Climate Advocates Are Gearing Up for the Next Stimulus Package

Originally published in In These Times on April 9, 2020.
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With Congress planning to reconvene later this month to hash out another coronavirus stimulus bill, climate activists have begun discussing how they might assert themselves more successfully into the next federal package.

Progressive climate advocates tried to shape the debate leading up to the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed into law on March 27. A few days before the president signed it, dozens of climate groups, including 350.org, Sunrise Movement and the BlueGreen Alliance, joined in coalition with hundreds of left-leaning organizations in releasing “Five Principles for Just Covid-19 Relief and Stimulus.” The fourth of these five principles called for creating good jobs while tackling “the climate crisis that is compounding threats to our economy and health.” Their demands—grouped under the banner of a “People’s Bailout”—included new federal investments in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, expanding wind and solar, and restoring wetlands and forests. The organizations also called for requirements that industries reduce their climate emissions and pollution in exchange for aid.

Soon after, a coalition of scientists, academics and wonks released a “Green Stimulus to Rebuild Our Economy”—a detailed “policy menu” that lays out specific climate and inequality-conscious ways to spend new federal investment. The ideas draw from proposals put forward from nine Democratic presidential candidates, including Jay Inslee, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. “Most of the physical work proposed here cannot begin immediately,” their letter acknowledges. “We must focus on halting the spread of deadly illness. However, we can do all the preparatory work now to make green projects ‘shovel ready.’”

Daniel Aldana Cohen, a University of Pennsylvania sociology professor and one of the 11 co-authors of the Green Stimulus, told In These Times that many of the drafters were influenced by Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, which centers on how leaders often exploit national crises to advance destructive policies when citizens are too distracted to fight back.

“During a crisis people turn to ideas lying around, and the oil CEOs are not waiting for the virus to stop before pushing their ideas,” Aldana Cohen said. “We knew we had to get something out more quickly.” Their thinking was maybe their climate proposals would influence discussions around the CARES Act, also known as “Stimulus 3”—but more likely their proposals could help influence subsequent stimulus packages that lawmakers have signaled they plan to negotiate. Knowing that it can take much longer for organizations to sign on to detailed policy agendas (rather than to broad principles), Aldana Cohen said Green Stimulus authors sought to “mobilize as wonks” and then invite climate leaders to sign on as individuals.

Stimulus 3 ended up being tough for climate advocates, not only because they emerged winning none of their more visionary demands, but also because Republicans attacked them for politicizing the crisis and stalling relief.

A central fight ended up being over whether Congress should require airlines to cut their emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2050 in exchange for billions in rescue aid. The airline industry has committed to this target voluntarily, but climate advocates want it stipulated in law.

Such legally-mandated conditions have precedent. During the 2008 auto industry bailout, General Motors and Chrysler had to accept new fuel-efficiency standards in exchange for federal aid. But lawmakers in late March said they wanted to focus on getting immediate relief out to workers, hospitals, and businesses—and publicly charged climate advocates with derailing that effort.

“[Democrats] are holding up voting for this emergency bill to help the American people in terms of the economy and in terms of our health care over solar panels and wind turbines, a green new deal about airline emissions,” said Republican Senator John Barrasso in a speech on the floor.

“Democrats won’t let us fund hospitals or save small businesses unless they get to dust off the Green New Deal,” accused Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Democrats countered by pointing to Senate Republicans who, in the midst of negotiations, inserted a $3 billion provision for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which are federally-owned oil stocks stored underground along the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. After this, climate advocates ramped up pressure for aid to clean energy industries, Melinda Pierce, the legislative director for the Sierra Club, told In These Times.

In the end, the $3 billion for the oil industry was scrapped, as were tax breaks for wind and solar, and demands for airline emission reductions. Climate advocates were left bruised from the fight.

“The airline conversation ended up being a debate about [carbon] offsets which is not the terrain that Green New Deal advocates want to be fighting on,” said Aldana Cohen, who urged for more focus around job creation and job protections. “We should be focusing on investments that lift up workers and communities,” he said.

Pierce said she and other climate advocates understood their demands for clean energy aid “were outside the scope of what leadership thought consisted emergency relief” and that enviros had originally been “very much aligned” with the idea that Stimulus 3 should focus primarily on swift aid to workers, families, healthcare and frontline businesses.

“Yet when the oil industry tried to inject $3 billion to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, we were activated beyond those goal about workers to make sure [lawmakers] weren’t providing corporate bailouts,” she said, noting enviros also fought for accountability for billions granted to the Federal Reserve for corporate assistance. “We were fighting those battles because oil and gas were bellying up to the bar to their cronies in Congress,” Pierce said.

While some Congressional Democrats touted the accountability measures they managed to win, Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst with Friends of the Earth, said the end result was a disaster.

“The guardrails for workers and communities are weak, and the guardrails for climate are nonexistent,” he said. “As a result of the stimulus bill we are all entering an even stranger and more frightening world.” Ross specifically noted how the new federal aid could potentially give cash-strapped drillers a fresh injection of subsidized credit.

Looking ahead

Though climate advocates failed to win green demands in Stimulus 3, many are looking ahead to future stimulus packages, where they believe they could be more successful. President Trump and House Speaker Pelosi initially indicated the next bill could focus on infrastructure investment, though more recently Pelosi has walked that back.

On March 31, four days after signing the CARES Act, President Trump tweeted that, “With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill. It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country! Phase 4.”

The following day, Pelosi proposed reviving House Democrats’ $760 billion infrastructure bill released in January, which would include new investments in things like rail, transit, and broadband. However just two days later she signaled she had changed her mind, and maybe infrastructure should not be Democrats’ next priority. “I’m very much in favor of doing some of the things that we need to do to meet the needs of clean water, more broadband, and the rest of that,” she said on April 3. “That may have to be for a bill beyond this.”

Ross of Friends of the Earth thinks climate advocates should be careful in how they move forward, and focus their efforts on securing aid for people and preventing bailouts for polluters. “The question isn’t how to invest in climate, the question is how to invest in workers and a more resilient society,” he said. “That certainly has implications for climate, but at this moment of unprecedented immediate suffering, it likely shouldn’t be first on anyone’s mind.”

Pierce of the Sierra Club said if polluting industries need more federal aid in subsequent stimulus packages, they will continue to push for conditions. “We fully expect the airline industry is going to need an additional tranche of support and if we’re funneling tax dollars, we truly believe we should be funneling tax dollars in a way that is building industry of the future,” she said.

How intently climate advocates should push a “Green New Deal” remains in dispute, as the phrase itself has become deeply polarizing in Congress, even though the specific ideas undergirding it are broadly popular.

Aldana Cohen said he and his collaborators deliberately opted for “Green Stimulus” over “Green New Deal.” He pointed to Data for Progress polling showing Republican support for Green New Deal-like ideas when they’re not labeled as such.

“I think our view is you don’t want to have the vocabulary prejudge an argument that you believe you otherwise win,” he said. “You want to go in and focus on the substance.”

Not all Green New Deal supporters are ready to scale back on the slogan, with some saying now is precisely the time to elevate it, and resist the GOP’s bad-faith mischaracterizations.

“This is a pivotal moment to grapple with the fact that our economy was not working well and was not resilient in the face of crisis,” said Lauren Maunus, the legislative manager for Sunrise Movement. “Republicans are using the Green New Deal as a wedge issue and villainizing it, and it’s our utmost priority to clarify that the Green New Deal has always been about a plan to fight economic inequality and create millions of good family-sustaining jobs to put our country on a path to a safer, and healthier future.”

How Trump Could Dismantle Workers’ Rights with Another Four Years

Originally published in the April/May/June 2020 issue of The Washington Monthly
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From the perspective of the liberal policy establishment, Donald Trump has launched an aggressive and unprecedented assault on workers’ rights and the labor movement. From the perspective of the right, Trump has governed on labor almost exactly as any other Republican president might have.

“When he was first elected, I ventured his administration might be different from traditional Republicans in a few ways, including in its relations with unions,” Walter Olson, a labor policy expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, said. One of the president’s first meetings in 2017 was with leaders of the building trades, Olson noted. “But in the end, they have been very much in line with what you would have expected from, say, Carly Fiorina.”

In many respects, Trump’s administration has followed in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan and his acolytes, who pioneered the Republican playbook on weakening unions. From stacking his administration with anti-union ideologues to firing more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers during his first year in office, Reagan set in motion a pro-corporate agenda that Trump has continued to push forward. In case there was any doubt about how the Trump administration regarded the conservative icon’s labor record, in August 2017 then Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta announced that Reagan would be inducted into his agency’s Hall of Honor.

One way Trump has taken aim at unions is through the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, which is the federal agency tasked with protecting the rights of private-sector workers and encouraging collective bargaining. Private-sector workers are barred from bringing workplace grievances through the courts themselves, so filing complaints with the NLRB—which has more than two dozen regional offices spread across the country—is how employees can seek redress if they feel their rights have been violated. If an issue can’t get settled at the regional level, it gets kicked up to the agency’s five-person panel in D.C., which issues a decision.

Trump’s NLRB has kept busy, handing down a spate of decisions that align with employer interests and overturn Obama-era decisions. In early 2017 the Chamber of Commerce, a powerful business lobby, published a wish list of 10 policies it wanted to see changed under the Trump administration. In less than three years, the NLRB addressed all 10 items on the list, even going beyond what the lobby requested in some instances. For example, new NLRB decisions make it harder for workers and union representatives to discuss issues on employer property, and give employers more power to unilaterally change collective bargaining agreements. Decisions like these tend to have modest immediate impact but become far more consequential as they have more time to take effect.

“Unfortunately, how the three Republicans on the NLRB seem to view their job is to weaken the law as it pertains to workers’ rights, but also amp up scrutiny of unions and penalties against them,” Lynn Rhinehart, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute (EPI), said.

Republicans say the flurry of Trump administration actions is a natural response to what they viewed as aggressive rule making by the Obama administration. “The perception on the Republican side is that Obama hit so many balls across the net, so [the administration] is responding by swatting balls back now,” Olson, the Cato Institute expert, said. “Generally, I think the business community just wanted to get some relief from all the new rules imposed by the prior administration.”

But beyond playing ping-pong with Obama-era dictates, the Trump administration has also been working to hollow out the NLRB. According to an EPI analysis, the number of full-time employees working in the agency dropped by 10 percent during Trump’s first two years in office, including 17 percent fewer regional field staff. Given that the nation’s roughly 129 million private-sector workers can’t bring their grievances through the courts, the fewer NLRB staff available to process their complaints, the fewer opportunities workers ultimately have to get justice.

Perhaps the clearest example of the Trump administration’s attitude toward unions is its treatment of federal workers. Over the past three years, with the strong encouragement of the president, agencies have taken steps to strip federal workers of their union rights and undermine their negotiated contracts.

“I have to admit federal workers have suffered,” Everett Kelley, the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said. “We’ve seen federal worker contracts just ripped up and replaced with contracts written by management that had no negotiations at all,” he said. Civil servants have been forced out, Kelley continued, while staff vacancies have been left unfilled.

Last October, the Trump administration instructed agencies to move as fast as possible to restrict unions in federal workplaces. One of the first, practical consequences was that many union reps, who for years had access to government agencies, were no longer welcome inside. In late January, the president took another step, issuing a memo that gave Defense Secretary Mark Esper the power to end collective bargaining for the Pentagon’s civilian workforce of roughly 750,000 people, more than half of whom are in unions. It’s not yet clear what Esper will do with that power.

A second term for Trump would likely bring more of the same, said Donald Kettl, a professor of public policy at University of Texas at Austin and an expert on the federal government. While past Republican presidents have tried to diminish federal unions, he said, few presidents have been as successful as Trump. “He’s skillfully found a way to use these issues to energize the [Republican] base,” Kettl continued, and he’s pursued tactics that don’t require legislative action. Trump has latched on to recurring conservative themes—his “deep state” attacks on bureaucrats are not radically different from Nixon’s “enemies list”—but his push has been “a more focused, concerted, and successful effort than the anti-bureaucracy campaigners have been able to muster in the past,” Kettl said.

If Trump’s first term was focused on making it tougher for workers to unionize, both conservatives and liberal policy wonks agree that a second term would likely mean more attention directed toward regulating gig workers. Generally, gig workers—like Uber drivers—aren’t afforded the protections of traditional employees, like minimum wage, overtime, unemployment insurance, and the right to join a union. Increasingly, though, labor advocates are building a case that many of these workers have been shortchanged; they’re functionally employees and should be protected as such.

It’s clear that the Trump administration disagrees. In one 2019 decision, the NLRB reversed an Obama-era ruling to find that SuperShuttle drivers were independent contractors, not employees. The agency’s general counsel, Peter Robb, another Trump appointee, reinforced that decision, issuing a memorandum declaring the same thing about Uber drivers. That sends a strong message to gig workers to not bother bringing any new cases to the NLRB on this topic.

Meanwhile, blue states have been pushing in the opposite direction. At the start of 2020, a sweeping new law known as AB5 went into effect in California, taking aim at the problem of misclassifying employees as independent contractors. Other states, like New York and New Jersey, are now following suit with their own versions of the law, and the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed its own bill in February that similarly would make it harder for employers to classify their workers as contractors. Other states, like Washington, are considering bills to allow for so-called “portable benefits”—where workers, regardless of whether they are employees or contractors, could accrue benefits on a per-hour basis, and these would be fully portable, like Social Security. (The Washington Monthly has championed this idea.)

Rachel Greszler, a labor policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that while Republicans are interested in addressing some of the concerns faced by contractors and gig workers, their proposed reforms differ from laws like AB5. She suggested policies making it easier for contractors to pool together to finance their health insurance, using what are known as “association health plans.” Greszler also pointed to universal savings accounts, which would function similarly to employer-administered 401(k) accounts. The Trump administration supports both of these policies and has already taken steps to make association health plans available more broadly.

The decisions already issued by Trump’s NLRB could weaken the impact of California’s new labor law by confusing workers and deterring other states from moving forward with their own solutions. “I think it is probably very confusing to hear that you are not an employee and don’t have a right to collectively bargain under federal law, but that you are an employee for the purposes of California law,” said Sharon Block, an Obama Labor Department official and now a labor expert at Harvard Law School. “When labor rights are more complicated it makes it less likely that they will be invoked. It’s good lawmakers are moving forward in California, but this counter-signal from the federal government could have a chilling effect on workers who might otherwise assert their rights.”

Another four years of Trump, said Shaun Richman, a labor expert at SUNY Empire State College, would mean an even greater effort by the NLRB to try to stop federal labor law from adapting to “the modern workplace.”

“They are closing their minds to the ways that business models actually work, they don’t want the National Labor Relations Act to adapt to the fissured workplace,” he said. “It’s not an exaggeration to say four more years is an existential threat.”

Competitors or Collaborators: Some School Closure Orders Look to Restrict Virtual Charters to Protect Brick-and-Mortar Schools During Coronavirus Crisis

Originally published in The 74 on April 6, 2020.
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While virtual charters have typically earned headlines for struggling academic performanceallegations of enrollment fraud and influential lobbying, the coronavirus pandemic has put the online schools in a new position: as uniquely well-suited to provide education to students amid the global crisis.

Whereas most teachers across the nation are learning for their first time how to virtually educate children — confronting barriers like lack of home internet access and a dearth of online curricula — virtual charters have been able to operate largely unimpeded.

This familiarity with providing remote instruction has raised concern among some public education advocates that families might flock en masse to cyber charters, further disrupting the finances of brick-and-mortar public schools. So far, though, virtual charter leaders have not reported a major surge in enrollment and have stressed publicly that they’re not focused on capitalizing on the crisis. At least some schools, however, have been running new ads on social media, encouraging families to enroll.

As governors ordered public schools closed for the pandemic, most did so in ways that allowed virtual charters to continue operating. For example, Arkansas’s order clarified that just schools with “onsite instruction” will close, and Florida’s guidance shuttered only school “campuses.” Jeff Kwitowski, a senior vice president for K12 Inc., a publicly traded management company for virtual charters, pointed to hurricanes in Florida and Louisiana and wildfires in the West as past examples of when schools closed but virtual charters stayed open.

“It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to close brick-and-mortar school buildings but continue full operations, instruction and student services,” he said. “However, that is feasible for online schools.”

Yet in a handful of states, there was more confusion and outcry, with some closure rules that virtual education providers saw as overly blunt at best.

In Oregon, for example, the state education department announced that their governor’s public school closure order applied to virtual charters too, and it raised concerns about what would happen if too many families switched quickly to the online schools.

Oregon then clarified that its 20 virtual charters could continue their operations but could not enroll new students after March 26. Oregon Department of Education spokesperson Marc Siegel told The 74 that “the primary reason” for this is to ensure that students can access supports they need “without creating further school funding disruptions that would be created by the transfer of students from one school to another.” As of October, 14,047 students were enrolled in Oregon virtual charters, according to Siegel.

Some school choice advocates were outraged, disappointed that Oregon would deny families options at a critical moment — although at least some virtual charters in the state had already reached enrollment capacity by March 26 or were planning to close enrollment regardless.

Shawn Farrens, a vice principal at the Baker Web Academy in Oregon, told The 74 they were always planning to close enrollment by March 30. “Some virtual schools accept kids very late into the school year, but for us, with 10 or 11 years’ worth of experience, we find that if kiddos come in late, it’s not the best scenario for them,” he said. About 2,200 students attend Baker, and had the state not issued its moratorium, Farrens said, they would have accepted just 100 more.

Farrens applied to transfer his own 7-year-old son into Baker from a brick-and-mortar when the state’s closure was first announced in mid-March. “We wanted him to continue with formalized education because my kiddo is easily distracted, so for him to miss out on a few extra weeks of school would be detrimental,” he explained. Now that Oregon’s school closures have been extended even longer, Farrens says he and his wife are “really happy” with their decision and aren’t sure whether they’ll send their son back to his old school when the crisis ends.

Nicholaus Sutherland, the executive director of Oregon Virtual Academy, said his school had reached peak capacity due to 97 new students enrolling between March 16 — when Oregon’s school closure order first took effect — and March 26. Although their enrollment period typically extends to late April, Sutherland told The 74, “Even if enrollment had not been cut off by the state, we would have had to close it due to reaching capacity earlier than anticipated.”

The executive director of Oregon Connections Academy, Allison Galvin, said that “their enrollment pipeline grew quickly from 700 to 1,600,” but that does not mean all those families were then stymied by the moratorium since, as Galvin said, typically not all families complete enrollment. “Many start just because they are interested in exploring their options and want to find out what it takes to enroll. I will say the families that did enroll in the last few weeks seem to be just very engaged and already finding success with us.”

There was also outcry from virtual education advocates in Oklahoma, where the state closed public schools — including virtual schools — between March 17 and April 6. “We are a state system of public education, and we need to be operating together with a uniform approach and with a unified voice,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.

But all Oklahoma schools began administering online instruction this week. Shelly Hickman, an assistant superintendent at EPIC, a virtual charter network in Oklahoma, said that while students will be dealing with increased stress at home, “fortunately we’ll be able to provide them with almost everything we’ve given them prior to the crisis.”

In Pennsylvania, the governor ordered all public schools to close on March 13, and virtual charters, which enroll roughly 37,000 students in the state, interpreted that to mean they could continue operating. The following week, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators lobbied the governor to place a moratorium on new virtual charter enrollment, with PASA’s executive director telling WHYY he worried how an abrupt loss of funds could hinder brick-and-mortar schools from responding to the pandemic.

So far no moratorium has been issued, but emergency legislation passed by the Pennsylvania legislature on March 25 does say that charter school tuition payments will remain fixed as of March 13, regardless of any additional enrollment.

Ana Meyers, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, blasted PASA for trying to block families from enrolling in virtual charters. “I think it’s become obvious that a lot of school districts in Pennsylvania were fairly unprepared to continue to educate, and they should not try to prevent the schools that are ready and willing to do so,” she said.

The reports about PASA and Oregon’s funding concerns have led to a flurry of misinformation in subsequent online posts. The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial on March 31 falsely blaming “the Oregon Education Association and its labor allies” for pressuring the state into blocking new virtual charter enrollment. But an OEA spokesperson said the union didn’t lobby state officials on this, and even Sutherland of Oregon Virtual Academy said there was “no unionized uprising.”

On March 26, an analyst at Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative Pennsylvania think tank, accused the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) of lobbying to block money for virtual charters during the pandemic. It excerpted an email from an unnamed Northeast, Pennsylvania, union leader describing what the union was looking into on members’ behalf, including “how can we prevent mass numbers of students from enrolling in cyber schools.” The Commonwealth writer uses that anonymous email to say that it reveals union president Rich Askey’s “legislative intent.” Later that day, citing the Commonwealth’s post, a columnist for the conservative Townhall news site falsely attributed the email quote about blocking cyber charter enrollment to Askey, not to the unnamed union leader.

Chris Lilienthal, a spokesperson for PSEA, told The 74 the organization was “not involved” in lobbying to freeze charter funding. “We’re comfortable with the provision — it was to provide stability, but it was not something that was at the top of our list,” he said, adding that their focus was on waiving both standardized tests and the 180-instructional-day requirement and ensuring that school maintenance staff had proper protective gear.

For now, many virtual charters have not reported a surge in new students trying to enroll.

“I think most families in this country are really just dealing with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” said Hickman, of EPIC. Although students can enroll in Oklahoma virtual schools at any time, Hickman said her network, which enrolls nearly 30,000 students, is not encouraging that, and cited supply chain issues for laptops and other digital resources.

Chandre Sanchez-Reyes, executive director of Indiana Connections Academy and Indiana Connections Career Academy, said her virtual schools are not enrolling any new students this year and “not too many families” have contacted her about fall enrollment.

“It’s not going to be helpful to the school if all of a sudden you take a surge of 1,000 kids,” said Kwitowski of K12 Inc. “Teachers would be overloaded, and it’s not clear all those students will get funded.”

But some virtual charters have been running new ads encouraging sign-ups for their schools. On March 25, Century Cyber Charter School in Pennsylvania launched a new Facebook ad encouraging enrollment for this school year, and on March 30, the Virtual Learning Academy in New Hampshire started advertising, emphasizing that “there is NO admissions process [and] students can enroll anytime.” K12 Inc. has also been running new ads for fall enrollment.

“I haven’t seen a surge, but I’m pretty sure it’s coming,” said Sutherland, whose Oregon Virtual Academy is a K12 Inc. affiliate. “I think a lot of people will want to make a move to where their student can continue without disruption.”

Virtual charter leaders, for their part, are saying they want to use this opportunity to share what they know with brick-and-mortar schools and in no way profit off COVID-19. Many are offering free training and webinars to brick-and-mortar educators and complimentary access to their digital learning tools.

The lines can get blurry, though. One K12 Inc. ad, which launched April 1 and ran for several days last week, linked to a page with both free educational resources and steps to enroll in virtual charters. “We know times are confusing right now for many students and families. K12 is here to help,” the ad says, illustrated with a video montage about coronavirus school closures.

Last week, Sanchez-Reyes co-hosted a webinar advising Indiana charter colleagues on virtual compliance with special education laws, and this week she’s hosting another one on social and emotional learning.

“Most of us came from brick-and-mortars ourselves,” she said, “so it’s been nice to collaborate.”

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

Originally published in Business Insider on March 27, 2020.
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Earlier this week, Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, announced that students would be welcome to return back to campus after spring break, despite the worsening COVID-19 pandemic. Classes will be held online, but academic and residential buildings are open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Students mounting protest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in The Intercept on March 27, 2020. Story was produced in partnership with the Open Markets Reporting Fund.
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IN 2016, AFTER years of effort and millions of dollars in government investment, a team of Texas scientists finally developed a promising vaccine for SARS, the deadly strain of coronavirus that had infected over 8,000 people worldwide in the early 2000s. But the outbreak that triggered the research had begun and ended, and no one was contracting new cases of the disease anymore. Private industry and governments responded to the request to fund the human clinical trials with unanimity: not interested. And so the SARS vaccine was shelved. “If investments had been made previously, we potentially could have a [coronavirus] vaccine ready to go now,” lead scientist Dr. Peter Hotez told Congress earlier this month.

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

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

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

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

IN SOME WAYS, we’ve been here before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State Workers Seek to Protect Labor Rights As Coronavirus Spreads

Originally published in The Intercept on March 21, 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in Washington City Paper on March 13, 2020.
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In an effort to mitigate the growing threat of coronavirus, D.C Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Friday morning that she would be closing D.C. Public Schools between Monday, March 16 and Tuesday, March 31. The news sparked immediate questions for families and students who rely on public schools for food, internet access, and basic childcare during the workday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in The Intercept on March 3, 2020.
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The last few days have seen a rapid consolidation of the establishment behind Joe Biden, following his expected but decisive win in South Carolina. Both former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar dropped abruptly out of the race and threw what weight they had behind the former vice president. Many of their high-dollar donors announced they’d be following suit. Beto O’Rourke and a host of other high-profile Democrats, including former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, then came out with their own public endorsements of Biden. After months of indecision, the Democratic establishment had made up its mind — though the question of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his billions still looms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Good Fight to Have About Medicare for All

Originally published in The New Republic on February 20, 2020.
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Last week, the Las Vegas–based Culinary Union, Unite Here Local 226, found itself in the middle of a political fight after its leadership released a flyer singling out Bernie Sanders, saying that to elect him would “end Culinary Healthcare.” (“Culinary Healthcare” refers to the high-quality health insurance Nevada hospitality workers and their family members receive through the union.) The message was distributed to the union’s 60,000 members by text and email and followed another union flyer that had taken more subtle aim at Sanders and Elizabeth Warren the previous week. “We will not hand over our healthcare for promises,” that flyer read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in The Intercept on February 17, 2020.
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A COALITION OF progressive groups and labor unions announced on Monday they’ll be spending at least $350,000 in support of Texas congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros, ratcheting up the momentum in the final two weeks ahead of her high-stakes primary against Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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