Mission-driven and worker-driven: Inside the wave of nonprofit organizing

Originally published in Strikewave on May 28, 2020.
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In April, six nonprofits based in the nation’s capital — ranging from the National Women’s Law Center and J Street, to Friends of the Earth and Groundwork Collaborative — announced their plans to unionize with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), a D.C.-based affiliate of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees (IFPTE). Meanwhile, workers at the ACLU of Northern California were laying the groundwork for their own unionization drive, which they announced at the beginning of May. When the vaunted civil liberties organization declined to voluntarily recognize its workers, they quickly filed for an NLRB election.

“A lot of these campaigns were going on before this whole pandemic, but I think the uncertainty has really brought into clear relief the need for a collective voice in both things like safety and PPE when we eventually come back to the workplace, and how funding cuts and all that is going to be dealt with,” said Paul Thurston, the organizing director for IFPTE. “It’s just getting people to the realization that you’re better off in an uncertain situation when you have the ability to advocate for yourself as opposed to whatever your boss dictates.”

Nonprofit workers organizing — and even striking — is not new. Labor unions like AFSCME and SEIU have long seen opportunity for growth in the nonprofit sector, a sector which expanded significantly in the second half of the twentieth century with a predominantly female and highly-educated workforce. Unions even once viewed organizing nonprofits as a central way to slow the privatization of public services; this was in part because they thought if wages went up in nonprofits then public entities might be less motivated to contract out. “In general that hasn’t really happened because nonprofit wages — union or not — haven’t kept pace with government wages,” said Jan Masoaka, the CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits. “And the other motivating factor for contracting — having greater control to hire and fire — has become more important to employers.”

As of 2017, according to federal labor statistics, there were nearly 12.5 million nonprofit workers  across the U.S, working in a range of organizations from hospitals and charter schools, to direct-service providers and museums, to advocacy groups and research institutions. The government does not track union density among nonprofits specifically. But just as there’s been recent momentum for new organizing in sectors like digital media and tech, the college-educated, millennial workforce toiling at nonprofits have taken notice, and inspiration.

“Having done this work for thirty years, I can say the workers we’ve been in contact with recently have more confidence in standing up for what’s right, and demanding their working conditions reflect the values of their own agencies,” said Cindy Schu, the organizing director for Nonprofit Employees United (NEU), an affiliate of the Office and Professional Employees International Union. “I do think a lot of it is coming from an increase in activism among younger workers who are devoted to social change.” In the last six months, Schu’s union has organized five new nonprofits — including a food bank in San Francisco, an organization supporting at risk-homeless LGBTQ youth in Little Rock, and another homeless youth service provider in Seattle. They represent “many dozens” of nonprofits, she said.

Thurston said it’s “been incredible” to see how many nonprofit workers reach directly out to their union, interested in organizing their workplaces to make them more sustainable. “You get into nonprofit work because you’re ideologically-driven, but all of these big nonprofit hubs are in extremely expensive cities and young people are not being given the resources or say in the organization for that sacrifice to make sense,” he said. “The outreach is, ‘I don’t want to quit my job, I love my job, and I want it to be better.’”

Both the NPEU and NEU went through rebrands a few years ago, updating their names so nonprofit employees could more clearly grasp who it is they represent. It appears to be working: the NPEU alone has more than doubled its size from 13 units a year ago to 27 today.

“I think people are more conscious of themselves as workers, and have also realized in the larger economic scheme of things that nonprofits are not special,” said Kayla Blado, the president of NPEU and the director of media relations at the Economic Policy Institute. “They’re still working at a job, they deserve to get paid, and frankly a lot of them are having bad experiences at nonprofits, which purport to be progressive and care about certain issues but the day-to-day can be really difficult and workers face discrimination.”

Organizing nonprofits often requires different tactics than organizing for-profit companies. Unlike at a fast food corporation, or Amazon, where workers can rally around principles of corporate greed and sky-high profits, many nonprofit workers generally like their jobs, are aware of funding constraints, and want to avoid bringing too much negative attention to their organization.

“It requires a little bit of massaging the messaging to fit the demographic of the folks, which extends to the public-facing campaigns,” said Thurston. “At Kaiser or a power company or Boeing, there’s no problem going ablaze through the media to say we’re doing this, and here’s all the anti-union stuff Boeing is doing. With nonprofits, any kind of bad press could hurt their organization and that’s not really what they want.”

Jeff Farmer, the organizing director at the Teamsters, which represents about 20,000 nonprofit workers, said over the years he’s emphasized to nonprofit staff that unions don’t have to mean an inherently adversarial relationship. “You don’t have to be anti-organization, or anti-employer, to be pro-union,” he said. “You just still want a voice, weeks of vacation, and to be treated like an adult.”

The main reasons cited for organizing nonprofits are often not primarily financial, but are more about increasing transparency, security, and participatory decision making. “People who work in nonprofits understand the economy is precarious and they know even if my job is good it’s not stable,” said Stephanie Luce, a professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.

Workers tend to frame their campaigns around making their organizations stronger, and more capable of preventing costly staff burn-out. Some policies NPEU workers have negotiated for, said Blado, include mandatory racial equity training, standardized pay-scales and tuition reimbursement, good parental leave, retirement accounts, and seats for workers on the board.  “No one is trying to force their workplace to go under for any reason,” she said. “We just want to strengthen the mission of the organization.”

But these demands don’t always sit well with nonprofit management, many of whom see themselves as very progressive — or at least want to be perceived as such. Two decades ago, Masoaka, the now-CEO of California Association of Nonprofits, co-led a project for the Aspen Institute to study how nonprofits have been experiencing the surge in unionization. Masoaka and her colleague interviewed 40 nonprofit executives, trustees, and staff in San Francisco and New York, and found the campaigns can prove particularly contentious, because both nonprofit workers and their employers often have strong emotional investments in their work, and the progressive bona fides of the employers are directly challenged.

Boss resistance generally looks different than the more brazen union-busting tactics from the corporate sector. More common, workers said, is it takes the form of guilt tripping, with management stressing that collective bargaining could mean cuts to staffing, programming, and therefore less services available for their vulnerable clients. Nonprofits are also often dependent on government funding and private foundation support — which managers point out can come with strings that prevent dollars from going to the types of demands workers are making at the bargaining table.

Sometimes managers even worry that donors will be upset by the prospect of a union, if that means donor contributions go less far to serving low-income and vulnerable people. “What we usually say to that is turnover is extremely expensive, and when workers leave, the quality of work goes down,” said Blado, who adds that in her experience many donors have been happy to see their organizations walking the progressive walk.

Paternalistic attitudes from nonprofit employers are also not uncommon, according to organizers. “They’ll say they’re not opposed to labor philosophically, but when their power is challenged it’s a really different story,” said Schu of the NEU. “I’ve seen a patronizing approach where the manager will say, ‘we’re all in this together, we’re a nonprofit and the work itself should be a reward,” added Farmer, of the Teamsters.

As for whether a nonprofit employer is more likely to voluntarily recognize their workers’ union than a for-profit — it depends. There’s certainly more pressure to do so, especially if the threat of bad press awaits. Paul Reilly, who has worked for the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild since 2001, says the nonprofits his union has represented have been more likely to do voluntary recognition. (Disclosure: In 2017, I helped organize The American Prospect, a nonprofit, with the Washington-Baltimore News Guild. Management did voluntarily recognize us.) And nearly all the recent NPEU shops were also voluntarily recognized. Still Schu said in her experience it’s been more common for nonprofits to go through an NLRB election, though they always try and seek voluntary recognition first.

One area of nonprofit organizing that is genuinely new is political campaigns. The idea has been long discussed among campaign staffers, but because campaign work is so short-term, many established unions didn’t see the investment as feasible. Some unions also thought it could be a conflict-of-interest, because they endorse candidates and questioned whether they could represent the workers of a candidate they may or may not endorse.

“It’s something people have always talked about at drinks after work but no one really does,” said Meg Reilly, the president of the Campaign Workers Guild, which she co-founded in 2017. “We were told no by plenty of unions, so finally we just started our own.”

The Campaign Workers Guild was so successful in the 2018 cycle, representing about 40 campaigns, that now larger unions have hopped on the bandwagon, especially eager to represent the major Democratic presidential candidates. In the 2020 cycle, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers represented Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg’s campaign staff, the United Food & Commercial Workers Union represented Bernie Sanders’s staff, and the Teamsters represented Joe Biden’s. The Biden campaign contract, ratified in early May, includes overtime pay, 100 percent employer-paid health insurance, a six-day workweek, and a union grievance procedure.

The campaigns the Campaign Workers Guild have represented have only gotten voluntary recognition, and Reilly says the pressure is particularly intense on candidates to recognize their workers’ union, because the timelines are so short and the threat of being labeled a union-buster can be such a political nightmare for a Democratic politician. (The Campaign Workers Guild is nonpartisan but has not represented any Republican campaigns to date.)

While that pressure has been helpful, Reilly acknowledges the short timeline can sometimes serve as an obstacle too, since many people join campaigns for what they understand upfront to be exhausting sprints. “Sometimes people resist a union because they want their candidate to win, that’s why they’re working on the race, and so anything they feel could jeopardize that goal they say is not worth it to them,” she said. “Permanent organizations are different, the pressure levers are different. They may be strapped in for a longer fight but also have more time to work and build a stronger organization.”

Nonprofit workers, unionized or not, are bracing for a turbulent time as the economic recession sinks deeper from the coronavirus. Luce, from the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, said the research has been “somewhat mixed” about how unions fare during a downturn. High unemployment definitely makes it harder for workers to unionize, she said, but sometimes unionization picks up when employees are faced with particularly bad working conditions and unusually stressful expectations.

“The pandemic has certainly hit many of our members hard,” said Schu. “We have members who work in shelters, on the streets, we represent really fragile folks and the services are going to be needed now more than ever.”

One goal for nonprofit unions amid the pandemic, Blado said, is figuring out how to leverage their positions to raise standards for essential workers who might be cleaning their offices, guarding security for their buildings, or simply not able to work remotely.

“Several of our units have bargained with management over ensuring there’s PPE and hazard pay,” said Blado. “We want to figure out how our nonprofit workers who are more privileged and fortunate can support essential workers and show solidarity.” On their list-serves, she added, NPEU has been mobilizing for donations and mutual aid.

Nonprofits are already bracing for money to dry up in the coming year. Reilly of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild said for those nonprofits that rely primarily on government funding, at least budgets for this fiscal year are already locked in. Next year, he said, is when things could start getting really tough.

“We’re going to see less foundation funding, less government funds, fewer personal donations, less in fees-for-service,” said Masaoka, noting that 37 percent of funding for nonprofits comes from fees-for-service like preschool tuition. “I’ve been wondering how unions are going to fare, and it could go either way.”

Does the Earned Income Tax Credit Deliver?

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 26, 2020.
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As tens of millions of American workers file for unemployment amid the global economic and public-health crisis, we are reminded of how much of the nation’s welfare system is tied to jobs. This is not only true with employer-sponsored health insurance and other benefits, but with a lesser-discussed feature: the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

The EITC is the largest federal subsidy for low-income workers. It’s a refundable credit that workers generally get in an annual lump sum when they file taxes. For childless low-income workers, the benefit is pretty small; in 2019, it maxed out at $529. But for low-income parents with children, it can rise as high as $6,557, depending on how many kids they have and how many hours they worked. About 22 million workers received EITC benefits in 2018, and it’s credited with lifting 5.6 million Americans out of poverty.

The EITC is also distinctive for being unusually popular among both parties. Democrats are fans because it gets more money to the poor, while Republicans like it because it rewards work. During the recent Democratic presidential primary, all the major candidates except Andrew Yang supported expanding the EITC, and in Congress, almost every Senate Democrat has signed on to a bill that would bolster it. In 2017, Gordon Berlin, then-president of the think tank MDRC, told The New York Times that he sees expanding the EITC as the best policy to pursue if one wanted to cut poverty.

But while the political class continues to rally around the EITC, their enthusiasm overlooks an ongoing debate among left-of-center policy wonks that has picked up steam over the last year. Some new research finds significant shortcomings with the EITC as a poverty-reduction tool; others have rebutted that critique. With a potential Democratic majority poised to return to this framework for aiding the working poor, the debate could clarify whether there are better options to reach that goal.

Last summer in the Prospect, New School economist Teresa Ghilarducci and her graduate student Aida Farmand laid out one critique: They argued that while the EITC does increase labor participation among the poor, it also effectively acts as a subsidy to low-wage employers and bears responsibility for driving down American wages overall.

A few months later, Princeton economist Henrik Kleven made a very different argument, in a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Kleven argued that, contrary to popular consensus, the EITC is not responsible for increasing labor force participation at all. Specifically, he argues that the large increase in employment among low-income women in the mid-1990s, which is generally attributed to the 1993 EITC expansion, was actually driven by contemporaneous welfare reforms and the decade’s booming economy.

Most EITC experts have dismissed the concern that the tax credit may exert downward pressure on wages. If true, it doesn’t outweigh its benefits, and just underscores the need for a robust minimum wage, the theory goes. “If you put a strong minimum wage and a good EITC you get the best of both worlds,” said Bob Greenstein, the founder and president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

But while the political class continues to rally around the EITC, their enthusiasm overlooks an ongoing debate among left-of-center policy wonks that has picked up steam over the last year. Some new research finds significant shortcomings with the EITC as a poverty-reduction tool; others have rebutted that critique. With a potential Democratic majority poised to return to this framework for aiding the working poor, the debate could clarify whether there are better options to reach that goal.

Last summer in the Prospect, New School economist Teresa Ghilarducci and her graduate student Aida Farmand laid out one critique: They argued that while the EITC does increase labor participation among the poor, it also effectively acts as a subsidy to low-wage employers and bears responsibility for driving down American wages overall.

A few months later, Princeton economist Henrik Kleven made a very different argument, in a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Kleven argued that, contrary to popular consensus, the EITC is not responsible for increasing labor force participation at all. Specifically, he argues that the large increase in employment among low-income women in the mid-1990s, which is generally attributed to the 1993 EITC expansion, was actually driven by contemporaneous welfare reforms and the decade’s booming economy.

Most EITC experts have dismissed the concern that the tax credit may exert downward pressure on wages. If true, it doesn’t outweigh its benefits, and just underscores the need for a robust minimum wage, the theory goes. “If you put a strong minimum wage and a good EITC you get the best of both worlds,” said Bob Greenstein, the founder and president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The debate got a new jolt last week when Matt Bruenig, the founder of the People’s Policy Project think tank, put out a new, highly critical paper on the EITC. Bruenig cites Kleven’s work to show that the EITC does not increase labor supply, and he also argues that the tax credit’s administrative costs have been understated (mainly because they don’t take into account the private administrative costs of tax preparers that the majority of EITC beneficiaries use), while its poverty-reduction impacts have been overstated (by 47 percent, according to his calculations). Bruenig cites a 2019 Census study that also found the EITC overstated its impact on reducing poverty. He argued in Jacobin that Democrats “should abandon their EITC fetish.”

Steinbaum praised Bruenig’s paper for “putting the received wisdom of the EITC in a more questionable light.” Claudia Sahm, the director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, called Bruenig’s arguments “thought-provoking and dangerous.”

Not everyone was taken with Bruenig’s arguments. Some criticized him for treating Kleven’s paper as dispositive, and others argued that his estimate of the EITC’s administrative costs—11 percent—was dubious. A different Rothstein estimate, which also accounted for private tax prep, clocked EITC administrative costs at about 5 percent. John Wancheck, an EITC expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the data underlying the Rothstein estimate is likely more reliable and reflective of national trends.

Rothstein, Greenstein, and Edin all told the Prospect they believed Bruenig had overstated the importance of his mismeasurement critiques.

Bruenig argues in his paper that it’s problematic that the Current Population Survey—which is sponsored by the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics—counts EITC benefits received in the subsequent year as having been received in the current year. In doing so, he argues, the survey makes the EITC appear more perfectly targeted to those in poverty than it really is.

Greenstein told me he doesn’t find that objection “very important” and thinks it’s given too much weight in Bruenig’s paper. Edin agrees that “it’s a technicality that I don’t think means very much.” She said in order to believe it was important, one would have to believe there was a serious difference between those who are living just above and just below the poverty line. Rothstein echoed them in saying, “I have a hard time believing it matters.” The researchers also pointed to evidence not included in Bruenig’s paper, like that the EITC has had significant benefits for children, and that many beneficiaries like that they can use their tax credit as an annual forced-savings vehicle, rather than a monthly wage supplement.

In an interview, Bruenig defended the mismeasurement critiques, saying they directly challenge the idea that the EITC is a “well-targeted program.” He also said that how policymakers measure the EITC’s effectiveness contrasts with how they measure the effectiveness of other welfare programs like food stamps, which evaluate uptake in the current year. “The [evaluations] have to be comparable,” he said. “And if you want to defend the EITC on the basis that a lump-sum payment can be beneficial to the poor, well that’s different than saying it’s a well-targeted program.”

KLEVEN AND BRUENIG both cite one piece of evidence as a reason they believe the EITC has been overhyped when it comes to incentivizing work. They argue that there’s no real proof that low-wage workers who were already employed then increased their hours to access more of the benefit, or phased out their hours once they had reached the maximum benefit. In economics jargon, this is known as an “intensive margin effect.” Even Rothstein agrees there’s been little good evidence for this, though he notes it’s a bit harder to study.

“How can it be that the EITC influences whether people work or not but does not influence how much they work?” asked Bruenig. “Defenders just wave away this question and say it’s ‘informational frictions.’”

Edin, for her part, says that when she did her qualitative research for her 2015 book, It’s Not Like I’m Poor, she found that while very few low-income people could name the EITC, virtually everyone she met knew they got a tax refund that was associated with their kids and that they had to work to get it. “People generally understood the more you work the more you get,” she said, later adding that no survey she knows of has asked that question.

With millions now losing jobs or seeing working hours reduced, problems with the EITC are cropping up. First, households generally receive the EITC as a refund in February and March, meaning it’s not something people can turn to if they face an unexpected crisis later in the year. And if they’re unable to find work in a depressed labor market, they won’t receive any assistance at all.

“It’s targeted and very effective at raising people’s incomes for low-income taxpayers … but it is not designed to be an effective recession stabilizer for families,” said Hilary Hoynes, a professor of public policy and economics at UC Berkeley.

In the aggregate, researchers find that EITC usage doesn’t vary all that much across economic cycles. But Hoynes says this obscures what actually goes on. During recessions, low-income workers may lose all their earnings, and therefore all their EITC benefits. Meanwhile, higher-income households that were not previously eligible for the EITC may suddenly “drop in” to eligibility, as they face a reduction in their own earnings.

AWARE THAT MANY workers in poverty or on the brink of it could soon lose their EITC, House Democrats included a provision in their latest proposed stimulus package, the HEROES Act, that would allow workers to substitute their 2019 earnings in the 2020 tax year. In other words, a middle-class household that was newly eligible for the EITC could still claim it with their 2020 earnings, but a low-income worker who lost their job could claim the EITC using their 2019 income status.

Other temporary modifications in the HEROES Act include expanding the EITC for workers without children (by nearly tripling the maximum benefit to $1,437) and expanding age eligibility.

It’s not clear how hard Democrats plan to fight for these measures—they’ve already stated that the HEROES Act is just a starting point for negotiations with the Senate. But these are not the only poverty-reduction programs on the Democratic side that use the EITC model. The Working Families Tax Relief Act—a bill led by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Michael Bennet (D-CO)—would substantially increase the size of the EITC, and has nearly every Senate Dem signed on as a co-sponsor. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Brown introduced an even bigger EITC expansion bill in 2017, the GAIN Act, and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has her own version, too, the LIFT Act.

“The EITC is one of the largest anti-poverty programs that exists in America and it also needs to be strengthened, which is why I introduced the Cost of Living Refund, which would lift millions more American families and individuals into the middle class,” said Rep. Khanna, adding that the EITC can’t stand alone and we need a higher minimum wage, stronger union protections, and other safety net programs. “This crisis underscores the dire need for more anti-poverty programs, and I’m reviewing the latest research on how we can make the EITC more effective and what other approaches we can pursue to combat the scourge of poverty.” The offices of Sens. Bennet, Brown, and Harris did not respond.

The debate over the EITC won’t be ending anytime soon, though all involved agree that improving the EITC alone, or scrapping it, would not be enough.

Kleven told Vox’s Dylan Matthews last year that even if the EITC doesn’t incentivize labor participation, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad policy, as it would also suggest the EITC is not driving down wages as Ghilarducci and Farmand argued. It would make the EITC “a pure money dump on the working poor that doesn’t come with any labor supply distortions,” he said.

But Bruenig says that if the EITC doesn’t actually drive labor force participation, then it’s even more immoral to phase in the tax benefit to the working poor, instead of giving it to all low-income households. He argues in his paper for replacing the EITC and the Child Tax Credit with a universal monthly child allowance, though he told me he’d also support an EITC that had no connection to the number of children one has. “It’s not ideal, but I would be OK with that,” he said.

Greenstein said his decades working in tax policy have given him no reason to think that scrapping the EITC will then drive more money to poor people with no earnings. Getting rid of it is not the answer, he argues, but he agrees there needs to be more money channeled to low-income families. Rather than a child allowance that extends to the top of the income scale, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities backs bolstering the Child Tax Credit for families earning up to $200,000 or so. “We don’t have to choose,” Greenstein said. “We should do both.”

Weeks after Sanctions, Russian Oligarch Received $50 Million ‘Antiquities’ Shipment Labeled ‘Farbergé’ At Panama Address

Originally published in The Intercept on May 20, 2020 with Ryan Grim.
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ON APRIL 28, 2018, an unusual shipment left Russia, bound for Panama. The shipment included two small packages each weighing just 900 grams (2 pounds) with packaging, and under 200 grams without. Their small size belied their worth; shipping documents valued them at $55,063 and $163,089.63, respectively. A third package — the most intriguing — weighed 181.7 kilograms with packaging, and 65.13 kilograms — almost 144 pounds —  without. Its listed value: $46,862,560.

The shipping documents offer some tantalizing clues to their contents. The items are listed as shipped from Rosizo, an organization linked to Russia’s Ministry of Culture, and classified as antiques more than 100 years old.

The recipient of the shipment is Lamesa Arts Inc., a company listed in Panama and owned by Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch worth $13 billion. Vekselberg is famous for his yearslong effort to acquire Fabergé eggs and repatriate them to his country for public display.

And that’s where the shipping documents, discovered by William George, an analyst with Import Genius, which compiles a database of such records, get even more intriguing. In the column next to the heaviest item’s export date, the shipping record for “trade mark” translates to “FABERGE RUSSIA.” Earlier that month, Vekselberg had been placed under crippling sanctions by the United States government.

THE HOUSE OF FABERGÉ produced countless exquisite and eccentric works of art, many of which are displayed at Vekselberg’s Fabergé Museum, but the jeweler is most famous for its eggs.

In 1885, Tsar Alexander III gifted his wife, Maria Feodorovna, an Easter egg that had been crafted from jewels by Peter Carl Fabergé. Over the next several decades, the House of Fabergé continued producing jeweled eggs for the royal family, and a Russian heirloom was born. Throughout the 20th century, the eggs, originally as many as 69 in number, scattered around the globe in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Now, there are said to be 46 Imperial eggs known to be in existence. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the oligarch class, one man began an effort to reclaim them for Russia and bring them home.

Vekselberg, who now owns more Fabergé Imperial eggs than any other person in the world, purchased nine, which weigh about 400 grams each, from the Forbes family back in 2004 for an estimated $100 million. In 2013, he opened the Fabergé Museum in Saint Petersburg, to display his nine eggs as well as other Russian cultural art pieces. (“Vekselberg Shows His Eggs to the Public,” read one cheeky and now-famous headline, announcing the exhibit.)

Vekselberg loved Fabergé so much he even sued over rights to the Fabergé brand, which had been owned by the consumer goods corporation Unilever, but was sold to Brian Gilbertson, a South African mining tycoon. Vekselberg wanted the Fabergé brand to be held by a Panamanian company he owned known as Lamesa Arts, according to court documents, and reportedly had wanted to buy the Fabergé brand as a Christmas present for his wife. Vekselberg, who frequently did business with Gilbertson, claimed that he got squeezed out of the deal; Gilbertson claimed Vekselberg had made last-minute demands. In 2012 a Cayman Island judge ruled in Vekselberg’s favor, but awarded him no compensation. (The decision was later appealed, and the decision, for the most part, upheld.)

The shipping destination listed for Lamesa Arts for all four of the Russian exports was Urbanizacion Marbella, 53 RD Street, an address that also appears in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists Offshore Leaks database as the location of the MMG tower, an office and retail building. Separate records also indicate Lamesa Arts Inc. is housed in the MMG tower. Lamesa Arts’s legal representative, according to corporate documents, is Morgan & Morgan, which has Panamanian offices in MMG tower. The shipping records include a fourth package which was sent January 25, 2019, weighing 470 grams without packaging, and valued at $177,618.86.

George, the shipping analyst, said that the Fabergé discovery highlights the value of transparent shipping records when it comes to tracing the flow of wealth. “This is a great example of how important transparency in trade data is for public oversight,” he said.

It’s not known what precisely was in the packages marked as antiquities, given the breadth of decorative objects produced by the House of Fabergé. Indeed, the eggs may still be residing in Russia, and the package may have been stuffed with other Fabergé valuables. In July 2019, Russia’s culture minister announced that Rosizo, in charge of exhibitions, had been stripped of some of its responsibilities, as it had too many and “couldn’t handle them all.” Rosizo did not respond to requests for comment and neither did representatives from the Ministry of Culture nor Vekselberg’s spokesperson. The Fabergé Museum is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and did not return a request for comment.

In recent years Vekselberg has found himself in the crosshairs of rising tensions between the U.S and Russia. In 2017, according to Bloomberg News, Vekselberg had been assuring fellow businessmen and Russian leaders that he could influence the Trump White House. (A spokesperson for Putin denied this to Bloomberg News.) Vekselberg attended Trump’s swearing-in ceremony as a guest of his American cousin, Andrew Intrater, who donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration.

But by the year’s end, Russian oligarchs began disposing of their assets, anticipating new American sanctions were coming for those with close ties to the Kremlin. It was reported that in late 2017 Vekselberg sold a large chunk of shares he owned in a Petropavlovsk gold-mining company to an offshore company.

And, indeed, on April 6, 2018, shortly after Vekselberg was questioned by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, the U.S. slapped new sanctions on several Russian oligarchs. The targets included Vekselberg and Renova Group, his holding company, to punish Moscow for “malign activity,” including suspected meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. (Vekselberg has not been accused of interfering in the election.) In the wake of the sanctions, Vekselberg has grown concerned, Bloomberg reported, that his family — his grandchildren are American — won’t be able to inherit even a small amount of his wealth. Three weeks after sanctions were announced, the Fabergé shipment was bound for Panama.

Washington Governor Vetoes Bill That Would Have Automatically Cleared Criminal Records

Originally published in The Appeal on May 19, 2020.
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When the Great Recession hit in 2008, the unemployment rate among the general public stood at 6 percent. But it stood at a staggering 27 percent among the formerly incarcerated, according to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative —“higher than the overall U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.” As the nation now grapples with the novel coronavirus and tens of millions of newly unemployed workers, individuals with criminal records—upward of 70 to 100 million Americans—are bracing for an even more severe crisis, with heightened difficulties obtaining jobs, loans, and housing.

In that context, criminal justice reform advocates in Washington State were all the more disappointed in April when Democratic Governor Jay Inslee vetoed House Bill 2793. It would have initiated the process of automatically expunging criminal records in nearly 2 million eligible cases.

Advocates have pushed for this type of reform, dubbed “Clean Slate,” around the country. Although expunged records yield major benefits, the vast majority of people who are eligible to get an expungement—over 90 percent of them, according to a University of Michigan study published in 2019—don’t even apply, for a host of reasons ranging from cost and time to legal complexity and a lack of information. Clean Slate bills propose to remedy these obstacles by requiring states to automatically expunge people’s records for eligible offenses. Though specifications vary, these bills typically involve clearing cases promptly if they did not result in a conviction, and clearing convictions after some waiting period.

The economic downturn has amplified the issue’s importance. Applicants with criminal records can be half as likely to get a callback or job offer, research has shown, and nearly nine in 10 employers use criminal background checks when hiring. Even among those who do find jobs, employees with records generally face significant earning penalties, while those with expunged records typically see their wages spike.

Still, in his formal veto letter, Inslee cited COVID-19 to explain his decision to block HB 2793. He argued that given the health and economic crisis wrought by coronavirus, Washington could not afford to move forward with the bill. Despite the research showing automatic record-clearing boosts economic opportunity for vulnerable people and ultimately saves states money, he insisted, “we must prepare for the effects of the lost revenue that will result from this pandemic.”

“To have Inslee veto our Clean Slate bill was really devastating for all of us who worked so hard and continue to make progress toward the relief that so many individuals need help with,” said Tarra Simmons, director of the Washington-based Civil Survival Project, a criminal justice organization led by formerly incarcerated individuals, and the co-chair of Washington’s Statewide Reentry Council. “Austerity is not going to help us in the economic recession.”

Simmons herself was sentenced to 30 months in prison for theft and drug crimes back in 2011. Six years later, when she graduated from Seattle University Law School, the Washington State Bar Association denied her entry into the bar exam, citing her felony record, but Simmons got the state Supreme Court to affirm her right to take the test. Simmons is now a licensed attorney and is also running for the state House.

The final version of HB 2793 was watered down from what advocates had originally proposed. It would have authorized a pilot program of automatic record-clearing in just one county, as well as a study due in December assessing how to implement the policy statewide, given Washington’s decentralized court system. The total price tag, according to the fiscal note, was $1.2 million over two years.

When the coronavirus hit, advocates pressed Inslee to sign the bill even if he couldn’t authorize the funding. Though it was limited, supporters still saw the legislation as essential to get the ball rolling in the state. Major philanthropic organizations like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Arnold Ventures, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have supported automatic expungement efforts, and Simmons said they were confident they’d be able to secure private resources for the study if needed.

“He could have passed the policy without the funding piece, and it would have at least compelled state agencies to come to the table and collaborate with us,” Simmons told the Appeal: Political Report. “We said we can still do the report and we’ll figure it out, the cost, as a coalition.”

Nevertheless, Inslee nixed the legislation in full.

Mike Faulk, the press secretary for Inslee’s office, told the Political Report that the governor believes record-clearing is “an important issue” and “would like to see work done to move this forward when there are resources to allow for the work.” Faulk noted that Inslee vetoed many bills that he endorsed to control the budget and emphasized that the governor supports Clean Slate, “regardless of whether it got his signature this time around.”

Washington’s setback stands in stark contrast to the wave of momentum reformers have seen over the past few years when it comes to automatic record-clearing.

Pennsylvania was the first state to pass a Clean Slate bill in 2018, with polling showing over 80 percent of Pennsylvanians backed the idea. The law has had a tremendous impact in a short amount of time: Since it went into effect in June 2019, more than 34 million cases have already been sealed, including more than 80,000 misdemeanor convictions.

Unlike in Washington State, Pennsylvania has a unified court system—meaning that the data was already consolidated from all 67 counties. This aided Pennsylvania’s swift passage of its bill. “It mostly required some programming to make the concept run, and I think the fact that it wasn’t going to cost much of anything was really key,” explained Sharon Dietrich, the litigation director of the Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services.

Then, in 2019, Utah became the second state to pass a Clean Slate bill. California followed suit in October, though unlike in the prior two states, its reform does not apply retroactively. Only eligible offenses that occur after 2021 will be automatically cleared.

California went further than Pennsylvania and Utah in another way, though. Its law will apply not just to misdemeanors, as in these other states, but to some felony offenses as well.

Michigan is also advancing a Clean Slate bill, which passed the state’s House in November; the Senate may still take it up this year. If that bill passes, Michigan would have the first Clean Slate law to clear prior felony offenses. Lawmakers have also introduced bills this year in California, which may expand on its 2019 reform, and in Connecticut.

Advocates are pressing states to speed up consideration of these measures, rather than use the pandemic as a reason to slow it down. Workers with criminal records tend to be among those first fired from jobs and last hired during economic crises, they stress.

“This kind of policymaking is going to be more important—it’s not something that should be left as a COVID-19 afterthought,” said Rebecca Vallas, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where she works on automatic expungement. “It needs to be part and parcel of our economic recovery or else we’ll just further compound the inequities we already have.”

Simmons agrees that discriminating against those with criminal records amid the pandemic puts Americans more at risk. “As the illness continues to spread, we need to beef up our essential workforce,” she said. “Folks with criminal records would be well equipped to step into these delivery and grocery roles.”

The federal government may be paying some attention. In 2019, Representatives Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Delaware Democrat, and Guy Reschenthaler, a Pennsylvania Republican, introduced legislation to automatically seal some people’s criminal records. Vallas says she has also heard of bipartisan interest in offering federal support to states that face greater financial and technological barriers to implementing automatic record-clearing than Pennsylvania did.

Reschenthaler told the Political Report in an email that Clean Slate-like legislation is important to battling “the revolving door to prison.” He added, “As we recover from the COVID-19 outbreak, eliminating barriers to employment will ensure formerly incarcerated individuals can fully participate and contribute to their communities to help us reopen America and reignite our economy.”

So far, the federal government has only made it more difficult for people with records to benefit from its economic stimulus package, though, by restricting access to forgivable business loans.

Kim Olson, Texas Congressional Candidate, Clashed With Teachers During Tenure at Dallas School District

Originally published in The Intercept on May 10, 2020.
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KIM OLSON, A Democratic candidate in the runoff for a suburban Texas district that includes the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and surrounding affluent suburbs, is most commonly known for her past career in the Air Force. “Retired colonel” is the epithet she uses on her social media accounts, her military service is prominently featured on her campaign website, and Democrats and the media have been debating how much of a liability an early 2000s contracting scandal in Iraq, where she was accused of war profiteering, would be in a general election. (Olson denies the charge, but she did plead guilty to two lesser offenses relating to conflicts of interest and obtaining outside employment without permission.)

 

Another line on Olson’s resume, following her retirement from the Air Force in 2005, gets much less attention. From August 2007 to June 2009, Olson was the human resources director for the Dallas Independent School District, the second-largest district in the state. Beyond a reference at the bottom of Olson’s campaign website that as HR director, she “oversaw $1 Billion dollar budget and 22,000 employees,” she rarely mentions this job on the campaign trail.

There may be good reason for that. Her tenure in a seemingly anodyne school administrator role was contentious, from budget issues and teacher layoffs to getting reprimanded by the school board. When she abruptly tendered her resignation in 2009, providing no reason why, a Dallas Observer columnist noted that it “seems an awfully quiet way for one of the school year’s most controversial figures to go.”

Some of the controversy stemmed from her close ties to the education reform movement. Olson was trained at the Broad Superintendents Academy, a bootcamp for reform-minded education administrators. As HR director, she helped lead the push to bring Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach for two-year stints, into Dallas public schools.

“She helped facilitate that [TFA] contract and most traditional educators were highly opposed because Teach for America teachers had only six weeks of training,” said Rena Honea, the president of the Dallas teachers union, who was in union leadership during Olson’s tenure. “There was a big push from the business world and the education reformers, but Kim was the one who helped foster that contract and relationship.”

Olson declined to comment on these aspects of her record. Instead, she provided a comment on how her campaign has responded to coronavirus.

Her rhetoric toward teachers also exacerbated tensions. In an interview with D Magazine, a monthly publication covering Dallas-Fort Worth, Olson once quipped, “Most educators don’t understand leadership because that’s really not what is practiced.” She went on to add, “Just because you’ve been the head of a classroom or a school doesn’t mean you have leadership.”

Olson’s tenure as HR director also overlapped with the most severe budget crisis in the Dallas school district’s history. A bombshell Dallas Morning News investigation from November 2008 detailed the district’s fiscal woes and shoddy accounting practices: The district had overspent its previous budget by $64 million and was on track to run up an $84 million deficit that year. The report led to new audits and the swift installment of a new CFO.

The budget problems began well before Olson arrived at the school district, but when she was blamed for the crisis unfolding under her watch, she denied all responsibility. When she was blamed for authorizing the hiring of new teachers the district couldn’t afford and criticized for laying off hundreds of them later on to balance the budget, she insisted that it wasn’t her department’s fault, that her staff had merely executed personnel decisions approved elsewhere by budget officials. When a school trustee pressed Olson on what her department would do if the budget office was wrong or made a mistake, she said her team did not attempt to reconcile its figures with its own data and did not even have the staffing allocation to do so. (A spokesperson for Olson’s campaign said the $1 billion budget reference on her website refers to overseeing compensation and benefits — not the personnel budget she distanced herself from years ago.)

While Olson maintained her department’s innocence in the district’s fiscal crisis, she was simultaneously taking contentious steps to boost its public image. In November 2008, three school district employees took the unusual step of attending a school board meeting to offer praise for the HR department. One after another, the principals offered testimony about how great it was to start their school year with highly qualified staff already in place at their schools.

The Dallas school trustees could sense something fishy was going on, as it was hardly the beginning of the school year. One trustee said it was “very suspicious” the administrators had shown up to speak. “I feel a setup,” he added.

At the end of the meeting, Olson admitted that she had asked the three principals to come to the meeting and recognize her department’s work. Trustee Lew Blackburn said he was “very angry” that the principals were asked to leave their jobs to come and praise HR, and he told the school superintendent that “if this happens again, I will be highly pissed.”

In March, Olson emerged from her seven-way primary in Texas’s 24th Congressional District,  with 41 percent of the vote. Because no candidate got 50 percent, she will be facing off in a July runoff against Candace Valenzuela, a school board member for the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District who earned 30 percent of the vote.

The district, which is currently represented by Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant, is one of seven Texas House seats the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee aims to flip in November. In August 2019 Marchant announced he would not seek reelection. The winner of the runoff will face off against Republican Beth Van Duyne, a former mayor in the district.

Despite Skyrocketing Unemployment, Tennessee Valley Authority Plans to Outsource Hundreds of Federal Jobs to Overseas Companies

Originally published in The Intercept on May 5, 2020.
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As Donald Trump vows to save the economy amid the global pandemic, while the number of Americans filing for unemployment has skyrocketed to 30 million, the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, the nation’s largest government-owned power provider, has announced plans to outsource 20 percent of its highly-skilled technology workforce to Capgemini, CGI, and Accenture — companies based in France, Canada, and Ireland respectively.

At least 120 workers have already learned they will be losing their jobs later this summer, and the TVA has informed the engineers’ union that another 100 jobs are likely on the chopping block. Affected workers were told in late April to prepare to train their own replacements, according to an email reviewed by The Intercept.

While TVA claims the jobs will remain in the United States, citing the existence of  U.S.-based subsidiaries for some of its vendors, workers say outsourcing labor is baked into these firms’ business model. The companies employ substantial workers abroad; Capgemini alone has 100,000 workers based in India. The potential outsourcing of federal jobs flies in the face of the “America First” rhetoric that underpins Trump’s presidency and reelection campaign.

Gay Henson, a TVA worker of 35 years and the current president of Engineering Association (EA)/Local 1937, said that workers there see the move as an attempt to undermine their union. While efforts to outsource their jobs predated the pandemic, Henson is not paranoid to consider how the new economic crisis might be exploited. Historically, companies have used times of economic downfall to slash union jobs — and workers have struggled to recoup those losses. In the 1980s, the only time since the Great Depression when unemployment passed 10 percent, union density declined 30 percent and hasn’t recovered. The resulting wage stagnation among both union and nonunion workers has fueled runaway wealth and income inequality, with nearly all of the economic gains over the past four decades flowing to those at the very top.

Now, with unemployment threatening to reach Depression-era levels again — and some analysts predicting that it may have hit as high as 16 percent in April — unions are feeling vulnerable. Millions of people furloughed and laid off in the past several weeks are unlikely to get their jobs back, and many who will be brought back could be offered substantially less pay. Where possible, employers, as always, will look for nonunion labor to replace organized workers. Young people just entering the workforce will have the trajectory of their lifetime earnings driven downward, while older people now being cast out of it will, as a result of age discrimination, have a very hard time clawing their way back in.

The layoffs at the TVA are just one turn of the screw.

While the agency signed a $15 million contract with Capgemini in September, following an internal review which recommended TVA revamp its internal software writing system, the additional vendors were disclosed in April — well into the coronavirus pandemic.

The company’s stated rationale, according to TVA spokesperson Jim Hopson, is a desire to “increase opportunity for innovation and expertise” that he said is less possible with an in-house technology team. Hopson also told The Intercept that TVA will continue to require its work to be done domestically and that all data be stored on U.S.-based servers.

The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, IFPTE, the union that represents the TVA workers, says it has also seen how this story has played out at other utility companies across the country. In California, for example, when Pacific Gas and Electric laid off hundreds of workers in 2017, at least 70 of those jobs ended up being outsourced to India — a move the company did not initially disclose. And in 2015, when Disney laid off 250 IT workers in Orlando, the company replaced them with foreign guest workers on H-1B visas, employed by global outsourcing firms. In TVA’s case, the company recently increased its use of H-1B visas — which allow companies to replace American workers with foreign nationals for jobs designated a “specialty occupation” with a salary of at least $60,000 — over the last year.

TVA workers stress there’s no evidence whatsoever that their current staff is not capable of doing the software work themselves.

“Our workers absolutely can do the work, can do it well, and we’ve all been trained in it,” said Henson. Company managers have also raised no real objection to their work, and in an email last month praising staff for their performance during the pandemic, a manager said their work was “nothing short of stellar.”

“It’s not an issue of qualification, it’s not an issue of quality of the work,” Hopson, the TVA spokesperson, told The Intercept. “It’s not any fault of theirs, it’s the simple fact that they do not have the same access to tools and breadth of experience that other companies can provide.” Cost was also not a “primary reason” for the outsourcing, Hopson said. (TVA CEO Jeff Lyash, who makes $8 million a year, is the highest-paid federal employee — a salary Trump recently threatened to slash.)

TVA management has delivered the same message internally, telling “workers repeatedly” that they don’t expect the outsourcing will provide cost-savings to the TVA, according to Henson. “They’ve told us this is not about saving the money, but ‘leveraging the market,’” she said.

Finding none of the company’s explanations particularly compelling, Henson said the decision appears to be designed to weaken their union, which has been around since 1937. “At this point I can’t really see what else it could be,” she said.

Hopson, the TVA spokesperson, denied union-busting was a factor. “We understand there are times when decisions need to be made that are contrary to what the union would prefer, however we do believe they are extraordinarily valuable partners,” he said.

To add insult to injury, workers getting pink slips will be expected to train their replacements.

“Over the next few months, employees in Development & Operations will work to transfer knowledge and transition this work to these [new] vendors,” wrote Jeremy Fisher, TVA’s vice president and chief information officer in an email to staff on April 21. “We recognize that participating in the knowledge transfer process is difficult for many of you, but we are counting on your continued professionalism to make the transition to our new operating model a successful one for TVA.”

Fisher did not return requests for comment. Hopson said that while he does not know the specifics of the transition plan, he acknowledged workers might help “familiarize understanding of what’s already there” to make the transition easier.

THE TENNESSEE VALLEY Authority is a federally owned corporation created in 1933 during the Great Depression to provide both electricity generation and “economic development” to the Tennessee Valley region. Its service area covers 10 million people across seven southern states.

Workers say outsourcing the jobs out of the Tennessee Valley flies in the face of its vaunted mission and mandate, and they estimate the proposed layoffs will cost the local economy nearly $88 million over five years.

In a letter sent on Thursday to Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Tom Carper, D-Del., the chair and ranking member of the Environment & Public Works Committee, which holds jurisdiction over the TVA, the union asked for an investigation into “an outsourcing process at TVA that lacks transparency, was done in violation of TVA’s own internal contracting processes, will be more costly than simply leaving the work in-house, and is in violation of TVA’s own mission of providing an economic boon to the vast Tennessee Valley community.”

The letter, signed by Henson along with Paul Shearon, IFPTE’s international president, and Matthew Biggs, its secretary-treasurer, also noted it is “alarming” that a federal government entity would be allowed to lay off hundreds of workers right now. The union pressed the senators to add language in the next Covid-19 relief bill preventing TVA from outsourcing the jobs. “Unlike saving other American jobs, saving these will not cost taxpayers a dime,” they wrote.

Sarah Durdaller, Barrasso’s press secretary, told The Intercept the committee had received the union’s letter “and is in communication with TVA regarding the issue.” The committee will continue to conduct oversight of TVA, she added.

This was the IFPTE’s second attempt to bring congressional attention to the threatened layoffs. In January, before Covid-19 upended the global economy, the union wrote to the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety and the House Subcommittee on Water Resources asking for help in protecting their jobs.

Two lawmakers from Alabama, one of the states serviced by TVA, have so far been the only members of Congress to respond seriously to the workers’ pleas. On March 2, Republican Rep. Mo Brooks sent a letter to TVA CEO Jeffrey Lyash, raising national security concerns with outsourcing the TVA’s electrical grid. “It would be folly to outsource TVA IT work to foreigners, an outsourcing that may allow geopolitical foes to disrupt the stability of power production and distribution across the Tennessee Valley,” Brooks wrote, echoing concerns raised by the union. TVA has defended its decision by pointing to the fact that other federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, also contract with these companies. Democratic Sen. Doug Jones has also been in regular communication with the union about the impending layoffs.

When asked about contributing to unemployment during the pandemic, Hopson said their “overriding goal” is to serve their customers “in the most effective and innovative way possible.” While he said they “understand the challenges that could be placed on those who are impacted, ultimately the goal is to serve 10 million people.”

Workers say there is still time for TVA to reverse course and save these jobs, as the pink slips have yet to be issued. About two weeks ago IFPTE even reached out to Peter Navarro, the White House director of trade and industrial policy.

“It’s so far fallen on deaf ears but lord knows there hasn’t been a louder voice on outsourcing American workers than him,” said Shearon, the international president. “These companies do not pay American taxes, often do not employ American workers, and in the face of the promises of the president and this global pandemic and 30 million unemployed, it’s just unacceptable.”

Small Farms, Already Stressed and Underfunded, Struggle for Coronavirus Relief

Originally published in The Intercept on April 29, 2020.
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BEFORE CORONAVIRUS HIT, farmers in the U.S. were already hurting from years of falling food prices, severe weather, and, more recently, President Donald Trump’s trade war. “We’ve had a record number of farm bankruptcies [in the U.S.], total farm debt is at $425 billion, [and farmer] incomes have fallen by about half since 2013,” said Eric Deeble, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which supports small and mid-sized family farms.

Now, with the global pandemic closing factories and restaurants and disrupting supply chains, already stressed farms are grappling with lower demand and fewer markets to sell in, as well as a presidential administration that favors relief for big businesses over small. Small farmers in particular — those who sell directly to farmers markets, schools, and other local food hubs — are facing an existential crisis, as they face slim odds of accessing competitive federal stimulus money.

They have reason to be pessimistic. In recent years, federal subsidies to help struggling farmers have flowed almost exclusively to large corporate farms. Of the roughly $28 billion the Trump administration has distributed to food producers to offset losses from his trade wars, almost all went to big farms.

Advocates for small farmers say this is driven in part by the preference of Trump’s agriculture secretary, Sonny Purdue, who has encouraged farmers to get bigger farms if they wanted to stay in business. “Big get bigger and small go out … and that’s what we’ve seen,” he told a group of Wisconsin dairy farmers in 2018, echoing Richard Nixon’s agriculture secretary, who infamously told farmers in the 1970s to “get big or get out.” While 91 percent of U.S. farms are small — defined by the federal government as an operation with gross cash income under $250,000 — large farms account for 85 percent of the country’s farm production.

The public health crisis has already had a devastating impact on agriculture across the country. A report released in mid-March by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition estimated that small farms would see a $689 million decline in sales from March to May this year due to Covid-19, leading to a payroll decline of $103 million and a total loss to the economy of $1.3 billion. Now, as the pandemic shows no sign of slowing, the coalition worries that the impact for small farmers will be even more substantial — which could lead many small farms to permanently close.

Under pressure from groups like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Farmers Union, Congress did work to address some of the needs of small and direct-market farmers in the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, signed into law on March 27. While lawmakers did not include all that advocates pressed for — like emergency food purchases from small processors and direct payments to small farms — the CARES Act did allocate $9.5 billion to farmers and said some (unspecified portion) of that amount should go to “producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools.”

But in the weeks following the CARES Act, farmers struggled to access any relief, as the agriculture aid stalled and many farmers found themselves ineligible for the Small Business Administration emergency loans. On April 10, 33 senators sent a bipartisan letter to Purdue, urging the USDA to follow the CARES Act and distribute federal aid to small farmers specifically. A week later, when the USDA finally announced how it planned to allocate the $9.5 billion from the CARES Act, it appeared that no money would be reserved specifically for small farmers.

In a statement provided to The Intercept, a USDA spokesperson said the department planned to provide assistance to “most farms” that experienced at least a 5 percent loss. To ensure that funding will help small farms, the USDA said it “is utilizing payment limits and [adjusted gross income] eligibility criteria that were used by Congress when developing the 2018 Farm Bill” — the same bill that left small farmers in the lurch over the last two years. The spokesperson also said that the USDA planned to use a $900,000 AGI limit for those who do not make 75 percent or more of their income from farming — a notably high threshold considering that small farmers earn between $1,000 and $250,000 from their farms.

“Bailout money always goes to the big farmers, the people who produce soy and crops and sell into commodity markets,” said John Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders, a national organization that supports sustainable agriculture. “This is all part of our country’s cheap food policy where we basically subsidize capital-intensive, large-scale industrial farming.”

Farmers who sell directly to consumers or participate in regional food hubs typically don’t rely on federal subsidies.

“Small diversified farmers are pretty effective at doing what they do, which is finding markets and filling them, and haven’t required a lot of support,” said Deeble. “But the flip side is if you’re usually good in normal times and don’t rely much on the government, it can be harder to get government help when you need it.”

J.D. Scholten, a Democratic House candidate running in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, said there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how the federal stimulus money will be allocated, “but what we’ve seen [since the trade wars] is that Secretary Purdue gets to dictate who gets bailed out and who doesn’t, and there’s not a lot of oversight.”

Colby Ferguson, a small farmer and the director of government and public relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, defended the bulk of federal subsidies flowing to large farms. “They should get most of the money since they generate the most volume of our food supply,” he said. “If we didn’t help the big guys, that would also affect the small guys.”

The Farmers Market Coalition, a nonprofit that supports local markets across the country, has also been pushing for emergency aid and a federal declaration that farmers markets should be allowed to operate as essential businesses. (California has deemed farmers markets essential, but other states have shut them down or left it more ambiguous.) Advocates say open-air markets can serve as a safer way to buy groceries during the pandemic.

“If farmers markets go out of business that means local farmers lose access to those consumers,” said Ben Feldman, executive director for the Farmers Market Coalition. While American food purchasing has swiftly shifted during the pandemic from restaurants to grocery stores, it is typically much harder for small farmers to sell their products to large grocery stores.

“I don’t want to be alarmist, because farmers market operators, like the farmers who sell to them, are very resilient and adaptable and do an incredible amount with very limited resources,” said Feldman. “But this could definitely force markets to close.”

According to the USDA, local food sales more than doubled between 2012 and 2017. But profit margins for small farmers remain low or nonexistent, and most small farmers also have other jobs.

Peck of Family Farm Defenders said he worries this pandemic will be exploited by big corporations to crush the local food movement and correspondingly wreak further damage on the climate. “To feed the world and cool the planet, we need to move away from industrial agribusiness,” he said.

Some advocates say they’re cautiously optimistic that the next stimulus bill could offer more help to small farmers and noted that there’s been growing public awareness of the risks posed by our global supply chain and the need to invest in a more resilient food system.

Scholten, who has been sounding the alarm for years about the risks of monopolized agriculture, said the pandemic exposes how “dangerously dependent” we are on imports. “We’ve had these ‘get big or get off the farm’ policies for years,” he said. “But I think there’s huge potential now to regionalize our food production, localize it.”

“In the 4th District of Iowa, the second-most agricultural producing district in the nation, we have only two farm-to-table restaurants; we have small towns losing their grocery stores because Dollar General is coming in and undercutting them, but they don’t sell fresh produce and meats, and we have farmers not making a dime,” he said. “So who are we doing this [production] all for?”

As Democrats Push Vote-By-Mail Measures, Local Governments Are Leading The Charge on Safe Voting

Originally published in The Intercept on April 20, 2020.
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ON TUESDAY NIGHT, jurisdictions in two pivotal swing states are set to approve new vote-by-mail measures to help ensure citizens can safely cast ballots amid the global coronavirus pandemic. The initiatives — which come in spite of the Republican-held state legislatures in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that have refused to cancel in-person voting — can serve as a road map for other progressive cities and counties looking to take quick action as the November election nears.

Ensuring  people don’t have to choose between their health and voting has become a top priority for leaders seeking to reduce the spread of Covid-19. From a political standpoint, Democrats also see the expansion of vote-by-mail as necessary to beat Donald Trump, where they believe higher voter turnout will redound to their benefit. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, along with Michigan, are key to that strategy, as those are the states that delivered the 2016 election to Trump. The president, too, seems to understand the potency of vote-by-mail, as he has recently been spreading lies about it, despite himself having voted absentee this past March and in the 2018 midterms.

“It is critical and time-sensitive that localities and states implement vote-by-mail in advance of upcoming elections and they must get adequate federal funds to do so,” said Sarah Johnson, director of Local Progress, a national network of progressive municipal elected officials.

In Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, nearly 19,000 people voted in-person in the state’s infamous April 7 primary, with some having to wait hours in line to do so, a situation that was all but guaranteed to contribute to the spread of coronavirus. Now, a winner of that election is leading the charge for safe voting in the city during primary elections in August, as well as the November general election.

Marina Dimitrijevic, a former county supervisor and the former state director of the Wisconsin Working Families Party, was elected as an alderman on Milwaukee’s Common Council. On Tuesday night, at the first meeting of the council’s new term, Dimitrijevic will be introducing legislation to mail absentee ballot applications to the city’s roughly 300,000 registered voters, along with a prepaid postage envelope to mail the applications back in. The legislation, which is already supported by 13 of Milwaukee’s 15 aldermen, also has the endorsement of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Gov. Tony Evers, whose efforts to postpone the April primary were blocked by the Republican legislature and the courts.

Dimitrijevic’s idea is modeled off a successful program deployed by two small and wealthier Milwaukee suburbs, Whitefish Bay and Bayside, which mailed absentee voter applications to all their registered voters ahead of the April 7 primary. According to state data, roughly 60 percent of Whitefish Bay voters cast absentee ballots for that election, more than any other city in the state.

While Milwaukee voters will have to pay for postage for their actual ballots, Dimitrijevic plans to push for an expansion of secure lockboxes around the city where voters could drop off ballots if they didn’t have stamps, a number of which were already in place for the April 7 election. (The bill gives city leaders 30 days to hash out details for the program.)

According to Dimitrijevic, the safe-voting measure will cost Milwaukee between $100,000 and $150,000 — primarily the cost of postage — which the aldermen and mayor hope federal stimulus money could help cover.

“This will protect the lives of the 300,000 registered voters in Milwaukee and undercuts the Republican assault on Wisconsin’s democracy,” Dimitrijevic, who started working on the bill within 24 hours of her April 13 victory, told The Intercept.

Priscilla Bort, a Wisconsin Working Families Party organizer, said she expects to see other localities follow suit throughout the state, pointing to Madison as one city that already is planning similar legislation. “We see this as a critical pathway to win in November,” she said.

In Pennsylvania, council members in Allegheny County, the second most populous county in the state, are also set to vote Tuesday night to send absentee ballot applications and prepaid postage to all registered voters.

The applications would be to vote in Pennsylvania’s upcoming primary on June 2. The legislation would require all mail-in ballot applications to be sent to registered voters by May 8, and would have a deadline to return them by May 26. Voters who return the applications would receive ballots in the mail along with prepaid postage.

The ordinance, drafted by Allegheny County Councilperson Bethany Hallam, has the support of Allegheny’s influential County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. The council is composed of 12 Democrats and three Republicans, and the Democratic majority almost always passes measures that have Fitzgerald’s backing.

Republicans in Pennsylvania’s state legislature recently rejected a provision, proposed by a Democratic state representative from Philadelphia, to mail all registered voters absentee ballot applications. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state by a 5-4 margin, and Trump won the state narrowly by 0.72 percentage points. Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has been mailing Pennsylvania Republican voters absentee ballot applications, and despite Trump’s denouncements, has been calling vote-by-mail “easy, convenient, and secure.”

While Hallam’s ordinance would only apply to the primary on June 2, she told The Intercept her hope is that it will eventually be extended to the general election, and that it would become  a permanent fixture for Allegheny County.

“I think it’s on us as elected officials to make it as easy as possible and I think this is something we need to do every single election,” she said.

There are roughly 894,000 registered voters in Allegheny County, and Hallam said about 360,000 voted in the 2016 primary. In terms of ballpark cost, she said they’re estimating bulk mail rates of 30-33 cents a person. With prepaid postage, she noted, the government only pays the cost if the application or ballot is actually sent back in.

THERE ARE SIGNS similar measures will expand across the United States. In Broward County, the second-most populous county in Florida, officials have also recently committed to sending vote-by-mail request forms with prepaid postage to registered voters who haven’t already asked for them. Like Wisconsin, Florida held its presidential primary in-person on March 17, over the objections of public health officials who urged state officials to postpone it; two poll workers in Broward County later tested positive for coronavirus. The Broward County absentee request forms would be for Florida’s August primary, which includes school board and judicial races, and the November presidential election. According to the Sun Sentinel, other Florida counties like Palm Beach and Miami-Dade are considering similar measures.

Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, said his group is talking to leaders all over the country about expanding vote-by-mail initiatives. “From a national standpoint we’re attempting to ensure that Congress put aside at least $4 billion in a new stimulus package for a robust vote-from-home program,” he said. “But where we’re able to pull those levers like in Milwaukee, we will.”

The political pressure is so high that even in New Hampshire — a state that has both downplayed the risks of coronavirus and long fought efforts to make voting easier — Republican Gov. Chris Sununu recently announced that voters would be able to do mail-in voting for November’s election.

Last year Sununu vetoed a bill that would have allowed no-excuse absentee voting in New Hampshire, something permitted in two-thirds of all states. New Hampshire election officials have agreed to allow concerns about Covid-19 to qualify as a “disability” under the state’s authorized excuses this year. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in New Hampshire by a margin of just 0.4 percentage points.

Bernie Sanders Is Staying On the Ballot To Get More Delegates, But He And His Supporters Aren’t Investing Much Into That Effort

Originally published in The Intercept on April 17, 2020.
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WHEN BERNIE SANDERS ended his presidential bid last week, he conceded that he could not feasibly catch up to Joe Biden’s 300-some delegate lead to win the nomination but told supporters that he would stay on the ballot in all the remaining state primaries. “While Vice President Biden will be the nominee, we must continue working to assemble as many delegates as possible at the Democratic convention, where we will be able to exert significant influence over the party platform and other functions,” he said in a livestreamed video address.

At the time, Sanders had 911 delegates to Biden’s 1,226. Sanders picked up 24 more from Wisconsin’s controversial in-person election — which was held the day before he dropped out but whose results were announced this week — with the Vermont senator taking just 31 percent of the vote. He got seven more delegates from Alaska, where he won 45 percent of the vote. Alaska’s vote-by-mail primary was the first contest held after Sanders had dropped out, but only 15 out of the 3,979 total pledged delegates were up for grabs. Roughly 1,600 delegates remain, according to NBC News’s delegate tracker.

The party platform will be decided at the Democratic National Convention, which was postponed from July to August due to the coronavirus pandemic. To have more influence over shaping it, Sanders will need at least 1,200 elected delegates, which will require winning at least 15 percent of the vote in the remaining primaries. Some delegate-rich states are still up for grabs, like Ohio, New York,  Pennsylvania, and Georgia. (Many of the votes in Ohio have already been cast by mail; GOP Gov. Mike DeWine postponed the in-person election that had been scheduled for March 17.)

But it’s unclear how hard the Sanders campaign — or what’s left of it — will be working to get those delegates. Sanders has already said he would not actively campaign or spend money on advertising in any of the remaining contests, and he has made clear that he will be campaigning for Biden.

The Sanders campaign, which has laid off the vast majority of its organizing staff, told The Intercept that there’s “a team that works on delegates that is working the strategy” but declined to provide further detail, including how many staffers are staying on to do that.

As the senator deliberated the future of his campaign in recent weeks, Larry Cohen, chair of Our Revolution, urged Sanders to stay in the race all the way to the convention. He warned that if Sanders failed to amass at least 25 percent of the total, then all the democratic reforms his supporters had fought for after 2016, such as reducing the power of superdelegates and making caucuses more transparent, could be lost.

“The reforms were only put in place for one cycle,” Cohen told The Intercept. “It’s not what we set out to do, but it’s what we could get passed at the time.”

While Our Revolution, the group that formed from the remnants of Sanders’s 2016 campaign, says it’s prioritizing turning out voters to rack up Sanders’s delegate count, most of the other national groups that backed Sanders’s candidacy aren’t planning to direct much, if any, resources to that effort.

Our Revolution will be doing personal outreach to its most active supporters in the remaining states with requests that they volunteer to send get-out-the-vote texts to other voters. The group is not running any independent expenditures for Sanders.

Other Sanders-supporting groups don’t have plans to get involved or are planning to do just minimal outreach over email and social media. Evan Weber, political director for the Sunrise Movement, which endorsed Sanders in January, told The Intercept that the group hasn’t determined whether it will be phone-banking or doing other kinds of GOTV work for the remaining primaries. “It’s not in our organizing plans as they are developed thus far,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Democratic Socialists of America said that since Sanders has left the race, the organization has “shifted our work to focus on down ballot races,” naming a handful of local, state, and congressional candidates it is supporting.

Justice Democrats will also be focusing on down-ballot primaries, said spokesperson Waleed Shahid, and the Center for Popular Democracy Action is also not investing more in getting out the vote for Sanders. Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director of CPD Action, said its stance is “folks can choose to vote for Sanders in the remaining primaries, and Biden should see those votes as an endorsement of the progressive agenda he’ll need to make room for to motivate key voting blocs needed to defeat Trump.” The group’s biggest focus now though, she said, is “defeating Trump and advancing bold progressive ideals.”

The Working Families Party, which originally endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren but then endorsed Sanders several days after she dropped out, will be encouraging members to vote for Sanders through email and social media, but is not planning to run a big persuasion effort. “We’re going to urge WFP members in the remaining primary states to cast a vote for Sanders, in order to send as many progressive delegates as possible to the convention,” said WFP’s national campaigns director, Joe Dinkin.

THERE IS historical precedent for a losing candidate to focus on influencing their party’s convention even when their nomination was out of reach. When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984 and 1988, he also used his position to push for rules reform in the Democratic nominating process, which he argued had unfairly hurt black candidates and other outsiders running as progressives. Jackson successfully pushed for abolishing the “winner-take-all” delegate standard, and now delegates are divided up proportionally according to a candidate’s share of the vote. It was these reforms that enabled Barack Obama to win his presidential primary in 2008.

Sanders reaching the 25 percent threshold is important, said Cohen, because under current Democratic Party rules, if a candidate has at least 25 percent, then those delegates can introduce minority resolutions on the floor — a sometimes long and dramatic process that convention leaders work very hard to avoid. The goal is always to reach a compromise among committee members beforehand so as to avoid that scenario. Sanders supporters say that having the leverage to bring issues to the floor, even a virtual floor, will be key to winning concessions from the centrist wing.

Five days after dropping out, Sanders endorsed Biden and has since emphasized that he will work to support the former vice president in the general election. “I will do everything I can to help elect Joe,” Sanders told the Associated Press on Tuesday. “We had a contentious campaign. We disagree on issues. But my job now is to not only rally my supporters, but to do everything I can to bring the party together to see that [Trump] is not elected president.”

Regardless of whether Sanders is able to reach the delegate threshold he seeks, Biden is facing greater pressure to unify the party and court Sanders supporters than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. This week the two men announced that they will be forming task forces to work on issues like education, immigration, health care, criminal justice, and climate change. On Tuesday night, during an Instagram Live conversation with rapper Cardi B, Sanders said Biden was “moving in the right direction” on immigration and criminal justice reform.

Under pressure to unify the party, it’s unlikely that Biden would come out explicitly against the rules reforms the DNC Unity Commission agreed to in 2017 — especially as Biden’s campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon co-chaired that commission. The Biden campaign did not return a request for comment.

Cohen, though, has his eye not just on maintaining those reforms, but expanding them and pushing the party to adopt more progressive positions. Examples of platform stances he said Sanders delegates could push for include allowing employers to join Medicare, which is how South Korea eventually got to single payer, and allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs can.

Anti-vaxxers are ready to pounce if the furious push for a COVID-19 fix runs into trouble

Originally published in The Daily Beast on April 12, 2020.
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Scientists are racing to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, and anti-vaxxers are waiting in the wings.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is killing hundreds of Americans every day. So it was reason for optimism on Monday when Inovio Pharmaceuticals became the second U.S company to move a vaccine candidate into clinical trials, following Moderna, a biotech company which started clinical trials in mid-March.

“Getting [Moderna’s candidate] into phase one in a matter of months is the quickest that anyone has ever done literally in the history of vaccinology,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified before Congress last month.

Naturally, the global movement of vaccine opponents and skeptics—who organize under banners of “choice” and “informed consent”—reacted differently. In recent weeks, they’ve been raising the alarm over expedited development. Larry Cook, one of the top anti-vaccine activists on Facebook, has called COVID-19 a “plandemic” that governments are using to “usher in mandatory testing, tracking, and vaccination.” #ResistThePlan, he’s urged his followers.

Activists like Cook have amassed considerable political power over the last several decades, and scientists say their propaganda is a major reason the U.S. has seen a recent resurgence of measles. In 2019, the World Health Organization ranked “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the top 10 global health threats, and earlier this year Gallup found 84 percent of Americans said it was important for parents to vaccinate their children, down from 94 percent in 2001.

Dr. Fauci has said a vaccine could be ready for public distribution in the next year and a half or less, though the estimate may prove too optimistic. Typically vaccine clinical trials take 10 to 15 years, and require a significantly higher safety bar to clear than other drugs, since vaccines are injected into healthy people.

Urgent as the need is, public health leaders warn, moving too quickly could have disastrous consequences not only for reining in COVID-19, but for vaccines more broadly. If a vaccine is released that doesn’t work well or yields dangerous side effects—especially in the face of an historic pandemic—it could empower anti-vaccine activists and reduce support for other longstanding vaccines that have gone through rigorous and exhaustive testing.

“There have been times in the past where vaccines have been justifiably rolled out and they haven’t measured up,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine. “And that set vaccinology, vaccine acceptance, and confidence in government way back.”

Not exactly assuaging concerns is the fact that the Trump administration has dramatically reduced the role of science in federal policymaking over the last three years. The president holds a lot of power to waive various safety standards, and by invoking the Food and Drug Administration’s so-called Emergency Use Authorization, “the federal government has an incredible amount of latitude to accelerate the regulatory review,” according to Dr. Jason Schwartz, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health who studies vaccine development.

Finding ways to hasten the process is a stated priority of the president, though Dr. Schaffner said that was not inherently a worrying thing. “Speeding things up does not mean cutting corners. You can try to run the quarter-mile faster,” he told The Daily Beast. “There are ways to do that, some of which are scientific, and some of which are simply expensive.”

Schwartz added that while “there can be interference and political intrusions in the scientific process” the day-to-day work is still being handled by “long-serving, dedicated career public servants” who believe in “evidence and rigor.”

Suffice it to say vaccine holdouts aren’t buying it.

Del Bigtree, CEO of the anti-vaccination group Informed Consent Action Network, told The Daily Beast he had grave concerns about the coronavirus vaccine process. “It’s one of the most dangerous things we can think of, injecting people with products where the science was rushed,” he said. Bigtree, who has no medical training, said if a vaccine proves safe, then it should be “made available” to high-risk individuals, but that everyone else should be permitted to “develop natural, stronger, more thorough herd immunity” to coronavirus without a vaccine.

The idea behind herd immunity is that people will develop broad protection thanks to inoculation or past infection in a critical threshold of the population. Perhaps most infamously, the government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to embrace such hopes of immunizing people by allowing them to get infected with COVID-19. It’s a goal the government has since retracted, and Johnson later landed in the ICU with a coronavirus case himself, though he has since shown signs of recovery.

A spokesperson for another anti-vaccine group, the Pennsylvania Coalition for Informed Consent, pointed to Dr. Paul Offit, co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine and a prominent critic of anti-vaxxers. Offit, who supports the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, has warned about moving too quickly. “The history of medicine is littered with tragedy,” he said in a recent interview. “I don’t think [it’s] going to happen, but I do think we need to prove that it doesn’t happen before we give this vaccine to tens of millions, or hundreds of millions.” Ideally, Offit said, a vaccine will be tested on tens of thousands of people before it is licensed.

According to a recent LX/Morning Consult poll, 75 percent of U.S adults said they’d likely get a coronavirus vaccine if it passed clinical trials. But whether that’s enough to provide herd immunity remains unclear. When it comes to measles, 90 to 95 percent of the population has to be vaccinated to guarantee sufficient protection, research has shown.

Elected officials have generally not yet weighed in on whether approved coronavirus vaccines should be mandatory. But any requirement to do so would surely be met with fights by the anti-vax crowd. In an interview, Denise, a volunteer with the Indiana Coalition for Vaccination Choice—who refused to give her last name because, she said, anti-vaxxers are attacked too much—promised resistance. She argued “best practices for medical care respect the inherent dignity and uniqueness of every individual.”

Best-case scenario, experts say, is a coronavirus vaccine is developed quickly, works well, is heavily promoted, and the anti-vax movement loses ground—reversing a decades-long trend. But that’s just one possibility.

As Dr. Schaffner of Vanderbilt summed it up bluntly: “The stakes really are high.”