What can be done to reverse rising economic inequality in America—not just for future generations, but right now?
Raise wages. That’s the conclusion of a new policy report from the Economic Policy Institute and the starting point for a multi-year research and education initiative that was launched on Wednesday with a keynote address by Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez. The paper’s central argument is that the root of America’s most pressing economic challenges lies in the disconnect between wages and productivity—and that government policy and business practices are in large part to blame.
“The clear connections between wages, income and living standards mean that progress in reversing inequality, boosting living standards and alleviating poverty will be extraordinarily difficult without addressing wage growth,” reads the introduction to the report, which was written by EPI President Lawrence Mishel and economists Josh Bivens, Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz. “Indeed, converting the slow and unequal wage growth of the last three-and-a-half decades into broad-based wage growth is the core economic challenge of our time.”
According to EPI, wages for the entire bottom 70 percent of earners have been falling since 2002. The minimum wage is now 25 percent lower than its peak in 1968. Racial disparities in hourly wages for white, black and Hispanic workers have not narrowed with time. Most Americans depend on work-based income to pay their bills (rather than tax credits, pensions or social insurance), so these wage trends directly impact college graduates and high school dropouts alike. Even the bottom fifth of American households rely on earnings from work for more than two-thirds of their total income—meaning that stagnant wages have played a large role in keeping families poor.
As Perez put it, “Workers are getting a smaller share of the pie that they helped to bake.” The burden isn’t born only by workers: the whole economy suffers, Perez argued, when people don’t have money to spend.
Counterintuitively, the authors of the report say their data points to empowering conclusions. “The American people now are in an economic fetal position,” Mishel said in an interview. “But we argue that there is no deity or economic forces beyond our control that have put us in the position we are. We, through democratic means, can make it different.”
So what put American workers into the fetal position? One of the initiative’s goals is to provide an alternate narrative to the one that chalks up low wages to globalization and technological change. More important, according to EPI, are the cumulative effects of exploitative business practices like wage theft, the misclassification of employees as subcontractors, and keeping workers below the full-time threshold, along with successful attacks on labor rights, and a high unemployment rate, which makes workers easily replaceable and gives employers little incentive to raise wages. Other factors include the low minimum wage and a broken immigration system that renders undocumented workers vulnerable to abuse while robbing other legal immigrants of bargaining power by tying their visas to their employer.
“A whole universe of labor standards and institutions has been allowed to erode away or affirmatively kicked away,” said Bivens. “Maybe any single one of them would not reverse inequality, but the accretion of them over time could have a real effect.”
The essential point here is that what’s keeping wages low for the majority of Americans are deliberate policy decisions. One example is the minimum wage; because of inflation, not raising the wage floor is effectively choosing to lower it. The happy corollary is that targeting the practices and policies keeping wages low gives lawmakers a variety of tools with which to combat inequality—if only they had the will to use them.
Campaigns for a higher minimum wage have garnered the most attention of late, but other measures are on the table, too. Last fall, for example, Democratic Senator Bob Casey introduced a bill to crack down on the misclassification of independent contractors. The Obama administration is reconsidering the rules governing who is eligible for overtime pay. Currently, the salary threshold is set around $24,000, meaning anyone with a higher salary is not guaranteed overtime pay. Sixty-five percent of American workers were guaranteed overtime in 1973. Now as few as 12 percent can count on “time and a half” pay for their extra labor.
Mishel acknowledged that putting wages first wouldn’t seem radical at any dining room table in America. But in Washington the discussion of inequality often skirts the issue of pay and labor standards, focusing instead on access to education and training, or on expanding the social safety net for the poorest.
“When the conversation goes from income inequality to pre-K—I mean, that’s fine, but that’s really talking about social mobility for the next generation. That’s different than the conversation that we think needs to be had, which is: How are we going to get income growth and shared prosperity for people within the next five, ten years?” said Mishel. Nor is expanding the safety net a sufficient counterbalance to wage stagnation, he said. “If wages at the bottom keep going down, are we going to make the tax and transfer system bigger every year?”
Some of the reluctance to put wages at the center of an anti-inequality agenda comes from politicians who “say they don’t want to mess with the market forces,” said Gould. “But the system is already rigged.” She continued, “There is a systematic effort, really, to dismantle a lot of the policies that protected workers.”
That effort, led by conservative politicians armed with anti-worker, union-busting legislation from the American Legislative Exchange, may be the best indicator of how significant labor market practices and policies really are. “Employers obviously think it matters,” Bivens said. “They spend a lot of money to lobby governments to change it in their favor.”
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Cue the howls of outrage. On Monday the Environmental Protection Agency issued a draft rule to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, a move likely to be the Obama administration’s most significant in the fight against climate change. Immediately, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell called the proposal “a dagger in the heart of the American middle class, and to representative Democracy itself.” Not to be outdone, the Heartland Institute warned that “by the time EPA is finished, millions of Americans will be freezing in the dark.”
There is nothing new about the right wing’s apoplectic response. Nor in the talking points from business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, which attacked the standards pre-emptively with a report intended to indicate that the agency’s move would spell economic calamity. (Never mind that the Chamber’s analysis actually found that the costs would be quite small.) Conservative politicians and organizations that represent polluters have attacked the proposal as job-killing, cost-ballooning executive overreach, although in fact the EPA has a legal duty to regulate carbon emissions. And coal interests (and some coal-state Democrats) say it will kill the industry, which has slid into financial distress as reserves dwindle and become costly to mine.
If the power plant rules were indeed likely to leave the nation in the dark, one might expect the companies that supply the country’s power to be similarly alarmed. In fact, the apocalyptic rhetoric in Washington doesn’t reflect the way the rules have been received by stakeholders outside the Beltway. It’s not surprising that renewable energy and natural gas companies welcomed them. But even some of the utility companies that operate the country’s dirtiest power plants responded with what looks more like a collective shrug than mass panic. Many companies are pleased with the flexibility in the proposal, and the fact that it sets 2005 as the baseline year from which reductions will be measured. That year was the high point for US emissions, so reductions from that baseline will achieve less than if the reduction were based on current levels.
“It’s really too early for us to comment specifically on how it will affect rates to our members, but because of the baseline year and the timeline for compliance we think that there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for us to be creative in managing costs,” said Eric Olson, the vice president and general counsel of Great River Energy, a nonprofit electrical cooperative that serves about 1.7 million people in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
According to the clean energy group Ceres, Great River produces the second-highest concentration of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity of any utility in the country. The cooperative relies on coal for 94 percent of the electricity it generates. That makes the company particularly vulnerable to the EPA’s new regulations, but Olson didn’t sound fazed.
“We’ve been preparing for this rule,” he said, noting that Great River’s priorities are maintaining reliability and affordability. “The partisan debate in response to the rule is going to go on. The legal debate is going to go on. We have a utility to run and we are focused on that.”
The response from bigger utility corporations has been modest, too. “Our initial reaction is that we don’t have too far to go,” to meet the new standards, Ray Evans of FirstEnergy Corporation told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The Akron-based utility—one of the largest in the nation—relies on coal for more than half of its power.
“Essentially what’s happening here is an industry split: regulated electric utilities (American Electric Power, Dominion Resources, Xcel and more) are saying relatively benign, if not supportive things about the June 2 power plant rule,” Tyson Slocum, director at Public Citizen’s Energy program, said in a statement. “Southern, Dominion et al. understand that they can work with state legislatures to implement cost-effective compliance measures.”
“There’s a couple of things we’ve been pushing real hard on that we do see in the rule,” said Dale Niezwaag, senior legislative representative for Basin Electric, another coal-dependent cooperative that produces high concentrations of carbon pollution. Still, he expressed reservations about whether the standards would create higher costs for consumers. Asked what kind of plan for limiting carbon emissions would be more palatable, he said, “I can’t come up with anything. Doing energy policy by regulation we don’t agree with.”
This is an important point: there’s nothing the Obama administration could do, short of not regulating carbon emissions at all, that could earn the blessing of the coal industry and conservative groups. Nancy Gravatt, a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, confirmed as much. “We would maintain that the best way to achieve reduction is through investment in research and technology,” she said. “We’re not looking for more regulations.”
No business is ever looking for more regulations. Incidentally, the NMA, along with congressional Republicans, recently fought rules designed to protect mine workers from black lung disease by limiting their exposure to toxic coal dust—an important footnote to the claim that by attacking the EPA, Big Coal and the GOP are fighting for the little guy.
The calls for “a more balanced approach” coming from the EPA’s critics are intellectually dishonest. An electrical grid that relies heavily on coal is simply not compatible with a low-carbon future. Coal will necessarily be a loser under any policy that does something meaningful to limit climate change. The unhappy correlate is that communities dependent on the coal industry will face some upheaval—but more so if their elected officials spend their time railing against the EPA rather than by helping their constituents through the transition.
“We understand that we’re going to have to operate within a carbon-regulated world,” Basin Electric’s Neizwaag said. It turns out that a huge and bipartisan majority of Americans welcomes that reality, though is has yet to penetrate the skin of the GOP.
A sweeping campaign against clean energy is set to collect its first win in Ohio, where lawmakers voted on Wednesday to impose a two-year freeze on the state’s renewable energy and efficiency standards. After initially threatening a veto, Republican Governor John Kasich indicated he will sign the bill. That would make Ohio the first of the twenty-nine states with renewable energy mandates to roll them back.
Ohio’s legislation is the product of an aggressive campaign by conservative groups to undermine laws that encourage the development of clean energy. The bill stays requirements that utilities get 25 percent of their power from renewable sources and cut customers’ power consumption by 22 percent by 2025. During the two-year freeze, a legislative commission will consider reforming the standards. The bill weakens them already, just in case they are eventually reinstated.
Even a limited pause may have damaging long-term effects on the clean energy sector and the Ohio economy, not to mention the environment. As the editorial board of the Cleveland Plain Dealer argues, the bill “will chill what have been burgeoning alternative energy investments in a state, and during a governorship, that aims to create Ohio jobs.”
Conservative groups laid the groundwork for Ohio’s regressive move in 2012, when the Heartland Institute and ALEC created model legislation to roll back renewable energy mandates. By the end of 2013, lawmakers in seventeen states had introduced legislation to freeze, repeal or gut renewable mandates. Although Ohio is the only state so far where the offensive has succeeded, the campaign is right on schedule: at its inception, the director of ALEC’s energy, environment and agriculture task force told The Washington Post he anticipated successes would come in 2014.
The campaign against renewable standards in Ohio followed a standard pattern. Armed with model legislation, conservative lawmakers like state senators Bill Seitz and Kris Jordan— both members of ALEC—argued against renewables using economic analyses produced by research institutes in the Koch brothers’ network—in particular, the Beacon Hill Institute at Massachusetts’s Suffolk University. Then the legislation received a boost from outside groups including Americans for Prosperity (another Koch affiliate) and American Energy Alliance, an advocacy group that has received funding from the Kochs and ExxonMobile.
One of the arguments used to attack the renewable standards is the claim that the standards are driving up utility prices, based on the fact that electricity prices in the state have risen faster than the national average. But there are other factors that influence what Ohioans pay for electricity—in particular, the fact that the state is heavily dependent on coal. Nearly 70 percent of Ohio’s power comes from coal, well above the national average. That means that utilities in Ohio are exceptionally sensitive to rising coal prices, a stranglehold that renewable mandates were in part designed to change. It’s also helped make Ohio one of the top polluters when it comes to power plants.
The push for a freeze was led by the Chamber of Commerce and the state’s main utility, FirstEnergy, whose CEO has decried renewable mandates as part of the “war on coal.” But other business groups like Ohio Advanced Energy Economy opposed the freeze, as did corporations like Honda and Anheuser-Busch. The Ohio Manufacturer’s Association warned freezing the mandate “will drive up electricity costs for customers and undermine manufacturing competitiveness in Ohio.” According to recent polling a large majority of Ohio voterssupport the standards, which passed the legislature with just two dissenting votes in 2008.
The attacks on state renewable mandates are only one prong of a sweeping conservative assault on clean energy. ALEC, Americans for Prosperity and conservative lawmakers are also targeting homeowners who install solar panels on their homes, via a surtax on the unused energy they sell back to utility companies. More high profile is the fight against the EPA’s proposal to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants, which President Obama is expected to detail on Monday.
The groups attacking renewables say their concerns are economic, and they are—just not in the way they claim. Their priorities are not with consumers struggling with rising energy costs; if that were the case, they would not gut standards that saved Ohio taxpayers more than $1 billion in just four years. They are instead working to further the agenda of fossil fuel corporations, which have a strong financial interest in stamping out the alternative energy market.
Despite talk of a pivot to Asia, the US military’s gaze has settled on Africa. That isn’t news for anyone who has followed the expansion of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) on the continent. But it’s a decisive shift that until now US officials have been loath to acknowledge.
The veil lifted slightly on Wednesday when President Obama asked Congress for $5 billion to train and equip foreign governments for counterterrorism activities. Most of the countries he cited are in northern Africa, including Somalia, Libya and Mali. US Special Operations are reportedly already training new counterterrorism units in Libya and Mali, as well as Niger and Mauritania.
“Today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al Qaeda leadership. Instead, it comes from decentralized Al Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate,” Obama said. “We need a strategy that matches this diffuse threat; one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin, or stir up local resentments.”
The Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund, as the administration dubbed the program, would apparently add more money and a new name to an existing slate of security cooperation programs. Over the last few years the United States has spent millions training proxy forces to combat local insurgents in Africa; one example is a $500 million operation called the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative that provides training and equipment to ten African partners.
According to the journalist Nick Turse, who has covered AFRICOM extensively for TomDispatch, the number of operations, programs and missions conducted by the US military in Africa has increased by more than 200 percent since the command was established in 2008. In 2012 alone the United States planned fourteen major training operations across the continent, including in Mali, Morocco, Uganda, Botswana, Lesotho, Senegal and Nigeria.
“AFRICOM talks about this like it’s small-scale and low-key to the public, but when you listen to what they’re saying in private it’s really startling,” Turse told me. He’s heard officers refer to Africa as “the battlefield of tomorrow, today.” One AFRICOM official acknowledged to a room full of private contractors that the command had “shifted from our original intent of being a more congenial combatant command to an actual war-fighting combatant command.”
Counterterrorism cooperation sounds innocuous enough, particularly when presented rhetorically as an alternative to ground wars. However light-footed, the strategy Obama made explicit on Wednesday nevertheless endorses expanded US military activity on the continent. Unfortunately, the president was not so much signaling the end of the era of military adventurism as directing it towards a new arena in fresh packaging. And as with more conventional military endeavors, deeper involvement in Africa carries risks of blowback, particularly by drawing large militant networks into local conflicts.
Recent experiences in Libya and Mali—two countries that Obama cited on Wednesday as presenting opportunities for expanded military cooperation—are instructive. In Libya, the US-backed operation to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi empowered a handful of militant groups and helped turn the country into a training ground for radical guerrillas. Meanwhile, arms from Qaddafi’s arsenal made their way to Mali, where they enabled a coup led by a captain named Amadou Haya Sanogo, who had received extensive military training in the United States. In turn, weapons and militants from Mali now appear to be boosting the insurgency in Nigeria.
Obama’s speech has been widely interpreted as hailing a “new, postwar foreign policy,” marking the start of a new era focused on “facilitat[ing] partner countries on the front lines.” But deriding the “costly mistakes” of large-scale military intervention is not a new position for Obama. It’s what got him elected.
Obama wasn’t announcing a novel position at West Point; he was defending his policies, including drone strikes and deepening engagement in Africa. In doing so Obama spoke as if overt intervention and behind-the-scenes meddling were not two sides to the same coin. Fundamentally, both are military solutions. America’s fights in Iraq and Afghanistan may be (not quite) over, but it’s shortsighted to call policy “postwar” if it’s dedicated to perpetuating the “War on Terror.”
The good news is that by asking Congress to fund the Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund, Obama has created an opportunity for lawmakers and the public to ask tough questions about the objectives and risks of expanding the military’s footprint in Africa, and with dubious partners. Let’s hope they take it.
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You’ve probably heard that the GOP establishment won big in Tuesday’s Republican primaries, with Tea Party favorites losing out to candidates backed by business groups. Take Georgia, for example, where an eleven-term congressman and a businessman worth at least $12 million will now embark on a nine-week runoff, while the two nuttiest candidates were easily weeded out, having secured less than 10 percent of the vote apiece.
What the establishment “won” in Georgia is a future nominee that will be easier to sell to voters in the general race against Michelle Nunn, the Democratic pick. The GOP’s first place finisher, David Perdue, is a telegenic management consultant and a former executive at Dollar General Reebok. He rose to the top of the heap via a campaign ad that depicted his opponents as crying babies. “Help me change the childish behavior up there,” Perdue said, while onscreen squalling infants crawled across on the grass in front of the Capitol. His opponent in the runoff will be Jack Kingston, a political veteran with support from the Chamber of Commerce and conservative figureheads like Sean Hannity.
What happened last night in Georgia was a beauty pageant, not a contest of meaningful political distinctions. Degrees of polish aside, there were few substantive differences between the establishment and the Tea Party candidates. Perdue sold himself as “the outsider” and a “hard-core conservative.” He doubts climate science, opposes gay marriage, wants to get rid of Obamacare, and has called raising the minimum wage “backward thinking.” He’s promised to oppose Mitch McConnell as majority leader. Herman Cain, the Tea Party choice in the 2012 presidential primary, said on his radio show that Perdue “looks like a mirror image of Herman Cain.”
Though his deep ties to Washington are fodder for attacks, Kingston is no moderate. He suggested that children should sweep floors in exchange for school lunch meals. He ran an ad—set it in some alternate America plastered in Help Wanted signs—bashing welfare recipients for “choosing a handout rather than a hand up.” He talked up his support for the Fair Tax, a regressive national sales tax scheme. He pledged never to stop fighting Obamacare. He’d like to repeal Dodd-Frank. He has a staunch conservative record in the House, voting for things like a “fetal pain” bill to ban abortion after twenty weeks.
One thing that did distinguish Kingston and Perdue from their competitors was the amount of money behind them. Perdue used more than $2 million of his own money ahead of the primary, and has said he doesn’t know if there’s a limit to how deeply he’ll reach into his own funds. Kingston attracted the most outside funding, with the Chamber of Commerce spending some $1 million in ads to support him.
So who lost in Georgia? It wasn’t the Tea Party, which succeeded in turning the contest in Georgia—and many others across the country—into a race to the right. If the terms “Tea Party” and “establishment” mean anything now as features of a candidate, they are distinctions in marketability, financing and rhetoric, not of ideology. As Matt Kibbe, president of the Tea Party group FreedomWorks, told The Washington Post, “Everybody is running against Obamacare and against overspending in Washington. It wasn’t always like that with the Republican establishment. I don’t even recognize [Kentucky Senator Mitch] McConnell from where he was a few years ago.” The establishment candidates beat the wingnuts by showing up at the same party, but in better suits.
In Georgia, it was the voters who lost. Turnout was anemic, down by tens of thousands from 2010 even among Republicans. The choices before them were narrow, the airwaves full of attack ads. Most of the money spent by outside groups—upwards of $4.6 million—went to advertising, dwarfing direct campaign contributions by a nearly four-to-one ratio. Now Georgians will get another nine-week dose of the same, as Kingston and Perdue duke it out.
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For months now Republican leaders have said they’re committed to passing immigration reform while making excuses for inaction. This week, the House has a chance to tackle one small part of a reform agenda, in the form of a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to serve in the military and in some cases receive green cards. WIth the window of opportunity for reform closing, the GOP leadership is poised once again to back away from it, in deference to the far right.
The Enlist Act, put forward by California Republican Jeff Denham and co-sponsored by twenty-four Republicans and twenty-six Democrats, should be among the most palatable to Republicans of the individual reforms: It rewards military service and would apply only to those who were brought to the US as children. But hard right groups like Heritage Action have fought the proposal because it would open up a pathway to legal status. Last week a spokesperson for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he would not allow debate on the measure, dealing what seemed like a terminal blow.
Denham, however, defied leadership on Monday by filing the Enlist Act as an amendment to a major defense bill that the House will consider this week. The House Rules Committee will meet on Tuesday afternoon to determine which amendments warrant a floor vote. It's unlikley the Denham's will make the cut: House Speaker John Boehner said on Tuesday that the defense bill was an "inappropriate" vehicle for the policy change.
"It tells me that the House Republicans don’t want to deal with this issue, notwithstanding their rhetoric,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said on Monday, regarding the grim prospects for the Enlist Act. He continued, “With reference to the Speaker’s wanting some sort of immigration reform bill to move discretely—that is, subject by subject—they haven’t done it. They’ve talked about it.”
If Republicans continue to oppose even piecemeal reforms put forward by members of their own party, it’s hard to see how a full slate of immigration measures could pass by the August recess, which many consider the deadline for reform before the midterm elections and hoopla about the 2016 presidential race puts serious legislative work on the backburner.
Hoyer, however, said he does believe that Boehner wants to get something done. “Boehner continues to say positive things about moving forward, and negative things about not doing so,” Hoyer said. However, the fact that Boehner hasn’t ruled out action is no assurance that he’ll move on reform. “Boehner has to figure out whether he’s prepared to do something he thinks ought to be done or accommodate people in his caucus who don’t,” said Hoyer.
It’s hard to see how Boehner can do both. The far right has long been opposed to offering a path to legal status for the 11 million undocumented residents; their immigration policy of choice is maximum deportations. So long as Boehner allows that wing of the party to effectively determine what gets a full floor vote and what doesn’t—as in the case of the Enlist Act—immigration reform won’t happen.
“If he wants to put it out on the floor, he can put it out on the floor,” Hoyer said.
Note that this has nothing to do with whether Republicans “trust” President Obama, Boehner’s favorite excuse for the deadlock. “I’ve put the ball back in the president’s court. He’s going to have to do something to demonstrate some level of trustworthiness,” Boehner said last month at an event hosted by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in San Antonio. Boehner reprised that excuse on Tuesday to justify his opposition to adding the Enlist Act to the defense bill. “Until the president gives us some reason, some confidence that we can trust him to implement an immigration reform bill, we don’t have much to talk about,” he said.
But Boehner has never said how the president can demonstrate trustworthiness. It's a ludicrous standard to set, considering Republican attacks on Obama so often center on accusations of fraud, from his birth certificate to Benghazi. Untrustworthiness is a central piece of the right’s characterization of the Obama Administration, not a condition that the president can alter himself.
The problem isn’t the relationship between Obama and the GOP. What Boehner claims to want is (in loose terms) the same thing as what the White House and the Democrats want: some kind of progress on immigration reform. According to Boehner, it’s also what the “vast majority” of his party wants. It’s even what Republican voters want: 64 percent back comprehensive immigration reform, according to a poll released Monday.
And yet a small faction continues to block action. At this point the political constraints on Boehner look increasingly like his own making. Boehner can throw the ball away, but if he wants the GOP to have any influence on reform before the president acts unilaterally, at some point soon he’ll have to retrieve it.
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The yellow arches of McDonald’s have always symbolized a dubious kind of globalization: worlds apart bridged by the tentacles of multinational corporations, spawning enormous profits for a few, and Big Macs for all.
The arches may have a different symbolic power now that they’ve sparked a global movement for living wages and the right to unionize. On Thursday, in an expected 230 cities spread across six continents, workers from McDonald’s and other fast-food chains rallied together to demand wages of $15 an hour and to protest their working conditions. Demonstrations were planned from Casablanca to Belfast, Santo Domingo to Venice, Bangkok to Auckland and across the US.
According to the fast-food industry, the rallies are all show. “These are made-for-TV media moments—that’s pretty much it,” Scott DeFife, the executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association, told The New York Times. “The vast majority of these protesters are not actually restaurant workers.”
Low-wage work isn’t TV—it’s reality, and an impossible one, for millions of people. On Thursday, I talked to several of them about their reasons for striking. Though DeFife may be unable to hear them, the truth is that many fast-food workers simply can’t afford to be silent.
“I can’t afford anything. I’m working forty hours a week to still struggle,” said Dominiik Allison, a Wendy’s employee who joined a rain-soaked rally in Chicago on Thursday. Allison is 31, and he’s raising a 12-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter by himself. He described life as an endless series of irresolvable choices.
“Do I sacrifice food in order to make sure my kids get back and forth to school and daycare? Should I not eat for this week so that a bill can get paid? Should I not have a cellphone this month so that I can provide the necessary pampers and clothes for my 1-year-old?” He’s looking for a second job, but isn’t sure how he’ll manage the time.
“We’re the ones that turn the key to make the money for you guys,” said Allison, referring to fast-food CEOs and shareholders. “You’re not the ones at the restaurant to do the work. You’re not the ones cleaning the stalls. You’re not the ones serving the burgers. You’re sitting up there in your high offices telling everybody else what to do—which is fine, but pay us so that we in turn can make more money for you.”
Robert Taylor, another fast-food worker with two kids, had to quit his job at a Chicago McDonald’s for several months late last year because he couldn’t afford to pay for transportation and for someone to watch his children while he worked. He picked up his old job again in April, at $7.75 an hour; his first paycheck, he said, was about $144. A hundred dollars went to an electricity bill. After getting back and forth from work, the remaining $44 was gone, too.
“So where does that leave me to buy pampers and wipes and a Happy Meal? I can’t even afford to buy my kids nothing at the job I work at. I can’t even buy them an ice cream in the summertime because I don’t have enough money. Do you know what I’m saying? I’m not even making enough money to buy ice cream,” Taylor said.
Last week, Taylor was counting on working the twenty-two hours he’d been allotted on the schedule. But he said the manager kept sending him home early, and in the end he was paid for less than eighteen hours. Besides the low pay, it’s practices like having his hours cut and being treated “as though you were less than a person” that pushed Taylor to protest. It’s not just $15 an hour he wants, but the ability to fight for better treatment without repercussions.
In Los Angeles, a McDonald’s cook named Edgar was rallying for the sake of his newborn daughter. He too described making tradeoffs between necessities. “It’s really hard to make ends meet,” he said. “I’ve got to make a choice to pay rent or to buy food from the market. Things are so expensive now, and the prices of everything are going up. The only thing that’s stuck is our minimum wage.”
Edgar said he’s a straight-A student, with a particular interest in politics and history. His dream is to study law. “I would like to continue my education but it’s really hard for me to provide for my daughter and continue going to school at the same time. It’s really expensive as well,” he said.
For Oscar, a Wendy’s employee in Miami, the protests are about basic fairness. “A lot of fast-food workers in this country and other countries, we work really hard, and we need an increase,” he said. He helps to support his mother and his sisters, and he sends money to his grandparents in Nicaragua. “I would like to say to my mom, ‘Mom, don’t worry. I’m going to pay everything for you.’ But I can’t,” he said.
When Oscar learned about the $15-an-hour campaign from a co-worker, the idea of organizing collectively made sense to him even though he’d never done it before. “I think we have to do it,” he said when asked why workers were willing to risk their jobs for a campaign that many have dismissed as unreasonable. “We have to fight for our rights. We don’t have to be quiet. We don’t have to be silent.”
Allison, in Chicago, said that he was encouraged to think that workers around the work were protesting alongside him. “I feel great that I’m not the only one who feels this way,” he said. “This is all a new thing for me. It’s exciting and new, and scary at the same time. It shows me that people can come together, no matter what race; different creeds, religion, anything. It shows me that people come together to do what’s right.”
‘It makes me feel powerful,” Edgar said about the fact that the protests were global.“We can do this—we could get the $15 an hour, we just need to get more people out here. We’re all in the same struggle and it means a lot to me that other people have the heart that the corporations don’t have to understand why we’re striking.”
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Once again, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are challenging the Obama administration over its national security policies. At issue now are secret legal opinions sanctioning the government’s targeted killing program, some of which were written by a Harvard law professor named David Barron, who is President Obama’s nominee for a prominent judicial position. At least two of the memos written by Barron when he worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Council concern the extrajudicial killing of American citizens abroad.
Republican opposition to Barron is hardly surprising; much of it is simply the usual hysteria about his “progressive view of the constitution” that might lead him to wield his gavel “as a weapon to advance his hard-left political vision.” One exception is longtime drone critic Rand Paul, who has been threatening to hold up Barron’s confirmation due to his connection to the killing program. Paul penned a Sunday op-ed in The New York Times calling on the Obama administration to release the opinions drafted or signed by Barron before the Senate votes on his nomination.
A handful of Democrats, too, have expressed reservations about voting for Barron until they have a clearer view of his legal judgments on targeted strikes. The White House has given senators access to one of the Barron memos, which concerns the killing of US citizens overseas. In April, a federal judge ordered the administration to release that particular legal analysis not only to lawmakers but also to the public. It has not done so. Colorado Democrat Mark Udall told The New York Times that he would not support Barron’s nomination until the administration complies with the court order. Ron Wyden of Oregon said that the vote should not be held until more of Barron’s legal analyses are available.
Just how many memos related to drones Barron produced during his time at the Justice Department is unclear. (He worked at the OLC from 2009 to 2010.) Most of the controversy around Barron has focused on two memos, the one at the heart of the court case mentioned above, and a shorter one also reportedly related to targeting Americans. Those two documents were particularly pertinent in the decision to target an American named Anwar al-Awlaki, who died in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen. Interestingly, majority leader Harry Reid indicated on Tuesday that the White House has provided senators with a second memo, presumably the other one of the two. “As far as I know, they’re down there,” Reid said when asked if the proper documents were available in the secure area. “I’ve looked, there’s two of them.”
The killing of American citizens abroad without due process is a critical issue, but so is the policy of assassinating non-Americans away from the battlefield. Many other memos have been written about the drone program beyond its application to US citizens; it’s unclear whether Barron contributed to any of them. With the White House claiming it has given senators access to the information they’ve requested regarding the targeting of American citizens, the question of whether Barron analyzed any other aspects of the drone program may now become the focus of the debate.
“There’s been this game of ‘hide the ball’ that’s been going on for the last two weeks about what the White House is going to provide to the senators,” Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said. “If they really have turned over everything he’s written regarding targeting killing, the White House should say that. Given the amount of games they’ve played, it certainly raises a lot of concerns that they’re sending up something less than all of the memos Barron has been involved in.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Intelligence Committee, has estimated that the OLC has produced at least eleven memos related to drone strikes, only four of which the Intelligence Committee has been given access to. That means there are at least seven legal opinions regarding the targeting killing program that no one in Congress has seen, though the National Security Act requires the executive branch to provide members of the intelligence committees with the information they request about intelligence activities.
Transparency at the OLC is in many ways a separate issue from Barron’s nomination. (Ironically, prior to his work in the Obama administration, Barron joined a group of legal scholars in signing a letter calling for greater openness from the office.) This is a point his supporters raise. “[Barron] has not advocated, much less ordered, the withholding of any documents,” Harvard law professors Charles Fried and Laurence Tribe wrote in in an op-ed for The Boston Globe on Tuesday.
Nevertheless, the withholding of the documents is directly related to the Senate’s ability to properly vet the nominee. That’s the case the ACLU made in a letter to senators last week, which Rand Paul quoted in his op-ed. “All senators should demand access to all opinions on the killing program written or signed by Mr. Barron,” the ACLU wrote (emphasis mine). “No senator can meaningfully carry out his or her constitutional obligation to provide ‘advice and consent’ on this nomination to a lifetime position as a federal appellate judge without being able to read Mr. Barron’s most important and consequential legal writing.”
It’s not clear how hard drone critics will push the White House to specify exactly how many memos Barron drafted. At Wednesday’s press briefing, press secretary Jay Carney said he didn’t know. Reid’s office did not return a request for comment about when he might schedule a confirmation vote for Barron, but he told reporters on Tuesday that he was “going to try to do it soon.” Still, it looks likely that for the second week in a row, the Senate will skip it.
With Barron in limbo, some on the left are debating whether holding up a vote is an effective means of encouraging greater transparency in the drone program. Groups like the NAACP and People for the American Way, eager for another Democratic appointment to balance the rightward tilt of the courts, have called on the Senate to move swiftly to confirm Barron. Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, though he applauded the White House’s decision last week to release one Barron memo to the full Senate, dismissed continued reluctance to the usual Republican games. “Senate Republicans have consistently blocked most of President Obama’s judicial nominees, so it comes as no surprise that they continue to do so with this nominee,” he said in a statement.
“I think it’s a real mistake to conflate the issue of whether David Barron should be a judge on the first circuit and the disclosure of the various memos that the OLC has written on the targeted killing program,” said Georgetown law professor David Cole, who just last year criticized the legal analysis supporting the targeting of Americans, which was laid out in a white paper leaked by the Justice Department. Cole sees the issue as a “red herring” for Republicans who are opposed to Barron for ideological reasons, and he criticized liberal groups for using Barron “as a sacrificial leverage point to get the documents disclosed.”
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Between 2003 and 2008, a Minnesota charter school executive named Joel Pourier embezzled more than $1.3 million from his school, the Oh Day Aki Charter School. While students at Oh Day Aki went without field trips and supplies for lack of funds, Pourier bought houses and cars and tossed bills at strippers. Because his school received federal funding—charter schools are privately run but many receive significant public financing—taxpayers were, in effect, subsidizing his lavish lifestyle.
Pourier’s case is just one of many collected in a new report by the Center for Popular Democracy and Integrity in Education that documents shocking misuses of the federal funds being funneled into the poorly regulated charter industry. The report examined fifteen states with large networks of charter schools and found that more than $100 million in public money had been lost to fraud, waste and other abuse. “Despite rapid growth in the charter school industry, no agency, federal or state, has been given the resources to properly oversee it,” the report says. “Given this inadequate oversight, we worry that the fraud and mismanagement that has been uncovered thus far might be just the tip of the iceberg.”
On Friday, lawmakers in the House largely missed an opportunity to strengthen oversight of charter schools, passing a bill to encourage charter school growth by boosting federal funding without including several amendments that were offered to increase transparency and accountability. The bill, called the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act, increases federal funding for charters from $250 million to $300 million. The bill received wide bipartisan support—it passed by a overwhelming 360-45— although it is being championed by GOP leaders, who tout charter expansion and “school choice” as a central part of their anti-poverty agenda. “This legislation is about upwards mobility,” said majority leader Eric Cantor, who also took the opportunity to bash New York City mayor Bill de Blasio for his position on charter school co-locations.
Very few Democrats pushed back on the legislation, in part because it includes a few provisions sought by charter critics, including allowing charters to prioritize special-needs students and English language learners in the admissions process. Still, this is the first reauthorization of the federal charter program since 2001, and the charter sector has vastly changed and expanded since then. The fact that Democrats did not rally around bids for better oversight indicates how murky the party’s education platform has grown. Charter advocates are increasingly vocal on the left, helping to secure new federal resources; meanwhile, financial and political support for traditional public schools is quietly eroding.
“We’ve essentially agreed to almost all of the elements that were in the original Republican bill and made almost no effort to level the playing field” between charters and traditional public schools, Arizona Representative Raúl Grijalva told me on Wednesday. Grijalva was one of the three Democrats who voted against the charter bill in committee. “Incrementally, more and more of the resources are going to the public charters. There are no additional resources going to the traditional public schools. They’re getting poorer and darker, in terms of the complexion of the kids that are going there.”
“Why is it that we think this is such a valid method of instruction and structure that we are willing to invest nine figures worth of federal money in those programs when we’re starving programs like Title 1 and IDEA?” asked Representative Tim Bishop of New York. Title 1 provides funding for schools with a high proportion of low-income students; IDEA supports services for special needs children. Both have seen sizable cuts in recent years.
On Thursday, the House Rules Committee refused to allow debate on amendments from Grijalva regarding open board meetings, public audit requirements and conflict of interest guidelines—regulations that traditional public schools work under. Before the full vote on Friday, lawmakers rejected an amendment to enforce conflict of interest guidelines for people affiliated with federally funded charters, and another from Democratic Representative Gwen Moore, which would have put aside 2 percent of federal grant money for charters and given it to states to use for oversight. “We often say, ‘Oh yeah, they’re going to audit themselves,’” Moore said on the floor. “With what? Audits cost money.”
Though charters receive federal funding, they are run like private businesses, and in general are not subject to the same kind of oversight as traditional public schools are. “Charter schools are public schools, so they should be held to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools, including those in the [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] and other federal requirements,” the National Education Association wrote in anticipation of the House vote.
The Center for Popular Democracy report serves as a timely warning against using federal dollars to convert public education into an industry with inadequate regulation. “Without sufficient regulations to ensure true public accountability, incompetent and/or unethical individuals and firms can (and have) inflict great harm on communities,” says the report, which references the damage done recently by allowing industries like banking and lending to expand rapidly without an adequate safety net. The report follows a memorandum from the Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General that states that state officials are failing “to provide adequate oversight needed to ensure that Federal funds [were] properly used and accounted for.”
Supporters of increased oversight point out that issues of transparency and accountability are distinct from larger ideological debates about charters. Grijalva told me that oversight provisions would not have interfered with the original intention of the bill, which he characterized as encouraging the expansion of charters across the country. “I think public charters are going to be difficult if not impossible to uproot, and that’s not the intention,” Grijalva said. “But if we’re playing on the same field and if this is…a philosophy of market-driven education where competition will produce the best results in our institutions, then let’s make the competition equal. Let’s make disclosure fair and open, let’s make sure that there’re no inside deals.”
Florida Representative Frederica Wilson, who has sharply criticized the charter movement in the past, explained that she voted for the bill because it offered a few minor improvements, and because defeating it would not strike a serious blow to charters. Still, she expressed frustration with the overall lack of support for traditional public education among her colleagues. “This is wrong, what we’re doing. We should be investing in public education, and not investing in charters. And I am frustrated with the White House as they step out to support charters,” she said.
President Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan have both issued strong praise for the charter movement. Although Duncan has chastised charters for allowing bad actors to flourish among their ranks, instead of pressing for oversight he instead has encouraged charters to clean up their own act.
“The education department, from that administrative side, has been a promoter of this market-driven public education system,” Grijalva said. Referring to his colleagues on the Hill, he continued, “I think there’s been a reluctance to criticize that from some people.”
A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate, with the backing of senators from both parties. However, Senator Tom Harkin, the chair of the Education Committee, has said he is committed to overhauling No Child Left Behind through a reauthorization of the full Elementary and Secondary Education Act—which includes the federal charter program—instead of a piecemeal approach. The ESEA is long overdue for an update, and with Republicans using their unambiguous support for privatized education as a campaign platform, sooner or later Democrats will have to confront the growing chasm within their ranks.
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For the first time since Edward Snowden revealed some of the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) surveillance programs last June, a congressional committee has voted to send legislation intended to curb the government’s spying power on for a full vote. On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee passed a version of the USA Freedom Act, considered by civil liberties advocates to be among the strongest of several competing reform bills.
But what lawmakers voted unanimously to approve is a trimmed down version that is narrower in significant ways. The revision is the result of an agreement crafted by members of the Judiciary Committee— including Republican chairman Bob Goodlatte, who voted previously against an attempt to limit the NSA’s reach—in a bid to win wider support. In its compromised form the bill is more specifically focused on the phone records program and the statute that authorizes it, Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
Under the amended version of the bill, the government itself would no longer be allowed to hold a database of people’s calling records, and would have to seek a judge’s order before collecting data held by the telecom companies—a change that President Obama has said he would support. The bill would also increase transparency by allowing phone companies to inform the public about the requests for data they receive.
“I think we can call it a milestone. It is the first bill that’s really got momentum behind it and that would truly rein in the bulk collection programs,” said Gabe Rottman, legislative council for the American Civil Liberties Union. Still, he acknowledged that the amended version “is a compromise bill, and it’s not as strong as the original sense of the proposal.”
Cut out of the amended version is a ban on unauthorized “back door” searches, the practice of mining a database of foreigners’ communications for the emails and phone calls of American citizens. Such searches are made under a different authority, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which lawmakers left untouched during Wednesday’s markup. The amendment also softened reforms to the secret court that authorizes the NSA’s surveillance activities, and preserved the requirement that the government need only prove “reasonable articulable suspicion” that records sought are relevant to an open investigation—the NSA’s preferred relevancy standard.
“Right now, [the USA Freedom Act] is good on one small piece of the surveillance pie,” said Mark Jaycox, a legislative analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It is a good step towards fixing Section 215, but it’s lacking in what the USA Freedom Act originally envisioned, which was an overarching bill that touched on many of the different spying authorities and activities we’ve learned about.”
California representative Zoe Lofgren proposed a number of amendments intended to restore the bill to its wider scope. “The biggest disappointment I have about the [amended version] is that it took meaningful reform… and watered it down significantly,” Lofgren said as she argued for reinstating the ban on back door searches. But Lofgren’s revisions were shot down even by James Sensenbrenner, the Republican co-author of the original USA Freedom Act, who summed up the prevailing attitude when he cautioned his colleagues “not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.”
“We finally have a bill that can actually pass, and this amendment would probably upset that ability to pass a bill,” said New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, who objected to a Lofgren proposal to raise the relevancy standard from reasonable articulable suspicion to a tougher requirement that the government demonstrate probable cause. Nadler called the act “the first, best and perhaps only chance in a decade” to reform the NSA.
The revisions to the bill were significant enough to earn tentative approval from one of the NSA’s most ardent allies, Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers. After the Judiciary Committee made a surprise announcement early in the week that it would move on the USA Freedom Act, Rogers immediately announced the Intelligence Committee would, on Thursday, mark up his own bill, the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act, which is much softer than the original USA Freedom Act.
But the distinctions between the two have grown sufficiently murky to prompt Rogers to indicate that he might end up supporting the USA Freedom Act after all. “They’ve come a lot closer [and] now we’re just trying to work out the wording,” Rogers told Foreign Policy on Tuesday. Important differences do remain, however; under the Rogers legislation, for example, the government would not need a judge’s permission to probe phone and email data.
In general, civil liberties advocates are pleased that Congress is finally moving on surveillance reform, even if addressing Section 215 only gets at one of the programs revealed so far by the Snowden documents. Besides Section 702, there are untouched issues related to an executive order expanding presidential authority (Executive Order 12333), the use of which for legal grounding for spying activities in not yet well understood. But because the phone metadata program is easiest to understand and has attracted the most attention, it’s not surprising that it is Congress’s first target. The bill is likely to have strong support on the floor, particularly as it is now closely aligned with changes explicitly supported by Obama and has been made more palatable to people like Rogers.
But there’s valid concern that the phone records program will turn out to be a sacrificial lamb for the administration, something given up in the hopes that Congress will wash its hands of the rest. The dragnet is not disappearing under the USA Freedom Act; metadata will still be available to the government, if not quite so freely; and a single court order will allow officials to explore phone records two “hops” away from the initial target—potentially millions of records. It’s unclear whether the bill explicitly bars intelligence agencies from collecting the contents of communications under Section 215, a provision that originally distinguished the USA Freedom Act from Rogers’s bill. Though the ban was absent in the version that passed the committee, Lofgren speculated that the omission was due to a clerical error. What’s for sure is that Congress’s ability to truly reform—and oversee— the intelligence community remains unclear.
“Certainly there’s a concern that they can say, ‘we fixed it and we’re done.’ But I don’t think that any of the groups that are concerned about this or, frankly, the American public will let that happen,” Rottman said.
Several of the NSA’s critics in Congress said that they too will continue to press for stronger measures. “I remain concerned that the legislation approved today does not include some of the important reforms related to national security letters, a strong special advocate at the FISA Court, and greater transparency,” Vermont senator and Judiciary chair Patrick Leahy said in a statement. “I will continue to push for those reforms when the Senate Judiciary Committee considers the USA Freedom Act this summer.”
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden said he “will continue to fight for additional steps to protect both American security and American liberty, like closing the back door searches loophole and installing a constitutional advocate at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.”
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