UPDATE: What Biden is doing very right
It could even be revolutionary
Welcome to the big Sunday edition of Progressives Everywhere!
Today we’re talking about a promising and potentially ground-shifting trend here in the United States for working people (really!). I’ll also touch on some of the week’s other big news stories — including yet another twist in the Andrew Cuomo saga.
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Last September, while speaking at an AFL-CIO Labor Day event, candidate Joe Biden promised an audience of unionized workers that he’d be “the most pro-union president” that they’d ever had. Nearly a year later, with smaller-than-expected margins in Congress, Biden has not been able to deliver on all of his campaign pledges, but thus far, he’s more than kept his word to organized labor.
Now, a caveat: Unintentionally or not, Biden set a pretty low bar for himself when he made that promise to union members and American workers at large. Despite their quadrennial promises to fight for working people and eager acceptance of campaign help, Democratic presidents post-LBJ have largely taken unions for granted, doing little to stop the right-wing assault on labor laws and union organizing. In some cases, Democratic administrations have actually made things more difficult for unions, with free trade deals and half-hearted attempts at passing corrective legislation.
The first nine months of Biden’s presidency haven’t just been better, they’ve represented a total reversal of that tradition of Democratic indifference. The White House has paired concentrated rhetoric with concrete policy, beginning with Biden’s endorsement of the union drive at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama and the significant benefits extensions provided in the February stimulus package.
Subsequent months of largely behind-the-scenes maneuvering began to bear fruit last week, offering a glimpse of what could be a seachange in the balance of power in both the workplace and the greater American economy. The sudden death of AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka earlier this month was a tragic loss, but the fruit of his labor is beginning to emerge.
Rewriting the Law
Biden began his term by bucking tradition and firing the top lawyer at the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board), then in March gave walking papers to the general counsel for the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Removing the Trump holdovers gave Biden free rein to reshape both agencies, and late last month, the Senate confirmed three veteran union lawyers to top positions at the NLRB, entirely reorienting its politics.
Democrats will have a 3-2 majority on the board at the end of August, an advantage all the more significant given the aggressive course being plotted out by the NLRB’s new top lawyer, Jennifer Abruzzo. The general counsel has wide jurisdiction over the NLRB’s agenda, and last week, Abruzzo released a memo that outlined an ambitious set of priorities.
After four years of siding with big corporations and abusive employers under Republican appointees, Biden’s NLRB will first focus on rolling back the rule changes and directives for more narrow, business-friendly legal interpretations. There are over 40 rules in her crosshairs. A number of the Trump-era rules she’s targeting gave companies wide latitude to misclassify workers as freelancers and contractors, thereby denying them most workplace protections as well as fair pay and benefits.
She also wants to overturn rulings that made it less likely that a company would be forced to re-hire a worker, established a new precedent that gave employers far more leeway to refuse to recognize or negotiate with a new union, and freed bosses to trap workers in confidentiality and non-disparagement agreements as well as barring them from participating in lawsuits.
Simply overturning rules would return labor policy to where it was during the Obama years, when the app-driven gig economy was just beginning to emerge, Democrats were chummy with tech companies, and the president was less tied to the union movement. Abruzzo, who worked for the NLRB for years, including under Obama, before working for the CWA, wants to go beyond that prior status quo.
Among the major new priorities include major protections for striking workers and a broader review of the gig economy, including the precedent in a 2019 case in which the NLRB ruled that misclassifying workers as independent contractors is not a labor violation in and of itself.
Misclassifying workers in order to cheat them of benefits and job security is endemic across the economy. Absent a national standard, the tech titans that run the new gig economy have felt free to ignore individual state laws demanding that they provide full compensation to workers.
In California, companies like DoorDash and Uber ignored the state law, then poured $200 million into the misleading Prop 22 initiative to buy their own labor law exception, a swindle they are now looking to repeat in Massachusetts. An NLRB precedent overruling those state laws would be transformative.
(Yes, I work for More Perfect Union, but I didn’t work on that video, so this isn’t just blatant self-promotion! Follow our coverage for more!)
Perhaps the most significant rule change Abruzzo proposed would force employers to recognize unions unless they had a “good-faith” reason to believe that a majority of employees actually want representation.
The NLRB, even before the full Democratic takeover, has already shown signs of reorienting its policies. Earlier this month, in the most public-facing labor dispute of the year thus far, the hearing officer that presided over the RWDSU’s appeal of the Amazon union vote in Bessemer recommended that the results be thrown out in favor of a new election.
Having watched that entire trial, I’m not at all surprised by this result — it was a pretty good-natured event, perhaps at least in part because it was argued over Zoom with reporters outside DC able to tune in, but it was clear that the presiding officer had little patience for Amazon’s lawyers’ arguments, procedural or substantive. It’s relatively rare for a union to win on a re-vote, but the RWDSU could be aided here by potential further NLRB-ordered reforms, including a potential limitation, outlined in Abruzzo’s memo, on employers threatening that joining a union would limit communication in the workplace. That was a constant talking point pushed on workers by Amazon management during the voting period and is a favorite of union-busting consultants.
Last week, the NLRB also ruled in favor of two Philadelphia Starbucks baristas who were fired for attempting to organize a union. The judge ordered the NLRB to restore their jobs and provide them back pay, as well as put up posters in nearby stores that outline union rights and promising not to violate them again. Starbucks is going to appeal the decision and does not have to rehire the workers during that process, which led one of them to say that the ruling “almost doesn’t mean that much.” But that may not be the case for all that much longer.
At the moment, employers really have no motive to not union bust. For years, the NLRB has lacked the ability to actually punish corporations for violating worker or union rights; all it can do is issue “make whole” orders like the one handed down in the Starbucks case. Sure, they could get caught, but the cost of lawyers’ fees pales in comparison to the pay and benefits that could be extracted by a unionized workforce.
Changing this fundamental handicap is a major part of the PRO Act, organized labor’s number one legislative priority entering 2021. It was passed by the House early into the session but has stalled in the Senate, just like nearly every other piece of important legislation supported by Democratic voters. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Warner’s corporate fealty have thus far trumped any loyalty to the people who helped put them in office. Even without their naked corruption, the filibuster would have stopped the PRO Act dead in its tracks, so many of its most important (and revenue-related) provisions were included in last week’s initial outline of the Senate budget reconciliation bill.
Among the included provisions is a new authority for the NLRB to levy significant fines on employers that engage in union-busting. It’d be hard to come up with a fine large enough to deter the richest corporations from violating the law — Facebook’s share price soared after it was fined $5 billion by the FTC in 2019 — but it would likely give small-to-midsize companies serious second thoughts about fighting an organizing drive. Even the New York Times might think twice about trying to stop 650 of its tech workers from joining a union, an effort that is currently underway and making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Labor is also pushing Democrats toinclude a new tax breakfor union dues, which would further incentivize reluctant workers to vote yes to a bargaining unit. Union-busters like to paint labor leaders as slick, greedy operators who charge members exorbitant dues and blow the cash on vacations and other luxuries, highlighting how much membership would take out of their paycheck each month. Functionally eliminating at least most of that dues deficit would eliminate that talking point.
Other executive policies continue to help workers, as well, including a drastic new increase in food stamp benefits. A lot of people may be relieved of having to work a second or third job for poverty wages in order to be able to afford enough food for their children. And already, the expanded Child Tax Credit has significantly reduced child hunger (kind of strange thing to boast too much about — no kid should go hungry — but that’s America).
The Bigger Picture
For all the pending good news, there are still significant obstacles facing most American workers.
Republicans, nudged on by their benefactors at the Chamber of Commerce, tried to blame a sudden “labor shortage” in May on the expanded unemployment benefits provided by the American Recovery Act. There was little actual economic evidence for the claim, which was just a recycled right-wing conservative talking point that had been long discredited alongside trickle-down economics. Local media amplified the claims in cities and states around the country, which then filtered up to the national media, giving Republican lawmakers a perfect excuse to strip away those expanded benefits.
By early this month, Republicans had prematurely canceled the extra cash in two dozen states, despite it all being provided by the federal government. As expected, it had little impact on employment numbers — the cruelty was and always is the point.
While Biden hasn’t tried to preempt those decisions, at least in part because the benefits are set to expire in early September (the convenient political contrast probably didn’t hurt, either), he has been very publicly adamant about businesses needing to pay people better wages.
And so far, that’s happening. The collective scramble to hire help for a reawakening economy, money saved over the past 18 months, and the clarity provided during the pandemic has given individual workers the most leverage that they’ve had in decades. Small businesses across the country have made headlines for the influx of applicants they’ve received after raising their starting wage, and last week, for the first time, the national average hourly rate earned by restaurant and supermarket workers surpassed the $15-an-hour threshold.
It will take years to undo the damage wrought over the last 50 years — based on increased productivity over the years, the minimum wage should be around $24-an-hour, union membership has dwindled down to less than 7% of private-sector workers, and as I’ve been covering at More Perfect Union, the workers’ comp system is generally rigged to benefit employers and toss away employees after their bodies have been exhausted. But for the first time in a long time, things are pointed in the right direction.
Reminder: I cover lots more news, keep up on these stories, and publish interviews throughout the week in the issues sent out to premium members!
Because this newsletter is focused on political organizing and domestic progressive issues, I don’t have the expertise I think should be required to comment substantively on the ongoing military pull-out from Afghanistan, other than to say that we should absolutely welcome Afghani refugees fleeing the Taliban. That said, as a long-time member of the media, I do have some quick thoughts on how it’s being covered.
Any time a big news story happens, the media immediately tries to predict the political implications, making blind guesses that then shape news coverage and actual political fallout. It’s an endless, hellish feedback loop that always makes things worse. I went into detail on the phenomenon a few weeks ago and it very much applies here, as well.
This morning, every Sunday show host asked Secretary of State Anthony Blinken whether we were witnessing a “Saigon moment” in Afghanistan, referring to the last helicopter leaving the country, because everything is seen through the lens of political campaigns and the covers of books they sell at Hudson News. Consummate DC rag Axios called the pull-out “a stunning failure for the West” and a “traumatic turn for veterans who sacrificed in Afghanistan,” as if the American mission there hadn’t been a stunning failure years ago.
Axios also called this “Biden’s stain,” which goes to show just how short-sighted they are and how much of their news coverage is driven by the whispers of vampires in their ears.
The DC media’s bloodlust, thirst for constant war, and disinterest in reality know no bounds. These hacks perpetuate chaos from their posh Virginia homes paid for by Lockheed and Raytheon ads, then write books not worth the ashes left of the incinerated unsold copies.
It’s difficult to report the news, but it’s vital. On the other hand, there is nothing more useless than firing off blind prognostications of how things will play politically amongst people you’ll never meet or how stories will be covered by the media, as if news outlets are autonomous organisms. Punditry is killing us.
Deidre DeJear, the Democrats’ 2018 nominee for secretary of state, is now officially running for governor, making her the second candidate in the race. In 2018, the voting rights activist became the first Black woman to win a statewide primary in Iowa, then lost a close race to her Republican opponent. We featured her in a very early edition of this newsletter and will likely be in touch over the coming months.
New York: Lt. Gov Kathy Hochul, who will take over for disgraced soon-to-be ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo when he slithers out of office in just over a week, has already declared that she’ll be running for a full term in 2022. As Cuomo rival Assemblyman Ron Kim told me last week, progressives are hopeful but skeptical about Hochul’s politics and priorities, given her record in both state government and Congress.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a longtime Cuomo ally, said on Friday that he is dropping the impeachment investigation now that the governor is stepping down. Charlotte Bennett, a Cuomo victim who the disgraced governor tried to gaslight in his bizarre response to the AG’s investigation, has very harsh words for the decision.
Heastie’s decision also drew outrage from Kim and other progressives, who want both a full accounting of Cuomo’s many transgressions (including his nursing home and rickety bridge scandals) and want to block the bully from trying to return to Albany.
Here’s a good analysis of what exactly went wrong for Nina Turner in the closing weeks of the special Democratic congressional primary-turned-proxy war that she wound up losing to Shontel Brown. The Democratic establishment, conservative Super PACs, and Republican donors flooded the zone for Brown, but the Turner campaign also made a fair number of mistakes.
Wealthy out-of-state donors are fueling an effort to recall socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, which is being countered by… an effort to recall socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant?
Conservative activists have been trying to time their petition signature collecting so as to trigger a special recall election in 2022, as special elections tend to have very low turnout. In response, Sawant supporters are collecting signatures to pre-empt that effort and get the recall question on the general election ballot in November, when Sawant would be much more likely to prevail.
At the moment, the pro-Sawant activists haven’t yet handed in their petitions, and because it takes the county a fair amount of time to count and verify signatures, it’s looking somewhat unlikely that they’ll wind up getting the recall on the ballot in November.
Petitioners are hitting the streets in search of enough signatures to put a $15 minimum wage initiative on the 2022 ballot. I don’t think they will have much trouble getting the requisite support.
Remember a few months ago when I covered the new GOP law that capped contributions to ballot initiative campaigns? It was struck down by a federal judge last month and, perhaps seeing the futility in pursuing the case, the state Attorney General let the deadline to appeal expire this week. That’s very good news for the three voting rights-related ballot initiative campaigns being waged in the state right now, which I covered in June.
A judge just gave the thumbs up to activists that want to put marijuana legalization to a vote in 2022, allowing them to begin collecting the signatures required to get on the ballot.
The federal government released the results of the 2020 census on Thursday, revealing an American population that has become significantly more racially diverse and setting off a race to rig Congressional districts that significantly undercut that new diversity.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, went on vacation, giving GOP-controlled legislatures a huge head start in their quest to cement another decade’s gerrymander immovable majorities despite their deep unpopularity. It’s unfathomable yet distressingly likely that Democrats will choose the filibuster over a functioning democracy, so the rest of this month will see outside organizations ramp up the pressure on the party with marches, sit-ins, and other very public events.
They’ll have to convince Biden to lobby, publicly and privately, a handful of myopic Democratic senators that fear changing the rules might force them to actually deliver on other promises they made to voters. Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have been the most publicly opposed to filibuster reform, but there are said to be others not all that enthusiastic about it, either, including Biden allies Chris Coons and Tom Carper, who are both from the very blue state of Delaware.
For Sinema, the census results should only further underscore the incomprehensibility of her intransigence. Phoenix grew by 11.2% and became the fifth-largest state in the country. The number of Hispanics in Arizona increased by more than 15%, or nearly 300,000 people. Sinema seems to think allowing Republicans to make it harder for Hispanic people to vote is the better political play, which would be a foolish bet given the Arizona Hispanic community’s political organizing power.
Are they really going to say no to John Lewis’s family after using his name, face, and legacy for the past year? Or how about the Texas Democrats who are facing arrest as they trickle back home after more than a month of desperate lobbying?
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