebook and Google ads, and earlier this week, he announced that he would be doubling his spending on TV ads. He is not accepting contributions to his campaign.

It is unclear whether the campaign’s Facebook ads refer to Bloomberg’s personal spending or spending by his foundation. If the latter, campaign finance experts say the billionaire would be treading in legally risky terrain. The Bloomberg campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

“It’s great for wealthy people to have charitable foundations, but when the same person runs for office he or she must be scrupulous about keeping their 501c3 charity out of politics,” Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, an election law professor at Stetson University wrote in an email. “Under the tax laws 501c3s are not allowed to intervene in partisan fights.”

Donald Trump has gotten into legal trouble for mingling his foundation’s work with his 2016 presidential campaign. In January 2016, then-candidate Trump held a campaign fundraiser for veterans in Iowa, days before the state’s caucuses. The Donald J. Trump Foundation then gave Trump campaign officials full control in distributing the $2.8 million raised from the event, breaking laws around keeping conventional charities and political campaigns separate. New York’s attorney general launched an investigation and sued in 2018, charging the foundation with acting “as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests.” The foundation shut down six months later, and this past November, a state judge ordered the president to pay $2 million in damages for misusing money raised by his foundation, including promoting his presidential bid.

Paul S. Ryan, the vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, a government watchdog group, said he sees no indication that Bloomberg has broken any laws, but that his “spidey sense is activated a bit.”

“At the very least this looks like using Michael Bloomberg’s history of charitable giving as a hook to grab attention and support for his presidential campaign,” he said. “But the ad itself is paid for by the campaign, so that’s appropriate, and puts him on safe legal ground.”

It also helps that the ads don’t specify if the money the ads refer to will come from Bloomberg’s foundation or, say, his personal checking account, Ryan said. “It implies he’s talking about his foundation but it doesn’t actually say that, which says to me, Mike Bloomberg has good lawyers and good communication staff.”

Still, Ryan added, it would help if Bloomberg were more transparent about what he is doing with his foundation now, and how many charitable entities he controls. “We are clearly dealing with a very wealthy individual who has the ability to build goodwill among the public, among specific political actors, in a way that will benefit his campaign,” he said. “Where things could get tricky or legally problematic is if he starts, or is in fact, using his foundation to build support and goodwill for his campaign. Trump seemingly ran afoul of those laws, hopefully Bloomberg will avoid those violations.”

The fact that he is able to appeal to potential voters by spending his vast personal wealth on issues they care about, Ryan said, is “another example” of how billionaires have an advantage in elections.

Seattle Hospital Giant Threatens To Lock Out Thousands of Striking Nurses And Caregivers

Originally published in The Intercept on January 30, 2020.

ON TUESDAY MORNING, nearly 8,000 nurses, nursing assistants, lab workers, environmental service technicians, dietary workers, clerks, and other hospital staff launched their first-ever strike — in a health care labor stoppage their union is hailing as the largest of its kind in the nation in at least five years. The workers, members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, have been protesting their region’s largest medical center, Swedish-Providence, which has resisted their demands for increased staffing levels and higher wages over nine months at the bargaining table.

While the workers have made clear since the start of their strike that they will return to work on Friday morning — in part because they could only afford to forego pay for three days — their employer has shelled out at least $11 million to fly replacement workers in from across the country, and suggested that many employees will be kept out of their jobs for an additional two days. During the strike, Swedish-Providence has closed two of its seven emergency departments, and one of its labor and delivery units.

The strike is unfolding with the backdrop of a national political battle over health care, soaring health insurance costs, and a growing shortage of nurses and other hospital workers across the country. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg have tweeted in support of the strikers, and members of both the Warren and Sanders campaigns mobilized their Washington state supporters to join the picket line.

Also looming over the labor strike is the coronavirus: The first U.S. case was reported on January 21 in Snohomish County, just north of Seattle. “The virus is spreading, and we do not have the support to do real infection prevention,” said Editha Donovan, an environmental services technician at Swedish-Providence who has spent the last 17 years working to safely disinfect hospital rooms. According to KIRO-FM radio, a Seattle-Tacoma station, 43 people in Washington state had close contact with the patient before he received his diagnosis.

Tiffany Moss, a spokesperson for Swedish Medical Center, denied in an emailed statement to The Intercept that the health care conglomerate was considering a lockout, but noted their contracts with “replacement agencies call for a five-day replacement period” and said when the three-day strike ends on Friday morning, “We will call back caregivers who choose to strike as work becomes available.”

Labor advocates say that “becomes available” is the key phrase, since Swedish-Providence could say they won’t have work available until their contracts with the replacement workers end. Moss did not answer a follow-up question about whether all workers will be allowed to return to their regularly scheduled jobs on Friday.

In a letter sent to Swedish CEO Guy Hudson on Wednesday, Dow Constantine, the King County Executive, demanded answers about the potential lockout. “I have … learned that Swedish has not committed to returning all bargaining unit members to their positions at the end of the strike, January 31, at 7:30 a.m,” he wrote. “Instead, workers have been told that they may or may not be called back to work during a ‘replacement period,’ which continues until February 2, 2020. … Please immediately confirm that all striking workers will be returned to work at the end of the strike on their shift scheduled prior to the strike.”

In 2012, Providence, a large nonprofit Catholic health care system, took over Swedish, a smaller independent nonprofit. Longtime staff say ever since the acquisition, they’ve seen management prioritize profits, cut corners, and reduce standards of care. New research published this year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that among nearly 250 hospital mergers that took place across the U.S. between 2009 and 2013, health care quality did not improve as promised.

According to its most recent financial statement, Providence made $970 million in the first nine months of 2019, and has more than $11 billion on hand. The union is seeking raises of 23.25 percent over four years, while Swedish-Providence has offered a package totaling 11.25 percent over four years.

Another key sticking point in the negotiations is over safe staffing levels.

Lizette Vanunu started working for Swedish as a nurse in 1988. For more than 20 years, she has worked as a leader in a pediatric intensive care unit, and said over the last eight years, she’s seen standards decline dramatically.

“When I first worked at Swedish, it was known to be the best hospital in Seattle,” she told The Intercept. “Fast forward to 2012, and now experienced nurses leave because they can find better pay, benefits, and working conditions elsewhere.”

SEIU 1199NW says their employer struggles with recruitment and retention because wages are not keeping up with Seattle’s soaring cost of living, spurred largely by the region’s booming tech scene and its hostility to new housing. According to management’s data, 1,000 healthcare workers leave Swedish-Providence annually and of the 900 currently vacant staff positions, 600 of those are for registered nurses. Half of all vacancies, moreover, have gone unfilled for 60 days or more.

In her more than three decades of working as a nurse, Vanunu has never before been on strike. She also had never involved herself in her union before, until the Providence takeover. “I thought I needed to step up to the plate,” Vanunu explained, “to uphold the Swedish standard.”

“Safe staffing is what we’re really fighting for, so we can provide the highest quality care,” she continued. “The wage issue is secondary, but we need better wages so we can keep experienced people in our institution.” Research suggests nurse-staffing ratios can help improve care, especially for low-income patients. Linda Aiken, the director of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing told The Intercept in 2018 that their many studies “in the U.S. and around the world found for each additional patient that a nurse takes care of at one time, there’s a 7 percent increase in the patient’s likelihood of dying.”

Donovan, the environmental services technician, said she and her colleagues have far more difficulty doing their jobs than they used to, as her employer has cut positions and failed to fill vacancies.

“When I started working here, we had three people tasked to clean and disinfect each floor; now each floor just has one person,” she said. “When I started I was so proud, I was working at the best hospital people could go to, but our services are deteriorating. To get it all done in eight hours, you have to cut corners.”

Two other health care unions in the state — the Washington State Nurses Association and UFCW 21 — had their own monthslong battles with Providence, and only recently reached contract agreements earlier this month, after also threatening to go on strike. Their members have joined Swedish workers on the picket line this week.

Ruth Schubert, a spokesperson for the Washington State Nurses Association, told The Intercept the contract they won includes stronger language around staffing that Providence had initially resisted. “The threat of the strike is what moved them,” she said. “The strike threat was real and credible. We were ready to go.”