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Labor & Economy

Affordable Housing: Introduction to a Crisis

Sasha Abramsky



Illustration by Lalo Alcaraz

California’s housing crisis is a complex one, as befits a state with a population of close to 40 million people, spread out over 163,696 square miles, and with some of the country’s largest cities and fastest growing population hubs, as well as some of its most rugged rural areas.

See More Stories in Capital & Main’s Affordable Housing Series

Los Angeles’ Skid Row sprawls just a few blocks from the skyscrapers of downtown and showcases one of the developed world’s largest concentrations of long-term homeless people. They live in tents and jerry-rigged shanties along the sidewalks and in vacant lots, surround social service agency buildings and provide a vista of misery stunning in its intensity. Only a few miles away, middle- and working-class tenants are being driven from their rent-controlled homes into the exurbs or onto friends’ and relatives’ couches. The causes of this diaspora are developers seeking to capitalize on Hollywood’s soaring real estate values and the city’s “densification” development strategy that prioritizes large-scale, high-end housing developments over new affordable housing for middle-income families and the working poor.

The extremes of poverty and affluence do a strange dance in L.A.’s housing story, as they do in San Francisco to the north.

Says tenants’ organizer Dont Rhine, a Hollywood-based artist who cut his teeth in the world of activism working for ACT UP in the 1990s, “There are a lot of renters who are frickin’ pissed off. I’ve not seen anything like this since the AIDS crisis. It’s affecting mental health and physical health.”

By contrast, in the Central Valley deep pools of poverty in cities such as Fresno — the core of which has the third highest poverty rate of any large metro area in the country — perpetuate the existence of slum housing. Twenty years ago, in a deal that then-President Bill Clinton carved out with a conservative Congress, the country’s political leadership eliminated 100,000 units of public housing. Years later, in 2011, the California legislature, at the urging of Governor Jerry Brown, scrapped a program that had funneled billions of dollars from the state into local redevelopment agency grants. Today, while Fresno’s Housing Authority and nonprofit homebuilders such as Self Help Enterprises try to provide decent, affordable housing for the lucky few, the need massively outstrips the supply. Tens of thousands of families are poor enough to qualify for housing vouchers, affordable housing in mixed-income units or public housing, yet most will never be provided an apartment or house.

California Housing Crisis.

(Photo by Ted Soqui)

Roughly 67,000 families in the Fresno area are on waiting lists for these programs. With each year, as federal investments in housing lag, the problem gets worse. Making the matter ever more urgent is the fact that it is in Central Valley towns that much of California’s population growth in coming years is predicted to occur. Absent huge investments in affordable housing, a growing number of Californians in the valley a generation from now will be living in slums, at the mercy of a private rental market utterly indifferent to their basic needs and dignity.

In Orange County, widespread affluence has pushed up real estate values beyond anything affordable to the low-wage, service-sector workers, many of them undocumented, who cater to affluent residents’ consumption needs. As a result, with years-long waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers (for qualified recipients who pay up to 30 percent of their income on rent, with the difference, up to a certain rent threshold, paid for by the government); with a paucity of affordable housing units being built; and with vast shortages in public housing, many residents double, triple or quadruple up, creating some of the most overcrowded and unhealthy living conditions in America.

“Where should I go with no job?” asks Santa Ana resident Concepcion, an undocumented immigrant who has run through her legal options and is at risk of imminent deportation. She lives with her husband and three children inside a tiny room within a small house, in a poor part of town. Recently, a teenager living near the house drew a gun on a police officer and, to Concepcion’s horror, she saw heavily armed SWAT teams swarm past her window. “Low-income housing?” she asks. “I’m ineligible. It’s either here or under a bridge or the public library, where the homeless are.”

It’s a choice many Santa Anans have had to make. When the city surveyed the transient population recently, it found more than 400 people living on the streets surrounding Civic Center Plaza – and another 400-plus living along the Santa Ana riverbed. There are, according to Judson Brown, the housing division manager for the city’s Community Development Agency, only 185 shelter beds for the homeless in Santa Ana and, of these, nearly three quarters are only available during the cold winter months.

In the Bay Area one town after another has witnessed spiraling real estate dislocations as San Francisco’s soaring property market continues to create spillover effects in neighboring counties. In the city itself, family apartments in traditionally immigrant and working-class neighborhoods such as the Mission District have been converted into million-dollar pads for young techies, an ongoing problem driven by the presence of many of the world’s top tech companies in Silicon Valley just a few miles to the south.

Across the bay in Oakland, gritty neighborhoods in that city’s west and north are rapidly being gentrified; there’s some good to this – in lower crime rates and more vibrant economic activity – but also a lot of bad. Historically African American and Latino areas are bought into by a wave of disproportionately white and Asian-American gentrifiers, as they and investors snap up any and all properties that come onto the market. Existing residents find that they can no longer afford exploding rents and are pushed ever further from their places of work and the schools that their children are enrolled in. People with precious few resources to begin with are uprooted and, in essence, told to start afresh.

As a domino line of towns is hit by the Bay Area real estate boom’s shockwaves, so the dislocation spreads further afield. In the last few months, long-time working-class residents in Redwood City and other cities in the vicinity have almost overnight been swept aside by a tsunami of real estate investors taking advantage of their proximity both to Silicon Valley and to San Francisco. Absent a coherent affordable housing development strategy in these towns, local housing activists fear that low- and moderate-income families will no longer be able to stay in the city.


This series is the story of California’s housing crisis, a crisis that shows no sign of abating. We have decided not to focus on long-term homelessness here, because it is a complex saga involving a discussion of mental health services, addiction treatment and the ways in which foster care kids, veterans and ex-prisoners are too often cast aside by the broader society, that merits a later series unto itself.

Instead, in this series we will mostly look at those who have roofs over their heads, but whose situations are increasingly precarious.

The affordable housing crisis did not occur in a vacuum, but has its roots in both the last recession and in laws written years before that tilted California’s housing relationships in favor of landlords and developers. When the housing market collapsed eight years ago, it was homeowners who bore the brunt of the calamity, with entire neighborhoods destroyed by foreclosures. Today, with California’s real estate market rebounding, owners are again accumulating paper wealth. Increasingly, as property values soar, especially in thriving coastal cities, it is renters who now bear the greatest pain.

California Housing Crisis.

(Photo by Ted Soqui)

As mentioned, Governor Brown’s scrapping of California’s redevelopment agency program — a response taken against the state’s post-2008 financial crisis — deprived local housing budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars overnight. Not surprisingly, as more people find themselves priced out of quality housing, they are bumping up against the realities of catastrophic under-investment in decent affordable housing — a situation in which slum landlords are filling the void.

Renters are also confronting California’s Ellis Act, which provides a mechanism whereby property owners can evict rent-controlled tenants, demolish homes and rebuild the properties as upmarket homes. And they are grappling with the state’s Costa-Hawkins Act, pushed in the 1990s by many of the same conservative political lobbies that propelled Proposition 13 to victory in 1978, and which forbids cities to rent-stabilize properties built after 1995. How bad is the housing crisis in California? Last year the chair of the state agency responsible for programs that create affordable housing stepped down under pressure when activists revealed he was evicting tenants from property he owned in order to replace its rent-controlled units with luxury ones.

In the coming days we will tell the tale of the struggling middle class and working poor in an era in which public investments in affordable housing have shamefully lagged, and in which politicians have too often catered to the needs of developers rather than to those of renters and lower income homeowners.

We will also explore the economic and health implications of substandard slum housing; the policy implications of growing wage inequalities in a high-cost real estate environment; and the dangers to the social fabric posed by the recreation of housing conditions that would have been all too familiar to Jacob Riis, the social reformer who photographed New York’s slums more than a century ago.

Tuesday — Los Angeles: Dislocation, Dislocation, Dislocation

Labor & Economy

Saving Private Enterprise: Director Jacob Kornbluth on His New Robert Reich Film

After their critically acclaimed 2013 documentary, Inequality for All, Jacob Kornbluth and Robert Reich reunited to make Saving Capitalism, which explores the expanding economic and political power of America’s wealthy.



Saving Capitalism  begins streaming on Netflix November 21.

Jacob Kornbluth had never had a job — not even an internship — by the time he graduated from college. When he applied to scoop ice cream at Double Rainbow, he was turned down. But he was used to feeling marginalized. Growing up in Manhattan and then in rural Michigan, he didn’t have many friends and got beat up a lot. Both parents, wealthy in intellect but poor in assets, passed away by the time he was 18. All his grandparents too. With a life so rich in adversity, and unable to secure gainful employment, Kornbluth did what any young intellectual would do. He became a writer.

That led to directing some theater. In the early 2000s, inspired by the emotionally gritty films of British director Mike Leigh, he made a couple of feature comedies that not that many people saw. Then, with the economics of documentaries changing, he turned to the realm of nonfiction films to express himself. He grabbed a camera and followed Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, on his mission to raise awareness about America’s widening economic gap. The resulting 2013 doc, Inequality for All, was no joke, both in its message and to critics, who lauded the film. But for Kornbluth and Reich there were some issues they touched on that still needed to be addressed. So they reunited in Saving Capitalism, a Netflix-streaming feature documentary that underscores the expanding economic power — and resulting political might — of America’s wealthy. Nearly 30 years after someone decided against putting an ice cream scooper in his hands, Kornbluth sat down with Capital & Main to discuss politics and economics.

Capital & Main: The obvious divisions in this country are political ideology, race and gender, but it seems that few people focus that much on class.

Kornbluth: Well, I think the other divisions you mentioned are very real and meaningful, certainly, and I had started looking at class and economic divisions in Inequality for All. But I began to think that we were missing the story of power. As economic inequality grows, so does the concentration of political power, leaving a lot of people across the economic spectrum feeling like the game is rigged against them. You really see this line cutting across political viewpoints.

“As economic inequality grows, so does the concentration of political power, leaving a lot of people across the economic spectrum feeling like the game is rigged against them.”

Perhaps the moment in the film that underscores that most is when you juxtapose footage of protesters in the Tea Party with those in the Occupy movement, and they are saying virtually the same things.

Kornbluth: Right. I certainly don’t agree with a lot of the people in the Tea Party. But I have some empathy and I think we all need to see the connection between when economic inequality widens, this really does affect people and it changes the sort of reality that they live in. So basically, of those in the top 10 percent [economically], you see Republicans and Democrats disagree on just about everything — but the economy is essentially working for them. I don’t think Americans like to see themselves as a country where class is that much at the forefront, in the way they do in Europe, but when you see the economic division spilling over into these other areas like politics, and it’s really changing the way politics function on a meaningful level, I don’t think you can ignore it anymore.

In the past, politicians had to play to the center to be successful. But in this last election, Trump didn’t play to the middle and was able to get 60 million votes. People used to think that political ideology runs along a spectrum, but we see that [Bernie] Sanders and Trump supporters had a lot in common and that political ideology is really more circular.

Kornbluth: The political model has fundamentally changed into something that looks a lot more like a circle than like [a set of] polar opposites. We started making a film that was going to introduce that concept in 2015, before this election happened, when Hillary Clinton was the leader on the Democratic side and Jeb Bush was the leader on the Republican side, and it turned out we ran into that change as it happened.

“If you cede the system to the wealthy and powerful, and you don’t fight back, then it’s not going to get any better.”

Your film and Reich’s book are called Saving Capitalism. Some have said Marx was wrong about communism but he was right about capitalism, that eventually it would devour itself and spin out of control because of greed, and that is what we are seeing now. So why should we save it?

Kornbluth: It’s a really important question. I mean, you’re talking to the son of very left-leaning parents. One thing that Reich has taught me, is to forget the “ism” for a moment and just look at rules of an economic system. Stop thinking that capitalism is going to save or hurt us, and stop thinking socialism is going to save us or hurt us and start thinking that we have one economic political system and let’s think about all the rules that go into it and examine them one by one, and ask, Who do those rules benefit and who do they hurt?

You see that the rules of our economic system are written by the people with the power to write them, and then over the last 40 or 50 years all of those rules have gone more towards the wealthy and the powerful and away from regular people. Well, it wasn’t always like that in America.

But that system does keep breaking.

Kornbluth: You are absolutely right. But I think it’s actually important, though, for people who think that maybe the materialism and greed of capitalism is fundamental and unchangeable [not to give up]. That’s sort of like permission to check out, to say, “This system is broken and therefore I won’t engage.” And I think one of the crucial problems with that is if you cede the system to the wealthy and powerful, and you don’t fight back, then it’s not going to get any better.

A recent poll said that more millennials believe in socialism than capitalism. And more believed in fascism than capitalism, too. What does that say? Are millennials just fed up, or maybe more idealistic, or are they just more naïve?

Kornbluth: There’s a bunch of ways to read something like that. One way to say it is [that] a lot of people feel like the game is rigged, which is true, and they are sick of it. They don’t feel like their voices are heard. But there is a very important question which is, What is capitalism, specifically? If it’s simply the free exchange of private property, then every country in the world today is some version of a capitalist country, or on some sort of a capitalism/socialism spectrum. You sort of can decide what you want to call it.

“This economic and political situation that we’re in is unique — it means that we don’t get to go back to normal.”

But people forget, that in the past there was Ross Perot, and John Anderson to a lesser degree. Perot was an extremely viable candidate who had a chance of winning, before he imploded. There has been a bubbling of this discontent in every generation. Could one make the argument that the way a forest needs to burn to regenerate, you need a Trump to have both sides react and act — is this the equivalent of a political forest fire that could signal a regrowth for the country?

Kornbluth: I’d phrase it slightly differently. You certainly have seen bubbling of this growing anti-establishment wave [besides] Ross Perot, with Pat Buchanan on the right, when he was running his campaigns in the ’90s. And you see in our film that in ’92 Reich thought that they had a real chance to fix a systemic problem with the economy that was broken, that an increasing amount of gains from growth were going to the top. And he thought that this was going to be a long-term problem going forward. But I think the film’s thesis is that this is not the same, but that, in fact, this economic and political situation that we’re in is unique and it means that we don’t get to go back to normal.

To your second point, I hear this argument sometimes from people on the left who say, “Maybe this Trump presidency is what we need to really have the progressive revolution that we’ve been waiting for.” There may be some truth to that, but don’t underestimate the threat to the economy and to democracy that we’re experiencing right now.

There was a really poignant moment in the film, when Reich is talking to students about the regret he has, and it seems he may even be on the verge of tears. Tell me about that moment.

Kornbluth: You have a guy who’s been fighting for 40 or 50 years, engaging in a political system and trying to in a very genuine way help out regular people around the country. And you look up after you’ve been at it for so long and you see a shorter time ahead of you than you have behind you and you say, “Wow, it’s gotten worse. I can’t say that all of the efforts that I’ve made have fixed it and what do we do with that? How do we answer to those questions?”

Reich is the same age as Donald Trump; and Hillary and Bill Clinton, and Clarence Thomas, were all at Yale when Reich attended. He’s seen what his generation has done. I think that there’s some answers he has to give about what [this generation] did to get us to where we are. I think he genuinely is torn, he’s worried. He’s fighting every day give his best to turn this system around but I think he’s worried that time is running out.

You see in your film his ability to talk and connect with all types of people with differing politics than his own. What is it about him that lets him connect with people so well?

Kornbluth: Firstly, I think it’s rare to see somebody who’s that smart and successful who is that genuine, and I think that genuine quality, that sort of humanity, really comes across in him. It makes him an extraordinary screen presence. I’ve dealt with a lot of famous people in my time and I’ve never met anyone more grounded than him. But the real secret sauce, which makes him somebody that, if he didn’t exist you’d want to invent, is that he’s an unbelievable intellect and an unbelievable communicator. He can take complex issues and boil them down in a way that makes it easy for anybody to understand and not feel dumbed-down to. The smartest economists that I’ve talked to, the biggest idea people who I’ve talked to, are not always the best communicators.

Obviously, he did a lot of great work when he served the White House, but it’s almost like his second act has been more powerful and more meaningful. Maybe because he’s not hamstrung by the restrictions of working in the system?

Kornbluth: He was a Secretary of Labor in Clinton’s administration but, honestly, how many labor secretaries can most Americans name? One of the most amazing and unique things about him is he has embraced social media in a way that a lot of his contemporaries haven’t. I run a nonprofit with him, Inequality Media, and we make short videos for the Internet. Those videos in the last few years have been seen over 250 million times.

He is as motivated, passionate and driven as are people a quarter of his age. He runs me [and] everybody at our organization ragged, and he’s 71 years old. He still feels like it’s his legacy and he wants to do his best to fix the things that he sees are broken.

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Judging Janus

Judging Janus: What Happens to California’s Progressive Legislation?

California’s 1.4 million-member public-sector unions are the key force that has pushed the state toward increasingly progressive policies. The Supreme Court could seriously diminish that force.

Gabriel Thompson



Illustration: Define Urban

Labor Historian:
“The key thing about unions is not the money, but the energy that comes out of the members.”

Mark Janus, an Illinois child-support worker, will soon argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that his free speech rights have been violated because he must pay “agency fees” to a union that, inter alia, negotiates contracts on his behalf. Last year California elementary school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs made the same First Amendment arguments at the high court against the teachers association to which she paid agency fees. The court deadlocked on Friedrichs’ complaint following the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, but his replacement, Justice Neil Gorsuch, is widely expected to cast a decisive vote in favor of Janus and against public-sector unions.

Co-published by The American Prospect

In 2012, as Election Day neared, polls showed dwindling support for California’s Proposition 30, which sought to avoid a crippling $6 billion cut in the state’s public education system. Without Prop. 30, Governor Jerry Brown warned, many more teachers would be laid off from a system already racked by cutbacks, and the school year would likely be slashed by three weeks.

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Despite a $36 million donation from Republican activist Charles Munger Jr. to a committee opposing both Prop. 30 and another ballot measure, along with a competing proposition sponsored with $44 million from his sister, Molly Munger, voters passed the initiative by a 55 to 46 margin. By doing so, they rescued the school system by reinvesting billions of dollars into preschool, K-12 and community colleges. And voters did so, in large part, thanks to the political muscle of the state’s public sector unions. In the weeks leading up to the election, armies of union members fanned out across the state to knock on doors, while three unions—the California Teachers Association, the statewide council of the Service Employees International Union, and the American Federation of Teachers—spent a combined $26 million in support of the initiative, serving as a counterbalance to the deep pockets of the Mungers and other wealthy donors. Last year, as Prop. 30 was set to expire, unions pushed through Proposition 55, which extended the income tax on high earners for another dozen years.

Health-care Advocate:
“We are concerned about attacks on the labor movement, because they would weaken the strength of patient and community voices.”

“The truth is, in the last 25 years, no major progressive proposition has passed without labor being a primary donor,” said Kenneth Burt, who retired last month after spending two decades as the political director of the California Federation of Teachers. A 2012 study of public-sector union influence over California ballot initiatives since 1980, prepared by the conservative Manhattan Institute, came to the same conclusion. “Whenever a proposal was especially important to the unions,” its author wrote, “they almost always won.”

California’s 1.4 million member-strong public-sector unions are the key force that has pushed the state toward increasingly progressive policies. They have set California on the path to a $15 hourly minimum wage, helped pass a “Sanctuary State” bill to protect undocumented immigrants, supported a $4 billion affordable housing bond on next year’s ballot and spurred legislators to contemplate universal health-care legislation.

But what would happen to such legislation if, as expected, the Supreme Court rules against them in the Janus case? Would it even be proposed?

In ballot-measure fights, the opposition to workplace, environmental and health-care reform is typically well funded, and if union membership and dues were to shrink by, say, one-third, they could suddenly find themselves outgunned.

“This is trench warfare—you win by a few inches here and there. Reducing union dues will hurt.”

“We are concerned about attacks on the labor movement, because they would weaken the strength of patient and community voices,” said Anthony Wright, the executive director of Health Access, a statewide health care advocacy coalition. Wright noted that labor union support had been critical in efforts to expand coverage in California, and pointed out two recent legislative achievements in which labor played a key role. Last year, Assembly Bill 72, which prevents patients from being hit with surprise medical mills, was passed. And last month, Governor Brown signed Senate Bill 17, which makes prescription drug prices more transparent. (Drug companies spent $16.8 million in opposition of SB 17.)

In 2010, the CFT’s Kenneth Burt chaired the group that sought to pass Proposition 25, which allowed the state legislature to pass the budget by a majority vote, replacing the earlier two-thirds requirement.

“That two-thirds requirement meant that even during flush years we had to make concessions to the Republicans—and those concessions were tax breaks to the rich and cuts to social programs,” said Burt. The forces against the measure included Chevron, Philip Morris and the California Chamber of Commerce, which spent a combined $17.7 million. The union-led coalition invested nearly as much, $15.2 million, and they won. But if California’s public-sector unions shrink, such fights could become lopsided defeats.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, cautions that one shouldn’t think of the union’s power—in California and elsewhere—as primarily being its lobbying ability or financial resources. “The key thing about unions is not the money,” Lichtenstein said, “but the energy that comes out of the members. Having a lot of cash is always second best.”

“The reason that conservatives hate unions is not because they are winning huge raises all the time,” he added. “It’s because day in and day out, they are always there. Activist movements get a lot of headlines, but the union is an institution. This is trench warfare—you win by a few inches here and there. Reducing union dues will hurt that.”

Several of the unions cited or quoted in this series are financial contributors to Capital & Main.

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Judging Janus

Judging Janus: Organizing 79 Million Millennials

The Pew Research Center says that among millennials who head households, more live in poverty than do households led by previous generations — and that national support for unions is largely driven by millennials.

Judith Lewis Mernit



Illustration: Define Urban

Just as millennial enthusiasm for collective bargaining grows, labor’s political power and influence wane toward a historic nadir.

Mark Janus, an Illinois child-support worker, will soon argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that his free speech rights have been violated because he must pay “agency fees” to a union that, inter alia, negotiates contracts on his behalf. Last year California elementary school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs made the same First Amendment arguments at the high court against the teachers association to which she paid agency fees. The court deadlocked on Friedrichs’ complaint following the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, but his replacement, Justice Neil Gorsuch, is widely expected to cast a decisive vote in favor of Janus and against public-sector unions.

Co-published by Fast Company

Generational labels are fraught with inconsistencies. Growing up is not, after all, a controlled experiment. But to the extent that millennial labels apply, Andrew Cohen’s story is emblematic. He watched as his parents fell victim to eroding protections for employees (his father, a luxury car salesman, lost his job and declared bankruptcy when Cohen was 8). He graduated from high school, only to find college extremely expensive and, because he had to pay his own way, ran up $20,000 in student-loan debt.

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Later he would enter the Great Recession’s depressed job market, with few slots available to liberal arts graduates outside the low-paying service industry.

“A lot of my friends expected to own a house and have a family by the time they turned 30,” he says. “It was very shaky for people.” Among millennials who head households, a Pew Research Center study found in September, more live in poverty than do households led by previous generations.

“What our generation has lacked, and needs, is stability. Unions offer that stability.”

By the time Cohen was 23 years old in 2009, the plans he had laid for his life collapsed. A self-described “dirty, punk-rock kid,” he had been thinking about environmental and economic justice, while participating in protests and direct actions. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, he expected to begin his post-college life with Teach for America, working with disadvantaged students in under-funded urban schools.

But after several rounds of interviews, Teach for America unexpectedly rejected his application. He suspects that a felony assault charge, incurred during a mass arrest at the 2008 Republican National Convention, had something do to with it, even though the charge was dropped. “The timing,” he says, “was suspicious.” At any rate, he needed another option.

It’s perhaps no surprise that many of Cohen’s friends — “people who weren’t political at all” — have come to look favorably upon organized labor. An annual Gallup poll conducted over the summer shows that adults in general support labor unions at 61 percent, the highest approval rating since 2009, when the poll found support for unions at an all-time low of 48 percent. A Pew Research poll conducted two years earlier shows that enthusiasm is largely driven by the 79 million millennials who currently dominate the workforce: 55 percent of 18 to 29 years olds, the poll found, approve of unions.

“What our generation has lacked, and needs, is stability,” says Maggie Thompson, who calls herself an “old millennial” (she’s 32) and studies labor trends for the Center for American Progress. “Unions offer that prospect of stability.”

Cohen couldn’t look for stability with his parents, as some do; they’d lost their house the year before. He had to get a job. Finally, he found one. UNITE HERE Local 11, a labor union for hospitality workers in Los Angeles, recruited him as a “salt.”

“They said, ‘Go get a job at this hotel, get in with the rank and file, and try to get them to organize.” The job paid near minimum wage. He took it.

Cohen, now 31 and working as a communication specialist for the union, saw firsthand on that job how solidarity brings out the best in people. At the Embassy Suites hotel in Irvine, he helped collective bargaining win employees back pay for denied rest breaks, a workers’ compensation settlement and, ultimately, respect. “It was a formative experience,” he says. But he worries his fellow millennials won’t have the same opportunities. Just as millennial enthusiasm for collective bargaining grows, labor’s political power and influence wane toward a historic nadir.

Twenty-eight states now have right-to-work laws that limit unions’ abilities to collect dues from workers, even if those employees benefit from negotiated contracts. More than a third of workers freelance as independent contractors, most of them without the protection of a trade union. And after two previous failed efforts to deprive labor unions of income by eliminating “fair share” fees — monies paid to unions by nonunion employees who benefit from collective bargaining contracts — the one the U.S. Supreme Court is currently mulling, Janus v. AFSCME, looks poised to succeed.

“I think [Janus] has got the potential to be extremely destructive, like national right-to-work laws,” Cohen worries. “I’m expecting at some point Trump’s administration is going to turn their full attention to labor. I’m fearing the worst.”

Cohen isn’t being dramatic. One of the most direct effects of both the “gig economy” and right-to-work laws has been to deprive unions of their members and, therefore, the dues they need to fight back. As much as millennials might approve of unions, few of them are members: Only 10.7 percent of wage and salary workers currently belong to a union, according to the latest count by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with 20.1 percent in 1983.

“Janus is an opportunity. We need to stop this ATM that dispenses contracts and become an actual organization that recruits and persuades.”

One of the reasons for that, says Larry Williams, Jr., the 30-year-old president of the Progressive Workers Union, is that millennials literally don’t know that labor unions exist. Williams, whose union represents about 200 national field employees at the Sierra Club, says that he himself knew little about the labor movement before he took a temporary job with the Teamsters nine years ago. “I thought, ‘Why did I not know about this? Why is this not something that’s taught to every young person in the world, that they have rights as a working person?’”

His “discovery of the labor movement as a young man,” he says, inspired him to create UnionBase, which he describes as “the first social networking platform for organized labor.” Launched this past Labor Day, UnionBase allows workers to search for organizations that might represent their profession. Union leaders can also use it to verify their organizations’ information and, eventually, communicate with members. Ultimately, he hopes, the platform will help unions move beyond the traditional “servicing” model, where employees pay dues for union leaders to negotiate with employers on their behalf, to an organizing model, where workers mobilize to defend their own interests.

In that way, Williams says, “Janus is an opportunity. We need to stop this ATM that dispenses the contracts, and become an actual organization” that recruits and persuades. “Speaking far into the future,” he envisions the 14.6 million workers who belong to unions in the U.S. agitating for benefits that extend beyond the boundaries of their memberships and the corporations they work for.

“Union contracts can cover a wide array of things outside of your workplace,” Williams says, “like child care, health care, education. Before there was the Affordable Care Act, it was unions who negotiated the best health care for their workers.” That same health care should be available to everyone, he says. “The idea is to make a bigger tent so as many people as possible can be covered by union contracts.”

“Being joined together in a union is the way that we actually live in a democracy. It’s the way we enforce democracy.”

That tent has a precedent in the U.S. In the 1960s, “Jimmy Hoffa worked to organize the truckers yard by yard,” Williams says. He didn’t stop until he had 450,000 truckers covered under a Master Freight Agreement. “[It] brought all of their wages in line regardless of state.”

“It was,” Williams notes, “the largest movement of working people into the middle class.” Whatever happens in the courts or Congress, the work of raising the working-class standard of living won’t change. “That’s always been the mission,” Williams says. “The mission doesn’t change.”

Andrew Cohen has no intention of abandoning that mission, either. “For me and a lot of my peers, if right-to-work passes and the union has no money, we’ll still work rank-and-file,” he insists. One of his colleagues, 28-year-old UNITE HERE campaign researcher Elle Farmer, suspects that won’t be necessary. While union membership has dropped nationwide, “UNITE HERE is growing,” she says. “We’re the fastest growing private-sector union in the country.”

Besides, says Farmer, who left a career as a public defender to work in labor, no change in any law can take away workers’ fundamental right to organize. “People have been forming bonds of solidarity the entire time we’ve been humans,” she says. People in her age bracket see that more clearly than ever. “They’re seeing that being joined together in something that is or looks like a union is the way that we actually live in a democracy. It’s the way we enforce democracy.”

“It’s not 100 percent, it’s not across the board, and it’s never perfect,” she adds. “But organizing around the conditions of our existence in this world will always be powerful.”

Several of the unions cited or quoted in this series are financial contributors to Capital & Main.

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Labor & Economy

Robert Reich on Trump’s ‘Dangerous Tax Bill’

“All of this rhetoric about a middle-class tax cut,” Robert Reich tells Capital & Main, “is just an absurd lie when you look at the numbers.”



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In little more than six months the Republican-proposed tax bill has grown from a one-page White House press release promising financial relief for middle-class Americans to a colossal amoeba containing everything from massive corporate tax cuts to the repeal of Obamacare. Capital & Main’s Jessica Goodheart recently spoke to economist Robert Reich for part of an upcoming series on corporate responsibility. During Goodheart’s interview, Reich spoke about the current tax proposal that many experts see as a dire threat to the very households its sponsors are pledging to protect. Reich’s comments are excerpted below.

Jessica Goodheart: Do you think that reform-minded CEOs are taking any risks?

Robert Reich: If CEOs were really courageous . . . they would be speaking out right now against the shortsighted and dangerous tax bill that is coming through Congress, even though their own corporations might benefit. Over the long term, everyone will lose.

Some have suggested that the anti-free trade, nationalist movement that Donald Trump represents at home might place pressure on corporate leaders to address the widening wealth and income gap. Do you see that as a possibility?

Reich: Some leading corporations could decide to support specific public policies and reduce inequality, such as higher minimum wages, a bigger earned income tax credit, maybe even a universal basic income. They’re not going to do it individually, as companies, but they might come together and act politically, and lend their political clout to this kind of legislation.

What do you think the prospects for that are right now?

Reich: It’s hard to say. The Republican Party is split between its corporate and Wall Street wing, and its Steve Bannon/nationalist/Trump wing. For the time being, those two wings have come together around getting tax cuts for the corporate, Wall Street wing. What will the Bannon/nationalist/Trump wing want in return? Will they be satisfied with Trump’s tweets and nationalist tantrums? I don’t know.

What role are corporations playing in tax reform efforts, both visible and not visible, to the public?

Reich: Well, most of it’s invisible. Right now, there are lobbyists swarming over Capitol Hill, trying to get the largest tax breaks they possibly can for their companies and industries. You have large business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and others who are trying to keep the direction of the bill going in very large tax breaks for corporations, overall.

What the public sees and hears is just the talking points that Republican leaders have put out there in order to mollify the public, and to disguise what’s really going on. All of this rhetoric about a middle-class tax cut is just an absurd lie when you look at the numbers. I mean, the longer this goes on, the more likely it is that most Americans will discover the truth — which is why the Republican leadership wants to move quickly, and get this done before Christmas.

On Monday, Trump tweeted a request that the repeal of the Obamacare health insurance mandate be included in the tax reform proposal. How would that impact Americans, and how do you think it affects the prospect of the bill’s passage?

Reich: The removal of the health mandate would cause four million Americans to lose coverage in the first year, 13 million by 2027, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. I don’t see how Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and John McCain — who voted against repeal of the Affordable Care Act — could possibly vote for the tax bill with this poison pill inside it.

Yesterday, Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn received a tepid response after asking CEOs at a Wall Street Journal conference whether the tax reform bill would cause them to spend more on growth. Does that surprise you? 

Reich: It doesn’t surprise me, because American corporations are flush with cash. If they wanted to invest more in growth, they could have done so already. They’re using their profits to buy back their shares of stock, and pad executive pay. That’s what they’ll do with even more profits that come their way because of the tax cut.

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Judging Janus

Judging Janus: Wisconsin’s Shadow

Co-published by AlterNet
Wisconsin provided early examples of scorched-earth labor policies. California unions took note.

Bobbi Murray



Illustration: Define Urban

The financial pressure from a pro-Janus
ruling will hamper unions from taking lead roles in policy debates on such issues as health care.

Mark Janus, an Illinois child-support worker, will soon argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that his free speech rights have been violated because he must pay “agency fees” to a union that, inter alia, negotiates contracts on his behalf. Last year California elementary school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs made the same First Amendment arguments at the high court against the teachers association to which she paid agency fees. The court deadlocked on Friedrichs’ complaint following the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, but his replacement, Justice Neil Gorsuch, is widely expected to cast a decisive vote in favor of Janus and against public-sector unions.

Co-published by AlterNet

Should Mark Janus prevail in his Supreme Court case, public-sector employees in California and other states who now pay agency fees instead of union dues will be able to  opt out of any payment at all—even though they can still benefit from collective bargaining contracts and turn to the union with grievances, enjoying a free ride that drains union resources.

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The ruling would undermine the ability of public-sector unions—about half of U.S. organized labor—to set standards for wage and workplace conditions. The resulting financial pressure will hamper unions from taking lead roles in policy debates on such issues as health care. “The short-term [goal] is to reduce the ability to collect dues,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs. “The long-term aim is to weaken collective bargaining.”

Anti-union forces, often funded by corporate-backed foundations, have been on the attack for decades. One stunning victory was the 2011 passage of Wisconsin’s Act 10, that state’s “budget repair” bill. Republican Governor Scott Walker, long a vocal enemy of public-sector unions, introduced it to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

By 2014 the once-robust Wisconsin State Employees Union had lost 60 percent
of its members.

Act 10 gutted public-sector union collective bargaining rights, leaving unions unable to negotiate wages—except raises attached to the cost-of-living—along with pensions, work conditions such as hours worked, sick leave and vacations. In other words, all the things that, for many, make it worth paying union dues.

The law also loosened restrictions on local governments’ hiring and wage policies, while allowing wage freezes and requiring higher employee health-care contributions.

Act 10 knee-capped labor as a political force in an historically union state — the first to recognize public-sector unions. By 2014 the once-robust Wisconsin State Employees Union had lost 60 percent of its members; its annual budget dropped from $6 million to $2 million. Then came the defections. In 2013 the nearly 6,000 prison guards staffing Wisconsin’s correctional facilities voted to leave WSEU for the newly-created Wisconsin Association for Correctional Law Enforcement, which cut dues from WSEU’s roughly $36 monthly rate to WACLE’s $18. WACLE now represents approximately 5,900 state security workers.

“The two major public-sector unions both lost about 80 percent of dues-paying members,” Joel Rogers, a University of Wisconsin, Madison professor of law and sociology, told Capital & Main. Rogers is also the founder of an organization called COWS, touted as “the national high-road strategy center” think tank.  Shrunken union budgets hobbled the ability to operate effectively on policy issues and support labor-friendly candidates. “They are basically nowhere near what they were in terms of political forces,” Rogers said.

Wisconsins weren’t in a mood to pay dues to unions without collective bargaining power. So they quit—bleeding unions of funds.

Employees whose livelihoods had taken a hit with budget cuts weren’t in a mood to pay dues to a union without collective bargaining power. So they quit—bleeding unions of funds.

“Which is what it was all about,” said Rogers.

Labor’s post-Act 10 relative absence from the Wisconsin policy arena, Rogers continued, has contributed to “an across the board assault on all public goods, starting with the K-12 system and the university—that was about 1.5 billion worth of cuts—environmental deregulation, the Department of Natural Resources stripped of powers and evacuated of scientists, endless stuff on deregulation [and] corporate liabilities have been reduced–increasing pressure to privatize public goods.”

Governor Walker, Rogers added, was backed by donors not widely known outside Wisconsin, but whose political footprint extends far beyond the state. They included Diane Hendricks, who made a fortune in the roofing-supply business. A backer of Scott Walker’s presidential PAC who donated $500,000 to defeat a union-backed recall effort against the governor, she is heard here in a YouTube clip asking Walker to turn Wisconsin into a red state; he replies that the first step is dealing with public-sector bargaining.

There was also Michael Grebe, a corporate attorney and former Marine, who chaired Walker’s gubernatorial and anti-recall campaigns. He recently retired as CEO of the Bradley Foundation, which from 2001 to 2009 donated nearly as much money to ultra-conservative causes as foundations backed by the Koch Brothers and the Scaife family combined. Efforts aimed at dismantling public infrastructure included: vouchers for private schools and cutbacks in public employee benefits and collective bargaining rights.

“We’re part of the right-wing movement,” Grebe told the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel. “I don’t think it’s conspiratorial.”

The Wisconsin labor organizations that are now managing to hold their ground are those that had cultivated a strong base before Act 10 and are adjusting strategies to reach their members and different constituencies.

Michael Rosen is a past president of American Federation of Teachers Local 212, which represents 1,400 faculty and professional staff. “Strong unions that were very active and had a mobilized membership were able to maintain [their] membership,” Rosen said.

Heather DuBois Bourenane of Wisconsin Public Education Network reflects on her organization’s efforts to organize at parent and teacher house meetings, to ramp up use of Facebook and other digital channels, to pack public state budget meetings and to launch postcard campaigns and write letters to news editors.

She was a mother with two kids in the school system holding down two part-time university teaching jobs and a third assistantship when Act 10 passed. She had marched against it and now has a sharpened sense of the need to be on guard. “We hope people look at us in Wisconsin and lift us up as lessons learned.”

The Golden State boasts the largest number of union members in the country at 2.6 million, with 53 percent represented by public-sector unions. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is one of the two largest; Service Employees International Union is another. Janus victorious would not be nearly as onerous for California as Act 10 was for Wisconsin, as Act 10 effectively extinguished public-sector collective bargaining. Still, Janus would provide a huge anti-labor win.

One union began to look at ZIP codes—connecting home-care workers that live within blocks of one another
but who would never meet on the job.

“Rough estimates are that within three years, 20 to 40 percent of union members would stop paying dues,” said Fred Ross, a veteran organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, which represents 2,500 public-sector transit and power workers throughout California. Unions would have to operate with between 20 and 40 percent less revenue, he added.

Unions are the largest source of campaign contributions to Democratic Party legislators—many of whom support such union-backed measures as worker protections, the $15 hourly minimum wage and immigrant-rights protections, said Steve Barkan, a Los Angeles-area campaign consultant. Janus “tips the scales further toward corporate interests,” he said.

Public-sector unions were under attack in California before Janus. Labor activists like Ross have been organizing for months, some for years, to counter its potential effects. Ross’ local has developed a targeted strategy based on a volunteer organizing committee. Some 250 union member organizers are charged with building relationships with 10 other members to explain the union’s role in winning benefits and protecting rights—and signing them up as voluntary dues-paying members.

Unions for home-care workers — those paid from public funds to work in private homes caring for low-income infirm persons — got hit hard by the 2013 Harris v. Quinn decision that has similarities to the Janus case. The 5-4 Supreme Court ruling said home health-care workers didn’t have to support their unions financially.

Harris is our Janus,” said Doug Moore, executive director of the United Domestic Workers Homecare Providers Union (UDW) and an AFSCME International Vice President. Before the Harris decision, “We had 68,000 [people] ” Moore said. “We lost 20,000 [fees-paying non-members] overnight” after the decision came down.

As the Harris decision approached, the union went into high-gear to connect with its base. Most of the millions of homecare workers in the U.S. are women of color; about one-quarter live below the poverty line and more than half need public assistance to get by.

The UDW created focus groups that discovered the home-care workers’ main concern was being able to obtain more hours for severely infirm clients like those with Alzheimer’s. Staff expanded existing efforts at In-Home Supportive Services worker orientation sessions in 21 counties around the state to make presentations. There were house visits, efforts to match Facebook profiles to email, a button on the website to sign up, going paperless and doing sign-ups via tablet—anything that would engage and listen to members, and convey the value of the union. There are now 72,000 dues-paying members — approaching double the UDW’s pre-Harris level.

The same story applied to SEIU Local 2015, which also represents public-sector home-care workers. Harris threatened Local 2015’s voluntary membership rates. The union began to look at ZIP codes—connecting homecare workers that live within blocks of one another but would never meet on the job. Facebook and Twitter helped. Membership increased by 48 percent, said Kim Evon, a Local 2015 vice-president. “Our demographic tends to be 70 percent women of color—and the average age is 55. We make a lot of assumptions that they are not plugged in but they are. Mail is that thing that piles up and gets stuck in the circulars from Vons.”

In a September organizing blitz, 16 different Southern California unions approached adjunct faculty at East Los Angeles College to join the California Federation of Teachers; meanwhile, SEIU 99, which organizes non-professional campus workers, informed child care providers of the benefits of belonging to a union. Private-sector janitors and security guards and other workers visited public-sector workers who are going to be impacted by Janus.

Alfonso Garcia was one of them. A union member since 1987, Garcia is currently an organizer for United Steelworkers Local 675, and has talked to part-time teachers, childcare providers and homecare workers in their homes to explain what a union does—about benefits, job security and meeting with management. “One voice, that’s just one person,” he said. “One thousand—that’s a better voice. The union gives us a voice.”

Several of the unions cited or quoted in this series are financial contributors to Capital & Main.

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Judging Janus

Judging Janus: The Money Machine Behind the Attacks on Labor

Co-published by International Business Times
Millions of public-sector workers could soon be targeted by conservative groups trying to dissuade them from paying union fees.

Robin Urevich



Illustration: Marco Amador


The Freedom Foundation and California Policy Center aim to bleed labor treasuries
through litigation.

Mark Janus, an Illinois child-support worker, will soon argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that his free speech rights have been violated because he must pay “agency fees” to a union that, inter alia, negotiates contracts on his behalf. Last year California elementary school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs made the same First Amendment arguments at the high court against the teachers association to which she paid agency fees. The court deadlocked on Friedrichs’ complaint following the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, but his replacement, Justice Neil Gorsuch, is widely expected to cast a decisive vote in favor of Janus and against public-sector unions.

Co-published by International Business Times

California’s labor movement has helped enact some of the most progressive reforms in the country, including the $15 minimum wage, rights for domestic workers and sanctuary state legislation to protect undocumented residents. It has helped to establish the state as a counterweight to the Trump administration. But the Supreme Court is likely to undercut that power when it rules later this term in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31.

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“The entire country will become right-to-work with the stroke of pen,” predicted Terence Pell, the president of the Center for Individual Rights at a Heritage Foundation event in Washington DC last August.

Pell, whose organization represented Rebecca Friedrichs against the CTA, exaggerated the impact of a Janus win, but not by much. The decision would affect only public employees, but they comprise the majority of unionized workers in the country. Thirty-four percent of public-sector workers are in unions nationwide, compared to just six percent of those who work for private companies. In California, some 54 percent of public employees hold union cards, while only about nine percent of private-sector workers do, according to

Millions of public-sector workers would be fair game for anti-union messages from groups on the right, including the Washington state-based Freedom Foundation. “By educating union members about their right to stop paying dues, the Freedom Foundation defunds Big Labor,” a narrator intoned in a videotaped fundraising appeal earlier this year. “That means more money for the workers and less money for liberal politicians.”

Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust have been conduits for contributors like the Koch brothers to fund attacks on unions.

Cutting unions off at the knees to curtail their political power is the dream project of some of the nation’s biggest right-wing funders and activists, including the Koch brothers, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation ($845 million in assets in 2015) and the State Policy Network (SPN) a consortium of 66 ultra-conservative think tanks with a combined revenue of some $80 million. For years these groups have poured money into anti-union causes in the belief that union-backed Democrats stand in the way of slashing government spending and of privatizing education through more charter schools and school voucher programs.

The SPN director, Tracie Sharp, wrote in a 2016 fundraising letter, “Today, coercive Big Government unions are the biggest sources of funding and political muscle for the Left – but we are also primed right now to deliver the mortal blow to permanently break its stranglehold on our society.” Sharp especially singled out teachers’ unions for her ire.

The Bradley Foundation, whose founder, Harry Bradley, was a member of the John Birch Society, gave out more than $42.5 million in 2015 (the last year for which its tax return is available), including a half-million-dollar grant to the Freedom Foundation. Documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy showed that union-busting to defund Democrats has been an aim of Bradley Foundation grant-making for at least 14 years. The documents include notes about many of the foundation’s grants that are similar to one attached to a $100,000 gift to Colorado’s Independence Institute, for “neutralizing the power of Colorado’s teachers’ unions by defunding them at the local school district level.”

Not to be outdone, the Alexandria, Virginia-based Donors Capital Fund, a “donor advised” fund that channels individual contributions to specific causes while allowing contributors—like the Koch brothers and the DeVos family— to remain anonymous, shelled out more than $67 million in 2015. Much of it went to fund an infrastructure of right-wing think tanks and activist groups, including nearly $4 million to the SPN (where Rebecca Friedrichs is now a fellow) and its state affiliates. Donors Capital Fund and its sister fund, Donors Trust, have been conduits for contributors like the Kochs to fund attacks on unions, notably the fight against collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin, as Mother Jones reported in 2013.

California groups have yet to attract much of these donors’ largesse, but the opportunity for a big win against labor could change the equation. In Orange County, two SPN affiliates share a Tustin office — the Washington state-based Freedom Foundation and the California Policy Center — and aim to be at the heart of attempts to convince union members to quit paying dues, and to bleed labor treasuries through litigation.

The California Policy Center, founded in 2010, is still small, with more than $800,000 in revenue in 2016, the last year for which its tax return is available. Nonetheless, the organization doubled its revenue in both 2014 and 2015. In 2015, it scored a $120,000 grant from Donors Capital Fund, and a $50,000 assist from the center’s parent organization, the State Policy Network.

Robert Loewen, a retired corporate attorney with Gibson Dunn, became chairman of the California Policy Center board four years ago because, he said, he wanted to combat the idea that “people on the left were champions of the little guy. They’re actually hurting the little guy, so it was all a big lie.”

Loewen argued that money from public-sector unions drives the liberal narrative. Politicians are in lock step with labor, Loewen claimed, because of the latter’s campaign cash.

But it’s not only politicians who Loewen believes are controlled by organized labor.

“The PTA has been corrupted by the unions,” he said. “Somehow or other, they have to find out they’ve been set free,” Loewen said of the teachers he hopes will be emancipated by Janus.

“Someone has to show them – this is how you leave the union.” That someone would be Loewen and his group.

Loewen’s plans to target education unions may seem cribbed from SPN’s playbook, but he denies SPN is involved with his organization.

“That network has nothing meaningful to do with my operations,” Loewen claimed, adding that he was unaware of its $50,000 donation. “If they would come and dump $10 million in my bank account, I would love that.”

Defender of the Little Guy may be an awkward mantle for Loewen and the California Policy Center leaders to take up, given their wealth and backgrounds. But Loewen said his organization has reached beyond its traditional base – in part to combat what he calls “the left’s narrative” that it stands with working people.

Loewen and his board are longtime backers of Republican causes, and the move comes as Orange County voters increasingly turn to the Democratic Party, partly because of a growing Latino electorate. The California Policy Center is a tax-exempt non-profit, despite its desire to affect political change. So far, no one has suggested that the center has violated its tax-exempt status by engaging in overtly political activity, but the Freedom Foundation has recently been accused of doing so in complaints to the IRS and the attorneys general of Oregon and Washington.

Loewen’s organization backs a parent union led by Santa Ana school board member Cecilia Iglesias, who is also community relations director at the California Policy Center. The group joined Anaheim parents at Palm Lane Elementary in a three-year battle to convert their school to a charter.

The Freedom Foundation created cable TV ads and a website that instruct child care providers how to quit paying union dues.

Last July the group screened the anti-teachers-union documentary Waiting for “Superman” at a Santa Ana restaurant. Afterward, parent-union activist Celia Robles said she participates because her son’s school hasn’t been responsive to her. She joined a school advisory committee, but felt ignored when she questioned budget figures. She said her son’s teacher brushed off her concerns that he’s not sufficiently challenged in the classroom, saying, “He’s doing well enough.”

In reaching out to the grassroots, the California Policy Center may have borrowed from the approach of its fellow SPN affiliate, the Freedom Foundation, which targets individual union members by visiting them at home.

The foundation began the project three years ago when the Supreme Court ruled, in Harris v. Quinn, that nearly a million workers nationwide who care for the elderly and disabled in their homes couldn’t be forced to pay so-called agency fees for union representation if they chose not to join the union.

Following the court’s decision, the Freedom Foundation launched a campaign modeled on union organizing to strip home-care and in-home child care workers’ unions of their memberships in Washington and Oregon, and this year in Orange County, California.

The foundation sought to obtain lists of workers, and set off to connect with them. The group created cable TV ads and a website,, that encourages home health aides and child care providers to quit paying dues, and instructs them how to do so. It’s also filed lawsuits against unions and launched a failed effort to establish its own union for child care workers to compete against the Service Employees International Union in Washington.

In Oregon, union membership among home-care workers has fallen by 40 percent.

The Freedom Foundation trumpets its own achievements, but payroll records from state agencies in Washington and Oregon show mixed results. In Oregon, union membership among home-care workers had fallen by 40 percent. However, 88 percent of Washington state home-care workers still belonged to the SEIU, while 78 percent of licensed child care workers remained dues-paying members. In Orange County, local Freedom Foundation director Sam Han said it was difficult to track progress because he’s been unable to obtain lists of home-care workers from the state.

“They haven’t changed our ability to win significant wage and benefit improvements,” said Adam Glickman, secretary-treasurer of SEIU Local 775 in Washington. “They haven’t changed our ability to engage in politics and advocate for our members. It’s been a legal nuisance, frankly.”

At SEIU’s Local 925 in Seattle, which represents child care providers, executive vice president Tricia Schroeder agrees. The Freedom Foundation is far from destroying the union in the short term, but her union has had to respond to its attacks, which costs money.

“It’s disheartening as a union leader that that’s the way you spend union dues. I would much rather run stronger contract campaigns and organize.”

That may well be part of the Freedom Foundation’s strategy. When it forces unions to fight back, it drains their resources. Its funders certainly seem persuaded that the Freedom Foundation is hitting its mark. The group reported a million-dollar increase in its total revenue in 2015 — a 50 percent jump from the year before, according to its latest publicly available tax return.

Whether anti-union groups can do as well or better than the Freedom Foundation if Mark Janus wins his case is an open question.

They’d face a very tough sell with teachers, firefighters and police officers, whose unions have achieved middle-class wages, health care and pension plans for their members that are rare outside of the public sector. What’s more, the political muscle that labor has built in California could cause the same right-wing forces that bemoan it to think twice before making a major investment in the state, at least in the immediate aftermath of a pro-Janus decision.

Several of the unions cited or quoted in this series are financial contributors to Capital & Main.

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Judging Janus

Can Unions — and the American Middle Class — Survive the Supreme Court’s Janus Decision?

If the Supreme Court votes as expected in the landmark Janus v. AFSCME case, conservatives will have fulfilled one of their most cherished goals — weakening the nation’s public employee unions.



Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

If the Supreme Court votes as expected in the landmark Janus v. AFSCME case, conservatives will have fulfilled one of their most cherished goals — weakening the nation’s public employee unions. The right has long sought to deliver this gut punch to the already struggling American labor movement, whose decline over the past several decades has been a major driver of income inequality. While many unions representing government workers have held the line on middle-class wages and benefits, all that could change quickly if conservatives prevail in Janus, further accelerating the country’s economic disparities.

Early next year, lawyers for Mark Janus, an Illinois child-support worker, will argue before the high court that his free speech rights have been violated because he must pay “agency fees” to a union that, among other things, negotiates wage contracts and working conditions on his behalf. Last year, the court deadlocked on a nearly identical case following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. It is widely anticipated that Scalia’s replacement, Justice Neil Gorsuch, will cast a decisive vote in favor of Janus and against public-sector unions.

This week’s Capital & Main series looks at the forces behind Janus, the potentially devastating consequences of the case — and the possibility that Janus could  galvanize unions in ways that their opponents never imagined.

A Timeline of the Right’s War on Workers — Bill Raden.
Will California’s Unions Survive? — Dean Kuipers.

The Money Machine Behind the Court Case — Robin Urevich.
Wisconsin’s Shadow — Bobbi Murray.

Organizing for 79 Million Millennials –Judith Lewis Mernit.

What Happens to California’s Progressive Agenda? — Gabriel Thompson.

Illustrations by Define Urban.

Several of the unions cited or quoted in this series are financial contributors to Capital & Main.

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Judging Janus

Judging Janus: A Timeline of the Right’s War on Workers

Co-published by AlterNet
A Supreme Court case that could topple the power of California’s unions has been a perfect storm gathering for 40 years.

Bill Raden



Illustration: Define Urban

America has been down the road to Janus before. The early years of the 20th century saw the Supreme Court dominated by a similar anti-labor stridency.

Mark Janus, an Illinois child-support worker, will soon argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that his free speech rights have been violated because he must pay “agency fees” to a union that, inter alia, negotiates contracts on his behalf. Last year California elementary school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs made the same First Amendment arguments at the high court against the teachers association to which she paid agency fees. The court deadlocked on Friedrichs’ complaint following the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, but his replacement, Justice Neil Gorsuch, is widely expected to cast a decisive vote in favor of Janus and against public-sector unions.

Co-published by AlterNet

The fight waged against unionism today is no less bitter than it was 50 years ago,” wrote Clarence Darrow in 1904. “It is simply directed along other lines.” Evidence of how little things have changed since Darrow’s time can be found in the pending U.S. Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME. For America’s public-sector employees and electoral politics, the stakes are enormous.

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“The corporate lobbies didn’t put decades of time, money and energy into this because it’s marginal,” observed Gordon Lafer, a policy researcher with University of Oregon’s Labor Education & Research Center. “It’s a big thing.” Indeed, the high court’s closely watched case could be seen as the culmination of 40 years of ceaseless attacks on labor.

“The growing economic inequality in the country is now going to get translated into growing political inequality.”

The road to Janus is one that labor has been down before. Its most striking historic parallel may be to today’s Roberts court and its judicial-activist doctrine of “First Amendment Absolutism” — the constitutional belief that union dues are a violation of workers’ free expression, but that unlimited corporate political spending is an inviolate act of free speech. The first 40 years of the 20th century saw the Supreme Court dominated by a similar philosophy of anti-labor stridency.

Those bare-knuckled decades were marked by overt violence against workers, mass arrests, the criminalization of labor organizing and a right-leaning high court that, among other things, held that the federal government could not ban child labor.

Over the last 40 years, American workers have seen resurgent — if far more refined — attacks on their rights, often through paid news-media opinion pieces and manipulated polling questions that depict certain groups of employees as privileged or overpaid.

“It’s a very simple idea, which is divide and conquer,” said Fred Glass, a City College of San Francisco labor historian and author of From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement. “It’s the employing class, the one percent, saying to workers, ‘Look at that group of workers over there, at how much better they have it than you,’ while they are the ones that are creating these policies. They’re the ones that are causing the economic inequality to grow.”

The chapter and verse of divide and conquer was laid down in 1947’s Taft-Hartley Act, which explicitly empowers individual states to outlaw workplace security clauses through so-called right-to-work laws. But Janus’ DNA is also tangled in the same ’50s/’60s social ferment that saw public-sector union organizing successfully expand collective bargaining rights to state and municipal workers. The first public sector labor law was passed by Wisconsin in 1959. And while it would take California another two decades and three separate bills to catch up, by the time New York enacted the Taylor Law in 1967, 21 states had legalized some type of public-sector collective bargaining. One year later, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTW) was born.

Singularly focused on outlawing the union shop through First Amendment arguments, NRTW tested this line of attack when it sued Detroit schools. 1977’s Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision, in which the Burger Supreme Court underscored the state’s interest in maintaining “Labor peace,” spelled out the union’s right to collect a “fair share” or agency-shop fee from non-union members of a bargaining unit to pay for the non-political costs of bargaining.

Any taste of victory turned out to be fleeting. By the end of the ’70s, labor found itself leaping from the frying pan of the courts into a neoliberal inferno of deregulation. In quick succession, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 and the 1982 breakup of AT&T decimated union jobs in their respective sectors, inaugurating a long slide in private-sector union density.

“The first thing that is destroyed
by any authoritarian regime is
the labor movement.”

The era’s biggest quake for both public- and private-sector labor came with Ronald Reagan in 1981, when roughly 11,500 public-sector union members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) struck in an illegal walkout. What happened next continues to reverberate to this day: Reagan famously broke the union by firing strikers and decertifying PATCO. The bargaining power of unions was never the same: On the public-sector side, federal work stoppages virtually ceased; in the private-sector, emboldened employers like Phelps-Dodge and Hormel followed suit by illegally dismissing strikers at their own plants in favor of permanent replacements.

“It became sort of a green light from the federal government that it was a field day for union-busting,” City University New York labor sociologist Ruth Milkman told Capital & Main. “Legally nothing really has changed [but] the political culture and the norms that employers feel obliged to conform to are suddenly pulled out from under [the workers].”

Aftershocks inevitably followed PATCO’s demise, often in the form of right-to-work laws. Eight states voted to leave the ranks of union security after 1985, not the least being Michigan, which in 2012 voted to outlaw the agency shop in the cradle and home of the United Auto Workers union. But it was Wisconsin’s election of far-right Republican Scott Walker and the 2011 passage of Wisconsin Act 10 that seemed to suggest the true magnitude of a post-Janus world. The bill, which effectively ended collective bargaining for some 380,000 state and local government employees, came with the Tea Party fingerprints of the American Legislative Exchange Council and a subsequent 38.5 percent plunge in union density.

“In a way the whole country is becoming Wisconsin.”

On the constitutional side, much had changed since Abood. New right-wing law groups like the Center for Individual Rights and Citizens United, together with the anti-union lawyers association the Federalist Society, whose libertarian members now comprise four of the Supreme Court’s five-justice conservative majority, including both Neil Gorsuch and First Amendment hardliner Samuel Alito, joined in what has amounted to a perfect judicial storm of conservative activism. Its radical dimensions were first revealed by Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 2010 decision striking down parts of the 2002 McCain-Feingold federal campaign finance law by ruling that the writing of a corporate campaign check was now constitutionally protected expression.

“Citizens United basically says that the growing economic inequality in the country is now going to get translated into growing political inequality,” noted Gordon Lafer. “Because however much outsized share of the economy is controlled — by the one percent or the .01 percent — they’re going to have that much [more] political influence as well.”

The court’s next decisions to touch on agency fees — a pair of First Amendment challenges brought by NRTW — were shots across the bow of public-sector unions, challenging their ability to fund their own existence. Neither 2012’s Knox v. Service Employees International Union nor 2014’s Harris v. Quinn went so far as to pull the trigger on the 1977 Abood decision, but both contained Alito-penned critiques of fair-share fees that, to constitutional lawyers, were unmistakable invitations to overturn a precedent. The seemingly inevitable ruling will come as an anticlimax for all but the 7.1 million public sector employees directly affected, along with the millions more who have come to rely on their collective voice as a bulwark against unaccountable private power.

“In a way the whole country is becoming Wisconsin,” Ruth Milkman reflected. “What’s not really discussed much but is fundamental in this context is why the Right to Work Foundation and other groups are so eager to see this happen. I think the answer has to do with electoral politics — that these are the unions left standing.”

“The floodgates are open with the Trump administration,” agreed Fred Glass. “The first thing that is destroyed by any authoritarian regime is always the labor movement. We are potentially witnessing that moment.”

Several of the unions cited or quoted in this series are financial contributors to Capital & Main.

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Judging Janus

Judging Janus: Will California’s Unions Survive?

Co-published by International Business Times

Right-to-work forces see in Janus v. AFSCME a golden opportunity to cripple public-sector unions, while organized labor looks for a silver lining in the event the Supreme Court rules in Mark Janus’ favor.



Illustration: Define Urban

An upcoming Supreme Court case could cripple unions — or inspire a new wave of creativity.

Mark Janus, an Illinois child-support worker, will soon argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that his free speech rights have been violated because he must pay “agency fees” to a union that, inter alia, negotiates contracts on his behalf. Last year California elementary school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs made the same First Amendment arguments at the high court against the teachers association to which she paid agency fees. The court deadlocked on Friedrichs’ complaint following the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, but his replacement, Justice Neil Gorsuch, is widely expected to cast a decisive vote in favor of Janus and against public-sector unions.

Co-published by International Business Times

A conservative U.S. Supreme Court may be preparing to drop a bomb on the country’s public sector unions, but California has heard it ticking for years. When the court agreed to hear Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), said his union and others in the state had already been working to absorb the blow. The case could strip public agency unions of much of their funding, and he admitted the effects on California’s labor movement could be devastating. Or, for some of the same reasons, they could be reinvigorating.

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“I think [Janus] is going to hurt, but it need not be the end of the world,” said Pechthalt. “Frankly, we’re going to have to do the kind of organizing that we should have been doing all these many years. I think the labor movement got a little bit complacent.”

In states like Wisconsin, Kentucky, Iowa and Michigan, where Republican state administrations have slashed union power in recent years, the Janus case looks to be a crippling blow in a national turn against unions. But California is going the other way, passing pro-union legislation such as a 2017 bill guaranteeing union access to government employees during job orientations. The Golden State is an exception in the national labor movement’s fortunes, and Janus will put that status to the test.

“If unions play things wonderfully, Janus will just make life more difficult for them. If they don’t, it’ll just be a disaster.”

While non-union workers in a unionized department are not required to pay full union dues,  under a unanimous 1977 U.S. Supreme Court case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, they must pay lesser fees to support contract bargaining, from which they benefit.

In a statement to Capital & Main, Diana Rickert of the Illinois-based Liberty Justice Center, which is representing Mr. Janus, wrote: “Today, Mark Janus and more than 5.5 million other government employees in America are forced to pay money to a union in order to keep their jobs . . . The First Amendment gives everyone the right to choose which organizations they will and won’t join or support financially.”

Momentum for this argument has been building for years. In the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case Harris v. Quinn, the court ruled that homecare workers in Illinois did not have to pay agency fees because they were not truly public employees, and Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, basically invited more challenges to Abood.

The two organizations representing Janus, including the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, seem poised for a victory. Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, pointed out the potential danger for organized labor, noting that from one-third to about one-half of all people represented by a union are not members of that union, and may choose not to pay agency fees.

“If unions play things wonderfully, it will just make life more difficult for them. And if they don’t, it’ll just be a disaster,” Lichtenstein added.

“This is a new period of American history. We have to win people over to the fact that we’re stronger when we stick together in a union.”

And so all eyes turn to California. Though it does not have the high percentages of union members found in New York, Alaska and a few other states, California’s labor movement has a reputation as the most innovative in the country.

Ruth Milkman, a labor expert at the City University of New York and a former longtime professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, points out that the state earned this reputation, paradoxically, by having a relatively backwater movement during the height of industrial unionization. With less heavy industry than states like Michigan, Ohio or Pennsylvania had earlier in the 20th century, the labor movement in California – and particularly the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU – would later focus sharply on organizing the service sector, with its hospital and government workers, and even the entertainment industry.

When globalization shifted heavy manufacturing to Mexico, South America and Asia toward the end of the last century, gutting powerful unions like the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers, service unions were poised to grow and California knew better than anyone how to do it.

“In the late 20th century and continuing into the new century, the SEIU became the engine of growth for organized labor,” said Milkman.

California is the place, Milkman notes, where new classes of workers are created. She points to the late-1990s SEIU campaign to recruit home health-care workers. They were categorized as independent contractors paid by Medi-Cal and thus not eligible for unionization, but the SEIU and others prevailed on the administration of Gov. Gray Davis and the state legislature and passed a 1999 law making these workers public employees and changing their eligibility. This precipitated what Milkman called the biggest National Labor Relations Board election in American history, adding that it brought nearly 100,000 homecare workers into the SEIU – a move that has since been replicated around the country, and then with publicly funded childcare workers, as well.

Similarly, California unions have a legacy of organizing immigrant labor, building off the pioneering efforts of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. This work is still evident in UNITE HERE’s success in organizing hospitality workers across California, as well as the the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign that began in the late 1980s and continues today. California unions have also been firmly behind the campaign for a $15 hourly minimum wage, which many see as a first step to organizing fast-food workers.

Other unions in both the public and private sectors have also been major drivers of California’s growth in unionized workers, including the California Teachers Association, AFSCME, the California School Employees Association, the California Faculty Association, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the California Nurses Association, the United Nurses Associations of California and IBEW.

“A lot of the success that [California unions have] had over the past two decades can be attributed to their success in the political arena, and that has created a more stable environment, particularly for public sector unionism, but also for unionism generally,” said John Logan, a labor historian at San Francisco State University. “While in the rest of the country, at the state level, there’s been a number of very brazen attacks on unionism, particularly after [Republican electoral gains in] 2010.”

Post–Janus, California unions will certainly lose some of the money that gave them that political clout, but they still have the benefit of a pro-union state government.

“In contrast to Democratic Party campaigns or Bernie Sanders rallies, unions don’t go away.
That is important.”

California bucks national trends by still creating quite a bit of pro-union legislation. Logan noted there have been proposals about changes to the right of fair representation, so that non-union members in a post-Janus era would have to either pay for the union to represent them in a grievance or have the option of hiring a private attorney. But California, like every other state, is restricted by the National Labor Relations Act, so there are only so many legislative responses possible. The principal response to Janus is a call for old-school grassroots organizing.

“A number of our unions and our affiliates are using this as a time to go back to basics,” said Angie Wei, chief of staff at the California Labor Federation. “Which is one-on-one conversations, member-to-member, at the worksites. And building a permanent structure for the union … building power from the ground up.”

“Some of the [agency fee] people have just never been talked to about the union and don’t understand it,” said Bob Schoonover, President of SEIU Local 721 in Southern California. Like the public in general, he said, these workers are largely unaware of union influence in matters beyond members’ wages and benefits. For instance, California unions are also solidly behind single-payer health care, and property tax reform and increased school budgets.

Schoonover pointed out that his local was part of a health-care reorganization under the Affordable Care Act in Los Angeles County, which brought public health, mental health and the hospital system under one umbrella, making it more efficient for everyone. This is how unions can demonstrate their importance to all working people.

“The thing about a union, [like] the NRA or the Chamber of Commerce, is they’re there all the time,” said Nelson Lichtenstein. “In contrast to Democratic Party campaigns or Bernie Sanders rallies, they don’t go away. They have their people in there lobbying. That is important.”

Planned Parenthood is another one of these permanent institutions, Lichtenstein noted, but he added that progressives have very few others. The right has more: mega-churches, business groups, phalanxes of think tanks. So both unions and Planned Parenthood are under attack all the time. “I link the two because both are kind of organizational, social institutions that are widespread and have constituencies. The right understands that’s a threat.”

The CFT’s Joshua Pechthalt said it’s a defining moment for labor. “This is sort of a new period of American history: When people don’t see a collective response as being valuable, or possible, they opt for individual answers,” he said. “We have to win people over to the fact that we’re stronger when we stick together in a union.”

Several of the unions cited or quoted in this series are financial contributors to Capital & Main.

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After the Inferno, Undocumented Workers Find Themselves Without Federal Help

Co-published by Newsweek
Undocumented laborers who worked in Wine Country vineyards are now finding the only assistance they can hope for, following Northern California’s recent wildfires, is mostly private charity.

Jenny Manrique



Coffey Park, Santa Rosa. (Photo: Michael Short)

For undocumented immigrants who have lost jobs or homes in the Northern California fires, the road to stability will be especially steep. Many are ineligible for federal aid of any kind.

Co-published by Newsweek

By 11 o’clock in the morning, as smoke billowed down a nearby hillside, Tesorito began to wonder if he ought to be in the vineyards. It was Monday, October 9, and he was harvesting wine grapes near the town of Sonoma. He was accustomed to the challenges of the job: the cold mornings, the snakes that hid beneath rocks and the double shifts during harvest time, when he could labor upwards of 90 hours a week. But when he paused to look north, he saw something he’d never seen before: a wall of flames.

Tesorito pointed the flames out to his friend, Lalo, a row over. Though both men could feel the heat on their faces, they turned back to the grapes. This was la pisca—the harvest—when they were paid by the amount of fruit they clipped, so every second counted. They had left for work at 5 a.m. and hadn’t heard about the fires that had begun to spread across Sonoma and Napa counties. At one point, Tesorito realized that the flames threatened to encircle the vineyard. In an instant, he and the rest of the panicked crew bolted for their cars and raced down the bumpy country road, using their windshield wipers to push away the falling ash.

“It was crazy, absolutely crazy,” Tesorito said in Spanish. He cleared his throat, which had gone raspy. He had picked up a hacking cough from the smoke, which he couldn’t seem to shake. It was a Saturday in late October, and he and Lalo were seated on folding chairs in the middle of a school gymnasium in Santa Rosa, attending a Spanish-language meeting about resources available to people affected by the fires. They hadn’t worked in two weeks, because roads to the fields were closed.

“My rent’s due soon and I don’t have it,” Tesorito told me. The 37 year old is short and stocky, with broad shoulders and callused hands. Lalo is 58, though he looks at least 10 years younger. Collectively, the friends have spent more than two decades in California’s famed Wine Country, part of an immigrant workforce that props up the state’s $57 billion a year industry.

“Everywhere we go, people have told us, ‘If you don’t have papers, we can’t help you.’ There is nothing for us.”

Both men are undocumented Mexican immigrants, but tell me that until recently their status hasn’t been much of a concern. (“I don’t cause problems and I do good work,” said Lalo.) The fires changed that. Neither man is eligible for the various forms of federal disaster aid, which ranges from unemployment benefits to housing assistance. This was their fourth meeting in eight days of searching for anyone who might be able to help.

After sitting through the 90-minute forum, the men approached a table staffed by a representative of a local Legal Aid office and explained their predicament, but while the woman listened politely, she had no advice for them. “Everywhere we go, people have told us, ‘If you don’t have papers, we can’t help you,’” Tesorito said as he walked out. “There is nothing for us.”

Vineyard workers Tesorito and Lalo seek help at a Santa Rosa meeting. (Photo: Gabriel Thompson)Vineyard workers Tesorito and Lalo seek help at a Santa Rosa meeting. (Photo: Gabriel Thompson)

The Nuns Fire that nearly engulfed Tesorito and Lalo was the largest of the recent California wildfires, consuming 54,000 acres, destroying at least 1,300 buildings and killing two people. But it wasn’t the most destructive. The Tubbs Fire, which began outside of Calistoga and roared south into Santa Rosa, killed at least 22 people and transformed entire neighborhoods into surreal hellscapes. The various Wine Country fires turned the sky black for days and rained ash across the Bay Area, sending folks scurrying to the nearest hardware store in search of protective masks.

For undocumented immigrants who have lost jobs or homes, the road to stability will be especially steep. Many are ineligible for federal aid of any kind. Others may qualify for assistance if they have children who are U.S. citizens, but that would require turning over personal household information to the federal government.

Photo: Michael ShortPhoto: Michael Short

At the forum, one audience member asked an official from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to promise that it wouldn’t share information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The official stated that FEMA had never done so in the past, but that he couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t happen in the future. Several days earlier, ICE’s acting director, Thomas Homan, released a statement that appeared to link the wildfires to the unrelated arrest of an undocumented immigrant. In response, Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano slammed Homan’s statement as “inaccurate” and “inflammatory.” (Breitbart News also reported — then retracted — that the undocumented immigrant was suspected of starting the wildfires.)

The forum, which was attended by about 100 people, was held in Roseland, a neighborhood just south of downtown Santa Rosa. This is the heart of Sonoma County’s Latino community, and although the fire didn’t reach Roseland, the neighborhood has been deeply impacted. A day earlier, I had visited Roseland’s library, where dozens waited to speak to representatives of the Mexican consulate. One woman, Trinidad, said that her husband was a gardener and that the homes of half his clients had burned down. Another woman, Nayeli, cleaned five large homes; all five had burned down. It went like this down the line: dishwashers, hotel housekeepers, landscapers and nannies, all without work because their workplaces no longer existed.

Less than a mile from the library, Jonathan Bravo sorted through food donations at Bayer Farm, a community garden that has become a refuge for immigrants during the fires. “The tragedy has been immense,” said Bravo, a 63-year-old former math teacher in Mexico. “People are scared, especially our undocumented residents. We try to tell them: Don’t have fear. We are all together on the same boat.”

Several days after the fire started, Bravo and a group of volunteers began feeding meals to anyone who showed up. “We couldn’t just watch the smoke—we needed to respond,” said Bravo. On the first day, they served eggs, beans and handmade tortillas to 30 people. The next day, they fed 80. Since then, they’ve dished out three meals daily to an average of 250 people, all cooked by volunteers. As word about the meals spread, donations started to arrive: organic produce from the food bank, bread from a local bakery, checks to defray the costs of running what amounts to a restaurant for the unemployed.

One recent donation came from the Graton Day Labor Center, located in the small town of Graton, west of Santa Rosa. “We serve the people who fall through every safety net—the day laborers and the domestic workers,” said director Christy Lubin. On the other side of the office, a group of men chatted quietly in Spanish, hoping to be sent out. “We’ve only dispatched 12 folks today, when we’d normally send out 25 or 30,” Lubin said.

The Coffey Park neighborhood damaged by the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, Calif, on Monday October 16, 2017.Photo: Michael Short

Donations soon began to arrive from people who knew that the day labor center could get money into the hands of people who needed it. “We gave out about $5,000 in cash—just money for cellphones, gas and food,” said Lubin. “But people wanted to give more, and so I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’” Together with the North Bay Jobs with Justice and North Bay Organizing Project, Lubin launched UndocuFund to provide disaster relief to undocumented immigrants. Within 24 hours they had raised more than $100,000. To date, they’ve brought in $750,000. The fund, whose advisory committee includes undocumented immigrants, will soon begin to accept applications for financial assistance.

Photo: Michael Short

Photo: Michael Short

At Bayer Farms, about 50 people were seated at picnic tables eating dinner. This was the 11th day that the garden had provided free meals to the community, but with school starting back up soon, it wasn’t clear how much longer the experiment would run. Jonathan Bravo had also started to get pressure from the city, which wasn’t entirely pleased about the unlicensed operation.

Not that he had any regrets. “We say that we don’t grow tomatoes or lettuce, we grow people,” he said. The fire had provided a chance to prove it. He picked up a walnut from the ground, cracked it open, and handed me a piece. The nut was from a black walnut tree that rose high above the garden. Bravo told me that last year, nearby construction had damaged the roots of the tree, and an arborist had suggested that they cut it down while the wood was still salvageable. Instead, they decided to see if they could nurse the tree back to health. Each week, classes of schoolchildren work in the garden, and when they learned that the tree was sick, a few made a habit, before leaving, of speaking words of encouragement to the tree and giving it a hug.

“There is hope,” Bravo said. “We can’t minimize the suffering that the fire caused. Twelve of our garden teachers lost their homes. Four of our volunteers lost their homes. But we still have families and we still have children and we are still here. So there is hope.”

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