Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

Federal Employee Union Begins ‘Shame on HHS’ Campaign

The Trump administration’s targeting of federal employee unions is unsurprising, considering its transparent disdain for labor. But this Friday, a major federal union plans to fight back with a union-wide campaign.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 federal workers in 31 agencies, recently filed a grievance against the Department of Health and Human Services over “bad faith bargaining tactics.” In the grievance, NTEU says that HHS negotiators broke a number of bargaining rules during a negotiation over the union contract. HHS plans to eliminate telework and alternative-schedule options as well as public transportation subsidies and other benefits.

NTEU claims that HHS negotiators refused to explain the Trump administration’s proposals, and demanded counterproposals within three days. According to a statement from NTEU Chapter 254, after just one full day of bargaining, the department invited a mediator into negotiations—an “obvious effort to check that box so it can move forward to the Federal Service Impasse Panel.” Such a move would essentially declare that the two sides came to an impasse and could force the contract to move to the jurisdiction of the presidentially appointed panel.

Just one day later, HHS ended bargaining and submitted its final offer. According to the NTEU grievance, ground rules state that the bargaining schedule is 18 weeks.

The Trump administration’s contract proposals also include requiring union officials to pay rent for their offices, even though those on-site premises have been a part of federal union contracts for years. According to NTEU, the new language that HHS has offered is “almost word-for-word” the language in the illegal contract forced upon workers within the Department of Education in March, when, after negotiations with the American Federation of Government Employees union fell apart, the department announced a new “collective bargaining agreement” with widespread changes and reduced benefits—changes the union said it had not agreed to.

This Friday, NTEU is encouraging all members (not just HHS employees) to use the social media hashtags #SHAMEOnHHS and #UnionStrong, as well as to wear NTEU shirts and stickers bearing the hashtag.

Also on Friday, NTEU President Tony Reardon will deliver a petition to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, signed by nearly 5,000 HHS workers, asking the HHS negotiators to withdraw the proposals that target employee benefits.

“Today it is HHS,” reads a blog post on the NTEU website calling for union-wide solidarity. “Tomorrow it could be your agency.”

With executive orders aimed at curbing the power of federal unions, and attacks on benefits in both the Departments of Education and Agriculture, that may not be hyperbole.


Michael Brown’s Body, Struggle, and Progress

On August 9, 2014, Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown dead in Ferguson, Missouri. In a final act of white supremacy, the police could not be bothered to cover up his mortal remains. As his body lay in the hot Missouri sun, a new civil rights movement erupted.

Because Michael Brown died that day, Wesley Brown now heads to the St. Lous County prosecutor's office.

Like Watts and Detroit and Crown Heights, Ferguson became shorthand for American racial injustice and unrest. It also served as a catalyst for a small group of people to rise up and underscore that “Black Lives Matter,” a simple rendering of a human condition that sparked an international movement.

Ferguson laid bare the instruments of institutional racism. White officials had long balanced the town’s books on the backs of African Americans through a devious if banal regimen of fines and court fees. The outrage, the headlines, and the federal investigations compelled the resignations of the police officer who killed Brown, the police chief, a municipal judge, and several other municipal officials.

Bob McCulloch, the long-time St. Louis County prosecutor charged with investigating the young man’s death was made of sterner stuff. He refused to step aside and bring in a special investigator to handle the probe into the shooting—even though his own police officer father had been killed by a black man, even though he had deep connections among Ferguson’s finest. Riots broke out again after a grand jury declined to indict the officer who shot Brown.

Michael Brown was about same age as Wesley Bell’s own son. Bell’s own father was cop. After Brown’s death, Bell began preaching a gospel of community policing. He ran for Ferguson City Council and won. African Americans had the power of the vote secured by humiliation, bloody beatings, and death. That right had atrophied but was newly ascendant. Then the city council member decided to go after the prosecutor’s seat.

Bob McCulloch personified The System. Wesley Bell campaigned on community policing, promises to reform cash bail, and a pledge not to seek the death penalty. He won a passionate and diverse following of local and national supporters.

What he didn’t have, most people thought, was a chance at winning. 

On Tuesday, he polished off McCulloch by a wide margin in Democratic primary. There are no other opponents on the November ballot.

Frederick Douglass had this to say about struggle, progress, and the challenge before Africa’s descendants in America:

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong, which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. …

If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.

$2 Trillion Here, $2 Trillion There, and Soon We’re Talking Real Money

I know you know that Republicans throw money at the rich. Doctrines may shift, Russia may go from bad guy to BFF, NATO may defend the free world one day and dilute our sovereignty the next, but tax cuts for the rich are the one True North of Republican cosmology. Without it, the party perishes, not only from diminished campaign contributions but from lack of raison d’être.

As to just how much money Republicans throw at the rich, the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economy Policy (ITEP) released a report last month that’s gone largely unremarked in the media but that makes starkly clear just how faithful a friend and lapdog the GOP has been to our wealthiest friends and neighbors. What ITEP did was to total up all the tax reductions to the rich enacted since George W. Bush became president in 2001, subtracting from that total the restoration of higher tax rates on the rich that went through under President Barack Obama.

Here are the numbers: Since 2001, the income tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent come to $1,366 billion. The estate tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent come to $838 billion. Subtract from these cuts the hikes on the wealthiest 1 percent enacted during the Obama intermission, and we have a grand total of $1,924 billion that the wealthiest have been able to pocket for their rainy day funds.

I think that’s close enough that we can round it up a bit to an even $2,000 billion—which, for those of you who’ve been counting the zeros, is actually $2 trillion.

And that doesn’t count, of course, the additional $100 billion in cuts to capital gains taxes that the administration now says it plans to implement administratively by changing how it calculates the initial value of investments. That $100 billion, too, would flow chiefly to that same 1 percent.

But back to that $2 trillion: By a curious coincidence, that was also the amount that the administration proposed to save in its (mercifully, not very enactable) 2019 budget by reducing spending on Medicaid ($1.4 trillion), Medicare ($530 billion) and Social Security ($25 billion)—which comes in at a cool $1.955 trillion. As with the tax cut to the 1 percent, let’s just round that to $2 trillion, too.

So: Republican presidents and congresses have cut the taxes of the 1 percent by $2 trillion over the past 17 years, and Trump has now proposed to cut spending on Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security by the same $2 trillion.

Democratic campaign consultants, do with this what you will.

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

Labor's Astonishing Missouri Win — and the Opening It Portends

Ohio’s razor-thin vote for an open House seat got most of the headlines, but the bigger story was the defeat of a right-to-work ballot proposition in supposedly right-wing Missouri.

The bill to make Missouri America’s 28th state with a “right to work” law was passed by the legislature in 2017 and signed by then–Republican Governor Eric Greitens. But the labor movement qualified a ballot initiative overturning the measure, and it passed by a margin of 2 to 1, including in very conservative parts of a state carried overwhelmingly by Trump.

The “right to work” option was added to labor law by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Passed by the Republican 80th Congress over President Truman’s veto (he denounced it as a “slave labor act”), Taft-Hartley allows states to pass laws permitting workers to opt out of paying union dues even when a majority of workers sign union cards.

The name “right to work” was always a fraud. Even in states without such laws, anybody can take a job at a unionized facility. Workers merely have to join, or if they don’t want to join, to pay dues after they are hired.

“Right to work” makes it much harder to organize in such states. Until the last few decades, these measures were largely confined to the anti-union South and Mountain West. Lately, they have been enacted in Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin. In the past decade, they've been beaten with ballot initiatives in California and Ohio.

The Missouri vote not only extends and intensifies that success in a supposedly far more conservative state. It shows the latent appeal of pocketbook issues and trade unionism even in Trump country. It shows that the labor movement may be down, but it is far from out.

In Missouri, just 8.7 percent of workers are members of unions. But most working families know someone with a union job and they know the difference a union can make.

The right to have a union signals concern for the forgotten working class. By trying to crush labor, Missouri Republicans signaled not individual rights—the usual pitch for the misnamed “right to work” law—but their contempt for working people, who got the message.

The Missouri outcome also bodes well for the re-election of Senator Claire McCaskill, one of the supposedly endangered Democrats up this fall. More importantly, it signals the resurgence of the labor movement—and reminds Democrats that progressive economics are the indispensable ingredient for success on the beaten-down American heartland.

FCC’s Proposed Lifeline Restructuring Only Exacerbates the Digital Divide

At a House hearing regarding expanding broadband internet access across the country on July 25, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said that closing the “digital divide” was a “top priority” during his tenure as chairman.

If that’s the case, then he certainly has a surprising approach to doing so.

In November 2017, the Republican-dominated FCC leadership voted to consider a proposal to restructure the Lifeline program—sometimes called “Obamaphone” by conservative critics—which provides subsidies for broadband and phone access to low-income Americans. The program provides a $9.25 per month discount to individuals or families who are either at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty guidelines—$16,389 per year for an individual, $33,885 per year for a family of four—or who qualify for other government assistance programs, like SNAP or Medicaid. 

The obvious effect of the proposal is to limit access to phone and broadband service to low-income Americans, which of course would widen the digital gap that Pai claims to want to close. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, almost 30 percent of adults with an income below $30,000 per year don’t have smartphones, and roughly half don’t have home broadband services or a computer of some kind. Among adults making $30,000 to $99,000 a year, 81 percent have a smartphone, 87 percent, a computer of some kind, and 80 percent, broadband internet. Nearly 100 percent of adults with an income over $100,000 have access to all three.

As of 2015, 12.5 million people subscribed to the Lifeline program, with 400,000 subscribers living on tribal lands. Two tribal organizations, the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and the Oceti Sakowin Tribal Utility Authority, along with several smaller wireless carriers, have sued the FCC over this proposal, which seeks specifically to cut an enhanced $25 subsidy for tribal residents in “urban” areas, and makes the enhanced subsidy unavailable to subscribers who buy from wireless resellers, effective immediately. Tribal groups even submitted a petition to the FCC to hold off on enacting the proposal until the court case is decided, but the FCC denied the petition.

The restructuring would also affect survivors of domestic abuse and those living in abusive households, a report by Mother Jones found. Domestic violence affects women’s ability to be financially self-sufficient, and abusers often cut women off from various support systems, making subsidized cell phones a literal lifeline to those who would otherwise be separated from society, the report finds.

Residents of Puerto Rico, who are still recovering from the devastation to cell phone and internet infrastructure from Hurricane Maria, are also in the crossfire of this restructuring: 17 percent of Puerto Ricans use Lifeline, and the proposed cuts could be a “death sentence” for subscribers, Luis Belén, CEO of the National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved told Newsweek. The restructuring would also affect veterans, who make up 12 percent of the program and the many more active duty military members and their families who would qualify for the Lifeline program.

The proposed restructuring would slash the benefits provided through Lifeline by limiting subsidies. Recipients would only be eligible for discounts through “facilities-based providers,” such as Comcast, which have their own physical network infrastructure to provide wireless service to consumers. This is opposed to “wireless resellers,” such as Virgin Mobile or Straight Talk, which are smaller companies that buy network access from these larger facilities networks and resell this access to consumers. 

These “mobile virtual network operators” (MVNOs) usually offer cheaper, prepaid phone options that don’t require good credit to purchase. Such a move would effectively cut off 70 percent of Lifeline users that rely on wireless resellers for coverage, and instead push subscribers to larger providers such as AT&T and Verizon.

The plan also proposes an annual cap on Lifeline disbursements, changing the original Lifeline structure in which the amount spent on disbursements was more flexible. Prior to this proposal, if disbursements exceeded 90 percent of the overall Lifeline yearly budget, a report would have to be filed to explain how funding was used, but ultimately, the increased spending was allowed. 

If the proposal is enacted, the new budget would have a self-enforcing mechanism that would put a cap on disbursement spending automatically if it overtook its allotted portion of the overall budget, limiting the flexibility of disbursement spending. This type of cap could potentially bar those who qualify for Lifeline from ever getting subsidies, depending on where the cap is set.

The restructuring proposal could take effect in October, pending approval by the Office of Management and Budget.

The proposal is supposedly aimed at cutting down fraud and abuse, despite claims from over 200 advocacy groups—including the ACLU, the NAACP, and Common Cause— in an open letter to Pai that Lifeline has aided in reducing the digital divide in rural and poor communities. That isn’t stopping the FCC from going ahead with a restructuring proposal that targets millions of marginalized people.

A program that takes away vital connections to today’s online world from veterans, American Indians, low-income Americans, and others seems hardly a solution for closing the digital divide— if anything, it works to exacerbate it.

Why Dems Should Make a $15 Wage Their First Order of Business

Let’s make the increasingly likely assumption that Democrats take back the House in November. Nothing symbolizes concern for working people better than a higher minimum wage. And nothing jams Republicans quite as starkly as making them take a vote on this.

Do you doubt that? Here is a true fact. In the election of 2004—that’s the one where John Kerry booted a winnable election—activists in Florida qualified a ballot initiative raising that state’s minimum wage by one dollar, from $5.15 to $6.15

Well, you might say, that doesn’t affect all that many people, right? John Kerry was asked to come down and campaign for it. He declined.

How do you think the initiative did in this quintessential swing state, which George W. Bush carried in that election?

The minimum-wage initiative won overwhelmingly, with 71 percent of the vote. It carried every single Florida county, including some very conservative ones where the sort of working people who later voted for Donald Trump care about their paychecks.

The minimum-wage initiative won by three million votes. It received about two million votes more than Kerry did, and a million votes more than Bush did. If Kerry had accepted the invitation to go out on street corners and campaign for the minimum-wage hike, he might have been elected president.

So as I was saying, when Democrats take back the House, they should make a vote on a $15 minimum wage their first order of business. Any questions?

The Tax Act’s Unfinished Business

The wealthiest Americans were already pretty happy with the 2017 Republican Tax Act. It bequeaths corporations with $1.7 trillion in tax cuts at the expense of funding for social programs, and 83 percent of the law’s benefits will go to the top 1 percent by 2027, when most of the individual income changes will have expired.

But greed works in not-so-mysterious ways, and it seems these gifts weren’t enough. During the G20 summit earlier this month in Argentina, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told The New York Times that the Trump administration was considering dodging Congress to reduce capital gains taxes through regulation. Larry Kudlow, Donald Trump’s top economic adviser, has long advocated indexing capital gains to inflation, meaning that when an investor sells an asset, the initial price they paid for it would be adjusted for inflation so that the amount they’re taxed on (how much they earned when they sold it) would be lower.

The possible Treasury action, reported by the Times on Monday, is likely illegal. But as the Prospect outlined in its summer issue, which was devoted entirely to the 2017 Tax Act, Trump and his allies may stop at nothing to slash taxes for the wealthy. Even in the face of strong opposition, Republicans and the administration were determined to get their bill through, despite the fact that the tax cuts were demonstrably unpopular among voters. (The articles in that issue cover everything from who benefits the most, to how Democrats should respond, to debunking the claims of those promoting the law.)

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had promised to close the carried interest loophole that allows hedge fund managers to pay the lower capital gains rate on the money they make from an investment, but the loophole survived the 2017 bill and doesn’t seem likely to be revisited in the so-called Tax Reform 2.0 proposals currently being floated by Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Is ‘Jeopardy!’ Crossing Racial Lines?

Alex Trebek, longtime and iconic Jeopardy! Host, announced his possible retirement on Sunday. At 78 years old and recently having had brain surgery, Trebek told Fox News that he is “50-50” for remaining host after his contract expires in 2020.

Trebek’s departure, of course, wouldn’t be the end of the show, but it would leave the podium open for a new host. Trebek gave two recommendations for his potential heirs.

“The fellow who does play-by-play for the Los Angeles Kings, they should consider him,” Trebek told TMZ. He’s talking about Alex Faust, a 28-year-old announcer for the Los Angeles hockey team.

For his second pick, Trebek said, “There is an attorney, Laura Coates, she’s African American and she appears on some of the cable news shows from time to time.”

Why was her race one of her primary identifiers? There’s plenty more that Trebek could have cited from Coates’s impressive resume. Coates is a Princeton grad, a successful lawyer for the Department of Justice, a book author, and a legal analyst for SiriusXM and CNN.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, maybe Trebek just wanted to highlight the progressiveness of the show. But even if this is the case, true acceptance would be highlighting Coates’s achievements as making her qualified, rather than her race.

Trebek didn’t say that Faust was white and male, but I suppose he didn’t have to. Since Jeopardy! debuted in 1964, the host of the show has always been a white male.

Saturday Night Live has used Jeopardy! as a vehicle to highlight the divisiveness of race in America through their “Black Jeopardy” skits. Typically, these skits are formatted like a regular Jeopardy! game show (with Kenan Thompson as the host, Darnell Hayes aka “Alex Treblack”) with two black contestants and one white contestant, whose ignorance about the nuances of African American culture is exposed through the questions and responses.

It will be interesting to see how viewers of the real Jeopardy!—whose average age is 65—will react to the possibility of a young black woman hosting the nightly weekday show, possibly making parts of the sardonic SNL skit a reality.

With Massive Merger, the Prison Phone Industry Could Become Even More Lucrative

The prison phone industry, which has come under fire for the exorbitant fees it charges prisoners calling home, may be set to become even more profitable. This month, the giant inmate phone services company Securus petitioned the FCC to approve its plan to buy a smaller competitor, ICSolutions.

If the Trump administration’s Federal Communications Commission approves the merger, just two companies (Securus and Global Tel Link) would control between 74 percent and 83 percent of the market, according to analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). (Securus responded to PPI’s analysis, calling it “unreliable and misleading.”)

I previously wrote about how the prison phone industry is lucrative for both companies and states: Companies squeeze as much money as possible out of prisoners and their families, who are typically poor, while states often award contracts to phone companies that are willing to pay the highest commission rates. As a result, prisoners and their families may pay as much $1 per minute for a phone call.

As Aleks Kajstura, legal director at PPI, wrote in a blog post, just two companies controlling the lion’s share of the prison communications industry “will give facilities less choice and less ability to draft contracts that truly meet their needs.” According to reporting by the Marshall Project, if the deal is approved, prison systems in 47 states will contract with either Securus, Global Tel Link, or CenturyLink—and CenturyLink subcontracts nearly all of its contracts with ICSolutions or Securus.

PPI joined a number of prisoner advocacy organizations in filing a petition to deny the merger—but not merely because of the threat of a duopoly. They also argue that Securus routinely ignores regulations in order to maximize its profits (like when the FCC banned flat-rate fees on phone calls, and Securus changed the name of the charge to “first-minute” fees).

How will the Trump FCC rule on this? We can’t be sure yet, but let’s look to recent history: Last year, the administration approved Global Tel Link’s acquisition of Telmate, a company that had a market share just shy of ICSolutions’.

The Nation’s Youth Demand Action on Climate Change

Dreary weather and constant rain did not stop hundreds from turning out for Saturday’s Youth Climate March in Washington, D.C. The diverse crowd included families from Kansas City, youth who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Reservation, and residents of the Marshall Islands who have seen firsthand how rising sea levels threaten their communities.

Young people were both the symbolic and actual leaders of this movement: The Youth Climate March was hosted by ZeroHour, an activist group with about 40 core members, most of whom are still in high school. Founder Jamie Margolin, 16, self-identifies as “#GenZ” in her Twitter bio. 

Generation Z is the age group younger than millennials, who overwhelmingly believe that anthropogenic climate change is real and a serious threat. A 2015 Pew survey showed that 52 percent of people ages 18 to 29 said climate change is a very serious problem, and more recent data shows that 81 percent of millennials say there is solid evidence for global warming. The recent student-led gun-control movement is just one indication that Generation Z could be even more progressive than their generational predecessors. Margolin said that ZeroHour learned from past marches, such as the February 21 March for Our Lives and the Families Belong Together march in June, but she and other organizers realized that high turnout wasn’t their only goal.

“We see mass mobilizations but we don’t see the change that we need,” she told the Prospect. “That’s why we came up with a platform of what we, the youth, need in order to have a livable future.” 

The ZeroHour platform specifies the need to listen to people whose daily lives have already been affected by climate change and calls for adding climate change to the political conversation for the midterm elections. 

The leaders of ZeroHour aim to make it an inclusive and worldwide initiative. “ZeroHour is not just [saving] the planet,” Margolin said. “It’s about the communities that have already been impacted, the lives that have already been lost. That’s who we’re fighting for, that’s what we’re fighting for.” 

Kibiriti Majuto, 20, who led the effort to write ZeroHour’s platform, added that the group addresses the responsibility of the United States, as the world’s second-highest greenhouse gas–emitting country, to fight climate change. Majuto also said there needs to be a “just transition” away from fossil fuels, but that transition needs to guarantee protection for marginalized communities and youth.

Majuto, who was granted asylum from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2012, said that the march’s message came from “a lot of collaboration with young people across the country and the world … different parts that are mostly impacted by climate change.” 

“The people who are at the receiving end of oppression are feeling the worst effects of the climate crisis, so we are fighting to uplift those voices,” Margolin explained. 

The march was a culmination of three “days of action” in the District that included a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill on Thursday and community art festival on Friday. Margolin said that ZeroHour representatives talked to almost half of all the senators, including Bernie Sanders, Tammy Duckworth, and Patty Murray. Majuto is not optimistic that lobbying will spur change.

“We know they’re not going to do anything,” Majuto said, expressing his pessimism about the lobbying effort. But Margolin hopes these conversations will make climate change an important issue advance of the midterm elections. ZeroHour members handed out a No Fossil Fuel Money pledge to members of Congress, asking them to divest from the fossil fuel industry and to stop taking campaign contributions from the industry.

When asked which members ZeroHour was targeting, Margolin’s answer was decisive: “Anyone who takes money from the fossil fuel industry has to go.” 

Come September, many of the young activists will return to school—Margolin to her junior year of high school in Seattle and Majuto to Piedmont Virginia Community College. But Margolin said that won’t stop the work of ZeroHour.