“In the coming weeks, we will test whether or not Congress has a heart and a soul, or can act like it does.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer spoke those words completely without irony as he stood in front of a crowd of unemployed workers on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress, in association with the National Employment Law Project, held a press conference and rally to stress the importance of extending unemployment insurance.
Shortly after the 2010 elections, President Obama and Republican members of Congress came to an agreement that extended unemployment insurance through the end of the year in exchange for an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the richest 1 Percent through 2013.
But now, under the Republican majority, the House of Representatives is in session only for another three weeks before they break for Christmas. If Congress does not act to renew federal unemployment insurance before the end of the year, this vital lifeline will run out for over 6 million Americans during 2012. 2 million would be cut off in January 2012 alone.
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis knows all too well the effects this could have; not just on the workers themselves, but on the economy as a whole. “Some say we can’t afford to extend unemployment insurance and extend the payroll tax cut in this environment,” she told the press, “I say we can’t afford not to.”
One thing we know about this economy is that working class Americans spend any additional income on essentials, like groceries, bills, and gas. Taking away what is sometimes their only source of income means, as Secretary Solis said, “less money flowing to grocers and gas stations.” As those small businesses struggle, that translates to more layoffs and a higher unemployment rate, she added. “We are not creating enough jobs fast enough – that’s why we need to put people in a safe place.”
But those are generalities. At Working America, we know all too well that there are people behind the statistics.
Jill, a teacher from Western Pennsylvania, was laid off after 16 years when the state made cuts to public education. “I’m not just here for me,” she told the group, “I’m here for millions of other unemployed Americans, for the educators who have been laid off, and especially for the kids who are suffering because of these cuts.”
Describing the job search process, Jill said “one of two things happens: there are no jobs, particularly in my field, or the jobs are not comparable to the one I lost. Not comparable enough to raise three children.”
The room was nearly silent except for camera shutters when Jill told us: “If you asked me a year ago if I would be in this situation, I would absolutely say no. I’m an educated woman, I’m a homeowner, and I’m a taxpayer.”
Disbelief was echoed by all the speakers. But there was something else too – a sense of how much they missed wanted to get back to work. We shook our heads in disbelief when Arizona Senator John Kyl claimed that unemployment insurance gives Americans a disincentive to find a job. His mind might be changed by Vincent, a bus driver and Desert Storm era Army veteran from Pittsburgh.
“I want to get back to work,” said Vincent, who is taking computer classes in order to find new employment, “I need to get back to work. Not just for me, but for my 5 year-old daughter. For my son, who is in college. And for my fiancé, who is patiently waiting for a ring.”
Despite the levity of that last comment, Vincent cut to the core of the UI issue:
It would be tragic for Congress to walk away from us. From us Americans. From us veterans. From us millions of unemployed.
I’m here to ask Congress to take a look in the mirror and ask themselves: Am I the kind of man, am I the kind of woman, the kind of father, mother or leader, who would just walk away from so many of us.
Extending unemployment insurance is one of our 9 Demands for the 99 Percent. Please sign and share this petition for folks like Jill and Vincent to keep their vital lifelines.
There’s nobody who would rather have an unemployment check than a job. As Whip Hoyer said, this is an issue of our country’s soul: do we walk away from fellow Americans in their time of need?
All year, at the state level and in D.C., newly-elected politicians are trying to undermine decades-old protections of workers’ rights. Today, the new Republican majority in the U.S. House is taking aim at the National Labor Relations Board in an effort to prevent the protection of workers’ legal rights.
Just this year, the Republican-led House has devoted extensive time and effort to attacks on the NLRB – some 50 bills, hearings, amendments and resolutions. The anti-NLRB efforts include budget cuts aimed at reducing the agency’s ability to do its job to enforce labor law and the refusal to confirm nominees to fully staff the board.
Indeed, until today it was a possibility that that a Republican member of the NLRB, Brian Hayes, would quit the board in order to deny it a quorum and prevent it from issuing decisions or finalizing election rule changes that would reduce, but not eliminate, management’s overwhelming advantages. Hayes’ departure would have constituted outright sabotage of the NLRB’s ability to do its legally-mandated job. To his credit, he showed up for today’s votes. The board has already finalized a new rule asking employers to inform employees of their legal rights via a poster.
So to explain, here’s a refresher on U.S. labor law and the National Labor Relations Act. Under the language of the law, the NLRB’s job is to encourage and promote collective bargaining, to help balance relationships between employees and employers, and to protect the right to negotiate terms and conditions of employment.
The effect of attacks on the NLRB is to prevent it from being able to fulfill these legal duties. If the NLRB can’t do its job enforcing labor law, then labor law doesn’t get enforced, for workers in unions and non-union workers alike.
“Whenever you have rules, if they can’t be enforced, they’re meaningless,” says AFL-CIO Organizing Director Elizabeth Bunn. “They become a right without a remedy.”
“We’ve all been through battles and flare-ups before, but this is something different now,” says Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who supports workers’ rights. “What we’re talking about is an attack on a worker’s right to associate freely—the rights given to them in the law to decide whether they as employees want a union and to get that union…this isn’t some tinkering with an agency. This is a fundamental fight.”
The ability of workers to form a union and bargain is inseparable from having a strong middle class. “We see more people falling out of the middle class rather than joining the middle class,” Miller says, and experts agree that part of the problem is the erosion of workers’ ability to collectively bargain.
The right to collectively bargain supports the middle class, and the inability to protect that right creates inequality and hurts the economic prospects of working families, says Columbia University’s Dorian Warren. Policy choices matter, and our policy choices against protecting workers’ rights have eroded the middle class.
Is this an attempt to empower corporations at the expense of workers in the economy, or is it an attempt to erode workers’ political power by breaking their ability to act collectively? You can’t separate those questions—workers’ ability to improve their working conditions and their ability to exert influence on public policy are deeply intertwined.
Fortunately, the experience of Ohio, Wisconsin and New Hampshire shows that people are starting to get it—union members and non-union members alike. The overwhelming vote in favor of collective bargaining rights in Ohio shows the strength of the argument for workers’ rights, and the Occupy Wall Street protests have pushed questions of inequality and economic fairness to the top of the national conversation.
We’ll be watching the attacks on the NLRB closely. They’re absolutely central to the question of whether the economy only works for the very richest, or whether the other 99% of us get a fair shot.
This week in the House, we get to see it in all its disingenuous glory. Here’s how congressional Republicans plan to create jobs—by attacking workers’ rights and gutting workplace and environmental safety and health laws. They really claim this is their jobs package.
The first bill (H.R. 3094) is scheduled to be voted on tomorrow. It would deny workers the right to fair union elections by blocking the modest changes proposed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) earlier this year in the way union elections are conducted.
It gives employers new tools to block workplace elections by establishing several new waiting periods before an election can go forward and giving employers more grounds to appeal pre-election decisions by the NLRB. It also allows employers—not workers and the union they wish to join—a larger role in determining who is part of a bargaining unit.
On Thursday and Friday, House Republicans will set their sights on crippling the government’s ability to enforce current rules and develop new health, safety and environmental laws. The two main bills are the so-called Regulatory Accountability Act (H.R. 3010) and the REINS Act (H.R. 10).
In a letter to House lawmakers, AFL-CIO Government Affairs Director William Samuel says the RAA would “upend more than 40 years of labor, health, safety and environmental laws and threaten new needed protections.”
In effect, the bill acts as “a super mandate” overriding requirements of current safety health and environmental laws by making costs to businesses, not protection of workers or the public, the primary concern. Click here for the full letter and here for more from the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards.
The REINS Act would basically take away the right of federal safety and health agencies to implement new rules by requiring Congress to approve all individual major rules, without Congressional approval the new rule would die.
Knowing just how well Congress currently works, imagine what would happen when it becomes the gatekeeper on the regulatory process. Politics, not scientific judgments or expertise of the agencies, would dictate action while corporate opposition and influence would swamp the public’s interest and block needed protections.
There are also Republicans bills that would put a moratorium on any new safety, health, environmental and other rules and even rollback current major safety laws that have been in place since 1991.
BTW, Republicans say all these attacks on workers’ rights and safety and health and environmental rules would free up businesses, especially small businesses from a supposed onerous burden and send them into a frenzy of hiring. Wrong.
As we noted last month, a survey of small business owners shows that only 13.9 percent say the reason they are not hiring workers is because of government regulations. Why aren’t businesses hiring? To dust off an old chestnut— “It’s the Economy stupid!”
The bad economy and ongoing unemployment are creating new challenges for Santas. From the New York Times:
The result is a Christmas season in which Santas — including the 115 of them in this year’s graduating class of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School — must learn to swiftly size up families’ financial circumstances, gently scale back children’s Christmas gift requests and even how to answer the wish some say they have been hearing with more frequency — “Can you bring my parent a job?”
On the flip side, some, like Fred Honerkamp, have been visited by children whose expectations seem to have sunk to match the gloom; not long ago, a boy asked him for only one item — a pair of sneakers that actually fit.
“In the end, Santas have to be sure to never promise anything,” said Mr. Honerkamp, an alumnus of the school who also lectures here. He has devised his own tale about a wayward elf and slowed toy production at the North Pole for children who are requesting a gift clearly beyond their family’s price range. “It’s hard to watch sometimes because the children are like little barometers, mirrors on what the country has been through.”
Christmas is a hard, hard time for folks who are treading water in this economy. Our consumer culture bombards us with ads for things we must want, and the latest in cool toys. Kids get caught up in all of this, and it can be very difficult to explain financial realities to them. We don’t want our kids to worry or feel bad. The new Santas are working on developing tools to handle all of this.
Given the state of the economy, this Santa school graduated the largest Santa class in its history. Many of the graduates have a Santa history, but a number of them are underemployed, needing to supplement retirement, or are flat out unemployed. The Santa gig doesn’t last long, but it does pay decently. Mall Santas earn somewhere between $25 and $50 an hour.
These new Santas will need all of the skills they’ve just learned to deal with the kinds of situations they’re seeing as a result of this economy. Most of us don’t think much about Santas, or the kind of situations they have to deal with. This story has given me a whole new appreciation for the people who do this, especially during bad economic times.
This Santa’s story is enough to make even Scrooge tear up a little:
“If they asked for something that’s totally impossible — a job for Daddy, say — I usually tell them, ‘Santa specializes in toys, but we can always pray on the other,’ ” Mr. Ruperd said. “ ‘Is there anything in toys that you’d like?’ ”
Let’s all do what we can to help one another in this holiday season.
Listen up. Wisconsin is trying to tell you something.
United Wisconsin announced yesterday that they have gathered over 300,000 signatures in 12 days to recall Governor Scott Walker and Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch. To trigger an election, organizers need 540,248 signatures before January 17, which is 60 days after the effort began.
The announcement yesterday answers at least one question: there’s no longer doubt about the enthusiasm to oust Walker and put a stop to his anti-worker, anti-democratic agenda. The energy that brought hundreds of thousands of people to protest in Madison in February and March has not ebbed.
The energy of the movement to remove Walker could be seen in the New Years Eve-like midnight recall parties on November 15 ,the Black Friday petition signing drive-through stations that popped up over Thanksgiving weekend, and the volunteers passing around recall clipboards to sportsmen at deer cleaning stations.
However, whether or not Scott Walker remains as governor of Wisconsin is not just a question of signatures. Big questions about this possible special election remain.
Who will vote? There’s a big difference between the August recalls and the impending Walker recall. The voter suppression bill passed by the Wisconsin Senate on May 25 will be in effect. That will hurt turnout for groups of Wisconsinites who are less likely to have government-issued IDs that are now required to cast a ballot: students, seniors, and many minority groups.
The law specifically targeted students by requiring the voter ID to include name, photo, a signature, and an expiration date that “can’t be more than two years from the date of issuance.” Most student IDs, including those issued by most colleges in Wisconsin, don’t include all those criteria.
“While the law is not a positive in terms of helping students vote, I think it has spurred a sense of motivation and determination that will hopefully allow us to spread the word to students across Madison about what they’ll need to do to be able to register and then vote next year,” says Sam Polstein, a UW-Madison junior who helped form the Madison Student Vote Coalition, a non-partisan organization dedicated to registering and motivating area students to vote.
The voter suppression bill, also known as Act 23, will reach far beyond students. 23 percent of Wisconsin seniors don’t have state-issued photo ID, as well as 46 percent of Hispanic men, 59 percent of Hispanic women, 55 percent of African-American men, and 78 percent of African-American men ages 18-24. Those groups have been disproportionately affected by Walker’s anti-worker policies, like the abolition of the state earned-income tax credit and the stripping of collective bargaining rights for public workers.
With much confusion remaining on how the law will be implemented from town to town, a close election could hinge on the enforcement of the voter ID bill, which I would argue was forced through the legislature specifically to defend figures like Walker. The non-partisan League of Women Voters has filed suit against Act 23, in part because those who don’t know to ask for a free card are charged a $28 fee – essentially equivalent to the “poll tax” once used in the South.
“For companies, these are boom times. For workers, the opposite is true.”
That’s how New York Times economic columnist Floyd Norris describes the latest reports on the state of the economy. According to the federal Bureau of Economic Statistics, as a percentage of the GDP – the overall size of the economy – corporate profits are at a record high, while the percentage of the GDP made up by wages and salaries is the lowest it’s been since 1929. Clearly, something is broken.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with companies or very wealthy people doing well, but in recent years their success has become completely disconnected from the economic health of the rest of us. And public policy, rather than helping alleviate that gap and lift everyone up, is often pushing in the direction of expanding the gap. In Washington D.C. and state capitals, we’re seeing efforts to strip away protections from workers, roll back the social safety net and push tax rates on the very wealthiest even lower than their current low levels.
These shifts are accentuated by the fact that a money-driven political system rewards those who can spend the most on campaign contributions, TV ads and lobbying. More and more, the political system responds not to the concerns of the majority but to the narrow financial interests of those who already have economic power. The political system is overzealously responsive to the top 1% of earners. And the rest of us? Left behind – without a safety net, in communities that can’t provide the services we depend on.
Out in the neighborhoods we visit, the people we talk to—thousands every week—get this at a fundamental level, and so do the many people who have occupied public spaces in New York and cities across the country. These new numbers from the Bureau of Economic Statistics aren’t just lines on a chart. They represent real people—workers worried that they will lose their jobs and be out of options, families trying to keep a roof over their heads, parents and grandparents afraid the next generation will have a harder time than they did.
And that’s why we’ve launched 9 Demands of the 99 Percent. It’s a set of common-sense proposals that would help restore some balance, making our political system and our economy work better for everyone, not just corporations and the very wealthy.
We can start to turn things around, but it will take determined effort and collective action. Add your voice to the 9 Demands of the 99 Percent today.
This week, yet another portion of President Obama’s American Jobs Act is coming up for a vote in the U.S. Senate. This provision would extend a payroll tax holiday that saves working people about 2% of their income.
Instituted in late 2010, the payroll tax holiday has helped keep consumer spending afloat during a sputtering economy.
The extension of the payroll tax holiday would affect nearly everyone who gets a paycheck, and it would be worth around $1,000 a year to the median household. That’s real money, and if it lapses at the end of the year as it’s set to, tens of millions of households would see a hit to their after-tax incomes.
As Steve Benen notes, Kyl has been loud and angry in his claims to oppose tax increases of any kind—but he’s also declared his disinterest in extending the payroll tax holiday, which would amount to a tax hike for the majority of households. See, the extension of the payroll tax holiday would be paid for, in the current bill, by a small surcharge on income over $1 million. Kyl says this is unacceptable.
We can debate whether Kyl’s stance here is more about ideology, rewarding campaign contributors or gaining political advantage by denying President Obama an economy-boosting policy win. (Given Kyl’s record, all three probably come into play.) In the end, though, it doesn’t matter what his motivation is, since the net effect is the same. If he gets his way, working families will have less money in their pockets next year.
As I’m always fond of saying, politics is about priorities. Here’s a clear-cut choice: ask for a short-term sacrifice from millionaires, and give some relief to tens of millions of working families, or keep taxes on the wealthiest at their historic lows and watch as taxes go up on nearly every working family. Kyl has made his choice.