First Person

Your Representatives Are Home This Week. Make Them Listen to You.

A month into the Trump administration, we can see the outline of Trump’s vision for America: An attorney general who prosecuted voting rights activists; a secretary of education devoted to dismantling our public education system; and a head of the Environmental Protection Agency who wants to dismantle environmental protections.

Between the emerging administration, and a Congress that is hell-bent on taking our country backwards—not just to before Obama, but to before Roosevelt’s New Deal—there is a clear need for citizen vigilance and activism. And Americans are meeting the moment: They’re flocking to marches, airports, and town halls; donating record amounts of money; and subscribing to responsible journalistic outlets that hold the government accountable.

Americans are showing up in record numbers, but it doesn’t actually take that many people to move the government. The Tea Party proved this in 2009, when a small segment of the electorate organized to thwart President Obama. It rallied its members against a president who had decisively won both the popular vote and the Electoral College, and whose party held majorities in both Congressional chambers—a president who did, in fact, enjoy a sweeping popular mandate for his campaign promises.  Yet by focusing their energy with laser-like precision on a local, defensive strategy, the Tea Party became a force in American politics.

What the Tea Party did was a Civics 101 lesson on constituent power: They engaged with their members of Congress, and reminded them that they have opinions—and that they vote. And they did it week after week after week.

Now we’re in the beginnings of a new movement, and we can use a similar playbook.

It worked here in Roanoke when our Congressman, Republican Bob Goodlatte, proposed legislation to gut the congressional ethics office. Constituents flooded the office with so many calls that his staff seemed dazed when they picked up the phone. Then, when the phone lines were continuously busy, 12 of us decided we were concerned enough to visit his district office in person.

We knew that it was our Representative’s staff’s job to listen to our concerns and report them to Mr. Goodlatte.  But Congressional offices will also try to control the public narrative, and even silence constituents.  We have now visited Mr. Goodlatte’s district office three times, and we were denied entry each time.

We have learned to improvise.

On our first visit we were forced to meet with his staff in a lobby on a different floor, where we delivered New Year’s cards with our messages (one of which read “Happy New Year!  We expect better!”). On our second visit we were told the same lobby was private property and no longer available for constituent meetings, so we asked his staff to meet with us outside.  There, a group of teachers and medical and insurance professionals urged Mr. Goodlatte to vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) unless he had a health care proposal to replace it.  By our third visit a week later, building security physically blocked the lobby door to keep us outside. Once again, we called Mr. Goodlatte’s staff to meet us in the winter cold so we could deliver 80 letters from constituents asking Goodlatte to vote against a federal “personhood” bill that would criminalize abortion, in vitro fertilization, and some forms of birth control.

Like the woman from Utah who sent a message to her senator via pizza delivery when his voice mail was full, we have learned to improvise and be creative.  We’ll do whatever it takes to make sure our members of Congress hear our voices.

The first weeks of the Trump administration have shown that we can win some fights if we stand together. Congressional Republicans retreated from Goodlatte’s anti-ethics legislation, and the calls and visits demanding a replacement for the ACA before a reckless repeal throws millions of people off their health insurance have forced some Republicans to admit privately that they need to slow down and govern.

Civics 101 is working again.

Right now, we have the chance to do even more. This week, members of Congress are in their home states and districts. It is their job to listen to us, so find a local group and make sure that they do. We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines.

This is our republic, entrusted to each and every citizen.  Every call and every visit to our representatives is another beat of the heart of our democracy.  Our system only works when we make sure our representatives are not legislating for themselves or their lobbyists, but for those who gave them the power to govern in the first place: The American people.

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First Person

Dear Senator Toomey: The Cuts You Vote for Make It Impossible to Feed My Family

Editor’s Note: These are modified remarks from a “Tuesdays with Toomey” event on February 7, 2017.

Dear Senator Toomey,

You don’t know me. You have never met me, or answered any of my calls. But you have power and influence over my life—and my children’s well-being—and that scares me.

So Senator Toomey, let me introduce myself:  My name is Myra Young. I’m a mother, an advocate, and I live in poverty.

I work hard to take care of my family. For the last 22 years I worked as a certified nursing assistant, but I still lived in poverty and needed government assistance to put food on the table and to keep my kids healthy. Two months ago, the company I worked for closed and I was laid off. Now without my job, my struggle is even more difficult.  I only receive $33 a month in food stamps—barely enough to get my family through one healthy meal. My kids need fruit and vegetables, but I simply cannot afford them.

Last week, my 10-year-old son asked, “Mom, why do you cry so much?”

I told him, “Because I want to take care of you and your sister, but it’s so hard.”

But why is it so hard, Senator?

It’s hard because wages are too low.
It’s hard because we have to beg for scraps when we need help.
And it’s hard because of politicians like you, Senator Toomey.

You have everything I want: a safe home to go to, a job that pays a good wage, and a family in good health.  But you want to take away the little bit I have by cutting programs that help me—and people like me—feed my family.  That hurts us.  That keeps us down. And that makes me angry.

You are wrong, Senator Toomey.
You are wrong if you don’t protect these programs.
You are wrong if you don’t care about my family.

Would you be able to survive one week in my shoes?

Would you be able to survive one week in my shoes?  Would you be able to manage the daily struggle of trying to feed your family? Manage the stress of not knowing if you will be able to pay rent for the month? Manage the fear that your child may need health care that you cannot afford?

If I were in your shoes, and had the power to help a mother with two disabled children, I would do it.  I would make sure she has the services she needs to care for her family.  I would take care of the more than 1.6 million people in Pennsylvania who live paycheck to paycheck.

Senator Toomey, as a member of Witnesses to Hunger, my sisters and I will continue to speak out and fight for the needs of our children, families, and communities.

It’s your responsibility to do the same.

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Analysis

Trump’s Labor Department Nominee Should Just Drop Out Already

President Trump’s pick for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, should finally have a confirmation hearing this Thursday—after four separate delays.  His nomination process has been fraught since it was announced two months ago: The media has surfaced allegations ranging from past mob ties, to disputed allegations of domestic assault, to illegally avoiding taxes by paying a housekeeper under the table. The parade of scandals has caused some Senate Republicans to question whether the mega-rich CEO of CKE Restaurants, the corporation that operates Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., is qualified to lead the Labor Department.

These allegations may be what ultimately derail Puzder’s path to confirmation, but it’s actually his virulently anti-worker behavior that should disqualify him from being the nation’s top advocate for working people.

Despite Trump’s often-repeated campaign promise to stand up for working Americans, his nominee is a longtime advocate for gutting worker protection laws and silencing workers’ voices on the job. While this may be good news for CEOs in fast food and other low-wage industries, it’s bad news for the people Trump has sworn to protect.

Even though Americans’ wages have been stagnant for years, Puzder opposes government policies that would increase wages and improve job quality. He opposed the recent rule that would expand overtime so that it would reach 4.2 million more workers, he has scoffed at the idea that workers may need to take rest breaks over the course of their shift,  and he has argued that “some jobs don’t produce enough economic value” to justify raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.

Carl’s Jr. practices in other countries undermine Puzder’s argument that the market couldn’t bear a higher wage.  At its 20 locations in New Zealand, the chain must pay at least the federal minimum wage of $15.25 per hour (or $11.07 in American dollars). The chain is also planning to open up 300 stores in Australia, where the law requires that adult fast food workers be paid at least $19.44 per hour (nearly $15 in American dollars) with hourly pay premiums for overtime and night shift work.

But here in the U.S., Puzder’s company may have failed to even comply with the existing federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.  In a 2014 investigation of a corporate-owned Hardee’s in Alabama, government investigators alleged that workers were being paid less than the federal minimum wage because CKE was paying workers with fee-laden prepaid debit cards. And just last week, two Carl’s Jr. employees filed suit against CKE and its franchises, claiming that the companies use “no-hire agreements” that prevent managers from moving to new jobs with higher pay. The company released a statement saying it will not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.

Workers have filed dozens of other complaints against Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. stores for wage theft, overtime violations, sexual harassment, and unfair labor practices. A spokesperson for CKE restaurants said the company will not comment on the pending litigation, but argued—despite a recent report to the contrary—that the franchise restaurant owners are “solely responsible for their employees, management, and adherence to regulations and labor practices.”

He prefers workers who do not—or cannot—advocate for better conditions.

In addition to opposing a living wage and basic worker protections, Puzder has made it clear that he prefers workers who do not—or cannot—advocate for better conditions. As an employer, he has reasoned that immigrant workers make better employees since they have what he refers to as a “‘Thank God I have this job’ kind of attitude,” which presumably translates to a hesitance to speak up when there are problems. He also looks forward to one day operating completely automated employee-free restaurants since machines are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

These individual anti-worker beliefs and practices culminate in Puzder’s desire to silence the voice and power of working Americans by dismantling unions. He is a vocal critic of the Fight for $15, and he opposes reforms that would hold franchisors accountable for discrimination against workers who participate in protests and strikes. At least one former Hardee’s franchise employee alleges that she was fired for her involvement in protests to demand higher wages and a union.

Puzder’s disdain for unions extends beyond the fast food industry where he has a clear self-interest. When Walmart announced last year that it would close 154 stores (the vast majority of which were smaller stores) in an effort to focus on supercenters and e-commerce, he ignored Walmart’s own statement and blamed workers for the closures. With no evidence to back up his claim, Puzder penned an op-ed faulting a worker group for the closures.

This sort of right-wing opposition to unions and workers’ collective voice isn’t new—but with a Republican-controlled White House and Congress the stakes are higher. The government will likely debate legislative proposals and administrative changes that could cripple unions by cutting their funding and membership.

If Puzder continues to take aggressively anti-union positions as labor secretary, it will not just be bad for union members. Unions help raise wages, reduce inequality, and boost economic mobility for all workers—whether or not they’re in a union. And without organized labor, working people lose negotiating power in the workplace and in government—whether it’s their ability to negotiate for higher wages or to defend policies like Social Security and Medicaid that protect the middle class.

So much for Trump’s promise to protect and fight for American workers.

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Explainer

Congress Wants to Make it Possible to Drug Test Anyone Who Applies for Unemployment

Tomorrow, the House of Representatives is expected to vote to roll back a Department of Labor regulation that protects people who apply for Unemployment Insurance (UI) from unnecessary drug testing. It’s a not-so-subtle attack on the character of unemployed Americans, rooted in stereotypes that blame workers for job loss.

Congress has already agreed to allow states to test UI claimants in two specific, narrow circumstances: if a worker was fired from their previous job because of drug use, or if the worker is looking for a new job in a field that regularly drugs tests employees.  But since the Great Recession, some states have been clamoring to expand drug testing for UI applicants—they believe that they’d be able to shrink the program as workers test positive for drugs, or that workers would decline to apply for benefits because of their drug use. Despite the complete absence of data to support this theory, three states—Texas, Mississippi, and Wisconsin—have enacted laws that permit the drug testing of UI recipients (though they have all held implementation until the Labor Department rule was finalized).

Lawmakers aren’t just hoping to roll back the Labor Department rule. They’re also counting on passage of a bill introduced in the 114th Congress by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) that would effectively allow states to drug test all jobless workers filing for unemployment insurance.

Here are five reasons that shouldn’t be allowed:

1. It’s unconstitutional

Drug tests have historically been considered searches for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment. For searches to be reasonable, they must be based on “individualized suspicion.” That means the government would need to have a specific reason to believe that each person they drug tested was doing drugs. Otherwise, it’s like conducting a search without a warrant.

The only exception to this rule has been if the government can show there is a special need, such as public safety, that warrants it.But governmental programs like Unemployment Insurance, TANF, SNAP, and housing assistance do not naturally evoke the special needs exceptions that the Supreme Court has recognized in the past.

2. It’s redundant

Twenty states already explicitly deny people UI benefits if they lost their job because of drug use or a failed drug test. In addition, virtually all states treat a drug-related discharge as disqualifying misconduct even if it is not explicitly referenced in their discharge statutes. Adding an additional regulation when state regulations are already accomplishing this task would add to the bureaucracy that this administration has vowed to reduce.

3. It’s expensive

Creating a new qualifying requirement for UI would be very expensive, and federal law prohibits states from making potential beneficiaries pay for drug tests. States would have to absorb the cost of drug testing thousands of unemployed workers, and UI programs are already too under-funded and under-staffed. Though there are no comprehensive estimates of how much this would cost, when Texas was considering drug testing UI applicants a few years ago, it was estimated to cost $30 million per year.  In FY 2012, federal funding fell short of covering states’ administrative expenses by an estimated $231 million.

4. Workers have already paid for access to the program

Unemployment Insurance is funded through payroll taxes. Workers earn that benefit over the course of their career—and they don’t have access to it unless they lose their job and are working to find a new one.

5. It’s based on negative stereotypes, not data

This attempt to violate the privacy of every American who is unlucky enough to lose a job is rooted in a blanket assumption that the ranks of the unemployed are crowded with lazy drug abusers. However, there is no evidence to support this claim. When states have attempted similar drug-testing initiatives in the past, only a small fraction of recipients—less than one half of one percent—actually tested positive (and finding that small group of people cost hundreds of thousands of dollars).

Realistically, two-thirds of Americans will struggle with unemployment at some point during their careers. Imposing an expensive, ineffective, and unconstitutional new obstacle to a program that most of us will need doesn’t actually solve anything.

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Feature

How a Union Vote in Charleston Could Change the Labor Movement in the South

Mike Evans has worked as an organizer for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) for more than two decades.  He says he’s never had an organizing experience like he’s had in Charleston, South Carolina—home of a 6,000-worker Boeing plant.

Last year, when the union tried to sponsor the city’s Cooper River Bridge Run, its check was returned.

“We got a letter saying that what we do as a union doesn’t fit with their other sponsors”—which included Boeing, says Evans.

The union then tried to sponsor the Knights of Columbus 5K race on Thanksgiving.

“They sent the check back after consulting with their board,” says Evans. “They didn’t want to give us any ability to brand ourselves as being part of the community.”

Organizers of both events declined to comment on why the union’s sponsorship was rejected.

This Wednesday, the workers at the plant will vote on whether to unionize.

***

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner plant in North Charleston is the crown jewel of South Carolina’s economic rebirth. Union opponents point to a state economy that is currently growing at twice the rate of the U.S. economy. However, that growth hasn’t meant equal opportunity for all.

South Carolina has the 11th highest poverty rate in the U.S., with 16.7 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. Despite the opening of new manufacturing plants, the state’s poverty rate is actually higher than when the recession began in 2008.

One contributing factor is a lack of unions throughout the state, which depresses wages. In fact,  research shows that unions increase workers’ wages and benefits, reduce inequality and poverty, and boost economic mobility across generations.

At the North Charleston plant, for example, Evans says that workers in some job classifications are paid half as much as their unionized counterparts in Washington State, and that they often have second or third jobs to help make ends meet.  As a result, the IAM has been trying to organize since the plant first opened in 2011.

“Every community event, you see them everywhere sponsoring stuff,” says Ken Riley, President of the South Carolina AFL-CIO. “They have been sponsoring Little League ballgames. If there is a picnic in the city, they are there.”

Boeing has countered with billboards and TV ads painting the IAM as an out-of-state organization that previously tried to prevent the plant from opening in order to keep jobs in Washington State. To support its case, Boeing has focused heavily on an NLRB complaint that the union filed in 2011 and later withdrew.  In it, the IAM alleged that the company shifted work to South Carolina in order to retaliate against Washington State-based union workers who went on strike in 2009.

“Boeing has always believed in South Carolina, but the IAM hasn’t” reads WeAreBoeingSC.com, an anti-union website built by the corporation.  “Now they want our teammates and our community to forget about how they tried to shut us down”.

Boeing workers have been forced to attend anti-union seminars. Management even set up two tables at the plant—one with diapers and children’s clothing, another with groceries—each representing the $800 dollars in union dues that workers would pay annually.

This isn’t the first time Boeing has taken on an IAM organizing effort at the plant. In 2015, the company organized town halls with workers and promised to address their complaints. Many workers believed Boeing’s assurances, and support for the union waned. Fearing a loss, the IAM called off the election.

But the union says this time around is different—some of the goodwill workers felt towards the company has worn off.

“We are getting much more support than last time because of [Boeing’s] broken promises,” says Evans.

Workers say that the plant has reneged on promises to be more responsive to feedback, hold regular meetings with workers to hear criticism, increase wages, and make scheduling more consistent.

“I have honestly never worked anywhere, union or not, that flip-flops so much as Boeing has lately,” says Sean Cribb, a production worker at the plant. “They can’t decide overtime rules, [or] work schedules.  They are moving management around so much that none of them can learn the work package so they can better assist their team.”

Although Boeing declined to comment on any of these specific allegations—and it’s worth noting that U.S. labor protections are so weak that none of this anti-union activity is illegal—spokesperson Elizabeth Merida said in a statement, “[Boeing] believe[s] our team is best served by having a direct relationship with the company and working as one team as we continue to build on the great successes that have already been achieved here.”

***

Union officials say a win on February 15 could be a watershed moment, opening the door for organizing in the south, beginning with the BMW plant in Spartanburg or the soon-to-open Volvo plant in Berkeley County.

“This would be the breakthrough of the century if they would win,” says Riley.

That’s because corporations and their political allies routinely argue—with great success—that unions in the north are the main reason why so many corporations are heading south. South Carolina has the lowest unionization rate of any state in the nation, with only 2.1 percent of its workers organized.  Former Governor Nikki Haley was explicit about her desire to keep unions out.

“You’ve heard me say many times I wear heels. It’s not for a fashion statement. It’s because we’re kicking them every day, and we’ll continue to kick them,” she said.

But Evans and other organizers say a win in North Charleston would be a huge step towards ending that anti-union legacy, finally giving workers in South Carolina a voice in addressing wages and increasing inequality.

“This is such a tough environment. There is really a lack of any structure that tells people that they can do this,” says Evans.  “When they see workers at Boeing get a first contract and its decent, I think a lot more people in the south will want to reach out.”

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