This Week on Main Street – March 30, 2012

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Tomorrow is April Fool’s Day in the rest of the world, which is kind of like every day in Washington, DC. Except there’s less laughing.

This week the U.S. House, demonstrating the infinite wisdom we’ve enjoyed since the beginning of last year, passed a budget that essentially phases out Medicare while doubling-down on tax cuts for the 1%. The budget is the brainchild of Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, who looks like an innocent 1950’s soda shop owner but produced a bill that’s so anti-worker and so regressive, we couldn’t think of a cleverer nickname for it than “The Terrible Deal.”

Unfortunately, as they often do, the stodgy establishment here in D.C. greeted Paul Ryan’s wet-kiss-to-the-insanely rich by furrowing their brows and remarking how “serious” and “brave” it was. As Seth wrote, there’s nothing particularly brave about transferring massive health care costs onto seniors and the working poor while advocating $3 trillion in tax cuts for corporations and millionaires – while increasing the deficit for future generations to deal with.

There was an actual serious and brave budget put forward by the Congressional Progressive Caucus called the “Budget For All.” This budget would end the Bush handouts for the wealthiest, decrease the deficit by $6.8 trillion, and make investments in infrastructure that would put Americans back to work immediately. This budget deserves to be on the table and part of the discussion as much as – if not more than – Paul Ryan’s Terrible Deal. But hey, that would make sense, and this Congress doesn’t really like to do things that make sense, like adequately fund roads.

Out in the states, Wisconsin had a big Friday. In the morning, the state election board officially certified 900,939 valid signatures, triggering the recall election of Governor Scott Walker. Then a few hours later, a federal court struck down two key provisions of the infamous Act 10, the anti-union “budget repair” law that started the whole shebang last winter. In a bit of irony more delicious than a Wisconsin brat, Walker’s attempt to pit police and firefighters against other public workers could have been the move that rendered the law unconstitutional. Not a terribly good way to start the weekend for Mr. Walker.

Meanwhile, Mike gave us an update on the West Virginia mine disaster, Doug asked some more #simplequestions about ALEC’s influence on our government, Dan fought back against Verizon greed, Susan reminded us why we’re going to miss NH Gov. John Lynch, and Seth explained why America’s older women should be sending Paul Ryan nasty greeting cards right about now.

And we’re out! Have a safe and happy weekend, Working America. Wisconsinites – don’t party too hard.

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Clocking Out: Friday Ilm In Love Edition

How we sometimes feel as pro-worker bloggers. (via The Other 98%)

Paul Ryan endorses Mitt Romney, just as Romney has endorsed the Ryan budget.

Keep an eye out for new, dangerous forms of of voter suppression.

The attack on the legitimacy of political action, from impeachment to Bush vs. Gore to the birthers.

The Washington Post talks to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka about his life story.

This writer is particularly glad about workers at the supermarket near his house getting a contract.

Six reasons why Minnesota’s latest anti-worker bill is stuck.

A great victory for restaurant workers in New Orleans.

Like last summer, Wisconsin Republicans will again waste taxpayer money with fake primary candidates.

And yet their allegations of fraud in the recall process were completely bogus.

The fearless U.S. Senator Tom Harkin has a bill to give all workers earned sick days.

Finally, a song in honor of the recall activists in Wisconsin and their big Friday.

Parts of Infamous Wisconsin Anti-Worker Law Struck Down by District Court

On Friday afternoon, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin struck a blow to two key parts of Act 10, the anti-worker “budget repair bill” that set off the historic protests last year.

Specifically, the court entered an injunction against the provision banning automatic dues deductions for public employee unions, which weakens the ability of the union to represents its members. The court also enjoined Act 10’s annual, mandatory recertification provision, which required public employees to vote to approve or deny union representation every year.

Here’s part of the reason why:

The court found those provisions violated equal protection and First Amendment rights, considering that the same rules did not apply to unions for public safety workers like police and firefighters.

“So long as the State of Wisconsin continues to afford ordinary certification and dues deductions to mandatory public safety unions with sweeping bargaining rights, there is no rational basis to deny those rights to voluntary general unions with severely restricted bargaining rights,” wrote U.S. District Judge William M. Conley.

Let’s translate that legal speak, shall we?

Flashback to 2011: In order to gain support for this bill, Gov. Walker and his allies tried to divide and conquer Wisconsin’s workers. They wrote the bill to exempt police officers and firefighters from the collective bargaining restrictions, thinking that this would peel them off from the opposition. They didn’t predict that Wisconsin’s public safety workers would instead turn around and join their brothers and sisters in solidarity against the collective bargaining bill.

And now, the court says, because Walker and Co. tried to set up different rules for different workers, the law violates equal protection and First Amendment rights, making it unconstitutional. It’s a grand irony: Walker’s attempts to divide Wisconsin’s workers not only failed, it could be the move that sinks the entire law.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, this kind of backdoor quid-quo-pro political deal works like a dream, and goes unnoticed by the public. In this case, it completely blew up in the faces of Walker, his legislative allies, and his corporate sponsors.

But the fight is far from over. While these two provisions are temporarily stalled, the rest of Act 10 is fully in effect. Wisconsin’s teachers, nurses, and other public workers are still without their full collective bargaining rights, giving them little to no control over their wages and workplaces. The state is still suffering from massive unemployment, while the chief executive spends his time jet-setting around the country raising funds from super-wealthy donors. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the destructive policies of Scott Walker, his State Senate enablers, and his massively well-monied sponsors like David and Charles Koch.

Today brought two pieces of good news, but the effort to reclaim Wisconsin is in for a long climb.

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Study: Older Women Face Economic Insecurity

According to a new study, a shocking 60% of women over 65 can’t afford basic living expenses.

These disparities are often the result of unequal pay and opportunities for women throughout their lives. Women are more likely than men to have worked lower-wage jobs and to have taken time off to care for other family members. While Social Security makes up 59% of older men’s income, it makes up 77% of older women’s income. Another factor in this divide is that older women are more likely to live alone than older men, and thus live in households with lower income and no one else to share costs.

This study, by the organization Wider Opportunities for Women, is part of their Elder Economic Security Initiative, and compared cost of living state-by-state to older people’s income.

This new report echoes findings from a study done last year by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In that study, 47% of women reported having little or no confidence that their assets would last them through their years of retirement, and they also reported at much higher rates than men that they have had difficulty paying for food, housing and health care. Women also reported lower levels of investment in retirement accounts like IRAs or 401(k)s.

These studies highlight how important Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are. They keep millions of people out of poverty, especially as fewer and fewer jobs offer defined-benefit pensions, and they protect older Americans from the impact of catastrophic medical bills. These figures also show how important it is to eliminate disparities in pay for men and women, so that women aren’t disadvantaged later in life, and how important it is to protect the ability of workers to bargain for fair pay and retirement benefits.

Of course, yesterday the Republican majority in the U.S. House passed a budget that would be a devastating blow to Medicare and Medicaid, raising out-of-pocket costs and eroding the guarantee of health coverage for retirees. These politicians—who have perfectly secure health care and pensions themselves—thought that lower taxes on the very rich were a higher priority than protecting seniors.

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Massey Official Pleads Guilty in Upper Big Branch Case

by Mike Hall – Reposted from the AFL-CIO NOW Blog

A former superintendent at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (W.Va.) mine, where 29 miners were killed in an April 2010 explosion, pleaded guilty today to conspiracy to violate federal mine safety laws.

Gary May admitted to tipping off mine managers that inspectors from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) were on their way, allowing them to clean up hazards like poor airflow and piles of loose coal that would have led to citations and fines. He also admitted to falsifying safety records and telling miners to rewire a device that monitored flammable methane gas levels, allowing mine equipment to run illegally, prosecutors said.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said:

People who run coal mines have a fundamental obligation to be honest with mine regulators. When mine operators resort to tricks and deceit to keep government officials in the dark, our mine safety system unravels and miners are put in harm’s way. The least we can do for coal miners is protect the integrity of the laws designed to keep them safe.

Goodwin said May is cooperating with the ongoing investigation into the blast. He will be sentenced Aug. 9 and faces up to five years in prison. One former Massey supervisor has been sentenced to a jail term; another has been charged.

Yesterday in a House hearing, witnesses called for tougher mine safety laws and stronger penalties for violating safety and health laws.

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NH House Overrides Veto of Unconstitutional Redistricting Bill

Last week, New Hampshire Governor John Lynch vetoed the Republican-controlled House’s redistricting plan, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. His press release is very clear on what his objections were:

The population of New Hampshire based on the 2010 census is 1,316,470. A straight division into 400 districts yields an ideal population per district of 3,291. Under federal and state law, towns and wards that equal or are within 5 percent of this ideal population are entitled to their own representative. Based on the 2010 census, there are 152 towns and wards in New Hampshire that qualify for their own representative.

HB 592 denies a total of 62 New Hampshire towns and wards their own seats in the House. For example, the towns of Atkinson, Hudson, Meredith, and Pelham all have sufficient population under state and federal constitutional standards to have their own representative, but all are denied their own representative under the House-approved plan. This is completely contrary to what the citizens of New Hampshire called for in the state constitutional amendment adopted in 2006.

Lynch also points out that the plan needlessly breaks up municipalities:

For example, in Manchester, the state’s largest city, HB 592 combines Wards 8 and 9 with the town of Litchfield. Pelham will again share its representatives with Hudson. Strafford will share a representative with New Durham. And Concord’s Ward 5 will now be made part of a district that includes the Town of Hopkinton. The leaders and governing bodies of each of these communities have expressed their strong opposition to HB 592, noting that it unnecessarily and unconstitutionally dilutes local representation, and have asked me to veto this bill.

He wrapped it up with this perfectly reasonable request:

I urge the House to take up my veto quickly in order to allow time for alternative plans to be brought forward, or for litigation in the event of the absence of agreement on a constitutional plan. The House was presented with alternative plans by members of both political parties that would go further to satisfy the requirement for equal representation and fairness. There is still time before the candidate filing period to enact redistricting legislation that will assure equal voting rights of all New Hampshire citizens.

The lesson with this legislature is: be careful what you wish for. They did take up his veto right away. In fact, yesterday, the House voted to override the veto. Or, to put it properly, the House voted to violate the state’s constitution in order to override the veto of an unconstitutional bill. From the Concord Patch:

The controversy began when House Speaker Bill O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, called for a recess for a 15-minute private caucus for Republicans, forcing Democrats, media and the public to leave the House chamber.

and

According to a release from the House Democratic office, O’Brien called for the private caucus “to present a legal opinion that he said allowed him to override the New Hampshire constitution and centuries of New Hampshire House tradition.”

The arrogance on display here is positively breathtaking.

Not everyone in the majority party was in agreement.

From the Concord Monitor:

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican, pleaded with his caucus yesterday to sustain Lynch’s veto and try to amend the bill before it may be found unconstitutional by the courts. Ten years ago, Democratic former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the redistricting plans brought forward by the Republican Legislature and the court had to draw up the current House map, which has been challenged for putting groups of legislators into multi-town districts. House Republicans note their plan creates twice as many districts as the current map.

Vaillancourt said by overriding the governor’s veto yesterday, House Republicans are “virtually guaranteeing that you’re going to be in court.”

He’s correct. This will end up in court. Presumably our courts will find this blatant gerrymandering unconstitutional, and a new plan will have to be hastily adopted – given that the window for filing candidacy papers for state elections is open from June 6 through June 15.

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Why We Fought for the Affordable Care Act—and How

All eyes were on the Supreme Court this week as the nine justices considered lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act. Their decision—which won’t be announced publicly until June—will have a big impact on millions who are already seeing the law’s benefits, and the uninsured who it will cover in coming years.

While Washington debates theory, our members are already seeing the positive effects in the real world. This law, while it’s not perfect, is already working to help people afford prescription drugs, access preventative care and keep their premiums under control.

It’s important to remember this: Congress didn’t pass the Affordable Care Act out of the goodness of their hearts. They passed it because of the tens of thousands of people who made it a priority and demanded it. Working America members always pointed to health care as one of the major issues in their day-to-day lives, and when the time came to fight for the Affordable Care Act, they got moving: sending letters, attending rallies, calling their members of Congress and mobilizing their friends and neighbors. That’s how change happens—person to person.

In a recently-published book, Fighting for Our Health, Richard Kirsch explains how the campaign for health care unfolded, from the 2008 election to the signing of the bill and beyond. Kirsch, who led the Health Care for America Now! coalition, gives an in-depth look at how the effort to pass health care reform—an effort decades in the making—succeeded against the opposition of powerful interests. On one side, we saw the full force of a multi-million-dollar campaign of dishonesty, abetted by business lobbies like the Chamber of Commerce and media outlets like Fox News. On the other side, people like Working America’s three million members used grassroots action to tell their legislators to pass the Affordable Care Act.

What the book shows is how the campaign for health care beat the odds, and that it did so thanks to determined, persistent efforts by working people around the country. Established interests like the big insurance companies don’t concede anything without a fight, and the Affordable Care Act could have been thwarted at multiple points if we had gotten discouraged or complacent.

It’s unclear what will happen to the law in June—but the passage of the Affordable Care Act remains a major accomplishment, one that shows how important the issue of health care is to working people. We’ll keep fighting for access to good, affordable health care for everyone.

At Long Last, Recall Election of Scott Walker Is On

Source: flickr.com via Working America on Pinterest

It’s hard to believe that a little over a year ago, very few people outside Wisconsin knew who Scott Walker was, apart from the fact that he was one of many Republicans to triumph in the 2010 elections. Since that time, Governor Scott Walker has become a household name, a symbol of the nationwide radical anti-worker agenda, and an incredibly polarizing figure in his state and beyond.

And finally, after historic protests, eight state senate recall campaigns, and an unprecedented signature-gathering effort, the largest recall in American history has cleared yet another hurdle.

Staff of the Government Accountability Board say in a memo released Thursday that more than enough signatures were collected on petitions seeking recalls of Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

The board is scheduled to vote Friday on certifying the election. The primary would be May 8 and the general election would be June 5.

The board has already said enough signatures were collected on petitions seeking the recalls of four Republican state senators. It plans to vote Friday on certifying those elections for the same dates as those against Walker and Kleefisch.

Thursday’s memo says there were 900,938 valid signatures on the Walker petition, far more than the 540,208 needed.

There has been an update since that article was written. The GAB originally thought that “Fungky Van Dan Elzen” was a fictitious name that should be discarded as invalid. In an odd twist, turns out Ms. Van Dan Elzen is indeed a real woman in Wisconsin who wants a recall election, bringing the total to 900,939.

This morning, the Government Accountability Board accepted the staff recommendation that the recall election proceed.

Yes, democracy may be slow, and it takes thousands of hours of hard work – despite its prominence in the news, Wisconsin is one of the hardest states in which to trigger a recall election. But given the actions of Governor Scott Walker, his Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, and the Republican-controlled State Senate, it is more than appropriate that voters get the chance to make their voices heard and sound off on the radical, divisive, misguided agenda that these officeholders have put in place over the last two years.

As the Wisconsin protestors chanted last winter – and continue to chant today – this is what democracy looks like.

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Clocking Out: Foggy Mountain Breakdown Edition

Game on: Wisconsin officials confirm that Gov. Scott Walker is set for recall.

Reflections on life in Zuccotti Park.

The negative effects of unemployment are long-lasting.

Austerity is having a brutal effect on European economies.

The Buffett Rule will get a Senate vote.

Sheila Bair says we need to be doing better on housing.

Related: Contrary to what you see in right-wing editorials, affordable housing didn’t cause the subprime crisis.

Senate Republicans use the filibuster to protect special tax subsidies to oil companies.

Health care reform’s beneficiaries are worried about the Supreme Court.

What judicial activism really looks like.

Finally, a fond farewell to the late bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs.

In Narrow Vote, U.S. House Passes Medicare-Demolition Budget

In a mostly party-line vote, the U.S. House just passed Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal—a bill that, if it became law, would radically redefine the social contract. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, and his colleagues voted in favor of massive tax cuts slanted towards the very wealthiest, paid for by demolishing Medicare and other programs that working people and retirees depend on.

We don’t need to quibble about motives or intent here, because the reasons why aren’t important. What matters is the effect. And the Ryan budget would redistribute wealth upwards, cutting services and programs for health, education, and retirement security even as it showers benefits on millionaires—and costs the rest of us jobs, too. Politics is about priorities, about choices, and House Republicans made theirs.

This is their platform,” says Joan McCarter of Washington’s Republican politicians, and she’s not just pulling that out of nowhere: Speaker John Boehner says quite openly that this is the vision he and his allies will fight for at every level. It’s a vision of Hoover-era tax rates and the undermining of decades-old guarantees to retirees, of a government that can’t afford to inspect mines or help working-class kids go to college.

This is all well and good. Ryan and his allies have their priorities. And the thousands of people we talk to every week, well, they have a different set of priorities.

Oh, and the pundit-pandering Cooper-LaTourette bill we told you about yesterday? It was overwhelmingly defeated last night. So much for Beltway conventional wisdom.

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