A Good Fight to Have About Medicare for All

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

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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.

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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.
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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.”

A Case in the Supreme Court Could Upend Public Education

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 22, 2020.
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The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday in a consequential case concerning how and whether taxpayer money can flow to religious schools. Supporters of the plaintiffs hope a favorable outcome could pave the way for more government subsidies to private schools, while opponents say the future of public education hangs in the balance.

The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, centers around a tax-credit scholarship program the Montana legislature established in 2015. Under the program, individuals who donate to nonprofits that award private-school tuition grants could receive a modest tax credit up to $150. According to the advocacy group, EdChoice, similar tax-credit scholarships exist in 17 other states, serving over 270,000 students.

But after the program launched, Montana’s Department of Revenue decided religious schools, which make up the majority of private schools in the state, were ineligible to receive the scholarships, due to a provision in the Montana constitution barring any “direct or indirect appropriation” to churches or other religious entities.

Parents sued, calling the rule discriminatory, and in May 2017 a trial court ruled in their favor. But the Montana Supreme Court reversed that decision in late 2018, concluding that the tax-credit scholarship program did in fact violate the state’s constitution. As a result, the state’s high court struck down the tax-credit program altogether, for religious and secular private schools alike.

Now the parents are challenging the federal constitutionality of this “no aid” provision. Montana is one of 37 states to have such provisions in their constitutions barring state funding from going to religious entities.

The U.S. Supreme Court has long held it’s legal for states to include religious schools in their private-school voucher programs. But now the justices have to decide if it should be effectively mandatory to include religious schools in state voucher programs, and whether it would be unconstitutional to offer no subsidies to religious schools at all.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor voiced skepticism that the parents had standing to challenge the Montana program, rather than taxpayers or schools. “I’m sorry, is there any case we’ve ever had where we’ve recognized a party who wasn’t either the taxpayer or the direct recipient of the taxes?” she asked. “So here the parents aren’t just the taxpayer; they’re not the schools that receive the money. Neither are they guaranteed receipt of the money [because] we’re told that there’s less money [available] than applicants. So they’re like three levels removed.”

Representing the plaintiffs on Wednesday were Richard Komer, with the libertarian law firm Institute for Justice, and Jeffrey Wall, from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The plaintiffs’ case hinges on Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision which found that Missouri had violated the Constitution by excluding a church from a state-funded program to make playgrounds safer. “The exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in his majority opinion. In a significant footnote to that opinion, Roberts added that their decision “involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.” Nevertheless, the plaintiffs say the facts in that case and this one are broadly the same.

Komer stressed that the tax-credit scholarship program should be seen more as “a kind of a psychic benefit” to the donor and as a financial benefit to the receiving families. The discussion was reminiscent of a larger debate among school choice proponents over whether taxpayer money for education should be seen as an entitlement of individual parents, or funds dedicated to public schools.

Several justices also questioned on Wednesday the idea that Montana was discriminating against religious families, since the entire scholarship program was struck down. “The parents of both are affected in the exact same way,” Justice Elena Kagan said.

“These parents are treated no differently than parents of children who are going to secular private schools, so where is the harm?” asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“I mean, we don’t usually sort of grade every line of a [state court’s] opinion,” added Sotomayor. “Usually we look to an opinion, and … its consequence in the world. And the consequence of this decision is that there is no discrimination.”

Supporters of the plaintiffs have called this general argument “too clever by half” and say the fact that the program was eliminated so as to not discriminate against religious families still amounts to religious discrimination. Komer, in the courtroom, emphasized that the no-aid clause itself “requires discrimination.” Yet his ultimate position was fuzzy, because he also insisted states are not inherently required to fund religious schools.

The most sympathetic justice to the plaintiffs was Justice Samuel Alito, who seemed open to the idea that there was a reasonable relationship between Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza. He said the “crucial question” is not what Montana did when it applied its constitutional “no aid” clause, but why the state applied it at all. “If it did what it did for an unconstitutionally discriminatory reason, then there’s a problem under Village of Arlington Heights,” he said, referring to a 1977 case that dealt with a discriminatory zoning ordinance.

The plaintiffs and their conservative allies have insisted that Montana’s constitutional “no aid” clause is an expression of 19th-century anti-Catholic bigotry, but at the hearing on Wednesday Adam Unikowsky, a Jenner & Block attorney representing the state, stressed there is “no evidence whatsoever” that Montana’s “no aid” provision, ratified in 1972, was enacted for any reason other than to protect religious freedom and the state’s public-education system. Multiple faith-based leaders testified in support of the amendment back in 1972, Unikowsky added.

Ultimately, the case did little to resolve the major outstanding questions, and in some cases raised new ones. Komer and Wall offered at times conflicting statements about how broadly a ruling in their favor would extend beyond the particulars of this Montana scholarship program. Justice Stephen Breyer, for his part, asked multiple times if a favorable ruling for the plaintiffs would mean that a state like New York, which spends “many millions of dollars” on public education, would now need to fund private and religious schools, too. “If I decide for you, am I saying that they have to give money to the—same amounts proportionate to—to the parochial school?” he asked.

Breyer was not given a straight answer.

Montana argued in its brief that a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would be a major blow to federalism. “Different states, with different legislatures and different constitutions, will arrive at different policies respecting scholarship programs specifically, and support for private education more generally,” it wrote in its Supreme Court brief. “That debate … is something to celebrate not quash.”

Unlike in 2017, the Court now has a more conservative majority with Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the bench. Historically, Kavanaugh has taken legal stances to break down barriers between church and state, and in 2000 he helped defend Florida’s private-school voucher program, which was ultimately deemed unconstitutional.

At the hearing, Kavanaugh seemed inclined to view Montana’s “no aid” provision as a so-called “Blaine Amendment,” just as the petitioners and their conservative allies insist. In 1875, largely in response to Irish and Roman Catholic immigration to the U.S., Representative James Blaine of Maine introduced a federal constitutional amendment to prohibit public money from going to religious schools. The amendment passed the House but failed to garner a supermajority in the Senate. Following that, depending on where you sit, Congress encouraged—or pressured—other states to adopt similar state constitutional provisions.

Petitioners have argued that Montana’s “no aid” clause is the result of the same well-documented anti-Catholic bigotry that motivated Blaine, but Montana says this is inaccurate. “Petitioners rely on contemporary statements by private citizens, which are an unreliable basis for discerning the government’s intent,” the state said in its brief. The plaintiffs also insist the constitution’s use of “sectarian” was a euphemism for “Catholic,” which Montana also disputes.

“It’s very clear from the records of those proceedings that the delegate’s intention was to protect public education,” said Jessica Levin, a senior attorney with the nonprofit legal-advocacy group the Education Law Center. “It was not to express animus or hostility to religion, but to recognize the supreme importance of public education and preserving the already limited funds available for that.” Levin co-authored a brief submitted to the Court laying out the evidence that the framers of both the 1889 and 1972 conventions backed the “no aid” provision primarily to protect public schools.

Depending on how the Court rules, the case could have massive implications. Advocates for public education see a positive ruling for the plaintiffs as deeply threatening to both the separation of church and state and the ability to financially maintain a robust public-education system.

“This case is not about improving education for schoolkids, it’s about expanding vouchers, privatization—the systematic effort to dismantle our neighborhood public schools,” said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, on a press call last week. “This represents just the latest stealth political attack on public education, and they’re using the Supreme Court to move their political agenda.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has called this case an “earthquake” and one that would “turn the First Amendment on its head.”

School choice advocates are hopeful that a positive ruling could make it easier to expand voucher programs to private and religious schools, and make it harder for the government to exclude religious schools from student-aid programs.

Right-wing organizations like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan have said that a favorable Espinoza ruling “could remove the remaining major legal obstacle to universal educational choice in many states.”

Others say perhaps the changes will be less profound. As the education news site Chalkbeat noted yesterday, 18 states with “no aid” provisions already have voucher programs that allow for religious schools. Many states have gotten around their constitutional prohibitions by using tax-credit programs as a legal work-around for direct subsidies. Montana’s is the first tax-credit scholarship program to be successfully challenged in court.

A Campaign Finance Rule Makes Life Much Harder For Working-Class Challengers

Originally published in The Intercept on January 16, 2020.
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The odds are long for any candidate seeking to take on an entrenched incumbent, but the path to being financially competitive in a primary is particularly tough for those who dare run without an already built-in network of wealthy family, friends, and co-workers. Though some new companies and organizations have entered the fray over the last few years to help working-class candidates more effectively compete — including a new political action committee launched this month by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the path to victory can be even harder for those candidates who can’t afford to dedicate all of their time to campaigning.

Under federal campaign guidelines, candidates running in a general election are permitted to use some of their campaign contributions to pay themselves salaries. The rule, approved in 2002 by the Federal Election Commission, was intended specifically to make it easier for people who don’t come from vast wealth to quit their jobs and campaign.

“Candidates of modest means too often have been crowded out of running for office,” said Michael Toner, a Republican FEC commissioner who sponsored the measure. He argued the new rule “could help people like blue-collar workers, school teachers, and others who don’t make six-figure salaries to run for office.”

As the New York Times reported at the time, the idea of letting candidates pay themselves a salary was actually originally put forth by Republicans, who resented Democrats’ 40-year grip on the House of Representatives. The GOP saw a salary as a way to enable people to challenge incumbents, who were largely Democrats. It took years for the FEC to actually approve the measure though, as commissioners long worried that candidates would just game the system and run for office effectively to make a living. A compromise was reached 18 years ago by putting limits on how much candidates could ultimately take: Candidates can pay themselves at a per-diem rate equal to the salary of the job they had before jumping in the race, or the salary of the office they are seeking — whichever is less. (Today, members of Congress have starting salaries of $174,000.)

These changes have made it easier for working and middle-class candidates to run for office. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a freshman congresswoman representing Michigan’s 13th District, paid herself $4,000 a month while campaigning in 2018 so that she could afford to work just seven hours a week as an attorney at her day job. Jess King, a former Lancaster, Pennsylvania, nonprofit director, likewise paid herself a salary of about $3,800 a month so she could run for Congress full-time; she was the only Pennsylvanian congressional candidate to do so.

Despite these rules, Congress has come nowhere near reflecting the socioeconomic diversity of the American public, a problem especially acute as affluent Americans hold far more fiscally conservative views than the average American. The average net worth of a member of Congress is over $500,000, or approximately five times the median U.S. household net worth. After Ocasio-Cortez was elected, the fact that she was working as a bartender for much of her campaign was treated as a huge novelty in Washington, and it is something conservatives frequently point to when lodging attacks.

ANOTHER FEC RESTRICTION on candidates who draw salaries makes campaigning particularly tough for primary challengers. Under the rules, a candidate running for office can only start taking a salary once the filing deadline for entering the primary has passed. These deadlines vary by state, but typically come just 2-4 months before the primary election. This type of rule made more sense before the surge of money in politics that has taken place over the last 15 years, which has led to campaign seasons starting earlier and earlier.

Mckayla Wilkes, a 29-year-old primary challenger taking on House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer in Maryland’s 5th District, is anxiously awaiting January 24, the date of Maryland’s primary ballot access deadline. Wilkes — a mother of two, a part-time student, and a full-time federal contractor — has been running for Congress since late March. But due to her inability to work without pay and the FEC rules, Wilkes has had to campaign all year while still working her 9-to-5 job.

A typical day for Wilkes looks like this: She shows up every morning to her job as an administrative assistant for the Department of Defense. She steps away from her desk during her lunch break to do campaign interviews, and takes more calls and interviews on her way to pick up her kids from school and day care. She drives her children home, cooks dinner, and does call time to raise money from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. She’s not allowed to talk about her campaign with co-workers at the office and outside of her lunch break, she’s not allowed to leave her desk to deal with any campaign-related emergencies.

“It’s really tough; it’s basically like having two or three jobs, if you count me being a parent,” she said. “But I don’t have a choice but to work my regular job too, because I am a regular person running for Congress and so I have to provide for my family while also fighting for the future.”

To start drawing a salary on January 24, Wilkes will have to first prove her income from last year, which means filing her taxes months ahead of the April deadline. “I have been just hammering people trying to get my W-2s, my 1099s, which has been a hassle because most times employers don’t even send those out until the end of January,” she said.

Wilkes will quit her day job once she can start taking a salary. Once she has the ability to campaign full-time, she said, she’ll be able to run more effectively. “It will change things drastically for me,” she said. “It will also hopefully give me a little bit more of a work-life balance.”

She does not have much time: Maryland’s Democratic primary is on April 28. Her campaign has raised approximately $130,000 so far, though December was their biggest fundraising month yet where they pulled in about $25,000. Hoyer, who has been in Congress since 1981, has already raised over $2 million.

Other working-class candidates, also facing the financial squeeze of campaigning, are finding other ways to scrape by during the primary.

Jamaal Bowman, who’s endorsed by the progressive group Justice Democrats, is challenging House Foreign Affairs Chair Eliot Engel in the primary for New York’s 16th Congressional District. Bowman announced he was running in June, and for the first six months of his campaign, he also continued to work full-time at a Bronx-based middle school where he’s long served as principal.

During that time, Bowman would try to make both jobs work. He’d canvass at a train station from 6:30-7 in the morning, then go to work from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. After school, he’d leave to do call time for a few hours until 6:30 or 7:30 p.m., and then go to a house party or a meet-and-greet at someone’s home until 9:30. On weekends, he would spend 6-12 hours doing campaign work, meaning he never really got a day off.

Bowman resigned from his principal position on January 1, but he does not plan to take a salary from his campaign coffers, saying he wants to keep the money he’s able to raise going toward staff and other campaign expenses. Even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t be able to draw a salary until April 2, which is New York’s candidate filing deadline. (The state’s congressional primary is on June 23.) To make it work, Bowman has opted instead to drain some of his retirement savings and to take out a personal loan.

“I have a son in college, a daughter in day care, I have a mortgage, and both my wife and I have student loans,” he told The Intercept. “So it is a huge, huge sacrifice to run. But when you work 20 years in public schools, and when you see the systematic oppression the kids you serve face on a daily basis, and when you yourself come from that oppression, it gets to the point where enough is enough.” Bowman said he hopes the few extra hours in the day he has now will give him more time to spend with his family, which “keeps me fulfilled, inspired, and going.”

Jessica Cisneros, the 26-year-old progressive challenger taking on Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas’s 28th Congressional District, is also figuring out how to navigate these financial challenges.

When she was deciding whether to run, Cisneros was working as an attorney at a legal nonprofit. “I knew I’d have to quit my job if I ran because there was just no way I could do right by my clients and do right by the people supporting my campaign,” she told The Intercept. She said the first thing she worried about was her student loan payments, followed closely by the fact that quitting would mean losing her health insurance.

Cisneros lives at home with her parents, had a couple thousand dollars in savings, and decided this risk was one she was willing to take. “I didn’t save a ton, but it’s been enough for me to avoid having to take a stipend from the campaign,” she said. To this day, Cisneros has no health insurance.

Although she could be drawing a campaign salary at this point — Texas’s candidate filing deadline is December 9, and their primary is on March 3 — she’s made the decision to direct all her money to campaign expenses. Her campaign raised $513,000 in the last fundraising quarter, bringing her campaign’s total haul to nearly $1 million. Cuellar has not yet posted his latest fundraising figures, but had raised just over $1 million by the end of September.

Cisneros acknowledges that as tough as everything is, there are some advantages to being a single young woman with no dependents. “If it’s difficult for me as someone who just has to worry about her own expenses, I can only imagine how many amazing candidates there are out there with potential who just financially are not in a position to run.”

These and other candidates, who have all also sworn off corporate PAC money, say there’s a reason Congress has been so slow to enact campaign finance reform.

“The rich have built an economic system to maintain their wealth and power, and there’s a reason why 50 percent of Congress are millionaires,” said Bowman. “This system is rigged, and that’s what we’re fighting to change.”

Progressives Help Progressives—Across City Lines

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 13, 2019.
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In the fall of 2017, a group of progressive city councilmembers across Texas decided to try a new strategy. Their Republican-controlled state legislature was a nightmare, preempting (and thereby repealing) every progressive ordinance that the cities enacted—but the legislature met only once every two years. What would happen if they worked together and collectively passed paid sick days while state politicians were out of session? “We knew if we passed a paid sick days law in any one Texas city we’d have very little chance of it surviving the legislative session and the courts,” explains Greg Casar, an Austin councilmember.

Austin went first, launching a paid sick leave campaign that Labor Day, and a few months later the Austin City Council voted for it 9-2, becoming the first city in the American South to require all businesses provide paid sick leave. State lawmakers were livid—but being out of session, there was little they could do.

Six months later, San Antonio local elected officials passed their own paid sick leave ordinance. The Dallas City Council followed suit in April 2019.

“At that point you had millions of Texans across three major cities with this baseline right and it made it much harder to just pick on one city’s law,” says Casar. Advocates managed to beat back opposition when the new legislature convened last spring, and while there are multiple ongoing lawsuits challenging the ordinances, the councilmembers feel good about their strategy.

More recently, nearly 200 local elected officials from across the country signed a letter calling for the abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and applauded Representative Mark Pocan’s federal legislation to transfer ICE’s legitimate functions to other agencies. “Above all else, we are responsible for the safety of people in our communities,” the local officials wrote. “The presence of ICE in our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, places of worship, and homes, makes this impossible.”

Such collective actions from municipal officials across the United States have been spurred by a growing national network known as Local Progress, which claims more than 1,050 progressive local electeds across 46 states and Washington, D.C. The network’s goal is to help these officials be more informed, more effective, and just maybe more courageous than they otherwise would be by themselves. Most local electeds, especially outside the Northeast and West Coast, have no staff or technical support; many work unpaid, and take on full-time second jobs. Getting into office can be a challenging task, but far more difficult, many say, is knowing what the heck to do once you’re there.

“When you run for office there are a million and one programs and networks to help you, and they often talk all about the obstacles you’ll face in a campaign, like barriers for money, patriarchy, and racism,” says Helen Gym, a Philadelphia city councilmember and the vice chair of Local Progress. “But once you get elected there’s almost nothing in place to support you, and you enter into a very dysfunctional environment that you are supposed to overcome.”

Gym was a longtime community organizer in Philly before she was elected in 2015; she decided to enter politics because of what she’d seen happening to public education. “I very much apply the practice of organizing to my own governing strategy, but when you get elected, politics is a set of things you have to learn,” she says. “The actual work of getting something over the finish line, it’s a balance of bills, strategy, and communications that take you far beyond what you would have ever been prepared for with just learning how to run.”

Brad Lander, a New York City councilmember and the chair of Local Progress, was even more blunt. “We probably spend at least $100 on getting people elected for every dollar we spend on trying to help them succeed once they have,” he says. “And that’s being really generous. It might be $1,000 to $1.”

LOCAL PROGRESS came out of a phone call between Lander and Nick Licata, who was then serving on the Seattle City Council. Lander had taken office in 2010, and in the wake of the financial crisis was exploring what kinds of legislation might help fix up or at least limit the blighted properties that were plaguing New York City neighborhoods. An organizer he knew recommended that Lander connect with Licata, as Licata was looking at this problem in his own city.

After speaking, they grew motivated to see if they could forge more such cross-city connections. They rallied some other progressive leaders behind the idea, and approached the Progressive States Network, a liberal counterpart to ALEC, to ask if they would be interested in adding progressive cities to their state organizing project. The group, now known as the State Innovation Exchange, said it preferred to keep its focus unchanged.

In 2012, the Center for Popular Democracy, a national organization that sponsors and supports local activist groups, was just getting off the ground. This was a time when driving progressive change from Congress looked increasingly unrealistic. As Republicans also dominated most state legislatures, activists turned their attention to cities—where diversity reigned, where minorities and millennials were often potent progressive blocs, and leaders saw their best hope for turning groundbreaking ideas into law.

The Center for Popular Democracy agreed to take on Local Progress as an affiliate, and Ady Barkan, now one of the nation’s leading advocates for Medicare for All, became its first director. It was a “precious opportunity for progressive elected officials, who are often surrounded by colleagues more interested in self-aggrandizement, machine politics, or neoliberal policy than in pursuing social justice,” Barkan writes in his memoir, Eyes to the Wind.

Today, Local Progress has a full-time staff of nine and is funded by local and national foundations, including the Ford and Open Society Foundations, and labor unions like SEIU, the AFL-CIO, and CWA (which also has representation on the group’s board). Members make voluntary contributions, which are augmented by support from more than 150 individual donors.

Members say one of the most tangibly useful benefits of a network like Local Progress is that leaders help each other pass progressive legislation, and then help each other strengthen those bills from one city to the next. They don’t circulate so-called model bills like ALEC does, but they do share best practices for shepherding bills through, amplify each other’s victories, and partner with policy organizations to help advise on crafting legislation.

In 2014, when Seattle was considering becoming the first major U.S. city to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour, Local Progress organized a convening there to unite electeds from other cities around the idea. “If they were going to go first, we wanted to show the public that other people outside Seattle agreed with them,” explains Lander. Many cities have since raised their minimum to $15.

Local Progress similarly built collective momentum in advancing “fair scheduling” bills, legislation which imposes rules on how employers can schedule and reschedule a worker’s time. San Francisco became the first city to pass such a bill in 2014, followed by Seattle, then New York City, then Philadelphia. Each bill was more progressive and far-reaching than the last. When Philadelphia took it up, Lander and Teresa Mosqueda, a Seattle councilmember, traveled to Philly to speak with the city council about their experiences drafting and passing their own versions of the law.

“That’s the kind of network you have access to and it’s really unbeatable,” says Gym.

“Overall policy support work was the bread and butter of Local Progress when I first started, and that’s an incredibly crucial and a huge component,” says Sarah Johnson, the director of the network. “That said, the biggest barriers elected officials face to turning their values into public policy is not always not knowing the policies, but needing the space to think through how to pass them, how to build the campaigns, how to cultivate allies outside of city council to create a shared strategy.”

Casar, the Austin councilmember, says when his city was thinking through reforms to its police department in 2018, he turned to his colleagues in Seattle who had overhauled their police accountability system one year earlier. In 2019, as he and his colleagues were dealing with a wave of anti-homeless violence, he turned to Robin Kniech on the Denver City Council, and Lander in New York, who had navigated similar situations. “The advice, and just feeling like you’re not alone is critical,” he says. “It’s being inspired by these people, and also being able to rely on them.”

ASIDE FROM building power locally and nationally, Local Progress has been moving to mobilize local electeds on a statewide level.

The paid sick leave campaign in Texas wasn’t the only time Local Progress Texas leaders tried to think through how to work together against their state legislature. In May 2017, Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 4, a polarizing piece of legislation that effectively banned sanctuary cities statewide, and gave local police and sheriffs the authority to ask individuals about their immigration status if they are arrested or lawfully stopped in their car.

Following its passage, a network of unions and grassroots organizations across the state, including the Texas Organizing Project, United We Dream, the Workers Defense Project, and others, partnered with Local Progress officials to launch a campaign called the Summer of Resistance, to demonstrate opposition to the anti-immigrant law.

The campaign began by “organizing and bringing pressure to bear on local governments to sue the state of Texas to stop the unlawful implementation of SB 4,” says José Garza, the executive director of the Workers Defense Project, an advocacy organization for low-wage Texans. As a result of those efforts, almost every major city in Texas, including Dallas, Houston, El Paso, and San Antonio, sued the state, arguing the law violated the Constitution on free-speech and equal-protection grounds. In addition to the lawsuit, that year Austin and San Antonio responded to the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment by passing new publicly funded deportation defense funds. Dallas followed suit with its own in 2019.

While the courts sided with the state legislature on SB 4’s constitutionality, in 2018, the Austin City Council passed a new law requiring that if Austin police officers ask individuals about their immigration status, they also need to tell those individuals that they do not need to answer the question, and there will be no consequences if they don’t. “While the legislature might try to force us to ask our police officers to ask about immigration status, we can and will continue to resist and come up with creative solutions,” says Casar.

Local Progress members across North Carolina have also been thinking about how a well-networked coalition of local progressive governments could provide a counterweight against a right-wing state legislature. “One of the things we hope to be able to do by working together is provide a stronger challenge to the state than we could necessarily do working alone,” says Jillian Johnson, a Local Progress member on the Durham City Council.

Back in 2016, when the North Carolina legislature passed HB 2, a sweeping bill that restricted legal protections for LGBT individuals and limited which bathrooms transgender individuals could use, the backlash was swift and intense. Corporations, sports leagues, musicians, and others immediately boycotted the state, leading the legislature to respond with a so-called compromise bill. The replacement bill effectively reset state bathroom access back to what it was before HB 2, but it also banned cities from passing local nondiscrimination ordinances until December 1, 2020.

“Something that about 50 Local Progress members across North Carolina have been thinking about is coming up with a plan for what to do when that legislation sunsets” in December 2020, says Johnson. “If the state doesn’t pass a replacement bill, then we can all pass comprehensive nondiscrimination bills at the same time.” As in Texas, that would mean the state would have to take action against multiple cities if it wanted to thwart the nondiscrimination ordinances. (HB 2 was originally a state response to a Charlotte ordinance.) And since Republicans no longer have a supermajority in the state legislature, even if lawmakers do take similar action, the state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, could veto it.

“Preemption is a huge challenge for us but I think we’ve also risen to that challenge,” says Sarah Johnson, Local Progress’s director.

LOCAL PROGRESS likes to emphasize its commitment to “collaborative governance”—or working in “deep partnership” with labor and grassroots organizations. However, this system of “mutual accountability” is often easier affirmed than actualized—or sustained.

“It can be a grind sometime; we’re not just one big happy family,” says Gym.

Lander says collaborative governance can mean coming up with ways to craft and implement progressive laws so that they actually strengthen grassroots organizations—for instance, by issuing government contracts to community-based groups to help enforce those laws.

Garza of the Workers Defense Project, which also works with elected officials who are not in Local Progress, says the difference he sees is that Local Progress members tend to bring a more serious commitment to institutionalizing their community partnerships.

“We don’t just meet with them on an issue-by-issue basis, or only when a campaign is getting off the ground,” he says. “We meet more consistently, and we do more long-term planning.”

Lander says mutual accountability is both about establishing a level of trust where political leaders can be honest with community groups about the challenges they face, and disagreements they may have, but also about creating the space for local groups to push electeds to take bigger risks.

He pointed to rent control, which New York lawmakers strengthened in 2019. “You can really get in the habit of thinking things aren’t passable because it’s hard to do politically, because economists say you can’t do it,” Lander says. “The movement for rent regulation, for stronger tenant protections, they really have pushed a set of people like me who have always cared about affordable housing to be much more aggressive than I think we would have collectively been otherwise.”

One concrete way Local Progress tries to help elected officials navigate these relationships and their jobs overall is by organizing educational trainings.

The idea first came out of Baltimore, at a time when there was significant turnover on the Baltimore City Council. Eight new members were elected in 2016 to its 14-person council, and the novice electeds were not only younger but also campaigned on being more progressive than their predecessors.

Local Progress partnered with Wellstone Action (now known as Re:Power) and the Maryland Working Families Party to lead an orientation program for these new members. “In most cities no one sits you down on your first day of elected office and walks you through the budget process, or gives you a concrete understanding of how legislation is drafted,” says Johnson. “We wanted to teach the technical aspects of governing, but also talk about how you build power with your colleagues in a system that can be insanely individualized, where districts are so often pitted against each other.”

Out of that pilot program came the Progressive Governance Academy, which officially launched in November 2018 and now offers trainings for newly elected local and state officials on a regional basis. It’s a partnership between Local Progress, Re:Power, and the State Innovation Exchange, which has 3,000 members across 50 states. Trainings have been held all over, from Pennsylvania and Florida to Michigan, Texas, Colorado, California, D.C., and New York.

“One thing I love about it is that it’s really catered specifically to elected officials who are progressive,” says Yterenickia Bell, a city councilmember from Clarkston, Georgia, and the project director for the trainings. The program has 19 trainers, Bell added, all of whom are elected officials themselves.

SO WHERE might Local Progress be headed in the coming years?

Leaders say they know they’re just scratching the surface in terms of organizing and leveraging the network’s potential. “We are always getting new requests and interesting ideas that we don’t yet have the capacity to act on, but one thing we hope to do is build more state power,” says Johnson. Already Local Progress has three full-time state coordinators, based in Texas, New York, and Florida.

The network has both a 501(c)(3) organization and a (c)(4), but it hasn’t done much to date with its more electorally oriented (c)(4) arm. While Local Progress doesn’t make formal political endorsements, doesn’t fundraise for members’ re-election campaigns, and doesn’t really do any direct electoral engagement, Johnson acknowledges that its members are “inherently political people” who would generally like to see more individuals with kindred politics run for office.

But the fact that most local elected jobs are low-paying and time-consuming stands as a real barrier to achieving that goal—and could be one area in which a network like Local Progress might be well positioned to take on the undoubtedly tricky issue of raising local electeds’ pay. Prioritizing the salaries of people in power when there’s a laundry list of other municipal needs can be an extremely difficult thing to do. As a result, elected officials have long disproportionately been lawyers or independently wealthy.

“There’s nothing harder than having to ask for a pay raise in public, but we’re in an interesting moment because we’re seeing people running for jobs that just frankly weren’t made for regular people,” says Johnson. “We want to see governments that deeply reflect the communities, that have lived experience that will drive better democratic outcomes.” In many ways, local government is not yet structured to support that, she says.

One key lesson Local Progress emphasizes is that to be effective in office, local electeds need to embrace playing different roles. There’s the “public representative” who is always being quoted in the news, the “bridge-builder,” who is trying to build consensus behind the scenes, the “fighter” or “truth-teller,” who is always outside on the picket lines or marching in the community, and the “wonk,” who is really gung ho on all things policy details.

“What we teach folks is that you don’t have to be all of these, and you don’t have to be one all the time,” Bell says. “We try to help people understand that even if they all came into office running as the truth-teller, you can’t all be the truth-teller once elected or else you’ll never come to a consensus and get anything done. And that can be hard for people who ran on certain issues and in a certain way, but it can also be really inspiring to see that ‘aha’ moment for them when they start to realize well, OK, this is bigger than just me.”

How Massive Donations from Howard G. Buffett Helped Block The Opening Of A Pot Dispensary In Illinois

Originally published in The Intercept on January 11, 2019.
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ON JANUARY 1, Illinois became the 11th state in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana, raking in nearly $3.2 million in revenue on the first day of sales. The legislation, enacted by the state’s Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, includes “social equity” provisions to give dispensary preference and extra funding to areas that disproportionately bore the impact of the war on drugs — those with higher-than-average rates of marijuana-related arrests, convictions, and prison sentences.

Decatur, the largest city in Macon County, Illinois, has a population that is 20 percent black and is eligible for these reparative measures. But in September, by a vote of 6-1, the Decatur City Council voted to prohibit an adult-use cannabis dispensary from opening in the city. The council also voted 4-3 against allowing cannabis-related businesses, like cultivation and processing centers, to set up shop in Decatur.

At the center of the city council’s position is the indirect influence of Howard G. Buffett, the eldest son of billionaire Warren Buffett, who has lived in the city since the early 1990s. Howard Buffett is remarkably close to local police (even serving a recent stint as interim sheriff) and has poured tens of millions of dollars into law enforcement programs and drug rehabilitation efforts.

Most elected city officials appeared to be set in their opposition to allowing a recreational dispensary in Decatur even before a scheduled public meeting on September 30 to deliberate the issue, according to internal city council communications obtained by DPL Watchdogs, a grassroots transparency group, and shared with The Intercept.

“The push to opt out is gaining some momentum. Stay tuned!” Decatur Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe, who was one of the six no votes, wrote in an email to a constituent on August 21.

“I am a firm opt out vote,” wrote Council Member Lisa Gregory in August, according to another one of the emails. A week before the September study session, Gregory emailed a constituent urging them to “Please apply pressure to [Council Member] David Horn as he intends to vote yes.”

The emails, which were obtained through a public records request, also show Wolfe and Council Member Patrick McDaniel planning how to avoid backlash for limiting public comment at the September study session. McDaniel suggested there be one half-hour segment for public comment “or we will never hear the end of it,” and that speakers “should only be allowed one minute to very briefly state their views.” Wolfe responded that she agreed. She pledged to “make sure we’re ok limiting time” and added that she’d “like a big clock on the monitors.”  Reached for comment, Wolfe told The Intercept that speakers at council meetings typically get three minutes, and that she remembers wanting a clock to help track that. She added that some residents spoke multiple times throughout the September meeting.

Buffett’s financial contributions to the city, as well as his foundation’s work on addiction treatment, influenced at least two city council members’ opposition to the opening of a dispensary in Decatur. At the September study session, Council Member Chuck Kuhle stated bluntly that his opposition was tied in part to his desire to respect Buffett.

“I personally can’t think of a more flat-out rejection of our former sheriff and his foundation than to approve the sale of recreational marijuana without a wait-and-see approach,” Kuhle said, referring to wanting to see how marijuana legalization plays out in other parts of the state before allowing a dispensary to open in Decatur.

More recently, Wolfe pointed to a drug rehabilitation center that opened last year thanks to a $60 million donation from the foundation as justification for her opposition to the sale of marijuana. “It’s kind of counterintuitive to say, OK, we have this wonderful facility to deal with drug addiction, on one hand, and on the other say, Oh, here, come buy your marijuana downtown.”

IN RECENT YEARS, Howard Buffett has cultivated a close relationship with local police and taken a particular interest in curbing the domestic and international drug trade. Buffett, his senior executive assistant, and a spokesperson for the Howard G. Buffett Foundation did not return requests for comment.

In 2012, he received his “auxiliary sheriff” certification from the Macon County Sheriff’s Department, a volunteer police position and by 2014, was given the title of “civilian undersheriff” for which he continued to log thousands of hours as a volunteer, patrolling the streets and undergoing training. In 2016, Buffett’s foundation donated $15 million to build a new law enforcement training center in the county, and $2.2 million to support K-9 units across the state. In the spring of 2017, his foundation donated $350,000 so the Macon County Sheriff’s Office could purchase new patrol vehicles. Four months after that, the elected county sheriff, Thomas Schneider, unexpectedly announced that he’d be retiring early from his job. To the surprise of many, Schneider, a Democrat, named Buffett, a Republican, as his interim successor. The Democrat-majority Macon County board approved Buffett’s appointment, and within six months, Schneider was working a top job at the new Buffet-funded law enforcement training center.

Buffett served as sheriff until December 2018, and during that time, he also published a book arguing for stronger border security to weaken the power of drug cartels. Last year, he announced that he would be investing up to $200 million in Colombia over the next seven years to help the country transition from its drug-based economy.

His fixation on the drug trade has also led to more than $20 million in investments in the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona, near the U.S.-Mexico border, where he is also part of a private volunteer group that assists in policing. As the Phoenix New Times described it, Buffett has “purchased the loyalty of — and influence over — the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office … through a steady stream of gifts and grants totaling tens of millions of dollars, used to buy guns, vehicles, surveillance equipment, helicopters, and other toys.” The Howard G. Buffett Foundation purchased more than 2,000 acres of ranch land in Cochise County, including a property that is 300 yards from the U.S.-Mexico border fence.

Buffett has even enlisted the help of his law enforcement allies from Illinois. In 2016, he was photographed with Macon County Sheriff’s Office Deputy T.W. Houk and Decatur Police Department Detective Chad Larner posing with firearms in the dark of the Arizona desert.

Their joint excursion to the southern border had been several months in the making, according to the Phoenix New Times investigation. In October 2015, Buffett emailed four Illinois law enforcement colleagues about potential smugglers crossing his ranch property in Arizona, according to correspondence the Phoenix New Times obtained from the Decatur Police Department. “You need a rag tag group of macon county sheriff vigilantes to show up and kick some ass,” wrote one Macon County Sheriff Deputy in response. “Bring Chad, need his enthusiasm!” Buffett replied.

Buffett has also taken to criticizing marijuana legalization efforts. His foundation’s 2016 annual report describes legalized pot as “only rais[ing] the stakes” of the U.S.’s drug trade problems and cites that as a reason why Mexican drug cartels have shifted production to drugs like heroin and fentanyl. “Legal sales of marijuana have reduced marijuana seizures crossing the Mexican border; however, Mexican cartels have stepped up their presence and operations in states like Colorado, where marijuana is legal, and have shifted their drug smuggling and production operations to more dangerous and addictive drugs,” the report states.

As Illinois lawmakers were discussing marijuana legalization in 2018, Buffett told a local news outlet that doing so would mean law enforcement agencies would need to replace all their K-9 dogs. “It’s a giant step forward for drug dealers,” he told The Pantagraph, “and a giant step backwards for law enforcement.”

JACOB JENKINS, a community activist who testified in support of allowing a dispensary at the council’s study session described the elected officials as sounding like characters from “Reefer Madness,” a notorious film from the 1930s featuring high schoolers who suffer a range of tragedies after trying marijuana.

“Not only did [the council] turn down a dispensary but also any transporting of marijuana, any processing plants which could have really helped minority businesses in the area,” Jenkins told The Intercept. “Right now, outside of a couple food places, there aren’t many black-owned businesses in town, but with there being state social equity funding and waivers for applications, it would have been possible to actually undo some of the hardships minorities have faced by giving them an opportunity to operate legally with various cannabis businesses.”

Lisa Kendall, co-chair of the Central Illinois Democratic Socialists of America chapter, argued that the council’s vote — and the fact that two voting members cited the Buffett Foundation’s donations to the city — was not sitting well with local residents. “People are waking up to this stuff, and it’s pissing them off,” she said.

David Horn, who was the sole member of the city council to vote for allowing a dispensary in Decatur, told The Intercept that he did so because he heard from more residents who supported it than opposed it. He said he felt the city could use the additional revenue and that whatever negative impacts there are from cannabis, “there is no evidence it will be worse with a regulated dispensary.” He also said he didn’t like the idea that medical marijuana users would have to drive outside the city to get their drugs, even though a recreational dispensary could have administered medical pot and that recreational users in the city would be effectively stigmatized for using a legal product.

“I will say there has been no issue that I have received more contact from citizens over the 2.5 years I’ve been on the council than this one,” Horn said.

Following the September vote, Kendall, Jenkins, and other local activists formed the Decatur Dispensary Project, to campaign against the council’s decision.

“DSA believes in cannabis justice and reform, and so when the issue came to Decatur, our chapter got very vocal about it and showed up to the study session with signs,” Kendall told The Intercept. Justin Weaver, the chapter’s other co-chair, said the group also strongly supports allowing a dispensary from a revenue standpoint, pointing to Decatur’s dwindling population and industries that have relocated out of the city.

“We’re a shrinking city, we’re having budget issues, and over the past seven years, my property tax has gone up by a third, and our utility taxes have gone up,” he said. “This is an undue burden.”

Activists are working to get two nonbinding resolutions on the ballot to demonstrate their displeasure. The first referendum, which has already been approved for the March 17 state primary, will be for all residents of Decatur Township, which covers about 70 percent of Decatur city. The question will read: “Should the city of Decatur allow the sale of recreational cannabis and cannabis-infused products to adults 21 and over?” The second referendum, which activists are still collecting signatures for and poses a similar question, would be for all Decatur residents in November.

But on January 3, Wolfe, the city’s mayor, said even a vote decidedly in support of allowing a dispensary in Decatur would not change her mind, and she’d still prefer to wait and see how legalization plays out in other parts of Illinois. Chicago, the state’s largest city, has opted in, and even two smaller towns in Macon County voted to allow recreational dispensaries.

As Decatur has been mired in debate over marijuana legalization, the city council also voted in December to approve the creation of a new position for a law enforcement officer who would dedicate “100 percent of his time to DUI enforcement,” according to a city council report on the agreement. The position would be primarily paid for by a four-year grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

Under the terms of the agreement, which went into effect on January 1, the Buffett Foundation will pay $500,000 to fund this officer’s salary and benefits over four years. The city will be contributing an additional $148,000 to cover the remaining cost and is required to submit annual reports to the Buffett Foundation summarizing what happened with each arrest, as well as what the underlying violation was.

Decatur Police Chief James Getz Jr. and Deputy Chief Shane Brandel did not return requests for comment.

John Phillips Jr., a community activist who has supported cannabis legalization for the last several decades, said while he backs general DUI enforcement, the idea that an officer should spend all his time dedicated to it raises serious questions and concerns, particularly given Decatur’s history of racially disparate policing. A 2018 study by the Illinois Department of Transportation found that although African Americans comprise 21 percent of Decatur’s population, they were subject to 46 percent of all police traffic stops, and 58 percent of all car searches.

“At the end of the day,” said Phillips, “prohibition doesn’t work, Marijuana has proven to be less dangerous than alcohol, and you cannot legislate morality.”

 

Under Pressure from Democratic Caucus, House Leadership Promises To Bring Pro-Labor Bill to Floor

Originally published in The Intercept on January 9, 2019.
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IN AN UNUSUAL show of frustration, 76 Democratic members of the House, led by freshmen serving in swing districts, sent a letter on Thursday to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Majority Whip James Clyburn urging them to bring a popular and comprehensive labor reform bill to the floor for a vote. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act — or the PRO Act, as it’s commonly referred to — passed the House labor committee on September 25, but progressives and union leaders were frustrated that it wasn’t brought to the floor for a full vote before the holiday break.

The letter suggests that rank-and-file Democrats were worried that little progress had been made in that direction. In response to a request for comment on the letter, Mariel Saez, a spokesperson for Hoyer, said that the majority leader wold bring the measure to the floor sometime an upcoming February recess. “Mr. Hoyer strongly supports the bill and looks forward to bringing it on the Floor before the President’s Day district work period,” Saez said, in what represents a win for advocates of the bill. Henry Connelly, a Pelosi spokesperson, concurred: “Protecting the right to organize is a cornerstone of securing bigger paychecks and better benefits for America’s workers. We hope to have the PRO Act on the floor before Presidents’ Day.”

The lead signatories on the letter are freshman Democratic Reps. Jared Golden of Maine and Max Rose of New York, both of whom flipped their congressional districts from red to blue in 2018. Other signatories include Rep. Cheri Bustos, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania; and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, signaling that support for the pro-labor measure spans the ideological spectrum within the party.

The letter praises House Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott, D-Va., for getting the bill through his committee in the fall. “It is unfortunate that since then, no date for floor consideration has been announced,” the letter reads. “We believe the PRO Act should be brought to the House floor swiftly. It has 219 sponsors and cosponsors, including several Republicans, indicating that it would pass the House with bipartisan support. We can and should pass it now.”

The lack of movement on the PRO Act was feeding frustrations among Democrats that even with a robust majority, in a situation where passage is merely symbolic — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would never allow the bill to pass — House leadership had come up short. The caution is reminiscent of the modest approach to drug-pricing legislation that frustrated the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and is visible in the reluctance to vote on Rep. John Larson’s bill to expand Social Security benefits, which has 208 co-sponsors.

The PRO Act would represent the most comprehensive rewrite of U.S. labor law in decades. It would eliminate right-to-work laws, impose new penalties on employers who retaliate against union organizing, crack down on worker misclassification, and establish new rules so that employers cannot delay negotiating collective bargaining contracts.

In December, despite pleas from the Congressional Progressive Caucus and multiple labor unions to bring the PRO Act to a vote, House leadership focused its energies on passing Donald Trump’s new United States–Mexico–Canada trade agreement, passing a bill to lower prescription drug prices, and voting on impeachment. Rep. Mark Pocan, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, acknowledged then that efforts to hash out labor compromises in the trade agreement meant “there’s probably some limited bandwidth” for the PRO Act. Now that the House passed the USMCA, as the trade agreement is known, in December, Democrats, including vulnerable representatives in red-leaning districts, are evidently facing even more pressure to move the legislation through.

Labor unions praised the letter Thursday afternoon.

“The PRO Act is a critical legislation that will empower America’s working people by allowing us to join a union without fear or intimidation and collectively bargain for a fair return on our work,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a statement. “At a time when working people are on the rise and fighting for justice and equality, it is vital that this bill is brought to the House floor and passed without any further delay.”

Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers union, said in a statement: “Rep. Golden and other advocates of the bill should be commended for their continuing effort to ensure all workers have a stronger voice in the workplace.”