Our country’s “free trade” agreements have followed a framework of trading away our democracy and middle-class prosperity in exchange for letting the biggest corporations dominate.
There are those who say any increase in trade is good. But if you close a factory here and lay off the workers, open the factory “there” to make the same things the factory here used to make, bring those things into the country to sell in the same outlets, you have just “increased trade” because now those goods cross a border. Supporters of free trade are having a harder and harder time convincing American workers this is good for them.
Free trade is when goods and services are bought and sold between countries without tariffs, duties and quotas. The idea is that some countries “do things better” than other countries, which these days basically means they offer lower labor and environmental-protection costs. Allowing other countries to do things in ways that cost less “frees up resources” which can theoretically be used for investment at home.
“Free trade”: The elites are selling it but the public is longer buying it. Look at the support for Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump, especially in light of Sanders’ surprise 20-point comeback in this week’s Michigan primary. With primaries coming soon in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina, will Sanders’ trade appeal resonate again?
Voters See Free Trade Killing Their Jobs And Wages
Voters have figured out that our country’s current “free trade” policies are killing their jobs, wages, cities, regions and the country’s middle class. Giant multinational corporations and billionaires do great under free trade, the rest of us not so much.
Elites say increasing trade is always good. But when you close a factory here, then open the factory “there” and bring the same goods back to sell in the same outlets, you have “increased trade” because those goods now cross a border. The differential between wages paid here and there goes into the pockets of the executives and shareholders. Those unemployed American workers add to wage pressures on the rest of us. Inequality increases.
There are other bad consequences as the effects of free trade ripple through local economies. The stores and gas stations and restaurants where the workers shopped and dined have to cut back. The factory’s suppliers have to cut back and lay off, too. Property values drop in the neighborhoods where all of those workers lived. The local tax base erodes. Roads and buildings and downtowns deteriorate… (The old lead pipes going to the houses do not get replaced.)
On a national scale, these local effects add up to a tragedy.
The national industrial ecosystem collapses as well. The manufacturing “know-how” migrates out of the country. The schools that taught people how to do what the factory did drop those classes. The investors who know how to evaluate manufacturing proposals go away. The raw materials pipeline migrates away. Reviving the outsourced industries will require tremendous and nationally coordinated investment.
For decades we’ve been told all this is actually good for “us.” But people have come to understand that the “us” this is good for doesn’t include about 99 percent of “us” or our country.
Trade Behind Sanders’ Michigan Upset
Sanders’ Michigan primary upset was most likely driven by his repeated trade message. Michigan’s primary upset demonstrates again that voters have caught on that our country’s trade policies have sent millions of jobs out of the country, put tremendous downward pressure on wages, decimated regions of the country (Flint, Detroit, the “rust belt”) and are dealing a death blow to America’s middle class.
Watch this Sanders ad on the damage our trade deals have done:
While people talk about “NAFTA” (the North American Free Trade Agreement) the term is really used as a shorthand for all of our country’s disastrous trade policies, including the millions of jobs and tens of thousands of factories outsourced to China.
The exit polling from Michigan indicates that most voters there are wary of free trade agreements — and that Sanders and Trump drubbed their opponents among those voters.
According to CNN, 58 percent of Democratic voters polled after casting ballots said they believe U.S. trade with other countries takes away U.S. jobs, compared with just 30 percent who said they believe it creates them. Among that group, Sanders won by a whopping 17-point margin: 58 percent to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s 41 percent. He won the primary overall by less than a 2-point margin.
[. . .] Trade — and resentment toward U.S. trade policy — has been the sleeper issue in 2016. By eliminating trade barriers with low-wage countries, the North American Free Trade Agreement and subsequent treaties over the past two decades have encouraged U.S. companies to move jobs to countries where workers are paid less.
Sanders has made a point of pressing Clinton on trade throughout the Democratic debates, including just days ago. The Vermont independent has been a vocal opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal with 12 Pacific Rim countries championed by President Barack Obama. Clinton’s stance on the deal hasn’t beennearly as clear.
Mr. Sanders pulled off a startling upset in Michigan on Tuesday by traveling to communities far from Detroit and by hammering Mrs. Clinton on an issue that resonated in this still-struggling state: her past support for trade deals that workers here believe robbed them of manufacturing jobs. Almost three-fifths of voters said that trade with other countries was more likely to take away jobs, according to exit polls by Edison Research, and those voters favored Mr. Sanders by a margin of more than 10 points.
The salience of trade, in a state where unemployment had tumbled more than half since the start of the Great Recession, blindsided a Democratic Party that has struggled to find coherence between its labor base and its neoliberal leadership. It also worried Republicans, whose leaders and donors are resolutely in favor of free trade.
“There has been a bipartisan conventional wisdom that the damage done to working-class jobs and incomes are simply part of inevitable changes, ones we cannot and should not challenge,” said Larry Mishel, president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “Even President Obama is blaming inequality problems on technological change, which is not even a plausible explanation for post-2000 America. People correctly understand that many elites simply believe that wage stagnation is something we cannot change.”
… In Michigan, exit pollsters for the first time asked voters whether they thought trade created or took away American jobs. The “take away” faction made up 55 percent of the Republican primary vote and 57 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Trump won the GOP faction with 45 percent, and Sanders won the Democratic side with 56 percent.
A YUGE part of Donald Trump’s appeal is his position on trade. A new poll shows that 66% of Republican voters oppose TPP.
Last week’s post, Trump Taps Into Economic Anxiety Resulting From ‘Free Trade’ noted that “Trump is tapping into an economic anxiety felt by many, many Americans. Our trade policies are at the root of this anxiety, and Trump knows it and says it, and people nod their heads.” Here is Trump speaking after the “Super Tuesday” primaries:
Our nation is in serious trouble. we’re being killed on trade, absolutely destroyed, China is just taking advantage of us. I have nothing against China, I have great respect for China but their leaders are just too smart of our leaders, our leaders don’t have a clue. And the trade deficits at 400 billion dollars and 500 billion dollars, are too much, no country can sustain that kind of trade deficit. It won’t be that way for long, we have the greatest business leaders in the world, on my team already, and believe me we’re going to redo those trade deals and it’s going to be a thing of beauty.
Trump has been sounding this message throughout his campaign. Here is Trump on trade from last November:
“I’ll tell you, there’s one thing that we’ve very similar on,” Trump said during a town hall hosted by MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. “He knows that our country is being ripped off big league, big league, on trade.”
1. A message of economic populism, particularly protectionism, is much more potent in the Rust Belt than we understood.
Most Michiganders feel like they are victims of trade deals, going back to NAFTA under Bill Clinton, and they’re deeply suspicious of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Outsourcing has helped hollow out the state’s once mighty manufacturing core.
Trump and Sanders both successfully tapped into this.
Six in 10 Michigan Democratic primary voters said international trade takes away U.S. jobs, and Sanders won these voters by roughly 20 points, according to preliminary exit poll data reported by CNN. Only 3 in 10 thought trade creates jobs; Clinton won that group.
One-third of voters said Clinton is too pro-business. Sanders won more than four in five of them.
… Clinton, after speaking supportively of the TPP, flip-flopped once the agreement was signed.
4. Free trade is Clinton’s albatross. Just as the cable networks were calling the shocker for Sanders, an email popped into my inbox from one architect of Obama’s 2008 triumph, who was travelling overseas. “Americans really hate free trade,” he wrote. “Don’t know how else to explain it. Same thing running through republican race.”
Clinton … has the burden of schlepping the albatross of NAFTA with her throughout the Midwest. This is where voters’ lack of trust and her core belief in the value of open markets for American manufacturers collide: When Clinton questions free trade nobody really believes her; Sanders’ thunderous anti-free trade talk taps a vein of deep grievance, his cash advantage allowed him to saturate markets with word of his opposition to TPP and NAFTA – and his debate-stage answer on the topic was pithier and more convincing than Clinton’s.
Will Sanders’ Trade Position Resonate In Upcoming Primaries?
And a new statewide poll of likely Ohio voters finds trade will likely be a dominant issue in the March 15 primary, as vast majorities of respondents worry that the United States has “lost too many manufacturing jobs” and think it would be effective to “crack down on foreign countries that violate their trade agreements.”
… Conducted Feb. 27 to March 2 by Public Opinion Research and The Mellman Group, the poll looked at voter opinion on trade, manufacturing and the presidential candidates. Researchers discovered that while support for American manufacturing is nearly universal, majorities of respondents are worried about a shrinking middle class and the impact of manufacturing job loss.
Most participants are also concerned about foreign trade, including with China. Ninety-one percent agreed that it’s time for crack down on countries that violate trade agreements, and 83 percent said that it is important that China is officially declared a currency manipulator.
… Other key findings:
● 93 percent of participants worry that the U.S. has “lost too many manufacturing jobs in this country.”
● 74 percent of participants have unfavorable views of “manufactured goods made in China,” including 77 percent of “conservative” respondents.
● 96 percent of participants are favorable of “manufactured goods made in America,” including 98 percent of “conservative members of the GOP.”
● 92 percent of participants think that “too many jobs are being shipped overseas” and 86 percent are worried they “don’t seem to manufacture anything here in America anymore.”
Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina have also been hammered by outsourcing of jobs caused by trade policies and likely have similar sentiments.
There Is A Better Way To Do Trade
Current U.S. trade policies are written by representatives of multinational corporations with the intent of locking in their dominance while driving wages and environmental costs down. The resulting agreements are clearly in their interests and not the rest of us. Our country’s enormous, humongous trade deficit is a metric for understanding the damage being done to our country.
Now that the public is clearly rejecting the current trade approach, there are alternatives available. Just having non-corporate stakeholders including representatives of labor, consumer, human rights, environmental and other groups at the table would bring about a more fair and just trade regime.
● Protect Congress’ Authority to Set Trade Policy
● Restore Balanced trade
● Put Workers First
● Stop Currency Manipulation
● Expand Buy America Procurement Practices
● Protect the Environment for Future Generations
● Prioritize Consumers above Profits
● Protect Nationhood Rights
● Secure Affordable Access to Essential Medicines and Services
● Respect Human Rights
● Provide a Safety Net for Vulnerable Workers
● Create shared gains for the workers whose labor creates society’s wealth.
● Strengthen protections for the environment. Companies must not use trade rules to pit one country’s environmental rules against another, as they seek the lowest-cost place to produce.
● Protect the freedom to regulate in the public interest.
● Set rules for fair competition. Workers of a nation must not be unduly disadvantaged by unfair economic competition resulting from choices about how to organize their economies.
● Include strong rules of origin so that trade agreements are not merely a conduit to ease the global corporation’s race to the bottom.
● Not provide extraordinary privileges to foreign investors.
● Effectively address currency manipulation.
● Retain the ability for all nations to stimulate their economies through domestic infrastructure and spending programs.
● Protect the right of governments to choose the scope and level of public services to provide.
● Protect intellectual property (IP) in a fair and balanced manner.
● Protect the unique U.S. transportation regulatory and legal structure.
● Protect the right of governments to secure the integrity and stability of their financial systems.
● Be negotiated in an open, democratic and accountable manner.
● Be flexible and responsive.
A grassroots/labor/faith/community coalition called Silicon Valley Rising on Monday went to the San Jose, Calif. City Clerk’s office to submit the “Opportunity to Work” ballot initiative.
The purpose of the initiative is to require employers to offer qualified part-time employees the opportunity to work additional hours before hiring new part-time or temporary employees.
The Problem: Too Much Part-Time Work
Currently one way (of so many ways) employers nationwide take advantage of their workforce is by limiting the hours they can work in order to avoid providing any benefits that might accrue to full-time employees. Instead of upgrading employees to full-time status when they need more work done, they hire additional part-time or temporary workers. The result is that people have to take on multiple jobs just to (barely) get by. The “Opportunity to Work Initiative” is the first such initiative in the country to limit this abusive practice by requiring employers to expand the hours of their current workforce before hiring new people.
Ben Field, Executive Officer of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council said at the event, “A number of employers avoid providing health care and other benefits by hiring new part-time workers instead of giving more hours to current part-time employees. It’s unfair.”
Poncho Guevara, Executive Director of Sacred Heart Community Service explained, “We are seeing so many parents working hard, willing to do whatever they can to support their families, but most part-time workers are unable to cover their most basic needs, such as food and rent. When part-time workers are denied hours, they are pushed further into poverty, making it impossible for them to support their families without the safety net we provide. They want to work. The ‘Opportunity to Work Initiative’ would help many of the families that we serve by giving them the chance to work more hours and hopefully achieve economic stability.”
Fr. Jon Pedigo, Pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish and member of the Silicon Valley Rising coalition said, “Every day I see how my parishioners struggle to make ends meet because they do not have access to sufficient work hours. This initiative would help these workers support their families by getting enough hours so that their paychecks cover their bills and they can put food on the table.”
Sara Delete, a fast food employee said, “Despite the fact that I work three part-time jobs, I struggle to make ends meet. Every week the number of hours I get changes, so I am never sure what my paycheck will be. Not having access to more work hours means that I am constantly worried about being able to provide for my son, cover my rent and pay the bills.”
Chava Bustamante, Executive Director of Latinos United for a New America said, “The majority of individuals working part-time jobs are people of color. As such, they are disproportionately impacted by the lack of hours, low wages and non-existent benefits.”
Companies everywhere use all kinds of schemes to keep “labor costs” low. One way the wages of lower-skilled workers are kept low is through maintaining intentionally high un- and under-employment levels. Public investment in infrastructure and other job-creating areas is reduced, limiting job availability. Teachers, police, health care, child care and other employees and services are cut back. The result is a surplus “reserve army” of hungry people who can be exploited and set against each other in competition for any private-sector jobs that do exist.
In Silicon Valley there is particular demand for workers skilled in such fields as engineering and programming, so tech employers engage in various schemes to keep tech-specialist pay lower than it should be. One scheme is the use of H1-B visas for bringing in workers from other countries. Higher-paid and older American-born tech workers are laid off or their pay is reduced as these workers are brought in at lower pay rates.
Sometimes the tech companies engage in more direct wage suppression. A number of Silicon Valley companies were caught engaging in a conspiracy that worked in a way similar to price-fixing, except it was pay-fixing. The companies made private, illegal deals between each other to limit the pay of their employees by agreeing not to recruit or hire people already at one of the other companies. This kept down competition for these employees, which limited their pay.
Of course the higher-skilled tech workers are not left in poverty and/or struggling to get by, as the (often people of color) lower-skilled workers are. But it is part of the same “rigged” system where the government, “captured” by wealthy interests, not only does not step in with investment that would correct abuses, it is forced to cut back on spending on the very things – such as antidiscrimination, antitrust and other enforcement – that would make a difference in wages, as well as public services to help people affected by the resulting inequality.
The “Google Bus” Effect Of Tax-Dodging On Communities
The use of these and other schemes drive up profits, which the companies then move out of the country to tax havens using various schemes. This defunds government’s ability to provide regulatory enforcement, badly needed public services, and other things that would help fight the inequality that is hurting so many people.
One example of the effect of this government defunding is Silicon Valley’s poor transportation system. There is minimal investment in public transportation options. The rail, road and other infrastructure is poorly maintained and overwhelmed. Meanwhile the wealthy tech companies provide their employees with a private transportation system. Modern, usually white buses known generically as “Google buses” (though companies like Facebook, Genentech, Apple and others have their own fleets as well) take employees from home to work to areas with popular restaurants, etc. while the rest of the people are stuck in traffic jams, squeeze into already-filled trains on their limited routes or wait for the few public buses that operate.
Silicon Valley Rising‘s website states: “Silicon Valley Rising is taking on occupational segregation and severe income inequality with a comprehensive campaign to raise wages, create affordable housing and build a tech economy that works for everyone.”
What is the purpose of our government and economy – to serve a few already-wealthy people and their corporations or to serve We the People? If passed, Silicon Valley Rising’s “Opportunity to Work Initiative” would help hard-working families by helping providing the work hours they need to get by.
The initiative requires 20,000 signatures to make it onto the November ballot.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will likely be back in the news at least for a brief moment next week, when the treaty comes up for a formal signing ceremony involving representatives of the 12 participating countries, including the United States.
The agreement has largely been out of the news since the release of the text in early November. President Obama did mentioned it briefly in his State of the Union address earlier in January. Other than that, there have been no dramatic headlines.
Meanwhile, the public and much of Congress remain solidly opposed to the agreement – as have presidential candidates in both political parties. That, hopefully, means the politics do not line up for a vote on the agreement before the 2016 election. But there’s always the risk that Wall Street will find a way to force a vote sooner. So people should continue pressing Congress to oppose the TPP.
Formal Signing Feb. 4 In New Zealand
The date for the big signing ceremony for TPP was announced last week. It will be Feb. 4 in Auckland, New Zealand. Ministers from participating countries, including U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, will participate.
Note that this ceremony does not “trigger” any timeline forcing Congress to vote within a certain number of legislature-in-session days. That clock starts when President Obama submits authorising legislation to Congress.
Report On TPP’s Economic Effect
Next up for the U.S. process is the International Trade Commission’s (ITC) report on TPP’s economic impact. The commission is expected to produce this report by May 18.
For three consecutive days last week, in eight-minute segments spanning nine hours each day, lobbyists for some of the nation’s biggest corporations, labor unions and trade groups testified before the panel of six appointed bureaucrats.
They included lobbyists for Walmart and Gap Inc., who praised the deal for lowering tariffs on beef, cheese, pencil cases and cotton sweaters. Leaders of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers framed the pact as a chance for U.S. companies to sell more goods abroad. Representatives for the AFL-CIO, United Steel Workers and other unions urged the commission to consider the deal’s potential to erode labor conditions and wages.
Corporate lobbyists might frame TPP as “a chance for U.S. companies to sell more goods abroad” because they have to say that in public. What they really mean is that TPP will encourage them to lay off even more U.S. workers, close even more U.S. factories and move even more production to countries with near-slave-labor conditions and no costly protections for the environment. This offshoring lets them pocket the wage and protection differential while enabling them to use havens to dodge U.S. taxes.
The congressionally created Labor Advisory Committee for Trade Negotiations and Trade Policy (LAC) has just released a scathing report that urges President Obama “in the strongest possible terms” to send the Trans-Pacific Partnership “back to the negotiating table” instead of to Congress, saying the treaty “will harm our economy overall.”
… “The TPP is likely to harm U.S. manufacturing interests, cost good jobs, suppress wages, and threaten our democracy and economic security interests,” the report said.
Note that laying off U.S. workers, closing the factory, moving production out of the country, then importing the same goods to sell in the same outlets to the same customers “increases trade” because now those goods cross a border.
Negotiating Implementing Legislation
After the ITC report is released, the administration will formally send Congress an official, final TPP text. Even though TPP’s text has been released to the public, this is a formal action, and will be accompanied by details of how the administration plans to implement TPP.
The administration has begun negotiating with Congress to finalize an implementing legislation bill. The administration is deciding when to submit this formal, final implementing legislation to Congress. That does start a countdown clock as specified in the “fast track” trade legislation passed last year. The White House will do this based on when they think they have the best chance to get TPP passed. Currently, it looks for a number of reasons as if this is likely to be delayed until after the election – but it could come at any time.
Significant Public Opposition
The optimism that a vote on the TPP might not happen until after the election, if ever, is directly related to significant public opposition to the agreement. For example, earlier this month The Washington Post, in “Hundreds of advocacy groups ask Congress to block Obama’s Pacific Rim trade pact,” reported that a “coalition of more than 1,500 interest groups is sending a letter to Congress on Thursday demanding that lawmakers block the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the 12-nation Pacific Rim trade pact championed by the Obama administration.”
Labor unions, environmental groups, consumer advocates and faith groups are among the 1,525 organizations that signed onto the document, which was organized by the Citizens Trade Campaign. Hundreds of local labor union affiliates have signed on.
Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are actively and vocally campaigning against TPP, with Sanders also continuing to attend rallies and lobby other members of Congress to oppose it. Candidates Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz have gone on record as opposing it because of the public opposition.
Republicans Demanding More Corporate-Favoring Language
Another barrier potentially in the way of a near-term vote is Republican opposition based on TPP not being favorable enough for corporations. For example, Republicans leaders are demanding changes that favor big corporations like tobacco. TPP has a “tobacco carve-out” that can keep countries from being sued when they try to protect public health by helping citizens stop smoking or keep children from starting. This interferes with corporate profits, which under the investor-state dispute settlement “corporate court” provisions countries cannot do.
Non-tobacco companies say that allowing any such “tobacco carve-out” is a bad precedent, opening up a slippery slope of allowing countries to protect citizens from other products that harm or defraud their citizens. They are joining with tobacco companies to demand side letters from participating countries saying they will allow these suits even as TPP’s formal text gives them a choice of opting out of them.
Republicans are also demanding even longer patent monopoly terms for pharmaceutical companies.
Election Issue Risk – Or Lame-Duck Risk?
Usually public opposition does not matter in Congress if Wall Street is in favor of something, as it is with TPP. But in an election year there is a risk of something as overwhelmingly unpopular as TPP becoming an election issue. For example, Sacramento-area Representative Ami Bera is facing opposition after he voted in favor of “fast track” trade legislation. Local Democratic clubs are refusing to endorse him, and there will be a full floor fight over endorsing him at the February statewide Democratic convention. With the election coming up, other “corporate Democrats” are taking note of this.
However, the big corporate lobbying organizations, the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) are pushing the administration to move the TPP toward passage as soon as possible. Under the fast-track trade legislation passed last year, the timing of a vote is in the administration’s hands, not those of congressional leaders. If there is a reason to think Congress will pass TPP, the administration will move very fast to get a vote.
But it currently looks like Wall Street, the big corporations, the Obama administration and the Republican Party are lining for a TPP vote in the “lame duck” session after the election. In a lame-duck session members who have retired or been kicked out of office are still allowed to vote – but there is no way for the public to hold them accountable. So for them a TPP vote would be like an audition for a lucrative corporate lobbying position. Also members who have been elected or re-elected with Wall Street financing will be asked to repay their contributors, with two whole years before the public can do anything about it.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) explained on a press call earlier this month why a TPP vote might come in the “lame duck” session. “Wall Street has the money that our current campaign finance system requires,” he said. “Members can take the money for their campaigns, get elected in November, then deliver the votes in December to reward those contributors after the election.”
Either way – whether the vote is orchestrated to come before or after the elections – everything that people can do to push Congress to line up on the side of the public will could prevent a vote from happening at all, or ensure a vote defeating the TPP. Contact Congress today to let your representative know you want that person to come out publicly in opposition to the TPP.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has provisions that allow corporations to sue governments for laws and regulations that limit profits. The cases bypass national court systems and are heard by “corporate courts” with the governments allowed no appeal. These investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions are also in trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement.
When fast-track trade promotion authority was being debated, people like Sen. Elizabeth Warren raised warning flags about the ISDS provisions in TPP.
[. . .] In her letter, Warren raises concerns that the deal could include provisions that would allow foreign companies to challenge U.S. policies before a judicial panel outside the domestic legal system, increasing exposure of American taxpayers to potential damages.
After a decades-long effort to place ideologically committed “movement” members in the judicial branch of government, funded by extremely wealthy individuals and their corporations, it looks like the resulting corporate/conservative wing of the Supreme Court is ready to make a ruling that would bankrupt public-employee unions. And clearly already-decimated private-sector unions will be the next target.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday in the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. In this case the Court is asked to overturn a unanimous 1977 decision that said public-employee unions can charge nonmembers a fee to cover the cost of the services the unions are required by law to provide those nonmembers. The fee does not cover political activities of the union, only the cost of services the unions must, by law, provide.
If the corporate/billionaire class gets its way – and it looks like it will – the terrible inequality you see in the country today is nothing compared to what’s coming. Having grabbed all the income gains since the recession, having wiped out the middle class, having pushed so much to the top that a few families now have more wealth than all of the rest of us combined, now the corporate/billionaire class is coming after the rest of the money in the economy.
The Supreme Court has once again decided to reconsider “settled law.” This time it is a case involving the rights of public-employee unions to charge employees a fee for the services the unions are required by law to provide to all employees – even those who are not members of the union. The goal is to bankrupt the unions by denying them the funds necessary to perform the required services.
The argument is that since unions protect working people’s pay and rights, paying fees for union services therefore violates the “free speech” of those who support concentrated wealth and power.
This case is going to be argued before the Supreme Court on Monday. Here’s why you need to pay attention.
Payment For Services Unions Are Required By Law To Provide
When a public-employee union negotiates a contract, even employees who are not union-members get the pay increases, sick pay, vacation pay, union services and other benefits of the contract. Union services include the cost of collective bargaining, administering the resulting contract, and representing employees who have grievances under the contract.
Currently, unions are required by law to provide these services to every employee covered by a union contract, even if those employees are not union members. So, the unions charge an “agency fee” to those non-union employees to cover the costs.
Public-Employee Unions Support Communities, Not Just The Workers
Public-employee unions, by their nature, fight for the interests not just of employees but of the entire community. On a Wednesday call about the implications of the Freidrichs case, members of public-employee unions described how their unions help them serve the whole community.
Vincent Variale, a New York Fire Department EMS lieutenant and 9/11 first responder, said it is important for first responders to have a voice at the table, because they fight for preventive safety regulations, good equipment and adequate staffing levels.
For example, he said that on 9/11 they had no respirators, so it was hard to provide medical care as needed. His union local brought these concerns to the fire department and fought to get better equipment. Now they have respirators and protective equipment that allows them to work in harsh environments, like building collapses, providing medical care that is needed. And now that there is such a concern about “active shooters,” the union is proactively trying to get bulletproof vests. This demonstrates how unions protect the citizens their members serve.
Pankaj Sharma, a high school teacher in Illinois, talked about how his union works to stop cuts to the most marginalized and at-risk students. Special education, for example, is an expensive program and is often a target for cuts. The union fights this. The union also advocates for referendums to get high quality facilities. Because teaching has a high turnover rate, the union created a mentoring program to help keep teachers. This helps school districts and the students.
Coming Soon: Not Just Public Employees
In 2014 the Court ruled 5-4 that the First Amendment prohibited unions from collecting a fee from home health care providers who are not members of the union, even though the union was required to provide services.
Because of the makeup of the Court it is likely to rule in Freidrichs that nonmembers no longer have to pay those fees while the unions will still be required to provide those services. (Why else would the Court have taken this case?)
These cases are about public employees, but undoubtedly all of this is intended to lead also to attacking the same requirements for private-employee unions. This is about making every state a “right-to-work” state, and suppressing unions and wages.
Corporate Conservative Court Is Reconsidering Supposedly “Settled” Cases
In 1977’s Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that public-employee unions can charge this fee. So for decades this has been considered to be “settled law.”
But now the Supreme Court has a majority of members who made their way to the court with corporate-funded conservative backing. So the court is systematically reversing older “settled” cases that affect corporations, workers rights, and other elements of conservative ideology like voting rights and womens’ rights.
This time the conservatives on the Court are reconsidering the unanimously and four-decade-settled Abood decision. The case the Court is using to accomplish this is Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The court is going to decide if non-union public employees will still be required to pay for the services unions required by law to provide them. All bets are that it will be another 5-4 decisions in favor of the corporate-conservative position.
The “Free Speech” Argument
The argument being used this time is that making people pay for services they receive, even when those services are required by law, violates their “freedom of speech.” This is said to be about “speech” because unions represent working people, enabling them to band together and collectively bargain, and thereby confront those with concentrated wealth and power on a more level playing field. Therefore, by their very nature, unions are engaging in “political activity,” and making people pay for the services unions provide is “unconstitutionally compelled political speech.”
In other words, because unions engage in the activity of fighting for better wages, rights, and protection, therefore the “rights” of those who would deny people those things are put at risk if unions are funded. Assisting unions in this mission by paying this fee thereby violates the free speech of those who support concentrated wealth and power.
We The People vs Concentrated Wealth And Power
The current majority of the Supreme Court was brought to its position with funding and backing of those on that other side – corporate-funded conservatives. These are the “people” whose “free speech rights” the Court says are being violated if unions receive funds enabling them to represent working people. These corporations are also the “people” who the Court ruled are allowed to put unlimited money into our elections because of “free speech.”
The Supreme Court repeatedly takes the position that anything that protects working people and regular citizens from concentrated wealth and power is by its very nature “political advocacy” and therefore violates the “free speech” of those few with concentrated wealth and power.
But the United States of America was founded by We the People – all of us “created equal” – with the purpose of banding together to protect ourselves and secure our liberty from concentrated wealth and power. This Supreme Court is consistently issuing 5-4 rulings that go against the very reasons our country was founded and our Constitution was written.
As the Supreme Court hears this case on Monday, that day will mark the beginning of a week of action to ensure that the public is aware of what’s at stake: the ability of workers to stand up for themselves and for the people they serve. Please visit America Works Together – a coalition of working people and their allies, working people like teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other public service workers who are passionate about our work, and learn more about what you can do during the week of action.
One of the selling points for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement is that it will “increase trade.”
Here’s the thing. If you close a factory in the U.S., lay off all of the workers, devastate the surrounding community, and move the production to a low-wage country like Vietnam, bring the same goods back to the U.S. and sell them in the same stores, you have just “increased trade” because now those goods cross a border.
Plus you have the added bonus that executives and shareholders can pocket the wage difference (or park the money in the Cayman Islands). Hopefully they can also pocket the difference in environmental protection costs, workers safety costs, etc., because in places like Vietnam, good luck with ever getting those things.
Economists will tell you that moving the factory to Vietnam is an efficient allocation of resources. The workers and factory here in the U.S. can now be used for something that “we do better here in the U.S,” they might say, and the workers will be rehired at a better wage. The repurposed factory will sell higher-value things to the world that more than make up for the loss of exports of what the factory had been making.
Look around you. Is that what is happening as a result of our trade policies? No; we instead have a massive trade deficit. Entire regions of the country are shifting to third-world status, downtowns boarded up, foreclosed houses falling down, people feeling hopeless… and a few people get more and more wealthy at the expense of the rest of the world.
Regular Americans see their standard of living falling as a direct result of trade policies designed to break unions and increase the wealth and power of a few at the top. Many workers in other countries have few rights, the environment is not protected, government and self-determination are undermined…
If our trade policies were combined with policies that share the benefits from lower production costs, etc. with all of us on all sides of trade borders, then increased trade would be a good thing. That is not what is happening. The trade policies are designed to break worker power and to break governmental power.
So, yes, TPP will “increase trade.” Which means more and more jobs and production moving out of the U.S.
In addition to the notorious Trans-Pacific Partnership, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is negotiating another secret trade deal. This one is a trade, investment, and governance agreement with the European Union (EU) called the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Once again, everything is secret – at least on the U.S. side.
Last week, representatives from more than 75 U.S.-based organizations involved in “good governance and transparency,” as well as members of Congress, sent a letter calling on the trade representative to open up TTIP negotiations to at least some transparency so the public can have some idea what is being negotiated in their name. The letter says the secrecy “demeans the role of citizens—in many ways treating us more like subjects than the source of legitimate governmental power that we are.”
Marc Perrone, President of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) said of the letter,
“The U.S. must show its commitment to creating better trade deals and better lives by immediately releasing their TTIP proposals. Trade agreements negotiated in secret have had a devastating impact upon our families, our jobs, and this nation. Hard-working men and women simply cannot afford anything less than complete transparency when it comes to global trade.”
With corporate-conservative calls for full or partial privatization of the United States Postal Service (USPS) escalating, groups are sounding the alarm about new nominees to the USPS Board of Governors.
The Senate is scheduled soon to consider the nominations of Mickey D. Barnett, James C. Miller III and two other nominees. Miller is a notorious privatization advocate and Barnett is a payday lender lobbyist. The Leadership Conference, a civil & human rights coalition, has sent a public letter to Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Reid asking them to oppose the nominees. (Since all four nominees are to be voted on as a package, the Leadership Conference is asking that the entire slate be voted down. At Naked Capitalism, in Epic Fail for the Postal Service: The Wrong Model and the Wrong Board, the other two nominees are described as not particularly bad for the USPS, but are “… a reflection of a system that treats public service as a revolving door for political and economic elites. This leaves a permanent imprint of the one percent on government and may be one of the primary reasons for cynicism in the electorate.”)
Study after study, report after report, and of course common sense and our own eyes are telling us that unions help people and the economy do better. It’s obvious. But the billionaires and big corporations want to keep pay and benefits low, and pay politicians to keep it that way.
Which Democratic presidential candidates will come out in favor of strong labor rights and the laws and regulations that protect and encourage this?
A new report presented by the Center for American Progress co-authored with economists Richard Freeman and Eunice Han is only the latest look at how labor unions enable working people to do better. The report, “Bargaining for the American Dream: What Unions do for Mobility,” looks at “economic mobility” and “intergenerational mobility” and finds that mobility is better where unions are strong.
Big words, but what does this mean for real people? The study found that areas with higher union membership demonstrate more mobility for low-income children:
Divide and conquer works. When you face a strong enemy it’s always a good strategy to find ways to break them apart into smaller units that can be fought separately. A state initiative to gut California’s public-employee pension and healthcare benefits is trying to do just that.
A well-funded campaign is underway (again) to take advantage of the state’s constitutional amendment initiative process, this time to place a proposition called the “Voter Empowerment Act of 2016” on the 2016 ballot. The initiative would require that voters approve any pension and health benefits in contracts for new teachers, nurses, police and other government employees as well as any pension enhancements for existing employees.
This initiative follows a pattern well-known to California public-interest advocates. Ballot initiatives must receive 585,407 signatures to qualify, and corporate/billionaire-funded initiatives hire paid signature gatherers to get this done. Then they launch a well-funded, deceit-filled campaign to scare voters.
Similar anti-pension campaign have been, are and will be underway in states and municipalities across the country.