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At Aspen GOP Governors Forum, It’s Still Your Grandfather’s Republican Party

Aspen GOP

(Screenshot: The Aspen Institute/YouTube)

You never know what might happen when a bunch of Republican governors get together to discuss policy and politics. Well, actually you do kinda know: that they’ll make asses out of themselves, and at great length. So it was with some trepidation and some glee that your faithful Christie Watchers took a look at the discussion at the Aspen Institute bringing together five GOP governors: Chris Christie of New Jersey, Rick Scott of Florida, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Sam Brownback of Kansas. Two of them, Christie and Walker, are potential GOP candidates in 2016, and Haley might be positioning herself as a vice presidential candidate.

What’s interesting about the discussion is that not a single one of the five panelists tried to pick up on anything that has emerged so far from the hubbub over “reform conservatism” (see Part I, Part II and Part III of Christie Watch’s recent examination of the reformicons) and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan’s recent, errant foray into poverty and “opportunity,” even though the moderator asked the panel specifically about Ryan’s proposal. Maybe it’s too early to draw any conclusions, but it sure looks like the Republican party hasn’t gotten the memo that it’s supposed to be “kinder and gentler” (as George H.W. Bush might say) or more “compassionately conservative” (as George W. Bush might say). It’s still your grandfather’s GOP.

Brownback went first, asked about Ryan’s ideas, and he launched into a long defense of his own program in Kansas, which centered on austerity, tax cuts and other GOP touchstones. Brownback, running for re-election, and about to get a visit from Christie, put into place a wide range of cuts after the GOP solidified its majority in Kansas, but oops!—as Rick Perry might say—it all backfired, causing huge economic problems in the Sunflower State and leading more than a hundred Republican moderates to endorse Brownback’s Democratic opponent. But none of that stopped the ultra-right Brownback from claiming that Ryan is trying to lead the “pro-growth wing of the party”—“you’ve got to cut taxes in a way that creates growth”—raising his hand and saying with a goofy grin, “I’m in that wing of the party!” No, governor, you’re not. You’re in the wing of the party that even your fellow Kansas Republicans say wrecked your state. When the panel’s moderator noted that Brownback’s policy had led to a $300 million shortfall, Brownback’s response was: “We cut taxes in order to put that money back into private business.” For good measure, Brownback attacked the “vast-left wing conspiracy” for its criticism of his efforts to dismantle Kansas’ entire public sector. But the moderator persisted, saying that Kansas’ employment is lagging behind its neighbors, and that growth is slow, asking Brownback if he planned any adjustments. “I don’t see it,” said Brownback.

Walker went next. He is, of course, the governor who provoked a statewide revolt, mass demonstrations by union members and others, and an impeachment-style recall election over his brutal assault on state workers. Walker, too, like Paul Ryan’s plan. “We’re ahead of the curve,” he bragged. Well, yes, if the curve involves triggering statewide protests unprecedented in recent American history. And Walker essentially argued that he’s making Wisconsin job-friendly, and investment-friendly, by driving down wages. Which, of course, makes Wisconsin the would-be “China” of American states.

Next came Rick Scott, the much-reviled governor of Florida who used to run a gigantic, nationwide hospital system, then called Columbia/HCA, which paid $1.7 billion in what was then the biggest fine in US history for bilking Medicare out of billions of dollars. Scott, too, bragged about vast tax cuts. “We’ve cut taxes every year,” said Scott. “It actually works really well.” And if you’re in the 1 percent, it does. Higher taxes, Scott said, drive people to leave the state—the bogus argument made against New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio over his proposed tax hikes on the rich. He was followed by Haley, who slammed “both Republicans and Democrats” in Congress for the gridlock in Washington—except for Paul Ryan, of course. She described South Carolina’s recent efforts to undermine the state’s welfare program.

Then came Christie. “First off, I agree with everything that’s been said by my four colleagues,” he said. Now, the problem that Christie has is that the can’t tout New Jersey’s economic progress, because there is none—and that’s a terrible selling point for a presidential candidate. Things are a mess in New Jersey, and thanks to Christie its public pension system is spiraling downwards once again, caused by his proposed cuts on pension spending, even as the state’s bond ratings have been continually downgraded by bond agencies. Thus, as The Wall Street Journal’s Heather Haddon reports, in a piece entitled “New Jersey’s Weak Economy Opens Christie Up to Political Attacks on the Road,” Christie is under fire across the country even from Republicans over New Jersey’s poor economic performance. Reports the Journal:

The state’s bond rating is among the worst in the nation. More than 8% of the state’s home loans are in foreclosure, according to a May report by the Mortgage Bankers Association. Job growth has lagged behind neighboring states, even as Mr. Christie has pushed aggressive tax and business incentives. And after catapulting to national renown in 2011 by promising to fix his state’s pension system, the governor said earlier this spring he would forgo about $2.4 billion in promised payments over two years, citing a weak economy. Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded the state’s debt twice, rating it as the country’s second lowest, after Illinois’s. More downgrades could be on the horizon, said Baye Larsen, the firm’s lead New Jersey analyst, citing the state’s weighty pension obligations and slower growth.

The discussion veered off into education policy—and Christie Watch will report more extensively on Christie’s education policy, including attacks on teachers and support for Wall Street–backed charter schools later this week—the panel moved on to healthcare. The moderator, to his credit, noted that in all five states represented by the panelists there were no state-run health insurance exchanges, under the terms of the hated Affordable Care Act, which in turn might jeopardize Medicaid in those states. Scott noted proudly that he “built a large hospital company” (that would be the crooked one that paid that $1.7 billion fine for wrongdoing), adding, “Obamacare is a disaster”—and then actually had the nerve to say that “Medicare Advantage is being raided,” which is ironic, at least, coming from someone who’s own firm gleefully “raided” Medicare to the tune of billions of dollars in overbilling.

No, thank you, said Scott, Florida won’t be setting up any insurance exchanges. Added Walker, “We’ve gotta repeal it.”

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Near the end of the session, in response to a Republican questioner who said he was tired of Republicans’ being too extreme on social issues, Christie—who began by saying that he’s “pro-life”—delivered a long riff on how the GOP ought not to change any of its positions on social issues but can win simply by presenting its views differently and pretending to be “listening” to people who disagree: “I don’t think we’re being pounded because of the social issues. We’re getting pounded because of the way we present ourselves. People want folks who are authentic and who believe what they say is true, but also are willing to be tolerant and listen to others’ points of view. You’ll get some folks who’ll say that if you’re willing to listen that somehow you’re weak on your own principles. That’s absolutely garbage. I have plenty of people in my state who vote for me who have significantly different opinions than mine on some of these issues.… The reason is that they think I’m listening to them.… We’ve lost for a whole bunch of reasons over the last two cycles, and I think that the social issues is an absolutely minor one. Some folks will say that we lose the women’s vote because of that. Well I got 56 percent of the women’s vote and I didn’t change my positions one iota. Did they forget? No. They made a holistic evaluation.”

 

Read Next: Paul Ryan has some big—mostly bad—ideas for America’s working poor.

Building a Progressive Alternative to ALEC

ALEC protest

People associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement met on the steps of the Minnesota capitol building to protest the influence of corporate money in politics. March 13, 2012 (Fibonacci Blue/CC 2.0) 

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

When it comes to moments in history, 1973 was not exactly a banner year for the Republican Party. The Senate Watergate Committee began its televised hearings in May. Spiro Agnew resigned in October. And President Nixon used a pre-Thanksgiving news conference at Disney World to unconvincingly assure the country that he was not, in fact, a crook. A tough year, indeed, for the grand old party.

But if you were a corporate conglomerate who dreamed of lower taxes and lax regulations and lesser rights for workers, 1973 was, ironically enough, a well-spring of new opportunity. That’s when a group of conservative activists joined together to engineer a different kind of burglary—one that involved forcibly entering cities and states with the intent to loot their working and middle classes.

The mechanism? A new organization dubbed the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The idea? Don’t just lobby state and city governments; write the actual laws you want them to pass and then hand it out as model legislation. In the decades since its inception, ALEC has dismantled environmental regulations, pushed for school vouchers, compromised public safety by backing “stand your ground” laws and crippled unions with right-to-work legislation.

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ALEC remains the ubiquitous conservative puppet-master; its fingerprints and that of its most well-known supporters (the Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil, Pfizer, AT&T, etc.) can be found all over right-wing legislation that has made its way through the state and local legislative process. To understand the magnitude of its influence, consider that of the more than 100 bills introduced between 2011 and 2013 to repeal or weaken minimum wage laws, sixty-seven of them related back to ALEC. And in 2009,115 of ALEC’s 826 model bills were enacted into law.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

 

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Don’t Worry, the ‘Grown-Ups’ Will Deal With Gaza

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Federal Contractors Strike to Demand Higher Wages

Minimum wage rally

Strike to raise minimum wage at Union Station in Washington, DC. Photo by George Zornick

Low-wage federal workers walked off the job Tuesday morning across Washington, DC, to demand an executive order for higher wages—building on a successful push earlier this year to raise the wage of federal contract workers to $10.10.

President Obama announced during this year’s State of the Union address that he would indeed raise the wage of federal contract workers, after a lengthy pressure campaign—but Good Jobs Nation, a group leading the earlier strikes, now believes $10.10 isn’t high enough. Over 200 workers planned to walk off the job on Tuesday at a variety of workplaces that contract with the federal government, and they want Obama to go even higher.

At Union Station, Washington’s central train hub and a federally owned building with many restaurants and retail outlets, striking workers were joined by several members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, as well as some faith leaders.

“I don’t believe that any federal contractor who doesn’t want to pay people a livable wage should have a federal contract,” Representative Keith Ellison, a co-chair of the CPC, told the crowd. “There’s enough federal contractors who want to be fair and do good by their workers. We don’t have to keep with the crooked ones.”

“If we’re paying companies with taxpayer dollars, they should take care of their workers,” said Representative Barbara Lee. Lee and Ellison were joined by Representatives Sheila Jackson-Lee and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting member who represents DC.

Erica Gayles, who works at a Dunkin’ Donuts inside the Pentagon, has helped lead the strike and spoke with The Nation on Monday afternoon. She described how she attended the University of the District of Columbia for three years, before her mother fell ill. Gayles was forced to drop out and find work immediately.

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“Yes it wasn’t the best job, but little pay is better than no pay at all. And I’m kind of stuck because I’m tired of working this tiring job for a little bit of money,” she said. “I’d also like to go back to school and obtain my degree in criminal justice.”

In the meantime, she wants Obama to step up again for low-wage workers. “I’m involved with this movement because a lot of workers are afraid to speak up for what’s right, but I’m here because I want to be the voice of those who are afraid because there shouldn’t be fear,” she said. “You should have no fear in speaking up for what’s right. It’s not like you’re doing anything illegal. We need this to survive, everybody else is surviving and getting benefits, getting paid good, and we work hard.”

According to the National Employment Law Project, when they interviewed 500 federal workers last year in service industry jobs, they found that 70 percent made less than $10 per hour. Most federal contracts have yet to be affected by the earlier executive order, which for legal reasons can only apply to newly signed contracts.

 

Read Next: Paul Ryan’s faux populism isn’t going to end poverty or reduce inequality

After ‘Nation’ Investigation, DOJ May Investigate Shadow Lobbyists

US Capitol

US Congress on Capitol Hill, Washington, DC (Creative Commons)

Last February, The Nation, with support from the Investigative Fund, published a broad look into the many failures of America’s lobbying disclosure system. Among several revelations in the piece, we reported that major aspects of lobbying law have gone completely unenforced. The Department of Justice, we found, has never brought an enforcement action against an individual or firm for failing to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. The only LDA enforcement actions to date have been from individuals who do register but fall behind in their paperwork. But for the thousands of influence peddlers in Washington, DC, who go about their trade without registration and disclosure, law enforcement has turned a blind eye.

That may be changing.

According to a story posted on Friday by The Hill, “the Office of Congressional Ethics has for the first time accused an entity of lobbying Congress illegally. The complaint has been referred to the Justice Department, which enforces the Lobbying Disclosure Act, but few other details are available.”

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Notably, the first law firm to receive notice of this referral was Covington & Burling, Attorney General Eric Holder’s previous employer. Covington’s Robert Kelner wrote:

For several years, we have been warning clients and others that it was only a matter of time before we would see criminal referrals against lobbyists who fail to register under the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act (“LDA”). Until now, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia has focused exclusively—and rarely—on bringing cases against registered lobbyists who fail to timely file reports. This week, however, the Office of Congressional Ethics (“OCE”) of the U.S. House of Representatives mentioned in its quarterly report that during the second quarter of this year, “OCE voted to refer one entity to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia for failure to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.” This is big news.

It’s not clear yet which “shadow lobbyist” is being targeted for investigation. But just the fact that the DOJ is finally taking a look into this problem, which includes prominent members of both parties, is indeed big news.

 

Read Next: George Zornick on the bill that could make union organizing a civil right

Disgraced Coal Baron Don Blankenship Rebrands As A Libertarian Activist

Coal processing plant

Coal processing plant in West Virginia (Jim Young/Reuters)

This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org.

Among visitors to Freedom Fest, a libertarian convention in Las Vegas, you might miss the aging Don Blankenship amid other middle-aged attendees and a swarm of college students in three-piece suits. Blankenship, wearing a bowling shirt and tan slacks, moves from panel to panel carrying a tote bag filled with free schwag—of which there was a lot to choose from, including this “water bottle” from the Charles Koch Institute—like anyone else. The former CEO of Massey Energy became the most feared man in West Virginia for his ruthless control over his mines and for busting unions throughout Appalachia. Now, he might be the most hated, after a 2010 blast at his company’s Upper Big Branch mine killed twenty-nine workers in one of the worst mining disasters in American history.

Blankenship, who retired from Massey after the tragedy at UBB, is now a political activist, and he’s in Nevada for several reasons. For one thing, he was there to attend the Heartland Institute’s conference on global warming denial, which preceded Freedom Fest. And in any case, he now resides in Sin City for tax purposes.

It’s the first time Blankenship has attended either event, he tells me, but he’s eager to gather intellectual fodder for a movie he’s creating on the US economy. “I’m basically looking for information and fresh ideas,” Blankenship says. “We’re in a reg-cecession,” he explains, which is a term he created for “a recession caused by excessive regulation, including many based on global warming.”

At the height of his power, shortly before the blast, Blankenship was already a powerful political player and served on the board of the US Chamber of Commerce, arguably the most influential business lobbying group in the world. After the mine tragedy, the Chamber and other coal-connected political groups successfully defeated congressional efforts to update the laws governing mine safety. Republic Report obtained a financial disclosure form that shows that under Blankenship his coal company donated $100,000 to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank that penned an op-ed after the mine collapse to warn against letting the tragedy be used by “anti-mining activists” for new regulations.

“Most people excuse their lack of involvement in politics as politics being dirty and politics causing problems,” says Blankenship, “but the only way to have good government is to have better candidates and elect better people and it’s why we have $17 trillion in debt and an economy that’s declining.”

Blankenship concedes that he is not as active in the political realm as he used to be, though he still gives an occasional phone call to his former colleagues. “I’ve spoken to the US Chamber and I’ve spoken to the coal associations. You can not just immediately have your hand out to compromise, you’ve got to have belief and you have to stand up for what’s right, not what’s politically correct.”

After listening to Blankenship’s short diatribe against the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, I asked Blankenship what should be done about these environmental groups. “You’ve got to fight them at every step,” he replies. “The environmental movement isn’t a great cause, it’s a great business.”

To Blankenship, the EPA’s coal power plant regulations and the mine safety crowd all represent the same ideology. “The actual UBB explosion was partially the result of the war on coal,” he says.

A minute later, after mentioning that he is going to be late to meet his date for lunch, he makes the connection even more explicit. “UBB is just another example of how willing the far left is to outright lie and of course when I was CEO of Massey I was coached to say ‘untruthful,’ but really it’s a lie. The reason you know they will lie about the science of global warming is because they lied about the very science of UBB. Their willingness to lie about that solidifies in my mind their willingness to lie about the science of global warming.”

Over the last year, Blankenship has tried to clear his name over the UBB mine disaster. He created a short video and has told almost any reporter willing to listen that the disaster was a freak accident relating to the buildup of natural gas. Reports from workers and subsequent investigations have made clear that Massey Energy’s mines had skirted safety rules and were infamous for allowing a dangerous build-up of methane and other flammable gas. A study from the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University showed that Massey’s corner-cutting had led to the worst safety record of any coal mining company for ten years prior to the disaster.

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Blankenship continues to expound on his worldview. “Here’s where I get into answers that are very unpopular.” A wry grin creeps Blankenship’s otherwise expressionless face. “You’re basically seeing, well, I don’t want to use the word, but the way I describe fascism is the control of people’s lives by the combined efforts of big business and big government.” He rattles off several examples: GE’s getting sweetheart deals from the Obama administration, the bank bailouts, Warren Buffet. Publicly traded companies are increasingly making their money overseas, so they don’t have to comply with domestic regulations, Blankenship says. That’s why they support the Obama administration.

Before he has to go, he reminds me that his movie on regulation will come out on Labor Day. Its argument, he claims will even sell with union workers, who have been duped by their bosses into supporting anti-mining politicians like Obama and Joe Biden.

Who would better lead our country?

“I love Ted Cruz’s courage with the Obamacare filibuster,” he says. “I don’t like Rand Paul as much as father Ron Paul. Like what Rubio’s been saying. Ben Carson.” If he had his druthers, who would he pick for the White House? “I’d reincarnate Ronald Reagan.”

With that, he smiled for the second time in the conference, waddled into his seat and disappeared into a crowd of other libertarian activists.

Read Next: Paul Ryan’s big and bad ideas for America’s working poor

Have Social Media Numbed Us to Images of War?

Russian Ukraine Border

A Russian soldier near the Ukranian border (Reuters/Baz Ratner)

With so many wars and crises now exploding across the globe, New York Times media columnist David Carr looks at how social media are changing how the public and journalists themselves experience violence and tragedy. How is news digested when it’s new down to the second? Does the immediacy of the reporting from Gaza or Ukraine or Syria make us more involved, or does the onslaught of information result in more war fatigue, disaster fatigue, or any of the other fatigues rampant in a busy consumer society like ours?

“Bearing witness is the oldest and perhaps most valuable tool in the journalist’s arsenal,” Carr writes,

but it becomes something different delivered in the crucible of real time, without pause for reflection. It is unedited, distributed rapidly and globally, and immediately responded to by the people formerly known as the audience .

It has made for a more visceral, more emotional approach to reporting. War correspondents arriving in a hot zone now provide an on-the-spot moral and physical inventory that seems different from times past. That emotional content, so noticeable when Anderson Cooper was reporting from the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has now become routine, part of the real-time picture all over the web. …

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The public has developed an expectation that it will know exactly what a reporter knows every single second, and news organizations are increasingly urging their correspondents to use social media to tell their stories—and to extend their brand. (Unless the reporter says something dumb. Then, not so much.)

Carr quotes Susan Sontag from a 2002 New Yorker essay on “the perennial seductiveness of war.”

“Making suffering loom larger, by globalizing it, may spur people to feel they ought to ‘care’ more,” she wrote. “It also invites them to feel that the sufferings and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed by any local, political intervention.”

So now that war comes to us in real time, do we feel helpless or empowered? Do we care more, or will the ubiquity of images and information desensitize us to the point where human suffering loses meaning when it is part of a scroll that includes a video of your niece twerking ? Oh, we say as our index finger navigates to the next item, another one of those .

Of course, it’s not an either/or. One person can both care and be emotionally numb within a day or a second. Either way, as Carr writes, “When a trigger gets pulled or bombs explode, real people are often on the wrong end of it. And bearing witness to the consequences gives meaning to what we see.”

 

Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on feminism’s twitter wars

 

A Bill to Get the Labor Movement Back on Offense

Workers Protest

Public sector workers rallying in solidarity with Wisconsin workers outside Los Angeles City Hall (AP Photo/Jason Redmond)

For years, the American labor movement has been on the defensive as it has become harder and harder for workers to join or maintain a union. But some House Democrats are planning a dramatic counter-offensive: a bill that would make union organizing a civil right.

Representatives Keith Ellison and John Lewis plan to introduce a bill Wednesday that would make labor organizing a basic freedom no different than freedom from racial discrimination. That sounds like a nice talking point—but this isn’t just another messaging bill.

The Ellison-Lewis legislation would amend the National Labor Relations Act to include protections found under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to include labor organizing as a fundamental right. That would give workers a broader range of legal options if they feel discriminated against for trying to form a union.

Currently, their only redress is through a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board—an important process, but one that workers and labor analysts frequently criticize as both too slow and often too lenient on offending employers.

If the NLRA were amended, however, after 180 days a worker could take his or her labor complaint from the NLRB to a federal court. This is how the law works now for civil rights complaints, which gives workers the option, after 180 days, to step outside the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission process.

Then, workers would have sole discretion on whether to push a complaint, as opposed to relying on a decision by the NLRB on whether to forge ahead. Workers could also move the process along much faster than the NLRB handles complaints, which can often take years.

Ellison told The Nation that the legislation would also help workers recover more money—the NLRB will award back pay to a grieved worker minus whatever they earned while awaiting a decision, which can often amount to basically nothing. “[The NLRB] remedy, though useful and very important, and nothing in our legislation changes that, that remedy is considered slow and somewhat inadequate. For some of these union-busting law firms, [they] will say ‘so do it and we’ll just pay.’”

Ellison said he believes the labor movement needs to get back on the offensive. “With the Supreme Court in here, and what they just did in Harris v. Quinn and all the things they wrote about Abood, it’s insane to hope for the best,” he said, referring to the recent decision involving non-union public workers and their fee arrangements with unions. “I mean this Supreme Court is openly hostile to racial justice and worker justice simultaneously. So we better be moving out on both fronts.”

Ellison told MSNBC, which first reported the bill, that he got the idea from a book by Century Foundation fellows Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit, titled Why Union Organizing Should Be a Civil Right. They argue that the First Amendment’s right to free association should clearly include one of the most crucial forms of association—banding together to push back against unfair treatment from employers.

Marvit told The Nation he thinks treating labor organizing as a civil right is not only constitutionally appropriate but also much more appealing to the general public. “Civil rights is something that Americans really understand, and has a legitimacy that is sort of beyond reproach,” he said. “So when you put it in civil rights terms, it’s something that really speaks to people.” (In the interest of full disclosure, Marvit has written for The Nation in the past.)

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“Frankly, I think Republicans have been saying it on the other side. That’s been the message of the National Right to Work Committee for sixty years, that workers have a civil right not to join a union,” Marvit continued. “And I think that’s been a successful argument for them. It taps into this notion of your freedom to choose.”

The Nation has learned that when Ellison and Lewis introduce the bill on Wednesday morning, they will boast eleven other original co-sponsors: Representatives Jerrold Nadler, John Conyers, Marcia Fudge, Barbara Lee, Mark Takano, Rush Holt, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Karen Bass, Danny Davis, Albio Sires and Janice Hahn. All of the co-sponsors are Democrats.

Major unions will also be on board. Both the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win coalition will back the bill, along with The United Food and Commercial Workers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Joseph Geevarghese, deputy director of Change to Win, told The Nation that his union was joining the push “because union organizing has been maligned. Unions have been maligned in our society. There is a value in re-defining what all of these tens of thousands of brave workers are doing as, “We have a fundamental right to stand up and speak out about injustice in this country.’”

 

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Why Are Postal Workers Boycotting Staples?

Office Superstore Staples

(Mike Mozart, cc 2.0)

You might not consider your local post office to be a hotbed of political foment. But last Tuesday, the nation’s window clerks and other mail service staff assembled in Chicago to declare that, despite efforts in Washington to privatize and downsize the Postal Service, nothing would keep these workers from their appointed rounds.

Rallying with the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) under the banner of “The US Mail is Not For Sale,” post office workers marched to protest recent moves by the office superstore Staples. The chain is at the center of a highly controversial “public-private partnership” deal to turn its store counters into quasi-post offices. At the APWU convention, the union amped up its call for a nationwide boycott of Staples to oppose plans to pilot the so-called “Retail Expansion Plan” at eighty-two stores in California, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and potentially expand nationwide.

Following weeks of postal workers’ campaigning, with support from the AFL-CIO and numerous public and private service-worker unions, Staples has apparently pulled back and announced that the expansion plan would be ended and incorporated into the existing “Approved Shipper” program, which more generally allows private retailers to market certain postal products. In an e-mail to The Nation, Staples states the company has ended the pilot for now, but “will continue to explore and test products and services that meet our customers’ needs.”

Calling the move a “ruse”—merely a name-change to deflect bad publicity—union leaders vowed to keep up the resistance. They remain wary of the potential expansion of the Approved Shipper program, seeing it as part of the USPS administration’s agenda of selling out postal infrastructure and union jobs to the Big Box retail industry.

In theory, the union supports making postal services more available—just not when those services come at the cost of the postal workforce. In analysis of the Staples plan published in April, APWU President Mark Dimondstein stated, “The APWU favors expanding service. But postal services must be provided by highly-trained uniformed employees of the U.S. Postal Service—whether it’s at the Post Office or Staples.”

Though many details of the plan were not disclosed publicly, internal and business documents indicate that the Retail Expansion Plan extended a trend toward commercialization by expanding privately managed postal access points and using Staples employees to take on traditional “window duties.” This would go far beyond offering products like stamps and boxes over the counter—a service that is already available at tens of thousands of private businesses nationwide—to actually replace postal jobs.

The USPS has already privatized a chunk of its retail and delivery infrastructure. Thousands of privately contracted postal outlets nationwide currently work under a special public-private revenue sharing arrangement. The USPS’s corporate delivery deals have gained more public attention, ceding critical market share through partnerships with logistics giants like Fed Ex, UPS and, recently, Amazon.

The potential impact of the Staples retail partnership was illustrated in San Francisco, where, according to the APWU, service cuts have coincided with the expansion of services at nearby Staples stores. In a May statement, following cuts to customer service hours at over half of local post office stations, San Francisco Local president Geoffray Dumaguit said, “They’re shutting the doors at 5pm and posting signs sending people to private locations—including Staples—to conduct postal business. This will inconvenience and irritate our customers, who often need to visit a post office after work.”

Postal workers raise concerns about both job and service quality. The APWU cites information on the deal revealed in a recent National Labor Relations Board hearing (along with a heavily redacted agreement) showing that “packages dropped off at Staples stores will be placed in unsecured containers” and not “considered ‘mail’” until received by the USPS, meaning that it lacks a level of federal protection. It also notes that the Staples employees would receive only a fraction of the amount of training that official postal clerks undergo, without completing the same background checks and would not be bound by a postal oath of duty. Staples retail associates might make as little as $9 per hour, compared to $25 per hour for a typical postal worker. The company could also purchase USPS products at a discount and resell them retail at full price, for a hefty profit.

Advocates have also challenged the USPS’s argument that expanding access to postal services via Staples would improve overall access. According to an analysis on Savethepostoffice.org by Steve Hutkins, “There are over 1,200 post offices within two miles of a Staples store”—a sign that additional outlets at Staples could be redundant. Unless, of course, the clandestine aim was to close “redundant” post office branches and allow Staples to corporatize postal retail work.

Hutkins tells The Nation via e-mail: “The fact [is] that the leadership of the Postal Service—along with many in Congress and the mailing industry—would like the USPS to get out of the retail end of the postal business. The Staples idea was just the latest attempt.”

In light of past public statements by the USPS suggesting parallels between the Retail Expansion Plan and the more explicitly privatized Contract Postal Units, the program appears to reflect the agenda laid out in a 2012 internal memo describing an “Approved Shipper Plus” program: that plan’s stated purpose was to help “determine if lower costs can be realized with retail partner labor instead of the labor traditionally associated with retail windows at Post Offices.”

The Staples initiative grew out of a longstanding push for postal privatization that began in the 1970s and intensified in the Reagan era, as Washington pushed to replace government functions with “free enterprise” solutions. In recent years, the USPS’s financial turmoil—driven in large part by pension funding gaps that many see as the artificial product of budget manipulation—postal officials have schemed of programs to consolidate postal outlets and incrementally shrink the (allegedly overpaid and bloated) workforce.

In its 2013 report to Congress, the USPS boasted, “To improve efficiency and reduce costs, we consolidated 143 mail-processing facilities, eliminated 1,847 delivery routes, and…reduced the size of our career workforce by more than 37,400 employees during the year” through attrition, and at the same time, “the Approved Shipper program increased its annual revenue by 57 percent.” Closures of government-run post offices have numbered about 100 annually in the past four decades.

Mark Jamison, a former postmaster and now postal labor activist, says via e-mail about a combination of eroding retail operations and contracting out critical functions, “Privatization is coming through a thousand little nudges and cuts, not through a grand gesture—it will sneak in, is sneaking in through the back door.”

The response to creeping privatization has been clamorous labor mobilization. The Staples boycott campaign draws on the USPS’s legacy of providing a relatively equitable, meritocratic labor structure to marginalized groups, particularly black workers, due to early adoption of non-discrimination employment practices. The APWU also appealed to customers who see their post offices as pillars of their communities. As an institution and civil service, postal labor still holds considerable political leverage.

The American Federation of Teachers, representing another embattled public professional workforce, also recently voted to join the boycott. So educators across the country could potentially deny Staples of a major chunk of its back-to-school supply business.

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Meanwhile, Staples faces financial troubles as well, even shuttering an estimated 225 of its own stores. Perhaps from a business standpoint, the corporation’s recent walkback on the partnership points to growing fear that, with a boycott, the program might hurt its bottom line more than it helps.

So, even if free-market forces threaten to ravage the postal service, your neighborhood postal clerk can still compete on brand. “The postal network is useful and essential infrastructure,” Jamison argues, and in the long run, “the current efforts are akin to privatizing the highway system, or eliminating any oversight over utilities.”

In recent years, communities have turned out to defend their local post offices from closures, with grassroots petitions and protests to preserve one of the last pillars of our communications infrastructure that truly belongs to the public. The solidarity between community and labor suggests that, on top of concerns about losing the social services of a highly trusted institution, both customers and workers see value in a public organization that offers a living wage and a strong union. The civic investment embodied in the postal seal still delivers a moral dividend that no corporation can match.

 

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